Should Christians rethink capital punishment?

Yes, Christians should rethink "capital punishment," but Christians should not rethink the authority of the Bible to determine our criminal laws and procedures.

By Ben Jones

Vine & Fig Tree 


The common theme in passages said to require "capital punishment" -- from Genesis 9:4-6 to Numbers 35:33-34 -- is blood. What we today call "capital punishment" is a shedding of blood to make atonement. Deuteronomy 21:1-9 exposes the issue. It calls for the shedding of the blood of a heifer in cases of unsolved homicide. All Christians say they agree that only Christ's blood can provide atonement in such cases, and would not urge the civil magistrate to shed the blood of a heifer in cases of unsolved homicide. But if the case is solved and the murderer is convicted, that theology of atonement and ritual blood shedding goes out the window, and the cry for a shedding of blood ("capital punishment") is initiated, following Genesis 9:4-6 and Numbers 35:33-34. Theologians in the tradition of Calvin and Luther have spoken of the distinction between "ceremonial" and "moral" laws in the Bible. All laws requiring the shedding of blood to make atonement should be regarded as "ceremonial." Read those verses again. This should be the end of our "rethinking." Or at least the beginning.

This guest post is by Ben Jones. Mr. Jones is a campaign strategist for Equal Justice USA (EJUSA) and works in support of Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty, a project of EJUSA. Even if you disagree with Mr. Jones, you must admit that it is worthwhile to challenge and to evaluate occasionally our deeply-held ideas. Take this opportunity to expand your mind and consider another point of view.


Especially for death penalty proponents, Romans 13:4 has come to occupy a central role in debates on capital punishment. There Paul writes: “[I]f you do what is wrong, you should be afraid for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.” Notably, Southern Baptists cite Romans 13:4 in their church’s official statement supporting capital punishment.

  Let's look at the Southern Baptist statement on capital punishment

Southern Baptist Convention > On Capital Punishment


WHEREAS, The Bible teaches that every human life has sacred value (Genesis 1:27) and forbids the taking of innocent human life (Exodus 20:13); and 


WHEREAS, God has vested in the civil magistrate the responsibility of protecting the innocent and punishing the guilty (Romans 13:1-3); and

"Vested" is not a Biblical term in this context. Nowhere in Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, does God ever say to man, "I think now is the time to form an institution which substitutes vengeance for love of enemy, and funds all its activities by theft and fraud, buttressed with threats of unspeakable violence."
Concerning the language of Romans 13 ("the powers that be are ordained of God"), James Benjamin Green, in his Harmony of the Westminster Standards, noted that: "It is not meant that God directly ordained the state by saying to man, Thou shalt set up a government or organize a commonwealth." Before 1 Samuel 8, there was no "civil magistrate" in Israel, such as is found in the phrase "the separation of church and state." Notice the involvement of  priests in Deuteronomy 21, above. There is no such thing as "civil law" in the Bible, and therefore those passages which are used to support "capital punishment" are not part of the "civil law," they are part of the "ceremonial law."

Romans 13 says nothing about "protecting the innocent," and no civil government on planet earth today claims any duty to "protect" the innocent. The only thing "governments" do is take vengeance on evil doers after the innocent have suffered. No human being has any right to take vengeance. Vengeance belongs to God (Romans 12:19).

WHEREAS, We recognize that fallen human nature has made impossible a perfect judicial system; and

See the arguments on "fallible" governments below.

WHEREAS, God authorized capital punishment for murder after the Noahic Flood, validating its legitimacy in human society (Genesis 9:6); and

The Bible doesn't say "capital punishment" or any such sterile judicial term. It talks about shedding blood

WHEREAS, God forbids personal revenge (Romans 12:19) and has established capital punishment as a just and appropriate means by which the civil magistrate may punish those guilty of capital crimes (Romans 13:4); and

God doesn't forbid "personal" revenge, but turns around and allows "business revenge" (e.g., Mafia hit-men) or political revenge ("capital punishment," "war," etc.). Those who take vengeance -- including, if not especially, civil governments -- are judged by God for doing so. Read Isaiah 10.

Romans 13 does not mention hangman's nooses, lethal injections, electrocution, gas chambers, or other such "just and appropriate means" of punishing the guilty. It speaks of the "sword," which in Scripture uniformly refers to war and imperialism, and conquering nations and placing them under "tribute," a conspicuous theme in Romans 13:1-7.

