A Christian Argument Against Capital Punishment

is-Capital-punishment-is-Effective-e1364605994409Genesis 9:6 is a verse in Genesis that has been a point of contention for quite some time. Some interpreters use this verse in an effort to make a Christian argument for capital punishment in American society and even abroad. Does God, in fact, support capital punishment or does He desire complete and total forgiveness to be practiced to the greatest extent by His creation? Before beginning, it is important to recognize that as Christians, it is paramount that we approach the topic from a Christian vantage point. Let’s take a few insights into account that shed a clear light on the topic.

The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology discusses capital punishment to a great extent. It begins with a great reminder of the story of Cain and Abel. The article states: “Cain was not put to death for slaying his brother Abel. The death penalty was not appropriate for a homicide which had no previous enmity (Deuteronomy 19:1-7)”[1]. God could have ended Cain’s life for murdering his brother, but allowed Cain to continue his life, for the preservation of human life[2]. Certainly Jesus Himself also showed an implied stance against capital punishment in John 8:2-11 and Matthew 5:38-39[3]. I also contend that Matthew 26: 47-52 reveals that Jesus calls the Christian to love rather than to harbor anger and intents of retribution towards another. This is best revealed by the fact His own death provided a channel for salvation and saving lives.

In Volume I of John Calvin’s Commentary On Genesis, Calvin shines his insight on Genesis 9:6. He states, “What I have said must be remembered, that this language rather expresses the atrociousness of the crime; whosoever kills a man, draws down upon himself the blood and life of his brother. On the whole, they are deceived (in my judgment) who think that a political law, for the punishment of homicides, is here simply intended.”[4] In other words, Calvin seems to contend that taking the life of another covers the offender’s life with sin and the pending judgment of God. However, God does intend for the offender to still live and have opportunity to repent. Calvin seems to imply that in his discussion on God’s protection over the offender: “And we see some die in highways, some in stews, and many in wars. Therefore, however magistrates may connive at the crime, God sends executioners from other quarters, who shall render unto sanguinary men their reward. God so threatens and denounces vengeance against the murderer, that he even arms the magistrate with the sword for the avenging of slaughter, in order that the blood of men may not be shed with impunity.”[5] Christians are reminded here that a murder is a murder in any context. God does not wish to see His creation slaughter one another, even though it is rampant in modern society. Calvin is referencing the love of God for all life and how precious He views human beings to be even if they take the life of another.

In Ethics: Approaching Moral Decisions, Arthur Holmes raises a great point in regards to capital punishment. He states, “Scripture also speaks of mercy for the sinner, and Jesus Christ enjoins our care for prisoners when he says that what we do for them we also do for him (Mt 25:31-46). We do well not to forget this in the exercise of criminal justice.”[6] This is certainly profound. While incarceration is necessary as a means of punishment, certainly assisting in the rehabilitation of a prisoner and enabling an opportunity for them to live and seek God is an aspect of Christian ethics that is difficult to practice.

Where I stand on this issue is in line with the former proposals. There is no doubt that God is the only authority that can take life or grant it. Murdering another human being is taking a life that God created in His image. In this regard, I have no objection. However, it is not up to man to take such a life. Some may argue that God puts those in authority whom He wishes to serve His purpose. I disagree. In modern times, politics have taken over the idea of values and corrupted the government from the inside out. I contend that God teaches obedience to the government, but surely He urges Christian advocacy.

In respect to Christ, we are called to forgive every offense no matter how harsh it may be. Surely, this may not always be practical. In the event of terrorism and war, certainly exceptions present themselves. However, I believe God desires the repentance of all His creation. It is up to the Christian community to facilitate that process. Certainly incarceration is a viable option, but death is not up to man to facilitate. This, in a large way, is because our leaders in government are not righteous.

As I have stated before, this issue is best approached from the stance of a Christian. Genesis 9:6 is a warning that taking the life of another leads the murder to death by the hands of God and the wrath of His judgment. However, all sin can be said to lead to death. Certainly, there is no Christian alive today who cannot say they have never sinned. In such regard, the death of Christ is on the hands of us all. Genesis 9:6 surely does advocate for capital punishment by the ruling of righteous leaders. I argue that leaders today in the government are not righteous at all.

This raises an ever more important issue. Man is at guilt for the death of Christ, but God has provided that death as a fulfillment of prophecy and prescription for salvation. It is indeed worth reflecting on this aspect of mercy shown by our Creator. God has shown us that He is able to forgive and extend mercy, but we must be ready to accept it and extend it to others.

This stance comes with great internal conflict as I trust it would with any Christian. After all, if someone in my family were to be murdered, I would certainly have difficulty reflecting the mercy of God towards the offender. This is normal, this is the human condition. Fortunately, we have the power of Christ within ourselves to overcome the inner warfare[7]. This does not mean the inner struggle will be easy, but it is necessary to show love when the enemy shows us anger and hate.

On the topic of attempted rehabilitation by facilitating the possible redemption through Christ, one cannot deny God desires repentance and may still forgive the offender. Jesus said Himself, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”[8]. I feel Satan does interfere with our thoughts and actions and wants us to believe that murder is sufficient punishment for taking the life of another. Yet, we know that God extends salvation to all. We must make it a priority to reach the offenders and attempt to lead them to Christ even if the remainder of their days is to be lived out in prison, jail, or other institution.

Anyone who denies God’s desire to redeem murderers must reject the story of Paul entirely. Paul slaughtered numerous Christians willingly and yet Jesus approached him and sought him to be a theologian and a leader in early church development and thought. For an Old Testament argument, consider David. David had Uriah killed in battle to cover up his own adultery with Bathsheba. Yet David was considered a man of God and the author of many of the Psalms. Can anyone make the argument that David was denied eternity with God? I have heard no such argument.

The point in all of this is that some may view this passage as a command. Surely, it is. However, man is unable to adhere to these standards and God is aware of that. This is why the death and teachings of Christ should be paramount in every Christian’s life and certainly take precedence in interpreting any passage of the Bible, especially this one.


[1] Elwell, Walter A.  Evangelical Dictionary of Theology.  2nd ed.  Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2001. p. 206.

[2] Calvin, John. Commentary On Genesis Volume I. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom01.pdf.  p. 146.

[3] Elwell, Walter A. p. 206.

[4] Calvin, John. p. 214.

[5] Ibid. p. 215.

[6] Holmes, Arthur. F.  Ethics: Approaching Moral Decisions (2nd ed.). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007. p. 95.

[7] Philippians 4:13

[8] John 10:10

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charlestinsley

My name is Charlie Tinsley and I blog about The Bible. In particular, I post my thoughts, commentaries, and Bible Study teachings I have done. I hold a Bachelors Degree in Science in Religion Summa Cum Laude with a Biblical Studies Minor. I am currently studying for a Masters In Divinity at Eastern Mennonite Seminary with PhD ambitions in the study of Theology. I am married and have been for several years and I currently reside in Virginia.

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