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May 1st, 2014
09:15 AM ET

Why Christians should support the death penalty

Opinion by R. Albert Mohler Jr., Special to CNN

(CNN) - The death penalty has been part of human society for millennia, understood to be the ultimate punishment for the most serious crimes.

But, should Christians support the death penalty now, especially in light of the controversial execution Tuesday in Oklahoma?

This is not an easy yes or no question.

On the one hand, the Bible clearly calls for capital punishment in the case of intentional murder.

In Genesis 9:6, God told Noah that the penalty for intentional murder should be death: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.”

The death penalty was explicitly grounded in the fact that God made every individual human being in his own image, and thus an act of intentional murder is an assault upon human dignity and the very image of God.

In the simplest form, the Bible condemns murder and calls for the death of the murderer. The one who intentionally takes life by murder forfeits the right to his own life.

In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul instructs Christians that the government “does not bear the sword in vain.” Indeed, in this case the magistrate “is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the evildoer.” [Romans 13:4]

On the other hand, the Bible raises a very high requirement for evidence in a case of capital murder.

The act of murder must be confirmed and corroborated by the eyewitness testimony of accusers, and the society is to take every reasonable precaution to ensure that no one is punished unjustly.

While the death penalty is allowed and even mandated in some cases, the Bible also reveals that not all who are guilty of murder and complicity in murder are executed.

Just remember the biblical accounts concerning Moses, David and Saul, later known as Paul.

Christian thinking about the death penalty must begin with the fact that the Bible envisions a society in which capital punishment for murder is sometimes necessary, but should be exceedingly rare.

The Bible also affirms that the death penalty, rightly and justly applied, will have a powerful deterrent effect.

In a world of violence, the death penalty is understood as a necessary firewall against the spread of further deadly violence.

Seen in this light, the problem we face today is not with the death penalty, but with society at large.

American society is quickly conforming to a secular worldview, and the clear sense of right and wrong that was Christianity’s gift to Western civilization is being replaced with a much more ambiguous morality.

We have lost the cultural ability to declare murder – even mass murder – to be deserving of the death penalty.

Oklahoma's botched lethal injection marks new front in battle over executions

We have also robbed the death penalty of its deterrent power by allowing death penalty cases to languish for years in the legal system, often based on irrational and irrelevant appeals.

While most Americans claim to believe that the death penalty should be supported, there is a wide disparity in how Americans of different states and regions think about the issue.

Furthermore, Christians should be outraged at the economic and racial injustice in how the death penalty is applied. While the law itself is not prejudiced, the application of the death penalty often is.

Opinion: End secrecy in lethal injections

There is very little chance that a wealthy white murderer will ever be executed. There is a far greater likelihood that a poor African-American murderer will face execution.

Why? Because the rich can afford massively expensive legal defense teams that can exhaust the ability of the prosecution to get a death penalty sentence.

This is an outrage, and no Christian can support such a disparity. As the Bible warns, the rich must not be able to buy justice on their own terms.

There is also the larger cultural context. We must recognize that our cultural loss of confidence in human dignity and the secularizing of human identity has made murder a less heinous crime in the minds of many Americans.

Most would not admit this lower moral evaluation of murder, but our legal system is evidence that this is certainly true.

We also face a frontal assault upon the death penalty that is driven by legal activists and others determined to bring legal execution to an end in America.

Controversy over an execution this week in Oklahoma will bring even more attention to this cause, but most Americans will be completely unaware that this tragedy was caused by the inability of prison authorities to gain access to drugs for lethal injection that would have prevented those complications.

Opponents of the death penalty have, by their legal and political action, accomplished what might seem at first to be impossible – they now demand action to correct a situation that they largely created.

Their intention is to make the death penalty so horrifying in the public mind that support for executions would disappear. They have attacked every form of execution as “cruel and unusual punishment,” even though the Constitution itself authorizes the death penalty.

It is a testament to moral insanity that they have successfully diverted attention from a murderer’s heinous crimes and instead put the death penalty on trial.

Should Christians support the death penalty today?

I believe that Christians should hope, pray and strive for a society in which the death penalty, rightly and rarely applied, would make moral sense.

This would be a society in which there is every protection for the rights of the accused, and every assurance that the social status of the murderer will not determine the sentence for the crime.

