Should Christians Support the Death Penalty?

Navigating violence, grace, and the teaching of Scripture
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Q. In English class, I chose opposing the death penalty as my stance for a persuasive speech. I believe killing other people is wrong. I thought that was the Christian belief as well. After my speech, a Christian friend told me he disagreed with me. According to him, God said we should take an eye for an eye. I thought we needed to turn the other cheek. Are my beliefs messed up? Or does my friend have the wrong impression about the Bible?

A. A few years ago, I was in Kansas when the "BTK killer" was on trial there. This was a cruel and sadistic man who would bind, torture, and kill his victims. He made 10 people including children and young women suffer horribly before they died. Even among the people I was staying with—Mennonites who don't believe in killing even in time of war—there was disagreement over what justice meant for the BTK serial killer. My experience, like your own, shows that even Christians who agree that the Bible is God's Word differ dramatically on how to apply the Bible's teachings in certain situations. And that's certainly true when the issue is what to do with a person who commits a heinous crime. What's clear is that God establishes governments to restrain evil and administer justice, and calls us to honor our leaders (see Romans 13:1-5).

Some Christians look at Bible passages on grace and forgiveness like "do not repay anyone evil for evil" (Romans 12:17, NIV), and conclude that governments should restrain criminals (in prison, for example) but shouldn't kill them. And in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Christians were the ones who brought about prison reform, establishing "penitentiaries" for criminals to be locked away and encouraged to think about their actions—hopefully becoming "penitent" or sorry for their crimes, repenting, and redirecting their lives in positive directions.

Other Christians look at God's commands in the Old Testament, which include the death penalty for certain crimes, and they notice that Jesus did not denounce the death penalty even when it was wrongly applied to him. They conclude that the death penalty is still an appropriate way to apply justice and restrain evil in certain instances today. The families of the BTK killer's victims certainly didn't think a prison sentence was sufficient justice for their daughters' horrific deaths.

So what is the right answer? Well, truth be told, we don't know. The Bible is not always a clear checklist of exactly what to believe about every issue of our time. But we do know that we are to leave revenge and vengeance to God (Romans 12:19). And while it may look like it sometimes, anger-filled vengeance is never true God-honoring justice. Christ did come on Earth with a life-altering message of grace and transformation. We also know the Bible says the Lord expects us "to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8, niv). We need his guidance and voice to help us know what that looks like. And maybe that verse from Micah contains the key: As we seek justice, we must do so humbly and without forgetting the extreme mercy God extended to us and to all sinners saved by grace.

Marshall, a former pastor, is editor of Leadership, a magazine for pastors.

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