How I Can Be Pro-Life — and Support the Death Penalty

How I Can Be Pro-Life — and Support the Death Penalty November 19, 2012

I am pro-life — and yet I support the death penalty for those who intentionally murder another person.

Some find my position incongruous and untenable. Quite a few commented as much on my recent post “5 Things I Don’t Understand about Christians Who Voted for Obama.” The charge goes something like this: how can you claim to be so concerned about the life of the unborn if you support death in any way? Many thought I was, at the least, inconsistent.

I disagree. In fact, I think the opposite is true. It is precisely because I value human life so highly that I must support death as the divinely appointed penalty for those who take God’s authority upon themselves to murder another. And it may be precisely because others do not value human life that they would both support abortion and oppose the death penalty for murder.

Allow me to explain.

A Few Assumptions

  1. God gives life. This belief under-girds everything else I believe about life, death, abortion, the death penalty, and — yes — a just war (another post for another day). It is the core belief that most who are pro-life embrace. It is also one reason why many who support abortion fail to understand the passion on the pro-life side. For many of us, we see this issue as one on which God as the divine Creator has acted and spoken clearly. Thus, there can be no room for compromise.
  2. God takes life. Because He gave it, He can take it. And only He can rightly take it. In fact, He has granted authority to take life only to those He has ordained in civil government.  Yes, believing this also has implications for euthanasia and similar issues. I, and most who are pro-life, believe that whether or not I may take a life, including my own, is not my call. Those who make it their call, make themselves as gods, taking authority to themselves that is unique to God alone.
  3. God instituted the death penalty. The first new command given after the destruction of all the known world comes from Genesis 9:6. “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image. ” Interestingly, when Cain murdered Abel, God let him live to send a message of shame. After the Flood, God gets more prescriptive as to how murder is to be handled. Romans 13 states that the government (those granted civil authority by God) does not bear the sword in vain.
  4. God makes a key distinction. God created each person in His image. Beginning with Genesis 9 and reinforced throughout Scripture, God makes it clear that whoever intentionally takes the life of one of His image-bearers crosses a line past which no one may rightly demand a return in this life. In other words, the intentional killer forfeits his or her own right to life by taking the life of another. Those who have not done so, such as an unborn child, while guilty of the sinful fate that has corrupted all of us, have not willfully taken the life of another divine image-bearer. They are not murderers. They are innocent, not guilty, of the one crime deserving of death at the hands of divinely-ordained human authority.

I repeat. Underlying all of these basic tenets of a pro-life position is the foundational belief that human life has such high value because God, the giver of life, made us in His image. We are not God, but we resemble Him in a way that nothing else does, including the angels.

The Impact on Society

On a practical level, a society that rightly caries out the death penalty (with due process to ensure a just ruling of guilt or innocence) does three things:

  1. Makes a statement about the high value it places on innocent human life. The ultimate price for murder should not be spending the rest of your days confined to a narrow box with bars on the windows and cable on the television. Only a humanistic society would see the loss of the freedom to choose as worse than the death penalty for the most heinous of crimes. (More on the unbiblical nature of our penal system another day.)
  2. Makes a strong statement intended to serve as a deterrent to murder. God has given civil government the sword (an instrument created to produce death) so that evil-doers should be very afraid of them using it. “But if you do wrong, be afraid, for [government] does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” (Romans 13:4)  Academic research abounds on all sides of this question on whether or not the death penalty is an effective deterrent to capital crimes. I’ll direct you to this 2012 study by the National Research Council of the National Academies that concluded research on both sides is flawed and should not be used to decide the matter. My appeal is to the Bible and common sense — recognizing that not all murderers are using common sense when they plan to commit their horrific crimes.
  3. Positions itself for God’s blessing. Although secular critics will discount this point, people of faith will not. Consequently, it factors into explaining why many hold the pro-life positions they do. The worldview based on the Bible as God’s inspired revelation of truth to humans portrays a universe in which nations and individuals are blessed for obeying. Not so much for disobeying. Kind of the opposite actually.

Two Final Distinctions

Two final distinctions should be made regarding why I am pro-life and support the death penalty. First, I support the death penalty only for willful murder. When God himself applied His injunction against murder in the case laws of the Israelites, He gave different penalties for accidental deaths versus intentional and willful murders. Second, and I cannot state this too clearly, God takes no delight in the death of the wicked — or anyone for that matter. Neither should we. Even when Osama bin Laden was killed by Seal Team 6, I refused to celebrate jubilantly as some did. All death is a sad occasion for all the reasons given above.

Death is not how it was supposed to be. Nor, thank God, is it how it always will be.

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  • Craig

    But: either unborn children deserve worse than pre-natal dismemberment, or abortion is in their own interests.

