When Biblical Support for the Death Penalty Masquerades as Moralism


Before the topic of terrorism, and other foreign policy news, dominated the airwaves in the early 21st century, the issue of the death penalty seemed more prevalent in political conversation. Most objections to it are reactionary; protests streaming in as a man who still claims to be innocent is strapped the chair and injected with a concoction that will end his life. This time, however, it was a botched execution in Oklahoma which seems to have caused the issue to flare up.

Al Mohler recently posted his thoughts about why Christians should support the death penalty. He presents a list of Biblical references for his support, along with some moral cajoling. 

To start, I’m was really pleased to see Mohler being so outspoken against the economic and racial disparity in the application of the death penalty. Because it isn’t just that you’re more likely to be sentenced to death if you’re black, but also if the victim was white. Nor does he believe that capital punishment should be used all that frequently, or as an instrument of vengeance. 

His use of the Bible, however, leaves a lot to be desired. Mohler goes right for the jugular in Genesis 9:6 where God declares to Noah, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.”  Yet, just two verses previous to this, God also states, “But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.” Apart from the recent Noah movie, I’m not too sure anybody is making the argument for Christian vegetarianism. 

He then transitions towards the New Testament where Paul writes in Romans 13:4 “for [the ruler] is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. for he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrong doer.” This is all in the framework of Paul encouraging the Roman church to submit to earthly authority. But in using this quote, however, Mohler leaves himself in a precarious position: What if the government were to abolish capitol punishment? I don’t believe he would suddenly feel obliged to agree with the government position simply because they changed their minds about the Justice system.

There is also a glaring omission in his write up: Jesus. Mohler could have possibly argued that the His acceptance of a crucifixion as an argument from silence. Or that Christ made no attempt to relieve the consequence of the two men crucified beside Him. 

This is because, in reality, Mohler’s position has little to do with a Biblical mandate for capital punishment. We see this when he writes of a larger, cultural context where, “our cultural loss of confidence in human dignity and the secularizing of human identity has made murder a less heinous crime in the minds of many Americans.”

His chief concern is that sin doesn’t feel like it carries the consequence it should in our society. In his mind, the value of human life is decreasing and there is a relationship between that value and our perspective on murder. 

It’s one thing to acknowledge the Bible’s implicit endorsement of capital punishment; it’s another entirely to advocate for the death penalty while simultaneously declaring that it there is racial bias. By acknowledging the unjust nature of the death penalty’s application, however, he’s made a conscious decision to sacrifice justice for (perceived) morality. Should true justice, however, really require a moral sacrifice?

I would certainly hope not!