Editors’ note: Last month a unanimous jury sentenced Dylann Roof to death for killing nine black churchgoers as they attended Bible study in a Charleston, South Carolina, church. The reaction to Roof’s sentencing has rekindled discussions—even among victims’ families—about whether Christians should support capital punishment. To consider both sides of the debate, TGC is presenting personal essays on the death penalty by Matthew Arbo, assistant professor of biblical and theological studies at Oklahoma Baptist University, and by the late Charles W. Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship.


As Christians grow and cultivate the disciplines of reading and study, we sometimes alter our views. Sometimes these views even change dramatically. No one knows this better than I do, having been dramatically converted to Christ and, subsequently, having my entire worldview turned upside-down. There was a time, for example, when I thought John Locke’s understanding of social contract was the ultimate theory of government. I now see that government draws its authority less from the consent of the governed than from a sovereign God. I have come to another of those points in my spiritual pilgrimage in which my views have undergone significant change. 

For as long as I can remember, I have opposed capital punishment. As a lawyer I observed how flawed the legal system is, and I concluded, as Justice Learned Hand once remarked, that it was better that a hundred guilty men go free than one innocent man be executed. I was also influenced by very libertarian views of government; I distrusted government too much to give power to the judicial system to take a human life. Then as I became a Christian, I was confronted with the reality of Jesus’s payment of the debt of human sin. I discovered that the operation of God’s marvelous grace in our lives has profound implications for the way we live.

Naturally, as I came to deal increasingly with ethical issues, I found myself seriously questioning whether the death penalty was an effective deterrent. My views were very much influenced by Deuteronomy 17 and the need for two eyewitnesses. I questioned whether the circumstantial evidence on which most are sentenced today in fact meets this standard of proof. I still have grave reservations about the way in which capital punishment is administered in the United States, and I still do question whether it is a deterrent. (In fact, I remain convinced it’s not a general deterrent.) But my views have changed, and I now favor capital punishment, at least in principle, but only in extreme cases when no other punishment can satisfy the demands of justice.

Mercy Requires Justice

The reason is quite simple. Justice in God’s eyes requires that the response to an offense—whether against God or against humanity—be proportionate. The lex talionis (“law of the talion”) served as a restraint, a limitation, to ensure the punishment would be no greater than the crime. Yet implied therein is a standard—that the punishment should be at least as great as the crime. One frequently finds among Christians the belief that Jesus’s so-called “love-ethic” sets aside the “law of the talion.” To the contrary, Jesus affirms the divine basis of Old Testament ethics. Nowhere does he set aside all requirements of civil law. Further, it leads to a perversion of legal justice to confuse the sphere of private relations with that of civil law. While the thief on the cross found pardon in the sight of God (“Today you will be with me in paradise”), the pardon didn’t extend to eliminating the consequences of his crime (“We are being justly punished, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds”).

“What about mercy?” one may be inclined to ask. My response is simple. There can be no mercy where justice is not satisfied. Justice entails receiving what we in fact deserve; we did in fact know better. Mercy is not receiving what we deserve. To be punished, however severely, because we indeed deserve it, as C. S. Lewis observed, is to be treated with dignity as human beings created in God’s image. Conversely, to abandon the criteria of righteous and just punishment, as Lewis also pointed out, is to abandon all criteria for punishment. Indeed, mercy extended to offenders whose guilt is certain yet ignored creates a moral travesty that, over time, helps pave the way for collapse of the entire social order. This is essentially the argument of Romans 13. Romans 12 concludes with a proscription of personal retribution, yet Paul immediately follows this with a divinely instituted prescription for punishing moral evil. It is for eminently social reasons that “the authorities” are to wield the sword, the ius gladii: due to human depravity and the need for moral-social order, the civil magistrate punishes criminal behavior. The implication of Romans 13 is that by not punishing moral evil, authorities aren’t performing their God-appointed responsibility in society. Paul’s teaching in Romans 13 squares with his experience. Testifying before Festus, he certifies: “If . . . I am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die” (Acts 25:11). 

Perhaps the emotional event that pushed me over the (philosophical) edge was the John Wayne Gacy case some years ago. I visited him on death row. During our hour-long conversation he was totally unrepentant; in fact, he was arrogant. He insisted that he was a Christian, that he believed in Christ, yet he showed not a hint of remorse. The testimony in the trial, of course, was overwhelming. I don’t think anyone could possibly believe he didn’t commit those unspeakably barbaric crimes. What I realized in the days prior to Gacy’s execution was that there was simply no other appropriate response than execution if justice was to be served. There are some cases like this—the Oklahoma bombing is a case in point—when no other response is appropriate, no other punishment sufficient for the deliberate savagery of the crime.

The issue boils down ultimately to just deserts. Indeed, just punishment is a thread running through the whole Bible. Moreover, there is divinely instituted tension between mercy and justice—a tension that, ethically speaking, may not be eradicated. Mercy without justice makes a mockery of the sacrifice of the Lamb of God. It ignores the fundamental truth of biblical anthropology: the soul that sins must die; sin incurs a debt that must be paid. Punitive dealings provide a necessary atonement and restore the moral balance disturbed by sin. Purification, one of the most central of biblical themes, reveals to us both the temporal and eternal perspectives on humanity. Purification comes by way of suffering; it prepares the individual to meet his Maker. God’s redemptive response to the sin dilemma did not—and does not—eradicate the need to bear the consequences of our actions.

