One area of controversy among Christians concerns the death penalty, also known as capital punishment.
Some say that today it is God’s will for those who are guilty of murder to be executed by the nation state, while others say that this is not His will.
As always, when thinking about a moral issue, we must turn to the Bible to see what it has to say. Scripture is The Manual for the Human Life, and what it teaches is key.
The most important biblical passage on this topic is Gen 9:5-6, which reads as follows:
“5 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. 6 ‘Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.’”
(Scripture readings in this article are from the English Standard Version except where otherwise stated.)
The first thing we need to consider is the setting of these words.
We have just been told in chapters 7 and 8 of Genesis about the flood that came on the whole earth. The flood has now subsided and there are eight people left alive, Noah, his wife, his three sons and his three daughters-in-law.
Then, in Gen 9:1-17 God speaks to Noah and his sons:
· He tells them to have children and fill the earth (v. 1).
· He says that they have authority over animals, including the right to eat them (verse 2-3), although they mustn’t eat their blood (v. 4).
· He speaks the words quoted above (verses 5-6).
· He repeats His instruction to populate the earth (v. 7).
· He says that He is making a covenant with Noah and his sons, their descendants and all animals that He will never again destroy the earth by flooding it (verses 8-11).
· He says that rainbows are a reminder of His covenant never again to destroy the earth with a flood (verses 12-17). This covenant is described as “everlasting” (v. 16).
There are good reasons for believing that verses 5-6 contain principles that continue to be valid as long as humans live on this earth:
(1) There is not the slightest hint anywhere in verses 1-17 that a time would come, while this earth still survives, when any of the principles outlined in verses 1-17 would become obsolete.
(2) The context of verses 5-6 strongly suggests that the principles in these verses continue to be valid. Verses 1-17 are a unit that consists of God’s message to Noah and his sons. In verses 8-17 God is clear that the covenant with people and animals will last as long as the earth does. So, given that verses 1-17 are a unit, it would be surprising if anything in verses 1-7 did not also last as long.
In view of these two points, it makes sense to think that verses 5-6 contain principles that continue to be valid today.
It is crucial to understand that this passage is very unlike the Law of Moses in this respect. The Law that God gave Moses at Sinai had a limited shelf-life (Gal 3:23-25).
By contrast, the instruction given to Noah and his sons in Gen 9:5-6 was given to the whole human race that then existed, long before Israel even came into being. And, as I have just noted, there are good reasons for believing that this instruction will continue to be valid until this earth is destroyed (2 Pet 3:10-12).
So what God says in Gen 9:5-6 applies to human beings of all centuries and races, including everyone alive today.
Two potential interpretations
For our purposes, the meaning of the first words in v. 6 is what is most important:
“Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed . . .”
There are two alternative ways in which these words are commonly interpreted:
Interpretation (1): God is giving a command that if a person kills someone, that person should be put to death by other human beings.
Although the Hebrew is better translated into English as “by man shall his blood be shed” rather than as “man must shed his blood,” this Hebrew can easily be understood as a command. We find the same sort of grammatical construction, for example, in the Ten Commandments. For instance, “You shall not steal” is a command not to steal.
Interpretation (2): God is not giving any instruction to put a killer to death. Instead, He is referring to a troubling state of affairs where killing someone frequently leads to another killing in revenge. If someone kills, all too often that killer is himself killed by another person. So God is indirectly warning people not to kill, since it could end badly for the killers.
So, which of these interpretations is correct? Are there clues in the passage itself that can tell us?
Indeed there are. There are two very strong reasons for believing that the first of these interpretations is the correct one, that God is giving an instruction that people who kill humans should be put to death by humans.
The implication of v. 5
First, we need to take account of what God says in v. 5.
In the first part of this verse, He says that He will require a reckoning from every animal and from man “for your lifeblood.” “For your lifeblood” must mean “for killing a human.” There is nothing else it could mean. And this is made even clearer in the final part of this verse, where instead of a reckoning “for your lifeblood,” the reckoning is “for the life of man.”
So God is saying that if an animal or a human kills a human, God will require a reckoning from the killer.
Let’s think first about what this reckoning is in the case of an animal that kills a human.
Well, the reckoning can’t be about punishment before or after death, because animals are not moral creatures that commit sins. The only thing that the reckoning could be is the physical death of the animal. God is implying that human beings are so valuable in His sight, that if an animal kills a human, it is fitting that that animal is killed.
And God is surely not implying that He will kill the animal Himself. It is a fact that animals which kill humans ordinarily continue to remain alive.
So God surely means that if an animal kills a human, He wants other humans to kill that animal.
Importantly, however, in v. 5 the situation of animals that kill humans is parallel to the situation of humans that kill humans. God simply says that He will require a reckoning from a man or animal that kills a human. There is no suggestion that the type of reckoning depends on whether it is an animal or human that kills.
So, given that the reckoning in the case of killer animals is their physical death at the hands of human beings, most naturally we would expect the reckoning to be the same in the case of killer humans too. This is where our train of thought should have reached by the time we finish reading v. 5.
