Some Responses to Critics Regarding Capital Punishment

Some Responses to Critics Regarding Capital Punishment July 5, 2013

Thanks to all of you who contributed civil comments, pro and con, responding to my immediately preceding post about capital punishment as heresy. One commenter wrote:



” I may be on a different wavelength from many here, but I’d just like to point out that if we’re going to appeal to the authority of the God of the Old Testament to support capital punishment, then logically we are going to have to support capital punishment for far more than first degree murder. In the Old Testament God is of course also on record as commanding capital punishment for several other things: for example, a son who curses his father, for being a witch, for homosexuality, and for breaking the sabbath. He is also on record as commanding genocide and ethnic cleansing.


New Testament Christianity teaches that Jesus is the Word of God in all its fulness, the Word made flesh. Since his authority is paramount, everything in the rest of the Bible must be interpreted in harmony with his teachings. We do not bend the teaching of Jesus to harmonize it with the Torah. Rather, we bend the Torah to harmonize it with the teaching of Jesus.”

I couldn’t have said it better.

So, to those of you who use Romans 13 to argue that Christians should support capital punishment: Do you then believe that if a government (to which Christians are subjects) tortures people Christians have no right to opp0se it? Or, if a government over Christians executes criminals in extremely inhumane ways (literally using “the sword” which often requires several blows to sever a head) Christians should not speak out against that? I will have trouble believing you if you say  they shouldn’t.

And, to those of you who demand proof texts before I oppose capital punishment (or call it a heresy): What do you say about slavery? There is no scripture proof text that clearly says slavery is sin or wrong. The same can be said about abortion and a myriad of other things (e.g., apartheid, segregation of the races, torture to extract confessions, etc.) that you almost certainly believe are wrong. Are you not guilty of confusing hermeneutics with proof texting? I suspect so. Read William Webb, Slavery, Women and Homosexuals (IVP) to learn about hermeneutics.

Further, to those of you who refer to the OT’s commands to execute certain people: Do you then also believe rebellious teenagers should be stoned?

And, finally, to those who like to think of Jesus as a warrior (and probably a cage fighter, too), read the Sermon on the Mount carefully and prayerfully. And remember that what Jesus will do in the eschaton to Satan and his minions is no warrant for us to do the same to our enemies.

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  • candeux

    Mis-use of Romans 13 is rapidly rising on my list of hermeneutical pet peeves. Given the context (a rehearsal of the Sermon on the Mount at the end of chapter 12 and a rehearsal of the Greatest Commandment later in chapter 13), it seems quite clear that Paul is *not* calling Christians to promote capital punishment.

    Verses 1-7 acknowledge that governments (which at the time would have been comprised almost entirely of non-Christians) might use violence to carry out their agenda, and advises Christians to to obey the law so as not to fall afoul of that violence and so as not to damage their witness by getting caught up in violent resistance.

  • Old Man

    I don’t have a lot of energy around this issue and if you want to eliminate capital punishment for practical reasons, I won’t argue it. I am very invested, however, in protecting the innocent. It is a failure of love to allow dangerous people to roam free to prey on the vulnerable. If you want to confine the most dangerous offenders to a small box for sixty or more years by the threat or use of deadly force – if you think that’s more Christ-like – then I won’t contest it – as long as you are also willing to take responsibility for the other inmates that they might murder, rape or brutalize during decades of confinement, and for the culture of violence that is inherent in every prison system.

    I don’t think that a pure “kingdom of heaven” method exists for dealing with individuals and groups that prey on their neighbors. You won’t find any teaching of Christ that supports capital punishment or forced imprisonment or even having armed cops on patrol for that matter. There is plenty in the criminal justice system to make Christians wring their hands. Insofar as we take any responsibility for the life of the community, our hands are not clean. Granted. That doesn’t mean that Christians don’t try to make the system better and more humane, but I have no illusion that there is an innocent way to protect the public from evildoers. I am willing to bear that responsibility for the sake of the vulnerable and the well-being of the community. To abdicate one’s responsibility for the safety of others, I think, is hardly an expression of Christ-like love.

    • Roger Olson

      Capital punishment is not the only alternative to letting murders roam free….

    • Tim Chesterton

      ‘It is a failure of love to allow dangerous people to roam free to prey on the vulnerable’

      If that is a failure of love, then it is a failure of God’s love too, since this is exactly what he does.

  • Guest

    It must be nice to be a tenured professor. As a pastor just recently moved to a very conservative area, I would never get away with what you’re saying (even if I agree with you). Anyway, thanks for your incisive thoughts.

    • Roger Olson

      Yes, tenure is nice. But I’m fortunate to belong to a faculty of Christians who can amicably disagree about much–including capital punishment. As for the constituents, well, there’s nothing I can say publicly that isn’t likely to draw fire from somewhere. Thanks for your thanks.

