“Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind.”
— Gen. 9:6 (NIV)
I am no theologian, but tonight I kept running into people who claim I cannot be a Christian and support the death penalty. Many of them referred to the Catholic Church, which takes a very firm stand in favor of life, from abortion to the death penalty.
Let me deal with this as best a layman can.
I firmly respect that view point, but I do not think a Christian must reject the death penalty.
For all those who read in the 10 Commandments “Thou Shalt Not Kill”, consider that a more accurate interpretation is, in fact, “murder” and not “kill” in Exodus 20:13.
And if you think otherwise, just flip over a page to Exodus 21:12-17 where you’ll find
Anyone who strikes a person with a fatal blow is to be put to death. However, if it is not done intentionally, but God lets it happen, they are to flee to a place I will designate. But if anyone schemes and kills someone deliberately, that person is to be taken from my altar and put to death.
Anyone who attacks[c] their father or mother is to be put to death.
Anyone who kidnaps someone is to be put to death, whether the victim has been sold or is still in the kidnapper’s possession.
Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.
And that’s not God saying he’ll do it. That’s God telling the Israelites to do it.
But the story doesn’t start with Exodus. Go all the way back to the beginning to the Book of Genesis, specifically Genesis 9:6, in which God declares, “Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind.”
Fast forward to Romans 13 and you’ll see in the first six verses St. Paul saying clearly that God establishes all governing authorities and that “[the governing authorities] are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.” Romans 13:4-5.
Some would read this in conflict with Romans 12’s admonition in verses 17 to 19 which states,
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,”[d] says the Lord.
Except it is very clear in Romans 12 that it is talking about the individual Christian, not the state. Individual Christians are not supposed to seek revenge or repay anyone “evil for evil.” We are supposed to love and to “overcome evil with good.” See Romans 12-21.
That, however, does not preclude the death penalty being imposed by Christians through their government. In fact, Romans 12:19 says “Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath.” Jump back over to Romans 13:4b and you find that the state is “God’s servant, and his “agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”
Many people fall into the trap of not separating out discussions of the individual Christian’s response with that of the governing authorities who, again, “God has established.” Keep in mind as well that Paul is writing this during Roman persecution still telling Christians that they must obey the state, pay their taxes, and honor the government.
If you want to oppose the death penalty, that’s fine. If you want to oppose the death penalty on religious grounds, that’s fine. If you want to oppose the death penalty on Christian religious grounds, that is even fine.
Just don’t say the correct Chrisian theological position is to oppose the death penalty when very clearly Romans 13 tells us the state serves a purpose to mete out God’s wrath, including through capital punishment.