On Abortion, Capital Punishment and War

Encyclical by

Bishop Gregory Godsey, OSFoc




April 4, 2012

To Our Venerable Brethren, Patriarchs, Cardinals, Archbishops, Bishops and other local Ordinaries Enjoying Peace and Communion with the Old Catholic Churches International.

Venerable Brethren, Greetings and Apostolic Benediction,

Today, we as Christians are faced with a society of death. Everywhere we turn we hear of such issues as abortion, capital punishment and war. The problem with the society of death we live in, however, is that they wish to pick and choose which of those issues they are for and which we are against. We, as the church, are required by God’s law to uphold a moral standard and a light of truth in this world at all cost.

In this paper we will explore Abortion, Capital Punishment and War from a Biblical and traditional view. We will examine what the early church fathers said about those issues and how we as a church should respond to them.

Abortion and the Church

The issue of abortion is one that is a virtual land mine. No matter what I say in this chapter, there will be someone offended, someone who will call me a heretic and likely someone who will threaten me with physical violence. As with all the issues in this book, there is no black and white answer to the question of abortion. Years of fighting in the polling places, courts and the arena of public opinion has shown that there is no universal answer to this question.


In order to understand exactly what we are discussing, we must first look at some facts. According to the Guttmacher Institute, an average of 1.31 million abortions occurs in the United States.[ref]”Abortion in the United States: Quick Stats,” Guttmacher Institute: Home Page, accessed December 23, 2011, http://www.guttmacher.org/media/presskits/abortion-US/statsandfacts.html.[/ref] Guttmacher also states that 42 million[ref]”REAL Statistics,” REAL Home, accessed December 28, 2011, http://realweb.ifastnet.com/stats.html.[/ref] abortions occur each year worldwide. Of all those abortions Guttmacher broke down the numbers by various criteria.

Let us look at some of the statistics on abortions. All these numbers come from 2010 or earlier. In 2004, the Guttmacher Institute conducted a survey that asked women the primary reason they had an abortion. Rape was cited as a reason for an abortion in 1% of respondents. Maternal health issues were cited by 4% of those who responded and fetal health issues in 3% of respondents. According to William Robert Johnson, who has compiled statistics for abortions dating back thirty plus years, the breakdown of abortions are as stated in this chart:


[ref]William R. Johnson, “Reasons given for Having Abortions in the United States,” Johnston’s Archive, October 9, 2008, Summary, accessed December 28, 2011, http://www.johnstonsarchive.net/policy/abortion/abreasons.html.[/ref]

rape 0.3 % (0.1-0.6 %)
incest 0.03 % (0.01-0.1 %)
physical life of mother 0.2 % (0.1-0.3 %)
physical health of mother 1.0 % (0.1-3 %)
fetal health 0.5 % (0.1-1.0 %)
mental health of mother depends on definition
“personal choice”
–too young/immature/not ready for responsibility
–to avoid adjusting life
–mother single or in poor relationship
–enough children already
–sex selection
98% (78-99 %)
–(32 %)
–30% (21-36 %)
–(16 %)
–(12-13 %)
–(4-8 %)
–(<0.1 %)

Keep in mind that Mr. Johnson does not claim to be unbiased, but a review of his numbers and those of the Guttmacher Institute seem to show the same general trends.

Another issue that we must briefly address here is that when we talk about abortion, we are only referring to assisted abortions. We are not discussing spontaneous abortions or miscarriages. These events occur, more times than not, without outside intervention. While these events are unfortunate, they are rarely the fault of anyone.

Most of those who will read this tome will agree that abortion is a terrible thing. There is no doubt that in a great number of these cases, the mother is torn about what she must do. Very few women, if any, skip gaily to the abortion clinic in a euphoric high derived entirely from the thought of killing their unborn child. While many fundamentalist will have us believe that these women derive a certain perverse pleasure from the act of aborting their child, this is simply not the case.

One of the great questions surrounding abortion is the legality of the act. Should it be legal to abort your unborn child?


First, let us look to the Holy Scriptures for guidance on this issue. There is only one Scripture that speaks directly to abortion. It is found in the book of Exodus.

When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman’s husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. [ref]Exodus 21:22-25.[/ref]

This verse is rather curious, as it has been interpreted many ways. Looking at the way it has been interpreted over the millennia since it was written, it seems that most interpretations view this verse to mean that if the child dies and the mother lives without any lasting effects that the man guilty of killing her child should pay her husband a monetary remuneration for the death of the child. However, if the women is killed or seriously injured as well, then it is an eye for an eye and a life for a life. This puts a very big hole in the pro-life movement’s declarations.

