Some Thoughts on the Death Penalty and N.T. Wright

“Capital punishment is to the whole society what self-defense is to the individual.” –J.P. Moreland

I have a great respect for N.T. Wright and greatly appreciate his works on Paul, Christian living/ethics and the Kingdom of God. This is why it deeply saddened me to read what I would argue is a poorly stated argument in an article for the Washington Post. Here is a paragraph from the article:

You can’t reconcile being pro-life on abortion and pro-death on the death penalty. Almost all the early Christian Fathers were opposed to the death penalty, even though it was of course standard practice across the ancient world. As far as they were concerned, their stance went along with the traditional ancient Jewish and Christian belief in life as a gift from God, which is why (for instance) they refused to follow the ubiquitous pagan practice of ‘exposing’ baby girls (i.e. leaving them out for the wolves or for slave-traders to pick up).

You can’t reconcile being pro-life on abortion and pro-death on the death penalty.

While the statement scores rhetorical points and at face value seems to make sense it has a couple of fatal errors. First, the term “pro-life” is a misnomer. When we say we are “pro-life” we say that we are against the unjust taking of innocent life. Life is not an absolute and can be forfeited when placed against higher laws (protection of innocent/justice). Also, the unborn child is not aborted because he/she committed a capital crime while a convicted person who is put to death is. Second, capital punishment is commanded in the Old Testament (Gen 9:6) and allowed in the New Testament (Rom 13:1-2,1 Pet 2:13-14). If supporting limited capital punishment immediately makes one not pro-life then Paul and Peter were not pro-life. Finally, Wright is building a caricature (sadly, sometimes true as seen from some in the audience at the recent Republican debate) of anyone who believes there are some crimes which still can be labeled a capital crime.

Almost all the early Christian Fathers were opposed to the death penalty, even though it was of course standard practice across the ancient world.

I believe what Wright is addressing here is the emperor-worshipping dictatorship of Rome which enforced the death penalty above the normally accepted natural law violation, capital crimes. I would agree with him on that and he would then be right to say “almost all” of the early Christians Fathers did not support Rome’s capital punishment. However, this doesn’t seem to be how he is using it. He is stating that ALL capital punishment was rejected by the Christians Fathers and that is not true. Two of the greatest church theologians, St. Augustine and St.  Thomas Aquinas, both wrote in favor of it [City of God 1.21;Summa theologica II-II, q. 64]. I’m not sure what he meant here but I think he overstated his case.

What about Jesus?

As a Christian, my ethic and life is to model and follow Christ’s. How then can I as a Christian say that my belief in capital punishment would fit my ethic model formed by Christ? Was not Christ put to death in a system where capital punishment went awry?

As I stated earlier, two passages of Scripture allow for the government (not individuals) to justly enforce capital punishment (Romans 13:1-2; 1 Peter 2:13-14) and encourages Christians to work within those governments to be good citizens. Every single government that existed at the time undoubtedly enforced capital punishment completely different then it is enforced today and both Paul and Peter or Jesus said nothing about it. In fact, they said God uses it to judge the world.

But wouldn’t Jesus forgive?

This question attempts to prove too much. While attempting to be an argument against capital punishment it also becomes an argument against any punishment. Why put a murderer in prison if they are forgiven? Wouldn’t Jesus forgive…look at Paul? What should we do with the murderer then? Prison but, again, Jesus forgave them? Why punish at all?

Also, Jesus himself never challenged the use of or the validity of the death penalty and taught submission to governments — even oppressive ones. Which is echoed again in both Paul and Peter later in the Epistles.

Finally, Jesus makes forgiveness available for everyone, even murderers. Governments however operate on different biblical principles when governing and man’s court is not ultimately God’s court although the latter has bearing on the former.


The subject of the death penalty is a difficult one because people in my position are not arguing the right to be “pro-death” as N.T. Wright stated. We are not advocating vigilantism or arguing for personal vendettas but simply stating we are “pro-life” because we are against the unjust taking of life. It is tragic when people are put to death but it is just as it was tragic that they themselves did not value life. However, it is because we value life and it’s because we value the protection of it that we believe that capital punishment is still applicable when capital crimes are committed. After thoroughly reading about the two cases that caused N.T. Wright’s response I do believe the defendants were rightly tried, faced a jury of their peers and were found guilty of a capital crime. May God rest their souls.

For more on a Christian perspective for limited uses of Capital Punishment visit here or visit J.P. Moreland’s here.


2 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on the Death Penalty and N.T. Wright

  1. I think Wright, Beaty and others who are not lightweights in the theology department would probably question the use of the Romans and First Peter references to support capital punishment. Yes, Jesus said nothing specific about capital punishment, but Rather to obey the government. However you could also say the same thing about slavery.

    • Do you know Dan if Wright has written anything on the interpretation of those passages? I cannot find anything. The point about slavery is an interesting one but Scripture did address the issue and even subvert the system. Point taken though.

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