Christians should work to ensure that there can be no reasonable doubt that the accused is indeed guilty of the crime. We must pray for a society in which the motive behind capital punishment is justice, and not merely revenge.

We must work for a society that will honor every single human being at every point of development and of every race and ethnicity as made in God’s image.

We must hope for a society that will support and demand the execution of justice in order to protect the very existence of that society. We must pray for a society that rightly tempers justice with mercy.

Should Christians support the death penalty today? I believe that we must, but with the considerations detailed above.

At the same time, given the secularization of our culture and the moral confusion that this has brought, this issue is not so clear-cut as some might think.

I do believe that the death penalty, though supported by the majority of Americans, may not long survive in this cultural context.

Death penalty in the United States gradually declining

It is one thing to support the death penalty. It is another thing altogether to explain it, fix it, administer it and sustain it with justice.

We are about to find out if Americans have the determination to meet that challenge. Christians should take leadership to help our fellow citizens understand what is at stake.

God affirmed the death penalty for murder as he made his affirmation of human dignity clear to Noah. Our job is to make it clear to our neighbors.

R. Albert Mohler Jr. is president of  The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The views expressed in this column belong to Mohler.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Bible • Christianity • Courts • Crime • Death • Discrimination • Ethics • Opinion • Violence

soundoff (2,706 Responses)
  1. cbotr

    Though I've heard the term since I was a child, I never really understood what "Anti-Christ" was until I read this. It is you, Mr. Mohler.

    May 26, 2014 at 12:53 am |
  2. ragansteve1

    Should Christians support the death penalty? In the most serious situations, murder, r ape of a child, and the like, it should be an option available to the jury and judge. The implementation of that punishment should be carefully weighed, as it usually is I believe, and based upon the likelihood of repeat offenses by the individual and/or the seriousness of the crime (e.g., a serial killer vs a murder committed as an act of passion). Outlawing capital punishment is not unlike a mandatory imposition for certain crimes in that it takes the judgement out of the trial and sentencing.

    May 20, 2014 at 2:48 pm |
    • igaftr

      On one hand, You would not have your religion if it weren't for the death penalty, so You owe your beliefs to the death penalty.

      On the other hand, though shalt not kill.

      Either way, Christians will do what they always do...find some way their book justifies whatever they want to do.

      May 20, 2014 at 2:54 pm |
  3. thesamyaza

    ....i think we should give death-row inmates a chance? bring back Gladiatorial punishment. give them the chance to win back their freedom. let the gods decide their fate on the dirt of the arena. and if they win give them the opportunity to become champions in the arena.

    frankly I'm for the death penalty its mercy,.. its better then spending the rest of they life in a cell. but we might as well be entertained out of it.

    May 19, 2014 at 4:31 pm |
  4. pandeist

    "In a world of violence, the death penalty is understood as a necessary firewall against the spread of further deadly violence." - this is untrue, the product of brainwashing by merchants of death. It is unfortunate that Christians are forced to defend atrocities like state-sponsored slaughter and the killing of animals for pleasure because the bronze-age ignorants who wrote their book projected such human failings on their dim view of the divine. But the revolutionary evolutionary theological theory of Pandeism supersedes and washes away these debauched remnants, because Pandeism is the true theological model of Peace!!

    May 16, 2014 at 2:07 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      " It is unfortunate that Christians are forced to defend atrocities like state-sponsored slaughter"
      ----------–
      'Forced' to defend? They are it's primary advocates.

      May 16, 2014 at 2:13 pm |
      • pandeist

        "Forced" in the sense that they must act like it's the greatest thing since sliced bread, lest they admit that their own book describes their own deity as an author of atrocities, and its followers as incredible villains of history.

        May 16, 2014 at 3:21 pm |
  5. Rob McQueary

    For a different perspective – http://rethinkxian.com/an-eye-for-an-eye/.

    May 16, 2014 at 5:49 am |
  6. Joel

    I am appalled that a Christian theologian and mentor/professor to future pastors could write such a column, and am embarrassed for all Christian leaders and adherents world wide that this hypocritical position was lifted up as either Christian or Biblical. The God I know in Jesus the Christ died because of opinions like this, and I beg for the day when all Christ's disciples agree that death may be the consequence of sin, but is never ours to distribute onto others. Rev. Joel Tolbert of Georgia

    May 15, 2014 at 10:50 am |
  7. akismet-e886bf32406ab6e293bb69558e21bc74

    I totally agree. It is in the bible. So is killing your children for being disobedient. So as soon as he kills one of his children the next time the kid comes home drunk, I'll agree with him. Until then, he's just another hypocrite- choosing only the scriptures that he can use to support his own bias. Deuteronomy 21:18-21 "If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen to them when they discipline him, 19 his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town. 20 They shall say to the elders, "This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a profligate and a drunkard." 21 Then all the men of his town shall stone him to death."

