On capital punishment, don’t start with the Old Testament

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Some Christian leaders are asserting their support of the death penalty using scriptures from the Old Testament. Would starting with Jesus and the Christian gospel instead alter their conclusions? - Image courtesy of Adam Dimmick (http://bit.ly/1joS2ec)

Some Christian leaders are asserting their support of the death penalty using scriptures from the Old Testament. Would starting with Jesus and the Christian gospel instead alter their conclusions? - Image courtesy of Adam Dimmick (http://bit.ly/1joS2ec)

Some Christian leaders are asserting their support of the death penalty using scriptures from the Old Testament. Would starting with Jesus and the Christian gospel instead alter their conclusions? - Image courtesy of Adam Dimmick (http://bit.ly/1joS2ec)

Some Christian leaders are asserting their support of the death penalty using scriptures from the Old Testament. Would starting with Jesus and the Christian gospel instead alter their conclusions? – Image courtesy of Adam Dimmick (http://bit.ly/1joS2ec)

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 bolster 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.

Even more troubling is the way Christians who support the death penalty almost never consider the words and witness of Jesus. If you search Mohler’s CNN article for the words “Jesus” or “Christ,” you’ll find exactly zero references. And this approach, in my opinion, is not the best way to do theology. Christians are to be New Testament followers of Jesus, not members of an ancient Jewish tribe. As such, our thinking must be grounded in Jesus. He is the ultimate standard for what God desires of his people in this age, and he is the ultimate Word of God through which all other words are to be viewed.

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was taught, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”

In one swift and startling statement, Jesus took a hammer to the lex talionis—the basis for capital punishment in the Hebrew Scriptures—and gave those who would follow after him a new way to live. Leaving violence and vengeance and the power of death and life to the only perfect being who exists: God.

In addition to his words and witness, we must also consider the work of Jesus. Which is to say, we must root our thinking in the gospel. As Preston Sprinkle, a vice president at Eternity Bible College, writes in his book “Fight: A Christian Case for Non-Violence,”

From God’s perspective, the wages of sin is death, which means that we all—even you—have already been convicted of capital crimes in God’s courtroom and have been given the death penalty. It would be odd—some would say hypocritical—for Christians to thank God for taking their death penalty and then spin around to celebrate the death of someone they think is worse than them.

Given recent events, we should expect that many leaders will be making a case either for or against capital punishment in the days ahead. Christians should not throw out the Old Testament with last week’s rubbish, but when evaluating any important matter—especially when lives are at stake—let us must begin with Jesus and the gospel and see where that leads us.

SEE ALSO: Jonathan’s article, “Would Jesus Support the Death Penalty?” at The Atlantic

  • Frank

    Jesus and the Gospel begins in Genesis.

  • Hi Jonathan,

    I hate commenting on blogs and so I write while grimacing. I really appreciate much of your writing and think your are a very thoughtful guy. I love that you don’t automatically accept the status quo and constantly challenge the church to think through what we are actually doing.

    I also appreciate you opening up the discussion about capital punishment. It’s something that needs to be discussed and not blindly accepted (or rejected). With that said, being someone who supports capital punishment (but with a heavy heart and not joy), I did want to point out a few counter arguments to your blog.

    I think it’s unjust to say that Christians who support capital punishment are arbitrary in their reading of the Old Testament. It’s one thing to ground our argument in a random verse in the middle of Leviticus, but it’s a whole other thing to ground our argument in the command given in Genesis 9:6. This is a pre-Moses, pre-Israel command, one that is no less relevant than the Cultural Mandate to be fruitful and multiply and steward the earth in Genesis 1:26-30 (in fact there are many parallels between the two passages). Both commands find their basis, not in the maintenance of national ceremonial cleanliness, but in the imago dei. “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, *for* God made man in his own image” (Genesis 9:6). This makes Genesis 9:6 stand out beyond the death penalty prescriptions of Moses. The command then is not wrapped up in (just) the Old Covenant, for the basis of the command is rooted in an unchangeable truth, the imago dei. This isn’t an arbitrary reading but a very careful one.

