“Thou shalt not kill.” This verse from the book of Exodus in the Bible is sometimes quoted as why Christians should not support capital punishment–executing someone for committing terrible crimes like murder or rape. However, the Bible is far from clear on this subject. The Hebrew or Mosaic law (Given by God through Moses), also known as the Torah, identified numerous crimes that were punishable by death, including idolatry, taking God’s name in vain, murder, adultery, violation of the Sabbath, homosexuality, and even rebellion against parents.
As harsh as the penalty is for a range of offenses, the Mosaic Law, had a very high bar for conviction of these crimes:
One witness is not enough to convict anyone accused of any crime or offense they may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.
If anyone kills a person, the murderer is to be put to death on the testimony of multiple witnesses. But no one is to be put to death based on the testimony of a lone witness.
When Jesus arrives, some 1300 years had passed since the Old Testament law was given to the Israelites in the wilderness after they left Egypt.
Jesus did not directly address the matter of capital punishment, but in his Sermon on the Mount he rejected the notion of “an eye for an eye”. In an instance where a woman accused of adultery was brought to him and he was asked to pass judgement, he said to the accusers,
Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.
When all turned and left, he dismissed the woman admonishing her to “sin no more.”
Paul, an apostle, missionary and prolific writer in the first century, seemed to support a governmental role in capital punishment when he wrote to the church in Rome:
…the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.
Through the ages, Christian scholars have wrestled with the capital punishment question and many concluded that a duly elected government, operating under the rule of law, could execute certain criminals.
In America, today, capital punishment is very rare. The Innocence Project has brought to light many wrongful convictions, giving pause to numerous executions as cases are reexamined.
So, Can a Christian support capital punishment? That’s a matter best left between an individual and God. But keep in mind that all men are made in the image of God. From the beginning of time God wanted to enjoy fellowship with man. But man chose to rebel against his maker and death entered the world. God allowed sinful men to kill other sinful men so even today, we need laws and punishments to address crime and protect society from evil people.
Ironically, God allowed his son, Jesus, to suffer the indignity of capital punishment—death on a cross—so that innocent Jesus could take on the sins of every man and woman who ever walked on earth. His death opened a door for new life for all who believe in him, repent of their sins and walk into this new life, following their Savior.