The Good News of the Death Penalty

The death penalty has become controversial in the modern day. Opposition to capital punishment has grown in the West, and the Pope even recently condemned the entire practice. But what does God’s Word say about the death penalty?

The Institution of the Death Penalty After the Flood

In one sense, the death penalty was first instituted in the Garden of Eden. God told Adam that if he ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, then he “shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17). And in fact, after the fall God declared that the sin of Adam and Eve would lead to their return to the dust (Genesis 3:19). Though because of God’s grace, Adam and Eve did not die immediately.

However, the death penalty as carried out by humans was not instituted until after the flood in Genesis 9. When Noah went out of the ark, he made sacrifices to God (Genesis 8:20-22). God blessed Noah and his sons, commanding them to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Genesis 9:1, 7; cf. 1:28; 8:17). God then made a covenant with Noah and all creation to never again flood the earth (Genesis 9:8-17). Noah was a new Adam, a new start to humanity.

Yet something changed after the flood. God declared that the “fear” and “dread” of man would be upon the animals—“Into your hand they are delivered” (Genesis 9:2). God had given plants as food for both humans and animals (Genesis 1:29-30), and God declared that animals would now be food for man—“And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything” (Genesis 9:3). (Another possibility is that God allowed the eating of animals prior to the flood and was here giving humans all animals to eat, doing away with the clean/unclean distinction seen in Genesis 7:2, 8; 8:20.)

Though God gave animals as food, He placed a restriction against consuming blood. This leads into the institution of the death penalty:

But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man.

Whoever sheds the blood of man,
by man shall his blood be shed,
for God made man in his own image (Genesis 9:4-6).

God ties the prohibition of eating animal blood to His requirement of a reckoning for the shedding of human blood. God will require a reckoning from both animals and humans “for the life of man” (Genesis 9:5). The word “reckoning” (or “punishment”) is not actually in the Hebrew text. However, the word דרשׁ (darash) means “to seek/require/exact.” So God is saying that He will require some sort of punishment. Both animals (“beast”) and humans (“man”) who kill humans are to be punished.

The Death Penalty for Murder

This leads to the poetic words of the death penalty—“Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed” (Genesis 9:6). “Whoever” refers to anyone who kills a human, which includes even animals. As the prior verse states, God authorizes man to kill “every beast” who kills a human (Genesis 9:5). This principle is illustrated in Exodus 21:28-29, where God prescribes the execution of an ox who gores a man to death.

Who is to shed the murderer’s blood? It is other humans, as God says He will require this reckoning for the life of man “from his fellow man” (Genesis 9:5). God is thus commanding humans to administer this judgment (though it says nothing of how this is to be carried out).

Now the text only refers to those who “shed blood.” It does not actually use the word “murder” or “kill.” However, the rest of Scripture teaches that “murder”— the intentional taking of human life—is in view in Genesis 9. Not all killing is sin, as there is no prohibition of killing in war or in self-defense, and carrying out the death penalty itself requires killing.

Important here is the sixth commandment, “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13; Deuteronomy 5:17). The word here is רצח (ratzach), which does not translate well because it includes both intentional killing (murder) and unintentional killing (manslaughter). Thus when translating the sixth commandment, the English word “murder” is too narrow and “kill” is too broad.

Though God prohibits both intentional and unintentional killing in the sixth commandment, the Mosaic law distinguished between unlawful intentional killing (murder) and unintentional killing (manslaughter). Murder received the death penalty, while manslaughter did not (Numbers 35:9-34; Deuteronomy 19:1-13; Joshua 20:1-9).[1] 

God’s Image and the Authority to Carry Out the Death Penalty

The basis of the death penalty is the “image of God.” A murderer’s blood shall be shed because “God made man in his own image” (Genesis 9:6). This is interpreted in two different ways: (1) a murderer deserves to die because he killed a human who is made in God’s image; (2) man has authority to execute a murderer, as the authority stems from his being made in God’s image.

The latter view makes more sense because of the link between God’s image and authority/dominion over creation (Genesis 1:26-28). Many Christians use the phrase “image of God” as conveying value upon human life, but that is not the point of the phrase. Being made in God’s “image” means humans have authority over creation.

