Jesus, at Least, Opposed the Death Penalty

In an act that echoed the backroom negotiations of Temple court lawyers 2,000 years ago, Senator Thom Goolsby (R-New Hannover) pushed a bill through Senate committee on Tuesday of Holy Week that would resume executions in North Carolina.

Ironically, his supporters argued that the cross justifies their desire for retributive justice.

Noting that no one has been executed in our state since 2006, Goolsby argued that the 156 people who have been sentenced to death are a living offense to their victim’s families and to our criminal justice system. In their objections, death penalty opponents point to recent Public Policy Polling data that suggests 68% of North Carolinians favor repealing the death penalty if those who have been convicted of capital crimes receive a life sentence instead. Other polls, however, point to a much closer divide on the issue. Economists, criminologists, public policy analysts, and victims rights advocates all have their points to make in this debate.

Last Thursday, Dr. Mark Creech of the Christian Action League decided to weigh in on the moral argument for the death penalty. Speaking on behalf of Christians throughout our state, Dr. Creech argued unequivocally for executions to resume, insisting that Jesus “affirmed retributive justice by His own death on the cross.”

While I respect the right of any citizen to state their case in this debate, I cannot, as a follower of Jesus, let Dr. Creech pretend to speak for Jesus when Jesus has spoken so plainly for himself on this issue.

When the question was put to Jesus directly, it was about a woman caught in adultery. (This was, in Jesus’ day, a capital offense.) “Let whoever is without sin cast the first stone,” Jesus said to the woman’s accusers. No one had the moral authority to condemn a fellow human to death, Jesus said.

Jesus, Christians have confessed since the earliest centuries, was “like us in every way excepting sin.” By his own standard, then, Jesus would have been the only human ever qualified to execute another. But he did not. “Go,” Jesus said to the one who had been condemned, “and sin no more.”

Jesus’ clarity on this issue does not mean there is no moral argument for the death penalty. Jesus himself cited the Old Testament law which had been given to teach the sanctity of human life: “You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.” What is more, Jesus intensified this teaching, saying that anyone who calls his neighbor a fool is subject to the same judgment. But Jesus knew that humans are inevitably flawed in our execution of judgment. “Judge not lest you be judged,” he taught his followers. Instead, he said, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”

This way of love that Jesus taught and practiced has been the ethic of the church for two millennia. To be sure, it has been compromised by those who have argued that some violence is necessary for the defense of the weak or to prevent greater violence. But the ethic of Jesus has always been a restraining force in Christian reflection on the use of violence. No serious teacher of the church has ever argued that Jesus lived, died, and rose again in order to affirm the lethal use of force.

To say that Jesus “affirmed retributive justice by His own death on the cross” is not to argue one of several positions within the Christian tradition. It is, rather, to state an anti-Christian position. Mr. Goolsby and Dr. Creech are, of course, entitled to make whatever arguments they would like in favor of the death penalty. But I respectfully ask that they leave Jesus out of it. As Frederick Douglass said of the slaveholder’s religion in the South long ago, “Between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference.” Dr. Creech may speak for the Christian Action League of North Carolina. But about this much we should be clear: he does not speak for Jesus.

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  • Matthew

    Thanks so much Jonathan as always. My background has me struggling with this issue of the death penalty and Christianity. For many years I thought my pro death penalty stance was in fact in proper line with biblical and theological reflection. I thank you and others who have offered the other side of the argument. It is much to consider.

  • Thom Goolsby

    I am glad to know that you speak for Jesus. Thank you for judging me when all I wish to do is to carrying out the will of our state’s legitimate government as ordained by our Creator. A jury meted out justice in this case. Are we to ignore the law? Should we have no criminal justice system? Does anyone care about the victims’ families who continue to suffer?

    • Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

      Mr. Goolsby,

      I respect you for engaging publicly on this issue, especially in a forum you do not control. That certainly takes courage.

      It is, indeed, a terrifying prospect to speak for Jesus. But that is what the church calls preachers to do. It is why I’ve tried to study carefully the 2,000 years of moral reflection in the Christian community. And it is why I try not to say more than Jesus said. But I cannot ignore the clear teaching of our Lord: “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”

      At St. Johns Baptist Church in Durham, NC, nearly 200 people gathered last night to hear the testimony of mothers whose children have been murdered in North Carolina. [] Of course, every victim has the right to speak for themselves. But I heard these mothers say, “Taking another mother’s son won’t bring mine back. It will just be one more loss.”

