The Death Penalty

The Death Penalty March 2, 2012

Most humans conceive of the death penalty in legal terms. That is, whether one if “for” or “against” it, the argument is legal: it is just or it is unjust. Those Christians who are “for” it often contend that “life for a life” is just, while those who are against it, Christian or not, often argue that at least one reason against it is that we are not smart enough and infallible enough to take the life of another — better err on the side of mercy and caution that put to death an innocent person.

Is the death penalty Christian? Would Jesus support the death penalty?

John Howard Yoder, in a new book expertly edited by John Nugent, called The End of Sacrifice, contends that the death penalty in the Bible was not so much connected to justice as it was to sacrifice. Namely, a human was sacred since she or he was made in God’s image, and the whole “life for a life” was about expiation and not justice restored or balanced.

Yoder then adds this point: if sacrifice has realized its end, namely, has found its completion in the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ, it therefore has come to an end. The cross of Christ as the completion of all atonement has meant that the sacred act of expiation is no longer needed. Thus, he sees a redemptive trend or a salvation-historical plot that brings to end death as expiation for murder.

He argues other points:

1. That the law, even Genesis 9:6’s “by man shall his blood be shed,” is to be read like Exodus 21:24-25 (law of retaliation’s limit) — that is, as putting the limit of punishment and not as a commandment to exact the death penalty.

2. Within the pages of the Bible, and Jewish texts fill this out, most punishments were becoming fines and imprisonment and not death penalty.

3. John 8, though disputed as a text in canon but not as an event in the life of Jesus, shows that Jesus posed the death penalty over against two issues over which the death penalty fell short: the more authority of the judge or executioner and the authority Jesus had to forgive. Thus, death penalty is put in the context of expiation and not penal judgment.

4. Society has move increasingly away from the death penalty and has discerned an increasing number of mitigating factors, like insanity, etc.. We do not make these judgments infallibly; our criteria are not entirely justifiable; etc. In other words, development has led to reduction — why not go all the way and end sacrifice completely?

5. Romans 13’s sword is not about death penalty but is the symbol of judicial authority. Jesus’ words in Matt 5 show that the lex talionis is put on an entirely different order.

6. Following Jesus is what Christians do and they do this all the time, not just when they are being private or being Christians.

7. If Jesus is Lord, truly, then he is Lord now over all and that means Christians are to live under his lordship and advocate for kingdom ethics, not “realistic” ethics.

8. The theory of deterrence is useless; the death penalty does not deter violence. Those States with the death penalty have more murders; those without it have less. Countries without it have fewer than countries with it.

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  • By Yoder’s logic should all punishment for wrongdoing also be abolished? If not, what am I missing?

  • scotmcknight

    David, it does not appear to me he thinks that. I’m not entirely sure where he goes with this but constraint seems to be acceptable. His issue is that death penalty itself was a sacral sacrifice in ancient Israel and the Christian view of Christ as atoning death ends that sacral sacrifice theme. How best to take care of the criminal therefore takes on other factors but not death penalty.

  • Susan N.

    Point #7 elicits a simultaneous “Hallelujah” and a cry of lament; Yearning for Kingdom ethics, but world-weary of realities with which I struggle. If we as Christians are willing to take up our crosses as Jesus said, the realities of the world will give us grief. Being “subversive” leads to persecution, rejection, ridicule, etc. It’s still very hard for me to live into subversive choices boldly. I second-guess…I dislike the loneliness of it…for too long I’ve had to be a “fighter.” But in my experience, that’s what attempting to live by Kingdom ethics will get you. Pain in the short- or not-so-short-term.

    I’m *for* life, BTW. All life is sacred in my view. Unborn babies, convicted criminals, even enemies in war. Killing is not the best that God desires of us, I don’t believe.

  • Scot, I need to read the Yoder book that John has put together. I can’t see how we as Christians can support the death penalty on any level, but I think that the very fact that we follow one who was put to death by the government should give us pause before we decide that it is a form of justice that Jesus would approve of. Nothing in the life and ministry of Jesus gives us any hint that he would support such a form of justice. Rather, everything about him would suggest otherwise!