  • Tim Reisdorf

    Is it your view that Jesus would condemn God (for instituting execution) and Moses/Joshua/etc. (for obeying what God said)? If it is wrong and unjust and heretical now and in Jesus’ time, then it was bad and sinful in OT times as well, right? …or am I missing something?

    • Roger Olson

      I take it slavery was not heretical at some time in the past but, given our greater understanding of the full meaning of the imago dei, it now is.

      • Tim Reisdorf

        I don’t follow the logic very well.

        Yesterday, behavior A was fine. Today, behavior A is bad. Do you have any guarantees for tomorrow?

        How can theology or ethics be done this way? This is not only people that are being evaluated, but God as well. God instituted/commanded/encouraged many of these behaviors that are in question; these did not depend at all on the levels of understanding of the full meaning of the imago dei. I’m not trying to wrestle here with Moses, but with God – if it is bad now, how could He institute it then?

        • Roger Olson

          Tim, You’re trying to push me into a corner you would be in as well. I can’t believe you think everything commanded in the OT is ethically right for us today.

          • Tim Reisdorf

            I’m not saying that everything in the OT is right for us today – certainly not desirable. I’m trying to find a measured tone – where honest and good people can disagree. You call your discussion opponents heretics (believers in heresy) leaving no wiggle room for disagreement. What is wrong with me probing your theory that seems to accuse God of bad behavior? Why do you feel cornered by these questions?

          • Roger Olson

            I did not call people who believe in capital punishment “heretics.” Go back and read my discussion here of the terms “heresy” and “heretic” some time ago. A heretic is someone who knows his belief is heresy (by measure of his own ecclesial tradition) and persists in it anyway. And a heretic must teach his heresy to be a heretic. I would like it if my denomination would declare capital punishment unbiblical and heretical. It does not. Although the denomination’s ethics commission has strongly urged that its members reject capital punishment. My saying that capital punishment is heresy has literally no political effect whatsoever on anyone; it’s merely rhetorical. It just means I think a Christian who believes in and supports capital punishment is at that point deviating significantly from important theological truth. It’s only my opinion. It has no “teeth.” You keep asking me questions about the OT that imply I ought to believe everything the OT records as commanded by God is still relevant for today or else God is “not good.” Nobody thinks that.

  • Ivan A. Rogers

    AN OBSERVATION: In reading the responses to Dr. Olson’s blog opposing capital punishment, I’m shocked to see so many evangelicals, who normally insist that the Law has been “cancelled” (Col 2:13-14), immediately default back to that same Law in an attempt to justify the continued use of capital punishment.
    By that same method almost all evangelicals gleefully continue to support that discredited doctrine of eternal conscious torture (hell) aka ‘capital torture.’ (sigh). NOTE: Most evangelicals (even theologians) do not realize that the word “hell” is fast disappearing from the Bible. For example, except for the old KJV, almost all of the newer versions of the Bible, e.g., NIV, ESV, NASV, have completely removed the word “hell” from the Old Testament based on older discovered manuscripts and better Hebrew language translation. It’s only a matter of time until the word “hell” is eliminated from the New Testament for all the same reasons.
    So, ‘what would Jesus do’ about capital punishment’? Let us recall that when the state officials were bent on his execution (the greatest injustice ever!), he refused to call down 12 legions of angels on their heads and, further, he ordered Peter, saying, “put away your sword.” In that spirit, Dr. Olson is saying (and I concur), it’s time for the state (and Christians) to put away the sword and find a better way.

  • mzellen

    It is not so much the disagreement about capital punishment that disturbs me, it’s the disconnect between God the Father and God the Son.

    And the eagerness and steadfastness with which you label spiritual siblings “heretics” over “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image

    • Roger Olson

      Perhaps you don’t understand what I mean when I label a belief or practice “heresy.” I have explained that here before. Go back and read my posts about “heresy” and “heretic.” In brief, a person is not a heretic just because he or she believes a heresy. I know it sounds counter intuitive, but it’s not. A heretic is someone who knows and understand that his or her belief is contrary to some established orthodoxy and persists in teaching it anyway. Besides, I’m a baptist and baptists don’t have any way of enforcing our beliefs on anyone.

  • In her famous essay, “Modern Moral Philosophy,” G. E. M. Anscombe wrote: “[I]f someone really thinks, in advance, that it is an open question whether such an action as procuring the judicial execution of the innocent should be quite excluded from consideration–I do not want to argue with him; he shows a corrupt mind.”

    Likewise, I would suggest that if someone denies that the possibility of executing one innocent person outweighs the need to execute guilty ones, I do not want to argue with them either.

