On Capital Punishment, Start with Jesus


After this week's botched execution in Oklahoma, Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, argued why Christians should support the death penalty at CNN.com. Grounding his argument in Genesis 9:6, where Noah is told that anyone guilty of intentional murder should be put to death, Mohler says, “The one who intentionally takes life by murder forfeits the right to his own life.” In my experience, most Christian pro-death penalty advocates make similar arguments, rooting themselves in Old Testament teaching. On occasion, they buffet their thinking with a somewhat cryptic reference to the government’s ability to “bear the sword” to “bring punishment on the wrongdoer” by the Apostle Paul. Rarely, will anyone cite Jesus’ teachings.

Mohler is a capable theologian and a thinker I respect. And I have many intelligent friends who support the death penalty. Yet, I think it is problematic for Christians to root their support of capital punishment in the Jewish Scriptures.

Such thinking requires a bit of arbitrary Biblical picking and choosing. Sure, the Old Testament prescribes death for anyone who commits pre-meditated murder. But it doesn’t stop there. The Hebrew Scriptures also prescribe the death penalty for kidnapping (Exodus 21:16), bestiality (Exodus 22:12), rape (Deuteronomy 22:24), making a sacrifice to a false god (Exodus 22:20), adultery (Leviticus 20:10), homosexual behavior (Leviticus 20:13), and premarital sex (Deuteronomy 22:13-21).

A priest was instructed to burn his daughter alive if she was guilty of prostitution (Leviticus 21:9). If a “son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend” entices you to practice a false religion, they were instructed to “show them no pity” and “stone them to death” (Deuteronomy 13:6-10).

Do you have rebellious children (Deuteronomy 21:18-21) or kids who’ve hit or cursed you (Exodus 21:15-17)? Off with their heads!

Have you worked on the Sabbath (Exodus 35:2)? Try using your skills to bang license plates on death row.

Are you a banker who lends money with a high interest rate to make a profit (Ezekiel 18:13)? See you on the other side.

I am being humorous here, but the random picking and choosing of when to apply the Old Testament provisions for capital punishment is serious business that requires serious thought.

For example, what of the command in Deuteronomy 17:6 that someone could only be put to death on the evidence of two or three witnesses? Why don’t pro-death penalty advocates who ground their thinking in the Old Testament also require this provision before they support an execution? And what about the fact that in most of these cases a monetary substitute was allowed if the offender agreed to it? My pro-death penalty friends can’t seem to give me a clear answer on this.