N.T. Wright on the Death Penalty and American Christianity

N.T. Wright on the Death Penalty and American Christianity September 22, 2011
Source: Trevin Wax

This comes from a short article in the Washington Post “On Faith:”

You can’t reconcile being pro-life on abortion and pro-death on the death penalty. Almost all the early Christian Fathers were opposed to the death penalty, even though it was of course standard practice across the ancient world. As far as they were concerned, their stance went along with the traditional ancient Jewish and Christian belief in life as a gift from God, which is why (for instance) they refused to follow the ubiquitous pagan practice of ‘exposing’ baby girls (i.e. leaving them out for the wolves or for slave-traders to pick up).

Mind you, there is in my view just as illogical a position on the part of those who solidly oppose the death penalty but are very keen on the ‘right’ of a woman (or couple) to kill their conceived but not yet born child…

From where many of us in the UK sit, American politics is hopelessly polarized. All kinds of issues get bundled up into two great heaps. The rest of the world, today and across the centuries, simply doesn’t see things in this horribly oversimplified way…

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  • “You can’t reconcile being pro-life on abortion and pro-death on the death penalty…. Mind you, there is in my view just as illogical a position on the part of those who solidly oppose the death penalty but are very keen on the ‘right’ of a woman (or couple) to kill their conceived but not yet born child….”

    Neither of these statements is logically sound. You cannot draw an equivalence between the death penalty and abortion.

    Consider these perfectly logical (though not neccessarily correct) positions.

    Person 1 believes
    A) It is only permissible to take a human life as punishment for a heineous crime.
    B) A fetus becomes a human life at conception.

    Person 2 believes
    A) It is never permissble to take a human life
    B) a fetus is not a human life.

    Person 1 will conclude, quite logically, based upon his opinions that the death penality is okay, but that abortion is wrong. Person 2 will conclude, quite logically, based upon his opinions that the death penality is wrong, but that abortion is okay.

    Whether Tom Wright agrees with the opinions of person 1 or 2 is irrelevant. Neither is being illogical. Neither person has any trouble reconciling his beliefs. 

    • @yahoo-RNDBUIAPOBIOXRRPZYL5QZJO74:disqus … from a New Testament perspective, that logic is completely sound 🙂

      • I’m sorry, I’m interested in your link, but I’m not sure what I’m looking for? Could you please point me in the right direction to get the New Testament perspective which backs up Martyologist’s logic statement?

      • I’m sure you cannot comprehend how frustrating I find this response.

        About a year or so ago, I changed churches and moved out of a more sectarian environment to a broader Christian world.

        Since that time I’ve participated in many Christian blogs that I would not have paid any attention to before, but I have since quit almost all of them.

        I am incapable of communicating with other Christians either on-line or face to face except for my wife.

        • Sorry about that. Just making the comment that this isn’t about ‘logic’ but about how violence and death are portrayed in the New Testament.  The way of Jesus is illogical at times.

    • I believe the point being made there is that, from the gaze of a disciple of Jesus (who believes the unborn child is just as human as the heinous criminal), the two humans cannot be treated as something less than human.

      I cannot consistently say, “We cannot hand this criminal over to the executioner because he’s created in God’s image,” and then say, “This pregnant lady can hand her unborn child over to the executioner because, in this case, her choice is more important than the humanity of the unborn child.” The presupposition for Wright is that the Christian believes the unborn child is human.

      With the presupposition, the death penalty and abortion are very much on the same plane. Consistency is key.

  • Allen O’Brien

    This reminds me of N.T. Wright’s criticism of Christian culture that decries evolution in science, but swears by it in economy (i.e. Capitalism).  Good stuff.


  • Anonymous

    This reminds me of N.T. Wright’s criticism of Christian culture that
    decries evolution in science, but swears by it in economy (i.e.
    Capitalism).  Good stuff.