  • Joe Canner

    An additional reason for a Christian to be against the death penalty is that the punishment cuts short any opportunity for the criminal to come to faith in Christ and turn his/her life around. Among the more notable examples of murderers who have come to faith in prison are David Berkowitz (“Son of Sam”) and Jeffrey Dahmer. The former is still in prison but is very actively involved in ministry to fellow prisoners.

  • Kyle Carney

    I’m not decided on this, so I have a lot of reading and thinking to do. However, I will admit that I come from a leaning towards the death penalty position and realizing I need to think about it more. First, I wanted to make the same observation as David above. Scott answered that well. Still, I think it’s tricky to make Jesus’ atonement and fulfillment of the law extend to law in governments in the world in the sense that everything is accomplished or fulfilled in that sphere. All authority is given to Jesus, but all of us answer that the atonement is only applied through faith even though the propitiation is for the sins of the world. Also, what do we do about Peter saying some Peter suffer punishment justly (1 Peter) or Paul saying human rulers bear the sword under God’s authority (Romans)? I believe life is sacred and I lean towards the position that God gives the state the right to take life under the conditions necessary for justice.

    I think the best argument I have heard against the death penalty is the aspect of inaccuracy being grounds for stopping it. It bothers me to hear so many stories about black people being subjected to the death sentence under false charges that get overturned years later, often too late. I heard a defense lawyer talk about his theology and vocation last year at where he talked about God giving certain stipulations for the nation-state of Israel to execute the death penalty (“at least two or more witnesses,” so someone could evade death penalty by the state if there were not two witnesses. This lawyer interpreted this to mean that it is his job to make sure all the “i”s are dotted and “t”s crossed before the state should rightly execute the justice of the death penalty. Although I lean toward the death penalty, I support revisiting the conditions under which the death penalty can be issued. Of course, I feel I still have lots of anti-death penalty positions to learn from and I’m, of course, not saying my leaning at this point is the correct position.

  • Kyle,

    On Paul’s statement about the sword, see Yoder’s point 5 above. Yoder spells this out at greater length in a chapter on Romans 13 in The Politics of Jesus.

    Kyle and David,

    Yoder was against most of what might be considered retributive justice and sought instead forms of restorative justice. Within the church, he advocated the practice of “binding and loosing” from Matthew 18. He also thought this could be a model for secular conflict resolution, including things like victim/offender reconciliation. That said, he was no anarchist and thought there was an ordained role for the government in this fallen world. But that didn’t stop him from calling the government to show restraint on its own violence.

  • Myles

    I’ll speak to David’s question:

    No, Yoder isn’t calling for all abolition of punishing wrongdoing; in fact, repeatedly through his work, he sees there as a good and legitimate role for the state in terms of restraining evil. However, he argues that the state, in its vocation, need not resort to violence to do this; for this argument, see his Christian Witness to the State. Beyond this, Yoder isn’t arguing for the church rejecting discipline either; throughout his works (cf. Priestly Kingdom and Body Politics), there remains a place for corporate discipline within the church as well. But in neither case–either church or world–if Christ is Lord of all of it, must we make use of death or violence in order to render ‘punishment’.

  • Myles

    Oops–looks like David Cramer beat me to the punch!

  • Re: Yoder’s point #1 vs. The death penalty as commandment–the primary reason that conservative Christians support it. Yet, most seem to never have read Num. 35 which gives the reason: “… for blood pollutes the land, and no atonement can be made for the land for the blood that is shed in it, except by the blood of the one who shed it.”
    I think it was Barth that used this verse in supporting the ‘end of sacrifice’ as in Yoder’s position, because we believe that the sufficient and final sacrifice was made on the cross.
    It was also said of the early Christians that they could not bear to see a man put to death, even justly. [don’t remember primary source, ref:

  • Two comments – First, prisons and jails do not punish, they brutalize. I agree with the post above. How can a Christian say they are against the death penalty and yet support prisons? Under the old law crimes were dealt with by immediate punishment. If you stole you paid back – no prison time. If you were killed you were to be killed – no prison time. It seems to me prisons and jails are far more “unchristian” than any other system of punishment, and far more unbiblical. Second, in my reading of Exodus – Deuteronomy the point that I see missing in the current discussion is that capital punishment was to protect the COMMUNITY, not so much to punish the killer. We have so idolized the individual that we have elevated individual life to a level it never had in God’s plan. The individual only has value in the Old Testament as a part of the family, and later as a part of the covenant people. That is heresy in today’s western “its all about me” society, but when we allow (or worse yet, *protect*) a killer by housing him or her for the rest of his or her natural life, we are devaluing the community that God created through the family, the nation, and ultimately the church. We clearly devalue the life of the victim! When I hear someone say “I am pro-life so I am against the death penalty” I have to ask, “why is the life of the killer more valuable than the life of the victim?” I have never had that question answered!

