What should be the Christian stand on the death penalty?

I’m convinced that our whole criminal justice system is in serious need of reformation and restructuring because it is not working and many inequities exist within it. Christians are divided about the issue of capital punishment. First, there is the basic question of whether or not capital punishment in and of itself is a good or bad thing. I think the majority opinion of the Christian church throughout its history has been that capital punishment is a good thing. This position has been taken, not because Christians are particularly bloodthirsty, but because Christians read the Scriptures. The Word of God institutes, ordains, and commands capital punishment in Genesis 9:6.

When the state legislature of Pennsylvania voted to reintroduce capital punishment, the then governor of the state vetoed it on the grounds that the Bible said, “Thou shalt not kill.” He was aware that the Bible said, “Thou shalt not kill,” and he was quoting from the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20. Yet if you go to Exodus 21, 22, and 23 (the holiness code), God sets forth the provisions for those who break that commandment. For those who murder, God commands that they be executed.

Fine distinctions are made between voluntary and involuntary manslaughter, malice of forethought, and the various kinds of situations that fall within the complexity of our jurisprudence. So I’m answering this question in its broad principle.

Usually, the great objection to capital punishment is that human life is so precious and so valuable that we ought never to lift our hands to snuff it out. Also, every human being is redeemable. Another argument is that capital punishment is not a deterrent. But the institution of capital punishment was not given as a deterrent but as an act of justice. What is the biblical rationale? Capital punishment is instituted very early in the Old Testament—before Moses, before Sinai, before the Ten Commandments, back in the days of Noah, where God says, “If by man, man’s blood is shed, by man shall his blood be shed.” That’s not a prediction. The structure of the language there is an imperative; it is a command. The reason is given: “Because man is made in the image of God.” In other words, the Bible says that human life is so sacred, so precious, so holy—human life has so much dignity—that if with malice of forethought you wantonly destroy another human being, you thereby forfeit your own right to life. God doesn’t merely allow the execution of murderers; he commands it.

©1996 by R.C. Sproul. Used by permission of Tyndale.
Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. ©1982 by Thomas Nelson.
Used by permission. All rights reserved.