Jesus Christ’s teaching on capital punishment

Capital punishment has been a debated issue for many years in the U.S. and will probably remain a hot-button issue for many years to come. Even Christians tend to disagree as to whether it is right or wrong and for those Christians in favor of the death penalty, there is disagreement over what crimes should be punishable by death.

The first mention of the idea of putting someone to death for a crime in the Bible appears in Genesis 9 when God spoke to Noah and his sons after they disembarked from the ark–

And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it, and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man’s brother will I require the life of man.Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man. [Genesis 9:5-6]

So the first and only crime designated for the death penalty was the crime of murder.  That’s understandable since the most important thing all people (saved or unsaved) have in common is their very life and because we are all created in God’s image, God lets us know that the lives of humans is sacred.

Centuries later when Mosaic law was established in Israel, crimes punishable by death were expanded to include such things as domestic violence against parents (Exodus 21:15), kidnapping (Exodus 21:16), child sacrifice (Leviticus 20:2), bestiality (Leviticus 20:15-16), blaspheming God’s name (Leviticus 24:16), and rape (Deuteronomy 22:25-27), just to name a few.  Now that we live in a different era, some of the crimes and sins in the Old Testament that required capital punishment are not considered to be so serious  that we would consider them as punishable by death.  That is partly due to Jesus Christ coming to Earth to teach us about God’s grace and mercy and his teachings affecting the laws of mankind in many parts of the world.

Although God established capital punishment during the early years of the Earth’s existence, we are shown in the Bible many times that unjust rulers use the death penalty as a guise for getting rid of righteous or innocent people that they don’t like.  The death penalty was used by Jezebel against Naboth to steal his land, by Manasseh the king of Judah to destroy those who resisted his evil policies, by Herod Antipas to slay John the Baptist so he wouldn’t look foolish in front of his friends when he promised to give his stepdaughter Salome whatever she wanted, and by Pontius Pilate to crucify our Lord under pressure from Jewish leaders.

In spite of his foreknowledge that government leaders would use capital punishment to murder innocent people including himself, the Lord Jesus Christ never condemned the death penalty as a way of punishment and seems to promote it in his teachings.  There are at least two instances in the scripture where Christ talks about the death penalty.  The first instance is when Jesus spoke of harming children–

But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh! [Matthew 18:6-7]

Here we see clearly that Jesus states that anyone who offends (commits a criminal offense) against a child deserves to be put to death in a way where they will suffer–death by drowning.  Yes, Jesus, our sinless Lord said a person who criminally harms a child should have a millstone tied around their neck and thrown into the sea.  A millstone is a very heavy stone used to grind grain into flour.  So apparently Christ was not really concerned with the human rights of a criminal offender receiving what we might argue today as being cruel and unusual punishment.  He was more concerned about the cruel and unusual violation of the child victims’ rights at the hands of an offender.

The next instance in scripture of Christ discussing capital punishment is when an act of Pontius Pilate was brought to his attention–

There were present at that season some that told him of the Galilaeans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.And Jesus answering said unto them, Suppose ye that these Galilaeans were sinners above all the Galilaeans, because they suffered such things?

I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish. [Luke 13:1-3]

Pilate had executed a group of Galileans at a time when the Galileans were involved in a religious ritual of offering sacrifices.  The people who told him about the incident must have told him in a tone of condemnation toward the Galileans.  They obviously felt that the Galileans were so evil that they deserved the death penalty and their feelings were probably justified.  But notice Christ’s response.  It was a response to get them to take a good look at themselves.  He did not condemn the death penalty or state that the Galileans were treated wrongly.  Instead he essentially asked the people around him, “Do you think that you are better than these Galileans because they were punished for their evil?  No, you’re not better than them in God’s eyes because unless you repent of your sinfulness by believing in me you will perish in the same way they did.”  He told them that their end would be the same as the most vile, unrepentant criminal, which is an implied reference to them going to hell when they died, unless they repented of their sins.  We are justified to condemn criminal acts of offenders as being worthy of the death penalty if it applies, but we go too far if in our condemnation of those criminals, we assume that we are spiritually superior to them if we don’t have a relationship with Jesus Christ.

The idea and principle of the death penalty was never condemned in the Bible, but its abuse was condemned, especially in the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Because we are shown that men in power can use capital punishment to harm innocent people, we are taught in the Bible that it should never be taken lightly or used loosely, but this in no way invalidates the very idea of having it as a law.