    Also, regarding the words of Jesus. I agree that we should always start with Jesus and the gospel and move on from there to formulate our beliefs. But that doesn’t mean we fully disregard the Old Testament as only relevant to Jews. Jesus and the New Testament authors constantly found the Old Testament as relevant for the New Testament believer. Jesus is the ultimate standard and the ultimate Word of God (like you state), but He is also the author of all the other stuff too.

    And finally, I think you may be misunderstanding Jesus in Matthew 5:38. In this section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus isn’t listing different laws that are being overturned by a new way of life. Jesus instead is explaining how many of the Jews had drifted from God’s original intent for these laws and had come up with their own interpretations of the laws. In the case of the lex talionis, rabbinic tradition had twisted the law and used it as a convenient justification for personal vengeance (which is a completely different thing than civil justice). This is why Jesus commands, “Turn to them the other cheek also.”

    The original intent of “eye for an eye” was never to condone personal vengeance but was to serve as a limit of punishment within the civil justice system (Exodus 21:24; Leviticus 24:20; Deuternonmy 19:21). The punishment was not allowed to surpass the crime.

    Jesus is telling the Jews, and telling us, that we are not free to dole out punishment for crimes committed against us. Revenge is never the answer. The responsibility to punish wrongdoing remains with God and the government he has placed over us.

    While I believe the Bible is not against capital punishment, I do believe it ought to be extremely rare and also carefully carried out to make sure the person is in fact guilty of their crimes. I am fine with people disagreeing with me on the matter, but I just want to make sure that they give our arguments a fair shake first.

    Thank you for your time and for writing!

  • Aisling

    I’ve been grappling with this subject recently. The Scripture that is challenging me has been where Christ told Peter to put away his sword having just severed an ear off of a slave of a high priest. Jesus went on to say, “Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword…” Matthew 26:51 -52. I further wonder about the case for and against “just wars.”

  • I’d reference another passage in Sprinkle’s book:

    “There are two main exceptions to this nonviolent shalom in the book: Genesis 9 and 14. In Genesis 9:5, God seems to allow the death penalty for murders.

    ‘Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed,
    for God made man in his own image.’ (v. 6)

    “This verse elevates the sanctity of human life and therefore con- demns murder by giving the strictest of penalties: death. However, several questions surround this verse. Is Genesis 9:6 a proverb or a command? In other words, does Genesis 9:6 give a general principle or an absolute command? You may assume the latter, but it’s interesting that even God didn’t kill Cain for murdering Abel. The same goes for Moses, David, and other murderers in the Old Testament. And does this verse give humans authority to administer the death penalty, or does it say that God will punish the murderer? The Hebrew is not as clear as our English translations imply.

    “These questions should caution us against racing to Genesis 9:6 to show that God wants all societies to institute the death penalty. In any case, know that God will later institute the death penalty in the law of Moses, so Genesis 9:6 probably anticipates that law. But let us not ignore the plain meaning of this verse: God fiercely condemns murder, because all people are made in His image.”

  • Tim Callaway

    Curious, puzzling, humorous and troubling that you rightly dismantle Mohler’s “thinking” while maintaining you respect it. If u don’t consider Jesus in your thinking, in what sense is such thinking worthy of consideration by Christ-ones?

  • Tim,

    There is a difference in believing someone is thoughtful and believing they are right. In my experience, Albert Mohler is a man of great intelligence who doesn’t wantonly express opinions. His essay at CNN is thoughtful and well-argued. I just don’t happen to agree with his conclusion. As I said, I have a lot of respect for Mohler. This difference of opinion has not altered that.