Need for Moral Accountability

Which leads me to a second observation. The death penalty ultimately confronts us with the issue of moral accountability in the present life. Contemporary society seems totally unwilling to assign moral responsibility to anyone. Everything imaginable is due to a dysfunctional family or to having had our knuckles rapped while we were in grade-school. We really have reached a point where the Menendez brothers plead for mercy—and get it!—because they are orphans, after acknowledging they made themselves orphans by killing their parents.

Non-Christians and Christians alike are not absolved from the consequences of their behavior. Whether or not faith is professed, penalties for everything from speeding to strangulation apply to all. In American society people are literally getting away with murder, and the moral stupor that has descended over our culture reflects a decay, an utter erosion, of time-tested moral norms—norms that have been guarded for generations. Can anyone really wonder why evidence of a moral dry rot is everywhere?

I come to this view with something of a heavy heart, as some of the most blessed brothers I’ve known in my Christian walk were on death row. I think of Richard Moore in particular and, of course, Rusty Woomer, about whom I’ve written in The Body. I think of Bob Williams in Nebraska and Johnny Cockrum in Texas. I have a heavy heart as well because I don’t believe the system administers criminal justice fairly. It is merely symbolic justice to execute 25 people a year when 2,000 are sentenced. (Obviously, the system needs to be thoroughly revamped. Nevertheless, revamping the system, in order that punishment be both swift and proportionate, would accord with biblical guidelines and demands the Christian’s engagement.) But in spite of the system’s flaws, I’ve come to believe God in fact requires capital justice, at least in the case of premeditated murder where there is no doubt of the offender’s guilt. This is, after all, the one crime in the Bible for which no restitution was possible (Num. 35:31, 33). 

Lest we believe the Old Testament was characterized by indiscriminate capital justice, Old Testament law painstakingly distinguished between premeditated murder and involuntary manslaughter—hence the function of the cities of refuge. In the case of involuntary manslaughter, deliverance from the avenger’s hand occurred. In the case of murder, the convicted criminal was put to death. Personally, I still doubt the death penalty is a general deterrent—and strong evidence suggests it’s not likely to be a deterrent when it’s so seldom invoked. But I have a hard time escaping the attitude of the biblical writers, that judgment—both temporal and eschatological—is a certain reality for those who disobey or reject God’s authority. We’ll never know how many potential murderers are deterred by the threat of a death penalty, just as we’ll never know how many lives may be saved by it. But at the bare minimum, it may deter a convict sentenced to life from killing a prison guard or another convict. (In such a case no other punishment is appropriate, since all lesser punishments have been exhausted.) And it will certainly prevent a convicted murderer from murdering again. In this regard, I find wisdom in the words of John Stuart Mill:

As for what is called the failure of death punishment, who is able to judge of that? We partly know who those are whom it has not deterred; but who is there who knows whom it has deterred, or how many human beings it has saved who would have lived to be murderers if that awful association had not been thrown round the idea of murder from their earliest infancy?

God’s Non-Negotiable Standard

So in spite of my misgivings, I’ve come to see capital punishment as an essential element of justice. On the whole, the full range of biblical data weighs in its favor. Society should not execute capital offenders merely for the sake of revenge, but to balance the scales of moral justice that have been disturbed. The death penalty is warranted and should be implemented only in those cases where evidence is certain, in accordance with the biblical standard and where no other punishment can satisfy the demands of justice. In the public debate over the death penalty, we are dealing with values of the highest order: respect for the sacredness of human life and its protection, the preservation of order in society, and the attainment of justice through law.

The function of biblical sanctions against a heinous crime such as murder is to discourage the wanton destruction of innocent life. And undergirding the biblical sanctions against murder is the utter sacred character of human life. The shedding of blood in ancient Israel polluted the land—a pollution for which there was no substitute—and thus required the death penalty. This is the significance of the sanctions in Genesis 9 against those who would shed the blood of another. It is because humans are created in God’s image that capital punishment for premeditated murder was to be a perpetual obligation. To kill a person was tantamount to killing God in effigy. The Noahic covenant (Gen. 9) antedates Israel and the Mosaic code; it transcends Old Testament law per se and mirrors ethical legislation binding for all cultures and eras. The sanctity of human life is rooted in the universal creation ethic and thus retains its force in society. Any culture that fails to distinguish between the criminal and the punitive act, in my opinion, is a culture that cannot survive. In this way, then, my own ethical thinking has evolved.

I’m well aware that sincere Christians stand on both sides of this issue. One’s views on the death penalty are by no means a test of fellowship. While we take no pleasure in defining the contours of this difficult ethical issue, the Christian community is called on to articulate standards of biblical justice, even when it may be unpopular. Capital justice, I’ve come to believe, is part of that non-negotiable standard. A moral obligation requires civil government to punish crime, and consequently, to enforce capital punishment, albeit under highly restricted conditions. Fallible humans will continue to work for justice. But fallible as the system might be, part of the Christian’s task is to remind surrounding culture that actions indeed have consequences—in this life and the life to come.

This adapted essay was used by permission of Prison Fellowship