15 thoughts on “Jesus Christ’s teaching on capital punishment

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  1. I submit that just because a murder is committed by a ruler with government power does not make it “capital punishment,” though the effect is the same and the prohibitions on its mis-use would extend to those instances. Capital punishment (mis-used in the case of Naboth) is the penalty of death enacted for a person convicted of a capital offense. But rulers, then and now, engage in murder, and its enablement, without even pretending to convict anyone of such an offense. Indeed, had Teri Schiavo (or any of the 3500 innocent Americans daily executed without trial) actually been ACCUSED of a capital offense, she would have been afforded more rights than what her murderers gave her: no day in court to determine guilt, but thirteen days of torture to complete the extermination.

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  2. Doug,

    I would agree with what you’re implying–the sanctity of human life in the U.S. has been greatly degraded. And that’s really a shame when we consider ourselves to be an advanced society.

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    1. I politely disagree with your opinion that Luke 13 is an improper reference. Jesus was presented with a perfect opportunity here to denounce capital punishment if he chose to. But he did not mention a word against it but instead used it as a way to warn the sinners around him of their impending doom and by not denouncing capital punishment he let everyone know that he did not have any problems with it.

      And let’s face it–you called my reference improper just to get people to your blog.

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  3. I do not see Luke 13 as a specifc reference to or support for the Christan support for the death penalty.

    Pilate slaughtered a bunch of folks and Jesus commented that all must be careful and repent because they too could die in the same fashion.

    It has nothing to do with any Christian support for the death penalty, but is part of the constant warning to repent because none know when the end will be.

    That is how I read it.

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    1. If one takes into account the culture of when this incident took place in conjunction with Christ’s words, we can deduce he speaks of the death penalty.

      For instance, the Jews were often disgruntled about anyone who was appointed by the Roman government to rule over them and often complained or revolted against government action which is one reason why they hated publicans (tax collectors). The scripture from Luke 13 implies that they agreed with what Pilate did and for Jews to agree with the actions of a Roman ruler meant that Pilate obviously did something right. Jesus essentially asked them based on their statement to him about the incident, “Do you suppose these Galileans were the worst of all Galileans because they suffered the death penalty from Pilate?” He asked them this question to address their thinking because they did, in fact, think these Galileans were worse than everyone else and were worthy of Pilate’s judgment.

      Then Jesus went on to address their sin nature by telling them they should repent or face the same spiritual punishment as those Galileans, who they thought were the most sinful of all. Yes, it’s about repentance but it’s also about his view on the death penalty since he never condemned the death penalty when he had the perfect opportunity here to do so.

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  4. I hope you find these of interest.

    God: ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and ‘Whoever curses father or mother must certainly be put to death.’ Matthew 15:4

    Jesus: “So Pilate said to (Jesus), “Do you not speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you and I have power to crucify you?” Jesus answered (him), “You would have no power over me if it had not been given to you from above.” John 19:10-11

    Jesus: Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.” The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (Jesus) replied to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Luke 23: 39-43

    Jesus: “You have heard the ancients were told, ˜YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER” and “Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court”. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever shall say to his brother, “Raca”, shall be guilty before the supreme court and whoever shall say, “You fool”, shall be guilty enough to go into fiery hell.” Matthew 5:17-22.

    The Holy Spirit: God, through the power and justice of the Holy Spirit, executed both Ananias and his wife, Saphira. Their crime? Lying to the Holy Spirit – to God – through Peter. Acts 5:1-11.

    The Word of God: Numbers 35:16-21. Note the words “shall” and “surely”. What do you think they mean?

    ‘But if he struck him down with an iron object, so that he died, he is a murderer; the murderer shall surely be put to death. ‘If he struck him down with a stone in the hand, by which he will die, and as a result he died, he is a murderer; the murderer shall surely be put to death. ‘Or if he struck him with a wooden object in the hand, by which he might die, and as a result he died, he is a murderer; the murderer shall surely be put to death. ‘The blood avenger himself shall put the murderer to death; he shall put him to death when he meets him. ‘If he pushed him of hatred, or threw something at him lying in wait and as a result he died, or if he struck him down with his hand in enmity, and as a result he died, the one who struck him shall surely be put to death, he is a murderer; the blood avenger shall put the murderer to death when he meets him.
    Here is the full context http://nasb.scripturetext.com/numbers/35.htm

    ———————————————-
    Some lesser New Testament scholars

    Saint Paul, in his hearing before Festus, states: “if then I am a wrong doer, and have committed anything worthy of death, I do not refuse to die.” Acts 25:11.