WHEREAS, God requires proof of guilt before any punishment is administered (Deuteronomy 19:15-19); and

This passage says that if someone testifies falsely in a capital case, he should be punished with the same punishment he subjected the defendant to by his false testimony. That is, death. Police and prosecutors are notorious violators of these Biblical commands. 

Deuteronomy also says this:

Deuteronomy 17:7

The hands of the witnesses shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterward the hands of all the people. So thou shalt put the evil away from among you.

There are reasons for this. As John Calvin comments, "But nowadays many men have no conscience at all about giving evidence recklessly against their neighbors, because they are not required to execute the sentence." Civil governments today use anonymous professional executioners. Gary North speaks of "The Evil of Modern Impersonalism" (Victim's Rights, p. 273)

WHEREAS, God's instructions require a civil magistrate to judge all people equally under the law, regardless of class or status (Leviticus 19:15; Deuteronomy 1:17); and


WHEREAS, All people, including those guilty of capital crimes, are created in the image of God and should be treated with dignity (Genesis 1:27).


Therefore, be it RESOLVED, That the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention, meeting in Orlando, Florida, June 13-14, 2000, support the fair and equitable use of capital punishment by civil magistrates as a legitimate form of punishment for those guilty of murder or treasonous acts that result in death; and

These four paragraphs of the Baptist Statement are quite prudent (notwithstanding the fact that we're dealing with a ceremonial shedding of blood), and refute the article at left which cites the Statement. The argument made here (that capital punishment is "a legitimate form of punishment") is not refuted by evidence that corrupt or lazy magistrates punish the innocent or spare the guilty for personal ("racist") reasons. We shouldn't "rethink" capital punishment because it is abused. We shouldn't "rethink" Biblical commands to work just because some people are workaholics or work in an unsafe or reckless manner. All that's really going on here is "rethinking" whether we want the Bible to be in charge of our lives in the modern world.

Be it further RESOLVED, That we urge that capital punishment be administered only when the pursuit of truth and justice result in clear and overwhelming evidence of guilt; and

Be it further RESOLVED, That because of our deep reverence for human life, our profound respect for the rights of individuals, and our respect for the law, we call for vigilance, justice, and equity in the criminal justice system; and

Be it further RESOLVED, That we urge that capital punishment be applied as justly and as fairly as possible without undue delay, without reference to the race, class, or status of the guilty; and

Be it further RESOLVED, That we call on civil magistrates to use humane means in administering capital punishment; and

This is curious. A "humane" method of ending a human's life. Would the Baptists consider stoning to death "humane?" Why not?

Be it finally RESOLVED, That we commit ourselves to love, to pray for, and to minister the gospel to victims and perpetrators of crimes, realizing that only in Christ is there forgiveness of sin, reconciliation, emotional and spiritual healing, and the gift of eternal life.


This reliance on Romans 13:4 is understandable. 

No, it really isn't. Using a "sword" to behead or dismember a human being to death would not be considered "humane." Other than the use of that word, Romans 13 does not prescribe any method of punishment for any crime. One cannot prove that "capital punishment" is the required punishment for any crime using Romans 13 alone.
Death penalty proponents sometimes cite the Old Testament, but this approach leads to conclusions largely rejected today. The Old Testament calls for the death penalty for talking back to one’s parents (Leviticus 20:9) and not keeping the Sabbath (Exodus 31:14), rendering almost everyone guilty of a capital offense. Even Genesis 9:6 – “Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed” – proves problematic for death penalty proponents, since it comes in the form of a proverb (similar to Matthew 26:52) rather than an explicit law endorsing capital punishment.[1] Moreover, on numerous occasions God spares Old Testament figures – Cain, Moses, and David – guilty of capital offenses. This is a serious admission. The Baptists do cite the OT in their statement, but they too resist the "conclusions" that one may draw from the authoritative use of verses from the Old Testament. Most people do not want the Old Testament Scriptures to be taken authoritatively. We see evidence of this in the article at left. 
  • The Old Testament Scriptures do not require "the death penalty" for a six-year old who "talks back" to his parents. Details. This is a mockery of God's Law. Jesus said,
             God said, ...“Anyone who curses their father or mother 
             is to be put to death.” (Matthew 15:4)
    The article mocks Jesus.
  • It is false and slanderous -- or ignorant -- to say that "almost everyone" is guilty of a capital offense regarding the Sabbath. See James B. Jordan, "Sabbath Breaking and the Death Penalty: A Theological Investigation." 
  • It is very poor exegesis to say that Genesis 9:6 is not a command simply because it takes the form of a "proverb." In the Bible, proverbs, questions, poems, and other rhetorical forms all function as law. Remember, there is no "civil law code" in the Bible. And yet the Bible is an authoritative textbook on civil government and criminal law.  
  • To say that God "spared" Cain, Moses and David of capital punishment is to acknowledge that it would have been required absent God's special intervening grace. (It is debatable whether Moses the deliverer would have been "spared" capital punishment for delivering Israelites from Egyptian oppressors. See Peter Leithart, A House for My Name: A Survey of the Old Testament, pp. 75-76.)

