Question: There was a recent New York Times Magazine article about conman Paul Skalnik and how his false testimonies sent dozens to jail and 4 people to death row. In Florida, where death sentencing was/is popular, there have been 29 death-row inmates exonerated by the time of the article's publication. There was also a study that estimated 1 in 25, 4.1 percent, of inmates sentenced to death are innocent. Even if the state kills one innocent person, isn’t that too much? As Christians who talk about killing innocent babies, how can we then go and support capital punishment when there are many instances where the judicial system have been wrong?
I am frequently asked this question both by fellow Christians as well as non-Christians. The short answer is that the Bible clearly authorizes and teaches capital punishment. During the Mosaic Covenant capital punishment was mandated for a variety of offenses. However, the death penalty both pre-dates and post-dates the Mosaic Law and Covenant. As far back as Genesis, God told Noah, “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made He man” (Gen. 9:6). Here, God reveals the foundational reason why capital punishment is appropriate at least for the murder of a fellow human being — each of is us created in God’s image, and thus human life must be uniquely reverenced in comparison to the respect due the rest of creation.
The New Testament also affirms the government’s right to employ capital punishment as one of the options available to fulfill their divinely ordained responsibilities. The Apostle Paul, writing under the inspiration of God’s Holy Spirit, speaking of the civil magistrate, declares, “For he is the minister of God to thee for good, but if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil” (Rom. 13:4). The use of the word “sword” in verse four is a reference to the sword used to execute Roman citizens found guilty of a capital crime.
For nearly two millennia now, this passage has been seen by most Christian faith traditions both as authorizing governmental authority and authorizing their right to use lethal force to punish evil doers, domestically through the criminal justice system and internationally through the military in “just war” conflicts with other nations.
But what about Jesus’ commands to love and forgive your enemies? Just the other day I was discussing this issue with a Christian colleague who immediately objected to my reference to the Apostle Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, responding, “Well, capital punishment may meet the standards of Holy Scripture, but it doesn’t survive an encounter with the supreme 'love ethic' of Jesus who commanded us 'to love and forgive our enemies.'"
I responded that there was no conflict. He was making the mistake of succumbing to the “red letter” fallacy of elevating the “very words of Jesus” above the rest of the New Testament. As one of my other colleagues once said, “All the words of the New Testament are important, but the very words of Jesus take precedent.” Such logic mistakenly has led many Christians to set up a false dichotomy between Jesus and the Apostles Paul, John, and Peter in the rest of the New Testament.
In fact, if you really give the “very words” of Jesus precedence, then you will reject all such false dichotomies. In the Gospel of John, Jesus preparing His disciples for His departure into Heaven after the Resurrection, says, “And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you forever; even the spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him, but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you” (John 14:16-17 emphasis added).
Jesus then continues to explain the coming Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit would come in an entirely new and indwelling way in every believer. “These things have I spoken unto you, being yet present with you. But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you” (John 14:25-27).
Jesus also tells His disciples, “I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now. . . . When he, the Spirit of truth is come, he will guide you into all truth; for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak and he will show you things to come. He shall glorify me: for he will receive of mine, and shall show it unto you” (John 16:12-15).
In other words, Jesus’ teachings to His disciples though recorded with supernatural accuracy, were limited by the then current limited spiritual cognition of His hearers. Those limitations were removed when they were indwelled, spiritually transformed, and filled with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
This amounts to Jesus Himself pre-authenticating the rest of the New Testament (Acts-Revelation) and giving it the authority of a more complete revelation since the previous limitations of His listeners were now a thing of the past. So, if we are going to give special attention to the “very words” of Jesus, He is telling us to look to Acts through Revelation to interpret the Gospels much in the same way we use the New Testament to interpret the Old Testament. All Scripture is inspired and “God-exhaled” (2 Tim. 3:16). While we do not believe in progressive inspiration, we do believe in progressive revelation. All of the Bible is equally inspired by God. However, the New Testament builds upon the revelation of the Old Testament just as Acts through Revelation builds on the Gospels.
So, there is no contradiction between God’s revelation through the Apostle Paul and the historical accounts and teachings of Jesus in the four Gospels. How do we integrate the Gospels with the Epistles? Well, for example, if someone murders my wife, I have no right to hate or seek vengeance on that person. As a Christian, I must ask our Heavenly Father and the Holy Spirit to help me to forgive and love that person. At the same time, I have the right to expect the divinely mandated civil government to fulfill its responsibilities and obligations by penalizing evil doers and punishing that person to the fullest extent of the law.
Lastly, it must be said, if we are going to support the use of capital punishment for crimes such as murder, then we have to be as dedicated to capital punishment’s just and equitable application as we are to its use. When we look at the history of the United States, we must acknowledge that capital punishment has not been applied equally. Historically, you have been far more likely to be executed in America if you were poor, an ethic minority, or a man. That must change. I believe we have made substantial progress concerning gender bias and ethnicity, but not as much on poverty. The O.J. Simpson case is living proof that someone can get away with homicide if they are rich enough. And sadly, poverty and minority ethnicity are still too often combined in our society.
With those caveats, yes, I believe Christians can and should support capital punishment in crimes such as homicide that are proven beyond the shadow of a doubt and the perpetrator is convicted by a jury of his peers.
Dr. Richard Land, BA (magna cum laude), Princeton; D.Phil. Oxford; and Th.M., New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, was president of the Southern Baptists’ Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (1988-2013) and has served since 2013 as president of Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, NC. Dr. Land has been teaching, writing, and speaking on moral and ethical issues for the last half century in addition to pastoring several churches.