Death penalty measures were considered on three different state ballots on Election Day, which has sparked a healthy capital punishment debate among Christians, but where should Christians stand on the death penalty? Some capital punishment proponents justify their stance by suggesting that not only is it good governance but it's also sanctioned by God. This is a bold claim. Those who support the death penalty often cite a few Biblical verses, but do they really translate into a divine death penalty mandate?
One commonly cited passage is "eye for an eye". If this scripture is taken as a command advocating for capital punishment, what would its application look like? Do we maim criminals in the exact same way as their victims? Of course not. However, this verse is frequently misinterpreted. First of all, it doesn't mandate the use of executions. This passage actually states that punishments cannot go beyond a proportional response. Therefore, 'eye for an eye' is actually a limitation of punishments rather than requiring a minimum penalty.
This isn't to say that the death penalty is entirely impermissible Biblically. There are certainly verses which seem to permit executions, but I doubt anyone would desire this to be enacted as public policy. Under Mosaic Law, not only was capital punishment allowed for those who have murdered but also for those who have disrespected their parents, worked on the Sabbath, committed adultery, and engaged in homosexual acts. If certain death penalty supporters are willing to use the Bible as a crutch to justify capital punishment, then will they accept these verses as public policy too? Hopefully not. I think even the most die-hard death penalty proponents would be hard-pressed to justify executing such 'offenders.'
Some in the pro-death camp also attempt to legitimize death penalty usage by invoking the so-called Rule of Blood: "Whoever shed the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed". But if we read this verse as a literal commandment for capital punishment, it leads to some problematic conclusions. Consider someone who kills another in self-defense or by accident. In these cases, most of us would find it deeply troubling to apply the death penalty.
Another passage frequently referenced to support executions is found in Romans 13, which allegedly confirms God's capital punishment mandate: "But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for (government) beareth not the sword in vain: for [government] is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil". However, this passage isn't necessarily granting the government a green light to impose capital punishment. A closer analysis of the verse reveals a much different meaning.
The Greek word for the saber used in Roman executions was "rhomphaia," but it isn't found in Romans 13. The word that was actually used was "machaira", which was a short sword that symbolized the Roman court's authority. Similarly, the word "execute" was not actually used in the original Greek text. It was inserted during the text's translation into the Authorized King James Version. Instead, we can understand "execute" as meaning to carry out. Therefore, the passage can be read as God granting government the authority to establish a court system that brings about justice - not necessarily capital punishment.
There is one crucially important Biblical figure yet to be mentioned - Jesus Christ. When faced with the pending execution of an adulterer, Christ acted with mercy. He said to the angry mob, that was poised to stone her, "Let whoever is without sin cast the first stone", implying that perhaps it's not mankind's place to take life unnecessarily. Rather, only God Himself is qualified for this judgment. This Biblical story ultimately demonstrates that Christ valued sinners' lives enough to stop an execution, which was permissible under Mosaic Law.
Jesus' message of unconditional love and forgiveness was a direct answer to the legalistic and retributive violence that permeated the ancient world. Jesus himself said, "You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also." His word calls us to live selfless, peaceful lives in which we do not judge our fellow man but instead meet him with forgiveness and mercy.
We still must protect society and hold those guilty of crimes accountable, but the death penalty isn't the correct response. I believe, instead, that these people, who are God's children too, deserve to have the opportunity to repent for their sins and to be saved by Christ. Who are we to determine when someone's life should end? Consider for a moment that Moses and St. Paul both committed capital offenses. Thankfully they weren't executed. Instead, they were spared by God and went on to do amazing things, which is proof that redemption is never beyond a sinner's grasp.
Finally, we must consider one crucial point- America's capital punishment program doesn't compare with the Biblical death penalty. The Bible lays out many governing guidelines, including the necessity of two eyewitnesses in order to execute someone, but we follow very few of these. Furthermore, unlike God's perfect judgment, our system is inherently flawed and run by fallible human beings. As a result, innocent lives are constantly imperiled. Would Christ support killing innocent people? Of course not, but that's what's at risk with our death penalty.
We grapple with many issues, like the death penalty, that don't always appear to be easily solved, but when you look to Jesus for guidance, things become much clearer. As a dedicated Christian, I plan to follow Jesus' example as best as I can. I will opt for mercy, the hope for redemption, and respect for human life, and thus will oppose the death penalty.
Katherine Dwyer is a Charles Koch Institute Communications Fellow with Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty, a Project of EJUSA. Dwyer, a recent graduate of San Jose State University now residing in Idaho, is a devout Evangelical Christian.