Biblical Basis for the Death Penalty

Blaine Robison, M.A.


Published 7 August 2005; Revised 31 August 2018


The purpose of this monograph is to set forth the biblical basis for justifying the death penalty for murder. The legal definition of murder is "the unlawful killing of a human being by another with malice aforethought, either express or implied." Criminal homicide of murder does not include deaths resulting from accident or negligence. Arguments against the death penalty for murder tend to dwell on secondary issues such as the lack of uniformity of application in all states, the so-called "cruelty" of certain methods, the risk of punishing an innocent person, the lack of statistical evidence of deterrence, and others.

The primary issue is whether the death penalty is the right thing to do and whether God has expressed His will on the matter. The view of this author is that the Bible does resolve the primary issue and that doing God's will should be our priority regardless of the complications of compliance (Matthew 4:4; 28:20; John 15:14; Colossians 1:9-10).

Basic Principles

The Bible plainly reveals that God requires the death penalty to be imposed for murder (Ex 21:12; Lev 20:1; Num 35:16-21). Following are His reasons:

·  Capital criminals, especially murderers, by the nature of their offense deserve death, not rehabilitation (Num 35:31; 2Sam 12:5-10; Rom 1:28-32; Rev 16:6).

·  God created Man in His own image so that an assault upon any person is an assault upon God (Gen 9:6).

·  Murder defiles the land and the land can only be cleansed by the death of the murderer (Gen 4:10; Num 35:33; Job 16:18; Ps 9:12).

·  God requires equity in doing justice. The wrongdoer should suffer to the same degree (but not more) than the victim. Equity requires life for life (Ex 21:22-23; Lev 24:17-22; Deut 19:21; Matt 26:52; 2Th 1:5-10; 2Pet 2:12-13; Rev 13:10).

·  Not only does God expect and justify the death penalty for murder but also declares that if the community fails to carry out the execution, He would do it Himself (Lev 20:4-5).

Objections Considered

"There are case examples in the Bible of capital criminals who were not executed, clearly with God's approval, such as Cain and David. Scripture reveals God's reluctance to execute."

There never has been an exception to God's judgment that "the wages of sin is death" (Rom. 6:23). Every person eventually dies. Moreover, the provision of God's grace does not nullify the existence or authority of God's laws for men doing justice. Closer examination of case examples in the Bible reveals no contradiction. Cain lived as a "marked" man and was banished forever from the "presence of God," certainly pre-figuring eternal death (Gen 4:16; cf. Rev 22:15). However, God's decree of capital punishment was not in effect during Cain's lifetime, so God is just and gracious in not imposing ex post facto laws.

God may have considered mitigating circumstances in punishing David (cf. 1Kgs 15:5; Ps 51), but David certainly suffered from the sword of death that descended on his family (2Sam 12:9-14). Moreover, God demonstrated impartiality in punishing David even though Uriah was a Hittite (Deut 7:1-6). It should not be overlooked that the Lord took the life of the child conceived of adultery as part of David’s punishment even though the baby was innocent (2Sam 12:14), thus enforcing His law of “life for life”.

The biblical record is replete with evidence of God authorizing or imposing the death penalty. First, God ordered the execution of specific persons, including the golden calf idolatry offenders (Ex 32:27), a man who broke the Sabbath (Num 15:32-36), idolatrous Israelites at Peor (Num 25:4), the seven tribes indigenous to Canaan (Ex 33:1-3; Deut 7:1-2), Achan (Josh 7:10-15, 24-26), and the house of Ahab (2Kgs 9:6-9).

Second, God Himself put certain persons to death for their violent or rebellious sins. Some of the named individuals include Er and Onan (Gen 38:7-10), Korah and his followers (Num 16:31-49), Ahaziah (2Kgs 1:16-17), and Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:5-10). But even more significant than these individuals were the unnamed millions put to death. God destroyed the entire world of Noah for their violence (Gen 6:11-13), which may have been as many as 4 billion people. God killed the firstborn of Egypt for Pharaoh's rebellion (Ex 11), perhaps to avenge the murder of Hebrew children by Pharaoh.

Third, God employed angels in destroying the ungodly and the enemies of Israel. Most significant was the total destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for their wickedness (Gen 18:20; 19:24-25). An angel killed many Israelites for their disobedience during the reign of King David (2Sam 24:16). An angel of the Lord killed 185,000 of the Assyrian army that was threatening Jerusalem (2Kgs 19:35). An angel struck down King Herod for blasphemy (Acts 12:23).

