A Biblical Case for the Death Penalty

Much ruptures this morning in response to Paul Staines’ campaign to reintroduce the death penalty. Perhaps the most reasoned response is from Elizabeth Hunter of Theos.

Perhaps it is because foreshortening a still-redeemable life seems a very dangerous undertaking, permissible only under conditions of the utmost wisdom, caution and objectivity. This campaign does not sound like a call for dispassionate justice, but retribution. Guido only wants to punish by death murderers of children and police. Is the life of an adult less valuable than that of a child? Does a killer of a traffic warden deserve death any less than that of a police woman? He might as well have added paedophiles to the list: these are people whose actions disgust us in a visceral way.

If Christian faith does anything, it should engender humility, an awareness of our own foolishness and fragility. Although in theory capital punishment may sometimes be the most just course of action, the level of knowledge required to make the decision to end a life is surely beyond us. When God commands us to not “repay evil for evil” and to leave revenge up to him, how can we be sure our actions are not equally evil, not motivated by a desire for revenge?

This is no utopian argument- awareness of our own ignorance should not paralyse us into inaction. On almost all issues we must make culture as we want it, fight for justice as we see it, aware that we’ll never get it completely right.

However, in matters such as these we must recognise the limited nature of our justice system. Whether you imprison someone for life, or end it, the parents of the murdered child may have sated their (completely understandable) desire for retribution, but they are not repaid. In the case of this most irrevocable of decisions, humility should hold sway. Finally, as one who believes in an ultimate source of perfect justice, I’d prefer to leave it in those hands.

What strikes me as I read pieces like Elizabeth’s is that what is missing in the “Christian” response is an engagement with what the Bible actually says. Here’s Paul in Romans 13.

For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.
Romans 13:3-4

It strikes me that Paul makes a very simple argument -when Elizabeth Hunter says that she’d rather leave justice in the hands of God, St Paul says that God has deliberately put such justice in the hands of the State in order that we might see the justice of God at work.

Let me offer some brief thoughts to debate.

  • The exercising of the ultimate sanction by the State is a sign to us that there is an ultimate sanction for our sin. The State’s punishment is an icon of the punishment that is to come for sin, a punishment that makes anything that the State does in response to sin pale into comparison. The State punishing (including capital punishment) warns us that this ultimate punishment is coming and that there are consequences to sin.
  • Even a sinful State can act as an agent of God’s wrath. For example, Assyria and Babylon acted as agents of God’s wrath against Israel and Judah respectively. In more recent times (and controversially, but needing to be grappled with), both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union acted as agents of wrath against sin in the legal processes of the country for non-political crime. Very little of the criminal code in Germany changed during the Nazi Era or afterwards, and the rule of law in most matters continued as normal.
  • Any “Christian” rejection of the notion that the State has the right to carry out the ultimate sanction needs to explain what Romans 13:3-4 means. What does it mean for the State to be the “avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer”? If the State cannot punish as God might punish, what sense does the verse make?

FWIW, I am opposed to the death penalty, but I am not of the opinion that the support of the death penalty is unChristian (for the reasons given above).

I preached on this issue last year (if you’re interested).

Update – Cranmer has some excellent analysis of the biblical, ecclesiastical and legal position here.

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12 Comments on “A Biblical Case for the Death Penalty

  1. Hi Peter, thanks for this post. I think there is a case for the death penalty – but personally don't think it is something that Christians should be campaigning for – there are bigger issues, including problems with ourselves – that need to be addressed.

    • An interesting exercise for you Tom. Compare the Scripture quoted in each of the arguments you make for and against the death penalty. What does that tell you?

  2. The Pauline quote is hypothetically someone who has done something wrong and knows it, no? As such, it hardly negates the commonsensical (and moral) objection to the death penalty as "it is better that ten guilty men go free than one innocent one is hanged". How are particular fallen, human regimes meant to know who is deserving of "God's wrath"?

    Provocative but serious question: if a Christian case can be made that abortion is murder, and if the death penalty for murder can be justified, then should women who have abortions be murdered? If not, why not? If the death penalty can be justified in a "time of war" then surely abortion provides a clear delineation between the innocent and guilty (necessary for the ultimate legal penalty)?

    As for bible quotes : there are indeed lots of scripture passages supporting the death penalty. It's helpful to cite this to nominal biblical literalists who still (from a sufficient perspective) live and think as "liberals". So whilst I personally regard monotheistic fundamentalism as a threat to us all, Christian proponents of the death penalty can be praised for their consistency.

  3. “The State’s punishment is an icon of the punishment that is to come for sin, a punishment that makes anything that the State does in response to sin pale into comparison.”

    Now who does that remind me of? Ah yes, of course, Queen Mary:

    “As the souls of heretics are to be forever burning in hell, there can be nothing more proper than for me to imitate the Divine vengeance by burning them on earth.”

    The function of the state in this respect is to punish CRIME, not to punish sin. The two overlap, of course, but they are not the same.

    “For example, Assyria and Babylon acted as agents of God’s wrath against Israel and Judah respectively.”

    Was 9/11 another instance of this, by any chance?