Genesis 9:6 emphasizes that the murderer shall have his blood shed “by man.” The text is stating that other humans (“man”) shall kill a murderer because God made “man” in His image. Thus the phrase “for God made man in his own image” is a statement about the executioner’s authority, not about the victim’s value.

Why the Death Penalty?

Why did God institute the death penalty after the flood? The likely explanation is that the death penalty would help curb violence by functioning as a deterrent. Part of the reason that God flooded the earth was that it became extremely violent—“Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence” (Genesis 6:11). God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them” (Genesis 6:13). This violence seems to have increased as a result of the Nephilim (Genesis 6:1-4).

There was no death penalty prior to the flood, and men who killed other humans continued to live on the earth. Two murderers are specifically mentioned prior to the flood: (1) Cain, who murdered his brother Abel; and (2) Lamech, who killed a man for merely striking him (Genesis 4:16, 23). Cain was worried that he would be killed by other men for his sin, but God assured him that He would carry out “sevenfold” vengeance on anyone who killed Cain (Genesis 4:14-15). This idea of “sevenfold”—or perfect—justice comes to fruition in the death penalty that God authorizes humans to carry out after the flood.

While the text is not explicit, God seems to have instituted the death penalty to help deal with this pre-flood violence problem. Murderers would no longer be allowed to live but were to be executed by humans. This is a conduit of God’s judgment and thus at least temporarily pacifies His wrath. God’s institution of the death penalty enables His promise to not again destroy the earth with a flood, as seen in His covenant with Noah and all creation (Genesis 9:8-17). This basis for the death penalty suggests that a society that does not execute murderers is storing up God’s wrath, as He will seek a reckoning.

The Expansion of the Death Penalty Under the Law

Genesis 9 established God’s requirement of the death penalty for murder, and God expanded it for other crimes in the Mosaic law. The general principle of punishment carried out in the Mosaic law is known as lex talionis, the “law of retaliation.” This is seen in passages describing punishment as “eye for eye” (Exodus 21:23-24; Leviticus 24:20; Deuteronomy 19:21). However, the prescription of the death penalty for a wide variety of crimes shows that the standard here is actually proportionality, not mere retaliation. God judged a number of crimes to be so wicked that they were worthy of death at the hands of the people of Israel.

In fact, the death penalty is prescribed for grievous sins under broad categories of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17; Deuteronomy 5:6-21). We can see examples of the death penalty for sins falling under all the commandments except the second and tenth.

Under the category of idolatry (first commandment), the death penalty is prescribed for sorcery (Exodus 22:18), sacrificing to gods other than Yahweh (Exodus 22:20), passing children through the fire to Molech (Leviticus 20:2), necromancy (Leviticus 20:27), and worship of other gods (Deuteronomy 17:2-7). Moses also gave instructions for dealing with those who would lead Israel into idolatry (Deuteronomy 13:1-18). He prescribed the death penalty for three cases: (1) A false prophet of other gods was to be put to death for teaching rebellion against Yahweh (Deuteronomy 13:5); (2) A family member enticing the people to serve other gods was to be stoned (Deuteronomy 13:10); and (3) Israelite cities serving other gods were to be burned and “devoted to destruction” (Deuteronomy 13:15-16).

Under the category of blasphemy (third commandment), the death penalty is prescribed for blaspheming Yahweh’s name (Leviticus 24:16), a foreigner who gets close to the tabernacle (Numbers 3:10, 38), and false prophecy (Deuteronomy 13:1-10; 18:20-22).

Breaking the Sabbath (fourth commandment) required the death penalty (Exodus 31:14; 35:2). 

Under the category of honoring parents (fifth commandment), the death penalty was prescribed for striking a parent (Exodus 21:15), cursing a parent (Exodus 21:17; Leviticus 20:9), and for a son who persists in disobedience (Deuteronomy 21:18-21). Also tied with obeying authority, the death penalty was prescribed for contempt of court when a person disobeyed a Levitical priest’s judicial decision (Deuteronomy 17:8-13).

