Evangelical Christians differ in their beliefs about capital punishment, often citing strong biblical and theological reasons either for the just character of the death penalty in extreme cases or for the sacredness of all life, including the lives of those who perpetrate serious crimes and yet have the potential for repentance and reformation. We affirm the conscientious commitment of both streams of Christian ethical thought.
We affirm with the Apostle Paul that governments are called to administer justice to protect citizens and preserve the common good. As citizens of the United States, we are grateful for the degree of public safety most Americans experience and the rules of due process embodied, if imperfectly implemented, in our legal system. American justice appears admirable when compared to that of many other countries where tyranny and corruption reign.
Unfortunately, all human systems are fallible. Nonpartisan studies of the death penalty have identified systemic problems in the United States. These include eyewitness error, coerced confessions, prosecutorial misconduct, racial disparities, incompetent counsel, inadequate instruction to juries, judges who override juries that do not vote for the death penalty, and improper sentencing of those who lack the mental capacity to understand their crime.
In the first decade of the 21st century, 258 wrongfully convicted people have been exonerated due to the introduction of DNA evidence. Twenty of those were serving time on death row, and another 16 had been convicted of a capital crime but not sentenced to death.
As evangelicals, we believe that moral revulsion or distaste for the death penalty is not a sufficient reason to oppose it. But leaders from various parts of the evangelical family have made a biblical and theological case either against the death penalty or against its continued use in a society where biblical standards of justice are difficult to reach. In Mosaic Law, standards of evidence were stringent, requiring a minimum of two eyewitnesses who were willing to stake their own lives on the truthfulness of their testimony and who would initiate the execution by “casting the first stone.” Circumstantial evidence was not permitted. The contemporary American system is unlikely to reach such standards of evidence, and given the utter seriousness of capital crimes, the alarming frequency of post-conviction exonerations leads to calls for radical reform.
Realizing the limitations of our system and the morally disastrous nature of any error, some jurisdictions have either abolished or placed a moratorium on the death penalty, choosing instead the sentence of life imprisonment without parole and bringing both executions and death sentences to a record low.
Near the end of the 20th century, some evangelical leaders began calling for a moratorium on the death penalty. Some have even argued that individuals who evidence repentance, conversion and amendment of life should have their death sentences commuted to life in prison. Their reasoning parallels the logic of Ezekiel 33: “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. … If someone who is wicked repents, that person’s former wickedness will not bring condemnation.”
Because of the fallibility of human systems, documented wrongful convictions, and our desire that God’s grace, Christian hope, and life in Christ be advanced, a growing number of evangelicals now call for government entities to shift their resources away from pursuing the death penalty and to opt for life in prison without parole as the ultimate sanction. They argue that such a move would allow time for the exoneration of the wrongfully convicted, avoid the tragic error of wrongful execution, and advance a higher sense of justice.
Other evangelicals continue to support the death penalty in limited circumstances as a legitimate exercise of the state’s responsibility to administer justice, and as a deterrent to crime. They point to heinous crimes, such as mass murder, terrorism, and the abduction, rape and murder of a young child, in which the perpetrator is caught on camera or is seen by multiple witnesses, where the evidence is overwhelming and there are no issues of mental incompetency. In such cases, some evangelicals argue for swift prosecution, with necessary safeguards, and if appropriate application of the death penalty as the best way to render justice, deter future crimes and allow the victim’s family and community to heal.
Despite differing views on capital punishment, evangelicals are united in calling for reform to our criminal justice system. Such reform should improve public safety, provide restitution to victims, rehabilitate and restore offenders, and eliminate racial and socio-economic inequities in law enforcement, prosecution and sentencing of defendants.