The Death Penalty: What the Bible Says

God’s clear verdict concerning the death penalty is stated in Genesis 9:6: “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.”  

We see right here that human life is especially precious because man is made in God’s image.  We also see that to take a life at one’s own accord is murder.  And we see as well that to kill the one justly convicted of murder is not murder.  It is actually just and righteous.  Not all killings are murder then.  When a person is convicted of a crime worthy of death, like murder, through a fair trial under an impartial jury, it is not murder to then kill him.  Killings resulting from a righteous judicial process, and the killings of those who are evidently in the process of doing harm to others which cannot be stopped except through potentially deadly force, are not murder.  In the Ten Commandments when God says “Thou shalt not kill”, it is a reference to murder.  The versions of the Bible which say “thou shalt not kill” would have been more accurate to say “thou shalt not murder.”  God had already established in Genesis 9:6 that He requires that man shed the blood of those who shed man’s blood.  Since all life belongs to God, and since God is totally just and righteous, God cannot unjustly take away life by killing someone or by commanding someone to be killed on terms He has laid out regarding execution. 

We’ve done a previous study on how Jesus didn’t eliminate God’s judgment.  That in itself is a concept which is obvious.  This concept must be upheld and emphasized by anyone who would teach God’s Word faithfully.  So it is no mystery then that in the New Covenant era God upholds the death penalty and speaks of it as a God-ordained function of secular governments.  Even though Israel would not be the nation where God’s worship is centered going forward, and would not be the instrument of the demonstration of His religious economy anymore, and even though there should be a separation of church and state now that didn’t exist in Israel when God’s worship was centered there, it would remain a duty of secular governments to carry out the death penalty on criminals who destroy others’ lives and breed utter chaos and mayhem in society.

Romans 13:1-6 says: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers.  For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.  Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.  For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil.  Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power?  do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: 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.  Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake (i.e. you should be subject to the Government not just because the Government will punish you if you’re not, but also because you resist God and He will punish you Himself if you violate the laws of the Government which are not in conflict with His laws).  For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing (i.e. on being a revenger to execute wrath upon him that does evil).”

Secular governments may fail very badly here and they may even punish people for very bad reasons.  Yet that in no way changes the things that they are accountable before God to do.  And the fact they might, and often do, greatly fail in doing their God-ordained duties like they ought to (consider the implication of the phrases I’ve italicized in this paragraph) means that to be a faithful Christian one must strive to influence the government in whatever way that they lawfully can to act according to its God-ordained mandate, they must of course pray for those in authority accordingly (see 1 Timothy 2:1-4), and they must certainly be in agreement about what the Government OUGHT to be doing.  A person is at enmity with God and surely needs to repent if they contend with God’s verdict about what the God-ordained functions of the Government are and about what the Government ought to be doing.

Gallio, the Governor or Proconsul of the Roman Province of Achaia, is proof that even a heathen can see that there is a well defined line between matters which should be prosecuted by the State and matters which should be dealt with in the church or privately somehow without government intervention.  We see Gallio’s wisdom about this demonstrated in Acts chapter 18 (when Paul was falsely accused of the Jews in Corinth).

Acts 18:12-16: “And when Gallio was the deputy of Achaia, the Jews made insurrection with one accord against Paul, and brought him to the judgment seat, Saying, This fellow persuadeth men to worship God contrary to the law.  And when Paul was now about to open his mouth, Gallio said unto the Jews, If it were a matter of wrong or wicked lewdness, O ye Jews, reason would that I should bear with you: But if it be a question of words and names, and of your law, look ye to it; for I will be no judge of such matters. And he drove them from the judgment seat.”

By a matter of wrong or wicked lewdness Gallio obviously means, and the Greek words used in the passage indicate this, that if the Jews were taking Paul before the judgment seat over a criminal action or over unscrupulous, villainous behavior before society which Gallio had the authority in his office to do something about, it would be reasonable to bring Paul before him over such a matter.  Yet if it’s a matter of words and names (like whether Jesus is the Messiah and ought to be worshiped and believed in as such) then that is a matter which Gallio rightly discerned was out of his jurisdiction as a secular ruler.