  • JM

    “…their stance went along with the traditional ancient Jewish and Christian belief in life as a gift from God”

    This is, at least according to the Hebrew Scriptures, precisely why God instituted capital punishment under Noah and later under Moses in the first place.  I would like to hear more Christians interact with the OT in more detail instead of starting with the NT.

    I love N.T. Wright, but I don’t think I can go with him on linking the two practices (capital punishment and abortion/exposure). Scripture never does this, even in the NT.

    And as conflicted as I am emotionally on the issue, I just don’t see Jesus, the Apostles, NT authors, or any early Christian Father saying that something God instituted before and during the Old Covenant is always wrong. The only thing they seem to do that with is sacrifices…so perhaps one could make a similar argument about capital punishment. I could find such an argument respectable, if it weren’t based on purely emotional appeal, though I don’t know if it would settle the issue for me. 

    For my own (admittedly conflicted) thoughts on it I invite readers to check out http://jmsmith.org/blog/death-penalty and share their thoughts (including you, Kurt!).

  • Violence is inherently evil.
    learn through the action, language and symbols of their state that when
    there are difficulties or differences with others, then the primary
    solution to the “problem” is through violence… Because, we assure
    ourselves, that is the only language such sub-humans understand: The
    whip; the bomb; the tank; the grenade. What kind of strange fruit hangs from our trees?” http://leftcheek.blogspot.com/2011/09/lynchings-draggings-and-strange-fruit.html

  • Amen.  Just Amen.

  • smart cookie that wright

  • Allow
    me to throw this into the discussion:


    I said more in a comment
    on “The State Killed 2 Men Last Night,” but relevant to this post…


    I believe there is a
    difference between abortion, murder and the death penalty, just as there is also a
    huge difference between a state-imposed death penalty, and parents
    “exposing” an unwanted child. The analogy simply does not carry over.


    I do not see a necessary
    contradiction in being pro-life (i.e. anti-abortion) and pro-death penalty. The
    victim of an abortion is innocent–an innocent, unborn child in the worldview
    of the pro-life position. A murder victim is also innocent, whereas one
    sentenced to death may or may not be innocent, it is true, but they were
    condemned as guilty by a court with witnesses and a judge.


    And that bring up the
    other difference: abortion and murder are individual decisions to take life. But
    the death penalty is imposed by the state (not by an individual) and is done after
    a trial. So there is no real contradiction in wanting to protect innocent life
    and at the same time being willing to see the death penalty imposed upon the guilty.


    See my other comment for
    more “devil’s advocacy” on the issue.



    • Wendy

      sounds like you are trying to justify capital punishment to me…

      • Bill Davis

        Wendy, I was not arguing for capital punishment per se. In commenting here, I was trying to show how the the analogy with abortion does not really work (not to me, anyway!) However, I do have struggle with the position that capital punishment is somehow “immoral” or something Christians cannot accept, since that ignores the Scriptures where our Lord himself commanded capital punishment (for “crimes” as minor as sassing parents and touching Mt. Sinai). God would not mandate something immoral. So the issue is not as simple as it might seem, I guess.

    • Ian

      “But the death penalty is imposed by the state (not an individual) and is done after a trial.”
      This is a weak argument. No matter what we humans try to make our government, it never really is a non-human entity.  A jury is still 12 people arguing in a back room ,a judge is still 1 guy dressed in a silly robe holding a wooden hammer ,an executioner is still a guy holding a needle, and someone who is pro-capital punishment is still someone who has desired sacrifice instead of mercy (you might give Hosea 6:6 and Matthew 9:10-13 a look)

      • Bill Davis

        In the Old Testament God mandated capital punishment with a jury of 2 or 3 (not 12). It is a serious thing, to be sure, but cannot be completely rejected since our God commanded it. I personally think you’re taking those verses out of context, Ian. In Hosea God is accusing the Jews of bringing sacrifices when he would have preferred the obeyed him in the first place. Ironically, the book goes on to describe the death and destruction God sent to Israel because they refused to repent. Matt 9:10-13 does not contradict the state’s right to impose the death penalty. The Lord is rebuking the Pharisee’s for thinking they are better (when they weren’t) and that he came to save sinners. It says nothing about what the state may or may not do about those who commit horrible crimes. Anyway, I’m just arguing from the point of what the Scriptures say, not because I have a light or joyful spirit about such serious matter (just FYI)

  • Kurt, I have no idea why my comments showed up with the annoying extra spaces! Any way to delete? “Edit” does not work. I’d be willing to retype them from scratch, if necessary. Thanks.

