David P. Gushee is a professor of Christian ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University.
It is plausible for a Christian to be both pro-death penalty and pro-life, if that term means "anti-abortion." But ultimately, both the gospel and human experience ought to incline Christians to oppose the death penalty.
The most plausible biblical support for the death penalty is Genesis 9:5-6. This pivotal text, framed as part of God's covenant with Noah after the Flood, says that God requires a "reckoning" for human life (ESV), that this divine reckoning shall be undertaken by humans as if on behalf of God, and that this reckoning is a corollary of human beings having been made in the image of God.
This is a short passage, and a somewhat cryptic one. It is possible to interpret 9:6 as an observation or proverb rather than a command. But when linked to 9:5, and especially when considered in the context of a flood sent as divine judgment in large part because of human violence (Gen. 6:11), it is hard not to read it as divine institution of the death penalty against murderers to protect humans made in the image of God.
When a community takes the life of a murderer, it intends to punish the murderer for committing the ultimate violation of the image of God. The community also intends to deter anyone who might be tempted to take a human life, as if to say, "Here is a line you may not cross." Those who are opposed to abortion as the unjust theft of human life can favor the death penalty precisely as a way to prevent the unjust theft of human life.
Thus one can plausibly be both pro-death penalty and pro-life, even if one understands the term "pro-life" more broadly to mean "pro-recognition and protection of the sacred worth of the human person."
However, the Bible does not end with Genesis 9. Mosaic Law contains numerous death penalty provisions but rare evidence of their enforcement and plenty of evidence of divine mercy. And the New Testament heightens the depiction of divine mercy while also offering numerous tragic examples of government misuse of the power to kill.
In the New Testament, the infinite mercy of the God we meet in Jesus Christ leavens the consciousness of Christians. Here is one who teaches us to forgive and make peace with our enemies rather than requite them with bloodshed. He teaches us of a God who comes after prodigal sinners with love rather than wrath. Prior to his unjust crucifixion, Jesus rebukes friends who would take the sword to protect him.
The New Testament offers many stories of executions, almost none of them remotely just. These stories help us pay attention to serious abuses of and mistakes with the death penalty by states through the ages, including our own.
It is plausible to support the death penalty from Genesis 9. It is better to oppose it, as those being remade in the image of Christ, with their feet planted in the shadow of the Cross.
Richard Land is president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.
It's excruciatingly biblical to be both pro-life and pro-death penalty. The Bible clearly reveals that life begins at conception (Ps. 51:5; Jer. 1:5; Ps. 139:13-16) and also clearly teaches that capital punishment is one of the options available to the civil magistrate in punishing evildoers (Rom. 13:1-7).
That the Bible teaches the sacredness of human life and that life begins at conception are the reasons the Jews, alone among the civilizations of the Mediterranean Basin, did not practice abortion and infanticide routinely. It is also why the Didache, the first post-apostolic teaching of the Christian faith, condemned abortion in the strongest language possible.
It is also clear from the apostle Paul's epistle to the Romans that the civil magistrate "does not carry the sword for no reason" (Rom. 13:4, HCSB). The word sword, as pointed out by 19th-century scholar Charles Hodge and others, refers to the sword employed to execute Roman citizens found guilty of capital crimes. Consequently, most Christians who take biblical authority seriously in most eras have concluded that capital punishment is one biblically sanctioned option available to the civil magistrate to punish evildoers.
This is excruciating because Western governments have too often applied capital punishment inequitably and unjustly.Historically, one is far more likely to be executed in the United States if a person of color rather than white, a man rather than a woman, or poor rather than wealthy. While governments have made substantial progress in addressing those inequities, it is still clear that the best protection against being executed in the United States is to be wealthy enough to hire the best defense attorneys to plead your case. The O. J. Simpson case is illustrative: Most people believe a guilty man got away with two murders.
How does one resolve this dilemma we confront as contemporary Christians? For this Christian, it is imperative for me to "speak on behalf of the unborn and contend for the sanctity of all human life from conception to natural death," as stated in the Southern Baptist Convention's Baptist Faith and Message confessional statement.
It is also imperative that I support capital punishment precisely because human life is sacred and God mandated to Noah that he would "require the life of each man's brother for a man's life" precisely because "God made man in his image" (Gen. 9:5-6, HCSB). Life is sacred, and when men wantonly take other men's lives, they have transgressed a divine prerogative and forfeit their own right to life.
It is also imperative that I, as a Christian and a citizen, be as committed to the just application of capital punishment as I am to the retention of capital punishment as an option to punish evil.
Not at all
Glen Stassen is a professor of Christian ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary and coauthor with David Gushee of Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context(IVP, 2003).
Some Christians who are pro-life naturally say life imprisonment without parole protects society without taking yet another human life.
Others argue for killing murderers by citing Genesis 9:6: "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed" (ESV). In his highly respected commentary on Genesis, scholar Claus Westermann says this is a proverb, not a command: In that day without government, whoever killed someone would be killed in revenge. And Donald Hagner's commentary on Matthew says Jesus interprets Genesis 9:6 as a proverb, not a command, in Matthew 26:52: "all who draw the sword will die by the sword."
In the Old Testament, God wills that the first murderer, Cain, and Moses and David, who were guilty of murder, and Tamar, who committed adultery, not be killed. In the story of the woman caught in adultery, Jesus was confronted with the death penalty. Instead of stoning her, he told the Pharisees, "Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her."
Some claim that killing murderers is justice. But killing murderers perpetrates permanent injustice. In the United States, since 1976, 15 white people have been executed for killing a black person and 283 black people for killing a white person. Law expert Walter Berns noted that in U.S. history, no affluent person has ever been given the death penalty. With dna evidence, we are learning that many persons were wrongly convicted of murder. Former Gov. Ryan of Illinois learned that half of those on death row were falsely convicted, and abolished the death penalty. New Jersey has done likewise. No jury is without sin.
Some think the death penalty is the just way to "pay back" the murderer. But such payback is revenge. When Jesus teaches on revenge in Matthew 5:38-42, he omits "life for life," names vengeful retaliation as an evil, and commands us instead to take four transforming initiatives that deliver us from the vicious cycle of retaliation. The Greek behind "do not resist evil," me antistenai, refers to retaliating for wrongs. Paul uses the same root in Romans 12:17-21: "Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God" (ESV). Jesus resisted Satan and Pharisees, but never with revenge.
The practice of capital punishment in the New Testament was unjust: beheading John the Baptist; crucifying Jesus; stoning Stephen and others; Herod killing James; the threatened death penalty for Paul; and the persecution of Christians in the Book of Revelation.
Some defend killing murderers by saying it deters murders. But states that abolish the death penalty tend to see murders decrease; states that adopt the death penalty tend to see murders increase. When states kill a person, it sets an example that human life is not sacred and should be taken. This perpetuates a cycle of killing, as others have argued. It is ineffective and inconsistent to support the death penalty as a way to protect life. It is more biblical to support life by opposing institutionalized killing of any kind.
Copyright © 2012 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Previous Village Green sections have discussed sports and violence, virtual fellowship, online dating, Muslim-Christian relations, military drones, terminal illness, marijuana morality, credit card debt, tithing during unemployment, illegal immigrants, giving to street people, the best Christmas stories, laws that ban Islamic veils, the Tea Party, Afghanistan, Bible smuggling, creation care, intelligent design, and preaching.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more