Other verses in the Bible also decree an accounting of all the people of Israel above the age of one month old. Why is this? Could it be that children under the age of one month were not considered people? On the other hand, is it because they might die before the end of their first month and thus they should not be counted so as to not skew the numbers? This is a question, which we do not have a good answer. So let us look at the volumes of rabbinic writing on the Scriptures to see what they believed.

Rabbinic Writings

Our first look at rabbinic writings comes from Rabbi David Feldman. In his book entitled Health and Medicine in the Jewish Tradition, he dedicates a whole chapter to dealing with abortion from the Jewish prospective.

The law of homicide in the Torah, in one of its formulations, reads: “Makkeh ish…” “He who smites a man…” (Ex. 21:12). Does this include any many, say a day-old child? Yes, says the Talmud, citing another text: “…ki yakkeh kol nefesh adam” “If one smite any nefesh adam” (Lev. 24:17) – literally, any human person. (Whereas we may not be sure that the newborn babe has completed its term and is a bar kayyama, fully viable, until thirty days after birth, he is fully human from the moment of birth. If he dies before his thirtieth day, no funeral or shivah rites are applicable either. But active destruction of a born child of even doubtful viability is here definitely forbidden.) The “any” (kol) is understood to include the day-old child, but the “nefesh adam” is taken to exclude the fetus in the womb. The fetus in the womb, says Rashi, classic commentator on the Bible and Talmud, is lav nefish hu, not a person, until he comes into the world. Feticide, then, does not constitute homicide, and the basis for denying it capital-crime status in Jewish law – even for those rabbis who may have wanted to rule otherwise – is scriptural. Alongside the above text is another one in Exodus that reads: “If men strive, and wound a pregnant woman so that her fruit be expelled, but no harm befall [her], then shall he be fined as her husband shall assess…But if harm befall [her], then shalt thou give life for life” (21:22). The Talmud makes this verse’s teaching explicit: Only monetary compensation is exacted of him who causes a woman to miscarry. Note also that though the abortion spoken of here is accidental, it contrasts with the homicide (of the mother) which is also accidental. Even unintentional homicide cannot be expiated by a monetary fine.[ref]David M. Feldman, “The Matter of Abortion,” in Health and Medicine in the Jewish Tradition: L’hayyim – to Life. (New York: Crossroad, 1986), pg. #82.[/ref]

Rabbi Feldman is not alone in his assessment of the verses in the Torah. Several prominent Jewish rabbis over the years have voiced their opinion on abortion.

Thus, two great scholars of the thirteenth century reiterate Rashi’s viewpoint: Rabbi Meir Abulafia Writing, “So long as he [the fetus] is inside [the womb], it is not a nefesh [life], and the Torah has no pity upon it,” and Rabbi Menachem Meiri affirming, “It is permitted to dismember the fetus in the womb…since it is not designated as a nefesh so long as it has not emerged.” [ref]Daniel Schiff, Abortion in Judaism (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pg. #61.[/ref]

Some might say that these are isolated teachings and that more modern sources have come to more “enlightened” view of abortion. However, this would be an incorrect assumption. For example, Rabbi Jacob Emden who lived from 1697 to 1776 had this to say about abortion, “Even if the mother’s life is not in jeopardy, but only so as to save her from an evil associated with it that would cause her great pain… Our ruling is: in general it is certainly forbidden to destroy a fetus, but in the case before us of a married woman gone astray I hereby state my humble opinion that it is permitted, perhaps it is even worthy of being regarded as a mitzvah.” [ref]Stephen A. Richards, “Jewish Attitudes to Abortion,” That Religious Studies Website, Rabbinical teaching, accessed December 27, 2011, http://www.thatreligiousstudieswebsite.com/Ethics/Applied_Ethics/Abortion/abortion_judaism.php.[/ref]

Rabbi Morris N. Kertzer explains the Jewish theological approach to abortion best, in my opinion. He states:

