As described in the introduction, we will first discuss the Scriptural stance on capital punishment, then the stance of ancient Christians. Finally, we will conclude a logical and coherent ethic relating to capital punishment—when it is acceptable, and for which crimes, and how it should be administered.
Any study of capital punishment in the Bible comes with an obvious conclusion: the Biblical stance on capital punishment undergoes a series of intriguing alterations throughout the history of the Bible.
The first capital offense is Cain’s murder of Abel. Cain assumed that he would be killed in retribution for his act of fratricide (Gen 4:14); however, God actually protected him from retribution, condemning Cain to exile only (Gen 4:15). This would seem to be strongly anti-capital punishment.
Fast-forwarding many generations, we come to the great Flood. During His covenant with Noah after the flood, God commands Noah to take extra care not to eat bloody meat and, as a part of the Noahic Covenant, requires the death penalty for murder (Gen 9:6). So at this point, hundreds of generations into the Scriptural history, we see God’s first allowance for the death penalty; it applies to murder alone. So we have evolved from a non-violent punishment system to one of punishment for murder.
Now we go forward many more generations, to approximately 1400 BC—the Mosaic Covenant. In this covenant which establishes the judgment system for the newly-formed theocracy of Israel, there are over twenty offenses which can bring the death penalty, including murder, rape, blasphemy, and worship of false gods (Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy).
Throughout the entire rest of the Old Testament, there is nothing at all to indicate that this command changes.
The New Testament
So what of the New Testament? Here is where things start getting a bit confusing.
It certainly never comes out and speaks plainly against the commandment for the death penalty. There are three relevant passages that somewhat deal with the death penalty in the New Testament:
• John 8:3-11: In this passage, Jesus halts the stoning of a sinner, saying, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” However, this is not necessarily Jesus overthrowing the death penalty. It may be, or it may not be. One can certainly make the argument that Jesus was simply making a broader theological point, or that Jesus alone had the right to forgive the sins, or that Jesus was stopping the crowd because the Jews no longer had legal authority to execute criminals (only the Romans did at that time). Likewise, you can argue convincingly that this, coupled with Jesus’ statements about the need of Christians to forgive those who wrong them, indicates that the New Covenant does not allow capital punishment. This passage has been discussed dozens of times over, with both sides having convincing arguments. At best, we must consider it to be at an impasse: neither side can completely prove their position in this passage.
• Romans 13:3-4: In this passage, Paul seems to say that the State has the authority of God to bring vengeance upon the evil-doer. However, this passage is of little assistance, for all that it says is that punishment is available to the State, not that the death penalty is the appropriate form of this punishment. It references the “sword” as a reference to divine judgment, but not necessarily executions. So this passage also is, frankly, useless in our debate.
• Acts 25:11: Paul states here that if the State finds him guilty of a capital crime, he will not fight against death. Of course, this is in no way either an endorsement of, or fight against, the death penalty: the fact that Paul would not oppose being held accountable to the government’s form of punishment does not imply a moral standing in favor of that punishment. (After all, Jesus went to the cross…yet no one argues that Jesus felt He did anything wrong or deserved the punishment and that the punishment was just!)
In the end, we conclude that the Scripture has, frankly, a bit of a muddled view of things. Frankly, the stance toward the death penalty seems highly dependent upon the covenant under which the Biblical personalities were living:
• Adamic Covenant (date unknown) – Murder is punished directly by God, by exile. In fact, the exiled murderer was protected by God from retribution by others (Gen 4).
• The Flood (date unknown) – The general and widespread evil of mankind led to a large-scale act of capital punishment. This was enacted not by an agent of God, but God Himself, through natural means (Gen 6).
• Noahic Covenant (date unknown) – Under this covenant, God tells Noah that his offspring shall not eat meat that still has blood in it, and that murder is a capital offense. In this covenant, for the first time, God allows men the authority to commit capital punishment (Gen 9:6).
• Abramic Covenant (c. 2000 BC) – In this covenant, God gives no commands relating to death penalty; presumably, the Noahic Covenant would still stand, so man is still allowed to put another man to death, but only in the case of murder.
• Mosaic Covenant (c. 1400 BC) – In this covenant, which is the basis for the rest of the Old Testament, God not requires that the newly-formed state of Israel enact the death penalty for over twenty crimes.
• New Covenant (c.30 AD) – Jesus and the Apostles never directly address the death penalty.
