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Christianity and the Death Penalty

"Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy." -- Matthew 5:7

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Anti-Death Penalty Prayer

Anti-death penalty protesters join hands in prayer. Although individual Christians remain divided on capital punishment, the Roman Catholic Church, the United Methodist Church, and most other major Christian denominations have called for abolition.

Photo: David McNew / Getty Images.
Both supporters and opponents of capital punishment often claim that the Christian tradition is on their side--and, to a certain extent, both groups are right.

Capital Punishment in the New Testament

The authors of the New Testament lived under Roman occupation and had no means by which to impose the death penalty, so it is difficult to know what their views on the matter would have been.

All government executions described in the New Testament claimed the lives of Christians or Jewish allies, most notably:
  • The beheading of John the Baptist (Mark 6:27) ;
  • The crucifixion of Jesus Christ (numerous references) ;
  • The stoning of St. Stephen (Acts 7:59) ; and
  • The execution of St. James the Great, one of the original Twelve Apostles, "by the sword" (Acts 12:2).
Jesus repeatedly denounces violence in the Gospels (most explicitly in Matthew 5:38-39/Luke 6:27-28 and Matthew 26:52), and personally interrupts a biblically sanctioned execution (John 8:3-11), which would seem to indicate clear opposition to capital punishment.

Defenders of the death penalty point to Jesus' remarks in support of traditional Jewish law (Matthew 5:18) and the authority of earthly governments (Matthew 22:21).

Capital Punishment in Christian Theology

The earliest Christian writers spoke overwhelmingly against capital punishment. To name an especially prominent example, St. Clement of Rome, who led the church during the latter years of the first century as the Christian church's fourth pope, wrote that "to witness a man's execution, regardless of the justice of his prosecution, is forbidden by the moral law of Christ."

As Christianity became more socially acceptable and became accepted as part of the Roman establishment, theologians reassessed capital punishment and found it inoffensive. St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), perhaps the most influential of the post-New Testament theologians, wrote in The City of God that "[t]he same divine authority that forbids the killing of a human being establishes certain exceptions, as when God authorizes killing by a general law..."

The great scholasticist St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) upheld Augustine's pro-death penalty interpretation in Book II of his Summa Theologica, writing that "if a man be dangerous and infectious to the community ... it is praiseworthy and healthful that he be killed in order to safeguard the common good." But this was before the formation of the penitentiary system, which allows dangerous individuals to be separated from the community by less drastic means.

Today, the Roman Catholic Church and most global Protestant traditions oppose capital punishment, while most conservative U.S.-based Protestant traditions support it.
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