    May 14, 2014 at 2:24 am |
  8. wynot2014

    "The Bible also affirms that the death penalty, rightly and justly applied, will have a powerful deterrent effect."

    The Bible may affirm it but the evidence shows otherwise; throughout the world, and the states of the US, those governments which practice ritual murder have the highest murder rates amongst their citizenry.

    May 12, 2014 at 7:13 pm |
  9. cgahaw

    Neither the government or a human should control the death of another when we have prisons and confinement in the modern world.

    May 11, 2014 at 2:03 pm |
    • cactus521

      I agree. I feel quoting the Bible by verse looking for reasons to inflict capital punishment on another is the same as quoting the Koran by verse. to justify 9/11. I feel it's a fundamentalist, extreme view in order to justify yet more murder, a blood lust to act as God.

      Why not leave punishment for intentionally inflicted murder up to God, or better yet, Jesus? There are so many contradictions in the Bible that one forgets what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount "Blessed are the Peacemakers:". Inmates convicted of Capital Murder have changed lives in prison even while serving life terms. We should be seeing the Bible and other Holy Books as paths to redemption–isn't that why Christ was supposed to have come, to offer salvation to anyone who believes in Christ? If not, then what does the New Testament really mean? Perhaps Christ refuted everything in the old testament, and man got his hands on Christ's word and convoluted it to justify eternal suffering.

      Finally, what does the author think of the innocent who have been executed (I know someone will come in here and say "prove an innocent man has been executed". Kind of hard when we take Jesus out of the picture and murder murderers ourselves. Maybe religion can be used to justify the innocent being killed as "collateral damage".

      May 11, 2014 at 7:36 pm |
      • TruthPrevails1

        "Why not leave punishment for intentionally inflicted murder up to God, or better yet, Jesus? "

        It kind of goes a little like this, given that outside of the bible there is zero evidence for god punishment would never happen.
        The rest of your post is silly. We know that man wrote the bible, it was done over the course of many years (somewhere around 400) by men who never met one another. We know that there is zero evidence to support that those are anything more than the written word of man.

        To clarify, I don't support the death penalty but I do support ensuring punishment is dealt with in the here and now where we can be guaranteed it is (jail time til they die works best).

        May 11, 2014 at 7:58 pm |
        • zpole53

          life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. When someone violates these tenants, we have rules and laws that guide the jury of the accused direction as to determine their guilt or not. The death sentence was put in place to deter those without conscience from running amuck in society. Since we can not ostracize or banish these people to an area where they can do no harm, the death sentence was established to banish them from this earth. The victims left behind – families, neighbors, sisters, brothers, and anyone else the victim(s) had contact with, would have had contact with and what the victim(s) would have contributed to these people and society – will no longer occur because of their untimely demise. If physical banishment was an option today then the death penalty would not be in play today. DNA will free falsely accused, but hatred by someone to falsely accuse an innocent, will always exist, I hope we get better at spotting it. Innocent people have always been accused and killed since the beginning of time, only the guy upstairs knows how many. we need to be vigilant, but murder is what it is and those without a conscience who kill need to be banished from earth by whatever means to protect those of us with a conscience and the victims- so that they do not live in fear from those without a conscience who would not think twice about committing murder again if allowed free in society.

          May 19, 2014 at 8:32 pm |
  10. joeyy1

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZeedE8vH1FQ&w=640&h=390]

    May 10, 2014 at 1:15 pm |
  11. lucashatt

    I gave a two part response below for any interested:

    http://lucashatt.wordpress.com/2014/05/05/should-christians-support-the-death-sentence-part-2-my-answer/

    http://lucashatt.wordpress.com/2014/05/07/should-christians-support-the-death-penalty-part-3-three-clarifications/

    May 10, 2014 at 9:04 am |
  12. keshetisrael

    No Christian can say 'YES' to the Death Penalty as being righteous! Simply because EVERY CHRISTIAN knows that the Lambs blood was sufficient for ALL of man's sins! Anyone who claims to be 'CHRISTIAN' but says the STATE should have Right to KILL; is an Anti-Christ! Everyone should know, that the Lambs blood alone, was enough to pay the debt of all sin!

