Capital Punishment: An Overview of Christian Perspectives

May 29, 2014

Capital punishment, or the death penalty, refers to the execution by the state of those guilty of certain crimes.

Theologically, most mainline Protestant churches, such as Presbyterian Church in the USA, many Episcopal, and Lutheran churches, oppose the death penalty. Even some historically evangelical churches such as the United Church of Christ and many Methodist and Baptist churches opposed capital punishment. The Roman Catholic Church supports capital punishment in principal but holds that current application is unnecessary since we have matured as a culture. On the other hand, most Protestant conservatives, including the majority of members of the Southern Baptist Convention, and other growing evangelical movements such as Reformed Christians and Conservative Baptists, support capital punishment on biblical grounds.

What is the Southern Baptist Convention’s official position on the death penalty?

In a resolution in 2000, the SBC affirmed support for the fair and equitable use of capital punishment by civil magistrates as a legitimate form of punishment for those guilty of murder or treasonous acts that result in death.[1]

The SBC also resolved:

What Does the Bible Say About the Death Penalty?

The Bible clearly states that immediately after the Noahic Flood God mandated the use of the death penalty. In Gen. 9:6 God instructs Noah and his sons, “Whoever sheds man’s blood, his blood will be shed by man, for God made man in His image.” (HCSB)

God’s reason for issuing this mandate is that humans are created in the image of God (Gen. 9:6). Mankind’s creation in the image of God is what makes all human life sacred and can bring a penalty as severe as death for its violation.

The right to exercise capital punishment is reserved for the state, not the individual. There is no place for personal revenge in the administration of this punishment (Rom. 12:19). It is the state’s responsibility, as God’s civil servant on earth, to protect its citizens and to punish those who harm them (Rom. 13:4,6). Capital punishment provides the state the means to apply the appropriate punishment to the crime (Deut. 19:21).

God instituted capital punishment as a legitimate punitive option for every state. Its institution predates Israel’s birth as a nation and Moses’ divinely inspired directions for the nation’s governance, eliminating the possibility that capital punishment was mandated solely for Israel. God issued guidance on capital punishment to earth’s only surviving people (Gen. 7:20-24); these people and God’s instructions to them provided the foundation for all subsequent governments.

In the New Testament, Paul affirms that the governing authorities “do not bear the sword (machaira) for nothing” (Rom. 13:4). It is likely that Paul is expressing the general principle that the state has the right to punish its citizens for breaking its laws. More specifically, however, since the machaira (sword) is typically an instrument of death in the New Testament, and certainly in Romans (cf. Rom. 8:35-36), it is evident that the state’s authority to administer justice includes capital punishment.

The state possesses this power of death to punish evil (Rom. 13:4; 1 Pet. 2:13-14); however, only those acts identified by God as evil justify the use of capital punishment (Isa. 5:20). A state that uses capital punishment for something other than punishing evil as defined by God abuses its power and violates God’s standard for its use. 

Application and Guidelines for Capital Punishment

In order to assure the fair administration of justice God established some important guidelines for Israel, which any state would be wise to adopt, especially in a matter as serious as capital punishment.

The accused person must have committed a crime for which death is the appropriate punishment. (Deut. 19:21).

Clear evidence of guilt must be provided by two or three witnesses. One witness was not sufficient to result in capital punishment (Num. 35:30; Deut. 17:6). God is aware that unscrupulous people may attempt to use the death penalty for evil purposes. Therefore, he requires multiple witnesses to the supposed crime.

Those charged with crimes must be treated in a uniform and impartial manner, regardless of status (Deut. 1:17) or class (Lev. 19:15). Any society that favors some people and discriminates against others because of class or status, or deprives some of adequate defense, intentionally or through neglect, diminishes its integrity and creates serious doubts about its commitment to justice (Lev. 24:22).

Though capital punishment remains a legitimate option for the state, this option must be exercised under the strictest of conditions. The state that chooses to exercise the power of life and death over its citizenry must be certain it has done all it can to assure that it is punishing the right person, that the punishment fits the crime, and that everyone, regardless of class or status, has had an adequate, vigorous defense. Anything less may bring the condemnation of God on that society.

Common Christian Objections to Capital Punishment

Despite the clear Biblical mandate and authorization in both the Old and New Testaments, some Christians oppose the implementation of the death penalty in modern societies.

The following are some of the most common objections and the responses frequently offered in rebuttal. (Note: The arguments made on both sides of the capital punishment are often complex and nuanced. The summaries below are intended as an overview, not as a full presentation of the representative arguments.)

     Objection: The incident with the woman caught in adultery is evidence that Jesus opposed capital punishment (John 8:1-11).

     Rebuttal: Jesus’ reaction in this incident was not directed at the prescribed punishment, but rather at those who sought to trap Him into participating in an act that was illegitimate for several reasons (John 8:6). First, the scribes and Pharisees did not constitute an official governing body. Their efforts represented an illegitimate attempt to exercise the power of the state. Second, there is no indication that there was any formal presentation of charges against the woman or official declaration of her guilt. Third, there is no evidence that the witnesses to the crime were present. At least two witnesses were necessary to prove capital cases and, in many instances, they had to throw the first stones (Deut. 17:6-7).

     Objection: The Old Testament required capital punishment in Israel for a variety of crimes and sins. Since we no longer apply the death penalty in those situations, we have no right to apply them in others.

     Rebuttal: Because God held his covenant people to a high spiritual standard, he specified capital punishment for the above acts. Since no other nation has this same relationship with God, he has not specified that these acts are subject to the same penalty in other societies. However, because God mandated capital punishment prior to Israel’s establishment, at the very least, it is a legitimate response to murder in other societies.