  • Amarykinwoman

    Are you kidding?  No difference between deliberately ending a completely innocent and helpless life (the unborn), the elderly and that of a  murderer who CHOSE to commit a crime that he/she knew to be deserving of a death penalty?  Really?  I just do not understand that “logic”–sorry, but that is a very weak argument.

    • Clayton G

      I would say that the weak argument is that anyone deserves the death penalty (unless you mean that we all do as sinners) or that we have any right to perform it.  It is not our place to end the life of anyone regardless of past, present, or foreseen future.  Justice is one thing, killing is another.  I CHOSE to follow the ways of Jesus in showing love to neighbour (and even my enemy).

      • BINGO!!! Well said. We all deserve the death penalty for our sins. It’s hypocritical to accept grace instead of punishment and then be pro-death penalty for other people.

  • Jim

    I agree with Bishop Wright entirely.

    I might quibble on abortion only so far as the matter of criminalization goes. Supporting a woman’s “right” to abortion and throwing  her (or her doctor) in prison (or executing her and the doctor as Senator Tom Coburn proposed)  are two different things entirely.

    It is true that the Old Testament permitted capital punishment. Indeed, it was required for a whole raft of “crimes”. But the burden of proof for conviction and sentence was quite heavy and the admonitions against false accusation leading to the shedding of innocent blood were awesome.

    Interestingly, the shedding of innocent blood…even the blood of an animal…was a serious offense. But under Mosaic law, if a man struggled with a woman and caused her to miscarry or abort, he was to pay a fine…if her husband deemed it appropriate. I say that not to necessarily stake out “pro-choice” ground. But to offer some additional food for thought.

    • JM

      Jim, not disagreeing with you completely, but just to chime in on the passage you mentioned, the case can be strongly made (and I believe it makes much more sense of the Hebrew text) that Exodus 21:22 is referring to someone hitting a pregnant woman which results in premature birth, not miscarriage.  NASB and NRSV, along with a few other translations make an interpretive move by using “miscarriage” instead of what the text literally says in Hebrew which is “comes out.”

      The NET’s note on the passage gives a good summary of why it’s unlikely that miscarriage is being discussed rather than premature birth:

      “This line has occasioned a good deal of discussion. It may indicate that the child was killed, as in a miscarriage; or it may mean that there was a premature birth. The latter view is taken here because of the way the whole section is written: (1) “her children come out” reflects a birth and not the loss of children, (2) there is no serious damage, and (3) payment is to be set for any remuneration. The word (‘ason) is translated “serious damage.” The word was taken in Mekilta to mean “death.” U. Cassuto says the point of the phrase is that neither the woman or the children that are born die (Exodus, 275).”

  • God has given the governments of the earth authority to make laws and enforce them, Since we are called to love our neighbor, it is obviously more important to do what is right than to follow the law, but that does not nullify the justice of a law that does not directly contradict Christian precepts. And since the Old Testament sanctions the use of the death penalty for a murderer, it is hard to see how such a parallel law today – enforced, of course, with all necessary caution and justice – violates Christian precepts. Surely God has not changed His view of justice since ~1400 BC. 

    The Hebrew word for “murder” in the Ten Commandments does not refer to any killing, but to an unjustified act of slaughter. It does not apply to an execution or the killing of another human being in war. This would be why it’s possible to support the death penalty, remain pro-life and be a rational Christian. Killing an unborn child is murder; killing a murderer for his crime is not. It may not be the most merciful act or decision, but it is not fundamentally incompatible with Christian thought. 