    So.. My suggestion to the Government that wants to prove they Fear (Revere) God; stop Capital Punishment. However, I do believe it's a sin to not provide a dignified route for a man or women to escape the Tyranny they find in Life (from their perspective).. For this I believe we should 'legalize' Suicide. And we should offer every citizen their right to die by their own willing, if they are given a criminal sentence which is 5 years or up. suicide is salvation, from a Tyrannical State! God is Merciful! -<

    May 9, 2014 at 6:25 pm |
    • doobzz

      raNdoM cApitaliZaTiOn MakEs yOu LoOk liKe aN iDiOt.

      May 9, 2014 at 7:13 pm |
  13. Kevin Miller

    Hold a flat-book hermeneutic of the Bible and you can say "the Bible" supports capital punishment. But take the New Testament and Jesus as the final and full Word of God, then the old has to be reinterpreted in the light of the new and in light of Jesus and his actions and teachings. Make Moses equal to Jesus and you find biblical support for capital punishment. Make Jesus superior to Moses and you have no basis for it.

    May 8, 2014 at 3:41 pm |
    • Reality

      Moses was a myth and Jesus was simply an illiterate, magic man from Nazareth made into a deity by P, M, M, L and J. Time to move into the 21st century of reality.

      May 9, 2014 at 6:50 am |
  14. Dayo Adewoye

    Reblogged this on The Christian Mind.

    May 8, 2014 at 5:52 am |
  15. maltmanx

    Much of the noise and notoriety on this death penalty sentence came from it being botched
    This is impart because the method is fulfilling the sentence is complicated
    The drugs used are becoming difficult to acquire and the drug manufactures won't sell to the prisons
    I understand the cruel and unusually requirements of the penalty

    I agree that use of the death penalty should be for extreme cases where there is ample evidence.

    If they had only used a rope as has been done for years, much less media noise would have occurred.
    They sell rope at nearly every store. The skill level involved in minimal.
    Snapped neck at the base of the skull is a sure thing.

    May 7, 2014 at 2:28 pm |
    • kenmargo

      Blood thirsty. You must be one of those "pro lifers"

      May 7, 2014 at 3:11 pm |
  16. kenmargo

    I'm against the death penalty because I feel our gov't should set an example. The gov't could say "we don't kill so you shouldn't either". The gov't should be neutral in these things. Not take "the family side" and seek revenge.

    In addition we've had almost 20 people on death row found innocent becuause of the Innocent Project. A group that gets evidence examined through DNA and prove people innocent of the crime. Our legal system might be the biggest ma.ss murderer in history when you look at how the death penalty is applied unfairly according to race and financial status.

    But since We're blood thirsty. There isn't enough blood to go around. We've had school shootings, mall shootings, theatre shootings, office shootings and of course the most peaceful place on earth, church shootings! Congress replies by not pa.ssing one single law to try to prevent this from happening again. What a great country!

    May 6, 2014 at 7:48 pm |
    • zpole53

      life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. When someone violates these tenants, we have rules and laws that guide the jury of the accused direction as to determine their guilt or not. The death sentence was put in place to deter those without conscience from running amuck in society. Since we can not ostracize or banish these people to an area where they can do no harm, the death sentence was established to banish them from this earth. The victims left behind – families, neighbors, sisters, brothers, and anyone else the victim(s) had contact with, would have had contact with and what the victim(s) would have contributed to these people and society – will no longer occur because of their untimely demise. If physical banishment was an option today then the death penalty would not be in play today. DNA will free falsely accused, but hatred by someone to falsely accuse an innocent, will always exist, I hope we get better at spotting it. Innocent people have always been accused and killed since the beginning of time, only the guy upstairs knows how many. we need to be vigilant, but murder is what it is and those without a conscience who kill need to be banished from earth by whatever means to protect those of us with a conscience and the victims- so that they do not live in fear from those without a conscience who would not think twice about committing murder again if allowed free in society.

      May 19, 2014 at 8:27 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.