Is Capital Punishment for Today?

by Russell Fuller on December 28, 2014; last featured July 14, 2019
Featured in Answers Magazine
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The death penalty is a barbaric relic of the past, according to our enlightened age. Is capital punishment for today? . . . Genesis has the answer.

When passages from the Old Testament are used to justify or condemn a modern practice, many respond with the all-or-nothing argument, “Well, if you are going to follow the Old Testament on that issue, why not follow it everywhere else—build a rail on top of your roof (Deuteronomy 22:8), do not mix seeds in your garden (Leviticus 19:19), and execute blasphemers (Leviticus 24:11–23).” This often intimidates believers from appealing to the Old Testament. The dreaded all-or-nothing argument always lurks behind the next corner.

Of course, some believers never appeal to the Old Testament. Their reason is clear: we live under the New Testament, not the Old Testament. The Old Testament, therefore, is obsolete—or nearly so. It may help us understand the New Testament, but its laws and customs are a bygone product of a bygone Testament.

But a closer reading of the New Testament indicates a different reality. The Old Testament is not obsolete. It has not ceased to be God’s Word (2 Timothy 3:16–17). Indeed, how can any word from God become truly obsolete? It may attain fulfillment, but it never becomes defunct. True, New Testament believers do not live under the Old Testament economy, but that does not render the Old Testament obsolete—or even nearly so.

Certainly the book of Genesis still applies to New Testament believers. In fact, it is still authoritative for Christian belief and practice, as any truly Christian statement of faith demonstrates.1 And happily, Genesis 9:6—in its meaning, authority, and application—still determines Christian belief and practice and is essential for a healthy society that values and protects human life.

Genesis 9:5–7Surely for your lifeblood I will demand a reckoning; from the hand of every beast I will require it, and from the hand of man. From the hand of every man’s brother I will require the life of man. Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed; for in the image of God He made man. And as for you, be fruitful and multiply; bring forth abundantly in the earth and multiply in it.

The Context and Meaning of Genesis 9:6

The command of Genesis 9:6 for capital punishment occurs after the worldwide Flood. This command affirms again that the pre-Flood society was reprobate, as mentioned earlier in Genesis 6.2 “Then the Lord saw,” in the words of Moses the lawgiver, “that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). In particular, society was given over to violence and murder, “And the land became corrupted before God, and the earth was filled with violence” (Genesis 6:11, 6:13). What began as brother murdering brother (Genesis 4:8) had become endemic—“all flesh had corrupted its way upon the earth” (Genesis 6:12). Clearly, the post-Flood world needed a divine decree to restrain violence.

As the post-Flood world begins, God blesses and commands Noah and his sons. Most of the commands echo God’s commands to Adam to multiply and fill the earth. As one of the few survivors of the Flood, Noah became another Adam, but with differences. God’s commands to Adam came in the context of a sinless world; the commands came to Noah in the context of a sinful world. Although the animals were put under the authority of Adam and later Noah, God placed fear and terror on the animals to protect Noah and his family (Genesis 9:2–3). Furthermore, God restricted Noah’s authority over the animals in one particular way: Noah and his descendants must not consume the lifeblood of an animal (Genesis 9:4).3

God then turns to the lifeblood of man. God prefaces the command of Genesis 9:6 by stating that He will “seek” those who take the lifeblood of man (Genesis 9:5). God will personally seek out and avenge4 those who commit murder. God emphasizes His determination to “seek” by repeating it (Genesis 41:32), with the addition that He will hold even animals responsible: “From every beast He will indeed seek [and avenge] him” for taking the life of a man. Then God repeats it a third time for even greater emphasis that He will seek out and avenge murder “from all mankind and from every individual man [responsible].”

Since human souls bear the image of God, human life is sacred.

Such language about God’s vengeance against murderers is used elsewhere in the Old Testament. In Psalm 9:12, David refers to God as “the One who seeks out [and avenges] murder,” like a title given to one constantly employed in seeking and avenging murder. Indeed, the godly pray for God to avenge murder and other injustices of the wicked: “Break the arm of the wicked, and as for the evildoer may You seek out (and avenge) his wickedness [until] You cannot find it out [any longer]” (Psalm 10:15). When Joash murdered Jehoiada’s son, Zechariah, his last words were, “May the Lord see and may He seek [and avenge]” (2 Chronicles 24:22).

