SBC Life Articles

Capital Punishment: What Does The Bible Say?

Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh died without saying a word at 7:14 a.m. CDT on Monday, June 11, 2001 at the Federal Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, minutes after a deadly flow of drugs was administered through a needle in his right leg.

Thirty-three-year old McVeigh, the first person executed by the federal government since 1963, thus paid the penalty for the April 19, 1995, attack in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people and wounded hundreds more.

His very public death heightened the very public dispute over capital punishment in America. In his death, McVeigh became a symbol and a pawn in the arguments of those on both sides of the debate.

The Southern Baptist Convention crossed over the threshold into this debate when it approved a resolution affirming capital punishment during its annual meeting in 2000. We have been asked by several media types to explain why Southern Baptists have taken the position we have. After all, they remind us, some highly visible denominations have taken exactly the opposite position.

If the Scripture does not sustain our position, then we were, as some detractors have implied, ill advised and audacious to take that stance. However, if the Scripture gives counsel on the subject, it is not only permissible, it is imperative that we not shrink from speaking that counsel into the debate. Southern Baptists, and other biblical Christians, take the teaching of the Scriptures to be normative and determinative in any question of Christian faith or practice. And so, we have spoken.

The following brief overview outlines the biblical material that is the basis for the resolution. Holy Scripture teaches that every human life has sacred value (And God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him. Genesis 1:27). God Himself authorized capital punishment specifically for murder (the unauthorized taking of human life) after the Noahic Flood, validating its legitimacy in human society (Whoever sheds man's blood, by man his blood shall be shed. For in the image of God He made man. Genesis 9:6). In authorizing capital punishment for murder, God states that it is precisely because He made man in His own image that He requires this punishment. While capital punishment is authorized for murder, it is not for theft or destruction of property, however valuable.

Fallen human nature has made impossible a perfect judicial system, and God required proof of guilt before any punishment was to be administered (Deuteronomy 19:15-19). God, who is wholly just in His character, also insisted that the civil magistrate judge all people equally under the law, regardless of class or status (Leviticus 19:15; Deuteronomy 1:17).

Because all people, including those guilty of capital crimes, are created in the image of God they should be treated with dignity (Genesis 1:27). C. S. Lewis, the incisive British Christian thinker, made a valuable contribution in reminding us that to be punished, however severely, because we indeed deserve it, is to be treated with dignity consistent with being created in the image of God.1 God, who is moral, created humans as moral creatures to live in a moral universe, i.e., a universe ruled under moral precept and principle.

The apostle Paul concludes Romans 12 with a prohibition of personal retribution; yet he immediately follows this with a divinely instituted prescription for appointed civil agents to punish moral evil (Romans 13:4). God vested in the civil magistrate the responsibility of protecting the innocent and punishing the guilty (Romans 13:1-3). Authorities that do not punish moral evil are not performing their God-appointed obligation and responsibility in society. The authorities are to wield the sword for beneficial social reasons. Significantly, the "sword" referred to is the short sword used in Roman execution.2

Confusing the sphere of private relations with that of civil law invariably leads to the perversion of legal justice. That is the error some make in taking Romans chapters 12 and 13 out of their larger context. We would urge those Christians who discount biblical teaching on capital punishment to reexamine this section of Romans in its entire context.

Christians influenced by liberal presumptions believe that Jesus' "love ethic" sets aside the lex talionis, ("an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life"). On the contrary, Jesus affirms the divine basis of Old Testament ethics.3 Nowhere does He set aside the requirements of civil law, one of which is lex talionis. That regulation is often misrepresented as brutal and barbaric, when in fact it is a principled stricture against disproportional punishment, limiting offenders' liability — a perpetrator was not to be punished beyond the limit of his crime. To abandon the criteria of righteous and just punishment, as Lewis points out, is to abandon all criteria for punishment.

In the resolution, Southern Baptists committed themselves to love, to pray for, and to minister the gospel to victims and perpetrators of crimes, realizing that only in Christ is there forgiveness of sin, reconciliation, emotional and spiritual healing, and the gift of eternal life. Believers in tune with God have a deep longing for true repentance and rehabilitation to be experienced by all who offend against God, which certainly includes those committing criminal acts.

Believers face a subtle temptation in every age — to drink in the spirit of the age, to adopt its assessments, mores, and understandings, and permit them to predominate over the Word of God. Unfortunately, in some religious circles, it is becoming less and less a matter of faithful adherence to the Word of God, and more and more a matter of substituting human standards and judgments to the concerns of life. We must resist that temptation, even as other religious groups succumb to it.

When the dominant religious authority in Europe demanded that Martin Luther renounce his position and retract his writings, he responded reasonably, politely, but firmly. In response to the demand, he forcefully said, "I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise."

The Bible is the living Word of the living God; we are judged by it — we do not presume to be its judges. Southern Baptists and all biblical Christians are right to be more concerned about being utterly faithful to the revelation of God than satisfying transitory standards of political correctness or unbiblical theology. Those claiming to be His redeemed people bring shame to Christ when they permit the calculus of human judgment to hold priority over the authority of Scripture. Like Luther, we boldly announce "Here we stand; we cannot do otherwise."

The full text of the resolution On Capital Punishment can be viewed online at http://www.sbcannual meeting.org/sbc00/Res.asp?ID=1295130452&page= 0&num=10



1. God in the Dock (Eerdmans, 1970), 287-94.

2. Because some have challenged this understanding of makairan (Gk: sword), see: Arndt and Gingrich, 497; Kittel, Vol. IV, 525, footnote 11; Vincent, Vol. III, 164; R.C.H. Lenski, Romans, 792; Charles Hodge, Romans, 408, John Murray, Romans (NIC), 152. Also see biblical references of makairan in the context of execution: Acts 12:2; Hebrews 11:37; and Romans 8:35.

3. Matthew 5:17-20.

    About the Author

  • Bill Merrell