Capital Punishment

Capital Punishment

The issue of capital punishment has recently been a topic of discussion because of the trial of Timothy McVeigh, the convicted bomber of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Some say that McVeigh should be put to death for his crime; others suggest that he should spend the rest of his life in prison so he can think about and agonize over what he has done. Some see capital punishment as barbaric and even anti-Christian. Others see it as the only way to preserve justice and social order. What does the Bible have to say about the issue?

The Biblical Basis for Capital Punishment

  1. OT passages clearly command it.

    1. Gen 9:6 “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.” Murder is wrong because it is destroying one made in God’s image. Capital punishment is based on the Genesis account of creation. Note that this verse is pre-Law. It is a universal principle, not part of the Mosaic legislation. Thus it still applies.
    2. Ex 21:24f “But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” Under the Mosaic Law, many offenses besides murder were to be punished by death of the criminal: rape, adultery, fornication, disrespecting one’s parents, witchcraft, cursing God, leading others to worship false gods, and giving false testimony, to name a few. Note that in a capital case, two or three eye witnesses of the crime were required for conviction (Deut 19:15). Circumstantial evidence was not sufficient grounds for death.
  2. NT passages clearly expect it. NT authors presuppose the same basic view on capital punishment as the OT presents.

    1. Rom 13:1f: “He is a servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrong doer.” Rulers are ordained by God to carry out justice. At the time Paul wrote this, capital punishment was a common practice.

    2. Jesus reaffirmed the principle in the Sermon on the Mount. Matt 5:21f: “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.” The judgment he refers to is capital punishment. Jesus also recognized the power of governmental authorities over the lives of citizens. John 19:10-11: “Do you refuse to speak to me?” Pilate said. “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?” Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.”

    3. The ruling Jews believed they had the authority to implement capital punishment. They killed Stephen (Acts 7:59), James (Acts 12:1-2) and Jesus because they had the authority to carry out capital punishment.

Thus we see that God’s system of moral justice is the same in both testaments. While the Mosaic Law is no longer in force, the mandate given to Noah is, and requires capital punishment for murder. The NT, including the teaching of Jesus, does not overturn this mandate, but presupposes its continuing validity for all societies.

Note: Justice is the primary reason for capital punishment. A just order is disturbed by murder and only the death of the murderer can restore that justice. Restitution is not possible for murder, and reformation can at best only guarantee that the same act by the same man will not occur again. But nothing can satisfy justice in regard to murder except the death of the murderer (Gen 9:6). Whether or not capital punishment deters crime is really not the issue.

Some Objections to Capital Punishment

  1. Jesus and the case of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:11f): The OT stipulations for adultery is death for both parties involved. Yet it seems that in this case Jesus did not enforce the punishment that was proper. Hence, some argue that Christians should be more interested in forgiveness and mercy than in a just punishment for crime. [See example #1] But note the following facts:

    1. According to the Law, the death sentence could be carried out only if two or three witnesses testified to the crime. In this case, no one brought any charge against the woman (.10-11). Jesus said in Matt 5:17 that he did not come to abolish the Law of Moses but to fulfill it. He followed it quite strictly. If the witnesses would have testified against the woman, the people would have had every right to stone her (and her partner).

    2. This scenario was a trap the Jews set up, hoping that Jesus would upset either the Romans or the Jewish people. If he insisted on the death penalty as required by the Law, he would be ignoring Rome’s authority, which reserved the right of execution for itself. If he waived the death penalty, he would be breaking the Mosaic requirements. Jesus’ actions in this case avoided both potential problems.
  2. Forgiveness and Grace: Some argue that capital punishment is unchristian because it ignores God’s forgiveness through Christ’s death. Christ fulfilled the Law for all men, and He died on the cross for all sin. Thus, men are no longer punishable for their sins or crimes. [See examples #2-6] This objection is evidence of a misunderstanding of grace and forgiveness. Forgiveness does remove the penalty of sin, but not always the consequences of sin. God may forgive a drunk driver for his sin, but He won’t necessarily give him back his driver’s license or heal an injury that resulted from his drunkenness. Thus God may forgive a murderer (as He did in David’s case), but the consequences of the sin remain (as they did in that case).
  3. Capital punishment is prone to abuse: Some say that it’s inevitable that innocent people will be put to death. While the above argument is true, the fact that mistakes will be made is not a good argument for doing away with it completely. Doctors, airline pilots, army generals, and presidents all make mistakes, often with fatal results. Yet no one suggests getting rid of these professions. Fallible judgment does not eliminate the need for men to exercise good judgment in applying moral and social justice.