Then God gives a command to Noah not given to Adam: a prohibition against murder. The Lord orders Noah, “The one who sheds the blood of man, by man his blood will be shed” (Genesis 9:6).5 The meaning is straightforward: a murderer must be put to death. Moreover, the command charges mankind with the task of executing the murderer—by man the murderer is to be put to death. The reason given for the command is likewise straightforward: “because in the image of God, He made man” (Genesis 9:6). Man may kill and eat animals (Genesis 9:3), but man, because he is made in God’s image, may not be unlawfully killed [murdered].

The Abiding Authority of Genesis 9:6

As the context and meaning of Genesis 9:6 is straightforward, so is its abiding authority.

The context of Genesis 9:6 reveals its abiding authority. As God gave to Adam the creation ordinance of marriage that still has abiding authority, so God gave to Noah post-Flood ordinances, including capital punishment, that are still authoritative. God did not restrict these ordinances to Israel or to other nations. They are universal, intended for all the descendants of Adam and Noah.

Moreover, the reason given for capital punishment in Genesis 9:6 is permanent: because man is made in God’s image. As long as man is made in the image of God, this commandment is binding.

Some of the laws of the Old Testament, particularly in the Mosaic covenant, were temporary, meant for Israel and its particular circumstances. These laws include the dietary laws and worship laws. But Mosaic laws based on the character of God, such as laws against murder or adultery, or Mosaic laws based on the permanent relationships of people, such as children honoring their parents, are permanent. Such commandments, therefore, transcend the Mosaic covenant, as the Ten Commandments transcend the Mosaic Covenant. The commandments given to Adam and Noah preceded the Mosaic Covenant, continued during the Mosaic Covenant, and abide after the Mosaic Covenant into the New Covenant until the end of time.

Later Old Testament passages confirm this. The Mosaic Covenant requires the death penalty for murder, “He who strikes a man that he dies shall surely be put to death” (Exodus 21:12; Numbers 35:16). Even the intentional killing of a slave merited the death penalty, “And if a man strikes his servant or his female servant with a rod that he should die under his hand, he will surely be avenged”6 (Exodus 21:20). No ransom could take away the death penalty (Numbers 35:32). Nothing, not even the altar, could protect the murderer (Exodus 21:14). He was to die without mercy (Deuteronomy 19:13). Murder polluted and defiled the land, and only the death of the murderer could expiate or rectify the polluted land (Numbers 35:33–34).

The New Testament, of course, also confirms this. Paul in Romans 13:4 describes the civil magistrate as a minister of God, “who does not bear the sword in vain. For the minister of God [the civil magistrate] is an avenger for wrath to the one doing evil.” The words “bear the sword” denote punishment, but particularly capital punishment, as the sword was an instrument of execution. Furthermore, speaking before Festus, Paul declares that he should be executed if he committed any crimes worthy of death, “If I have done anything worthy of death, then I do not refuse to die” (Acts 25:11).

Clearly, Paul recognizes the appropriateness of capital punishment for certain offenses. Even the thief on the cross who believed on Christ recognized the justness of his death sentence, “And we indeed justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds” (Luke 23:41). All Scripture, both Old and New Testaments, attests to the abiding authority of Genesis 9:6.

The Application of Genesis 9:6

The application of Genesis 9:6 has consequences for all the descendants of Adam and Noah.

This verse, along with Genesis 1:26–27, establishes the sanctity of life. God created man uniquely by breathing the breath of life directly into Adam and by making Adam and all mankind in His image. Since human souls bear the image of God, human life is sacred.

The value of the human soul and of human life is incalculable (Matthew 6:26, 16:26). The taking away of human life by murder—including those forms of murder known by their various euphemisms as abortion, euthanasia, population control, one-child policy (family planning policy), and so on—are not just human tragedies, they are a sacrilege, a direct assault and affront to God. Any individual or society that desecrates God’s image invites divine judgment. Contrary to secular societies that are always given over to sin and that routinely devalue human life (Romans 1:18–32), Genesis 9:6 sanctifies human life and dignifies every human being.

Because of the sanctity of life, God ordains the ultimate punishment to protect it. And Genesis 9:6 does just that. But some in the pro-life movement and some denominations claim that capital punishment contradicts the sanctity of life.7 This view stresses consistency: if we are consistently prolife, then all life—even the life of the murderer— should be protected. We should not pick and choose. All life means all life.