    I agree that the death penalty has been used unequally and unfairly in many situations. That, to me, is the only reason to pause and evaluate how juries are selected and how prosecutions are carried out.

  • Jeff Martin

    The primary purpose of justice is punishment. God himself punishes sin and enjoins those in authorities to do so (Exod. 20: 5; Ezek. 18: 4, 20; Exod. 12: 12). The core of the penal view is revealed in the death of Christ who received capital punishment as “the just for the unjust” (1 Pet. 3: 18). Paul the Apostle declares that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23).

    Capital punishment was not limited to Moses’ law nor abolished with it. God sought to guard the sanctity of human life by restraining murder in the society. He did this in two ways, namely, by emphasizing that humans have been created in His image (Gen. 1:26) and by instituting capital punishment, commanding that every murderer be punished with death (Exod. 21:12, 14; 22:2) Though David’s life was spared by God’s intervention through Prophet Nathan, David paid fourfold for his sins. Some of the penalty actually involved lives. The baby born in adultery died; Amnon, Absalom and Adonijah lost their lives; David’s daughter Tamar was defiled; David temporarily lost the kingdom, etc.

    In the case of the allegation that Jesus abolished the Mosaic law of which capital punishment was part, non-rehabilitationists are of the view that Jesus actually came to fulfil the Law and the Prophets (Matt. 5:17). Jesus did not abolish the moral law for all men (Rom. 2:2 – 14). Concerning the woman caught in adultery, Jesus did not intend to set aside capital punishment when He commanded her to go and sin no more. Jesus did not reject the Mosaic law on capital punishment here, since it demanded that at least two witnesses must volunteer to bring charges or testify against her and there was not one willing to do so (John 8:11). So, His statement that she should go and sin no more did not invalidate capital punishment, but only expresses His forgiveness for her sin. In fact, Jesus’ attitude toward the woman reflects His redemptive purpose for the human race (John 3:16).

    Contrary to the argument of the rehabilitationists, love and capital punishment are mutually inclusive or compatible. If this were not the case, the sacrificial death of Christ would be a contradiction. It was love that constrained Jesus to lay down His life for mankind (John 3:16; 15:13). The principle of a life for a life which underlies capital punishment is the very principle that makes capital punishment imperative for capital crimes. The fact that God found no other way to release grace and satisfy justice than in releasing His only begotten son to die for mankind shows that capital punishment is very necessary for capital crimes.

    The cross did not abolish capital punishment for all men. Although the cross provides forgiveness for all sins, it does not cancel the physical and social consequences of sins. This accounts for the prevalence of sickness, suffering and death in human society. Although a Christian may receive forgiveness if he repents of a capital crime he has committed, yet he cannot escape the appropriate punishment. And the appropriate penalty for taking a man’s life is giving one’s life.

    C. S. Lewis is quoted as saying that “To be punished, however severely, because we deserved it, because we ‘ought to have known better’, is to be treated as a human person made in God’s image”

    In closing I do think that a moratorium in the US should be implemented concerning the death penalty though because of the many findings of people in jail who are innocent. These cases should be reviewed again to see if legitimate.

  • Michael Williams

    I was raised in a very pro-capital punishment Evangelical environment and I am now Catholic. This is a social teaching I have had to wrestle with. Before we can have a serious discussion about capital punishment we need to have a viable alternative. Can we as a society really enact life imprisonment without parole? There have been too many cases of murderers being released on parole or having their sentences commuted or reduced only to murder again. It is rare, but it does happen.

  • Sean LeRoy

    Well, then, we (America) are essentially inline with Yoder, w/ under 1300 since 1976. I wish the death penalty were carried through with regularity, because of many of the reasons listed above…! Life is holy, but not if the live taken is not defended w/ a proper verdict. God has no problem taking a life, always, of course, with good reason.
    I don’t agree with Yoder on Romans 13. The text is generally talking about Roman judicial authority (not the synagogue ala Nanos), yes, but how can one not by extension include capital punishment when: 1) the word “sword” is used; 2) retribution is equal to “wrath”; and 3) the Romans killed Jesus (though he was innocent)!

