Is There a Biblical Basis for Capital Punishment?

April 2015By Anne Barbeau Gardiner

Anne Barbeau Gardiner, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is Professor Emerita of English at John Jay College of the City University of New York. She has published on Dryden, Milton, and Swift, as well as on Catholics of the seventeenth century.

Does the Bible support the death penalty? Dale Recinella answers this question in his groundbreaking book The Biblical Truth About America’s Death Penalty (Northeastern University Press, 2004). Recinella, a former finance lawyer who has served for over twenty years as a chaplain on Florida’s death row, begins by pointing out that the death penalty in America is “a religious phenomenon encompassing matters of belief, faith, and morals.” For instance, the Bible was quoted in arguments in the state legislature when capital punishment was restored in New York in 1995. Since most executions take place in the Bible Belt, this is where prosecutors most often make use of three Bible verses when demanding the death sentence: “Who so sheds a man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed” (Gen. 9:6); “He that smites a man, so that he die, shall surely be put to death” (Exod. 21:12); and “The murderer shall be put to death” (Num. 35:16). Prosecutors and death-penalty advocates alike cite these passages — which are all from the Old Testament — as proof that the Bible supports the death penalty. As Recinella demonstrates, however, this idea is far from the truth.

Most Christians do not understand how the death penalty was carried out in biblical times. Its standards were derived from both the written law (the Torah) and the oral law (believed to have been given to Moses on Mount Sinai, and recorded in the Talmud). In Genesis, Lamech embraced retaliatory vengeance and demanded that seventy-seven men die if he were killed (4:24). Mosaic Law, rather than endorsing such violence, limited the penalty to one life for one life.

What’s more, the Bible recommends the death penalty for over thirty crimes besides murder, including idolatry, apostasy, blasphemy, witchcraft, sacrifice of children, work on the Sabbath, perjury in capital cases, kidnapping, hitting or being disloyal to a parent, adultery, incest, sodomy, and bestiality. Recinella observes that “based on the scriptural lists of death-eligible offenses…the entire community should be lining up for lethal injection.” On what scriptural basis, he asks, do we pick out murder from this list, or decide to take the words “life for life” literally but not “fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, and foot for foot”?

It’s not so simple, then, to find a scriptural basis for the death penalty as it is practiced in the U.S., especially since there is no warrant for it in the Gospels. As for the rest of the New Testament, defenders of capital punishment cite Romans 13:4, a passage that supports the power of judicial authority to punish wrongdoers. The problem is, this passage contains no mandate for capital punishment. Romans 13:4 has been misused in other areas in the past century as well — for example, to stifle opposition to Nazism and to defend Apartheid.

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I have long been perplexed by traditional Catholic scholars who find it easy to support the abolition of capital punishment which has long been supported by the Church and most definitely in her two universal Catechisms of Trent and Vatican II; regardless of recent off-the-cuff papal comments and statements from bishop’s conferences who have long bent to secular ideology.

However, taking the concluding sentence and overarching argument in this article: “There is absolutely no warrant from divine revelation for the death penalty as it is practiced in America” as a pivot; shouldn’t the status of secular law or practice have little to do with the formation of Catholic Doctrine.

Isn’t that at the heart of the Church being a sign of contradiction?

Isn’t that also the kernel of the pro-abortion advocacy of some Catholic politician’s argument, that “even though I am personally opposed….”

David H. Lukenbill, Founder, The Lampstand Foundation, who supports capital punishment as the traditional Catholic response to the aggressor, when necessary.

Posted by: davelukenbill
April 06, 2015 07:36 PM EDT
There is no doubt that there are individual cases of gross injustice, perhaps cases where some innocent people have been executed. It is also true that innocent people die everyday in car accidents, but no one would consider banning the automobile. It's a question of cost versus benefit. It's also true that there are some barbaric criminals whose acts of depravity are so extreme as to demand the ultimate penalty. It is not "vengeful" for them to be executed, any more than it is "vengeful" to send them to prison. It's simply a matter of justice. Just as it is unjust to punish someone too severely, it is also unjust to punish someone too lightly. How can you claim to value innocent human life when someone can receive basically a slap on the wrist after committing heinous murders? How is that in any way just to the victims and their families? There's always a tension between providing the victims justice versus the perpetrators. In cases where guilt or innocence is obvious, which I dare say is the great majority of cases, when in doubt I'd lean towards granting justice to the victims. Posted by: pcugini@gmail.com
April 24, 2015 12:28 PM EDT
Also, to amplify the previous commenter's point, the Council of Trent and many popes have specifically confirmed the validity of the death penalty. This was the teaching of the church, up until John Paul II made the dubious assertion that because modern prisons are so much more secure than they used to be, the death penalty is no longer necessary to protect society. However, I wonder if John Paul II really studied the situation to determine just how secure prisons are. Did he take into account the fact that prisoners also often kill other prisoners within the prison itself? Prisoners do still escape to this day, even from modern prisons. This is undeniable. He based his entire statement on an assertment of fact about prisons that he's no more qualified to make than anyone else. I tend to think the previous assertions of popes which have supported the death penalty are in no need of clarification. Posted by: pcugini@gmail.com
April 24, 2015 12:37 PM EDT
Another reason for abolishing the death penalty can be found in the U.S. Constitution -- that is, if you're one of the many traitors today, one of our many enemies within. Ever since the Rosenbergs were executed in the 1950s for passing along atomic bomb secrets to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the international Marxist cabal has feared that federally dispensed death penalties for traitors would deter John Kerry, Jane Fonda, Bill Ayers and their comrades. And why is it, pray tell, these people also are only interested in innocence when it involves the death penalty? Whatever happened to the Innocence Project and other such groups that helped prove and release the convicted-but-innocent!? Actually, most socialist bureaucrats today seem intent on imprisoning as many people as possible. As Ayn Rand wrote, the government can't control innocent people, so it creates so many laws that one cannot live life without committing a crime of some sort. Posted by: j17ghs
May 04, 2015 07:03 PM EDT
All of this is nice, but does anyone care about the law enforcement officer who puts himself on the line to make a micro-second decision to shoot or not to shoot. Yes, there are angry policeman who respond inappropriately. Think it is easy?? You should try it at least once. JB Posted by: Rob1gamez
June 02, 2015 01:58 PM EDT
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