Is the Death Penalty Christian?

Do we, as Christians, ever have the right to take another life? Lets forget all the excuses for a moment. Yes, I understand there are situations where this discussion becomes difficult. Yes, I understand that even in scripture there are violent passages where God orders Israel to slaughter whole cities. Yes, I understand that there are truly evil people in this world that probably deserve to die. But let us consider this question for a moment: what is Christian about taking another life?

Unfortunately, Christian history is full of bloodshed. We don’t have to look further than the crusades to see the amount of violence inflicted in the name of Jesus Christ. I find it a shame that the Christian university that I attend has “Crusaders” as our mascot. If having a tough mascot was the goal then it was a success. If the intent was to have a Christian mascot then the power’s that be could not have been more misguided. There will never be anything Christian about people who rape, murder, and pillage. I hope that much is certain. Worse yet, many Nazis considered themselves Christians. Probably more people have been killed in the name of Jesus Christ in the last 2,000 years than anyone else. I hate to say it but if Jesus were still in the grave He would have rolled over in it by now.

Let’s thank God He’s not.

Obviously, Christian history does not have a problem with the taking of lives. But what does scripture tell us? First off, as previously mentioned, there are passages (like those in Joshua) where God does command His people to kill. I do not deny those passages as being scriptural nor do I want to make interpretive moves to say that the writers got it wrong and God didn’t say that. I want to admit that there is a tension in scripture when it comes to this issue which is why I would argue that pacifism is not scriptural. But let us look at the vast majority of scripture and what it tells us about the right we have to kill.

The ten commandments tell us: “Do not murder”. Now, there is debate about whether this is talking about homicide or killing in general. I don’t feel like getting into this debate as I don’t believe it will help further the discussion. So let us look further in scripture. Jesus references this Exodus passage in his sermon on the mount.  He tells us what the ten commandments say and then continues to say, “But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.” And so it would seem that Jesus is not interested in the difference between killing and murder. He is disturbed by the heart of the issue…an individual being angry at another to the extent that he or she desires to take a life. He goes on in the sermon on the mount to tell us to “turn the other cheek” and to “love your enemies”.  Something tells me that 2,000 years after Jesus made these statements, we still do not understand how radical they are.

Why do people — well intentioned, good and Christian people — approve of the death penalty? Many will make claims about judgment and justice. Yes, these are themes in the Christian narrative. But I would argue that a more primary theme is grace. Further, God is the judge — not us. Others will argue that those on death row deserve to die. Well, if we as Christians make the argument that those who deserve to die are given lethal injection then it might be faster to just gas the whole planet…”for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Still, others argue that those on death row are too dangerous to be kept alive. In my opinion, this is the strongest argument for the death penalty. Yet, how many people are honestly dangerous behind bars — especially in maximum security facilities? These are the extreme exceptions rather than the rule and don’t really help move the discussion along. I would agree that there are numerous people who deserve to be placed behind bars for the rest of their lives. My question is this: is there anything Christian about the death penalty?

Let us look at this question: What statement(s) does the death penalty make? First off, it makes the statement that we have the right and authority to kill an individual. Next, it makes the statement that we decide that the person does not deserve our grace or our forgiveness. It makes the statement that those who deserve to die should die. Further, and perhaps most disturbingly, it makes the statement that this man or woman does not have the ability to change — that God cannot still work in that individual’s heart.

Let us first look at the first statement of the death penalty. There is nothing in scripture, in my opinion, that gives us the right or authority to kill another individual. Yes, there are the previously mentioned passages in Joshua and other places but in no place does it go on to say, “go and do likewise”. Further, scripture as a whole does not support the killing of another individual under any circumstance. The next statement is that the individual does not receive our grace or forgiveness. Scripture makes the claims that if we do not forgive then we will not be forgiven. So the last statement that I want to make is that someone does not deserve my forgiveness. I have previously examined the statement about those deserving to die receiving death. I see no reason to further delve into that point. But let us look at the final statement the death penalty makes: that this individual does not have the ability to change. If we really believe in a God that can change people’s hearts then why would we want to kill any individual? Why would we want to cut short the life of any lost soul? Wouldn’t we want to give God every opportunity to reach into that woman or man’s heart to transform them. Lest us not forget that Jesus forgave an individual being executed next to Him.

