The christian argument against the death penalty

by Father NAKOMBO Frédéric - National Secretary of Justice and Peace


In all societies, repression has shifted gradually from the notion of vengeance to the rational organisation of punishment.  Throughout this transition, politics and religion have been intimately linked. For centuries Christians had recourse to the death penalty and justified it.  Nowadays, the vast majority of Christian Churches are against the death penalty and actively campaign for its abolition.



The law of the Old Testament stipulated the death penalty for various crimes (murder, kidnapping, adultery, rape, etc.).  However, God frequently demonstrated his mercy.  Jesus would have approved of the death penalty in certain cases but showed mercy in situations where it should have been applied.  The apostle Paul recognises the right of governments to provide for capital punishment where necessary.

The Christian Churches’ current position on the death penalty

  • The Reformed or Protestant Churches

For the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, “Where the death penalty is implemented, God’s redeeming love is violated.” (1989).

A declaration of the World Council of Churches (WCC) of March 1990 proclaimed its unconditional opposition to the death penalty: “in taking away a human life, the state usurps the will of God”.  The WCC recommended that governments abolish the death penalty and ratify promptly the second optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, concerning the abolition of the death penalty.

  • The Roman Catholic Church

Beginning with the encyclical “Evangelium Vitae” (1995) several statements made by Pope John Paul II and his immediate staff explicitly expressed a position in favour of abolishing the death penalty.  For him, other possibilities were available to the modern State to “effectively repress crime by rendering inoffensive the one who committed it, without depriving him of the possibility of repentance”.

On 24 March 1997, at a symposium on “Crime and punishment” at Fordham University (US), Mgr. Renato Martino recalled the “fundamental and sacred right to life”.  He considered that there were bloodless means to ensure the safety of society.

In his 1998 Christmas message John Paul II called for “urgent and appropriate measures” to, among other things, “banish the death penalty”.

The Catholic Church has spoken out against capital punishment for decades and actively seeks its abolition.  Pope Francis has called on Catholics to campaign for the abolition of the death penalty.


Christian arguments against the death penalty

  • The death penalty does not respect the right to life

The right to life of a guilty man should not depend on others judging him to be worthy of it.  The right to life is absolute.  The death penalty is an extreme form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

  • The death penalty is not an effective deterrent

The death penalty has never been proven to be a more effective deterrent than other forms of punishment.  On the contrary, it can lead to an increase in violent crime because it contributes to trivializing brutal behaviour.  The best way to prevent crime is not to impose more severe penalties but to guarantee that all crime will be punished.

  • The death penalty is based on a fallible justice system

There is a real risk of executing innocent people in countries which apply capital punishment.  The death penalty is discriminatory: it is applied in particular to minorities, to the poor and to members of ethnic or religious groups.

  • The death penalty does not seriously protect society

Executing a guilty person is an easy way out which avoids facing up to the real problems, such as the reform of the prison system or even of society as a whole.  In acting thus, does not society set an example of supreme violence?

  • The death penalty does not allow the guilty person to repent

The death penalty is irreversible.  It interrupts any process of healing, of reinsertion into society.  It constitutes an admission of failure by society to show solidarity with those on its extreme margins.  Killing a human being means eliminating him, not punishing him.


On cannot be a Christian and support the death penalty.  Promoting the death penalty goes against the Churches’ position and is in contradiction to the Gospel.