Many use the story of Jesus dealing with the woman caught in adultery in John chapter 8 to say that Jesus condemned the death penalty.  Yet His Word doesn’t contradict itself.  Everything in the Bible, Genesis 9:6 included, is inspired by Christ’s Spirit.  We have a message on John 8:1-11 (which can be found on whatever venue you have found this message on) which proves what should be fairly obvious anyways: John 8:1-11 isn’t about whether the death penalty is right or not.  The passage is actually dealing with a wicked and clever attempt to frame Jesus which Jesus countered in a righteous and even more clever way to expose the hypocrisy of His adversaries.  The passage is not about an honest, sincere, and accurate attempt to carry out the death penalty on terms consistent with those laid out in Scripture.  And you can find the teaching on John 8:1-11 from several months ago back in 2022 for more on that.  

Though everything in the Bible is a testimony of Jesus and a testimony from Jesus, since Jesus is God as the 2nd person of the Trinity and Jesus in His incarnation was the Word made flesh, further proof that the death penalty is God-ordained is Jesus’ testimony as a man in the Gospels.  Hear Him vindicate and uphold the Law given through Moses and its prescriptions for the execution of the death penalty through human judicial authority.

Mark 7:9-13: “And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition.  For Moses said, Honor thy father and thy mother; and, Whoso curseth father or mother, let him die the death: But ye say, If a man shall say to his father or mother, It is Corban, that is to say, a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me; he shall be free.  And ye suffer him no more to do ought for his father or his mother; Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things do ye.”  

Those who oppose the death penalty and say it is not Christian put themselves in the camp of Jesus’ opponents who make the Word of God of no effect through their own tradition.  And Jesus was specifically speaking here about the Law of Moses where Genesis 9:6 is found and where the main principles regarding the execution of the death penalty are set forth by God through Moses.

Later on in the Book of Acts when the Apostle Paul was again being falsely accused by his Jewish adversaries, he acknowledged (through his Apostolic mindset) how there are things which a person might commit which make them worthy to die by the hands of the secular authorities, though he was innocent of any such thing.  Consider the obvious implications of this statement.

Acts 25:11: “For if I be an offender, or have committed any thing worthy of death, I refuse not to die: but if there be none of these things whereof these accuse me, no man may deliver me unto them.  I appeal unto Caesar.”

It is a failure of the United States, and a failure of most other countries, that they do not practice the death penalty like they ought to or really anywhere even close to that.  This is one of the key ways in which the world has turned from God, let injustice prevail, and sided with criminals over the oppressed and the potentially oppressed.  People who say that the death penalty is wrong and unjust are in the wrong and they are unjust themselves as they thereby justify murderers and other highly malignant criminals by seeking to have them absolved of the only logically just punishment which their crimes warrant.  The Bible says in Proverbs 12:10b that the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel; and this is a key example of that.  Death penalty opponents contend with God Himself and claim (directly or by default) to be better and more compassionate than God Himself!   (more on these shortly)

Look at what God warned in the following passage.  And this is speaking of murder, a matter which surely falls under the jurisdiction of the State and not of the church.

Numbers 35:30-31: “Whoso killeth any person, the murderer shall be put to death by the mouth of witnesses: but one witness shall not testify against any person to cause him to die.  Moreover ye shall take no satisfaction for the life of a murderer, which is guilty of death: but he shall be surely put to death. “ 

Numbers 35:32 then says : “And ye shall take no satisfaction for him that is fled to the city of his refuge, that he should come again to dwell in the land, until the death of the priest.” 

The city of refuge spoken of in verse 32 here was an arrangement unique to ancient Israel, yet it reflects a principle which is still valid that unintentional killers, basically those who commit manslaughter, should be confined for a considerable length of time.  These are not guilty of murder and shouldn’t be put to death, but they are still guilty of something serious and they should still be punished significantly to send a message about their recklessness and to deter others from being reckless. 

