Al Mohler, Jesus, and the death penalty debate

beheading of Paul
The beheading of the Apostle Paul

By Alan Bean

Would Jesus support the death penalty?  Mother Theresa posed the question to the Governor of California in 1990.  She was pretty sure he knew the answer.

According to a recent Barna poll:

Only 5 percent of Americans believe that Jesus would support government’s ability to execute the worst criminals. Two percent of Catholics, 8 percent of Protestants, and 10 percent of practicing Christians said their faith’s founder would offer his support.

The Barna poll revealed that 42% of Christian Baby Boomers believe the government should have the right to execute the worst criminals (whatever Jesus might think).

But pose the same question to Christian millennials (roughly those between 18 and 30) and only 32% give an affirmative answer.

Things get really interesting when the death penalty question is posed to Christians who are particularly serious about their faith.  The Barna study

“showed an even sharper difference in support for the death penalty among “practicing Christians,” which Barna defined as those who say faith is very important to their lives and have attended church at least once in the last month. Nearly half of practicing Christian boomers support the government’s right to execute the worst criminals, while only 23 percent of practicing Christian millennials do.”

Did you catch that?

When you ask boomers about the death penalty, religious devotion increases support for the death penalty by ten points (give or take); but devout millennials are ten point less likely to support the death penalty than the nominally religious members of their cohort.

How do we explain the discrepancy?

Some have suggested that Millennials are better informed about the many ways in which race and social class impact the capital equation.  The whiter and wealthier the defendant, the less likely it becomes that the death penalty will be imposed.

But conservative Christians like Al Mohler are fully aware that the ultimate penalty, as actually practiced in the United States, is tainted by race and social class bias. Does that realization cool their enthusiasm for capital punishment?  Not a bit.

Dr. Mohler has taken a lot of flack in recent weeks for arguing in favor of the death penalty days after of a horribly botched execution in Oklahoma.  Mohler supports the death penalty for two reasons: the eye-for-an-eye principle figures explicitly in the Old Testament and implicitly in the teaching of Paul.

In the book of Romans, the Apostle Paul states that “the authority does not bear the sword in vain.”  Therefore, if those in authority (say, the state of Oklahoma) want to take a human life, Christians must acquiesce.  The state is free to use its God-given sword any way it wishes.

Christians like Shane Claiborne and Rachel Held Evans have wondered aloud how a celebrated Christian theologian like Dr. Mohler could speak at length about the death penalty without mentioning Jesus.

I can think of at least two good reasons.

First, the public teaching of Jesus, from Alpha to Omega, explodes the myth of redemptive violence: the idea that the only answer to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a bigger gun.  The most obvious reference comes straight from the Sermon on the Mount:

“You have heard that it was said. ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.  But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also . . . You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven . . .”

If your debate assignment is to argue for the death penalty, you don’t start with Jesus. You don’t end with Jesus.  You don’t make a passing allusion to Jesus. There is a very good reason why only 5% of Americans (and 10% of Christians) believe Jesus would be down with the death penalty.

Jesus didn’t merely disagree with the death penalty as a matter of public policy; his opposition to violence, whether initiated by individuals or sponsored by the state, flows from his vision of a God whose only weapon is love.  Satan, and the entire panoply of “wickedness in high places,” cannot be overcome with superior force. Walter Wink said it well:

“Jesus conquers the powers by remaining true to his way—the living out of God’s rule and God’s love—refusing to compromise with violence or to act from fear of death.”

But there is a deeper reason why Al Mohler didn’t mention Jesus in his discussion of the death penalty.  If we are debating public policy, Jesus is irrelevant.  According to this line of reasoning, Jesus speaks only to individual Christians and has no message for Caesar because, like Paul says, Caesar is free to do whatever Caesar wants to do.

I have often wondered how Paul reacted when the Roman executioner entered his cell, sword in hand, and asked the Apostle to assume the position.  Did Paul figure his execution must be legit because “the authority does not bear the sword in vain”?

I doubt it.  Paul believed that law and order was superior to chaos.  When anarchy reigns, children suffer.  But this doesn’t mean that the authority behind the sword has been freed from moral constraint.  Human leaders possess God-given authority if they are servants of the common good.  Abuse this authority and you lose it.

Paul needed to assure the Christians in Rome that he wasn’t a wild revolutionary because the bulk of teaching could easily lead to that conclusion.  Consider this from Caesar’s perspective:

God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend
in heaven and on earth.

Whatever Al Mohler might say, Caesar never trumps Jesus.


And that’s why the Barna poll fires me with hope.  Millennial Christians (77% of them, at any rate) are thinking about the death penalty as if Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not.  That is very good news.

6 thoughts on “Al Mohler, Jesus, and the death penalty debate

  1. Too often Caesar trumps Jesus in matters of violence and non-violence. See my post regarding Rev. John Dear on my facebook timeline. John Dear had the gall to preach against nuclear weapons at Los Alamos New Mexico. That didn’t set well with parishioners who worked in the nuclear industry. Jesuits moved him to the NE, still a priest but without a pulpit.

  2. Interestingly, when Mother Theresa asked the governor if Jesus would participate in an execution, she was working in close association with John Dear.


  3. Well, sadly, I think we come down to the Jesus/God debate yet again. With of course Jesus being the forgiving, understanding one, and God being the vengeful, unforgiving one. And from my experience trying to understand religions, people all too often pick and choose whatever supports their own “beliefs”

    And not to stray too far off topic I hope- but I have recently been rereading the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and there was a passage that struck me. Gandalf talking with Frodo and Sam re: “smeagol/Gollum” and saying something to the effect of “There are many among the living who deserve death. And many who die that deserve life. If you can’t provide the latter don’t be in such a hurry to provide the former.
    And I must agree. There are indeed many among us who probably do deserve death. But I don’t believe we can make that decison, as arbitrarily as we do, without great harm to ourselves as a society….

  4. I doubt is the intention of Shane Claiborne, and I am almost certain it is not the intention of Alan Bean, to pit the God of the Old Testament against Jesus in the New. Certainly there are depictions of a God of violence in the Old Testament, but also depiction of a God of mercy: “The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Numbers 14:18–yes, I have read the context and I know the same passage says he will not clear the guilty. There is also the Book of Jonah, unfortunately too often read as a tale about a big fish, in reality an extensive parable about the mercy of God extending beyond the borders of Israel to people and animals in other lands. This is the God most perfectly imaged in Jesus of Nazareth. And I for one cannot even imagine Jesus signing an execution order, much less tripping the gallows lever, pulling the trigger at a firing squad, flipping the switch for an electrocution, or administering the drugs for a “more humane” (?) lethal injection. He just wasn’t that kind of son of his father God.

  5. Dr. Mohler did mention Paul then, to justify the state of a country with our racist past using the death penalty?

    Let’s face it. Conservative Evangelicals have made Paul one of the most despicable villains in American history…what with people defending privilege using Paul to justify slavery, the Fugitive Slave Act, homophobia, opposition to equality for women and probably more. Try finding women professors and administrators at Dr. Mohler’s Southern Baptist Seminary…and I’m guessing that if you ask him about that, he’ll quote Paul.

    Racists are still circulating Finis Dake’s ’30 Reasons for Segregation of Race. Acts 17:26,’ which if memory serves, wasn’t removed from the widely used Dake Reference Bible until 1999.

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