The death penalty has been part of human society for millennia, understood to be the ultimate punishment for the most serious crimes. But, should Christians support the death penalty now, especially in light of recent controversies surrounding it?
This is not an easy yes-or-no question. On the one hand, the Bible clearly calls for capital punishment in the case of intentional murder. In Genesis 9:6, God told Noah that the penalty for intentional murder should be death: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” The death penalty is explicitly grounded in the fact that God made every individual human being in His own image, and thus an act of intentional murder is an assault upon human dignity and the very image of God. The one who intentionally takes life by murder forfeits the right to his own life.
In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul instructs Christians that the government “does not bear the sword in vain.” Indeed, in this case, the magistrate “is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the evildoer” (Rom. 13:4).
On the other hand, the Bible establishes a high bar for evidence in a case of capital murder. The act of murder must be confirmed and corroborated by the eyewitness testimony of accusers, and the society is to take every reasonable precaution to ensure that no one is punished unjustly.
While the death penalty is allowed and even mandated in some cases, the Bible also reveals that not all who are guilty of murder or complicit in murder are executed. Just remember the biblical accounts of Moses and David.
Christian thinking about the death penalty must begin with the fact that the Bible envisions a society in which capital punishment for murder is sometimes necessary but should be exceedingly rare.
The Bible also affirms that the death penalty, rightly and justly applied, will have a powerful deterrent effect. In a world of violence, the death penalty is understood to be a necessary firewall against the spread of further deadly violence.
Seen in this light, the problem we face today is not with the death penalty but with society at large. American society is quickly conforming to a secular worldview, and the clear sense of right and wrong that was Christianity’s gift to Western civilization is being replaced with a much more ambiguous morality. We have lost the cultural ability to declare murder—even mass murder—to be deserving of the death penalty. We have also robbed the death penalty of its deterrent power by allowing death penalty cases to languish for years in the legal system, often based on irrational and irrelevant appeals.