Fourth, God responded with death to those that mocked His servants and disobeyed the Word of the Lord. Elisha called down fire to consume soldiers of the king of Samaria (2Kgs 1:10-14). Elisha also cursed some young men that called him “old bald head” and two bears came out of the woods and devoured the men (2Kgs 2:24).

In addition to these cases, Yeshua told two parables to illustrate God executing or ordering the execution of people. In one parable a nobleman (symbolizing the Father) executes those responsible for killing his son (Matt 21:33-41). In another the nobleman orders the slaying of his enemies who didn't want him to reign over them (Luke 19:27, 43f). These parables are remarkably parallel to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 in which over a million Jews perished as a judgment of God for rejecting His Son (cf. Matt 23:29-38; 27:25; Luke 21:20-24).

These biblical facts plus the reality of the coming condemnation of billions of people to the Second Death of the Lake of Fire (Matt 7:13-14; Rev 20:11-15; 22:15) forcefully contradict the notion of God's reluctance to execute. God certainly takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezek 33:11), but His justice is not ruled by sentimentalism.

"Abolition of capital punishment is a manifestation of our belief in the unique worth and dignity of each person, a creature made in the image and likeness of God."

It is ironic than many Christians use the same argument against the death penalty that God uses to justify it (Gen 9:5-6), and in so doing present themselves as rebellious against God's will. God insists that the murderer be held accountable and receive the same sentence perpetrated on the victim precisely because man bears God's image. A wicked and rebellious offender does not possess equal worth to his victim. (See Isa 40:17; Jer 2:5; Lam 4:2; Hos 12:11; Matt 25:30; Luke 15:21; Rom 3:10-12)

If all men regardless of their behavior possess unique "worth and dignity," on what basis could God sentence murderers to eternal death (1Jn 3:15; Rev 21:8; 22:15)? In Scripture, worth does not seem to be a quality that can be achieved or maintained apart from obedience to God. Murderers are children of the devil since the devil was a murderer from the beginning (John 8:44). Failure to carry out capital punishment of murderers is a gross injustice against the victims.

"The New Testament supersedes and nullifies Old Testament Law, because we are under the economy of Grace. Just as God extended grace to man, so each man is to extend grace and forgiveness when injured and exercise forbearance in the face of evil."

This view of Scripture naturally results in each person deciding for himself what is right (cf. Jdg 17:6). The only one who can nullify a law is the authority who gave it. Yeshua, the Son of the Holy God who gave the Torah, or the Law, to Moses, plainly declared that He didn't come to destroy or abolish the Torah (Matt 5:17). The Apostle Paul declared that the Torah is holy, good, righteous and the objective standard by which we know what is sinful (Rom 7:7,12). Paul also said that the Torah was not nullified because of justification by faith (Rom 3:31).

Yeshua the Messiah only did what the Torah could not do by becoming the means of our justification so that we are no longer saved by the blood of bulls and goats (Heb 9:22-28). However, in the living out of God's salvation as His obedient children His commandments certainly remain applicable. In fact, Yeshua, Paul, Peter and James quote from the Torah to enforce many moral and ecclesiastical pronouncements.

The "turn the other cheek" principle does not mean that violence is to be condoned or that remedies for injury should not be sought from the government (cf. Acts 21:30-36; 22:22-26; 25:10-12). Certainly, we are to grant forgiveness if a person wrongs us, but only if he repents (Luke 17:3). However, the command to forgive presumes both wrongdoer and victim are living. A murder victim cannot exercise forgiveness from the grave. While we can counsel the murderer to seek God's forgiveness relative to his eternal destiny, there is no biblical right to grant judicial forgiveness on behalf of the victim for the criminal act. God's Torah intends that justice be done for the victim and God ordained the human government to bring His wrath and afflict appropriate suffering upon the wrongdoer (Rom 13:1-5; 1Pet 2:14; 4:5).

Lastly, we should consider the fact that the death penalty was mandated before the tablets were given to Moses on Mt. Sinai, which means that some principles are universal and pre-date the covenantal obligations imposed on the Israelites and their descendants. God clearly mandated that human government impose the death penalty for murder. The blood of the slain that cries out for justice must not be ignored (Gen 4:10; Ps 79:10; Rev 6:10).

Copyright © 2005-2018 by Blaine Robison. All rights reserved.