The life of the mother, Jews believe, is more important than that of the not-yet-born child, both to her husband and to any other children she may have. Technically, the fetus does have some rights – again, we see the Jewish aversion to a position of “all or nothing.” It is attached to the mother’s womb, and so has the same rights as any other part of her body. She cannot cut off a finger without cause, for instance, and she also cannot cut off the fetus for no reason whatever. If her finger is infected, however, so that her life is at stake, then we do amputate it; and if we fear that the fetus will endanger the woman’s life if it comes to term, we perform an abortion. Liberal Jews expand the concept of “endangerment” to include the mother’s mental health and the mental health of the family as a whole. They are already alive, and deserve protection against a life of poverty, enslavement to terrible social conditions, and a life of physical or mental suffering that is not in keeping with a soul made in God’s image. The most important consideration in both birth control and abortion is, What is best for the entire family? The sanctity of marriage is not reproduction. It is the bond that exists between husband, wife and the children they want and love.[ref]Morris Norman Kertzer and Lawrence A. Hoffman, What Is a Jew? (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), pg. #140-141.[/ref]

Considering that the Old Testament, which is where most pro-life advocates get their condemnation of abortion, is the Jewish sacred texts, their explanations on those texts carry a great deal of weight in my mind. We as Christians, tend to look at the Old Testament through Christian eyes, forgetting that these were not Christians who wrote them. We also tend to forget that they were written in a different time, by people who lived vastly different than we live today. These scholars of the Old Testament believe that God did not lay out black and whites rules on abortion, and since Jesus did not address the issue either, it leaves us with the Old Testament Scriptures to wrestle. These Scriptures I believe show that the view of abortion was vastly different from our modern view. It is not an all or nothing issue. Rather, there are many issues that we must take into consideration before condemning anyone.

Early Church Fathers

Before we end out this discussion on abortion, let us look at one more source of data. The early church fathers were all over the map when it came to abortion. Some believed it was morally wrong in all cases, some believed it was acceptable in some cases and still others believed it was not murder up to a certain point in the fetal development. Saint Jerome spoke out of both sides of his mouth. He states in a letter, “The seed gradually takes shape in the uterus, and it [abortion] does not count as killing until the individual elements have acquired their external appearance and their limbs.”[ref]Scotty McLennan, Jesus Was a Liberal: Reclaiming Christianity for All (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), pg. #18.[/ref] However, Saint Jerome also said, “They drink potions to ensure sterility and are guilty of murdering a human being not yet conceived. Some, when they learn that they are with child through sin, practice abortion by the use of drugs. Frequently they die themselves and are brought before the rulers of the lower world guilty of three crimes: suicide, adultery against Christ, and murder of an unborn child.”[ref]Jerome, Thomas Comerford. Lawler, and Charles Christopher Mierow, The Letters of St. Jerome, vol. 33 (New York: Newman Press, 1963), pg. #145.[/ref] Saint Jerome is of no help in deciding this issue.

In 1140, John Gratian, a monk, compiled “Decretum Gratiani,” the first comprehensive collection of the Church’s various canon laws. Until 1917 his book (with some additions) was the fundamental compendium of Church law. Gratian’s book made a distinction between the abortion of the fetus inanimatus and the fetus animates. So, until 1917 official Roman Catholic canon law also distinguished between the fetus inanimatus (the unformed, inanimate fetus) and the fetus animates (the formed, animate, human fetus). Until 1917 official Roman Catholic canon law said abortion was homicide only when the fetus was formed.[ref]Wisdom of Abortion: Its Power, Purpose and Meaning. ([United States]: WisdomOfAbortion.com, 2005), pg. #90.[/ref]

Many Popes also taught that abortion before a certain point of development was not homicide. Pope Gregory XIV reversed the Apostolic Constitution of Pope Sixtus V entitled Effraenatam. In Effraenatam, Pope Sixtus V made abortion at any stage of development a mortal sin and declared that it was homicide. Pope Gregory XIV can behind him, revoked the Apostolic Constitution, and declared that it was not homicide until the child had become animated.


We have seen that statistics on abortion show the majority of respondents pointing to maturity, education and economics as the chief reasons they sought an abortion. These are areas that society and the church can help to resolve. However, to do this, we would need to be willing to discuss issues that the church has long shunned. The first of these issues is education. Young men and women need to be taught more than abstinence in our schools or churches. Let us face the facts, abstinence only education does not work. Because we fail to teach these young minds that there are protections against getting pregnant or getting a life-threatening disease, then when they do fall into temptation, they are left with unwanted pregnancies and life-threatening illnesses. Should we hand out condoms to the youth of our nation? No, rather we should educate them so that they know they are available should they decide to do what we have told them not to.

The second issue we must address is economics. Many churches and religious groups demand that young women bring to term their child rather than abort them. However, when the time comes to help support that child, when that young mother cannot find work and/or cannot find a babysitter, we turn her away with the platitude that “God will provide.” We are called to be God’s hands to those around us and if we will not help, then who will. Rather than lobby to end government assistance programs for these young mothers, we should fight to keep them open and expand them where needed. If a young woman finds herself pregnant and knows there will be no assistance for her or her child, what options will she have but to abort that child?

