VIEWS OF THE EARLY CHRISTIAN MOVEMENTS
ON THE DEATH PENALTY
During the first few centuries after Jesus' execution, Christians were
instructed to not participate in the execution
of a criminal, to not attend public
executions, and even to not lay a charge against a person if it might possibly eventually result in
their execution. 1
Clement of Rome, Justin Martyr and other Christian writers who discussed
capital punishment during the first three centuries after Jesus' execution were
absolutely opposed to it.
One example is Lactantius (260 to 330 CE) who is primarily known for his books "Introduction
to True Religion" and "The Divine Institutes." He wrote
in The Divine Institutes, Book 6, Chapter 20:
"When God forbids us to kill, he not only prohibits the violence that is
condemned by public laws, but he also forbids the violence that is deemed lawful by men.
Thus it is not lawful for a just man to engage in warfare, since his warfare is justice
itself. Nor is it [lawful] to accuse anyone of a capital offense. It makes no difference
whether you put a man to death by word, or by the sword. It is the act of putting to death
itself which is prohibited. Therefore, regarding this precept of God there should be no
exception at all. Rather it is always unlawful to put to death a man, whom God willed to
be a sacred creature."
This rigid opposition to the death penalty during the first few centuries of
the Christian movement appears to have been motivated by:
||Matthew 5:38: Jesus is reported as having said: "Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for
an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:
But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall
smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also."
||Matthew 5:43-45:¶ Jesus is recorded as having said: "Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou
shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.
But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do
good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use
you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father
which is in heaven...."
||John 8:1-11: This is the story of the woman who was found
committing adultery. The Mosaic Code required that she and her lover
be stoned to death. Unlike many other passages in the Gospel where
Jesus is reported as having either negated or reinterpreted a law in
the Mosaic Code, he simply asks that the first stone be cast by one
who is without sin. Of course, none of the accusers was without sin;
none could start the execution process.
Not too much importance should be placed on this passage, as it is
apparently a forgery, not written by the author(s) of the Gospel of
John. In various ancient manuscripts it is either missing, or in
John 8, or after John 7:36, or after Luke 21:38, or at the end of
Luke. It appears to have been a favorite early Christian story
spread orally. and incorporated into various gospels.
||The significance of Jesus' death:|
||The Mennonite Church USA created a statement about the death
penalty in response to a 2001 resolution in favor of abolition. It
said in part:
"The early Christians came to understand that in Jesus' sacrifice
of himself, the cycle of vengeance had been broken. The moral
universe that had been damaged by sin was repaired once and for all.
God had found a way to break through our perpetual sinfulness.
Jesus' death on the cross was the final payment for sina final
sacrifice that made unnecessary other forms of sacrifice, including
the human sacrifice that we call capital punishment. Jesus showed us
that salvation from sin lay in forgiving the enemy, not in getting
even by imitating the enemy's wickedness. When we forgive, we see
new possibilities both for our enemy and for ourselves."
||Christians throughout history have argued that by executing
someone, any possibility of them becoming saved later in life is
eliminated. Thus, according to most conservative Christians, they
will spend eternity in Hell. In modern times, some mass murderers, including
Ted Bundy (executed in 1989) and
Jeffrey Dahmer (killed by another inmate in 1994) were
saved while incarcerated. If they had
been executed more quickly, then they would be in Hell; by being
saved, they made it to Heaven, according to many Christians.
||The experiences of early Christians:|
||Author Mark Lewis Taylor comments that the early Christians "suffered
Rome's punitive regime, living at the edge of prison, in and out of
jails, risking torture and execution." 5 That experience would
have taught them to hate capital punishment.
Christian movement reverses its stance:
According to author James Megivern, Clement of Alexandria (circa 150 - circa
213) was "the first Christian writer to provide theoretical grounds for the
justification of capital punishment....[Clement] appealed to a rather
questionable medical analogy [a doctor amputates a diseased organ if it
threatens the body] rather than to anything of specifically Christian
Once Emperor Constantine became the first pro-Christian emperor in 312
CE, the Christian movement began to reverse its stance
against the death penalty. Christians at the time were deeply divided among what
has been called the proto-orthodox faction, the Gnostics,
and a very few surviving Jewish Christians. The proto-orthodox found execution
of religious heretics (i.e. religious minorities) to be a useful tool in
consolidate their power. After 313 CE, "emperors passed at least 66 decrees
against Christian heretics, and another 25 laws 'against paganism in all its
forms'......The violence of the age was extraordinary, and Christians were
becoming more and more deeply involved in it....Once Christianity had become the
state religion [in the late 380s CE), the imperial values articulated in Roman
law tended to overwhelm gospel values."
In later centuries, the Church became heavily engaged in the mass murders and
genocides of such groups as: Albigensians, Anabaptists, Cathari, Gnostics,
Jews (particularly as a byproduct of the Crusades),
Knights Templar, Waldensians, and "Witches" (during the "Burning
times" in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance).
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
D.W. Bercot, "Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up," Scroll
Publishing, Tyler, TX, (1989) Pages 105-106.
Paul J. Surlis, "Church Teaching and the Death Penalty," The Vincentian Center for Church and Society, (1995) at:
"DEATH PENALTY: Catholic bishops leading new push for change,"
ReligionLink.org, 2005-NOV-07, at:
"Congregational Follow-Up Resources for Death Penalty Resolution,"
Peace and Justice Support Network of Mennonite Church USA, at:
Mark Lewis Taylor, "The Executed God: The Way of the Cross in
Lockdown America," Augsburg Fortress Publishers, (2001). Read
reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
James Megivern, "The Death Penalty: An historical and theological
survey," Paulist Press, (1997).
Read reviews or order this book safely
Glen Stassen, "Back to Jesus' Way" How the church became
entangled in death, and the way out," Sojourners, 2000-NOV/DEC, at:
Copyright © 1995 to 2005 by Ontario Consultants on
Originally published: 1995-JUN-8
Last updated 2005-NOV-09
Author: B. A. Robinson