This sanctity and protection of life are essential for a healthy society.

Though Genesis 9:6 may seem inconsistent or contradictory to the sanctity of life, it in fact demonstrates the sacredness of life. The Scriptures view murder as such a contemptible crime against man and God that the only just penalty is the forfeiting of the murderer’s life. Any other punishment degrades the life of the victim. Any other punishment risks additional murderous acts, even by those serving a lifetime prison sentence. Any other punishment reduces the heinousness of murder, thereby endangering society by lessening its stigma. In a sinful society, Genesis 9:6, though a dreadful command, is a blessing from God. It furnishes the ultimate protection for human life.

This sanctity and protection of life are essential for a healthy society. Without these, human life is cheapened, society becomes dangerous, and civilization regresses. Societies that regard life as sacred and protect life are safe and dynamic. Such societies reflect a virtuous people.

Of course, the opposite is true as well. Those who can rejoice over “reproductive freedoms” that end in the murder of the most innocent human lives—even in the death of those who survive the abortionist’s grisly efforts—may certainly rejoice over the murder of those less innocent. Perhaps, they can rejoice over the “voluntary death” of the elderly to prevent them from over-consuming medical resources at the end of life. Perhaps, they can even rejoice over the murder of those deemed politically dangerous or just simply undesirable. How a society views Genesis 9:6, in its sanctifying and protecting of life, is a sure barometer of the health—or impending death—of a society.


In Romans 15:4, Paul, referring to the Old Testament, states, “For whatsoever things were written beforehand—they were written for our instruction that through patience and through the consolation of the Scriptures we might have hope.” To Paul, the Old Testament was not a dead letter. In fact, it was written for our instruction, that is, the New Testament church’s instruction.

Paul instituted Christian belief from the Old Testament (Romans 4), he established Christian morals from the Old Testament (Romans 13:8–10), and he found Christian admonishments and examples from the Old Testament (1 Corinthians 10:6, 10:11). Of course, this is true not only of Paul, but also of the other New Testament authors. The Old Testament writers, Moses and the Prophets (Luke 16:29, 16:31), did not serve just their own generation, but they served us, the New Testament church (1 Peter 1:10–12).

Certainly, Genesis 9:6 in its sanctity and protection of life is instruction for us. It was given to all mankind after the Flood, as marriage was given to all mankind after creation. It was reaffirmed throughout the rest of the Old and New Testament. It was furnished to indicate God’s value of human life. And it was graciously provided to protect all. God has blessed all peoples since the Flood with the command of Genesis 9:6.

Dr. Russell Fuller serves as professor of Old Testament at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He coauthored Invitation to Biblical Hebrew.

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  1. The Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms, for example, are replete with Scripture proofs from the Old Testament, as is the New Hampshire Baptist Confession.
  2. Throughout the article, Bible translations are the author’s own.
  3. The Targum Pseudo-Jonathan of Genesis, an ancient Jewish interpretation, states, “Indeed, the flesh that is torn from a living animal in the time that its soul [is] in it or that is torn from a slaughtered animal while all of its soul has not gone out, you must not eat.”
  4. The Hebrew word for seek may include the notions of “requiring” or “avenging.” F. Brown, S. R. Driver, and C. A. Briggs, Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oxford, 1906), 205b 5.
  5. The Targum Pseudo-Jonathan of Genesis translates and interprets Genesis 9:6: “He who sheds the blood of man in the presence of witnesses, the judges will declare him guilty of sin to death. And he who sheds (blood) without witnesses (present), the Lord of the world will take vengeance on him on the great day of judgment. Because in the likeness of God he made man.”
  6. The word avenged implies capital punishment. Targum Pseudo-Jonathan of Exodus states, “And if a man strikes his Canaanite servant or his Canaanite female servant with a rod, and he should die on that day under his hand; he will certainly be judged with the judgment of death by the sword.” Even non-Israelite slaves were protected by this law. The Targum Onqelos of Exodus ends the passage with, “ . . . . and he should die under his hand, he will certainly be judged.”
  7. The Catholic Church essentially teaches this in their Catechism section 2267, “Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm—without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself—the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.’”


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