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A Biblical Overview of the Death Penalty

Many a misguided believer or critic who opposes the death penalty will quote the well known sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13) as the basis for their argument. However, most do not realize that the same God who commanded us not to kill (outside of defending oneself Exodus 22:2) esteemed the value of human life in such high regard that He established the very law they oppose as a deterrent to murder.

This law is the basic tenant on which all of man’s civil laws are based (the righteous punishment of evil doers) and is the very foundation by which the governing bodies of mankind are to rule.

Before the Law

Genesis 9:5-6  And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it, and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man's brother will I require the life of man. Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.

Under the Law

Numbers 35:30-31 Whoso killeth any person, the murderer shall be put to death by the mouth of witnesses: but one witness shall not testify against any person to cause him to die. Moreover ye shall take no satisfaction for the life of a murderer, which is guilty of death: but he shall be surely put to death.

Exodus 21:12  He that smiteth a man, so that he die, shall be surely put to death.

(See also Leviticus 24:17, Numbers 35:16, Proverbs 28:17)

Under Grace

Under grace in the New Testament this same authority is still given to magistrates and governing authorities in which Paul says we are to be subject to in obedience to God.

Romans 13:1-5 Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.

1Peter 2:13-14 Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well.

Which Paul himself willingly submitted to:

Acts 25:10-11 Then said Paul, I stand at Caesar's judgment seat, where I ought to be judged: to the Jews have I done no wrong, as thou very well knowest. For if I be an offender, or have committed any thing worthy of death, I refuse not to die: but if there be none of these things whereof these accuse me, no man may deliver me unto them. I appeal unto Caesar.

Even unlearned barbarians and lost Gentile rulers understood the basic premise of capitol punishment for the offense of murder – Acts 28:1-4, Acts 25:16.

God-Given Instinct

In fact, it is this God-given maternal instinct of man to judge that testifies to the fact that there is a Holy God and that He requires righteousness and punishment for evil. John 1:9, Romans 1:29-32, 2:1-16.

When convicted murderers are allowed to live and the innocent blood of their victims is not avenged the Lord warns that the governing authorities are now guilty themselves of this blood. This has a twofold negative effect on a land and its citizens. First without the deterrent that the death penalty imposes there is less restraint on evil doers and thus there is an increase and boldness in their sin. Next, the Bible says that the land then becomes physically and spiritually polluted by these increased transgressions and the shed blood which in turn invites God’s judgment on that nation. The Bible describes this moral and spiritual breakdown in a civilization as having “no fear of God” (Genesis 20:11, Psalm 36:1, Romans 3:18). Is it any wonder then that in America one of the more popular secular phrases used today in advertising (No Fear!) is the description given for a lawless society? Also please note how that the Lord makes no allowances for plea bargaining for the life of the murderer, as his blood is the only acceptable atonement for the shed blood of his victim.

Deuteronomy 19:10-13 That innocent blood be not shed in thy land, which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance, and so blood be upon thee. But if any man hate his neighbour, and lie in wait for him, and rise up against him, and smite him mortally that he die, and fleeth into one of these cities: Then the elders of his city shall send and fetch him thence, and deliver him into the hand of the avenger of blood, that he may die. Thine eye shall not pity him, but thou shalt put away the guilt of innocent blood from Israel, that it may go well with thee.

Numbers 35:30-31 Whoso killeth any person, the murderer shall be put to death by the mouth of witnesses: but one witness shall not testify against any person to cause him to die. Moreover ye shall take no satisfaction for the life of a murderer, which is guilty of death: but he shall be surely put to death.

Numbers 35:33 So ye shall not pollute the land wherein ye are: for blood it defileth the land: and the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it.

Hosea 4:2-3 By swearing, and lying, and killing, and stealing, and committing adultery, they break out, and blood toucheth blood. Therefore shall the land mourn, and every one that dwelleth therein shall languish, with the beasts of the field, and with the fowls of heaven; yea, the fishes of the sea also shall be taken away.


An interesting side note to this study is that before the flood the Lord says the outstanding characteristic of the Earth was that it was filled with violence (Genesis 6:11-13). We can safely assume then that murder was probably prevalent at that time which would have met an abundance of blood shed with the land becoming increasingly polluted. This unavenged blood and resulting pollution may have been why the Lord chose to destroy the entire planet and not just all of mankind. This seems even more feasible in light of the fact that capitol punishment was instituted by the Lord to Noah and his sons directly following the flood (Genesis 9:1-6).