  • DougS

    I have often struggled with the death penalty. Is it justice or vengeance. Or is it murder? Not much time to think more deeply about it now, but I tend to fall on the side of letting God sort it out.

    • If I may… if God commanded it, then I don’t think it cnn be vengeance. That doesn’t mean someone migth not want it executed for the wrong reasons. When life is involved, I find it hard to let God sort it out when He has already been pretty clear on it. Try saying the same thing about abortion and it quickly becomes evident that there isn’t much room to be wrong.

      • DougS

        I would absolutely not say the same thing with regards to abortion (letting God sort it out). My point is when it come to life I would rather error on the side of not killing and leave life in prison as being justice enough.

        • OK. Fair enough. What if the penalty for murder was to have the family of the victim pay to house and feed the murderer for the remainder of his or her life?

  • Barnabas

    Thanks be to God that we do not live in a nation with a justice system that rewards evil and punishes good.
    Or do we?

  • Steve Ruble

    I don’t understand point 2 of your “few assumptions”. You seem to say that only God has the right to take life, but governments also have the right to take life, but anyone who claims to have the right to take life is stepping outside of their authority because only God can have that authority. It sounds like the safest thing to do if one believed all those things would be to refrain from taking life or supporting governments which take life, but you appear to be drawing a different conclusion. Could you clarify?

    • Vueiy

      I’m not Bill, but I might be able to help.

      God has ultimate authority over everyone and everything. Therefore, he can assign certain levels of authority to various entities. One way in which he did that was to give the government the authority to punish those who broke the law. In the case of murder (that is, intentional unjust killing), they have been granted authority to execute a murderer. A police officer involved in a shootout against a criminal has authority to shoot to kill. A soldier in a JUST war has a right to kill his enemy. A random person simply declaring that he has the right to kill does not qualify. In fact, that would make him a murderer deserving of the death penalty.

      I hope that helps.

  • Stacy A.

    I can see what you are saying here, and can understand how you believe holding these two positions is not inconsistent. In many ways I could probably agree with it.
    BUT, there is a HUGE difference between the death penalty that God ” implimented” and what the U.S. does with their death penalty.
    Couple of thoughts:
    1. It’s pretty hard to argue that God mandates the death penalty. I could make a big, long case for why I believe this, but I’ll simply say that he let the very first murderer after this “command” not be executed. Moses would have qualified for the US death penalty, but God sent him into exile and then redeemed him to lead his people. Beyond that, Gen 9:6 was more likely a statement of how things were, ie the rule of blood. If you killed my loved one, I would kill 3 of your sons, and so goes the cycle of violence. (so and eye for an eye was to limit the violence not endorse/advocate for it)

    2. God basically said, if you have to use the death penalty, here are the parameters. He put a whole host of regulations on it (have to have 2 unrealted eye witnesses, who told them what they were doing was a capital offense and 44 other stipulations that had to be met before someone could be executed. Jewish scholars say that if a sanhedrin voted to give the death penalty more than once in a 7o year period they were being reckless.

    3. When you consider verses like Exodus 23:6-7 about never executing an innocent person, American Christians should take serious pause at the at least 4 innocent people who have been executed and the 140 factually innocent people who have been exonerated from our death row since 1976).

    4. God also requires that we do justice toward the poor, minority, alien, oppressed, etc. The vast majority of those on death row are poor people of color who could not afford good counsel, so it is being unfairly applied to the nth degree.

    5. While I can agree that governments may have the right to use the death penalty if they so choose, I don’t believe that it’s God’s first choice, especially because it would appear that God generally chose some other form of punishment (usually exile). I totally agree that God takes murder VERY seriously and it’s not excuseable, but He himself usually chose exile. Our modern day prisons are a form of exile and they effectively remove dangerous people from society, while telling people we take murder seriously. Life in prison is no cake walk. If we visit those in prison as Jesus taught us to, we learn that very quickly.

    6. If we really believe that those who die without Christ go to hell, why would Christians ADVOCATE for speeding that up? Should we not delay as long as possible praying for their redemption.

    7. Finally, most studies show that the death penalty is of little detterence. In fact that states that have no death penalty have lower murder rates than those who have it. Texas executes more people than any other state (roughly one a week) and they have one of the highest murder rates.

    May I recommend Dale Recinella’s book “The Biblical Truth About America’s Death Penalty” for more info on how the biblican death penalty and the american death penalty are two very different things.

  • Sus

    141 people on death row have been found innocent after their trial. How many people have died on death row but are innocent?

    Pro-life and the death penalty? I don’t think so.

