The Scriptures do authorize capital punishment for intentional murder, what is categorized in the U.S. criminal justice system today as first-degree homicide. We see this divine authorization of capital punishment before the Law of Moses was given to Israel, in the days just after the Flood: “Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed, for in the image of God has God made mankind” (Gen. 9:6). Murder is forbidden because of humanity’s high status as created in the image of God, and God declared that capital punishment is an appropriate penalty for anyone who intentionally takes the life of another person.
When the Law of Moses was given, Israel was commanded, “Anyone who strikes a person with a fatal blow is to be put to death” (Ex. 21:12). This is also supported in the New Testament, where human governments are granted divine authority to approve those who do good and to punish those who do wrong (see Rom. 13:1–7). Governmental authority can “bear the sword” (Rom. 13:4), a reference to capital punishment.
Some have objected that certain murderers in the Bible were not put to death. For example, Cain killed Abel but was not put to death (Gen. 4:1–16). But the ability and the authority to carry out capital punishment for murder do not mean that Scripture requires it to be implemented in every instance. In the case of Cain, for example, God might have been showing mercy to Adam, Cain’s father, who would have had to carry out the sentence.
Other objections to capital punishment are more philosophical in nature. Some contend that taking the life of a murderer will send that person to hell. This is a misunderstanding of what determines our eternal destiny. The murderer’s sin and depravity separates him from God, not capital punishment. Moreover, some on death row have turned to God for forgiveness, and their sentence hastened repentance.
Others object that capital punishment does not work as a deterrent for other murderers. This may or may not be so, but it certainly is a deterrent for that particular murderer not to kill again.
Finally, some object that capital punishment is inhumane, not treating the murderer with human dignity. Actually, the opposite is true. Too often people attempt to offer excuses to explain their choice to end the life of someone else. But tolerating excuses minimizes human dignity. A government’s use of capital punishment says to the murderer, “You, as a person made in the image of God, sought to destroy that image in another person. Therefore, you must be punished.” God has ordained human governments to carry out capital punishment not as a means of demeaning or diminishing humanity, but because it upholds the dignity of humanity made in the image of God.