  • Shane

    The other day someone pointed out that Jesus comes at the end in a blood-stained robe with a sword on a horse to conquer. I wanted to point out that the authority comes from the iron rod like in the prophets. I did point out that the sword comes from the mouth, as in the word. God’s word is restorative and towards evil restoration is destruction. This I think allows for a non-violent yet overthrowing event in the end. I am sure I am not clever enough to come up with this on my own, but I cannot think of where I may have heard or read it. Am I off base or (maybe worse) plagerizing?

    • Roger Olson

      It sounds familiar–I think from Yoder. But that doesn’t mean you borrowed it from him. Great minds can think alike!

  • Andy


    Thanks for your views on capital punishment. My view, previously, had been against it, but reserving an exception for heinously monstrous crimes with no doubt of the perpetrator.

    But as I continue on this life-journey of which you and your books have been a part, I am willing to put this belief to the test, too. Your point for allowing time for repentance is a good point (I understand the “Son of Sam” converted in prison).

    I need to start making a list of the beliefs I have reconsidered or changed. It is a growing list!

    Thanks for your website. I have returned from work-travel of almost 2 months and was unable to read your blog during that time. The good part is I have have drastically pared down my web-usage from lack of use. But I assure you this blog is still a “must-read.” Thanks

    • Roger Olson

      Thank you for this affirming message. As you can see, most are of another nature. I appreciate your support.

  • Darrin Snyder Belousek

    Thanks, Roger, for these courageous–and correct–posts on capital punishment. Many years ago, as a young adult, I came to the conviction that to be a believer in Jesus meant one had to oppose the death penalty, based on my reading of John 8:2-11. It was years later that I began to ask further why, on account of the gospel, a Christian should oppose the death penalty. That inquiry led me through a serious study of John 8, which I concluded implies that Jesus places a permanent moratorium on the practice of capital punishment. I then undertook an extensive excursion into atonement theology, where I became convinced the final answer lies. In short, I concluded, Christians cannot say yes to Jesus’ death on the cross as God’s act of atonement for sin and continue to say yes to the death penalty as a justified punishment for sin: the cross cancels out the law of retribution on which the justification of capital punishment is premised. All this led me to write an entire book to give biblical-theological substance to these convictions. That book is Atonement, Justice, and Peace: The Message of the Cross and the Mission of the Church (Eerdmans 2012).

    • Roger Olson

      I will put it on my list of books to read. Thanks!

  • Vicki Rawlins McCuistion

    I so appreciate your willingness to speak out on this issue – and your thoughtful responses to your critics. I am curious if you or your followers are familiar with Dale Recinella’s book – The Biblical Truth About America’s Death Penalty? – I would appreciate your feedback on it if you are.

    I also invite all Texas clergy who might be reading this to consider signing a Texas clergy sign-on letter to end the Texas death penalty.

    • Roger Olson

      I just signed it and will send it today or tomorrow. I haven’t read Recinella’s book.

  • samloveall

    Dr. Olson, I’m coming late to the discussion. Would Acts 25:11 have anything to add? Paul seems there to recognize that there ARE crimes that deserve the penalty of death. Was he wrong about that? Was he just making a point without really meaning what the words denote? How would his statement fit into the “no crime should be punished by death” approach?

    • Roger Olson

      This is just Paul’s statement in court; it surely doesn’t count as a basis for theology or ethics today!

      • samloveall

        Maybe, maybe not. It does seem that Paul is stipulating a truth that he accepts without question or hesitation, a truth that he himself is willing to submit to. It certainly isn’t a theological dissertation; it’s just a simple statement in court, as you say.

        But theology and ethics are built from the accumulation of such simple statements. It’s easy to ignore or even toss this one out completely. But it seems just as valid to see it as one of the truths from which bigger ideas are built.

        Part of the question of capital punishment is this: Are there crimes for which death is the appropriate penalty? If not, then the death penalty can be rejected out of hand, and we need not even have a discussion about the role of grace, the possibility of repentance and change, or any of those ideas which you’ve used in your arguments. We can dispense with all that and just say, “There are no crimes for which death is the appropriate penalty,” and be done with it.

        But if there ARE, THEN the discussion can proceed. Then it becomes a discussion of what is appropriate from a judicial viewpoint, and what is appropriate from God’s viewpoint, and whether (or in what circumstances) those two ideals agree with or contradict one another.

        So, this “just Paul’s statement in court” takes on the role of being, effectively, the beginning point for the whole thing, and leads directly to the question, “What does God want us to do about crimes for which death is the appropriate penalty?”.

        • Roger Olson

          I do not believe that everything Paul believed is divine revelation. He said so himself.