  • Jay Saldana

    Bill, I will buy all that you say when you FULLY support Scripture and put in the requirements for witnessing along side the death penalty. If not it is a political statement and scripture is a prop. I always find it immensely interesting that some conservatives use the O.T. to justify the D.P. without, seemly, to take all the other commands as well. When you read the law as God gave it you must take it all or the law fails. It is why the Roman Church is against the D.P.. I don’t often agree with the R.C. but that does seem to be an Conservative Evangelical trend these days , so you wont have to feel bad.
    Have a great Turkey Day, Bill. I hope your kids leave you something ..grin.
    Have a God filled day to you and all you Love,


  • Jennifer

    You left out those of use who are pro-life (when it comes to abortion) and against the death penalty.

    I wasn’t brought up reading the Bible or going to church. I had a strong belief in God when I was a child because the World didn’t make sense to me otherwise. Much of my belief at that time was probably due to the influence of Aslan rather than any exposure to the words of God 🙂 So having come late to reading and trying to understand the Bible, I find it difficult (keep trying, Bill!) to think of it as the direct and unaltered word of God. I’ve seen too many variations both in the christian religion and in other religions. And that is why I am opposed to the death penalty. I believe strongly that God created us in his image and that willful murder is a serious sin – perhaps even deserving of death. But because I am not absolutely 100% certain that God’s word is actually and literally recorded in the Bible, I am unwilling to take the chance of executing someone made in God’s image. Even if they deserve it. Not when other alternatives to protecting society exist. Too many errors can be made (innocent people executed), too many governments are corrupt, and statistics show that justice is not evenly applied across racial, wealth and gender divides. Unjust justice is not just.
    I don’t believe that the death penalty protects life. In countries where the death penalty has been abolished there has been an increase in the percentage of convictions for murder. According to Amnesty International, the conviction rates for first-degree murder cases doubled, from 10 percent to 20 percent, within ten years of abolition (in Canada), the implication being that the high stakes of capital punishment actually got in the way of justice. This is common sense: A juror is more likely to convict someone if he is not sentencing someone to die. More murderers in jail protect more life.

    2011 – The following 18 countries carried out, or are believed by Amnesty International to have carried out, executions in 2011: Afghanistan (2), Bangladesh (5+), Belarus (2), China (2000+), Egypt (1+), Iran (360+), Iraq (68+), Malaysia (1+), North Korea (30+), Saudi Arabia (82+), Somalia (6), South Sudan (5), Sudan (7+), Syria (1+), UAE (1), USA (43), Vietnam (1+), Yemen (41+).[4]

    • “But because I am not absolutely 100% certain that God’s word is actually and literally recorded in the Bible, I am unwilling to take the chance of executing someone made in God’s image.” At least we are clear on why we disagree — clarity is progress. I would argue that most disagreements stem from differing presuppositions. Because we start in different places, we finish in different places. If I may ask, on what basis do you think people are made in God’s image?

      • Jennifer

        I believe that God made everything. I also believe in evolution and that our bodies contain the atoms of stars. This is no way (to me) disproves the truth of the Bible. I simply think that the Bible contains a mixture of historical and allegorical/spiritual truth. One of the many questions I am still wrestling with is whether God did indeed make himself known to man or whether the Bible and other religious texts were written by man in an attempt to direct mankinds actions along a moral pathway. Either answer proves God IMHO. And given the existence of God as creator, I believe we are made in his image not only because we contain the physical stuff of the Universe but because we also create, destroy, are rational beings, and have a deep sense of morality.
        I’m muddling along, Bill. I often feel like I’ve been thrown into a foreign land without knowing the language or customs.
        Do you have any book recommendations?

        • Let me give the book question some thought today. First response on the Bible thing. The problem is that the Bible claims to be without error and alone inits place of sepcial revelation from God to man. So, as countless critics who became converts noted, it’s an all-or-nothing proposition. Either it is or it isn’t what it claims to be.

          My question though had to do with why you think we are made in God’s image and what God exactly that is? Is it the God of Islam, who is radically different from the God of the Bible? You seem to be assuming(presuming?) that God is a rational being that creates, destroys, and has a deep sense of morality. But why? The God of the Bible is very specific. As CS Lewis famously concluded, either Jesus is who he claimed to be “the way, the truth, and the life” or he is a fraud deserving of the crucifixion he suffered.

          Many thanks for the patient conversation….

          • Jennifer

            “The problem is that the Bible claims to be without error and alone inits place of sepcial revelation from God to man”.
            Two thoughts:
            1) How are you defining error? A few things I’m wondering about here. First: Do we have ALL of the original documents that comprise the Bible? If not, can we be confident that the original words of God to man have been translated without bias. Is it possible that meanings of words have been misinterpreted (language is hardly precise)? Are there any missing documents (I’m thinking of the recent discoveries – Dead Sea Scrolls, etc.) and what bearing do they play. It seems to me that even if the original documents that comprise the Bible were indeed without error, it is possible that error exists in our current versions – particularly if we don’t have all of the documents (ie. the blind men and the elephant story). We may not be aware of the whole truth.
            2) Is story always error? There is an historical basis for the conveying of truth through teaching stories.