And Numbers 35:33-34 continues with these closing remarks related to this matter: “So ye shall not pollute the land wherein ye are: for blood it defileth the land: and the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it.  Defile not therefore the land which ye shall inhabit, wherein I dwell: for I the Lord dwell among the children of Israel.”

There are also many who say that the death penalty does not work.  Yet the death penalty ensures that duly convicted killers never kill again.  And that is the definition of working.  And suppose it didn’t accomplish one iota more than that, to oppose it is still enabling future killing.  And above all, opposing the death penalty is contending with God’s verdict that whoso sheds man’s blood should have his blood shed by man.  The obvious fact though is that the American states, and most other places which still practice the death penalty in any form (which is still better than not at all), don’t do it consistently enough nor quick enough for it to have even a significant amount of the impact which it ought to have (in terms of it being a deterrent to others committing murder).  

We have a system where even obviously and admittedly guilty people can often plea bargain their way out of the death sentence.  And even those found guilty in these trials which do get sentenced to death do not actually get put to death for many years, often for many decades, and they often even die on death row because of how long it takes for the whole process to happen.  The death penalty cannot and does not serve as the effective deterrent to felonious crime which it ought to serve as considering the inconsistency, unnecessary hoops, and overall complicated and prolonged process of carrying it out now!

The Bible says in Ecclesiastes 8:11 “Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil.”  

You’re not going to scare many away from crime by putting someone to death when the crime happened decades ago.  Many alive when the execution finally happens weren’t even alive at the time the crime happened, while most everyone who was alive when the crime happened doesn’t remember it well anyways.

Some are against the death penalty because they are afraid of an innocent person being put to death for a crime they didn’t do.  Yet God prescribed the death penalty to be carried out by mortal man, whom He knows very well might fail and cause this to happen.  To claim that the danger of the innocent being put to death absolves man of the need to kill the guilty who ought to die is essentially a claim of being wiser and more compassionate than God.  Again, the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel.  Consider also all the innocent people who get murdered by people who do not fear the death penalty like they might if they thought it were likely they’d die themselves within a very short time of their crime happening.  And if legal systems were to follow the principles laid out regarding trials in the Bible, the danger of putting the innocent to death could be greatly mitigated anyways.  

Deuteronomy 19:16-21: “If a false witness rise up against any man to testify against him that which is wrong; Then both the men, between whom the controversy is, shall stand before the Lord, before the priests and the judges, which shall be in those days; And the judges shall make diligent inquisition: and, behold, if the witness be a false witness, and hath testified falsely against his brother; Then shall ye do unto him, as he had thought to have done unto his brother: so shalt thou put the evil away from among you.  And those which remain shall hear, and fear, and shall henceforth commit no more any such evil among you.  And thine eye shall not pity; but life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”

People would be very fearful of testifying falsely in a capital murder case if they had reason to believe they could be put to death if they were proven to be a false witness.  That would discourage false witnesses from rising up.

The Bible itself laments situations where a society and its authorities are so corrupt that justice is corrupted, bribes reign, the wicked are justified, and the innocent are condemned.  

Psalm 11:2-7: “For, lo, the wicked bend their bow, they make ready their arrow upon the string, that they may privily shoot at the upright in heart.  If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?  The Lord is in his holy temple, the Lord’s throne is in heaven: his eyes behold, his eyelids try, the children of men.  The Lord trieth the righteous: but the wicked and him that loveth violence his soul hateth.  Upon the wicked he shall rain snares, fire and brimstone, and an horrible tempest: this shall be the portion of their cup.  For the righteous Lord loveth righteousness; his countenance doth behold the upright.”

Psalm 82: “God standeth in the congregation of the mighty; he judgeth among the gods (i.e. mighty ones, specifically referring to judicial authority figures). How long will ye judge unjustly, and accept the persons of the wicked?  Selah.  Defend the poor and fatherless: do justice to the afflicted and needy.  Deliver the poor and needy: rid them out of the hand of the wicked.  They know not, neither will they understand; they walk on in darkness: all the foundations of the earth are out of course.  I have said, Ye are gods (i.e. mighty ones); and all of you are children of the most High (implying accountability to God in this context, not speaking of being in God’s favor and and not speaking of being in fellowship with God).  But ye shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes.  Arise, O God, judge the earth: for thou shalt inherit all nations.”