    St. Augustine: “The same divine law which forbids the killing of a human being allows certain exceptions. Since the agent of authority is but a sword in the hand, and is not responsible for the killing, it is in no way contrary to the commandment “Thou shalt not kill”, for the representative of the State’s authority to put criminals to death, according to the Law or the rule of rational justice.” The City of God, Book 1, Chapter 21

    St. Thomas Aquinas finds all biblical interpretations against executions “frivolous”, citing Exodus 22:18, “wrongdoers thou shalt not suffer to live”. Unequivocally, he states,” The civil rulers execute, justly and sinlessly, pestiferous men in order to protect the peace of the state.” (Summa Contra Gentiles, III, 146

    St. Thomas Aquinas: “The fact that the evil, as long as they live, can be corrected from their errors does not prohibit the fact that they may be justly executed, for the danger which threatens from their way of life is greater and more certain than the good which may be expected from their improvement. They also have at that critical point of death the opportunity to be converted to God through repentance. And if they are so stubborn that even at the point of death their heart does not draw back from evil, it is possible to make a highly probable judgement that they would never come away from evil to the right use of their powers.” Summa Contra Gentiles, Book III, 146.

    Saints Thomas Aquinas and Augustine. In addition to the required punishment for murder and the deterrence standards, both Saints find that executing murderers is also an act of charity and mercy. Saint Augustine confirms that ” . . . inflicting capital punishment . . . protects those who are undergoing capital punishment from the harm they may suffer . . . through increased sinning which might continue if their life went on.” (On the Lord’s Sermon, 1.20.63-64.)

    Saint Thomas Aquinas finds that ” . . . the death inflicted by the judge profits the sinner, if he be converted, unto the expiation of his crime; and, if he be not converted, it profits so as to put an end to the sin, because the sinner is thus deprived of the power to sin anymore.” (Summa Theologica, II-II, 25, 6 ad 2.)

    St. Thomas Aquinas: “If a man is a danger to the community, threatening it with disintegration by some wrongdoing of his, then his execution for the healing and preservation of the common good is to be commended. Only the public authority, not private persons, may licitly execute malefactors by public judgement. Men shall be sentenced to death for crimes of irreparable harm or which are particularly perverted.” Summa Theologica, 11; 65-2; 66-6.

    “St. Thomas Aquinas quotes a gloss of St. Jerome on Matthew 27: “As Christ became accursed of the cross for us, for our salvation He was crucified as a guilty one among the guilty.” As Prof. Michael Pakaluk writes: “If no crime deserves the death penalty, then it is hard to see why it was fitting that Christ be put to death for our sins and crucified among thieves.” ” That Christ be put to death as a guilty person, presupposes that death is a fitting punishment for those who are guilty.” The Death Penalty: An Opposing Viewpoints Series Book, Greenhaven Press, (hereafter TDP:OVS), 1991

    Saint (& Pope) Pius V, “The just use of (executions), far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this (Fifth) Commandment which prohibits murder.” “The Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent” (1566).

    Pope Pius XII: “When it is a question of the execution of a man condemned to death it is then reserved to the public power to deprive the condemned of the benefit of life, in expiation of his fault, when already, by his fault, he has dispossessed himself of the right to live.” 9/14/52.

    Christians who speak out against capital punishment in deserving cases ” . . . tend to subordinate the justice of God to the love of God. . . . Peter, by cutting off Malchu’s ear,. . . was most likely trying to kill the soldier (John 18:10)”, prompting ” . . . Christ’s statement that those who kill by the sword are subject to die by the sword (Matthew 26:51-52).” This ” implicitly recognizes the government’s right to exercise the death penalty.” Dr. Carl F.H.Henry, “A Matter of Life and Death”, p 52 Christianity Today, 8/4/95.

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  5. Harry: In that context, that He made no rebuke to the death penalty, when He had the perfect opportunity to do so, I agree fully and was not looking at it in that manner.

    Thank you.

    Very akin to the oportunity in Luke 23:39-43, as I used, above.

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  6. Please note that Matthew 18:6 was not referring to an actual crime against children rather the term “offend” means to stumble.
    For example if you hindered a child say from attending a prayer meeting or from seeking God, really anything that would stumble their walk toward God would be categorized under 18:6 …Consider the context of the chapter 18:3…Except ye be converted and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Jesus wasn’t shifting gears to give us a bible study about crimes against children, it wouldn’t make sense-right?
    Regards-Adam
    By the way I really enjoy the layout of this site.

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    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Adam. You make some good observations. You’re right in that “offend” means to stumble or to cause to stumble. Jesus’ words in Matthew 18 can be applied to a whole range of situations. His ultimate point was regarding salvation as you stated.