  • Joe Canner

    Paul #11, I agree with you that prisons are not ideal environments, but I’m not sure how the death penalty is more compassionate. Unless you are 100% convinced about either universal reconciliation or annihilation, it seems like it would be more compassionate to provide opportunities for repentance (see my post #5).

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    Most American Christians say they are pro-life but have no problems typically supporting capital punishment or war. At best, God allowed these like he allowed divorce. But the Mosaic law says a man could divorce his wife. Jesus, from the beginning says it was not so. Here is Jesus turning on its head a common interpretation of the Mosaic law and historical precedence. Because of the hardness of your hearts. God hates divorce. God hates all forms of violence we perpetutate upon ourselves. The book of Revelation ends not with Christians rising up and the good guys beating the bad guys like we see in old western movies. But the evil empires rather turn on each other and end up destroying themselves. Violence ends up destroying itself. Under the New Testament, Christians are commanded over and over not to take up the sword or utilize violence. Violent warfare is subverted by spiritual warfare in the NT. Even if someone wants to argue that the State can use violence, that does not then mean that the church should sanction it or support it.

  • #16 … Totally agree with you! There is significant biblical evidence of a seperation between the ethics of the Church (Romans 12) and the ethics of the State. (Romans 13)

    #12 Jeff Martin.. I could support your use of John 8 as evidence for the use of capital punishment as long as those who impose the death pently are SINLESS. Yet to me the heart of the John 8 account is knowlege that Christ who was sinless, he could have thrown the stone, yet chose rather to desire mercy over sacrifice.

    Also, if the primary purpose of justice (setting thing right) is punishment, then why are all acts of Church discipline redemptive and done for the purpose of restoration and reconciliation?

  • DRT

    This is another case where I cannot believe that anyone would argue that Jesus would be in favor of killing people regardless of what is said elsewhere. But that view does not seem to carry weight in any argument because people can point out a verse that is contrary. I am incredibly frustrated by this not only in this topic but in others.

    I again have faith in humanity after reading Jeff Martin#12 list all of the biblical reasons we could fry, poison and otherwise kill people while feeling proper about it, but then he applied common reason to say, but we are obviously fallible so perhaps we should not. Good go Jeff!

    Just because the bible says it does not mean we have to do it now. Does anyone really believe, after all of Jesus teachings that he would be in favor of us killing people? Is my god less moral than me?

  • scotmcknight

    Paul Smith, Yoder was big on prison reform too.

  • C

    Fascinating. I’ve never heard anyone connect the death penalty and sacrifice. But it doesn’t really seem far-fetched when I think through the implications…

  • Susan N.

    Paul Smith (#11) and Scot (#19) – I’ll see your bet and raise Yoder’s argument for prison reform to the next level: When we honestly and diligently seek to address the root causes of criminal behavior and consequent need for prisons, in a more proactive (vs. reactive/punitive) manner, we might at least significantly reduce the prison population?

    Reform/rehabilitation is certainly a more humane approach than retributive methods of justice. Certainly — Am I speaking from the height of arrogance with this word?

    DRT (#18) – my mind is blown all the time by the vastly different ways that we Christians view matters such as this…To lighten your mood, a funny incident from my day: I took my teen daughter to the library this morning, and while she picked up her book that was on hold, I browsed the music CD’s. To my good fortune, the ‘Best of’ the Bee Gees was on the recirculate cart right in front. I snagged that right up, and popped it in the CD player on the drive home. Track #1: Jive Talkin’ – “You’re gonna take away my energy…with all your jive talkin’!” When all else fails, DRT, break out the disco tunes and dance away the blues! 😉 I highly recommend it!

  • Is the death penalty Christian?

    Not sure what that means exactly, but assuming it is asking is the death penalty supportable in the church age, then I take the view that the lives of the victim(s) and the protection of the community are important considerations when ever we discuss whether the death penalty should be an option for the offender.

    The penalty should only be available for a limited set of crimes (capital), done with strong oversight as to its application and the fairness of the trial (witnesses, evidence etc).

