I often see articles wishing to challenge conservative Christianity by arguing that you’re not “true pro life advocate” unless you oppose the death penalty. After all, all humans are made in the image of God and thus the death penalty is unjust. In 1989, the OCA released a statement condemning the death penalty because all killing is wrong. These views of the death penalty are completely unscriptural and go against Orthodox tradition.
Let’s first deal with the argument that all humans are made in the image of God. In Genesis 9:6, God commands that “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image.” The exact logic that people use to oppose the death penalty is invoked by God here to support the death penalty. The logic here is also still completely sound. There is no basis here for saying this law has been abolished. If someone has committed murder, they themselves have lost the right to their life.
The next common argument is that only God has the right to take life. This is completely true. However, God has given the state the right to “bear the sword… [because] he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4). Paul was also in prison when he wrote this, so he knew well the injustice the state could commit. This is contrasted with Paul commanding Christians to “never avenge [them]selves, but leave it to the wrath of God” (Romans 12:19). Paul here draws a clear distinction between the role of the church, which is pastoral, and the role of the state, which must judge the wrongdoer.
If we look at compare Genesis 1-3 with Genesis 9, we can understand why the state is the minister of God. Just as God filled the earth with animals (Genesis 1:24-25), Noah fills the world with animals (Genesis 8:17,19). Just as God planted a garden (Genesis 2:8), Noah plants a garden (Genesis 9:20). Just as God gives out blessings (Genesis 1) and curses (Genesis 3), Noah gives out blessings and curses (Genesis 9:25-27). Noah takes on the role of God, ministering as king to his subjects. So just as God has the right to give the death penalty (Genesis 2:17, 3:19), so does Noah (Genesis 9:6).
Opponents of capital punishment often label it as unjust. However, Christ criticized the Pharisees refusal to put children to death (Mark 7:10) without any hint the law was unjust. Now I am not advocating for putting children to death here. Clearly there is a difference between out modern law and the Mosaic law meant for the ancient Israel. I am only saying that the argument that the death penalty is cruel is biblical.
The only biblical argument usually brought up against the death penalty is usually that the ten commandments say “You shalt not kill”. The problem here is that the actual meaning of the commandment is “You shalt not murder”. Otherwise, the mosaic law would be quite contradictory when it commanded the death penalty in many places.
Two common traditional arguments are used against the death penalty. One is that St. Nicholas interceded to save those about to be executed. If we look at the Exapostilarion of St. Nicholas though, it says that ” he saved many men who were unjustly condemned to be executed,” not those who were innocent. The other argument from tradition is that St. Vladimir abolished the death penalty in Russia after converting to Christianity. However, the Byzantine Empire still had the death penalty at the time and St. Vladimir reinstituted the death penalty later in his life at the behest of the Church. The churches opposition to the death penalty rightly used is actually quite modern.
The only good argument I see against capital punishment is that life in prison gives people time to atone for their sins and convert. A great example of this is Jeffery Dahmer. I don’t have a good counter argument to this. All I can say is that the wisdom of God as shown through scripture and tradition seems to disagree.
So how should the death penalty be instituted in modern times? For one thing, many states in America still carry out the death penalty on purely circumstantial evidence, but Mosaic law required two witnesses to sentence someone to death (Deuteronomy 16:7, 19:15). The average person on death row now waits almost 16 years before being executed. It is better simply to abolish the death penalty than to have such a barbarous process. We lie to ourselves by doing it in such a way that it is “more civilized”. We also hide away the executions, using painful methods like lethal injection, pretending that it is humane. This is a perfect example of science gone overboard. Even though we now think of things like public hangings and beheading as backwards, they were actual quite humane, usually killing the criminal instantly.
Another issue with the modern death penalty is that it is almost exclusively used against poor minorities. The rich should not receive better treatment in regards to the death penalty. This needs to be reformed. The command in Genesis 9:6 seems to me to be a command that the death penalty should be invoked in all instances of murder, and the other various mosaic laws seem to allow the government to invoke it in other instances (although only in accordance with God’s laws), but do not seem to be commandments requiring the death penalty be invoked in modern times outside of ancient Israel.
I remember watching a video years ago on a local new station where a man on death row was being interviewed. He said that although he had killed someone almost 20 years ago when he was 18, and even though he had grown as a person and the victim’s family had forgiven him, he still thought the death penalty was a fair sentence. I never understood that until many years later when I was reading Mere Christianity by CS Lewis. Lewis said that “[i]f one had committed a murder, the right Christian thing to do would be to give yourself up to the police and be hanged.” Paul says a similar thing when on trial. “If,” he says, “I am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die” (Acts 25: 11). Another famous example of this is Socrates’ arguments for why he must sat and die in Crito. We submit ourselves to the law, even if causes us to die.
Revised Standard Version Bible
Through New Eyes by James Jordan
The Orthodox Church by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware
Crito by Plato