            As to why God created us in his image. Hmmm… We’ve certainly caused a lot of grief. Seriously, though, I’m not at all sure. I think it must have something to do with love. If God is love (and I’m not talking the sappy kind) then I think he created us because reciprocal love is the greatest of all.

            Thanks for bearing with me as I think all of this through.

  • Where your reasons go awry is in failing to follow God’s reasons and provision after your true point that God instituted the death penalty. [Yet, this was not God’s response to the first murderer.] In Numbers 35, God goes on to tell us his reason for the death penalty, ” Bloodshed pollutes the land, and atonement cannot be made for the land on which blood has been shed, except by the blood of the one who shed it. ”
    Two thousand years ago, God went on to provide the full, and final atonement for sin, in the death of our Lord Jesus Christ. He requires now requires no other atonement.

    • Michael, thanks for the comment. I am not arguing for atonement for sins (Christ did that once and for all who believe) but for civil consequences for the most egregious of crimes. If Christ’s atonement cancelled out all such consequences then civil governmetns should enforce no penalties for anything — it’s all covered.

  • Dudley Sharp

    The death penalty as pro life

    First, the “pro life” term was, originally, identified with the anti abortion movement, which still seems the most appropriate context.

    Secondly, in the context of the facts, yes, of course you can be pro life and pro death penalty. There is no contradiction.

    Based upon biblical and theological teachings, one can, reasonably and responsibly, find that an anti death penalty view is not pro life.

    All sanctions are given because we value what is being taken away.

    Whether it be fines, freedom or lives, in every case we take things away, as legal sanction, it is because we value that which is taken away.

    How can it be a sanction, if we do not value that which is taken away? It can’t.

    In addition, more innocent lives are saved when we use the death penalty, thereby a pro life benefit.

    There is the well known Genesis passage, reviewed below, wherein the death penalty is based upon life being sacred. Genesis is for all peoples and all times.

    In addition, there is Numbers 35:31 which states that there can be no reduction in sentence for murder, that the murderer must be executed. All other crimes are subject to reduced sentences.

    The good thief on the cross stated the two thieves were being justly executed for their crimes. Jesus did not reply “you should not be executed”. His reply was that the good thief would attain eternal salvation. The concern seems not the manner of our earthly deaths, but our state of redemption and salvation at the time of our deaths – the concern for eternal life.

    The moral and religious arguments, in support of the death penalty, all have a foundation in respecting innocent life, therefore, when it is wrongly taken away, the highest form of sanction is provided.


  • Rick

    I used to be pro death penalty, but not anymore. Trying to justify it by appealing to the Old Testament is always a shaky thing, because there are plenty of OT strictures that no one wants to bring back (I don’t really care to toss my wife out of the house for one week per month), and there is the question of what constitutes Christ’s new covenant, thus superceding the old covenant. That being said, the death penalty is in no danger of being abolished in most states that practice it; I can’t see states like Texas or Alabama or Georgia suddenly deciding they’re tired of being extremely politically conservative.

    • Rick, you are correct that the relatively ne phenomenon of dispensational theology (splitting the Bible into two disconnected portions rather than the one continuous and expanding revelation of God to man) has been a destructive force with very real implications in all of life. However, I think it important to realize that the instruction in Genesis 9 was given to all of humankind. The case laws you are referencing regarding wives and such was a very specific application in avery specific culture and time.

      I would suggest that today it’s far more likely the husband gets tossed on the couch in the garage, but, perhaps, that’s another conversation for another day. Happy Thanksgiving!

  • Vince

    If death is the “divinely appointed penalty” mentioned above, wouldn’t any supreme being just kill the person instead of having his subjects dicker over whether or not to? To not do so seems inefficient (at best) or sadistic (at worst).

    • Vince, I appreciate your comment. Are you suggesting you would prefer a God who just blasted people from the sky without any process that could be understood by those around that person? And if the purpose of Creation is, as Scripture says, to reveal God in all of His attributes, that shortcut version wouldn’t show much. I would argue that it reveals more about who He is by His willingness to work in and through His Creation than to override them when we step out of line.

  • ShivaTheDestroyer

    Even if you believe that the bible was devinely inspired, it was written by people who never actually met jesus. Any kindegardner that plays telephone knows that meanings are twisted within minutes, much less multiple centuries (the ammount of time that it took to commit the cult of christianities teachings to a codex). Add to that the several languages that it has been translated from aramaic, to greek, to latin, to english. It was reviewed, editied, and reworked by countless clergy and monarchs. The fact is what you think of as an infallible holly document would probably be unrecognizeable to early christians. In other words, its not a good source for anything close to a fact.