Under the category of murder (sixth commandment), the death penalty is prescribed for murder (Exodus 21:12; Leviticus 24:17) and negligent homicide for an ox-goring when warned in the past (Exodus 21:28-29). It is of note that an ox is to be put to death even for first-time killing, thus fitting with God’s demand for the death of animals who kill humans in Genesis 9:5.

Under the category of sexual sin (seventh commandment), the death penalty is prescribed for adultery with a married woman (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22-24), certain forms of incest (Leviticus 20:11-12), male homosexuality (Leviticus 20:13), a man marrying his wife’s mother (Leviticus 20:14), bestiality (Exodus 22:19; Leviticus 20:15-16), prostitution by the daughter of a priest (Leviticus 21:9), a woman falsely representing herself as a virgin to her husband (Deuteronomy 22:13-21), adultery with a betrothed woman (Deuteronomy 22:23-24), and rape of a betrothed woman (Deuteronomy 22:25-27). (Betrothal was a binding form of engagement, and a betrothed woman was legally considered a “wife,” as seen in Deuteronomy 22:24.)

Under the category of theft (eighth commandment), the death penalty is prescribed for manstealing (Exodus 21:16; Deuteronomy 24:7).

Under the category of bearing false witness (ninth commandment), the death penalty could be carried out if a person made a false accusation of murder (Deuteronomy 19:15-21). The judge was to do to the false witness “as he had meant to do to his brother” (Deuteronomy 19:19).

Moses stated the purpose of the death penalty in the case of idolatry—“So you shall purge the evil in your midst” (Deuteronomy 13:5). Moses applied this same language throughout Deuteronomy to several prescriptions of the death penalty (Deuteronomy 17:7, 12; 19:19; 21:21; 22:21-22, 24; 24:7).

It is sometimes said that the death penalty laws were not mandatory but were only the maximum penalty for the crimes. However, these laws for the death penalty are in command form, and God instructed Israel to kill persons who violated such laws. As Moses said, Israel was to “purge” such violators from their midst.

Of course, there was due process for these crimes, and they had to be proven. There had to be two or three witnesses of the crime (Deuteronomy 17:6; 19:15), and the elements of each crime had to be met. Mitigating circumstances would have been considered as to whether the death penalty was proper for a specific act.

A variety of methods of capital punishment were carried out in Israel—burning (Leviticus 20:14; 21:9), stoning (Leviticus 20:2, 27; 24:14; Deuteronomy 21:21), hanging (Deuteronomy 21:22-23; Joshua 8:29), and the sword (Exodus 32:27-28). The exercise of the death penalty receives greater attention than the method. 

The Death Penalty in the New Covenant

Unlike Old Testament Israel, the New Testament church is not to carry out the death penalty. The difference is that Israel was both a religious body and a nation-state. Whereas Israel was to “purge” evil Israelites through the death penalty (Deuteronomy 13:5), the Apostle Paul applies this language in commanding us to “purge” unrepentant Christians through excommunication (1 Corinthians 5:13).

However, this does not mean there is no place for the death penalty after the coming of Christ. Rather, Paul speaks of legitimacy of the “sword” born by the state, which includes the authority to carry out the death penalty. In Romans 13, Paul commands Christians to obey the governing authorities—“For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1). Whoever resists “the authority” (τῇ ἐξουσίᾳ, te exousia) resists “the decree of God” (τῇ τοῦ θεοῦ διαταγῇ, te tou theou diatage) and will receive judgment (Romans 13:2).

Paul then makes an important statement about “rulers” (ESV). (The antecedent in Romans 13:3 is “the authority,” hence the translation “it” instead of “he” below.) Paul says:

for [it] is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for [it] does not bear the sword in vain. For [it] is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer (Romans 13:4).

Thus “the authority” (i.e. the state) is the “servant of God” and the “avenger of wrath” on the evildoer. The “sword” (μάχαιραν, machairan) was often used in the ancient world to refer to violent death (Exodus 22:24 [LXX]; Leviticus 26:25 [LXX]; Romans 8:35; Acts 12:2; 16:27; Hebrews 11:34, 37). To “bear the sword” in Romans 13:4 at minimum refers to civil government’s right to use force to punish lawbreakers, and this would certainly include the death penalty. However, Paul may be using the “sword” in reference to capital punishment (and thus as a metonym for government power). Therefore Paul does not condemn the use of the death penalty but recognizes its proper place for the governing authority to carry out God’s justice.

