Modern western Christians have diverse views on the death penalty. So it’s fair to ask, is the death penalty even biblical?
So let’s start with the obvious answer, yes. The death penalty is “biblical.” Biblical in the sense that people practice the death penalty in the Bible. You only need to read a few pages in the Bible to find God killing people. Stories like Noah (and all his cute animals!) paint an alarming portrait of a God that’s comfortable killing almost everyone on earth. The law codes of Leviticus and Deuteronomy prescribe capital punishment for certain crimes in their community.
So the Bible is pro-death penalty, right?
So is the death penalty biblical?
Yes, technically the death penalty is biblical. But when we ask “is the death penalty biblical” we’re rarely asking about historical practice. Instead, we want to know if it’s okay for Christians today to support the death penalty. But there are plenty of things that are “biblical” that modern Christians don’t apply to their lives today. Few Christians believe women need their heads covered in church. Fewer still sell all of their possessions to live in generous community with fellow believers. Both of those practices are as “biblical” as the death penalty but we know that reading the Bible requires context.
So maybe “is the death penalty biblical” isn’t the best question. Instead, maybe we should ask, “would Jesus support the death penalty?” If that’s our question, then we’ll arrive at a very different answer.
A God who loves life
the Bible is a living tradition that tells us how people experienced God in their time and place. While the Holy Spirit influenced its content, it was written on the canvas of ancient experience. What does that mean? That people’s view of God grew and adapted over time.
How do we know this? Look at Jesus.
Jesus was disruptive, revolutionary, and controversial but he was never violent. What about the whole sword thing? You may ask. If so, check out this post.
Jesus met people who deserved death under the God-given law. But instead of killing them, he offered them hope and a fresh start. Jesus also said some things that make it hard to be a pro-death penalty Jesus follower. Here are a few examples:
1. Jesus calls us to love our neighbors.
2. Jesus tells us that everyone is our neighbor, even our enemy.
3. Jesus calls us to love and forgive our enemies.
Let’s state this plainly, the people on death row are your neighbors. You are called to sacrificially care for their spiritual and physical well-being (love). You’re also called to forgive them.
That’s why I find it impossible to argue for a love-filled, forgiving, and restoration-minded application of the death penalty.
But what about all of the death in the Bible?
I’ll admit, it’s disorienting to find so much violence in the Bible. But here’s how I find rest. I believe that Jesus is the image of the invisible God. Jesus didn’t kill. Instead, he chose to become a victim of the death penalty on our behalf. He came with a message of hope, healing and forgiveness for everyone. That message is for you, and for every person on death row. So can I invite you to follow Jesus, and become a voice of hope and life for all people?