So when we then move on to v. 6 and immediately read, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed,” it is extremely difficult to believe that this is supposed to be understood in any other way than as an instruction to put to death human beings who kill a human. God has just said that we should kill animals who kill a human, and He has just put killer humans and killer animals in parallel, and the first part of v. 6 can easily be understood as a reference to capital punishment, so this is surely what He means.
The logic of verse 6
But there is another very strong reason for believing that “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed” refers to capital punishment: the logic of v. 6.
Note that in the text “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed” is immediately followed by “for God made man in his own image.” This means that being the image of God is the reason why “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.”
If we suppose that interpretation (1) above is correct, and that this passage is referring to capital punishment, the logic of v. 6 makes perfect sense. The reason why capital punishment should happen is because man is made in God’s image. Human beings are so valuable that if a person kills a human there should be a terrible price to pay.
However, if we suppose that interpretation (2) above is correct, and that this passage is simply making a gloomy prediction that killing will often be followed by more killing in revenge, the logic of v. 6 makes no sense at all. Why would being the image of God be the reason why killing will often be followed by revenge killing? There is no reason why.
Surely, then, the logic of v. 6 must mean that this verse is referring to an instruction God gives: if a person kills a human, other people should kill the killer.
Summing up the principle
In view of the combined weight of the above two points, we should have no hesitation in saying that in Gen 9:5-6 God is giving a command that people who kill human beings should be put to death by humans.
And, as I have already noted, this is a principle that has applied since the days of Noah, and that will apply right up until the time the present earth is destroyed.
Varying degrees of guilt
Gen 9:5-6 doesn’t mention any exceptions to the principle of capital punishment for killing a human. It simply states that a person who kills a human should be put to death.
Nevertheless, the Bible often allows for unexpressed exceptions to things, and it would be a big mistake to understand this passage to be teaching that capital punishment should always be carried out when a human kills a human.
Those who kill a human being have enormously varying degrees of guilt that attach to what they have done. At the lowest end of the spectrum, someone could accidentally kill a person without it being their fault at all. A bit further along the spectrum, a killer might be only slightly negligent. Further still, someone else could be moderately negligent, and another person could be grossly negligent but without having had any intention to kill. Even further along the spectrum, someone might lose their temper and decide on the spur of the moment to kill. And at the highest end of the spectrum are those who commit murder after cold and calculated premeditation.
Gen 9:5-6 is certainly not suggesting that killers who are at or near the lowest end of the spectrum should suffer capital punishment. In the Law of Moses commandments are given that are specifically designed to protect people who have killed someone accidentally (e.g., in Num 35:6-34; Josh 20:1-9). This proves that the instruction in Gen 9:5-6 was never intended to apply to all killers.
Exactly how far along the spectrum a killer needs to be before this instruction does apply will be open to debate. But this passage must be giving a principle that those who commit premeditated murder should be executed. To deny this would be to remove all meaning from what the passage has to say.
Biblical examples of murderers not being executed
Although Gen 9:5-6 gives a principle that those who commit premeditated murder should suffer the death penalty, we mustn’t ignore other biblical passages that are in tension with this.
There are examples of murderers who are not executed:
(1) In Gen 4:8 we read about how Cain murdered Abel.
Yet afterwards God actually protected Cain from being killed by other people (Gen 4:15).
(2) In Exod 2:11-12 we are told how Moses murdered an Egyptian.
It is true that this Egyptian had been mistreating a Jew. But it was still a premeditated act, and it is doubtful that we are supposed to think that this was a just killing. And God, of course, went on to use Moses greatly despite what he did at this time.
(3) In 2 Sam 11:1-18 we read about how David committed premeditated murder in an attempt to cover up an extra-marital affair.
David paid a high price for this sin. Yet God forgave him (2 Sam 12:13), and he continued to be Israel’s anointed king in His will.
(4) In Acts 7:54-8:1 we learn how Saul of Tarsus played a part in killing the Christian martyr Stephen.
There is a big question about how much Saul realised that what he did at this time was wrong, although it was certainly an appalling act. But Saul – later known as the apostle Paul – went on to be used so much by God that he ended up writing a large part of the New Testament!
These examples are all in tension with the principle in Gen 9:5-6, and we mustn’t ignore them.
How do we reconcile all this?
How, then, are we to reconcile Gen 9:5-6 with these other biblical texts?
There are a few points to make here.
First, as regards the killing by Cain, this murder took place before the instruction to Noah and the future human race about capital punishment had been put in place.
Second, in the cases of Cain, Moses and Saul, it is not entirely clear that these killings should be classed as simple premeditated murders.
Third, as I will go on to talk about later in this article, capital punishment is something that should be carried out by the nation state, yet in all four of the above examples it really wasn’t practical for this to happen. The nation state seems not to have existed in the days of Cain. Moses fled from the Egyptian state in which he lived. David was the king of the Jewish state, and it seems strange to imagine him pronouncing a death sentence on himself. And Saul was supported by the Jewish rulers under Roman occupation.