I believe that we can all agree that abortion simply for the sake of abortion is morally wrong. However, abortion because of severe medical reasons, rape or incest is an area where abortion may be permissible. As such, if we lobby to close all abortion clinics and to make abortion illegal, we place ourselves in a very bad place when these women who may genuinely need those services go to call on them, the only option they will have is a back alley abortion practitioner who may abort the fetus and kill the mother at the same time. Under this possibility, we are left with two deaths instead of one. Which is preferable?


While not directly related to this chapter per se, I did want to mention one thing here that seemed to fit. Many who are against abortion rally to commit acts of violence against abortion clinics and doctors. I believe this kind of violence is completely against God’s word. God calls us to be peacemakers, not terrorist. He calls us to feed the poor, not make bombs. He calls us to bind up the wounds of the hurting, not shoot those who we disagree with. Some have deluded themselves into believing they are on a righteous mission, that God has called them to bomb clinics and kill doctors. However, this is merely a delusion. If you are one of those people, please seek professional help immediately.

Capital Punishment and the Church

For years, capital punishment has been alleged to be, and used as, a way to deter criminals from committing acts of violence. Today, however, many would-be assailants have grown so callous and cold, they fear not even the possibility of their own death. In fact, criminals often actually fear life in a prison more than death at the hands of the state or their fellow inmates.


The Bible is full of examples of capital punishment. Those examples would increase the number of people in the United States on death row by three to four times at least. Here are some examples of offenses punishable by capital punishment in the Bible:


Religious Grounds: 

Some passages in the Hebrew Scriptures condemned people to death if they followed a different religious or spiritual path. Quoting from the King James Version of the Bible, Jehovah required the state to execute a person:

  • for following another religion: Exodus 22:20 states: He that sacrificeth unto any god, save unto the LORD only, he shall be utterly destroyed. See also and Numbers 25:1-15.
  • for a stranger entering the temple: Numbers 1:51 states (in part): …when the tabernacle is to be pitched, the Levites shall set it up: and the stranger that cometh nigh shall be put to death. See also Numbers 3:10, 18:7 and 17:13.
  • for proselytizing: Deuteronomy 13:1-10 states that a person who tries to convince an Israelite to convert to another religion must be killed.
  • for communicating with the dead: Leviticus 20:27 calls for the execution by stoning of all mediums and spiritists (aka spiritualists), both male and female.
  • for black magic: Exodus 22:18 states: Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live. This is a mistranslation. The passage has nothing to do with Wicca or other forms of Neo-paganism, which are the only types of Witchcraft that are practiced today in North America in significant numbers . The original Hebrew word is translated “sorceress” in most other versions of the Bible. A more accurate phrase would be “women who engage in black magic, harming others by the use of spoken curses.”Men are left off the hook.

Sexual Grounds:

Other passages required people to be stoned to death or even burned alive for sexual activities:

  • for adultery: Leviticus 20:10 states: And the man that committeth adultery with another man’s wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbor’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death. This is repeated in Deuteronomy 22:22
  • for incest: Leviticus 20:11 states: And the man that lieth with his father’s wife hath uncovered his father’s nakedness: both of them shall surely be put to death… See also Leviticus 20, verses 12 and 14. Verse 17 prescribe excommunication for incest with one’s sister or step-sister.
  • for temple prostitution: Leviticus 20:13 states: If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death…. This verse is often incorrectly interpreted to refer generally to homosexual behavior. See also Deuteronomy 22:24. Both verses, in the original Hebrew, refer to homosexual prostitution in Pagan temples, which was a common religious practice in the tribes surrounding the Israelites.
  • for bestiality: Leviticus 20:15 states: And if a man lie with a beast, he shall surely be put to death: and ye shall slay the beast. And if a woman approach unto any beast, and lie down thereto, thou shalt kill the woman, and the beast…. See also Exodus 22:19.
  • for sexual activity before marriage: Deuteronomy 22:13-21 concludes: Then they shall bring out the damsel to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die…”.. Note that this applied only to women who had been presented as virgin brides and could be proven to have engaged in intercourse before being engaged or married. There appears to have been no penalty for men who engaged in pre-marital sexual activity.
  • for sexual activity with both a woman and her mother: Deuteronomy 20:14 requires that all three be burned alive.
  • for being seduced if engaged: Deuteronomy 22:23-24 states: If a damsel that is a virgin be betrothed unto an husband, and a man find her in the city, and lie with her; Then ye shall bring them both out unto the gate of that city, and ye shall stone them with stones that they die. Note that this applied only to engaged women. Her fiancé could (in some cases) have sexual access to her, but no other man was permitted to engage in such activity as soon as she became engaged. There appears to have been no penalty for engaged men who seduced women.
  • for rape of an engaged woman: Deuteronomy 22:25 states: But if a man find a betrothed damsel in the field, and the man force her, and lie with her: then the man only that lay with her shall die. A man who raped a single woman who was not engaged would only have to marry her and give 50 shekels of silver to her father.
  • for prostitution Leviticus 21:9 states: And the daughter of any priest, if she profane herself by playing the whore, she profaneth her father: she shall be burnt with fire. Executing someone by burning them alive appears to be reserved for a narrow range of criminal acts.[ref]“WHAT THE HEBREW SCRIPTURES SAY ABOUT THE DEATH PENALTY – CAPITAL PUNISHMENT,” Religious Tolerance, accessed December 30, 2011, http://www.religioustolerance.org/exe_bibl1.htm.[/ref]

