Capital Punishment

Capital Punishment

By Reggie Ecarma – Mar 22, 2003 – published on and (Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission)


Capital punishment, or the “death penalty,” centers on the issue of life. For the sake of human life, the death penalty has been applied in American law for 350 years. When Furman v. Georgia came along, the issue changed. In this 1972 capital punishment case, the majority in the United States Supreme Court declared the statues to be unconstitutionally “cruel and unusual1.”

Historically, the Supreme Court’s decision in Furman was in itself unusual. Previously the Court utilized the words cruel and unusual but not in direct relation to the death penalty. For example, the Court supported capital punishment in these cases: in Wilkerson v. Utah, 1878, death by firing squad; and in In re Kemmler, 1890, death by electrocution. Both cases had been endorsed by the Court in the 19th century. More than 50 years later, the Court further endorsed the “strap[ping] [of] a prisoner into the electric chair a second time after a faulty system failed in the first attempt” (Louisiana ex rel Francis v. Reswebe, 1947)2.

A year before Furman, the same Supreme Court upheld procedures in which juries in two states had complete discretion in applying capital punishment (Mc Gautha v. California and Crampton v. Ohio, 1971)3. What exactly happened in Furman?

Twenty-six year old William Henry Furman, an African American and a sixth grade dropout, was convicted of murder. While breaking and entering, Furman killed the Caucasian homeowner. A jury sentenced him to death and upon appeal, the state appellate court upheld the sentence. In the Supreme Court appeal, the Legal Defense Fund, a branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which “had been waging a legal battle against capital punishment”, argued Furman’s case. The Court reversed settled law by declaring that “carrying out of the death penalty in [this case] constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments4.”

The Current Situation

On the hope that the Court would allow the death penalty in other cases, state legislatures wrote laws to adapt to the Supreme Court’s new view of limited or “guided discretion” laws for juries. In other words, states tried to write laws that did not call for mandatory death penalties, but called for “rational” or “objective standards” for juries when imposing the death penalty. The state effort to bring back the death penalty was successful. In 1976, the Supreme Court “held that capital punishment per se was not unconstitutional” (Gregg v. Georgia). In the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, states that brought cases which reflected limited or guided discretion laws (for juries to apply the death penalty) were upheld by the Supreme Court5.

Capital punishment is still a critical issue of debate in the Supreme Court and in the court of public opinion.

Today, in the Supreme Court, the debate is not mandatory capital punishment for every murder or abolition of the death penalty, but pruning the punishment to prevent minors or mentally handicapped individuals from being executed. According to a recent Gallup Poll, politically, 70% of Americans support some form of the death penalty6.

Basically, political liberals oppose the death penalty while conservatives support it. The leading left-leaning magazine The New Republic even had two prominent individuals, Edward I. Koch, former mayor of New York City, and David Bruck, argue the issue7. Koch, a Democrat, supported capital punishment, while Bruck “is devoted almost entirely to the defense of person under death sentence8.” Critics attack the application of capital punishment as unjust and racist9,10.

Theologically, most mainline Protestant churches, such as Presbyterian Church in the USA, many Episcopal, and Lutheran churches, oppose the death penalty. Even some historically evangelical churches such as the United Church of Christ and many Methodist and Baptist churches opposed capital punishment. The Roman Catholic Church supports capital punishment in principal but holds that current application is unnecessary since we have matured as a culture11. On the other hand, most Protestant conservatives, including the majority of members of the Southern Baptist Convention, and other growing evangelical movements such as Reformed Christians and Conservative Baptists, support capital punishment on biblical grounds.

Responding to Opposing Views

  1. The New Testament does not teach capital punishment.

First, the Bible should not be separated by erecting a wall between the Old and New covenants. The Lord Jesus based his teaching on the Old Testament and did not do away with it but fulfilled it. He accepted capital punishment from God-ordained human authority by dying on the cross. Furthermore, despite the due process being flawed under Roman rule, the apostles also accepted the state’s right to apply capital punishment (Rom 13:1-5). Finally, Jesus told the rich young ruler to keep the commandments (Lk 18:18-22), which included the sixth, “You shall not murder.” The Lord did not say to do away with the law and commandments; in fact, he established them (Mt 5:17).

  1. Jesus commanded people to “turn the other cheek”. (Mt 5:39, Lk 6:29)

In Scripture interpretation, context is king. The context here is on a personal level. Jesus affirms here the Old Testament teaching of “You shall not hate your brother in your heart” and “you shall not take vengeance” (Lv 19:17-18). We are not to personally hate or retaliate against personal offences that do not immediately threaten our lives or others. We are to leave retaliation to civil authorities, and the civil authorities, when necessary, will take up the sword as God’s ministers (Rom 13:1-5).

  1. Capital punishment is simply the manifestation of rage and revenge.

During the implementation of the death penalty, any individual involved in the pursuit of justice, whether judge, jury, family member or friend of the victim, must first set aside personal revenge and hatred by acknowledging that the convicted is made in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27) and must be afforded value, dignity and significance. The convicted must also be judged as primarily responsible for the death of another valued human being. As St. Augustine said, “Penalties must be applied. I don’t deny it, I don’t forbid it; only let it be done in a spirit of love, a spirit of caring, a spirit of reforming.”

