Last year saw more federal executions in the United States than any other year in our country’s history. In fact, there were more federal executions in 2020 alone than there have been in any other decade since the 1930s.
This recent spate of federal executions has led to increased controversy surrounding the death penalty. Some staunchly support the death penalty and see 2020’s executions as a return to greater emphasis on “law and order.” Others see the death penalty as a grave injustice we must abolish.
What is a Christian to make of capital punishment? What does the Bible have to say? This is a complex issue, so I do not presume to deliver the final word. In trying to come to some conclusion, I contend Genesis 9 and Romans 13 must be considered alongside the difference between the Roman empire and American democracy.
The Noahic covenant
The Bible is full of “covenants” between God and different people. These covenants are sacred, binding agreements similar to legal contracts we practice today. There is one covenant in Scripture, however, especially relevant to the question of the death penalty—the Noahic covenant.
Following the flood of Genesis 6-8, God makes a covenant with Noah. But Noah alone is not the recipient of God’s promise. God says to Noah that the covenant is “between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations” (9:12 NRSV). God restates this idea multiple times, even calling this covenant an “everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth” (9:16).
The full contents of this covenant are found in Genesis 8:20-9:17, but the key portion for our purposes is 9:5-6. God says: “Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind.”
Because humanity is made in the image of God, murdering another human is an especially wicked offense for which death is a just punishment. And we must recall this Noahic covenant is “everlasting” and “for all generations.” Nowhere in Scripture is this covenant abrogated or explicitly reinterpreted.
The other key biblical text relevant to capital punishment is Romans 13, specifically 13:1-7. After Paul exhorts the Roman Christians to leave vengeance to God and instead “repay evil with good” (12:19-21), he explains God has established civic authorities and granted them the “power of the sword” to serve as instruments of God’s vengeance (13:1-7).
God has granted human rulers the power to “bear the sword” (13:4), which refers to the authority to kill. This can take the form of waging war, executing criminals, etc. Paul commands believers to “be subject” to the authorities (13:5-7).
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This is not carte blanche, however, for the civic authorities to kill whomever they wish with impunity. God will hold all people—rulers included—accountable on the last day (2 Corinthians 5:10). Paul also does not mean to say believers must obey the authorities no matter what (Acts 5:29).
We must keep in mind Paul would have been quite familiar with the wicked abuses of the Roman authorities, especially the brutally violent Roman army. Paul was not naïve; he knew Rome and other rulers abused the power of the sword. But in Paul’s eyes, this fact does not invalidate the God-given right of governments to bear the sword.
Christian objections to the death penalty
However, many Christians would object to the line of argument I outline above.
Some Christians object to the death penalty by invoking general Christian principles of mercy, forgiveness, etc. These principles are all right and good, but it is bad biblical interpretation to invoke general principles derived from Scripture to override or bypass specific and explicit biblical texts.
Another popular objection is the invocation of Jesus’ example. Jesus might be the most infamous victim of capital punishment in all human history. He was an innocent man murdered by the state. Yes, but “innocent” is the key word here. The New Testament claims Jesus was innocent of any capital crime even under Roman law (e.g., Luke 23:13-15, 22, 41, 47).
There is another objection I must admit gives me pause: If a person is executed, that permanently ends any chance he or she may have to repent and believe in Christ. And what should we do if a death row prisoner repents of his or her crimes? Should we Christians not advocate for mercy?
This is a serious and valid question. I have yet to come up with an answer that fully resolves the tension in my mind. But I do not believe this question, legitimate though it may be, fundamentally overrides what we see in Genesis 9 or Romans 13.
Two vital distinctions
There remains one more objection to the death penalty that is far stronger than any other I have mentioned yet. In the United States, the death penalty is administered unjustly. The death penalty is used extremely disproportionately against the poor and people of color. Moreover, there is high risk of innocent people being executed.
But, wait. Didn’t I say abuse of the death penalty does not invalidate its proper implementation? Here, I must introduce two vital distinctions. First, one can believe capital punishment is theoretically legitimate while objecting to the way it is practiced in specific cases. Second, Paul did not live in a democracy—American Christians do.
Allow me to elaborate on this second distinction. Paul was familiar with Rome’s abuse of the power of the sword, but neither he nor any other Christian had the power to stop it. The church in the New Testament era had no direct earthly power over public policy. Christians in the modern United States do have such power. Therefore, I believe God can and will hold us accountable for every unjust execution, at least to the extent we have or had control over it.
Unless we can guarantee we are not executing innocent people, and unless we can avoid unjust discrimination in implementing capital punishment, I believe Christians should strive to stop the death penalty in the United States.
Joshua Sharp is a writer and Bible teacher living in Waco. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from Truett Theological Seminary. The views expressed are those solely of the author.