Christ and Capital Punishment

In response to the request of Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals has set execution dates for 25 death-row prisoners over the next two years.1 As Christians and Oklahomans, we have grave concerns about this action. Given the current reality of our state’s criminal justice system, our shared convictions regarding the sanctity of human life and the proper function of state power lead us to call for an immediate moratorium on the death penalty in Oklahoma. In this statement, we summarize the scriptural basis for our moral convictions and our deep concerns about capital punishment in the state of Oklahoma.

The Bible and the Death Penalty

Christian scripture affirms the sacred dignity of human beings as created in “the image of God” (Genesis 1:27). As a foundational principle of Christian ethics, this inviolable dignity of human persons undergirds the Bible’s complex witness regarding the issue of capital punishment (Proverbs 14:31; James 3:9-10). Some Old Testament passages permitted or required capital punishment for grave offenses against human dignity, such as murder and other serious violations of vulnerable life (Genesis 9:5-6; Exodus 21:12-16; Leviticus 24:17-20; Numbers 35:16-18; Deuteronomy 22:25-27). The Mosaic Law also placed careful limits on when and how capital punishment could be enacted, most notably by requiring absolute certainty of the perpetrator’s guilt as established by the positive testimony of multiple eyewitnesses (Numbers 35:30; Deuteronomy 17:6). It is important to note that numerous Old Testament stories display God’s mercy in preserving the lives of individuals who were guilty of grave capital offenses (see Genesis 4:1-16; 2 Samuel 12:13; 1 Kings 21:28-29). These stories display the general principle that God’s justice is gracious and redemptive. He desires the restoration of sinners rather than their destruction, as the prophet Ezekiel states: “As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live” (Ezekiel 33:11).

For Christians, these Old Testament scriptures must be read in the light of Jesus Christ, who is God’s clearest self-revelation to humanity and who inaugurates a radical new era in the history of God’s redeeming action (Hebrews 1:1-4; John 1:17-18; Romans 10:4; Colossians 2:17). Jesus famously calls his disciples to a lifestyle of mercy and love that goes far beyond the strict retributive justice of the Mosaic Law, saying: “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 the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:38-39). Christ’s apostles acknowledge an ongoing role for civil authorities who use coercive power to protect the vulnerable by restraining evil, but this limited authority is subject to God’s higher moral law, which has received its fullest expression in the person of Jesus (Romans 13:1-4; 1 Peter 2:13-14; Matthew 5:17).

Two stories from the gospels are particularly relevant for any discussion of Christ and capital punishment. In the first of these stories, a group of religious leaders brings Jesus an adulterer, saying, “in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” (John 8:5). Jesus neither declares the woman innocent nor questions the scribes’ interpretation of the Mosaic Law. Rather, he states: “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7). After the crowd disperses, Jesus says to the woman, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more” (John 8:11). The story beautifully illustrates the restorative justice of Jesus, which seeks to redeem sinners rather than giving them what they deserve. The second crucial story–Christ’s wrongful execution at the command of Pontius Pilate–reveals his merciful justice even more clearly. Jesus was “killed by the hands of lawless men” who were acting in the name of the law (Acts 2:23). As the first Christians came to understand, Christ on the cross is the immortal God tasting death on behalf of sinners who deserved to die (Hebrews 2:9; Acts 20:28; Romans 6:23). The gospel declares that the innocent God was condemned so that guilty humans could be pardoned, and every Christian rejoices to be set free from a well-earned sentence of eternal death (Romans 6:23; 1 Corinthians 15:56-57).

For these reasons, many Christians oppose capital punishment in favor of more merciful and restorative approaches to civil justice, while others argue that it should only be applied in extreme cases and where there is absolute certainty of guilt.2 Christians are aware that human frailty often leads to miscarriages of justice, as in Pilate’s willful complicity in the wrongful execution of Jesus. And Christian views of justice are forever shaped by our experience of grace and redemption. Thus, we rejoice to echo the words of James 2:13: “Mercy triumphs over judgment.”

Specific Concerns about Capital Punishment in Oklahoma

Oklahoma’s past and present practice of capital punishment is complicit in a deeply troubling national history of unjust and inequitable application of the death penalty. Perhaps the gravest miscarriage of justice is to execute someone who is innocent, but in the last 50 years “190 former death-row prisoners [in the United States] have been exonerated of all charges related to the wrongful convictions that had put them on death row,” including 10 wrongfully-convicted prisoners in the state of Oklahoma.3 Our criminal justice system is inherently fallible, and our laws demand a standard of evidence that is much lower than those required by the Mosaic Law. It was thus unsurprising when a cohort of statisticians published a seminal article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences estimating that the wrongful-conviction rate for death-row inmates in the United States is 4.1 percent.4 The painful reality is that executing innocent people is an inherent part of the capital punishment system in our nation. As Christians who worship a wrongfully-executed Savior, we are confronted with a serious moral query: What is the number of innocent people we are willing to kill in order to maintain our practice of capital punishment? We cannot imagine that Jesus would want us to sacrifice even one innocent life to preserve such a system.

A second serious issue is the well-documented national trend of racial inequity in sentencing for capital cases. In sum: “People of color are more likely to be prosecuted for capital murder, sentenced to death, and executed, especially if the victim in the case is white.”5 This national problem is of particular local concern for multiple reasons. A study published in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology found that over the course of two decades in Oklahoma, “there was ‘a strong correlation’ between the race of the victim and the probability that the death penalty would be imposed, with cases involving white victims ‘significantly more likely to end with a death sentence than cases with nonwhite victims.’”6 This sentencing disparity is even more troubling given the wider context of criminal justice in Oklahoma, which has the second highest per capita incarceration rate for Black Americans in the United States.7 Given the recurrent biblical prohibition of showing partiality in civil justice, these racial disparities reveal a deep moral problem with our current system’s application of its harshest form of punishment (Leviticus 19:15; Deuteronomy 16:19).