      As I said in the article above, you have your reasons for wanting to re-start the death penalty in North Carolina. Maybe you believe it will make us safer. Maybe you think it will energize your political base. Whatever your reasons, you have a right to state them. Please just don’t appeal to Jesus. In this holiest of weeks, please don’t pretend that the One who went to the cross for all of our sins needs another sacrifice to complete his good work.

      • Matthew

        If we do solely appeal to Jesus where this topic is concerned and interpret old covenant laws (i.e. “eye for an eye”) along with Romans 13 in light of Jesus´ revelation — how can we support the death penalty as Christians? Shouldn´t our understanding of the biblical revelation be nurtured by our understanding of Jesus´person — his love, compassion, mercy, and grace?

    • jerry lynch

      @goolsby, sorry, but your arguments are so far the right side of rational or biblical it is impossible to respond. You mix oil and water, the worldly and the spiritual, as if trying to concoct a salad dressing of compromise for this issue. What do the victim’s families continue to suffer from? The loss? of course. But also a lack of forgiveness. If they need the death of the perpetrator to move on or find some closure, this does not follow Christ. The whole of the NT is restorative, not retributive, justice. Your view is at enmity with God.

    • Bradley Yoder

      Jesus “affirmed retributive justice by his own death on the cross…” Wow. In some ways, it doesn’t seem worth arguing against such a conclusion… On the other hand, in the spirit of not giving up hope… Two rather objective points, to me, completely dismiss any notion of Jesus’ crucifixion justifying the death penalty. One, Jesus was not at fault, so was executed unjustly (a “jury” also meted out his case), and two, there happens to be a resurrection involved (which, decidedly, changes things). To justify capital punishment with these events would be to neglect entirely the purpose of the cross for us during this life, here, and seems to argue that these state executions are actually somehow little reminders that Jesus suffered this, too, and that we should be glad for them (??), that somehow evil is buried with executed criminals. Indeed, if you carry out capital punishment for one who is guilty, have you not dismissed the power of the cross as hope for that person’s life here? The point trying to be accomplished is to make a Christian argument for the death penalty, right? Please pay attention to those who have said that witnessing the execution of their loved one’s murderer is decidedly not the end of their suffering, but, maybe, rather, the end of any possibility of healing between victim and perpetrator (isn’t that the sort of possibility the cross is intended to communicate, and, indeed, endow?). I don’t see how Jonathan’s position ignores the law or argues for such an extreme as having no criminal justice system (as you have implied/asked). That’s quite a spin. It’s rather against the extreme-est extent of it. And I would argue, while it certainly may be a tougher road in many ways, that Jonathan is quite clearly trying to keep alive caring for both victim and perpetrator. I’m not an expert on restorative justice, but I would guess that any sort of lasting reconciliation, forgiveness, and/or healing would quite require the same, which, of course, necessarily involves having both physically present.

      • Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

        Thanks for your thoughtful response here Bradley. It is indeed tempting to think that these arguments are not worth a response. But as in 2003 when Bush was determined to seek revenge in Iraq, it seems clear to me that Goolsby et al have the political power to re-start executions in NC this year. I pray, for their souls’ sake as well as for ours, that they will decide not to. But if they persist, as Mr. Bush did in 2003, I at least want our state to know that the church of Jesus Christ is not standing behind them.

        The cross is also a continual reminder that we will not stop every injustice, but that the God who raised Israel out of Egypt before raising Jesus from the dead can overturn even the injustices that we think final.

    • Scott Bass

      Sen. Goolsby,
      I am glad to hear you raise concern for victims’ families. Too often discussions of this kind ignore the concerns and needs of surviving family members of murder victims. Our system is set up to advocate for the interests of the state and the interests of the accused. Victims/survivors frequently report feeling left out of the judicial process. The truth is – they often are. In discussions about improving the criminal justice system, they often report feeling ignored – or worse, used.

      I must say, however, that I am disturbed to hear that you think the content of SB 306 and the language you have used to champion it are helpful to victims. With regard to the latter, do you really think the language you have used about their murdered loved ones “rotting in their graves” is sensitive to their needs and circumstances? I can appreciate your passion, but those words are another matter.

