Questions From Readers
What does the Bible indicate about capital punishment, the death penalty, for criminals?
Understandably, each of us might have our own personal feelings on this, based on our experience or situation in life. Yet, as Jehovah’s Witnesses, we should try to conform to God’s thoughts about capital punishment, while remaining neutral regarding the political stands that many take on this issue.
To put it pointedly, in his written Word, God does not indicate that capital punishment is wrong.
Early in human history, Jehovah shared his thoughts on the matter, as we read in Genesis chapter 9. This involved Noah and his family, who became ancestors of the entire human family. After they came out of the ark, God said that they could eat animals—that is, animals could be killed, drained of their blood, and eaten. Then, at Genesis 9:5, 6, God said: “Besides that, your blood of your souls shall I ask back. From the hand of every living creature shall I ask it back; and from the hand of man, from the hand of each one who is his brother, shall I ask back the soul of man. Anyone shedding man’s blood, by man will his own blood be shed, for in God’s image he made man.” So Jehovah authorized capital punishment in the case of murderers.
While God dealt with Israel as his people, various other serious offenses against divine law were punishable by death. At Numbers 15:30, we read this broad statement: “The soul that does something deliberately, whether he is a native or an alien resident, he speaking abusively of Jehovah, in that case that soul must be cut off from among his people.”
But what about after the Christian congregation was set up? Well, we know that Jehovah authorized human governments to exist, and he called them the superior authorities. In fact, after advising Christians to be obedient to such governmental authorities, the Bible says that such serve as “God’s minister to you for your good. But if you are doing what is bad, be in fear: for it is not without purpose that it bears the sword; for it is God’s minister, an avenger to express wrath upon the one practicing what is bad.”—Romans 13:1-4.
Does that mean that governments are authorized even to take the lives of those who commit serious crimes? From the words at 1 Peter 4:15, we would have to conclude, yes. In that passage the apostle exhorted his brothers: “Let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a busybody in other people’s matters.” Did you note, “let none of you suffer as a murderer”? Peter did not suggest that governments had no right to make a murderer suffer for his crime. On the contrary, he indicated that a murderer might rightly receive due punishment. Would that include punishment by death?
It could. This is clear from Paul’s words found in Acts chapter 25. Jews had accused Paul of offenses against their Law. In sending his prisoner, Paul, to the Roman governor, the military commander reported, as noted at Acts 23:29: “I found him to be accused about questions of their Law, but not charged with a single thing deserving of death or bonds.” After two years Paul found himself before Governor Festus. We read at Acts 25:8: “Paul said in defense: ‘Neither against the Law of the Jews nor against the temple nor against Caesar have I committed any sin.’” But now focus on his remarks about punishment, even capital punishment. We read at Acts 25:10, 11:
“Paul said: ‘I am standing before the judgment seat of Caesar, where I ought to be judged. I have done no wrong to the Jews, as you also are finding out quite well. If, on the one hand, I am really a wrongdoer and have committed anything deserving of death, I do not beg off from dying; if, on the other hand, none of those things exists of which these men accuse me, no man can hand me over to them as a favor. I appeal to Caesar!’”
Paul, standing before a duly constituted authority, admitted that Caesar had the right to punish wrongdoers, even to execute them. He did not object to punishment in his case if he were guilty. Furthermore, he did not say that Caesar could use capital punishment only for murderers.
Admittedly, the Roman judicial system was not perfect; nor are human court systems today. Some innocent people back then and today have been convicted and punished. Even Pilate said about Jesus: “I found nothing deserving of death in him; I will therefore chastise and release him.” Yes, even though the governmental authority admitted that Jesus was innocent, this innocent man was executed.—Luke 23:22-25.
Such injustices did not move Paul or Peter to argue that capital punishment is fundamentally immoral. Rather, God’s thought on the matter is that as long as the superior authorities of Caesar exist, they ‘bear the sword to express wrath upon the ones practicing what is bad.’ That includes applying the sword in the sense of employing capital punishment. But when it comes to the controversial question of whether any government of this world should exercise its right to execute murderers, genuine Christians remain carefully neutral. Unlike the clergy of Christendom, they keep out of any debate on this subject.