The righteous men who wrote such lamentations and rebukes never thought that opposing the death penalty had anything to do with the necessary solution to their righteous grievances with judicial authority.  These righteous grievances actually caused them to cry out to God to intervene faster and take vengeance Himself on the wicked who were involved in facilitating the corruption and injustice in their society.

It is only logical to conclude that those who oppose the death penalty contend with God’s severity towards sin and have contention with His Government.  They would dethrone God if they had the power to do so.  There are plenty of ways a person can have contention with God and practically seek to dethrone Him, even if they do support the death penalty.  But we’re dealing here with the death penalty; and it’s possible that what is about to be said applies to many who support the death penalty too (in other ways).  

Mankind in general wants God to lighten up on His demands and wants to believe that the consequences of living in sin will not really be that bad.  This fits right in with opposition to the death penalty.  And law and order being properly carried out, and especially the death penalty being properly carried out, preview the horror of the wicked on Judgment Day when the concept that God’s demands and threats in Scripture weren’t really what they appeared to be, when taken at face value, is proven to be a vain and damnable lie.  

A convicted criminal screaming and/or crying as he is led off to face the sentence which his deeds have made proper for him tells everyone else that you will indeed actually reap what you sow.  And to those who take heed like they ought to, the message is sent that God does not lighten up on His righteous demands to accommodate man; and that the consequences of living in sin will surely be drastic and unbearable.  

The Lord Jesus Christ is in truth the hope of mercy and redemption which has been extended to man on the condition that sin be broken off and righteousness in His eyes be wholeheartedly embraced in following the Son unto suffering and whatever loss in this world which this might bring.  Righteousness must be done when it is unpleasant and when it is painful.  And considering our topic, it is worth mentioning here that faithfully doing what is right before God necessarily involves even supporting the execution of loved ones who are guilty of capital offenses.  By the principles of God’s Word it is appropriate to say that you will not find anyone in heaven who would oppose the death penalty for anyone, including a family member or close friend, when the evidence pointed to their guilt in a capital crime beyond a reasonable doubt.  And anyone whom that sounds foreign or strange to might very well have an ungodly attachment to relatives and friends anyways now which is hindering them right at this very moment from doing what is right before God and being a true disciple (i.e. a true believer) in Jesus Christ.

Matthew 10:37-39: “He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.  And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me.  He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.”

Luke 14:25-27: “And there went great multitudes with him: and he turned, and said unto them, If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.  And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple.”

People generally tell themselves that, when it is all said and done, God will spare them from hell though they refuse to suffer for righteousness and rather choose to walk contrary to Him and continue in sin.  Yet God has made it known in His Word that He is not going to spare those who continue in sin and obey not Christ’s Gospel from the eternal fire of hell.  He will rather send them away weeping and wailing into the fire of hell for eternity like the righteous condemnations of criminals in this life is intended to preview.

Luke 13:23-28: “Then said one unto him, Lord, are there few that be saved?  And he said unto them, Strive to enter in at the strait gate: for many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, and shall not be able.  When once the master of the house is risen up, and hath shut to the door, and ye begin to stand without, and to knock at the door, saying, Lord, Lord, open unto us; and he shall answer and say unto you, I know you not whence ye are: Then shall ye begin to say, We have eaten and drunk in thy presence, and thou hast taught in our streets (remember that Jesus is directly speaking to Israelites in the land of Israel here, but that does not negate the principles He is teaching from applying to everyone) .  But he shall say, I tell you, I know you not whence ye are; depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity (i.e. sin/lawlessness).  There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when ye shall see Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and all the prophets, in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrust out.”

Matthew 5:29-30: “And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.  And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.”

That the last passage which was just read is a figurative statement only serves to better prove that a total break from sin is indeed very painful; and we need to not spare ourselves from that or the fire of hell will really be our portion.  

Reach brother Aaron at: [email protected]