The Death Penalty and the Bible

Posted on February 5, 2020


By David Ettinger


The death penalty has divided Christians for years, as well as the general population. Though you must judge for yourself the legitimacy of the death penalty today, at least when bringing the Bible into the discussion, let’s be more informed.

The Old Testament Mandate
God mandated the death penalty in the Old Testament. We see this in Genesis 9:6: “Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind.” Exodus 21:12 tells us: “Anyone who strikes a person with a fatal blow is to be put to death.” And Exodus 21:14 says: “But if anyone schemes and kills someone deliberately, that person is to be taken from my altar and put to death.”

Besides murder, the death penalty was given for kidnapping (Exodus 21:16), the striking or cursing of parents (Exodus 21:15, 17), and rape (Deuteronomy 22:25). Therefore, death as just punishment is the product of a holy, righteous, and judicious God.

What About “You Shall Not Murder”?
However, in the Ten Commandments we read, “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13). (Some Bible versions render this verse, “You shall not kill.”) This is the premier verse for those who oppose the death penalty.

The Hebrew word for both “kill” and “murder” in the Bible comes from the root ratsach. This root, in various forms, applies to unintentional manslaughter as in Deuteronomy 4:42; 19:4-7; and Joshua 20:3, and for the legal execution of a criminal, as found in Numbers 35:16-21.

old testament

Consider, too, that Exodus 21 and Deuteronomy 22:25 follow Exodus 20:13: “You shall not murder.” This is crucial because the death-penalty mandate follows the commandment not to murder. In other words, anti-death-penalty adherents love to quote Exodus 20:13 ­– “You shall not murder” – and yet in the very next chapter we are told that murderers and kidnappers are to be executed. What this means is that Exodus 20:13, “You shall not murder,” is directed at murderers. The command does not apply to those who kill accidentally or to soldiers and officers of the law because they are not committing murder, but carrying out justice.

So, it is safe to say that in the Old Testament economy the death penalty was absolutely mandated for murder and acts of violence such as kidnapping, rape, and the striking or cursing of parents. Therefore, modern-day anti-death-law adherents cannot use the OT ­– especially their pet verse, Exodus 20:13 – to support their point of view.

What about the New Testament?
In the New Testament, most of the Mosaic Law was made void because Jesus Christ fulfilled it (Matthew 5:17). This applied primarily to the sacrificial system and dietary laws. What did carry into the Church Era were many of the social laws, those dealing with relationships, civil justice, and sexual behavior.

Those laws which were rescinded ­– the dietary (Mark 7:19; Acts 10:14-15) and observing the Sabbath on a particular day (Matthew 12:1-8) – are specifically mentioned. Also specifically mentioned are sins still in force such as adultery (Matthew 5:27-28), homosexuality (Romans 1:18-32; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11), and blasphemy (Matthew 15:19).

new testament

There are other OT laws which continued into the Church Age but are not mentioned in the NT. One of these is incest. It is not mentioned in the NT because there was no occasion for it, but this does not mean that it has been declared “good” because Jesus did not mention it. This is similar to Jesus never mentioning homosexuality. He did not do so because homosexuality was not a considerable problem in Israel, the people Jesus came to. (Paul took up the issue when he brought the Gospel to Europe, where it was rampant.) But Jesus not mentioning homosexuality is not an endorsement of it. Rather, the law prohibiting this behavior was already “on the books” and therefore still intact.

The same holds true for the death-penalty laws of the OT. They were never rescinded in the NT, and therefore are still legitimate. However, we must remember that in the OT, the government was to be a theocracy – which means God is recognized as the supreme civil ruler. In a theocracy, God is both Judge and Jury and rules perfectly. He is incapable of error, meaning that if He sentenced someone to death, there was no doubt about it.

Today, however, the death penalty is trickier because there is room for doubt. Unless it’s an open-and-shut case, there is the possibility of executing an innocent person. Therefore, it is crucial to know as close to 100 percent as possible that the person being sentenced is the culprit.

The Bottom Line
The main point of this article is to show that the Bible cannot be used to nullify the death penalty. The death penalty is not “murder” but “justice.” Death-penalty objectors can make social and cultural arguments – and several are valid – but keep the Bible out of it.

May God give us wisdom and discernment to rightly comprehend, interpret, and apply His precious and life-changing Word.