The New Testament does not overthrow the teaching of Genesis 9 that God instituted the death penalty for all mankind. And it nowhere criticizes the concept of state-sanctioned capital punishment.[2] The challenge here is that the New Testament gives no guidelines for the death penalty and which crimes deserve death. This raises two issues for the modern day.

First, there is the issue of ensuring that a person who is put to death is guilty of a capital crime. For criminal cases, Western nations use a jury trial requiring a unanimous verdict that the defendant committed the crime “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This is a high standard. Yet there have no doubt been mistaken guilty verdicts in the past.

Second, there is the issue of determining which crimes warrant the death penalty. The Old Testament is our only guide in this respect. Genesis 9 applies to all creation, so we can be certain that at minimum murder should be met with the death penalty. Crimes outside of murder are debatable. One option is to consistently apply all the laws of the Mosaic code, which would make for an extensive list of capital crimes. However, even this position holds that some of the prescriptions for the death penalty would not apply today because of the ceremonial basis that has been done away with in Christ (e.g. a foreigner who gets close to the tabernacle in Numbers 3:10, 38). And of course, such laws could only be implemented in a Christian society.

Unfortunately, most secular societies have arbitrarily applied the death penalty or have simply done away with the practice as “inhumane.” But one must ask who is actually inhumane—the state that carries out justice upon a murderer or the state that lets a murderer go free (or locks him up in a cage for life)?

The Good News of the Death Penalty

God instituted the death penalty as a means for administering His justice against evildoers. As Genesis 9 shows, the death penalty should be carried out at least against murderers.

Ironically, humans carried out the most unjust death penalty conceivable when the Romans crucified the sinless Lord Jesus Christ on the cross. They murdered not just any man but the very image of God incarnate (Colossians 1:15; 2 Corinthians 4:4). Yet ultimately it was our sin that put Him to death. “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), and Christ took on the penalty our sin deserves.

In reference to a man hanged on a “tree” for committing a capital crime, Moses said that such a “hanged man is cursed by God” (Deuteronomy 21:23). Yet Jesus took on God’s curse and redeemed us by “becoming a curse for us,” as He died on a “tree” (the cross) in our place (Galatians 3:13). Thus it is through the death penalty that Jesus saves us. This is the good news of the death penalty.

It should come as no surprise then that those who reject Christ’s atoning work through the death penalty also reject the legitimate use of the death penalty for murderers today. They oppose God’s authority and spurn His teaching about justice.

Whether we will administer the death penalty is not something for man to decide. God instituted the death penalty prior to the giving of the law at Sinai, thus showing that it applies to all societies. God gave civil government the authority to execute people for heinous crimes, which at minimum includes murder. However, it may include other heinous crimes that ought not to be tolerated by a godly society.

[1] Many modern societies divide killings further into first and second degree murder and voluntary and involuntary manslaughter, usually limiting the death penalty to first degree ("premeditated") murder. These distinctions and definitions vary depending on jurisdiction. But in general, first degree murder is premeditated intentional killing, whereas second degree murder is non-premeditated but intentional. Voluntary manslaughter is an intentional killing that is mitigated due to provocation, and involuntary manslaughter is an unintentional killing resulting from recklessness. There is some merit to these distinctions, as Numbers 35:22-24 treats an intentional but non-premeditated killing as manslaughter that is to be judged by the congregation. This would qualify as "second degree murder" today, but the Bible describes it as a sort of "voluntary manslaughter."  

[2] Some people bring up the woman caught in adultery in John 7:53–8:11, the pericope adulterae, as an example of Jesus overturning the death penalty. However, Jesus makes no such point in this passage, and at most, He would be disapproving of the death penalty for adultery. Moreover, the earliest and best manuscripts do not contain this passage, and many scholars do not believe it is original to the Gospel of John.