      With regard to the content of SB 306, I would propose that the promise of an execution is far from the best we can do for victims’ families. One reason I came to oppose the death penalty was my observation of how the entire death penalty process works at cross purposes with healing and complicates grief that is already far too complicated.

      I hope you will back up your words of concern for victims with increasing funding and services and supports that provide what the thousands and thousands of homicide survivors and other crime victims around our state need. You are aware, I trust, that the state budgets you have supported recently have cut funding for victims’ advocates and other services that would aid victims. Expanded access to compensation to help with burial costs for their murdered loved ones; grief counseling; advocates who support them and keep them informed and advocate for them rather than for the prosecution or defense; increased funding so that law enforcement and prosecutors can do their jobs of solving unsolved crimes and prosecuting crimes – these are among the things that victims say time and again would help them.

      If your words about victims are truly out of concern for victims/survivors, then I can provide you with abundant information and personal stories from families to guide you in helping our state fulfill our obligations to them. I would deeply welcome that conversation!

  • Dorina Lisson (ACADP)

    Every major religion in the world preaches compassion, forgiveness and mercy over vengeance. Every Holy book clearly states that if a victim forgives the offender the victim shall receive blessings from The Almighty. Therefore, the death penalty in inconsistent with these religious teachings. The death penalty is a discriminative ‘Government Program’ and supporters of the death penalty unfairly use ‘religion’ to justify state-sanctioned killing.

  • dlw

    I try to keep separate “Christianity proper” and “Constantinized Christianity”, but we tend to mix the two since we’ve inherited so much stuff from the latter. In the alternative route where Christianity never became the official religion of an empire, we wouldn’t have had veto-power over the rules of empire either. And, I’d hold we’d not per se know which changes were the right ones to make in any given context. Instead, we’d have an ethos to encourage experimentation with more humane laws that better serve to mitigate overall violence with the threat of violence.

    So I think it’s specious to interpret Jesus’ words in John 8 as condemning all uses of the death penalty in any time and place. I’d say a better precedent would be when Jesus insists on rules of evidence being followed after he was beaten during the kangaroo trial at the end of the gospel of John or when Paul appeals to Caesar in Acts, explaining the rules of evidence and the rights of citizenship to subvert the local authorities’ right to use the death penalty…

    The hope is to remove the lethal use of force, but we work this out with fear and trembling, rather than proclaiming that the death penalty should not be used in the here and now… The assassins who wanted to murder Paul in Acts might have succeeded if they had not faced a de facto death penalty for attacking Paul from the Roman legion who protected him. And then a majority of the New Testament would not have been written!

    So viva la ambiguity, an the need to push for greater mindfulness of the limited effectiveness of all laws that inevitably wield the states’ monopoly in the legit uses of violence.


    • Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

      Indeed, the history of Christian moral reflection is that the violence that we call “just” in this world is, when necessary, a lamentable concession. The just war tradition, then, says that love of neighbor sometimes compels Christians to do evil (kill) in order to prevent greater evil (the death of many). This is why a follower of Jesus who would not fight to defend his own life might nevertheless fight in a just war.

      So, yes, there is ambiguity in the tradition. I’m not saying that pacifism is the only way Christians have ever interpreted the way of Jesus. But to argue that Jesus died to justify violence is not a Christian argument. (Which is not to say that Mr. Goolsby (or anyone else who believes this) is not a Christian. It is simply to say that they are wrong, and that we need to pray for them.)

  • Ben McCall


    Thank you for a thoughful and soft spoken piece about this vital topic. It is interesting to contrast your tone to that of Mr. Goolsby’s reply, which is by comparison, defensive, argumentative and based on “his” version of the will of the people. Our Nation is finally starting to listen to our quiet voices, as they come to realize that the loud voices have been lying to them for so long. The more frequently we quietly point out the error of their ways and the falseness of their arguments, the better chance we have of living in the world as it is meant to be.

  • Jaden Kilmer

    thank you Jonathan, I see in your post and reply the peace of Christ. I pray that Jesus may continue to give you grace and courage as you dialogue on this.

  • Jasper

    “Jesus, at Least, Opposed the Death Penalty”

    Except when it comes to unborn children, then the death penalty is ok. And besides, we only murder 3700 unborn per day. Vote Obama, he’s cool.