    Would Jesus support the death penalty?

    As far as whether Jesus would be in favor of the death penalty, as an eternal member of the Trinity and the author of Scripture, He was in favor/allowed it in the past (Gen 9:6, Mosaic Law, war with Canaanites).

    With regards to the church era, Acts 5 shows that God is still willing to deliver the death penalty for offenses. Not sure I would build a major case out of this one example, but it should at least be part of the discussion as much as John 8 especially since it occurred after the resurrection.

    Have not read the book and therefore don’t know how the case was made, but not sure I accept the overall premise that the death penalty = sacrifice rather then it is a punishment. Nor do I agree with point #5 (Rom 13) assertion that the sword is only judicial authority and does not allow for the death penalty.


  • DRT

    Oh Susan, so many memories 🙂

    Yes, I owned a polyester suit and danced to the disco back in the 70’s though it was only at under age clubs.

    The worst was when my sister had a guy over and “I want to touch you all over” started to play.

  • Susan N.

    DRT – 😀

    I was a young teen at the time the movie ‘Saturday Night Fever’ came out in theaters. I remember that the content was thought to be “risque” in more ways than one…fornication AND dancing. GASP! Double abomination!

    My teenage daughter just rolled her eyes and sighed, “Oh mother…” as I boogied through the circuit of rooms on the main floor this afternoon. I paid her no mind, and feel much better now!

    Hold your head up and keep on dancin’, DRT. Blessings, friend.

  • I have spent time visiting maximum security prisons, and a life sentence without parole is much punishing than execution. With a lifetime of imprisonment the chances of moments of clarity about the gospel are possible.

  • Kyle Carney

    DC Cramer,

    Point number 5 doesn’t answer the Romans 13 passage for me although it is AN answer. First, why would the symbol of the sword be used? I agree it can be a point of debate, but I’d say the symbol of the sword lends itself to giving the state pretty extensive authority in governing and executing justice. It seems the judicial authority would probably include the death penalty. Second, the law of retaliation is only one aspect of justice. There is an aspect of justice that is between human persons; there is another, greater, aspect of justice between God and persons. That is why the state is given the right to carry out penalties, not individuals.


    I agree with your attitude about carrying out justice, but I have some questions about your approach to government. We agree that God allows some things although it is not ideal, but isn’t that like saying “if people’s hearts weren’t hard, then we wouldn’t need divorce, death penalties, or war?” To me the difference is in whether we believe the earth is materially God’s kingdom here and now or if there is a divide between God’s kingdom and the earth. I lean more towards a view that God’s kingdom is separate although spiritually superior and eventually will consummate into the only Kingdom. So, right now God is gracious and gives people good gifts as well as the necessary means for governing and executing justice. I lean towards thinking the death penalty is a solemn part of those means. I agree that God institutes some things for only some times and some places, but I would see the circumstances under which the death penalty as more flexible where the death penalty itself seems to be a scripturally legitimized means. This is where I’m not sure about the death penalty. I think there may be more of an argument against it that it may not be necessary. However, I think the justice issue with God and his image given to people holds a lot of weight as well.

  • Kyle Carney

    I also think some of these comments are related to another question I have related to this issue. Is punishment of sin something God ultimately, necessarily desires? In other words, what does God require or desire concerning sin? The penalty of sin is death, and Jesus paid that penalty so that all who would believe have life. Yet, those who don’t believe remain under wrath. I would say “Of course, God did not desire our sin or want to punish it of necessity of himself.” However, because we sin, God punishes us because he is just. Yet, he is gracious because he lived, died, and rose in our place. Still, his atonement did not immediately end sin in the world, so the application of the atonement is not carried immediately into all spheres of life.

    All this is to say that I could see a possible trajectory towards government eliminating the death penalty under the value of mercy and carrying out justice in another way. However, to say that prison is a worse punishment seems to stray off that line of thinking. Also, I think arguments that tend toward saying the death penalty is not God’s desire for His Kingdom miss the point of the sin and actually undermine any mercy given in a sentence of justice that would be carried out in a more merciful way. Thus, if I was to go about saying the government shouldn’t use the death penalty, I would argue the state is within its jurisdiction to use the death penalty but that it would be more merciful, better for it not to use the death penalty. So, I wouldn’t argue that the death penalty’s existence is bad. I would argue that the crimes for which the death penalty should be carried out are bad and the state can still act mercifully. I think arguing that the death penalty shouldn’t exist in and of itself undervalues the weight of the crime as well as the story of Mercy that gives us a reason to grant mercy.