Fourth and most importantly, God has the right to make exceptions to a principle that He has given. Unless a principle is so tied up with His good nature that He can’t break it, He can make exceptions to it if He wishes. And there seems to be no good reason for thinking that the principle of Gen 9:5-6 is one that God could not overrule at times.
I will come back to Gen 9:5-6 later in the article.
Another very important passage on this topic is Romans 13:1-5, where Paul writes:
“1 Everyone must submit to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist are instituted by God. 2 So then, the one who resists the authority is opposing God's command, and those who oppose it will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have its approval. 4 For government is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, because it does not carry the sword [machaira] for no reason. For government is God's servant, an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong. 5 Therefore, you must submit, not only because of wrath, but also because of your conscience.” (Holman Christian Standard Bible)
In this passage Paul refers to the governing authorities of the nation state (or in places where no nation state exists, something similar to the nation state). Since he is writing to the Christians in Rome, uppermost in his mind must be the Roman rulers of his day.
One of his main points in the passage is clearly that rulers of the state have authority from God to punish wrongdoers.
Carrying the sword
In v. 4 Paul says that wrongdoers should fear the government, since “it does not carry the sword for no reason.”
It should be obvious that the reference to carrying the sword in this verse has to do with the state’s God-given authority to punish people. The context makes this very clear, and I am not aware of anyone who would deny it.
Nevertheless, the precise meaning of carrying the sword here is disputed.
Many say that in this verse the sword is simply a symbol of the state’s authority to punish wrongdoers. In their view, “because it does not carry the sword for no reason” just means “because it does not have authority to punish for no reason.” Under this interpretation, Paul would not be implying anything about what sort of punishments the state has the right to inflict. So he would not be implying that the state has the right to use a literal sword in capital punishment.
This, however, is a poor explanation of what Paul means. In fact, he seems not only to be saying that the state has authority to punish, but also to be implying that it has the right to perform capital punishment.
The Greek word that Paul uses for sword here, machaira, is used elsewhere in the New Testament to refer to people being literally killed (e.g., in Acts 12:2; Rom 8:35; Rev 13:10). In Acts 12:2 it is used specifically to refer to an execution, as it probably is in other NT texts too. Besides, killing with the sword was a common method of Roman execution.
It is very difficult to believe that Paul would say that the state has the right to punish, would use a word that often referred to a major way in which the state in his day did punish, yet would also not be implying that this kind of punishment is legitimate. If this were so, we would have to say that the way Paul has worded things is very misleading.
However, instead of thinking that Paul has written carelessly, it is much easier simply to conclude that he is implying that the state has the right to use capital punishment.
Some object to this conclusion by arguing in the following way:
Most punishments the Romans carried out were not capital punishment. If Paul’s reference to the sword is a reference to capital punishment, then he is referring only to a small part of Roman punishments. This looks strange in a general passage on punishment. So we do better to think that Paul’s reference to the sword here is just a general symbol of the state’s right to punish and has nothing specifically to do with capital punishment.
This is a weak argument, and it can be answered as follows:
First, Paul is speaking very briefly in this passage, so there is no surprise that he would want to keep his description of how the state punishes concise.
Second, we can easily understand Paul to be implying that the state has the authority to use capital punishment, and thereby also to be implying that it has the right to inflict lesser punishments too. If he had mentioned only a low-level punishment, his readers might have wondered if the state also has authority to inflict high-level punishments like capital punishment as well. But mentioning a high-level punishment makes it obvious that it also has authority to inflict low-level punishments.
Third, the sentence in v. 4, “For government is God's servant, an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong,” most naturally refers to a variety of punishments anyway.
This objection is therefore a weak one.
Sometimes those who object to the view that Paul is endorsing capital punishment in this passage use the following argument:
In Paul’s day, the Romans sometimes executed people when it could not possibly have been the will of God for them to be executed. So in this passage Paul would hardly be supporting the right of the Roman state to execute.
This argument fails completely, and it can be answered as follows:
First, Paul is speaking very briefly in this passage and giving general principles, without going into exceptional situations. It is very easy to understand him to mean that the state has a God-given authority to punish only when God agrees that that punishment is justified, while also understanding that sometimes the state would abuse its authority to punish.
Second, we need to take account of lower-level punishments that would not have been the will of God:
There is no doubt that in this passage part of what Paul is teaching is that the Romans have a God-given authority to inflict low-level punishments. And Paul must have known that they sometimes abused their authority to inflict these low-level punishments. Yet he chose not to mention this abuse.
So, potentially, exactly the same could be true of capital punishment too. Paul could (a) be teaching in this passage that the Romans have a God-given authority to inflict capital punishment; (b) have known that this authority was sometimes abused; (c) have chosen not to mention this abuse.
This objection therefore completely fails.
In conclusion, then, this passage is quite strong support for the view that the nation state has a God-given authority to use capital punishment at times.
And the way that Paul says that carrying the sword is a function of the state’s authority more naturally suggests that there are times when the state should use capital punishment rather than just may use this punishment if it wishes.
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