Over the last 40 years the death penalty has been a topic of hot debate within the church. However, wrongful executions has caused some believers to rethink their respective positions, despite what the Bible has stated. For the most part the church has been a supporter of the death penalty because it is in the Bible, but the younger generations are also redefining the stance regarding capital punishment, believing it is morally incorrect and it does not reflect the heart of Jesus.
The Old Testament is supportive of the death penalty and overall there are over 50 Scriptures that talk about the death penalty in both the Old and New Testament. We see this in Deuteronomy 21. “If a man has committed a sin worthy of death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse shall not hang all night on the tree, but you shall surely bury him on the same day, so that you do not defile your land which the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance.” Basically, this is a death for a death, an eye for an eye.
Richard Albert Mohler is the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. He wrote in an opinion piece for CNN that believers should support capital punishment. “The act of murder must be confirmed and corroborated by the eyewitness testimony of accusers, and the society is to take every reasonable precaution to ensure that no one is punished unjustly,” he wrote. “While the death penalty is allowed and even mandated in some cases, the Bible also reveals that not all who are guilty of murder and complicity in murder are executed. Christians thinking about the death penalty must begin with the fact that the Bible envisions a society in which capital punishment for murder is sometimes necessary, but should be exceedingly rare."
However, there has been a shift with the youth who believe that God should judge the person who murders, not man. According to a Barna Group poll “40 percent of practicing Christians supported the death penalty, and support was even lower among younger Christians. About 23 percent of practicing Christian “millennials” agreed with the statement.” The study also shared that only 5 percent of Americans agree that Jesus would approve of capital punishment. How about the innocent who are murdered? Would Jesus be opposed to the entire process? We know the criminal system is not without its flaws since DNA testing surfaced. This was the case of Claude Jones of Texas, who was accused of murdering a store clerk in 1989 and was put to death in 2000. Jones pleaded his innocence until the end. DNA tests were completed and the strand of hair that prosecutors submitted as evidence was not from the accused.
Equal Justice USA is working to make the criminal justice system fair and more effective. Humans make mistakes in cases and being 100 percent accurate is not possible. “The DNA era has given us irrefutable proof that our criminal justice system sentences innocent people to die. Evidence we once thought reliable like eyewitness identification is not always accurate. DNA evidence has led to hundreds of exonerations, but it isn’t available in most cases. And when a life is on the line, one mistake is one too many.” Can the system be fixed? Not according to Equal Justice USA. “We expect justice to be blind. Otherwise it’s not justice at all. Yet poor defendants sentenced to die have been represented by attorneys who were drunk, asleep, or completely inexperienced. Geography and race often determine who lives and dies, and after 30 years we have not found a way to make the system less arbitrary. Every effort to fix the system just makes it more complex – not more fair. The longer process prolongs pain for homicide survivors, forcing them to relive their trauma as courts repeat trials and hearings trying to get it right. Most cases result in a life sentence in the end anyway – but only after the family has suffered years of uncertainty."
Are we justifying murder? Author Shane Claiborne strongly believes we are as a nation and as Christians. He is pleading for Christians to do the same—end the death penalty. In his book Executing Grace: How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and Why It’s Killing Us, Claiborne pleads that people will start thinking of Jesus and His position. There is a better way to serve justice and using Scripture to justify murder, Claiborne claimed. “There are plenty of other problems with the scriptural maneuvering used to justify the contemporary practice of the death penalty with a few verses from the Bible, in the same way that a few verses were misused to justify slavery,” he wrote in a blog RedLetterChristians.org. He continued to write that “setting aside other compelling arguments against the death [penalty] such as the fact that the determining factor for execution is often not guilt but economics and race. I want to focus on Jesus.” As many Scriptures on the death penalty that are found, we also can find what the Word said about mercy like: "Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy.” And for “the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age.” There is one more in Peter to look at. "Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing."
The question we can ask ourselves is “Should we support the death penalty?” Should this be based on our own convictions, or what Claiborne suggested? It goes back to the old adage, “What would Jesus do?” Let us know what you think as we move forward into the future and into the election season.