  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    There are two aspects of doing away with capital punishment which no one who is against cap punishment seems to want to face.
    First, who will give their life to keep murderers in jail for life (the great promise of anti- execution people) ??I had the darndest time finding the stats for prison guards murdered by murderers in prison (It seems purposely buried very deep). I finally found a site that estimated 8-10 per year .
    Second, to keep lifers in prison in some states, if family members of the murder victim don’t show up to object to release of the murderer, then he can be released. Talk about obscene torture. The surviving innocent victims of the murderers handiwork must spend the rest of their lives annually re-living the murder of their loved one to a parole board to guarantee justice is fulfilled.
    Shouldn’t these two problems be resolved before capital punishment is done away with—unless the lives of innocent family members and prison guards are worth much less than that of convicted murderers????.

  • Jack Skwat

    May god smote you with his holy smoter

  • Kyle

    It doesn’t throw me off that God pardons Moses, David, and other murderers. That doesn’t necessarily mean God said Genesis 9:6 as a proverb. He also lets off adulterers and others clearly condemned in Scripture, but that doesn’t negate those commands. It means God is also a God of radical forgiveness, going even so far as pardoning men who deserve death.

  • Atheist Max


    You said, “Revenge is never the answer”
    But Jesus approves of revenge – and the death penalty – and says
    it is the answer in many situations.

    “….bring to me those enemies
    who would not have me as their King
    and EXECUTE THEM in front of me.” – Jesus

    “If you deem [them] unworthy,
    remove your blessings of peace.” – Jesus

    Sounds very vengeful and violent to me.

  • Atheist Max


    Jesus endorsed the Law, including executions. Some were expressions of God’s vengeance to be carried out by humans on other humans.

    “It is easier for Heaven and Earth to pass away than for the smallest part of the letter of the law to become invalid.” (Luke 16:17)

    Jesus scolds the Pharisees for hypocrisy – why? For not carrying out God’s capitol punishment stoning laws.
    They dared to use their common sense instead.

    “Jesus replied, ‘And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? …. ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ (Matthew 15:3)

    Jesus – an upholder of vengeance and execution.
    It is no accident that every war has managed to claim God on its side.

  • Atheist Max


    and…What about Jesus’ own longing to smash civilization?
    How can a ‘Just war’ begin or end if the objective is not peace?

    “I have come to bring FIRE on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on Earth?
    No, I tell you, but division.” – Jesus (Luke 12:49-51)

    He sounds like a madman. He does not want peace.
    There is nothing ‘Just’ about that.

  • Marcus Johnson

    If Merritt really respects Mohler’s thinking (which is more than what I can claim), then that doesn’t preclude him from breaking down his argument.

    And did you just equate Mohler’s thinking with Jesus? I doubt even Mohler would do that.

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  • Atheist Max

    Jonathan, thank you for yet another thought provoking piece.

    Given that The Bible is accepted as the ‘word of God’…

    Consider within its many pages it makes two completely conflicting statements on the matter of capital punishment. Despite a thorough examination of the context of the verses the conflict remains and cannot be resolved:

    “Kill him with stones”
    “Forgive him not seven times, but seventy times seven.”

    You must make a decision about which ‘word of God’ to pick, since you cannot pick both.

    Who is the author of that decision – as it cannot be God?
    Why consult the book at all since the choice to was clear (forgive or kill) before you did so?

  • Atheist Max

    Sorry, The better question might be:
    If you are the author of the decision, and you are going to decide using your best intuition anyway, why consult the Bible at all?

  • Edward Borges-Silva

    Difficult subject…I’ve shifted over time from moderately in favor of the death penalty, to moderately against it. I believe firstly, that when Paul speaks, it is the moral equivalent to Jesus speaking and thus accept the interpretation that the state does not ‘bear the sword in vain.’ Yet, I hesitate to send someone ion this question.o eternity without regard to their spiritual condition. Enough instances of improper convictions for crime also incline me to desire error on the side of caution. But this subject is not a deal breaker for me in the sense that I believe genuine Christians can differ.