    By the way, I do oppose the death penalty for all crimes except those against humanity – but out of a sense of mercy and the knowledge that the death penalty costs more money than life imprisonment, not because I believe that it goes against Christ’s teachings. 

    • Anthonybhoy

      Did you just quote something from 1400BC with the word Christian in it? I’m no genius, but I’m fairly certain 1400BC is just a tad early for references to Christianity? 1400BC, common.

    • I think where the real inconsistency comes into play, Jack, is when those who style themselves “Pro-Life” oppose abortion and euthanasia on the grounds that “human life is sacred.”  They appeal, not primarily to Scripture (except to “prove” that the fetus is already human), but rather to the extrabiblical (though true and Biblically-supportable) contention that there is something about human life that makes it wrong for humans to end it.  Sometimes, but not always, they add the qualifier “innocent” to the lives in question.

      However, these same people, having made these same arguments, then give the State a pass, not only in the taking of “non-innocent” lives, but in warfare with its innocent “collateral damage” casualties (and remember modern warfare involves far more collateral damage than ancient hand-to-hand combat).  They also are frequently vitriolic opponents of attempts to stop questionable executions such as the one that took place this week.

      IF the sanctity of human life is truly the paramount objective that “pro-lifers” claim, then they should be as grieved, and fight as hard to prevent collateral damage in war and any execution that does not far surpass the “reasonable doubt” standard to the point of “none but a fool could question guilt” standard.  Yet this is not the case.  Instead, these folks hide behind a flawed interpretation of Romans 13 in giving the State license to kill without accountability, and even more, they frequently are vociferous and enthusiastic cheerleaders for, and participants in, the State’s actions.

      I don’t know that I can make it all the way to “no Christian should ever take any human life under any circumstances,” although that is the way I was raised and I certainly sympathize with those who are still there.  However, I am convinced that the vast majority of circumstances in which American Christians support and/or participate in the taking of life are, in fact, anti-Christian.

    • Oh, and one more thing…how can you appeal to the Old Testament “sanction [of] the death penalty for a murder” without also accepting the other Old Testament-defined capital crimes, including rebellion against parents, adultery, and witchcraft?  If it is valid to no longer execute such people for these reasons, then your O.T. as a foundation for capital punishment at all is pretty shaky.

      Not to mention, do you really think lethal injection should be replaced by a good Biblical stoning?

  • It’s just semantics actually. Using a term like ‘pro-life’ means that you are pro life. People who are against abortion but don’t care for other born life (and non-human lafe) should find another term, since the flag doesn’t match the cargo, as a saying in my own language goes.  Call yourself anti-abortion or something like that if you care about unborn life. You’re making the term useless…

    A consistent pro-life (anti abortion, poverty, war, destruction of nature, etc.) is way more Christian anyway… The idea of abortion isn’t even in the bible, loving all humans including enemies is. (which includes the unborn, but they never are the only life to be defended) Only those who put the didache in their canon will have a verse that speaks exclusively and cleartly on abortion…

    I don’t see how anyone c

  • Jackson Baer

    The Bible does not teach eternal punishment. God’s love & mercy
    endures forever. Does it really endure forever or only in this life? How
    can it be Good News if it doesn’t translate to the afterlife? He’s a
    better Father than we are, right? He will still judge but He won’t write
    people off forever.

    1 Timothy 4:10- This is why we work hard and continue to struggle,
    for our hope is in the living God, who is the Savior of all people and
    particularly of all believers.

    That’s like saying track is for everyone, especially those who like
    to run. Water is for everyone, especially those who are thirsty.
    Salvation is for everyone, especially those who believe.

    Titus 2:11- For the grace of God has been revealed, bringing salvation to all people.

    1 Peter 4:5-6- But remember that they will have to face God, who will
    judge everyone, both the living and the dead. That is why the Good News
    was preached to those who are now dead—so although they were destined
    to die like all people, they now live forever with God in the Spirit.

    I’m glad God is more gracious than most Christians.