Off With Her Head! A Biblical Response to the Death Penalty

Queen of Hearts

The Queen of Hearts is quite a memorable character in literature. She’s prone to rage and has one punishment for any offense: death.

The death penalty is again being hotly debated due to the pending execution of death row inmate Kelly Gissendaner. Gissendaner was found guilty of plotting her husband’s murder. While incarcerated, her supporters state Gissendaner has turned her life around and is a pastoral presence in the prison. They are seeking clemency.

Christians, meanwhile, are back to debating the merit and justification of the death penalty. Let’s note from the outset that there is no monolithic Christian perspective on this issue. Some adamantly believe the death penalty is wrong while others (just as adamantly) proclaim that the death penalty is biblically justified.

One’s position on the death penalty is not an indicator of piety or faithful Christian discipleship.

I looking at the issue from a biblical perspective we run into a big problem: the Bible is not a guide for running a democratic republic. Let’s break it down a bit.

The Old Testament

Death penalty proponents point to passages in the Old Testament that call for death as the penalty for certain offenses. It’s true – we can’t deny that the Law did indeed embrace for the death penalty. Just a couple quick examples:

He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death. (Exodus 21:12)

If a man acts with premeditation against his neighbor, to kill him by treachery, you shall take him from my altar, that he may die. (Exodus 21:14)

But here’s the thing – the Old Testament was designed to govern the ancient theocracy that was Israel. It was not a political guide for all time. We cannot say, “The Old Testament endorses the death penalty so we should as well.” It’s not that simple. We don’t live in that society and are not governed by those rules. The Old Testament might demonstrate principles that certain crimes are worthy of death, but we cannot bring in ancient theocratic law to rule a modern democratic republic.

The New Testament

In the New Testament we see a strange reversal – Jesus seems to take the understanding of Old Testament retribution and turn it on its head. One of the most striking examples is John 8, where a woman who, by Old Testament law, deserved death, receives a pardon from Jesus. Grace and forgiveness take the place of judgment and condemnation.

But the New Testament makes no claim to represent political power – in fact, quite the opposite. The New Testament tells believers how to behave on a personal level no matter what the government might do. The New Testament does not address how to run a government. The whole penal system, while necessary to an ordered and civilized society, is never really addressed in the New Testament (although the NT does reference authorities being put in place by God to punish evil-doers).

So where does that leave us? We can see principles for righteous judgment and punishment. We can see principles for forgiveness and leniency. But we have to be honest and say that there is no direct guidance for how to run a penal system in a democratic republic.

That being said, we need to approach the topic with sensitivity to how God leads and directs us without belittling people who disagree. Good Christians might favor the death penalty. Equally good Christians might oppose it. And some Christians might vacillate between the two positions in the course of their lives.

Life is more complicated than simple black and white dichotomies.

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How about you – do you or don’t you support the death penalty? What is your reasoning for your position?

I welcome all discussion, just keep it civil and polite. If this post resonates with you in any way, please share it on Facebook, Twitter, or email!

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