Can a Christian find biblical support for the death penalty? I think so, and I want to offer a brief sketch of the relevant passages and considerations.
First, we discover that capital punishment was commanded by God in the Old Testament. Genesis 9:6 states that “whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man.” In this passage we discover two important truths. First, we see that God lays out the general principle of “life for life.” Of course, the Old Testament puts parameters on capital punishment. The Mosaic Law prescribes the death penalty for a number of offenses. There are three primary categories where the death penalty was applicable:
Violations against the sanctity of life (i.e. Exodus 21:12–14, 21:15, 21:16)
Violations against the sanctity of the family (i.e. Lev. 20:10–21, 20:13; Deut. 22:22)
Violations against the purity of the worship of God (i.e. Ex. 22:20; Lev. 20:2)
The Old Testament’s limitations on capital punishment are significant in light of the absence of such limits in other ancient Near East cultures.
Christians who oppose the death penalty (abolitionists) may object to this citation of the Mosaic Law, however, and argue that it does not follow that we ought to enforce the death penalty today just because it was prescribed in the Law (see here for more on how the Old Testament applies to Christians today). I would agree and add that I do not support the death penalty in all the cases cited in the Mosaic Law. However, the Genesis 9:6 passage provides us with the necessary justification for capital punishment. In this verse, the principle of “life for life” is grounded in the theological truth that man is made in the image of God. Thus, capital punishment does not draw its support from changing cultural traditions, but rather from the timeless truth that man has intrinsic value because he is created in God’s image. And therefore, this principle transcends time, place, and culture.
Furthermore, Genesis 9:6 precedes the Mosaic Law. The tenor of the text seems to require the death penalty prior to the Law. For these reasons, the principle of the death penalty is certainly relevant for civil society today.
When we turn to the pages of the New Testament, we do not find much data regarding the death penalty. However, it does seem that capital punishment was assumed in the New Testament. First, we find that governing authorities may practice capital punishment. Romans 13:3–4 states that “rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil…. [I]f you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil.” Furthermore, in Acts 25:11, the Apostle Paul addresses Festus and the tribunal: “If then I am a wrongdoer, and have committed anything worthy of death, I do not refuse to die; but if none of those things is true of which these men accuse me, no one can hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar.” In these passages, it seems that the State is justified in using the death penalty to keep order.
Opponents of the death penalty may cite the Sermon on the Mount, arguing that Jesus’ teachings prohibit the death penalty. This objection turns on the idea that capital punishment is incompatible with Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness. There are several things we could say in response to this charge.
First, the Sermon on the Mount was not addressed to the State but rather to the individual, and thus it deals with the ethics of the individual. Certainly, the individual is called to forgive, but this application to the individual cannot be applied to the State. The State is not in the business of forgiveness but instead is to protect its citizens and maintain order. In addition, using the Sermon on the Mount proves too much. It would seem to severely limit all forms of criminal punishment. What do we do with the criminal we have offered forgiveness to? On this view, it would seem like consistency would demand that we allow the criminal to go free.
Three other objections are typically offered by the abolitionist. First, she might argue there is an apparent contradiction between the principle of the death penalty and the principle of the sanctity of life. In light of this objection, taking someone’s life is an odd way of expressing the sanctity of life! However, it’s important to note that the Bible does not uphold the sanctity of all human life but of innocent human life. The right to life is not absolute and may be overridden by a greater principle such as justice or the protection of other people.
A second objection to capital punishment is it precludes reform. On this view, the criminal should be rehabilitated, not punished. In response, this view mistakes the idea that justice is remedial and not penal. However, I would argue that the goal of capital punishment is justice and not reform. And justice is only satisfied by the punishment of the guilty person. Furthermore, goodness demands that we protect innocent people. The relationship between capital punishment and society parallels the relationship between self-defense and the individual.
Lastly, the opponent of capital punishment will argue the death penalty cannot be administered in an even-handed way given the current state of the culture and the legal system. Indeed, there are times when it is unfairly applied, but let me offer three responses. First, there is nothing in the death penalty that requires it to be unfairly applied, and therefore this objection does not show there is anything intrinsically wrong with it. Second, it is better to have unequal justice than no justice at all. Do we withhold all medical treatment because some individuals have died from the improper distribution of that care? In the same way, we should not withhold justice via capital punishment because some have died unjustly as a result of capital punishment. Lastly, this is a problem where progress can be made—it’s fixable. If we’re committed to the death penalty, we need to work hard to apply it across the board fairly rather than do away with it totally.
There is certainly room for Christians to disagree with the biblical case I’ve laid out here, but with these considerations I think we are justified in our support of capital punishment.