  1. Capital punishment is barbaric, inhuman, and has no place in civilized society. We should be more interested in rehabilitation than in vengeance. Such a sentiment is simply a rejection of biblical morality and justice. The person who committed the crime was inhuman, not the society that makes the criminal pay for his crime. In fact, the death of the criminal is good for society. If nothing else, at least the criminal won’t commit any more crimes.

Conclusion: Capital punishment implies a very high regard for individual human life. Man is so valuable as an individual that anyone who tampers with his sacred right to live must face the consequences of losing his own life.

The death penalty protects society from the hardened murderer and is an appropriate and fitting punishment for the most heinous of crimes. As we’ve seen, the Bible as a whole supports the practice. Any argument brought forward to end capital punishment either rejects or ignores biblical truth.


  1. First, it's not that "some say" that innocent people will be put to death–it most certainly DOES happen. There have also been over 100 exonerations of death-row inmates based on DNA testing, and in most cases it's been after more than a decade of imprisonment.

    Second, there is no evidence that capital punishment has a deterrent effect. Paradoxically, the evidence shows the opposite.

    Third, CP costs an average of $5 million PER CASE to prosecute, FAR more than life in prison without parole–an option which also satisfies your agenda of uplifting the worth of human life while protecting society from a perpetrator.

    Fourth, the argument is not that Jesus' atonement removes the role of accountability and consequences form punishment–you've misunderstood the very argument you say misunderstands the argument! Let me try to explain: those who oppose CP on the basis of Christian morality believe that Jesus' atonement has cancelled any further notion that DEATH, as a sacrifice, is necessary to absolve sin. The idea that a human must be put to death for a crime/sin ism essentially, a way of saying "Jesus' atonement wasn't sufficient in *this* case; another death is still needed to restore moral stasis in the world." CP diminishes the power of Jesus' ultimate atonement, which is premised on no human life ever needing to be annihilated for the sake of justice or sin.

    Fifth, every single major Christian denomination has adopted a position opposing CP. Yes, there are individual churches and persons who continue to endorse it, but as a denominational (and THEOLOGICAL) position, it has been condemned. I don't think your brief argument does justice to the opposition side, and instead offers a few meager points of dispute that you then dismiss very casually. I mean, seriously, in your "Objections to CP #1", you don't even get done explaining the objection before you've already reversed it back into an argument FOR it! Hardly valid.

    Finally, your last sentence is utter nonsense. To make the blanket claim that ANY argument against CP ignores or rejects CP simply ignores or rejects the ABUNDANCE of Biblical-based arguments against CP. Not sure how to locate them? Well, why not start with the book, "Capital Punishment and the Bible" by Gadrner C. Hanks–perhaps the foremost scholarly treatment of the matter, crammed with source citations. Follow that with "Against the Death Penalty: Christian and Secular Arguments Against Capital Punishment." At the very least the existence of two modern, Christian-based books on the very topic refutes the nonsensical claim that no such Biblical-based arguments even exist! Making that claim is not only dishonest, but disrespects the right of teens in church to hear correct information, not merely conclusions filtered through one man's own bias with the assurance, "there are no other arguments that exist."

  2. You are taking comments out of their context and you fail to present Scripture for your points.

    For example…

    You say "First, it's not that "some say" that innocent people will be put to death–it most certainly DOES happen."

    The article agrees when it says: "Some say that it’s inevitable that innocent people will be put to death. While the above argument is true, the fact that mistakes will be made is not a good argument for doing away with it completely."

    You are reading half of the sentences above.

    You say: "Second, there is no evidence that capital punishment has a deterrent effect. Paradoxically, the evidence shows the opposite."

    Capital punishment certainly does have a deterrent effect. God says that there is a fear among those who do wrong if there is a sever consequence. Shall we believe your statement or what God says?

    Romans 13:3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. 4 For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.

  3. Neil Macris says:

    It is interesting to me that so many people who are against Capital Punishment for the verified murderers are for the murder to the little babies in the womb.

    Never make the mistake of putting humanily instituted creeds or denominations above the inspired and authoritative word of God. Jesus answered the devil with, "it it written", not t"he biggest denominations say…"

    Remember, the biggest Christian institution in the world is the Catholic Church, yet based on church history we know for a fact that it has probalby executed more humans – for theological disagreement (which has absolutedly no New Testament Biblical basis)- than any other "Christian" institution/denomination.

    There is a reason why Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth and the life", not "my denomination says…."

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