Other grounds: 

Some grounds for the death penalty involved activities that were not related to other religions or to sexual activities:

  • (sometimes) for committing murder:  Levitucus 24:17 requires that “he that killeth any man shall surely be put to death.” Leviticus 24:21 repeats this requirement. See also Numbers 35:16 and Deuteronomy 17:6. The Hebrew word “ratsach” in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) and the Greek word “phoneuo” in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) are generally mistranslated into the English word “kill.” They actually mean “to murder with premeditation.“However, Exodus 21:20, states that if a slave-owner kills his male or female slave, he shall be merely “punished.” The nature of the punishment is not specified. The murderer would presumably not receive the death penalty; if he were to be killed, then one would expect the text to say this directly. However, if the injured slave lives for a while after the beating before dying of the abuse, the owner is not punished at all.
  • for kidnapping: Exodus 21:16 states: And he that stealeth a man, and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death. This involves kidnapping for the purpose of selling him into slavery. See also Deuteronomy 24:7.
  • for human sacrifice: Leviticus 20:2-5 states: Whosoever…. giveth any of his seed unto Molech; he shall surely be put to death. To “give ones seed to Molech” means to ritually sacrifice one’s child to a Pagan God.
  • for cursing parents: Exodus 21:17 states: And he that curseth his father, or his mother, shall surely be put to death. See also Leviticus 20:9. The exact meaning of the key Hebrew word is ambiguous; it might mean, in English, to curse or blaspheme, or to degrade or shame.
  • for abusing one’s parents: Exodus 21:15 states: And he that smiteth his father, or his mother, shall be surely put to death.
  • for careless handling of an animal: Exodus 21:29 states: But if the ox …..hath killed a man or a woman; the ox shall be stoned, and his owner also shall be put to death. If an animal has the habit of injuring others, and the owner does not kill it, then the both the owner and the ox may be put to death.
  • for stubbornness and rebellion: Deuteronomy 21:18-21 states: If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother…..all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die….. Because of the ambiguities in some of the words used in the original text, the death penalty might not have been required in this case.
  • for blasphemy: Leviticus 24:16 states: And he that blasphemeth the name of the LORD, he shall surely be put to death. Blasphemy was defined as uttering the name of Jehovah while cursing.
  • for working on Saturday: Exodus 35:2 states: …but on the seventh day there shall be to you an holy day, a Sabbath of rest to the LORD: whosoever doeth work therein shall be put to death. Numbers 15:32-36 described a man who was executed because he gathered wood on Saturday.
  • for ignoring the decision of a priest or judge: Deuteronomy 17:12 states: And the man that will do presumptuously, and will not hearken unto the priest that standeth to minister there before the LORD thy God, or unto the judge, even that man shall die….
  • for perjury: Deuteronomy 19:15-21 states in part (with reference to a murder trial) ….if the witness be a false witness, and hath testified falsely against his brother; then shall ye do unto him, as he had thought to have done unto his brother…. That is, a perjurer would himself be killed.
  • for accidentally killing a pregnant woman: Exodus 21:22-23 states: “If men strive [i.e. fight], and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman’s husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” If two men are fighting and accidentally hurt a pregnant woman so that she has a miscarriage, then:
    • if the woman fully recovers, then the man responsible will have to pay a fine to the woman’s husband.
    • if the woman dies, then the man would be killed also.
    • if some other harm comes to the woman, (e.g. loss of an eye or tooth) then that would be inflicted upon the man as well.

