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Views of the early Christian Movements:

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:

bulletJesus' teachings
bulletMatthew 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."
bulletMatthew 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...."
bulletJohn 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.
bulletThe significance of Jesus' death:
bulletThe 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 sin—a 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."

bulletSalvation considerations:
bulletChristians 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.
bulletThe experiences of early Christians:
bulletAuthor 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.

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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 inspiration." 6

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." 6,7

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).

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. D.W. Bercot, "Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up," Scroll Publishing, Tyler, TX, (1989) Pages 105-106.
  2. Paul J. Surlis, "Church Teaching and the Death Penalty," The Vincentian Center for Church and Society, (1995) at: http://www.vincenter.org/
  3. "DEATH PENALTY: Catholic bishops leading new push for change," ReligionLink.org, 2005-NOV-07, at: http://www.religionlink.org/
  4. "Congregational Follow-Up Resources for Death Penalty Resolution," Peace and Justice Support Network of Mennonite Church USA, at: http://peace.mennolink.org/
  5. 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
  6. James Megivern, "The Death Penalty: An historical and theological survey," Paulist Press, (1997).  Read reviews or order this book safely
  7. Glen Stassen, "Back to Jesus' Way" How the church became entangled in death, and the way out," Sojourners, 2000-NOV/DEC, at: http://www.sojo.net/

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Navigation: Home page > "Hot" religious topics > Death penalty > here

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Copyright © 1995 to 2005 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally published: 1995-JUN-8
Last updated 2005-NOV-0
Author: B. A. Robinson

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