Criminal Justice System

God, Jesus, And the Death Penalty

“Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.”

Genesis 9:6 (ESV)

I have always heard that in polite company you never discuss politics or religion. Well, capital voir dire must not be polite company, for, as politely as you can, you have to discuss both. In this post are some thoughts on discussing religion – Christian beliefs to be specific.

Would Jesus Impose the Death Penalty?

Lately I have seen an article on Facebook pondering whether Jesus would impose the death penalty. I have wondered that since the first time I saw the now familiar “WWJD?” rubber bracelets several years ago. Interesting as the question may be, the more concerning question to me, obviously, is not what Jesus would do, but what people who believe in Jesus would do. So I hunted around a bit. I’m still kind of confused.

First off, what I found is that people who believe in Jesus, and who claim to follow Jesus, are all over the map about what they themselves would do (and about what they expect Jesus would do) if on a capital jury. There are devout Christians who would always impose the death penalty and devout Christians who would never do so. Of course, having only defended death penalty cases, I am more interested in the former, as I can tell you from personal experience they can be formidable jurors against you.

Second, I found there are really no absolutes (which I guess should be obvious). People’s exact religious beliefs are as varied and subtle as the people themselves. So what I am about to say should be seen not so much as a talisman, but as a means to enter into a meaningful dialog with a juror about that juror’s religious beliefs vis-à-vis the death penalty.

There are definitely Christians – lots of Christians – who will automatically impose the death penalty upon conviction for capital murder (as well as several lesser offenses). So is there a characteristic that comes up in looking at the belief systems of such people? What I have found is that one – if not the – primary characteristic is that he or she will tend to believe the entire Bible is the “literal word of God.”

Literal Christian Interpretation

Here is how it is described.

“Surprisingly, many Christians oppose the death penalty.” The Death Penalty: What Would Jesus Do? This is the opening line of what I will call a “typical” fundamentalist Christian blog post on the issue of the death penalty.

Joe Neil Clayton, blogging for La Vista Church of Christ, favorably reviewed the statements of Alan Keyes during his presidential campaign, stating in part:

Next, he said the death penalty was Scriptural. … His approach to the question was interesting, if not unique. To show that Scripture approved the death penalty, he first took advantage of the fad that has spread through young believers, use of the initials WWJD, standing for “What Would Jesus Do?” He asked, “What DID Jesus do?” and paused (for effect, I believe). He answered for his audience, “He accepted it!”

God has proclaimed that the penalty for sin is death, and sent Jesus to the cross, bearing the sins of the guilty. By accepting the penalty, Jesus approved of it.

Joe Neil Clayton, What Would Jesus Do About the Death Penalty?,

Mark Looy, blogging for Answers in Genesis, states, “Christ accepted the historicity of the book of Genesis (e.g., John 5:47 “But if ye believe not his [Moses’s] writings, how shall ye believe my words?”) and did not rescind the Genesis 9:6 penalty for murder during His earthly ministry. It therefore seems to follow that He accepted (and still accepts) the death penalty.” The Death Penalty – WDJB, Not WWJD!

So what does it mean to believe that the entire Bible is the “literal (or “inspired”) word of God?” It means what it says. The Bible – all of it – is literally true.

So, Genesis 9:6 states that a murderer SHALL be put to death. It does not say that the death penalty is but one option. It is the ONLY option. It is also important to realize this commandment actually precedes the Law of Moses, and therefore applies to all mankind, not just the Israelite’s. Several of the authors pointed this out.

If a potential juror believes the Bible is the “literal (or ‘inspired’) word of God,” then that potential juror’s belief system will incorporate the entire Old Testament, which, in the literal sense, is itself not materially altered by Jesus in the New Testament. To the literalist, Jesus did not alter the Old Testament at all as far as the death penalty is concerned. Further, since God himself essentially wrote it, how can the juror dispute it or even disobey it?

If a potential juror is truly a literalist, then he or she, upon being reminded about the above beliefs, should (but certainly do not always) admit that they cannot consider any option other than death, assuming a conviction for capital murder. True, there are admonishments in the Bible about following the laws of our leaders here on this planet, but to the extent such laws conflict with God’s law, God’s law wins out.

Allegorical Interpretation of Bible

The opposite of a literal interpretation of the Bible is an “allegorical” interpretation (the stories are not necessarily factually true, but meant to convey some spiritual truth). I find that people are far more acquainted with the term “literal interpretation” than “allegorical interpretation,” so a scaled question with “literal” on the one hand and “not literal” on the other is probably most effective. Do a little study and consider your own methods. I have generally explored the potential juror’s church’s attitudes about the death penalty, as well as the attitudes of that juror and that juror’s church’s larger theology.

Also, know this – there are denominations who claim a literal interpretation of the Bible yet have an official position against capital punishment. You always have to be careful about making generalizations, especially where religion is concerned.

The point, though, is not to engage in a theological debate, but to use a doorway to get to how the juror feels about this very personal matter. You have to figure out where the juror is going to go to help him make this decision. And if that place is one of deep religious beliefs, then you have to look into it.

Naturally, depending on where you are, a lot of people may not have even considered this question because they are just not that religious. But where you have a potential juror who is, do not assume he will not kill your client just because he is a Christian.

In many cases, just the opposite will hold true.