  4. Such a dangerous idol has been made out of Romans 13 over the years, justifying everything from war to state sponsored genocide. I don't think you can take Paul's words here in isolation, as if they are a codex unto themselves. They come within the context of an overall message about the fallen nature of humanity, including human institutions. After all, one could make the argument that when the Roman state executed Jesus, it was carrying out God's wrath against one who had blasphemed. That is certainly how the Sanhedrin and the priests saw it.

    Romans 13 is about the responsibility of Christians to live within the order of the state. In as much as the state is an agent of divine as well as human authority, the state has a right to exercise judgment, which Christians are obliged to accept for this reason, even when the state is acting immorally or in contradiction with the will of God. Thus, Paul accepted his own fate at the hands of the state, though he was executed for false reasons. That does not speak, however, to the question of whether or not it is moral or just for the state, in this day and age, to use killing as a form of rendering judgment. While it may be wrong for a Christian to evade the state's judgment, it can also be equally if not more wrong for the state to use its power in particular ways. I would submit that the death penalty falls into this latter category.

  5. Also, I think it's incredibly dangerous to start taking guesses about what actions of any particular evil government may or may not have come at the sanction of God. Yes, there are times in scripture when God uses the enemies of Israel for His purposes, including the punishment of sins, but the reason we know this is that God has spoken about it through His Word. To try to apply that to the Soviet Union or to some other modern Babylon is to assume that we can be certain of God's intentions apart from His self-revelation, a very suspect precedent indeed.

  6. "I don’t think you can take Paul’s words here in isolation"

    You are quite correct and one most certainly should do no such thing, but apply the instruction given by GOD in Genesis chapter 9 verse 6 as to how to deal with those who commit pre-medidated first degree murder.

    “Whoever sheds man’s blood,

    By man his blood shall be shed,

    For in the image of God

    He made man."

    Please note that this instruction is not part of the ceremonial law or civil law given to Israel, as it predates the Mosaic laws by centuries, and is thus part of the moral law.

  7. Instructions that precede the Mosaic law are somehow more eternally moral than what God actually delineated (or didn't, if you don't subscribe to the anachronistic divvying-up of Leviticus theory)as the moral law? I'm no theologian, but that seems strange. Is there a category of OT beliefs/statements that are somehow less overturned/inflected/ought to be seen in the light of the New Covenant or something?

  8. Ryan asks "Is there a category of OT beliefs/statements that are somehow less overturned/inflected/ought to be seen in the light of the New Covenant or something?"

    Indeed there are — first consider the ceremonial laws given to the nation of Israel — animal sacrifices, dietary laws, clothing of mixed fibers etc. The one and perfect sacrifice of Jesus upon the cross put an end to all of that.

    Then consider the civil laws given to the nation of Israel — including how to punish people for offences. The best example of this being overturned comes from Jesus himself with regard to the incident of the stoning of the woman caught in adultery. The Mosaic civil law stated that adulterers were to be stoned, but Jesus stated

    “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.”

    By removing the penalty of stoning, Jesus in no way lessened the gravity of the sin of adultery but actually raised the standard by explaining that it was not just the physical act which was wrong but the mental act of lusting in the first place

    "You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY’; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart."

    Now with regard to the death penalty for murder, this is indeed part of the civil law passed on by Moses to the people of Israel, but this was not a new law but an incorporation of the instruction given by God to Noah and his descendents.

    Furthermore the punishment for murder predates this, since the first murderer Cain was clearly aware what was the action that others would take against him for his crime. God in his mercy spared him from that punishment. From Genesis Chapter 4

    "and whoever finds me will kill me.”

    "And the LORD appointed a sign for Cain, so that no one finding him would slay him."

    The ceremonial and civil laws which were part of the convenant of God with the people of Israel were abolished by the new convenant sealed with the blood of Jesus and shewn to be ended by the destruction of the temple.

    The moral law does not change though — stealing, killing, committing adultery, covetting etc are still actions which are forbidden just as they were before they were codified in the ten commandments and given by God to Moses.

    One should also not overlook the fact that Moses was a murderer —

    "So he looked this way and that, and when he saw there was no one around, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand."

    In conclusion, one must compare scripture with scripture and not take verses out of context but examine their meaning as to how they applied under the old convenants (Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic etc) and how they are applied under the new convenant established between God and sinners through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross which is in effect today and until Christ returns and this physical universe ends.

  9. Thanks for that. However, the reductionist divvying up of Leviticus et all is simply anachronistic and deck-stacking; if one's readings of OT involves necessitates believing things about Judaism that are demonstrably untrue then the likelyhood is that the reading is incorrect. Kosher was not 'just' 'mere' ceremony was part of a loving, Graceful relationship between G-d and His Chosen People. I agree that Our Lord in many ways in fact heightened the demands of sexual morallity; but He of course did not suggest for example that, if looking lustfully at a woman is as adultery, then the Civil Law ought to reflect this!

  10. Seems to me that the quoted verses from Romans only tell us that the state can punish wrongdoers – not how the state is to do it. These verses don't have anything to say at all about the death penalty.

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