If "capital punishment" is a coherent secular "judicial" concept in the Bible (it isn't), then none of these excuses for evading it are valid. They are attacks on the authority and relevance of the Scriptures.

Free of such baggage, Romans 13:4 seems to justify the death penalty in the context of the New Covenant. 

"Baggage?" None of this "baggage" burdens Romans 13 in any way. None of it has exegetical validity at all. None of these arguments refutes the interpretation of Genesis 9 or other standard "death penalty" verses as proffered by the Baptist Statement. 
This line of argument, however, rests on a misinterpretation of the verse itself and, perhaps more troubling, a misrepresentation of the trust that Christians are to place in government.  

First, there is little evidence that Paul specifically has capital punishment in mind in Romans 13:4. The word “execute” in this verse means “to carry out,” not executing an individual. Also, Paul’s mention of a sword likely references government’s power generally to use coercive force rather than its specific power to execute.

It is true that we have argued the Romans 13:4 doesn't speak of "capital punishment" -- but not for the reasons offered in the article at left.
  • The word "execute" can easily refer to an individual, even if it means "carry out." 
  • As we said above, "sword" does not likely refer to "capital punishment." It refers to the State as a means of God's judgment on a society, like famine and pestilence. It does not refer to any God-given "authority" (moral approbation) which the government claims to aggress against anyone ("use coercive force").

Let's look at the linked article. The author of that article says:

Well, I'm also a lawyer. After many years as a corporate lawyer God called me and my wife to ministry. Now, with 13 years of ministry to the families of murder victims, to men being executed, to families of the executed, and to staff at Florida's death row prison, I have had to dig back into the Scriptures much more deeply than I had before in order to find out exactly what God is expecting of us.

It is not valid to question Scripture based on one's experience with those connected with "capital punishment." When it comes to "putting away the guilt of innocent blood from Israel," God expressly forbids letting thine eye pity the defendant. This is humanism.

Second, it is hard to believe that Paul is asking Christians never to question government. If that were true, Paul would have meekly obeyed the authorities and not ended up in jail so much. Before Romans 13:4, Paul writes, “rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.” In light of this verse, Paul appears to say that obedience is required when government is just. Yet, as Paul knew too well, it often is not.

Paul is not "asking Christians never to question government." No respectable pro-execution scholar says that. They all agree that "we must obey God rather than man" (Acts 5:29). Straw man.

Other New Testament passages belie the view that Christians simply should trust governments’ power to wield the sword. Christians throughout the New Testament are victims of executions and, unsurprisingly, criticize authorities carrying them out.

The Baptist Statement above clearly does not give the civil government some kind of carte blanche to execute just anyone. The resolutions are very clearly against this kind of thing.

The New Testament figures of John the Baptist, Jesus, Stephen, James, and Antipas all are executed. In this environment, John of Revelation denies the legitimacy of the Roman Empire, condemning it for being “drunk with the blood of the saints” (Revelation 17:6). Though John never calls for violent resistance, he stresses that believers should refuse the unjust demands of government, even if such defiance requires martyrdom (Revelation 2:10). It is the Lamb, Jesus Christ – never any earthly power – who demands our ultimate allegiance.