  • Kyle Carney

    On my last comment maybe, I could make it more understandable by comparing it to point number 7 in the post. Yoder argues that we should live under Christ’s “ethics.” My point above would be that Christ’s ethics and lordship are real for us, but to say that Christ’s ethics don’t include satisfaction of justice would be to miss a lot of the story. Also, what does it mean for these ethics in a secular state ruling all kinds of people? I think God’s desire is that we both extend justice and mercy to everyone through the state. Again, to me the death penalty seems to fit some crimes, but I could see arguing for a value of mercy that makes us want to lighten the sentence and yet give justice based on our human capacity for rendering justice.

  • CGC

    I’m always fascinated by this legitimazation of the state from Paul’s words in Romans 13. Where was Paul when he wrote these words? Jail! I sometimes wonder if Christians today really have the courage to stand up to the state rather than simply legitimating it. I am also reminded that people need to keep in mind Revelation 13 with Romans 13.

    Ironic how many Christians support the death penalty today despite its many problems, especially sending too many innocent people to their deaths. Many Christians also believe that one day some day, there is going to be a kind of anti-christ religion-state set up that possibly tortures and kills Christians. If that day does come, will Christians still be supporting the death penalty?

    Just some musings and thoughts for the day . . .

  • Kyle Carney

    CGC, I really appreciate your thoughtfulness. I’m not sure how pointed your comment is toward me or how completely you read what I had to say above, so I’m not going to take your “fascination” comment and musing of whether or not some people have enough courage for such and such an act too personally. I do, however, want to ask a question. How would you characterize Paul’s words other than legitimizing stately authority? I would take Paul’s circumstances as a fact building on his own ethos to argue that the state has certain rights to punish wrongdoing granted to it by God. As I have already said, I think the death penalty is fairly up for debate about whether or not it is a right penalty for today, but Paul seems to me to be unarguably granting the government some kind of power to punish in verse 4.

    I think the death penalty could be opposed under a punitive view of criminal sentencing that still views other forms of sentencing as punishment. I just feel like no ground can be made in discussion of what is right unless we agree on certain preliminary terms (i.e. completely punitive, completely rehabilitative, or a mixture; does the church have the same jurisdiction as the state or are they separate? (one-kingdom or two-kingdom view); should Christians be a citizen or participate in governance of a secular state?) I don’t think we have to agree upon these issues, but we at least agree to what preliminary terms we are discussing so that the pros and negatives would be clear. If someone thinks that killing is never just by anyone anywhere at anytime, then how do you reconcile that thought with the different ways God has interacted with his own people as well as all people throughout biblical history? I’m in total agreement that in matters of faith, we should be the ones laying down our lives; however, isn’t there a different means God has given to all people in common to live together in a secular society (I realize this places me in the two-kingdoms camp)? If someone disagrees with a two-kingdom approach to government, then what means of punishment would such a person prescribe? Does the church hold people in jails? Does the church excommunicate people from society?

    I’m asking real questions that I have. If I’m missing some middle ground, please alert me to it. I’m actually trying to learn something. If you’d like a reference to other things I’ve said, post number 6 is from me as well as 26-28. I’m just curious to see how someone from a more confident “no-death-penalty” stance would approach these questions in a way that renders something a government could actually practice.

    As I said before, I can see opposing the death penalty for other forms of punishment, but I would still view these other things as punishment. Maybe a punitive view of criminal sentencing is unnecessary to civil government as well. However, if someone can only be ‘fascinated’ by the idea of punitive justice that is clearly present in scripture for at least some places and some times, then it will be hard to learn from or dialogue about how to arrive at a merely rehabilitative view of justice in government. I am allowing there could be a trajectory, but I have lots of questions about it.

  • Still, we have Christians with the mantra about God “commanding that every murderer be punished with death” with no acknowledgement of the stated reason in Scripture [see #10 above].
    Also, if they are so adamant for the death penalty because “God said so” then let us hear it for the commanded death penalty for adultery, insolent children, etc.