Genesis 9:5-6 provides the Biblical basis for capital punishment in the case of murder. Since this covenant is “everlasting” (9:16) and “for all future generations” (9:12), it’s as applicable today as it was in the age of Noah. Unless Christians adopt a form of supersessionism in regards to this covenant, we must recognize that this Noahide Law is still applicable and binding on all mankind.

     Objection: Even if it is warranted, the death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment.

     Rebuttal: This objection conflates an American legal objection with a universal theological reason. The death penalty has been applied in American law for 350 years, when the Supreme Court case Furman v. Georgia came along. In this 1972 capital punishment case, the majority in the United States Supreme Court declared the statues to be unconstitutionally “cruel and unusual.”[2]

Historically, the Supreme Court’s decision in Furman was in itself unusual. Previously the Court utilized the words cruel and unusual but not in direct relation to the death penalty. For example, the Court supported capital punishment in these cases: in Wilkerson v. Utah, 1878, death by firing squad; and in In re Kemmler, 1890, death by electrocution. Both cases had been endorsed by the Court in the nineteenth century. More than 50 years later, the Court further endorsed the “strap[ping] [of] a prisoner into the electric chair a second time after a faulty system failed in the first attempt” (Louisiana ex rel Francis v. Reswebe, 1947).

On the hope that the Court would allow the death penalty in other cases, state legislatures wrote laws to adapt to the Supreme Court’s new view of limited or “guided discretion” laws for juries. In other words, states tried to write laws that did not call for mandatory death penalties, but called for “rational” or “objective standards” for juries when imposing the death penalty. The state effort to bring back the death penalty was successful. In 1976, the Supreme Court “held that capital punishment per se was not unconstitutional” (Gregg v. Georgia). In the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, states that brought cases which reflected limited or guided discretion laws (for juries to apply the death penalty) were upheld by the Supreme Court.

From a Christian perspective, the death penalty cannot be considered “unusual” since it has been applied throughout history since the days of Noah. However, the consideration that it can be “cruel” is a valid consideration and should limit the way capital punishment is applied. When imposing the death penalty, the state should respect the inherent dignity of the person to be executed and avoid unnecessary infliction of pain.

     Objection: Capital punishment is an expression of vengeance which contradicts the justice of God on the cross.”[3]

     Rebuttal: This argument rests on the assumption that outlawing private revenge frees governments from the responsibility to implement God-mandated capital punishment. However, during the implementation of the death penalty, any individual involved in the pursuit of justice, whether judge, jury, family member or friend of the victim, must first set aside personal revenge and hatred by acknowledging that the convicted is made in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27) and must be afforded value, dignity and significance. The convicted must also be judged as primarily responsible for the death of another valued human being. As St. Augustine said, “Penalties must be applied. I don’t deny it, I don’t forbid it; only let it be done in a spirit of love, a spirit of caring, a spirit of reforming.”

     Objection: In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus places calls for an end to the lex talionis, the law of retaliation (Ex. 21:23-24; Deut. 19:21; Lev. 24:20-21): “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I tell you, don’t resist an evildoer. On the contrary, if anyone slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” (Matt. 5:38-39)

     Rebuttal: Jesus did indeed put a radical limitation on what was once considered an individual right to justice. The passage is both inspiring and intimidating; the very thought of living such a life is humbling. But we should carefully note what Jesus did not say in this passage. What he left out of the verse he quoted is as important as what he included. Exodus 21:23-24 states: “If there is an injury, then you must give life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot . . . ”

Notice that Jesus starts quoting at “eye for an eye” instead of “life for life.” Murder was not, nor had it ever been, a matter of individual vengeance—that is, an issue that can be adjudicated under tort law. When a person commits murder they are committing an offense against God himself and not against a mere individual, his family, or even society. Jesus’ command only applies to individual vengeance; it does not abrogate God’s command in the Noahic covenant.

     Objection: When governments implement the death penalty, then the life of the convicted person is devalued and all possibility of change in that person's life ends. The resurrection of Jesus Christ and that the possibility of reconciliation with Christ comes through repentance. This gift of reconciliation is offered to all individuals without exception and gives all life new dignity and sacredness. [4]

     Rebuttal: We tend to think of rehabilitation as a means of restoring a criminal to society. And modern defenders of capital punishment focus almost exclusively on the deterrent or retributive values of the death penalty. But when the death penalty was first imposed in America, it was expected to encourage offenders' repentance. “Rehabilitation was one of the primary reasons that capital punishment was imposed in early America,” notes law professor Megan Ryan, “and there are several stories of brutal murderers being rehabilitated on death row.”[5]

We need to be reintroduced to this view of rehabilitation that has been all but forgotten yet corresponds with the Christian view of dignity. Imposing the death penalty can help the murderer restore the broken relationship with their Creator, not just with humankind. While we have an interest in a criminal's return to society, we should be even more concerned with the state of their soul.


[1] Southern Baptist Convention, “On Capital Punishment,” http://www.sbc.net/resolutions/299

[2] Maiman, R.J., & Steamer, R.J. (1992). American Constitutional Law: Introduction and Case Studies. St. Louis, MO: McGraw-Hill, Inc., p. 35.

[3] The is the position of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). See: http://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/101/capital-punishment/

[4] This is the position of the United Methodist Church. See: http://archives.umc.org/interior.asp?ptid=1&mid=6385

[5] Meghan J. Ryan, “Death and Rehabilitation,” SMU Dedman School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 112. Accessed from http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2128175

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24