The Bible places much importance on the sanctity of human life; therefore any theological argument for capital punishment—the legal execution of someone guilty of a heinous crime—must meet high standards of biblical support and practical justice. Since human beings are made in God's image and likeness, only God has the ultimate authority to specify if, and under what conditions, it is morally justified to take a human life.
The Covenant with Noah
After the flood, God commanded Noah and his children to be fruitful, to multiply, and to have dominion and stewardship over the earth and all of its creatures. Permission was given to kill animals for food (Gen. 9:3); but murdering a human being meant forfeiting one's own life, for God said, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image” (Gen. 9:5–6). In this verse, “shedding blood” refers to the violent, unjustified taking of human life (cf. Gen. 37:22; Num. 35:33; 1 Kings 2:31; Ezek. 22:4).
This part of God's covenant with Noah (Gen. 9:1–17) is a crucial text related to capital punishment for two reasons: (1) the provisions of this covenant were not limited to one specific nation for one specific period of time, as the Mosaic laws were, but were given at the time of a new beginning for all of human society following the flood; and (2) the reason for the command regarding murder is one that remains perpetually valid: “for God made man in his own image” (Gen. 9:6). The previous verse indicates that this command shows how God will execute justice on a murderer, namely, by requiring that other human beings, as God's representatives, put the murderer to death: “From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man” (Gen. 9:5).
This passage in Genesis explains what is wrong with murdering a human being and why the punishment for intentional murder should be execution: because human beings are made in the image of God. The severity of the crime dictates the severity of the punishment. This is consistent with an overarching principle known as lex talionis (i.e., the law of retribution). Exodus 21:22–25 (see note) is one example: “if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” In contrast to the malicious practices of the nations surrounding God's people, the lex talionis was a civilizing influence in three ways (cf. Gen. 4:23–24). First, it prevented private vengeance, since the context of such laws showed that this was a principle reserved for judges. Second, it prevented excessive punishment by insuring that only an eye could be taken for damaging an eye. (For example, one could not kill another in return for blinding him.) Third, it prevented insufficient punishment by ensuring that social prejudice did not lead to treating some lives as less valuable than others. One could not require an eye for damaging an eye in one case but not another.
In biblical moral understanding, equally shared reflection of the divine image is what demands taking the life of the one who has wrongly taken the life of another. But the Bible never requires more than the life of the murderer; e.g., it never allows killing a whole village to avenge the murder of one person. According to the Bible, the value of human life does not come from anything that human beings control. It comes from reflecting something (or someone) other than themselves; it is something that all possess and that they can never lose.
Some interpreters disagree with this view. They argue that Genesis 9:6 does not prescribe capital punishment but merely describes what often results from living a life of violence. They claim that the statement “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed” is only a prediction equivalent to the saying “all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matt. 26:52). Against this interpretation is (1) the fact that Genesis 9:5 says God himself will require this “reckoning” for the taking of human life; (2) the reason given for taking human life is not to satisfy a subjective feeling but is rather to hold perpetrators accountable for destroying God's “own image”; and (3) subsequent laws show that God in fact commanded that human beings carry out the death penalty for various crimes (cf. Num. 35:16–21).
Many who oppose the death penalty subscribe to the so-called “seamless garment” argument. For them, the sanctity of human life means that killing another human being is never permissible, whether in abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, or war. Those who support the death penalty respond that specific teachings of the Bible, not an abstract theory (such as “never take a human life”), should determine the Christian position. And specific teachings of the Bible do give support to the principle of capital punishment. One of the strongest biblical refutations of the “seamless garment” theory is in Ezekiel 13:19 where God not only condemns “putting to death souls who should not die” but also “keeping alive souls who should not live.” Someone who is “pro-life” on abortion and euthanasia can, therefore, at the same time consistently favor capital punishment. The principle remains the same in both cases: justice for and protection of the innocent, and punishment for the guilty in proportion to what they have done.
The Sixth Commandment
The sixth of the Ten Commandments forbids the unjustified taking of a person's life: “You shall not murder” (Ex. 20:13). The esv footnote to this verse explains that the Hebrew term used (ratsakh) is somewhat broader than the contemporary English word “murder” when it says, “The Hebrew word also covers causing human death through carelessness or negligence.” The commandment does not, however, prohibit all killing. The verb ratsakh is never used, e.g., for killing in war. Another reason the sixth commandment cannot prohibit capital punishment is that God himself said in the very next chapter of Exodus that “if a man willfully attacks another to kill him by cunning, you shall take him from my altar, that he may die” (Ex. 21:14). (However, cities of refuge were established for those guilty of accidental [unintentional] manslaughter [Ex. 21:13; cf. Joshua 20].)
In the OT it was God who prescribed the death penalty. Therefore capital punishment cannot be contrary to God's character or inconsistent with God's command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). God's laws are always consistent with his moral character, and his moral character never changes (Ps. 102:27; Mal. 3:6; Heb. 13:8; James 1:17).