  • On God “commanding that every murderer be punished with deaht”: except Cain, Moses, David, etc.

  • CGC

    Hi Kyle,
    Actually, I agree with much of what you say. I sometimes think that once a thread gets off the front page, it’s dead but we’ll see. I hear the tension in you on trying to wrestle through these issues honestly and I appreciate this.

    I will quickly say that your comments about the two kingdoms, the state have some power to punish evil doers, and I even agree with your logic that people who argue against violence can not make that into an absolute since we see God utilizing some kind of violence in the past and may do so in the future. God can do anything He wants and may even call us to do something that offends our own moral code or reason (take the Abraham story for an example of killing his own son).

    I will also say Christians simply agree to disagree but issues like this are important. You have heard several different understandings of relevant texts. Let me simply go back to Romans 13 and say was not Paul being in jail submitting to the State? What does that say for Followers of Jesus today? What does that say about the state? Like I said before, my argument is not that the state can not exercise authority or administer justice, even deadly justice. The question is why should the church be supporting the state? Where in Paul or anyone does scripture suggest the church should back up what the state is doing? It seems like all Paul really says is a Christian should submit to the State. Why should the church baptize the death penalty or anything else the state does is my underlying question?

  • Kyle Carney

    I agree. I don’t think the church needs to support the state. I’m just not sure the church needs to condemn the state for use of the death penalty either. I do think that there are enough problems with the death penalty sentencing that it should at least give us all pause to evaluate it, legislatively reevaluate.

    Although I think the church can condone and submit to the state’s power to use the death penalty justly (the state being an entity with a different jurisdiction and means for governing, the sword), I agree that it probably does not follow that it is a necessary component of justice in and of itself. That’s where I would like to do some more studying and research as to the crimes that would fit this punishment, the sentencing process, and the required evidence for conviction.

    I think the death penalty may be a viable option, perhaps even a just option. However, I agree with you that the church doesn’t need to baptize the actions of the state. Then, this leads me to another question. What should the church condemn and should the death penalty be thought of within that area? I’m not saying that if the death penalty does not fit into this area that we cannot criticize it. I’m just saying we might have to use our common reason as to why it would just or unjust for the death penalty at this point in time. I think where we agree a lot is that someone would be hard pressed to come in at this point and say “this is the Christian position.” What do you think?

  • Kyle Carney

    I would like to add again, that I think an argument that the death penalty could be ended justified from Christian reasoning based on Biblical trajectory is viable and very possible. I’m just saying that the fact that it was condoned for certain times and even prescribed for others makes it pretty hard to say the reasoning against the death penalty is a “must” from the Bible.

  • Richard

    Scot, what textual evidence does Yoder offer for reading capital punishment as sacrificial? I like the conclusion of doing away with it but that seems to be a lynchpin to his case that I’ve never heard and seems to fly in the face of the trajectory of Israel away from human sacrifice.

  • CGC

    Hi Kyle,
    1. It seems like Christians relation to the state is a messy one and one wonders how much has the christian story been coopted by our American-democratic story focused on individual rights and the un-ending pursuit of happiness. Maybe the church should more focus on prayer for its government leaders rather than taking official ecclesial policies?

    2. I personally try to be consistent and most of my young Christian life I was pro-life while also being pro-war and pro-capital punishment. I quess I have come to agree with people like Ron Sider in trying to be “consistently pro-life.”

    Scripturally, we don’t function like a theocracy like Israel did and how the worldly powers are in contrast to a theology of the cross in the NT should at least make Christians today pause and take notice. An interesting book to read on this is Richard Hays book “The Moral Vision of the NT.” People can come up with different moral visions but I think he makes a pretty strong beginning case here.

    3. Lastly, I’m happy to see Ron Sider coming out with a new book this summer called “The Early Church on killing: a comprehensive sourcebook on war, abortion, and capital punishment (Baker, July 2012). Since the earliest Christians lived closest to the apostles, what they say on these issues has great importance to me at least.

    Shalom . . .

  • Jeff Martin

    Responding to #17 Paul Walker – First let me state John 8 might not be the best example to use regarding what Jesus believed since most if not all scholars state it is a late addition to the Biblical text. It might be but no one should us it as their main text.

