Capital Punishment Is Antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus

You cannot simultaneously believe that God is the God of redemption, forgiveness, and transformation and believe that the best response to certain kinds of crime is execution.

I mean, I guess you can—people clearly do. In the U.S., executions happen most often where Christians are most concentrated (85% of executions occur in the Bible Belt). But this sad contradiction is a betrayal of the very Gospel that Christians purport to preach.

This contradictory belief happens for a few reasons:

  1. Christians are routinely taught to distrust their ethical intuitions. The National Association of Evangelical website states, “We believe that moral revulsion or distaste for the death penalty is not a sufficient reason to oppose it.” In order words, even if something seems clearly wrong or immoral, if the Bible says it's okay, it must be okay. That’s why too many Christians don’t bat an eye at ethnic genocide we’re faced with in Joshua and Judges. It’s why Calvinist leaders tell their congregants not to believe their own evaluation of what is just or not. If God says it is good and holy to create people who are predestined to spend eternity in hell—well, then, it must be good and holy, our ethical intuitions be (literally) damned.
  2. Secondly, many Christians have not been taught to interpret all of Scripture in light of Jesus. Christians ought to be rehearing and reinterpreting the whole of Scripture through God’s self-revelation in the person of Jesus. Instead, they read each individual passage of the Bible as if it is just as revelatory and authoritative as the next. Scripture thus becomes a flat codebook with few inner connections. It doesn’t matter what Jesus did or said during His ministry; it makes no difference in reading Genesis 9:6 (“Whoever sheds human blood by humans shall their blood be shed”).
  3. Third, rather than seeing Jesus as an example worth following and a teacher worth listening to, Jesus is reduced to being useful only for His death on the cross. Dallas Willard called these folks “vampire Christians.” They’ll take the forgiveness of sins through the shedding of Jesus’ blood, but pass on the teachings of Jesus, thank you very much.Honestly, many Christians aren’t sure what to make of Jesus’ life. His birth makes some sense—God-become-flesh and all that. And His death we’ve been taught to understand in terms of sacrifice and appeasing God’s wrath. But some folks would say that if the Romans had just crucified the infant Jesus, we would have gotten the same results of justification of sins and so on.

There are a few solutions.

First, we must listen to the life and teachings of Jesus to understand what God is up to. Jesus said He only does and says what He sees the Father doing and saying. When we ignore Jesus’ life, we ignore God.

Second, when we begin to grasp God's character, actions, and teachings, we can then make sense of the rest of Scripture. We can’t begin with Genesis 9:6 and build up from there. We begin with Jesus and reread everything else.

Finally, we need a coherent notion of divine revelation. God does reveal His character accurately—we can make true statements about God and God’s desires. And God did, in fact, grant humanity the ability to know what is or isn’t good, just, or righteous. Clearly, that ability isn’t perfect, and it requires safeguards of community, reason, tradition, and the Holy Spirit to come to fully accurate conclusions. But to entirely distrust our moral intuitions is to distrust the image of God placed inside Homo sapiens.

(In a second post, I’ll show how Jesus’ life and teachings show us how God’s heart opposes all killing, including capital punishment).

Anthony Parrott

Anthony Parrott

Washington, DC