Q: Does the Bible support capital punishment?

Certainly in the Old Testament, death was God’s prescribed punishment for a great number of sins! A person living within the spiritual community, or theocracy, of Israel could pay with their life, not just for murder, but also for adultery, Sabbath-breaking, or dishonoring their parents. There are many stories where violators like Achan (Joshua 7) were stoned to death for coveting and stealing things that weren’t theirs.

Many Christians wonder how the wars described in the Bible and the executions ordered by God square with his own Sixth Commandment, which clearly reads: Thou shalt not kill. But the reality is that murder and some forms of killing are not considered equal in the pages of Scripture. The Hebrew word used in Exodus 20 is lo tirtzach, closely identified with retzach – or “murder” – a premeditated and deliberate act. Alternately, the more clinical Hebrew expression for “kill” is harog, and apparently such things as appropriate executions and the need for a nation to defend itself military in a just war fall under this broader category.

The New Testament confirms, without addressing capital punishment, that the state or government has an appropriate role in punishing wrongdoers and protecting innocent society. Romans 13:3-5: Rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment, but also because of conscience.

In his book, Mere Christianity, apologist C. S. Lewis weighs in: “Does loving your neighbor mean not punishing him? No, for loving myself does not mean that I ought not to subject myself to punishment – even to death. If one had committed a murder, the right Christian thing to do would be to give yourself up to the police and be hanged. It is, therefore, in my opinion, perfectly right for a Christian judge to sentence a man to death or for a Christian soldier to kill an enemy. . . . It is no good quoting ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ There are two Greek words: the ordinary word to kill and the word to murder. And when Christ quotes that commandment, he uses the murder one in all three accounts, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. And I am told there is the same distinction in Hebrew. All killing is not murder any more than all sexual intercourse is adultery. When soldiers came to St. John the Baptist asking what to do, he never remotely suggested that they ought to leave the army: nor did Christ when he met a Roman [centurion].”

Balancing this view is the growing conviction of some believers today that God’s revelation to a fallen human race is always progressive and growing ever closer to the Eden ideal. Israel lived in a primitive, brutal, violent world where revenge was swift and blood feuds were rampant; the laws governing their own God-led society robustly reflected the mores of that era. But they question whether the redemptive grace which flows from Calvary means that there are better ways to deal with the broken souls who commit today’s heinous crimes? Is capital punishment still the best way to protect society, or can we seek a model of rehabilitation and restoration while still vigorously punishing sin and protecting ourselves from evil?

It’s tragically true that executions often bring out the worst impulses in God’s people, as we picket outside the prison and display an attitude of vengeful glee. Every lethal injection is a horror, the sad culmination of a dreadful departure from God’s original blueprint for a world of safe harmony. Christians should be foremost in forgiving and loving those who do us wrong, and wishing as Jesus did, “for all to come to repentance.”