Lest us not forget that our Lord and Savior received the death penalty — in the most brutal fashion possible. Lest us not forget that He was innocent. Why would we want to do the same thing to individuals that was done to our savior? (And don’t make the mistake in thinking that there has never been one executed in the US that was innocent of his crimes)

Now, I am not a pacifist nor do I play one on television. I believe that there are times when violence and even war are necessary evil’s (though I would never call them good). That said, I have come to the conclusion that there is absolutely nothing Christian about the death penalty. Yes, outside of Christianity there are good and compelling arguments for its use. But it is my contention that the death penalty and Christianity cannot coincide. So let us drop the excuses and admit that if we are going to be the people that Christ called us to be — a people who forgive and love enemies — then we cannot support the death penalty.

PS: I understand that there are good and well meaning Christians who disagree with me…I am not saying that if you disagree that you are not Christian (though I would contend the stance on this issue is un-Christian). But I also am open to discussion on this admittedly difficult subject so I would love to hear some opposing thoughts.

God bless!

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7 responses to “Is the Death Penalty Christian?

  • Dan Glaeser

    Your foundational premise is sound IF the implementation of Capital punishment is a purely individual execution (no pun intended).

    However, your foundation premise is on shaky ground if God grants that priviledge to the state and an executioner is acting on behalf of the nation, not as an individual. Old Testament scriptures and the duties of governing that were granted to the Nation of Israel, and God’s permission of the use of capital punishment in Israeli civil affairs in the Old Testament could be understood as an acceptance of Capital punishment being used by the state.

    On an individual basis, I would agree with you, but I think there is precedence for understanding that God grants responsibilities to the state that he does not grant to the individual, and that this would fall under that umbrella.

    IMHO.

    • Andrew

      Very good point! I guess, personally, I’m just not seeing Jesus say that the individual should turn the other cheek and love enemies but excuse the state from those principles. But I don’t know, something I’ll have to roll around in my brain a little bit.

  • Alan Stoker

    Perhaps a little a compilation of all the murders and rapes in the Ottoman Empire, and the Muslim religion, from it’s beginning, might change your belief that more deaths occurred in the name of Chrisianity than any other in the last 2000 years?
    You know, that as a member of the military, I would believe that it is my Christian duty to obey the laws of the government that God has placed over me, provided it does not go against my Christian beliefs.
    As such, I don’t believe God wants us as Christians to roll over and show our soft under belly to every bully that comes along. That includes both here at home and on a global basis. I agree that the peaceful means should be used first, but if there is a venomous snake in my yard, I’m not just going to fence it off my property. I’m going to take off it’s head so it won’t harm my neighbors either. I believe it is my Christian responsibility to protect everyone from harm, where I can.
    Unfortunately, there are times when it is difficult to know which side of a conflict is the purpitrator and which is the “Evil” aggressor. At those time, one needs to defer to wise, more knowledgable authority.
    The main thing to remember here is; If you intend to do harm to anyone while I’m around, don’t be suprised when I jump right in the middle of you (not meaning Andrew Sinift, but any puritrator).
    You may say, “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread”. But I have found, that most of the time with bullies, it just takes one person to say “NO! I’m not going to make this easy for you”, to make the bully say “It’s not worth the cost”.
    So, when your life is threatened, and I kill the person threatening you, don’t be too hard on my Christianity. I’ll be more than glad to stand before God and accept His judgement on me.

    • Alan Stoker

      Having submitted this, I see that I failed to go back to the main point on the death penalty. Some times I get carried away. But I do beleive, when a person has taken away the rights of life (through criminal action not self defence) and or caused them to live in fear, due to an sexual assault, they have forfitted their life. They should make amends with God and accept the consequences i.e. the death penalty. Society should not have to continue to pay for the room and board of such individuals.

      • Andrew

        I also would agree that this is a complex issue. I very well might have different feelings if it was someone that I love that was murdered and their victim was potentially facing lethal injection. That said, we’ll have to agree to disagree that some criminals, by the nature of their crime, have forfeited their life. I would agree that they deserve death, but so do all of us honestly.
        With all that said, I greatly understand and respect your viewpoint. This is not an easy issue which is why it so controversial.

    • Andrew

      I definitely agree that most religions have unfortunately done their fair share of killing. Whether or not Christianity or Islam or some other religion has killed the most, I don’t know. I just think its a shame that Christianity is even on the list.
      I also agree that there are times when violence is necessary. I’m not against war or using violence to protect those I love. I am most certainly not a pacifist. My issue here is specifically with the death penalty. However, I do understand how this can be related to pacifism and other larger issues.

  • Katrina

    Thanks for diving into this issue. I’ve always wondered where I should stand on the death penalty as a Christian, and I’ve never come to a conclusion. This gives some good information and arguments to think on.

    P.S. I love the line “I hate to say it but if Jesus were still in the grave He would have rolled over in it by now.” Ha ha! 🙂

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