Would you throw the first stone?

“Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”1

Option #1: Taking life for life is still necessary to prevent even greater violence.

Option #2: The death penalty was only one stage in our history, towards a better world God wants for us.

Do we kill criminals, or does Jesus ask us to look for an alternative?

Electric Chair at Sing Sing Prison, ca. 1900

Would you flip the switch?

Fire the bullet?

Inject the poison?

Most death penalty debates are sterile. We discuss an abstract situation during Bible study or write an essay online. We talk about justice and mercy at an intellectual level.

When Jesus and the Pharisees debated the death penalty, it had real consequences. Judge and jury, executioner and defendant, met the teacher under the same sun.

Jesus and the Woman in Adultery, by Vasily Polenov

Assuming the right

In the morning he went back to the Temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. The scribes and Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught out in adultery. They stood her out in the middle.

“Teacher,” they said to him. “This woman was caught in the very act of adultery. In the law, Moses commanded us to stone people like this. What do you say?”

They said this to test him, so that they could frame a charge against him.

Of course, even with real consequences you can fail to recognize humanity in your midst. The Pharisees had their minds set on legislating obedience and tripping up Jesus. The woman they brought with them was an afterthought.

At the center of the Pharisees’ question is the assumption that they have the right to judge. They believe that their rigid adherence to the Law makes them worthy to judge others and condemn them to death. In testing Jesus by this standard, they think they have laid a trap for him.

Jesus will pose his own challenge back at the Pharisees. His response is based on a phrase from his ministry that tells a very different story.

Do we have standing to condemn?

Do not judge, lest you be judged. Do not condemn, lest you be condemned.2

Jesus’s actions will make clear that these words apply to the Pharisees’ inquisition. The hard part for us is discerning how much further to apply them. It is not easy to parse all that Jesus is prohibiting, but I believe his ministry gives us a way forward.

Rejecting “judgment” does not mean refusing to distinguish between right and wrong. Jesus knows the woman has sinned, and tells her not to do it again. Jesus preached repentance from wrongs and taught us how to confront our neighbor’s sin.3 So when Jesus implores, “do not judge,” it must mean something other than “don’t evaluate right and wrong.”

The key may come in the second half of the phrase: “do not condemn.” To condemn can be defined as to judge another as finished, worthy of destruction. The “condemned man” is the one who has been sentenced to death or to hellfire. It is a sentence with finality, with no chance left for redemption. It is a statement about the person, not just their crime.

Jesus teaches that we cannot declare someone else irredeemable without dismissing our own potential for redemption. If you look at the context of the “do not judge” statement in Matthew (“even an angry person is in danger of hellfire,” “even a lustful person has committed adultery in his heart”),4 then you see that any criteria we may use to condemn another could be applied to ourselves. Paul will make this explicit in his letter to the Romans:

So you have no excuse—anyone, whoever you are, who sit in judgment! When you judge someone else, you condemn yourself, because you, who are behaving as a judge, are doing the same things. God’s judgment falls, we know, in accordance with the truth, on those who do such things. But if you judge those who do them and yet do them yourself, do you really suppose you will escape God’s judgment?5

If we want our own redemption to be possible, then we must believe that those we wish to condemn are redeemable as well. And if they are redeemable, then how could we condemn them to death?6 We can speak out when wrong has been done. We can declare penalty and restitution in our attempts to seek justice. But we cannot judge that someone deserves absolute condemnation, that they must be killed, so long as there is another way.

The Law had said, “Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”

These were the things that were said of old. Jesus declares, “But I say to you!”7 and gives us a new way to live. The Sermon on the Mount speaks of a new covenant where enemies are loved and forgiveness is offered. When Jesus advocates a new way of “turning the other cheek” rather than taking “eye for eye”, he does not mention “life for life.” Yet the parallel is clear. Jesus gave up his life to save us, to teach us forgiveness and second chances, and even forgave his own murderers. The way of retributive justice is no longer the way forward.8

The early church ingrained this challenge into its ministry. The letter of James proclaims, “There is one lawgiver, one judge who can rescue or destroy. So who are you to judge your neighbor?”9 Once again, the word “judge” is equated with the capacity to destroy. Paul, the forgiven murderer, affirmed in First Corinthians that it is not our right to “pass judgment on anything before the time when the Lord comes.”10 Anthenagoras of Athens, a Church Father born only a hundred years after Jesus’s death, stated in his condemnation of Roman public executions that “we cannot endure even to see a man put to death, though justly…deeming that to see a man put to death is much the same as killing him.”11 Tertullian, the 2nd-century “Father of Western Theology,” frequently spoke out against the death penalty and declared that soldiers who participated in capital punishment could not be admitted into the church,12 as did Hippolytus in his early 3rd-century church orders.13 Origen, possibly the most influential theologian of the 3rd century, states explicitly that Christian law has “altogether forbidden the putting of men to death.”14 While the strong prohibition against the death penalty began to fade in the 4th and 5th centuries as the church came into political power,15 some of the most prominent Christian theologians, including Ambrose, John Chrysostom, and Augustine, continued to write that Christ’s mercy leads a merciful ruler to avoid the death penalty rather than to enforce it.16 In fact, Bishop Ambrose, though stating elsewhere that the death penalty was lawful, suggested that it was always better to withhold:

From the point of view of our faith, no one ought to slay a person who in the course of nature still would have time for repentance up to the very moment of his death. A guilty man—provided a premature punishment had not deprived him of life—could well procure forgiveness by redeeming himself by an act of repentance, however belated.17

God does not desire us to prematurely separate the weeds from the wheat,18 to judge who is irreparably a “child of the evil one” and now deserves final condemnation and death. That is left for the end of the age.