  • Kyle, my thought exactly, thanks for posting.

  • matt

    And according to John 1, Jesus was in Genesis.

  • Laurence Charles ringo

    Wow,”atheist max'”,you’re still removing all doubt that you’re an ill informed biblically illiterate ignoramus? Dude, you need serious therapy !!!

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  • Great piece, Jonathan. Jesus is to be our interpretive lens, if we believe he is the “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1) and “exact imprint of God’s nature” (Hebrews 1).

    It is obvious to me that anyone who conveniently falls back on the Old Testament does so simply to justify an argument they have already settled on before coming to the scripture to form an argument. So, they may as well be prooftexting; they’re mishandling the scripture. Of course this is almost always the case when one uses the language “the Bible says…” to espouse their doctrine. For many, “the Bible” means anything they want it to mean. Whereas, Jesus doesn’t give us as much room to manipulate.

  • Susan

    Jonathan, I realize you are talking to other Christians, but what are implications of your statements for Jews who don’t follow the New Testament? You seem to be saying that the New Testament is spiritually superior to the “Old Testament.”

    Mohler is reading what Christians call the “Old Testament literally.” That is something that even the most Ultra-Orthodox Jew does not do. There are centuries of commentaries, Midrash and Talmud that interpret the “Old Testament. Does Mohler know anything about that history? I doubt it.

  • Susan

    I have commented on this on Jonathan’s other post on the death penalty, but it bears repeating. The rabbis, without the relying on Jesus or the New Testament, reinterpreted the “Old Testament” to make it virtually impossible to ever execute anyone for murder. First of all, they declared that there had to be two witnesses to the actual murder. I mistakenly said one witness in my other post. Muders rarely occur with witnesses, therefore it was virtually impossible to every execute anyone for murder. They also insisted that the panel of judges trying someone for murder should all agree. If there was one dissenting opinion, the person could not be executed. It may not be as poetic as Jesus, but it virtually eliminated the death penalty.

    Yet, Mohler and most Christians think Judaism begins and ends with the “Old Testament.”

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  • James Hanson

    Don’t start an argument about capital punishment with an article entitled “Don’t Start with the Old Testament.” While I’m an ardent opponent of the death penalty (and from the Christian tradition), the way this piece is argued, or at least framed, reflects the wrong-headed and damaging belief among Christians that the “Old Testament” is all about justice and punishment, while the “New Testament” is all about love and forgiveness. Compare, e.g., Psalm 103 with the book of Revelation, or the eternal wailing and gnashing of teeth in Matthew (and a previous poster mentioned figures who were forgiven – did anyone do anything as heinous as David?). It doesn’t help – in fact, hinders – to call them the “Jewish Scriptures,” especially without explaining that Judaism reads the Bible alongside of and/or through the lens of the rabbinic writings, which, as another poster pointed out, restrict the use of the death penalty to the point of rendering it “toothless.” I know it’s a difficult problem without an easy solution (ideally, it would be nice if we could say “Bible” and “Christian Bible,” but I don’t see that happening; I kind of like “First and Second Testaments” for the Christian Bible), but we need to avoid giving support to this notion, even if it means a paragraph of explanation.
    And let’s not forget the irony that the State of Israel does not have the death penalty for civil crimes!

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  • Don

    The Bible is constant throughout. Jesus said that, “…those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” Also the Apostle Paul was very clear in Romans 13. Paul speaking about law enforcement said, “…but if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices it.” Regarding a life for a life, the Bible is very clear from beginning to end, that it is appropriate and right.

    Our problem is, that we’re trying to reinvent scripture to say what some want it to say. If you’re against the capital punishment, fine; just don’t try to use the Bible to support your stand because it can’t.

    Also Jesus said He didn’t come to change the law but to fulfill it.

    If a Christian is opposed to the death penalty, that is your right; just don’t twist the Bible over to your position, it textually won’t work.