Life is a precious gift of God. Christians see life as something that must be preserved, enjoyed, and celebrated. Yet Christians—evangelical Christians—are often among those who support the death penalty. How can this be? Isn’t there an inconsistency with the Christian witness of life, grace, and mercy and support of the death penalty? Isn’t there an inconsistency when Christians say that they are against abortion but for the death penalty? Possibly.

I want to give a brief primer on the Christian options with regards to the issue of capital punishment. Hopefully this will serves to help people on both sides understand the issue more accurately.

There are essentially two positions that Christians have taken with regards to capital punishment:

  • Rehabilitationalism
  • Retributionalism 

Retributionalism: Believes that capital punishment is prescribed by God for all people in order to maintain societal order and retribution.

Rehabilitationalism: Believes that capital punishment is repealed by the New Testament’s command to love one another and let God have final retribution.

Arguments for Capital Punishment (Retributionalism):

1. It is God’s way of punishment instituted at the time of Noah. This seems to suggest a general governmental principle that transcends the situation (i.e. there is no Law or theocracy).

Gen 9:6
Whoever sheds man’s blood, By man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man.

2. It is continued in the Mosaic Law with further offenses that call for death.

Capital Offenses

  • Murder (Ex. 21:11; Num. 35:30)
  • Cursing or striking parent (Ex. 21:15, 17; Lev. 20:9)
  • Kidnapping (Ex. 21:16)
  • Witchcraft (Ex. 22:18)
  • Bestiality (Ex. 22:19; Lev. 20:16)
  • Idolatry (Ex. 22:20; Lev. 20:2)
  • Negligent Homicide (Ex. 21:29)
  • Work on the Sabbath (Ex. 35:2; Num. 15:32-35)
  • Homosexuality (Lev. 18:22; 20:13)
  • Adultery (Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:24)
  • Incest (Lev. 20:11-12, 14)
  • Prostitution (Lev.21:9)
  • Blasphemy (Lev. 24:16)
  • False Prophecy (Deut. 13:1-5)
  • Rape (Deut. 22:25)

3. The New Testament does not repeal the penalty with respect to the government.

4. The New Testament does inform Christians that the government is part of God’s common grace, given to men in order to keep order in society.

Romans 13:3-4
For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if 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 on the one who practices evil.

The right and responsibility of the government to “bear the sword” definitely implies its strictest use, capital punishment.

5. Paul implicitly accepts and agrees with the government’s authority to use the death penalty in his own life.

Acts 25:11a
If, then, I am a wrongdoer and have committed anything worthy of death, I do not refuse to die.

Arguments Against Capital Punishment (Rehabilitationalism)

1. The sixth commandment states that you shall not kill (Ex. 20:13). The death penalty is killing people.

2. While the Mosaic System did demand capital punishment, it was a theocracy that is no longer in effect.

Romans 6:14-15
For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace.” (emphasis added)

3. Christ showed by his words and example that the death penalty was no longer in effect.

Matthew 5:38-39
You have heard that it was said, "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.

John 8:3-7
The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, and having set her in the center of the court, they said to Him, "Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?" They were saying this, testing Him, so that they might have grounds for accusing Him. But Jesus stooped down and with His finger wrote on the ground. But when they persisted in asking Him, He straightened up, and said to them, ‘He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her. "

4. Paul tells Christians to leave vengeance and retribution to God.

Romans 12:19
"Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, "vengeance is mine; I will repay," says the Lord."

5. Statistics show that death penalty is not much of a deterrent to crime.

My position

I believe that the arguments for the continued use of capital punishment are much stronger. Therefore, I support and encourage the use of capital punishment for heinous crimes. 

In response to the arguments against capital punishment, I would offer these observations.

1. There are major inconsistencies that make the first objection invalid in my opinion. The sixth commandment speaks against murder, not killing. Although there can be a fine line between murder and taking a life for societal order and retribution, their is a definite line. If the death penalty was always a violation of the fifth commandment, why would God have allowed such in the same Law? Notice that the penalty for breaking the sixth commandment is death (21:12). How could the fifth commandment prohibit that which is mandated for a violation of the sixth?

2. It is true that Christians are not under the Mosaic system, but the principles of the system are still good (e.g. Ten Commandments). Therefore, the governance of the system is taken away from God’s people, not the necessarily principles that the system is founded on.

3. Christ’s words and example speak to individual retribution, not governmental. Taken to the extreme, there would be no punishment for any crime.

4. Paul’s statement in Romans 12:9 once again seems to speak to individual retribution. God uses government, not individuals, to execute His vengeance (Romans 13:4).

5. The statistics concerning the efficacy of capital punishment to deter crime are not consistent. Some statistics do suggest that where the fear of death is truly present, it does act as a deterrent. But even if it does not deter crime, this is not necessarily an argument against it. Its function is also seen as retribution, acting as God’s minister and instrument of wrath.

In the end, I see no inconsistency in being an advocate of the death penalty for certain crimes and being against abortion. The aborted child is innocent, having committed no crime, while the one sentenced to capital punishment is guilty of a great offense.

Where do you stand?

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

    2 replies to "A Primer on the Christian Understanding of Capital Punishment"

    • Samantha Mone

      Good arguments presented. Can you also address the arguement against
      capital punishment that says God himself did not require capital punishment
      against Cain, the first murderer, of his brother Abel?

    • Kara Kittle

      I will agree with the heinous acts as justifiable. But it seems heinous is even broadly interpreted these days…depending on who the crime was against. Poor people who are murdered are not considered in the same league as a wealthy person who is murdered. And who did the murder is also interpreted differently.

      There is a broad chasm in our society that separates equal justice under the law. The death penalty should be equally applied across class and societal standing.

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