The laws God gave Moses at Sinai for governing Israel in the Promised Land included death penalties for several other crimes besides the intentional shedding of innocent human blood, which had already been prohibited under the Noahic covenant (Gen. 9:5–6). But these additional death penalties were only given to govern the theocracy of Israel and were never universally applied even in the OT. While the death penalty for murder is universally commanded based on an enduring theological principle (i.e., man being made in the image of God; Gen. 9:5–6), the other death penalties later included in the Mosaic law are not. Therefore these laws were specific to the particular history of Israel at that time, and they should not be treated as necessary patterns for civil governments today. (For many of these cases regarding worship of other gods, the NT parallel would be excommunication from the fellowship of the church.)
Methods of execution in the OT included stoning (Lev. 20:2, 27; 24:14; Deut. 21:21), hanging (Deut. 21:22–23; Josh. 8:29), burning (Lev. 20:14; 21:9), and the sword (Ex. 32:27–28). OT law also ensured that capital punishment could only be carried out based on the testimony of at least two witnesses (Num. 35:30; Deut. 17:6, 19). In some cases, the punishment was to be executed by the witnesses themselves (Deut. 13:6–10; 17:7), while in others it was to be inflicted by the congregation (Num. 15:32–36), the nearest of kin, or the avenger of blood (Deut. 19:11–12).
The NT on Capital Punishment
The most definitive NT text on capital punishment is Romans 13, where the apostle Paul discusses the nature of punishment and the role of civil magistrates. He writes, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. … 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” (Rom. 13:1–4). It is important to recall, however, that just three verses earlier Paul forbids personal revenge: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Rom. 12:19). Then in Romans 13, with no sense of inconsistency, Paul moves right on to explain that leaving punishment “to the wrath of God” means allowing punishment to come through the civil government, which is “the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer” (13:4). So, while personal retaliation is forbidden, civil authorities are to punish evildoers justly and dispassionately.
Both proponents and opponents of capital punishment point to “the sword” (Gk. machaira) in Romans 13:4 to support their view. Opponents note that “the sword” is sometimes used as a symbol or metaphor (i.e., the “sword of the Spirit,” Eph. 6:17; the word of God is “sharper than any two-edged sword,” Heb. 4:12). They understand “the sword” in Romans 13:4 to be only a symbol of governing authorities. Against this, proponents of capital punishment maintain that the image of “the sword” stands for governmental authority to use even lethal force if necessary. They note that even where “the sword” symbolizes authority, that symbol has no meaning without the reality backing it up. The NT also uses the same word for sword (Gk. machaira) on several occasions that clearly refer to the real use of lethal force, e.g., when Herod “killed James the brother of John with the sword” (Acts 12:2), and when it refers to martyrs who were “killed with the sword” (Heb. 11:37; cf. also Matt. 26:52; Acts 16:27; Rom. 8:35; Rev. 13:10).
The apostle Paul, who used the word “sword” in this text, showed that he knew that some crimes are worthy of death, saying, “If … I … have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death” (Acts 25:11). It is unlikely that Paul would have said this if he thought capital punishment was never justifiable. Even so, except for crimes of murder, neither God's command to Noah in Genesis 9:6 nor any NT statement makes it necessary to treat any other specific crime as so horrible that all societies everywhere must always apply capital punishment when someone commits it. Apparently that question is left for each society or government to seek to decide wisely and justly.
The two sides on the issue of capital punishment also differ over Jesus' command to turn the other cheek (Matt. 5:38–39). Proponents of capital punishment think that Jesus only addressed personal conduct, not how governments carry out assigned duties, while opponents claim that Jesus addressed government duties as well. The story of the woman caught in the act of adultery (John 7:53–8:11) is not thought to be as relevant by either side, both because there is doubt about whether the text itself was originally part of John's Gospel (see note) and because Jesus' words in the story (“Let him who is without sin … be the first to throw a stone at her”) do not pertain to the crime of murder.
Justice and the Role of Government
At the heart of the moral debate over capital punishment are often different views of justice and the role that is assigned to government in relation to it. Those favoring capital punishment usually stress the retributive view of justice (i.e., wrongdoing calls for proportional punishment). They argue that the Bible reveals that God has ordained human government to act as his agent in applying retributive justice to wrongdoers. Human government is “an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13:4; cf. 1 Pet. 2:14). Thus capital punishment is seen as (1) an outpouring of divine justice in this present life, (2) a deterrent from personal vengeance (Rom. 12:19), and (3) a deterrent from further crimes (see Eccles. 8:11; Rom. 13:3–4). Those opposing capital punishment either define justice differently (e.g., as distributing benefits or restoring damages), or hold that government should be less concerned with retribution (treating people as they deserve) than with mercy (not treating people as badly as they deserve).
Finally, Christians who believe that capital punishment has biblical justification also hold that it must be carried out in a just manner. So, among other things, this means that holding people accountable for wrongdoing should be done in a way that requires: (1) clear evidence of guilt established by eyewitnesses or irrefutable forensic evidence (cf. Num. 35:30; Deut. 17:6, 19); (2) granting the accused due process without discrimination based on social status, beliefs, race, or economic class; (3) rendering judgment based on adequate proof of moral culpability; and (4) making sure that any punishment assigned is proportional to the crime.
© 2001–2011 Crossway. All rights reserved.