Is Capital Punishment Biblical?

Few issues have been as controversial among both non-Christians and Christians as the death penalty. Currently, our nation is deeply divided over this question, with 19 states opting to not allow any form of capital punishment. The issue rests on this point: does a government have the authority to take the life of a human being convicted of a capital crime? Following are a few thoughts.

The word “kill” in “Thou shalt not kill” (Ex. 20:13, KJV) is better translated “murder” because the Old Covenant did not prohibit every kind of killing. In fact, it commanded capital punishment for those who committed crimes worthy of death. Just one chapter after the 10 Commandments are given, God prescribes death for one who kills another man, strikes or curses his parents, or kidnaps: he “shall surely be put to death” (Ex. 21:12-17). Another place in Exodus captures the meaning of the sixth commandment: “Do not kill the innocent or the righteous, for I will not acquit the guilty” (Ex. 23:7).

The death penalty does not violate the sanctity of life; rather, it upholds and reinforces it. God said to Noah after the flood, “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man” (Gen. 9:6). Here is universally established the principle of the sanctity of life in two ways: the prohibition of murder to protect the innocent, and the prescribing of death for the murderer to punish the guilty.

God does not give us sovereignty over all matters of life and death, but notice carefully that God here gives us the authority to execute this judgment in the case of murder. We agree that no person can perfectly discern the motives of another’s heart. Sometimes mistakes are made in even the most unbiased human courts. Only God’s judgments are flawless and perfectly just. Yet He delegated authority to imperfect humans the right to execute those found guilty of capital crimes: “by man his blood shall be shed.”

Elsewhere the Bible teaches that only the blood of the murderer can compensate for the murder of an innocent. “So you shall not pollute the land in which you are; for blood pollutes the land and no expiation can be made for the land for the blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it” (Num. 35:33). Punishing a murderer with death is not cruel. It may not be merciful, but it is just. By taking the life of another he has thereby forfeited his own right to live.

Speaking of civil authorities, Paul wrote, “But if you do evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil” (Rom. 13:4). This passage illustrates that even in New Testament times governments maintain this right to punish—even ones as wicked an immoral as Nero’s.

We are not advocating reckless, rash, unregulated, or cruel use of the death penalty. The Bible makes a careful distinction between premeditated murder and accidental manslaughter (review the regulations about the “cities of refuge” in Duet. 19:1-13). The Bible also warns that adequate evidence must be present to execute someone (Num. 35:30). Lastly, the Bible condemns personal vengeance: “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Rom. 12:19). Capital punishment is only properly administered by the governing authorities after a fair and balanced trial.

Certainly capital punishment can be misused. Justice can be skewed. Yet it seems clear to me—for the above reasons—that the Bible allows such a judgment in the case of a murder. Should we not then value all human life as created in the image of God?