David Smitherman

Is Capital Punishment a Barbaric Act?

From time to time, the execution of a convicted killer touches off a flurry of protests, editorials in various print media, and TV and radio talk shows in which the pros and cons (mostly the “cons”) of capital punishment are discussed. The message that usually comes from these sources is clear: capital punishment is a barbaric, discriminatory and ineffective method of punishment that needs to be eliminated. Even the Bible is sometimes appealed to in an effort to dissuade the minds of many regarding the state’s right to take human life.

Intimidation versus Inspiration

It is unfortunate that many who look to God as their ultimate authority in life and to the Bible as the authoritative expression of His will often allow such persuasive speech (Col. 2:4) to shape their attitudes and conclusions on this highly emotional subject. Intimidation seems to have more impact on some than inspiration.

Thus this article will limit itself to a study of various texts from divine revelation with the hope and prayer that men and women who claim their first allegiance is to God will allow heavenly wisdom, rather than earthly, to determine their convictions on this subject. When this is done it should not be difficult to conclude that God’s will is now and always has been that those who wantonly take the life of another human being deserve to have their life taken from them by the state.

Genesis 9:5-6—Instructions To Noah

In this first clear reference to “capital punishment” a number of things seem obvious.

1. There is something special about “man” as opposed to “beasts” and this is the basis for all injunctions in these two verses: “For in the image of God He made man” (NASV). 

2. Because of his unique standing in creation, whoever takes man’s life is to forfeit theirs. 

3. This forfeiture of life is not something that God merely suggests—he requires it. Three times in vs. 5 it is said God “will demand an accounting” (NIV) for “the lifeblood” of men whether the life is taken by an animal or another man and the word “shall” in vs. 6 confirms the imperative nature of the language. 

That this is a command God intended to be carried out forever seems clear not just by the language in these two verses but also by subsequent statements in both the Old and New Covenants.

4. Human agency is that through which God works in carrying out this requirement: “also from man, that is from one another, will I demand the soul of man” (Leupold’s translation). The particular human agency God had in mind will become clear as we look at the biblical texts dealing with this subject.That this statement to Noah was not something limited to the era immediately after the flood is evident when we consider the following:

The Law of Moses—God’s Will During the Mosaical Period

All during the time the law of Moses was in affect, it can be seen that God intended for the principles of Gen. 9:5-6 to be carried out. Two things seem obvious from a perusal of this law.

1. There was then (as there is now) a difference between “murder” and “killing”. “Thou shalt not kill” (Ex. 20:13) is really “thou shalt not murder.” To use the sixth commandment as a prohibition against the taking of human life under whatever circumstances is an egregious misuse of that divine precept. That this is so is apparent when one considers a second point.

2. Immediately after giving the “thou shalt not kill” precept, the following two chapters list at least ten offenses punishable by death: all forms of murder, 21:12; (Lev. 24:17; Num. 35:16-21); striking, cursing parents, 21:15,17; (Deut. 19:19-21); kidnapping, 21:16; slaying an unborn child, 21:23; owner of an animal that kills, 21:29; sorcery 22:18; (Lev. 20:27; Deut. 13:1-5); bestiality, 22:19; idolater, 22:20; (Lev. 20:1-5; Deut. 13:6-9; 17:2-7); abducting people for slavery, 21:16; (Deut. 24:7); Sabbath breaking, Ex. 31:14; 35:2; Num. 15:32-36.

3. Additional scriptures give even more reasons for putting one to death: blasphemy, Lev. 24:14,16, 23; 1 Kings 21:13; adultery, Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:22; incest, Lev. 20:11-17; rape, Deut. 22:25; false witnesses, Deut. 19:16-19; homosexuality, Lev. 20:13; false prophets, Deut. 18:20-22; resisting judgment, Deut. 17:8-13; immorality before marriage but detected afterwards, Deut. 22:13-21; non-Levites coming near or into sacred areas or duties, Num. 1:51; 3:10,38; 18:7.God’s will under the law of Moses didn’t just allow but demanded the taking of human life. But what about the new covenant; what, if anything, does Christ say on the subject of the state’s right to execute convicted criminals?