      On the other hand, the word “offend” in Greek is “skandalizo” from which we get scandalize and can refer to trespassing against someone, which can cause them to stumble. Trespasses can be anything from hindering a child from seeking God to encouraging them in bad behavior to committing a crime against them. For instance, an adult who psychologically or physically abuses a child is teaching that child that this type of behavior is okay. And often such children, when they grow to their teen years and adulthood, abuse others in the same way they were abused. That’s why abuse can last for generations in a family.

      Another example is when an adult who is addicted to pornography then encourages a child he is in contact with (family member or not) to look at pornographic images. He is causing the child to stumble and is at the same time committing a crime against the child called “corruption of a minor.”

      Such actions against children can hinder them from having a relationship with God because their hearts can become hardened by these stumblingblocks, especially if they end up blaming God for them.

      These adults who cause children to stumble do so because they despise children and Jesus said in Matthew 18:10 “Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones…”

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  7. I am sorry but you can use verses to justify plural marriage slaves and the most famous an eye for an eye. Or if a child cures it’s parents it shall die if a husband lay in the same bed as his wife during the time of her impurity both shall die. Yet Christ says turn the other cheek. And judge as you would be judged believe me I understand the urge for revenge but at least for now I have to believe if Christ was before someone that was to be put to death I would hope that he wouldn’t allow it ( vengeance is mine saith The Lord)

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    1. A.M.,

      Your comment isn’t very truthful. Christ ushered in the NT which supersedes parts of the law you’re talking about w/ regard to a wife’s impurity. The moral foundations of the OT are continued into the NT, not necessarily the prescribed punishments.

      Also, when Christ said turn the other cheek, he was speaking of individuals who wanted to exact personal revenge, not those who wish to pursue a case via the government authorities (police, the courts). Jesus also told us it’s ok to judge once we remove any blinders from our own eyes, i.e. confessing & repenting of our sin. Your comment overlooks Romans 13, which establishes one of the purposes of proper government authority, stating “…for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.”

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  8. Harry:

    I fully agree with your interpretation, properly taking into account the historical context of that time. I also agree that there is another reasonable context, which does not include specific biblical support for the death penalty, in that passage.

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  9. Harry:

    Professor Bailey states that Romans 13 is not a specific refernce or endorsement to execution.

    His book is the best I have ever seen on biblical support for the death penalty. I recommend it, highly;

    I sent the book to Charkes Ryrie, who wrote me back, stating it made him rethink Romans 13.

    Enjoy.

    Lloyd R. Bailey, Capital Punishment: What the Bible Says (Abingdon Press, 1987):

    An approved synopsis:

    The Bible clearly asserts, from beginning to end, without any reservation, that righteous judgement includes the execution of a murderer. In the case of murder, the biblical materials offer the clearest and most sustained justification for the death penalty. The purpose of capital punishment is justice – deterrence is irrelevant. A person who takes a human life, without proper sanction, forfeits any right to life – no alternative is allowed and the community must not be swayed by values to the contrary.

    Listen carefully to the Bible as the Word of God rather than seek to improve upon it by means of human values. However meritorious mercy may be, however abundantly evident it may be in God’s own dealings, murder was an offense for which mercy and pity were not allowed and for which monetary compensation was strictly forbidden. The sentence is set by God’s torah and a judge cannot have discretion in this matter. Murder is something utterly on its own, nothing can be compared to it.

    It should not be overlooked, in seeking to discover the ‘mind of Jesus Christ’ on the issue of murder and its punishments, that He goes beyond torah to the statement that even verbal abuse makes one deserving of ‘the hell of fire’. Far from releasing believers from prior law, Jesus was a ‘hard liner’ who made things even tougher, stating that He has come not ‘to abolish the law and the prophets . . . but to fulfill them.’, offering even stronger interpretations than in the original (Matthew 5:17-22). Indeed, Jesus admonishes the Pharisees not to misuse torah for their own ends, but to honor God and torah. And of all the text in the Bible, which one does Jesus select to emphasize that crucial point? ‘HE WHO SPEAKS EVIL OF FATHER OR MOTHER, LET HIM BE PUT TO DEATH’ (Matthew 15:1-9).

    All interpretations, contrary to the biblical support of capital punishment, are false. Interpreters ought to listen to the Bible’s own agenda, rather than to squeeze from it implications for their own agenda. As the ancient rabbis taught, “Do not seek to be more righteous than your Creator.’ (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7.33.).

    This book is mandatory reading for those who wish to undertake a thorough and accurate look at this often misused and misunderstood area of concern and debate.

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