Moreover, these serious concerns about innocence and racial inequity are multiplied by other factors. For example, one of the most common reasons stated for continuing capital punishment is to preserve life by deterring violent crime, but the available data suggests that in the United States the death penalty has proved ineffective as a deterrent.8 Moreover, the bipartisan Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission, co-chaired by Andy Lester and former Governor Brad Henry, unanimously recommended in 2017 that the state’s “moratorium on the death penalty be extended until significant reforms have been accomplished.”9 The commission detailed 46 specific recommendations, but Henry and Lester have recently written that “after five years, virtually none of our recommendations have been adopted.”10 They have further suggested that without these reforms, Oklahoma’s capital punishment system is not “beyond reproach,” and there remains a serious risk that innocent people will be killed by the state. As Christians and Oklahomans, we concur with Henry and Lester that continuing to execute people under these conditions is not a morally viable option.

A Plea for Restorative Justice

Due to our moral convictions and our grave concerns about the past and present realities of Oklahoma’s criminal justice system, we are calling for an immediate moratorium on the death penalty in our state. This call is an expression of our desire to uphold a humane and Christian vision of restorative justice, which honors the sacred dignity of all people, including both victims and criminals. Like many of Oklahoma’s civil leaders who share our values, we long to see the mercy, compassion, equity, and justice of God reflected in public policies that promote human flourishing for all Oklahomans.

Initial Signers

Tyler Green

Co-Founder, Flourish OKC

Oklahoma City

John-Mark Hart

Pastor, Christ Community Church

Oklahoma City

Adam Luck

CEO, City Care

Oklahoma City

Nathan Carr

Vicar, St. John's Episcopal Church

Oklahoma City

Caleb Arter

Entrepeneur and Business Leader

Oklahoma City

Matthew Beasley

Pastor, Hope Community Church


Paul S. Coakley

Archbishop, Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City

Oklahoma City

Susan Esco

Community Volunteer

Oklahoma City

Reid Hebert (M.D.)

Executive Director, Christ Community Health Coalition / Hilltop Clinic

Oklahoma City

Jason Hsu

Pastor, City Presbyterian Church

Oklahoma City

Lance Humphreys

Managing Partner, Legacy Group

Oklahoma City

DeSean Jarrett

Lead Pastor, New Jerusalem Baptist Church


Dr. M.L. Jemison

Pastor, St. John Missionary Baptist Church

Oklahoma City

Justin King

King Law Firm

Oklahoma City

David Konderla

Bishop, Roman Catholic Diocese of Tulsa and Eastern Oklahoma


Jon Middendorf

Pastor, OKC First Church of the Nazarene

Oklahoma City

Jonathan Middlebrooks

Pastor, Skyline Church

Oklahoma City

Matt Nelson

Pastor, City Church


Paul Paino

Rector, Sanctuary Church


Chris Pollock

Pastor, 8th Street Church

Oklahoma City

Poulson Reed

Bishop, Episcopal Diocese of Oklahoma

Oklahoma City

Lee Roland

Educator, Pastor, and Motivational Speaker

Oklahoma City

Derrick Scobey

Pastor, Ebenezer Baptist Church

Oklahoma City

Josh Spears

Elder, City Presbyterian Church

Oklahoma City

Jake Spencer

Elder, City Presbyterian Church

Oklahoma City

Jared Stevenson

OKC Navigators

Oklahoma City


  1. ^

    Kim Bellware, “Oklahoma plans to execute an inmate nearly every month until 2025.” Washington Post. July 2, 2022.

  2. ^

    The current position of the Roman Catholic Church is that “no matter how serious the crime that has been committed, the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and the dignity of the person.” See Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,“Letter to the Bishops Regarding the New Revision of Number 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the Death Penalty.” Vatican.Va. June 21, 2018. Among Protestant churches, there remains a diversity of opinions, with some holding that capital punishment should be abolished, while others believe it is permissible or necessary in extreme circumstances where there is absolute certainty of guilt. For a concise and helpful summary of current Christian perspectives, see Dan Van Ness, “The Death Penalty.” Prison Fellowship. Accessed August 19, 2022.

  3. ^

    Death Penalty Information Center, “Innocence.” Death Penalty Information Center. Accessed August 10, 2022.

  4. ^

    Samuel R. Gross, Barbara O’Brien, Chen Hu, and Edward H. Kennedy. “Rate of false conviction of criminal defendants who are sentenced to death.” PNAS. April 18, 2014.

  5. ^

    Equal Justice Initiative, “Death Penalty.” Equal Justice Initiative. Accessed August 10, 2022.

  6. ^

    Death Penalty Information Center. “STUDY: In Oklahoma, Race and Gender of Victim Significantly Affect Death Penalty.” Death Penalty Information Center. October 30, 2017.

  7. ^

    The Sentencing Project. “The Color of Justice: Racial and Ethnic Disparity in State Prisons.” The Sentencing Project. 2021.

  8. ^

    Machel L. Radelet and Traci L. Lacock. “Do Executions Lower Homicide Rates: The View of Leading Criminologists.” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology. Vol. 99, Issue 2: Winter, 2009. Ethan Cohen-Cole, Steven Aurlauf, Jeffrey Fagan, and Daniel Nagin. “Reevaluating the Deterrent Effect of Capital Punishment: Model and Data Uncertainty.” U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs. December, 2006.

  9. ^

    Brad Henry and Andy Lester, “Guest column: Oklahoma executions should stop until system is reformed.” The Oklahoman. July 24, 2022.

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