The Biblical Case Against the Death Penalty, From a Former Supporter | Sojourners

The Biblical Case Against the Death Penalty, From a Former Supporter

“Capital punishment is against the best judgment of modern criminology and, above all, against the highest expression of love in the nature of God” (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.)

I despise labels, but I guess you can’t get away from them. For example, I am called an American (a label). I would prefer to be called a United States Citizen because the term “American” is ethnocentristicThe term should mean I am part of the American continents, but it is never used that way. “American” is almost always used to refer to a person who lives in the United States. However, Canadians and Mexicans are also Americans; and so are Hondurans and Brazilians.

I wish I could simply be called “Christian.” But that label necessitates the need for additional labels. Am I Protestant or Catholic? Am I orthodox or neo-orthodox? Am I a fundamentalist, an evangelical, or main-line? Am I emergent, traditional, liberal, progressive, or contemporary? To which denomination do I belong, or am I non-denominational? Maybe I am inter-denominational? Am I charismatic or cessastionist?

It’s maddening!

My preference would be to be called a follower of Jesus. But what does that mean?

Then there are political labels … and they are the worst!

Am I conservative or liberal? Am I a Republican or Democrat or Independent or Libertarian or something else? Am I pro-life or pro-choice? Am I a patriot or and antagonizer? Am I a capitalist, socialist, or communist? Where do I stand on gun rights? What about human rights, or same-sex marriage, or LBGT issues, or immigration, or Obamacare, etc., etc., etc … blah, blah, blah …

Why can’t I just be me?

It’s a lost cause. No matter how hard I try not to be boxed in, people label me. So, let me give you my best shot at who I am based on labels. (Of course, if your definition of the labels is not the same as my definition, then we will have a hard time communicating.) Here goes:

I am a U.S. citizen, born and raised in the South in an ultra-conservative, fundamentalist, protestant denomination whose roots go back through the Pilgrims to England. I consider myself to be evangelical. My theology is conservative, but my politics are moderate. On social issues I am more liberal than some and more conservative than others. I prefer to be called a follower of Jesus over being called a Christian, and I like the idea of being an apprentice of Jesus over the idea of being a disciple of Jesus. I believe in universal truth. I just don’t believe I am smart enough to be dogmatic, thinking my opinion is universal truth. I believe all truth is God’s truth, and I have committed my life in a search for that truth. But I think it is a journey more than a destination. I believe Jesus is the logos of God, the only way, the only truth, and the only life. I believe Jesus is God. I am Trinitarian. Because of my faith in Jesus, and what he did through his birth, life, death, and resurrection, I am saved, I am being saved, and I will be saved. I always hold out the very real possibility that I could be wrong. This way I am motivated to keep learning, keep stretching, and keep discovering. Most importantly (at least for this discussion), I am not the same person I was 20 years ago, and I hope that 10 years from now I will be different than I am today. I am always in process.

Why am I telling you this?

Because there is an issue in our society that I want to talk about. Although it’s a controversial issue, it doesn’t receive as much attention as other controversial issues. Where I land on this issue has been the result of much prayer, study, debate, and restless nights. Where I land on this issue is different from where I started and what I was taught growing up in my conservative church and attending my ultra-conservative Bible college.

The issue I would like to discuss is capital punishment. The reason for bringing it up now is because my state (Tennessee) is scheduled to execute 10 death row inmates over the next two years. The first one is scheduled to die in October, two months from right now.

Because I spent the majority of my life being in favor of capital punishment I know the arguments. I know the reasoning, and I understand the Scriptures used to support that view. I now know the arguments, reasoning, and I understand the Scriptures used to support doing away with the death penalty. Both views have their strengths and weaknesses. Both views have their flaws. Both views can be defended from the Bible. Both views have committed followers of Jesus and top biblical scholars on their side. It is simply my opinion (and conviction) that the arguments for an alternative to capital punishment are more consistent with the overall message of the Bible, the overall teachings of Jesus, and are more compatible with an overall view of the sanctify of life. The arguments against the death penalty are also, in my opinion, more just and more compassionate for the families of the victims of these horrible crimes. (In future posts I hope to explain these things in more detail.)

I could give you several reasons why I now oppose state-sponsored killing. Hopefully, over time, all those reasons will come out. But for this post, let me give you two reasons:

First, the way we carry out the death-penalty is unjust.

Even if you believe it is just for some crimes to be punishable by death, it’s not difficult to see the injustice in how our society carries out that punishment. Far too often who does and who does not get the death penatly depends on economics (of both the victim and the criminal), gender (of both the victim and the criminal), race (of both the victim and the criminal), education, location of crime (in which state the crime occurred), and politics. Furthermore, the amount of time between sentencing and execution is cruel and unjust for the families of the victims. Also, even today, evidence has shown a significant number of people on death row are innocent of their crimes and several people have been executed who were wrongfully convicted. Simply put; even if capital punishment is just, we are incapable of carrying it out in a just way.

Second, there is an alternative to capital punishment that is just, and that alternative is life in prison without the possibility of parole. As a society, and as followers of Jesus, we need to ask ourselves, “What is the purpose of our criminal justice system?” If the purpose is retribution and retaliation, then you can argue the justice of death. If, however, the purpose is redemption and reconciliation, then a more just punishment is life without parole. If there is a way to carry out justice without further death and violence, why would we not want to do that?

In no way can everything can be explained in one short blog post. Numerous books and journal articles have been written on both sides of the issue. What I have attempted to do is give a brief (and woefully incomplete) overview of my own thoughts. I hope to write more on this issue. But hopefully this is enough to get a conversation going. One book I am still reading that is has been beneficial to me is Dale S. Recinella’s book, The Biblical Truth About America’s Death Penalty.

If I were to be honest I would have to admit that one reason I held to the pro-capital punishment view for so long is that the issue just wasn’t important to me. There were “bigger fish to fry,” and I just didn’t have the time or energy to rethink the ethics and justice behind the death penalty. After all, I thought, those in death row deserve to be there because of the heinous nature of their crimes. They don’t deserve my time or attention. I think that is how a lot of people feel. In reality, my views have nothing to do with the criminal and everything to do with my desire to follow Jesus in proclaiming that God’s kingdom is a present reality as well as a future hope. I challenge you to spend some time researching, studying, and praying about this issue.

Dr. Kevin Riggs pastors Franklin Community Church in Franklin, Tenn. He is also a college/seminary professor and has written two books, Failing Like Jesus (Randall House Publications, 2010) and Evangelism for the 21st Century (Evangelical Training Association, 2014). Kevin blogs regularly at and can be followed on twitter @riggs_kevin. He lives in Franklin, Tenn., with his wife, Misty.

Image: Man behind bars, ANURAK PONGPATIMET /