  1. Lex talionis (an eye for an eye, life for life from Mt 5:38; Ex 21:24; Lev 24:20; Deut 19:21) is barbaric and violent. Violence breeds violence. Two wrongs do not make a right.

Historically, millions have been executed for small, petty “crimes,” such as gossiping against the king and his liaison or for being the “wrong” ethnicity. God grants mercy and justice by demanding retributive justice-“life for life” not life for gossiping or wrong ethnicity. Unlawful, premeditated killing by an aggressor should be punished by ending the life of the aggressor in order to honor the life of the innocent dead.

Matthew 5:38 states, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.’” These words of the Lord must be put in proper context. Jesus was addressing the crowd on a personal level-individual responsibility-in the private sphere. He was not addressing the crowd on a governmental official level. Individuals who hold government posts must not take vengeance personally; but as the bearer of the sword, or applying the government office, he or she must apply justice that has been demanded by God. Romans 13:4 states, “He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”

  1. Capital punishment should be abolished since it is not applied perfectly.

Since when have we abolished something extremely important because human beings do not apply activities perfectly? For example in America’s war against terrorism, innocent civilians and military lives may be jeopardized, should we then just give in to terrorism and try to “talk” to them as the Clinton Administration attempted to do? Likewise, we have small-scale terrorists in our cities. They are called murderers, and society must also defend itself against them.

Regarding reforms, reforms have been made for almost half a century. Much has been accomplished but perfection is beyond our human ability. As a minority (I’m a native Filipino), I have experienced discrimination, and it is tragic when people are hurt and families broken, but let me be clear: the divine institution of capital punishment should not be overthrown, but perfected for the sake of children, parents, grandparents-for civil society. Reforms need to continue, but so does capital punishment, because the Maker of nations, our Creator, demands it: “And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man. ‘Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God man’ (Gen 9:5-6); “. . . whoever kills a man must be put to death” (Lev 24:21).

  1. A person cannot be pro-life and pro-death penalty.

The apparent contradiction is only skin deep. As someone who has supported actively the pro-life cause for almost 20 years, I propose to you these distinguishing contexts.

First, abortion typically involves the willful destruction of a very vulnerable, innocent, pre-born human life. On the other hand, capital punishment typically involves adult criminals unanimously convicted by a jury of their peers, found guilty by 20-80 courts, from state, appellate to the supreme courts, found guilty by the governor, for heinous crimes against humanity, and for the willful and deliberate murder of innocent human life.

Second, pre-born children deserve the right to life, but the adult murderer, due to deliberate destruction of innocent human life, has forfeited his or her life. In fact, he or she has earned capital punishment. Scripture makes a similar case regarding the penalty for sin: “for the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23); “And according to the law almost all things are purged with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no remission” (Heb 9:22).

Biblical Response

Proponents and opponents of capital punishment claim the moral high ground, asserting that their position is good and good for the people. Jesus said that goodness resides in God alone, stating, “There is only One who is good” (Mk 19:17) and “No one is good-except God alone” (Mk 10:18). This good God created each person in his image (Gen 1:26-27) and directed that “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man” (Gen 9:6). Also, God orders “life for life” (Ex 12:23; Deut 19:21) and “whoever kills a man must be put to death (Lev 24:21).

One may claim that these commands have been made null and void by Jesus, however Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Mt 5:17). Jesus continues, “Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least” (Mt 5:19). As God’s creation laws, the Ten Commandments, particularly the sixth commandment, “You shall not murder” remains. Again, Jesus said “You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder’” (Mk 10:19; Lk 18:19).

If God has ordered and continues to direct the death penalty for murder, which has been affirmed by Jesus, then who applies the ultimate penalty? According to Genesis, God has commanded “man” (Gen 9:6). But not just any man. Romans 13 specifies that individuals who have been designated as governing authorities are ordained by God to wield the “sword,” bringing “judgment” and “terror”to those who do wrong (Rom 13:2-3). Such an authoritative man is actually “God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer,” to bring justice for the sake of God’s image in each murdered individual. He who rebels against God’s order and his authorities in this life and death matter actually is “rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves” (Rom 13:2). What shall we say then?

1 Maiman, R.J., & Steamer, R.J. (1992). American Constitutional Law: Introduction and Case Studies. St. Louis, MO: McGraw-Hill, Inc., p. 35

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid., 43.

5 Ibid., 44.

6 New Gallup Poll on Death Penalty. (2003, March 12). TalkLeft: The politics of crime. Retrieved February 9, 2004, p. 1, from

7 Barnet, S., & Bedau, H (1999). Current issues & enduring questions: A guide to critical thinking and argument, with readings (5 ed.). New York, NY: Bedford/St. Martin’s, pp. 475-484.

8 Ibid.

9 Cloud, J. (2003, July 14). Guarding death’s door. Time, pp. 46-49, 51-52, 54.

10 Gracyzyk, M. (2003, September 21). Critics claim death penalty system biased. The Greenville News, p. 4A.

11 Smith, W.B. (1998, September 10). “Capital punishment: A work in progress or progress un-working?” Retrieved February 13, 2004, p. 1 from


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