John 19:10-11—Jesus And Capital Punishment

In these verses Pilate made two explicit affirmations in the presence of Christ:

(a) he had certain power (authority) as a civil magistrate and
(b) this authority included the right to pass and carry out a death sentence, vs. 10.

In vs. 11, Jesus responded to these statements but didn’t indicate that Pilate was in error in regard to either of them. Instead, He concedes the accuracy of Pilate’s assertions with the significant observation that this authority was given to him by God. If Jesus was the social activist that some claim and if capital punishment was evil, it seems strange that he didn’t rebut the Roman governor’s claims. Acknowledging his right to act as an agent of civil government and carry out a death sentence seems highly unlikely and inconsistent if the Lord knew this was not now and had never been His Father’s will.

There is one other interesting observation regarding this incident. Pilate was acting as an agent of a Gentile government which indicates that what is legislated in the law of Moses was not peculiar to that era or that group of people but is based upon some eternal principle applicable to all nations for all times, just as Gen. 9:5-6 suggests.

Acts 25:11—Paul Before Festus.

Under circumstances similar to those described in Jo. 19:10-11, Paul stood before the Roman procurator Festus and used his Roman citizenship to avoid being sent back to Jerusalem to a kangaroo court. In making his defense the apostle acknowledged (1) the legitimacy of “Caesar’s judgment-seat”, i.e., that civil governments have a rightful function in society, vs. 10, and (2) that he was not afraid to die if found guilty as charged. In his use of the phrase “worthy of death” he was in agreement with what would be stated later by Festus, vs. 25, and the other government officials, 26:31, when they, too, used this expression: certain wrong-doers are worthy of having their lives taken from them and civil governments have the right to administer such punishment. Why would Paul, who had the “mind of Christ”, 1 Cor. 2:16, speak this way if this form of punishment didn’t have God’s sanction? That Paul’s convictions regarding this matter were consistent can be seen in what he said in the final passages we examine.

Rom. 12:19; Rom. 13:1-7

Rom. 12:19 teaches (1) we are not to avenge or exact justice on our own but rather (2) “give place”, i.e., make room for, God’s wrath. What is meant by “God’s wrath” is explained in the next phrase: “Vengeance belongeth unto me; I will recompense, saith the Lord.” So evil men experience God’s wrath as He takes vengeance on them. But how and when does God do this? Read Rom. 13:1-7.

There are “higher powers” (“Caesar’s judgment-seat”, Acts 25:10) that God has “ordained”, vs. 1. Those who arrange themselves in battle (see Vine, p. 958) against their authority are setting themselves against God and shall receive judgment, vs. 2. But when and how does this judgment take place? Vss. 3-4 make it clear: rulers are intended to be a “terror” to evil men and their deeds, vs. 3, because they are ministers of God. Through the ministers of civil government God wields the “sword”, the instrument of justice and punishment, and His intention is that it not be “borne” (“a continual or habitual condition,” Vine, 93) “in vain” (“to no purpose”, Vine, 1193).

Clearly, the “wrath of God” that we are to “give place to” as He takes vengeance is that which is administered at human hands in various forms of civil government as they wield the “sword.”


Not only is it clear that the Old Testament sanctioned the death penalty, it is equally obvious that the punishment was to be done in order not to pollute the land, Num. 35:31, 33, and done so swiftly in order to serve as a deterrent: Deut. 19:19-21; Ecc. 8:11. I’m convinced that the “it’s not a deterrent” argument could never be seriously made in a society where capital punishment was consistently and swiftly carried out.

Whatever hypothetical or real-life emotional scenarios one might set forth as an argument against capital punishment, the Bible-believer is faced with the realization that this is a practice that had God’s approval during every major period of Bible history. One has to work hard and twist language to make the verses examined in this study say anything else.

From Expository Files 3.2; February 1996 http://www.inplainsite.org/html/capital_punishment.html

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