Still more grounds for execution:

  • A male who was not circumcised: Genesis 17:14
  • Eating leavened bread during the Feast of Unleavened Bread: Exodus 12:15
  • Manufacturing anointing oil: Exodus 30:33
  • Engaging in ritual animal sacrifices other than at the temple: Leviticus 17:1-9
  • Consuming blood: Leviticus 17:10. This would include eating rare meat.
  • Eating peace offerings while ritually unclean: Leviticus 7:20
  • Waiting too long before consuming sacrifices: Leviticus 19:5-8
  • Sexual activity with a woman who is menstruating: Leviticus 20:18
  • Going to the temple in an unclean state: Numbers 19:13
  • Persons teaching another religion: Deuteronomy 13:1-11
  • A prophet whose prophecy does not come true: Deuteronomy 18:22
  • Gluttony and excessive drinking: Deuteronomy 21:20[ref]“What the Hebrew Scriptures Say about the Death Penalty — Capital Punishment,” Religious Tolerance, accessed December 30, 2011, http://www.religioustolerance.org/exe_bibl1a.htm.[/ref]

If we as members of the body of Christ were to accept and follow the law as set forth in the Torah, we would have prisons full of people waiting to die. I am willing to bet that every single person reading this book has at some point committed at least one of these offenses in their lifetime.

God gives us the ideal case against capital punishment in Genesis, with the story of the brothers Cain and Abel.

And the LORD said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” Cain said to the LORD, “My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold, you have driven me today away from the ground, and from your face I shall be hidden. I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” Then the LORD said to him, “Not so! If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the LORD put a mark on Cain, lest any who found him should attack him. Then Cain went away from the presence of the LORD and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden. [ref]Genesis 4:10-16.[/ref]

This was the first case in the Bible of capital punishment. Cain had killed his brother Abel. Rather than kill him on the spot, God forced Cain to live for the rest of his life with the memory of what he had done. In fact, God gave him a mark that would keep others from killing him. Moreover, in several extra-canonical books, such as Enoch, we are told he could not even take his own life. That, in and of itself, is great evidence against capital punishment.

Many would question us on this point. “Did not God order that an eye for an eye be the punishment in the Old Testament?” The answer is yes, God did decree an eye for an eye in the Torah. Thankfully, the Torah is not the last word on capital punishment.

In the days before Christ’s coming as a man, the world lived in a state without grace. For that reason, and in that time, the world had a different standard of punishment for sin and crime. Under the new covenant of Grace through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, we are called to adhere to such commands:

“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…”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…[ref]Matthew 5:38-39, 43-44[/ref]

Jesus gives us an example of this command when he is tested by the Pharisees who presented him with a women caught in adultery. As we saw above, adultery was one of the many sins that required the use of capital punishment in the Torah.

The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”[ref]John 8:3-11[/ref]

As we see, the Law of Moses required that the woman caught in adultery be stoned. Jesus clearly acted against that form of capital punishment. His own actions show us that Jesus did not support the use of capital punishment.

Early Church Fathers

The early church fathers, although greatly divided, did weigh in on this matter. Lactantius spoke against the use of capital punishment in The Epitome of the Divine Institutes.

If, therefore, it is evident that man is born to justice, it is necessary that the just man should be subject to evils, that he might exercise the virtue with which he is endued. For virtue is the enduring of evils. He will avoid pleasures as an evil: he will despise riches, because they are frail; and if he has them, he will liberally bestow them, to preserve the wretched: he will not be desirous of honors, because they are short and transitory; he will do injury to no one; if he shall suffer, he will not retaliate; and he will not take vengeance upon one who plunders his property. For he will deem it unlawful to injure a man; and if there shall be any one who would compel him to depart from God, he will not refuse tortures nor death. Thus it will come to pass, that he must necessarily live in poverty and lowliness, and in insults, or even tortures.[ref]The Epitome of the Divine Institutes. Lactantius. Chapter 34. 317 AD.[/ref]

Saint Augustine did not clearly state that capital punishment is not to be used, however, he did believe that is should be used as little as possible. In a letter to Ruffinus, Augustine called on the proconsul to exercise restraint when parsing out judgment.