    • jerry lynch

      jasper, u r saying Jesus approves of abortion? Obama has nothing to do with the Roe vs. Wade decision. Legal or illegal, a worldwide study shows no difference in the amount of abortions. What is different is the amount of mothers who die or are severely injured due to illegal abortions. What I said will hopefully bring home thatgovernment law and politics makes no difference to the advancement of the kingdom. Getting involved in politics is to reach the Lost is an abomination.

  • Y

    Jesus did not speak out against the crucifixion of the two being crucified with him. Maybe “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s…?

    Perhaps we should allow those who were sinned against to decide the fate of their perpetrators instead of imposing some societal sense of restitution to prevail.

    • jerry lynch

      Forgiveness is a liberator, always. Basic human nature.

  • the Old Adam

    It wasn’t Jesus’ job to pronounce or carry out the punishment. But Jesus exposed the would-be executioners. They were the ones who spared her her life, by recognizing their own guilt.

    Jesus never opposed the death penalty. He opposed hypocrisy.

    • jerry lynch

      Of course Jesus oppossed the death penalty. To think otherwise ignores the NT.

      • Matt Purdum

        I’d like to see any NT scripture forbidding a community to use the death penalty for murderers. The only death penalty opposed in the NT is for adultery. And hey, I’ve ACTUALLY READ it.

  • Darrin Snyder Belousek

    Thank you, Jonathan, for this piece. You’re spot on: the teaching and cross of Jesus turn retributive justice on its head.

    However, the popular evangelical Protestant way of explaining Jesus’ death “for us”–penal substitution–agrees precisely with Dr. Creech, that the cross is the ultimate fulfillment of retributive justice. According to penal substitution, God repays the penalty for our sins by putting Jesus to death in our place on the cross. The penal substitution theory is based squarely on retributive justice.

    Thus, if we are to see the teaching of Jesus as a repudiation of the death penalty and the cross of Jesus as the subversion of retributive justice, then we must question the dominant theory of atonement as well. For a thorough-going, Bible-based argument to this effect and an alternative account of Jesus death “for us,” see my book, ATONEMENT, JUSTICE, AND PEACE: THE MESSAGE OF THE CROSS AND THE MISSION OF THE CHURCH (Eerdmans 2012).

    A blessed Holy Week and joyous Easter to you and the Rutba House community.

    Darrin Snyder Belousek

    • Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

      Darrin: I’m grateful for careful thinkers like yourself who are trying to help us all consider what is (or may be) implied in the ways we talk about atonement. Thanks for your work.

      I was raised on substitutionary atonement, though. And the preachers who taught it were always clear that Jesus paid it all. So, while there are good reasons to be concerned about a strictly penal substitionary model of atonement, I still don’t see how it could be used to argue that the cross is a justification of further sacrifice. To do so would suggest that Jesus’ sacrifice was not sufficient.

      • Darrin Snyder Belousek


        Yes, what you’ve said is effectively the argument that Karl Barth used against the death penalty (echoed by John Howard Yoder)–that the death penalty serves an expiatory function and thus that Jesus’ death, as a sacrifice that has made expiation for all sin for all time, has brought an end to all sacrificial expiation, including the death penalty.

        That said, as you will see in Chap. 25 of my book, the death penalty in the OT also served a retributive function–”life for life,” the ultimate application of the lex talionis. That provides an independent biblical rationale for the death penalty that the “all sufficiency” of Jesus’ sacrifice to expiate sin does not address. Even if sin be expiated, the retributive logic says, the law of justice must still be paid its due. So, to see the cross of Christ as the overthrow of capital punishment we must also learn to see the cross as the nullification of the lex talionis, not just the end of sacrifice. I make an argument to that effect, relying on Paul’s message of the cross in Col. 2:13-15, in that chapter of my book. See what you think.

        In the end, I agree with you: the attempt to use the cross to justify capital punishment lands us in incoherence–we have to argue against the cross to make the case that the sinner must be put to death.

        Happy Easter!

        • Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

          Thanks for that, Darrin. Seems to me you’re right. Easter blessings to you, too.

  • jerry lynch

    Disregarding the known fact that this encounter in Luke is a later inclusion, it fits snugly with what the NT puts forth: restroative justice is The Standard.