Actually, Revelation 17:6 is is saying that Jerusalem was "drunk with the blood of the saints." See Matthew 23:29-38; 1 Thessalonians 2:16; John 16:2; Matthew 21:33-44; Acts 7:51-53; 

And in her was found the blood of prophets, and of saints, and of all that were slain upon the earth. 
Revelation 18:24

And their dead bodies shall lie in the street of the great city, which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt, where also our Lord was crucified.
Revelation 11:8

Revelation 2:10, in speaking "the devil," is more likely speaking of the Jews than the Romans, as evidenced by the previous verse:

I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan
Revelation 2:9

No respectable scholar who supports "capital punishment" is saying we should give Caesar "ultimate allegiance." Re-read the Baptist Statement. It is more judicious than that.

There is, then, a long tradition of Christian skepticism toward government power going back to Christianity’s origins. Such skepticism repeatedly has manifested itself, from persecuted Anabaptists questioning government’s authority to mandate baptismal practices and exercise capital punishment to Christian abolitionists denying government’s authority to protect the institution of slavery.

Of course. Not probative.

Those advocating a submissive approach to government often ignore Christianity’s long tradition of skepticism toward it. When we unquestioningly accept the legitimacy of government power, we risk condoning its abuses.

I believe government power is wholly illegitimate. I am an "anarchist." That does not mean I buy these arguments against "capital punishment." Even though I oppose capital punishment even for serial rapist/murderers. I oppose all ritual shedding of blood, and all priestly-civil actions.

A willingness to tolerate government injustices has been on display in recent debates over capital punishment. The botched execution in Oklahoma last April struck the President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, R. Albert Mohler Jr., as the right moment to make the case for “Why Christians should support the death penalty.” Mohler’s message and Christ’s example couldn’t be more different. There is no evidence that after grisly crucifixions Jesus took to the streets to defend the practice. Scripture instead tells us that Jesus stopped the execution of a woman caught in adultery about to be stoned (John 8:1-11).

Jesus did not "take to the streets" because there was no organized opposition to "capital punishment" in His day.

Jesus "stopped the execution of a woman caught in adultery" because a rigid and strict application of Biblical Law would not have allowed her to be executed. Details. She wasn't "about to be stoned" because there were not two or three witnesses against her. It was a just a hypocritical trap (verse 6). More evidence that this article just doesn't take the Bible seriously. The article uses the Bible as a source of slogans, soundbites, and bumper-stickers.

Interestingly, Mohler concedes that imperfections and injustices plague capital punishment, but holds onto the mistaken hope that a future government suddenly will fix problems that others repeatedly have failed to solve. The persistent problems with capital punishment over the centuries – racial bias, threatening innocent life, botched executions – should point to a different conclusion: the power to execute is too prone to error and abuse to ever entrust it with a fallible human government.

There is nothing whatsoever in the Bible to suggest that God "entrusted" human governments with "capital punishment" because they were infallible. There are checks and balances and procedural requirements to protect the innocent. God expects more of us. The fact that governments are "fallible" is not a good argument against shedding the blood of criminals to make atonement. God certainly knew governments were fallible when He commanded the shedding of blood before the coming of Christ.

Instead of the futile search for a government capable of remedying the death penalty’s injustices, a more prudent path would be to take away from government this power entirely. Numerous states have abandoned capital punishment, opting for the alternative of incarceration, and this step has not hindered them in ensuring public safety. In fact, states without the death penalty have lower murder rates on average than states with it.

The "death penalty" doesn't have "injustices" -- that's the problem of sinful magistrates who do not follow God's criminal procedure.

Fortunately, more Christian leaders are questioning the death penalty and calling for its repeal. It is important that we as Christians work to end this abuse of government power rather than have to apologize later for tolerating it.

"Capital punishment" is not an "abuse" of government power, it is the very essence of government power. The only thing more essential to government is taxing people to pay for these executions.

[1] For more on Genesis 9:6, see Michael L. Westmoreland’s and Glen H. Stassen’s article, “Biblical Perspectives on the Death Penalty,” in Religion and the Death Penalty: A Call for Reckoning, ed. Erik C. Owens, John D. Carlson, and Eric P. Elshtain (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), pp. 126-28. This article identifies some key points to keep in mind when reading Genesis 9:6: (1) the verse takes a form common to Hebrew wisdom literature; (2) the verse makes no distinctions between different types of bloodshed – e.g., premeditated murder, manslaughter, killing in self-defense; and (3) the verse gives no obvious guidance that the state should put killers to death, given that in the context of this verse the state is not in existence yet.”

 None of these considerations prove that no magistrate should execute anyone. I smell antinomianism.

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