If the sentence on these men is to be pronounced by the Proconsul, or by both of you together, and if he perchance insist upon inflicting capital punishment, although he is a Christian and, so far as we have had opportunity of observing, not disposed to such severity— if, I say, his determination make it necessary, order those letters of mine, which I deemed it my duty to address to you severally on this subject, to be brought before you while the trial is still going on; for I am accustomed to hear that it is in the power of the judge to mitigate the sentence, and inflict a milder penalty than the law prescribes. If, however, notwithstanding these letters from me, he refuse to grant this request, let him at least allow that the men be remanded for a time; and we will endeavour to obtain this concession from the clemency of the Emperors, so that the sufferings of the martyrs, which ought to shed bright glory on the Church, may not be tarnished by the blood of their enemies; for I know that in the case of the clergy in the valley of Anaunia, who were slain by the Pagans, and are now honoured as martyrs, the Emperor granted readily a petition that the murderers, who had been discovered and imprisoned, might not be visited with a capital punishment.[ref]Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church., vol. 1, First Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1983), pg. #489.[/ref]

Here, he clearly states that we should refrain from acts of vengeance against those who do us wrong. He claimed that if man were just by nature, then he would not seek vengeance against a person in return for a wrong committed against him. We are not saying that we should free all the criminals of the world. No, quite to the contrary. We are saying that every means must be employed to avoid using the death penalty. There are currently many ways of policing criminals and keeping the general population safe from their acts of violence. We have the ability and means to keep a criminal locked up in a secure facility for the duration of their natural lives. By doing so, we avoid committing the sin of murder as a society and yet protect the general population from harm.


Let us always remember the lesson from God concerning Cain, and never be guilty of the very crime against which we choose to punish.

The Church’s response to War

On December 15, 2011, the United States ended an eight year war in Iraq. It was a war that cost 4,485[ref]The Associated Press, “The Associated Press: US Military Deaths in Iraq War at 4,485,” Google, accessed December 22, 2011, http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5gkW5nNweK-Tpm0LRPDZdgmth5zAg?docId=750590f37ce742779c3f502a2790483c.[/ref] American soldiers their lives, wounded 32,226[ref]Ibid.[/ref] American men and women as well. It cost the Iraqi people 104,226[ref]“Iraq Body Count,” Iraq Body Count, accessed December 22, 2011, http://www.iraqbodycount.org/.[/ref] their lives not to mention the hundreds of thousands who will live with physical, mental and emotional scars of the war.

Many today see war as nothing more than an inevitable fact of life. Many see it as a necessity to meet justice and stamp out tyranny. However, when we embrace violence to stop violence we become the very enemy we are fighting. A recent prime example of this fact is the indefinite detention and torture of those considered by the United States to be terrorist. By using techniques like water-boarding and isolation we have stooped to the level of those who we condemn.  Moreover, what has come from these acts? Have we stopped any attacks through information gathered by such means? No, we have not.

In addition, report after report shows that not only has these techniques not yielded the desired results; rather they have yielded the opposite. Our enemies have used our actions to help fuel their recruiting efforts and it has been quite successful for them as well.

Many would ask, “Are there not instances when war may be justified?” That is a question that theologians and philosophers have struggled with for centuries. As with many of the questions asked of the church, this two is not just black and white; instead it harbors hints of grey. Is it justified for a country to defend itself, or is Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek and individual command as well as a collective one?


God shows us in his word that he does not delight in war, but rather desires all men to avoid war. David writes in Psalms, “Rebuke the beasts that dwell among the reeds, the herd of bulls with the calves of the peoples. Trample underfoot those who lust after tribute; scatter the peoples who delight in war.”[ref]Psalms 68:30.[/ref]

Saint Paul also taught us, with his thoughts on war.

Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.[ref]Romans 12:17-21.[/ref]

Paul makes it clear to us that we should not use revenge as a justification for taking up a sword. Jesus makes it clear in Matthew 26:52 what punishment awaits those who live by the sword. “Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”

Early Church Fathers

Today, many Christians hold to a theology called the “Just War Theory.” There are nine principles to this theory that where developed by Saint Augustine of Hippo. These principles are:

