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Was Jesus Against The Death Penalty?

by Chauncey Tinker – 28 Aug 2018

I am an atheist (I always have been) and I have never read the bible from cover to cover. My rather superficial understanding of Christian morality has been gained from hearing various often repeated sayings of Jesus, and from what I have been told by (often non-religious) others. I had always thought that the implied message from the bible story about “A Woman Caught in Adultery” was an argument against the death penalty, certainly as a punishment for the sin of adultery but also I assumed by extension for other sins as well.

let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!

After an online discussion with a Christian however, I am no longer quite so sure. He made what I thought was quite a convincing case that Jesus was in fact in favour of the death penalty in principle. The case he made was not so strong that it convinced me that his interpretation was the correct one, rather it left me in a state of uncertainty about which of these two interpretations was correct, in fact it left me thinking that possibly you could interpret the bible message on this question either way.

The case he made was as follows:

  1. Jesus respected the law, and he knew the Old Testament well and quoted from it.
  2. Jesus wasn’t opposed to stoning, He was only opposed to hypocrites doing the stoning.

The first point does seem to be true enough, Jesus quoted from the Old Testament, for example here he quotes from Deuteronomy according to this source:

What did Jesus say to Satan when He was tempted?

Jesus does indeed also say that he respects the law (note particularly the phrase “or the prophets” which surely means respect for Moses etc.). Matthew 5:17:

Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.

On the Christian’s second point I am less clear. The wording in the bible translation is “who has never sinned”, there is no specific reference to any particular kind of sin. When Jesus challenges the crowd in this way, not one of them is prepared to throw the first stone, so does this mean they are all guilty of some sin or specifically guilty of adultery? I had always imagined that it meant any kind of sin, and since Jesus says elsewhere that we are all sinners, then presumably nobody could ever throw the first stone without being a hypocrite. That was always my interpretation of the story – only God has the power of life and death over mere mortals. However whether the reasoning would apply to all types of cases where the death penalty might apply is far from clear to me.

As I understand it, Jesus is not recorded anywhere in the bible as saying that he specifically rejected the death penalty either for all crimes or for particular crimes. He does indeed say he respects the law (and the prophets), and the law (as in the Old Testament) does indeed stipulate the death penalty for some sins. On the other hand, he does seem to suggest that sinners should not execute other sinners, and he also says that we are all sinners. In summary, I am simply not certain any more whether Jesus would be in favour of the death penalty or not and in what circumstances.

ELSEWHERE ON THE WEB:

It seems this debate is nothing new, but more people seem to agree with my original interpretation nowadays, i.e. that Jesus opposed the death penalty.

From “Learn The Bible”:

Would Jesus Oppose the Death Penalty?

From Wikipedia:

Law of Christ

Most Christian leaders everywhere seem to oppose the death penalty these days, but of course it wasn’t always the case:

Papal muddle on the death penalty

Bible cannot be used to justify death penalty warn Philippine bishops in continued attack on Duterte’s government

RELATED POSTS:

Our recent death penalty debate:

Arguments For The Death Penalty

Arguments Against The Death Penalty

Other related posts:

No, Jesus Would Not Demand Open Borders

Towards A Moral Consensus

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