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Is the Death Penalty Biblical?

Is the death penalty biblical? Let me begin by saying that a lot of people wouldn’t ask the question that way. A lot of people don’t care what the Bible says. A lot of people who have a stake in the death penalty don’t care what Scripture reveals. So some people would say, well, is the death penalty just? Or is the death penalty a good idea? But from a Christian perspective, we have to say that what is a good idea, what is just, and what is righteous is what is commanded by God in the Bible. If we can answer whether the death penalty is biblical, then we will be answering whether the death penalty is righteous or a good idea. So is the death penalty biblical? The question comes because everybody realizes what a momentous decision it is to take away someone’s life. Every person on the planet only gets one effort at their life, you get one, and when it’s gone, it is gone. When you take someone’s life, you are taking the one thing they have that they can’t replace. They can’t get another shot at it. And so it is good that we take this seriously.

The Image of God

The Bible does talk about the death penalty. In fact, the Bible Institute’s the death penalty; we see this in Genesis 9:6. God has destroyed the earth because of sin except for Noah and his family. And in Genesis 9, God is talking to Noah, and he’s building a relationship with Noah and his descendants, which constitutes reformed human race, the remainder of the human race that has been saved from the destruction of the flood. He’s giving Noah some rules to live by, and as they go to Noah and his family, they go to the entire created order. They go to us. In Genesis 9:6, God says to Noah, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man, shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” God is reminding Noah that even after the fall, even after people are stained with sin, they still bear the divine image. That is to say. They still represent God of all the creatures that God made. He made one creature that is not an animal, but that is a human being, and that, uniquely in all creation, represents him to the world. That’s what it means to be made in the image of God. We are unique representatives of God in the created order. And that stamp of the divine image makes us different. It makes us special. We need to protect all life, each in their own way. But because human beings have in their life the presence of the divine image, it is of utmost importance. And that importance is underlined in this passage, which I’m here calling the institution of the death penalty. It says, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.” He’s saying the image of God is so important that if you snuff that out, by snuffing out someone’s life, then you have forfeited your own right to existence. So God institute’s the death penalty for people who kill, who murder, who extinguish the life of people who bear the divine image. The only way in Genesis 9:6, the only biblical way to honor the image of God, is to be sure that people who are thinking of killing and murdering that they know if you do that, you are going to face justice, and the justice the consequence for your ending the life of someone else, is that you will forefoot your own life, and so, because we know life is so important because we know it is so precious, then we must embrace some view of the death penalty because that is what ultimately protects life. That is ultimately what counts as justice when life is not protected but is lost. And so yes, the death penalty is biblical, but there’s something more we need to say about it.

“Whoever sheds the blood of man by man shall his blood be shed.” In that first phrase, “Whoever sheds the blood of man,” the assumption there is that somebody has taken that life justly. And the second phrase, “by man shall his blood be shed,” that there is some sort of just way to punish the person who took the life unjustly. What this means is that in our exercise of the death penalty, we have to be very careful. We have to be super cautious that we don’t unjustly take someone’s life under the banner of the just exercise of capital punishment. We all have heard horrible stories of people who died, the death sentence was carried out for a crime that they supposedly committed, and later evidence revealed that they were not the ones who did it. That is unjust. That is horrible. That is a sin. That is a terrible, terrible crime. It is murder. It might be unintentional murder, but it is murder nonetheless. And so what we have to be very careful of is that we don’t commit murder under the banner of justice. What that means is if we are going to exercise the death penalty on somebody, we have to have, I think, a higher standard of evidence of guilt, even just beyond a reasonable doubt. I think it needs to be conclusively proven. I think somebody can be convicted of murder when you prove that they’re guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. But I think that in order to honor Genesis 9:6 and not unjustly take someone’s life. We need to have conclusive proof that this person is guilty of the crime of which they were convicted, lest we unjustly carry out the death penalty. So the death penalty is biblical in principle, but like anything, it can be carried out in the wrong way. For Christians who care what the Bible teaches, we need to embrace the death penalty, but we also need to uphold a very, very high standard before that sentence is carried out.