This week Pope Francis formally declared the Catholic Church’s blanket opposition to the death penalty under any circumstances and made this prohibition a part of the universal catechism. Prior to this week, Catholic doctrine allowed it, but only under extreme circumstances. Now it is “inadmissible” and not to be allowed at all. This naturally raises the question about what the Christian view of capital punishment is. It’s a question worth answering.
Unfortunately, it appears that the Pope’s view is out of alignment with Scripture.
Capital punishment was instituted by God following the flood of Noah. According to Genesis 9:5-6, God says, “From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his image.”
Here, God is clearly delegating his authority to man - “by man shall his blood be shed” - to carry out the death penalty for the wanton taking of innocent human life. God Himself is the One who is requiring this “reckoning for the life of man,” because the murderer has destroyed someone created “in his image.” Murder defaces and destroys the image of God, and for that God demands an accounting.
Prior to the flood, capital punishment was not allowed as a punishment for crime or as a deterrent to homicide. In fact, God Himself declared that He would take vengeance “sevenfold” on anyone who punished Cain for his cold-blooded murder of Abel (Genesis 4:15).
It is as if God was saying, “Alright, you think capital punishment is barbaric. We’ll do it your way for 1700 years and see how that works out.” And so mankind did, from the days of Cain until the days of Noah. How well did this kinder, gentler approach to justice work?
It led to vigilante justice and barbarism, as men took matters of punishment into their own hands. Said Lamech, “I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold” (Genesis 4:23-24). So vigilante justice, without God’s authorization, was almost immediately exercised for non-capital offenses.
And by the time Noah arrived, the lack of a system of justice had so contributed to social deterioration and the collapse of character that “the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and...every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). There was nothing for God to do but wipe everything out and start over. It was much like finding an 18-month old carton of cottage cheese in the back of a refrigerator when the power’s been out during the heat of summer. There’s nothing to salvage. You have to dump the lot and start with a fresh container. That was the story of the flood.
So God established a new rule following the wild, wild East of the pre-flood days. From now on, God said, murder would be dealt with through capital punishment.
This standard is re-affirmed in the Ten Commandments, where God succinctly commands, “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13).
The King James version, “Thou shalt not kill,” has led some to erroneously believe that God was prohibiting killing of every kind, but he most certainly was not. The Sixth Commandment is specifically a command against cold-blooded murder. Killing in self-defense, war, and as punishment for murder are not only permitted but prescribed in the Scripture.
In fact, on the very next page on the book of Exodus, in chapter 21, there are six specific crimes for which capital punishment is the prescribed penalty.
As an aside, it’s worth noting that the death penalty was mandated for participation in the slave trade: “Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death” (Exodus 21:16).
In other words, if the United States had simply followed the standards found in Scripture, slaves never would have appeared on our shores, slavery would never have been an issue, and the Civil War would never have been fought. Then, as always, the Scriptures show us the way forward not just personally but politically as well.
Capital punishment is reaffirmed by the Apostle Paul in the book of Romans as the antidote to vigilante justice and social chaos. He tells us in Romans 12:19, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” How does the Lord exact vengeance? Paul immediately goes on to say (after an unfortunately placed chapter break), God does it through the instrumentality of the state. Civil government has been invested with God’s own authority to execute justice, including capital punishment. Government “does not bear the sword in vain,” Paul says in Romans 13:4. A sword, of course, was an instrument of lethal force.
And for what purpose does civil government bear the sword? Paul immediately explains: “For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4).
It bears emphasizing that capital punishment is thus not just an Old Testament concept, but is reaffirmed as a principle of justice under the terms of the New Covenant in Christ.
Solomon adds an important word of wisdom, on the subject of deterrence. Many argue - falsely it turns out - that capital punishment is no deterrent at all. Well, it certainly deters the murderer from killing anybody ever again, which sounds like deterrence to me.
Solomon indicates that unless capital punishment is carried out in a timely manner, it not only loses its deterrent force but actually makes things worse instead of better. “Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil” (Ecclesiastes 8:11).
Keeping murderers and serial killers alive on death row for a decade or more has no deterrent effect whatsoever, and yet that’s what we’re doing. According to Bureau of Justice Statistics, the average time a murderer now spends on death row is about 16 years, and it’s climbing. This is up from just less than six years in 1985. Convicted murderers spend so much time awaiting execution that about 25% of them wind up dying from natural causes. Gary Alvord, for instance, a Florida man who strangled three women, died of natural causes after 40 years on death row.
By the time the sentence is carried out, the public - and potential murderers who might have had some sense scared into them - have forgotten all about the crime. There is simply no connection in the public mind between crime and capital punishment.
Contrast this, for instance, with the fate of the conspirators who worked together to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. He was assassinated on April 14, 1865. The plotters had been apprehended, tried, and hung by the neck by July 6, a scant 83 days later.
But the relentless brainwashing by the Talking Snake Media against the death penalty has eroded public support for it. According to Gallup, support for the death penalty is at its lowest point since 1972. Currently, just 55% of Americans support capital punishment for murder, down from a high of 80% in 1995. Although it is rarely used, it is still legal in 31 states.
Bizarrely, in 2004, fewer people who went to church weekly favored the death penalty (65%) compared to those who never went (71%). This is likely due to the way in which the gospel of Christ has been feminized by the modern church with all its firm edges sanded off in order not to offend. It’s sobering to think that people outside the church have a more biblical view of justice than those inside the church, which certainly is an indictment of the teaching coming from America’s pulpits.
The Roman Catholic Church has not always been opposed to capital punishment. As recently as 1952, Pope Pius XII said it is not a violation of the universal right to life.
Critics argue that capital punishment demonstrates a low view of the value of human life. It’s exactly the reverse. It is imposing the death penalty that enables a culture to declare its highest regard for life. With the death penalty, society says that human life is so valuable that if someone takes a human life without just cause he must forfeit his own life in return. Justice truly is, as the book of God’s truth says, “Life for life.”