  1. Just cause. The reason for resorting to war must, itself, be a just reason. Traditionally, just causes have included the defense of the innocent against armed attack, the recovery of persons or property wrongly taken or the punishment of evil.
  2. Comparative justice. Although war exists as an ethical possibility, there also exists a strong presumption against the resort to war as a means to resolve difficulties. Comparative justice requires – in addition to a state’s having a just cause for the prosecution of war: a position which, for good or ill, both (or multiple) parties to a conflict are likely to claim – that the claims of an aggrieved party also must be of such magnitude that the presumption against war is overridden.
  3. Right intention. The outward disposition of parties contemplating war is not a sufficient guide as to whether the resort to war is actually justified; the invisible (but no less real) inward disposition is also important. The internal motivation must itself be just. Evidence of right intention might include the pursuit of peace negotiations to avoid war, the avoidance of potentially unreasonable demands, ect. A right intention would not involve the desire for territorial expansion, intimidation or coercion, and it would be devoid of hatred for the enemy, implacable animosity or a desire for vengeance or domination.
  4. Competent authority. The decision to go to war can be weighed and declared only by that person, or body of persons generally recognized, by virtue of position in the social framework, to possess authority to make such a declaration, namely, that person or body with no political superior.
  5. Last resort. Not even those authorized to declare war are justified in doing so if there be any reasonable means to avoid it. That is, the prevailing circumstances must clearly indicate that no means short of war would be sufficient to obtain satisfaction for just grievances or wrongs against the state.
  6. Public declaration. The aggrieved state must set forth the reasons that impel it to war as an indispensable part of its demonstration that all other means for peaceful resolution short of war have been exhausted. Such a declaration serves, among other things, as an occasion for national reflection as to whether all means short of war truly have been exhausted prior to the commitment to the enterprise of the nation’s resolve, energies, and resources. The declaration may come in the form of an ultimatum, which sets forth those remedies short of war that remain available, with the requirement that the offending party avail itself to those remedies prior to the specified time.
  7. Reasonable probability of success. Unless the cause that impels military action is of such importance as to merit defence (sic) even in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds, a war that presents little or no hope of serving as a vehicle for obtaining satisfaction for just grievances is not morally justifiable.
  8. Proportionality. The moral good expected to result from the war must exceed the amount of evil expected naturally and unavoidably to be entailed by war.
  9. Peace as the ultimate objective. The end of violence, the avoidance of future violence, and, to the greatest extent possible, the establishment or restoration of happiness and human flourishing – in short, a just and lasting peace – must be the end toward which the war is fought.[ref]John Mark. Mattox, Saint Augustine and the Theory of Just War (London [u.a.: Continuum, 2006), pg. #9-10.[/ref]

Many will argue that these points give justification for all the wars that have been fought, but they do not. All nine of these points must be true in order for there to be moral justification for a nation to go to war. However, just because these nine are satisfied does not automatically mean that a war is just. While a war at its start might very well be just, it can cease to be just if the following principles are violated:

  1. Proportionality. Only minimum force, consistent with ‘military necessity’, may be used – and even then, only with an eye toward bringing the conflict to a just conclusion as quickly as possible. Violent means which cause gratuitous suffering or otherwise cause unnecessary harm fall outside the scope of what is ‘proportional’. This principle prohibits the torture and traditionally has served to justify limitations on, for example, the kinds of weapons that can be used. […]
  2. Discrimination. Belligerent parties must distinguish between combatants and non-combatants, with the former normally constituting the only accept objects of violent action. Traditionally, non-combatants have included wounded soldiers, prisoners of war, clergymen, women not in the military, children, the aged and the infirm, all of whom are presumed not to be engaged in the war effort.[ref]Mattox. 10-11.[/ref]


World War II, for example, saw the invention and use of a weapon of war that did not discriminate between combatants and non-combatants. The use of the Atomic bomb over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan turned an otherwise just war into an unjust war. Many innocent people were killed or injured by the bombing of these cities most of whom were non-combatants. In Hiroshima, 138,890[ref]Martin Gilbert, Atlas of the Holocaust (Toronto: Lester Pub., 1993).[/ref] non-combatants died either from the initial Atomic bomb blast or from the effects in the weeks and months that followed. In Nagasaki, 48,857[ref]Gilbert.[/ref] non-combatants died during World War II. In Tokyo, 130,000[ref]Gilbert.[/ref] non-combatants died during one fire-bombing raid. All total, around two million[ref]Gilbert.[/ref] non-combatants died in Japan during World War II at the hands of the Allies. This also does not take into account the internment camps set up to house Japanese-Americans during World War II. These people were deprived of their freedom and their dignity all in the name of national security. This also violates the just war principles in that it punishes non-combatants for things they did not do.

That is not to mention the number of non-combatants killed during the Vietnam War, World War I, the Korean War and the war in Afghanistan. While these wars may have started out as just ventures they ended up as unjust wars. There are very few wars in mankind’s history that could be considered just wars.

It is not my intention to say that war to defend one’s country is wrong. What I am saying is that war should be the very last step. Moreover, when it comes to the church of Christ, we should be very careful when we offer our support to any war.


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