Early Christian Fathers
The writings of the early Christian fathers show a surprisingly strong shift from the Jewish and Roman positions on the death penalty. Consider the following statements:
“They know that we cannot endure even to see a man put to death, though justly…we consider that to see a man put to death is much the same as killing him.” –Athenagorus (E, 2.147), c. 175 AD
“Christians could not slay their enemies. Nor could they condemn those who had broken the law to be burned and stoned” –Origen (E, 4.618), c. 248 AD
“Christians do not attack their assailants in return, for it is not lawful for the innocent to kill even the guilty.” --Cyprian (W, 5.3510), c. 250 AD
The stance of most of the ancient Christians seems to be most elegantly described by Lactantius, who was among the most beautiful early Christian authors (if not the most theological):
“When God forbids us to kill, He not only prohibits us from the open violence that is not even allowed in the public laws, but He also warns us against doing those things that are esteemed lawful among men. …it is the act of putting to death itself that is prohibited. Therefore, with regard to this commandment of God, there should be no exception at all. Rather, it is always unlawful to put a man to death, whom God willed to be a sacred creature.” –Lactantius (W, 7.187, c.310 AD)
Other relevant statements:
• Tertullian, in his argument against holding public office, clearly shows that among the activities forbidden to early Christians were presiding as a legal justice over a trial involving a man’s life or his character (he admits that it might be acceptable for a Christian to preside over a case involving money). He even goes so far as to say that Christians cannot, as judges, condemn any man to imprisonment! (Tertullian, W, 3.72, c. 200 AD)
• In the next passage, discussing military operations, Tertullian again clearly takes it as an assumption that serving as an executioner disqualifies one from Christianity (ibid., 3.73)
• Lactantius says that someone who is willing to watch a death, even one legally committed against a criminal, is polluting his soul just as much as if he watched a murder committed. He goes so far as to say that it is unlawful for Christians to even rightly accuse someone of a capital offense, if one knows it is likely to lead to the person’s death. For in his mind, the death penalty is murder (Lactantius, W, 7.187, c. 310 AD)
So here, we have moved from a full execution system to a rather uncertain view in the New Testament period, followed immediately by a very adamant group of early Christians who are anti-death penalty.
As the classical period gave over to the fall of Rome and the rise of the Middle Ages, Christians began to once again embrace the Old Testament views of legalizing capital punishment. The two great medieval Christian thinkers, Augustine (354-430) and Aquinas (1225-1274) both endorsed the State’s authority to put man to death as an exception to Biblical commandments against killing.
Why the Different Commands?
One of the most perplexing things about the above history are the strangely differing commands. Consider the following graph:
You can see the confusion that one might have. During the Noahic and Mosaic periods, God seems to have changed from even allowing murderers to escape the death penalty to making the death penalty a consistent part of government. During the apostolic period, the evidence is unclear, but shortly thereafter, it is overwhelmingly anti-death penalty. Then, as the Holy Roman Empire began to regain its strength in the medieval period, the death penalty becomes accepted by major Christian thinkers.
The answer actually comes from Origen, around 250 AD. Here, Origen states:
“Christians could not slay their enemies. Nor could they condemn those who had broken the law…However, in the case of the ancient Jews, who had a land and a form of government of their own, to take from them the right of making war upon their enemies, of fighting for their country, of putting to death or otherwise punishing adulterers, murderers, or others who were guilty of similar crimes, would have been to subject them to sudden and utter destruction whenever the enemy fell upon them.” –Origen (E, 4.618, c.248)
Origen makes an intriguing point here. He is pointing out that the time period where God allowed the death penalty (from Noah to Christ) was unique because of the necessity of the Jewish State to punish evildoers in order to avoid destruction. That is, the Noahic and Mosaic covenants required God to allow—indeed, to require—the death penalty as an effective means of fulfilling God’s end of the deal (i.e., protection).
The inverse implication here is the one which is believed by the early Christians and the pre-Noahic Scriptures: that God’s moratorium on killing applies to all situations, including State-approved killing of the guilty.
In other words, Origen argues, God’s requirement of the death penalty for ancient Israel was the exception, not the rule.
The Christian Implication
So…what are we to do as Christians? What applies to the Christian?
Well, the Mosaic Covenant applied only to the Jews, so the requirements of capital punishment really only apply to Jewish nations today; for those of us not descended from that initial group at Sinai, God’s covenant at Sinai is not applicable.
However, note that all descendents of Noah (which include all of us, Christian or otherwise) are required by the Noahic Covenant to support the legal application of the death penalty in the instance of murder (and only murder). Nothing in the New Covenant adds anything at all to this ancient requirement, therefore, we must conclude that murder, and murder alone, deserves the death penalty in the eyes of the Christian.
To put it another way: Christians today fall under the Adamic, Noahic, and New Covenants (and no other). So we are required by Noahic Covenant to have a society which puts murderers to death, but also required by the New Covenant to forgive those who wrong us, take no acts of retribution for crimes of any sort, and to avoid casting judgment on another person.
What is very clear both explicitly and implicitly in the Scripture (and fleshed out in more detail by our early Christian writers) is that even though the death penalty is commanded by God for murder, Christians are not to take any part in it: they can be neither accuser nor judge nor execution. I would go a bit further, and say by extension that Christians should try to avoid jury duty on capital crimes, as we do not have the authority to vote for the death penalty, either.
Based on these analyses, we reach the following conclusion on the death penalty:
Christians maintain that Jewish cultures following the Laws of Moses have the authority to enact the death penalty as outlined in the Mosaic Covenant.
For all non-Jewish cultures, Christians must admit support for the death penalty only for the act of murder. The death penalty may never be enacted against any other crime. Therefore, Christians must conclude that the United States is far too active in the application of the death penalty today.
However, the Christian laws of mercy and forgiveness, and the moratorium against judgment, preclude any individual Christian from personally taking any part in the punishment of the murderer. The Christian may not accuse, judge, condemn in a jury vote, execute, or witness the execution of a capital offender. Christians must show mercy even to those who harm them, and can have nothing to do whatsoever with the taking of another life.
In voting, Christians should support those candidates who will respect life by avoiding application of capital punishment for any crime other than murder.
The death of any human—even those certain to be murderers—must be viewed by the Christian as an event of the greatest possible sadness, for there is no greater disturbance in life than the loss of life for a member of God’s most sacred creation.