    Also see Ben Witherington’s comment on this text in his commentary on John on page 365 he states, “Jesus relpies emphatically, ‘Neither do I myself condemn you’ I would suggest to you that Jesus here is rejecting a procedure that was inherently prejudicial and baised against the woman.

    In view of Matthew 5:27-30 it is clear Jesus does not approve of any procedure where a woman’s sin is taken more seriously than a man’s…..Her sin is not forgiven, for she is not said to have repented. Jesus shows the woman the balance of justice and mercy intended to lead the woman away from a sinful life in the future”

    Also John 8 is not my argument for the death penalty. I am simply suggesting it is not relevant to the discussion.

    The primary purpose of judgement is punishment, I should clarify, because sometimes the primary purpose of justice is to limit punishment. But when we think of wrong things people do, there is still punishment. Which is why if someone converts to Christianity after commiting a crime that was previously unknown, the most Christian thing they can do is turn themselves in.

    The Bible confirms this definition of judgement, by stating that mercy triumphs over judgement in James 2:13. So we have mercy on people in spite of what they deserve. What Jesus defeated on the cross was death!! Dr. McKnight of all people should believe this, because of his emphasis on Jesus being King. It was death that was defeated not the temporary punishments for sin here on earth

    #18 DRT, thank you for that comment!

  • As a former student of John Howard Yoder, I am pleased to see this interest in his thinking about capital punishment. Most of the questions being raised here are addressed in this recent book, but also elsewhere.

    Some of what Yoder thought may also be found in an earlier book, The Death Penalty Debate, which he co-wrote with defender of the death penalty, Wayne House:

    I wrote about death penalty and sacrifice for Sojourners a few years ago, drawing on Barth and Yoder:

    Something that an Orthodox priest friend of mine and I cowrote years ago on this topic for the Ekklesia Project is availabe at:

    I’m currently working on an article building on a memo Yoder shared with me about prisons and restorative justice.

  • Wyatt

    I wish I could bend and twist like Yoder and then write about it.

    Why the redefinition of what capital punishment is? Sacrifice? Is it possible Yoder has to redefine it because the normal arguments opposing it don’t really work?

    I don’t think there is any clear cut statement or argumentation put forth by the Tenach, Jesus or Paul opposing capital punishment. If there was such language we wouldn’t be arguing about it now.

    Pulling the death penalty as deterrrence thing out of the hat again is just plain weak. No one with any shred of intelligence believes that anymore for at least one reason; we hardly use capital punishment. How can something we hardly use serve as a deterrent?

    What does this mean…”against it is that we are not smart enough and infallible enough to take the life of another — better err on the side of mercy and caution that put to death an innocent person.”

    Murderers seem to have no trouble taking innocent lives. How is not exercising justice somehow merciful to any survivors? Captial punishment is not about evening the score. It’s not about deterrence. It’s not about sacrifice. It’s about recognizing the value of the victims’ life; justice. By exercising “mercy” for the perp, we say their life is worth more than the victim’s. By using capital punishment to the best of our ability that God has given us, we say the murderer’s life is worth just as much as the victim’s.

    No one is arguing the practice of capital punishment is not a dreadful and awesome thing. We should approach it with great caution. But to not do something because we might make a mistake doesn’t even work in normal life. I won’t take a test because I might fail it. I won’t make any commitment because it might be the wrong commitment. How inane.

    Yoder’s ideas and redefinition sound all fuzzy and nice. But I am wondering if it’s just pure hell served in a pretty wrapper. Just saying.

  • CGC

    Have you read Yoder yourself? The argument that we need to kill muderers to show that the muderer’s life is just as valuable as the victim’s that was taken; Is this really a sactified imagination in approaching this issue? Maybe its just me but this sounds very similar to what Walter Wink calls “the myth of redemptive violence.”

  • Ron Tilley

    With so many unjust convictions (disproportionately of persons of color), how can we enact the death penalty? Life in prison for heinous crimes where the person shows no change would seem to be punishment enough. You can’t undo the death penalty. Our ministry worked with several wrongly convicted ex-prisoners as they readjusted to return. We worked with award-winning journalists to help secure their freedom. The percentage of wrong convictions due to unethical investigators/police and inaccurate eyewitness testimonies would blow your mind. Allow people to be set free when there is an error/injustice! A biblical view of justice would call for as much (even if you don’t espouse Peace Church theology).