Soldiers for the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista executing a revolutionary by firing squad in 1956 during the early stages of the Cuban Revolution

What is the weight of forgiveness?

Jesus squatted down and wrote with his finger on the ground.

When they went on pressing the question, he got up and said to them, “Whichever of you is without sin should throw the first stone at her.”

And once again he squatted down and wrote on the ground.

These pauses give the Pharisees opportunity for introspection. It challenges them to look inside and ask, “Do I have standing to do this? Do I have the right?”

Some argue that Jesus isn’t really against execution but holds some unspoken agenda. The most oft-suggested “alternate agenda” is that Jesus thinks the Pharisees are sexist because they failed to bring him the offending man. Such a critique implies that if the Pharisees had “justly” brought both parties, Jesus would have declared, “Kill them both!”

That strikes me as unlikely. For all we know, the Pharisees have already executed the man, or he has escaped capture on his own accord. Jesus appears not to consider the man’s fate relevant – he doesn’t say, “He who brings me the man should throw the first stone.” Jesus’s words focus on the woman and the Pharisee’s own standing to condemn her, regardless of their intentions towards the man.

While Jesus never connects the judgment of the man to the judgment of the woman, he does make a connection between how we judge others and how we are judged.

“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”19

In the space Jesus gives the Pharisees to think about their own transgressions, each of them realize they are not without sin.20 And that realization triggers doubt in their minds. It triggers the question, “How am I to escape the same judgment?” As Psalm 130 states, “If you, O Lord, should mark our guilt, Lord, who would survive?”21

As Christians, we know the forgiveness Jesus speaks of. What the Pharisees hoped for, we have been given. We know Jesus’s offer of reconciliation with God through his death and resurrection. We can forgive because we know that we have been forgiven.22 In fact, we are commanded to forgive for that very reason.23

It is sometimes stated that forgiveness from Christ is a free gift. This is true in that Jesus freely gave up his life and died for our sins, built the bridge before we had done anything. But we still have a responsibility. If we fail to forgive others, then we forfeit the gift. Like the servant whose debts were forgiven by the king,24 we are expected to “pay it forward”. At the end of the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, Jesus tells us that if we do not forgive others, we will not receive forgiveness for our own debts.25

It would be nonsensical to say, “I forgive you, but I am going to kill you.” If we insist on killing the sinner on our own terms, then our claim of forgiveness is an empty gesture.

Postcard depicting the 1920 Duluth, Minnesota lynchings

The Triumph of Mercy

When they heard that, they went off one by one, beginning with the oldest. Jesus was left alone, with the woman still standing there.

Jesus looked up, “Where are they, woman?” he asked. “Hasn’t anybody condemned you?”

“Nobody, sir,” she replied.

“Well, then,” said Jesus, “I don’t condemn you either! Off you go—and from now on don’t sin again!”

The old men are wisest. They are the first to realize that they are without standing.

But the striking detail is that Jesus does have standing. He is without sin. He can throw the first stone.

And yet he does not. Mercy triumphs over judgment.26

Jesus’s decision not to condemn the woman is different from the Pharisees’ decision. Jesus does not need forgiveness, he does not need to worry about his own judgment. The reason Jesus forgives is because God’s root nature is mercy.

We are commanded to “Be merciful, just as your father is merciful”27 and hear that it is the merciful who will receive mercy.28 Jesus elsewhere tells the Pharisees that he desires mercy, not sacrifice, for he came to bless sinners.29 Mercy is an integral characteristic of God the Father, a characteristic that Jesus came to represent, a characteristic that we are called to imitate.

When we feel the desire to pronounce God’s judgment on others, we must remember that God, in His perfect wisdom, justice, and mercy, does not judge in the manner we expect.

Many know this popular verse:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.30

People usually quote this verse out-of-context. Few note that the context of the verse is God’s amazing willingness to pardon the wicked and the unrighteous man.31 God’s willingness to pardon is as high above man’s willingness to pardon as the heavens are above the earth.

God has a special love for that one lost sheep in a hundred,32 that one woman who has not found him yet,33 that prodigal son,34 and rejoices greatly when that one can be saved. The redeemed sinner who has been forgiven much is the one who will “love him more.”35

Thus, even when Jesus has the standing to declare death, he does not. Jesus came not to condemn the world, but to save it.36 If we Christians are to follow in his footsteps, we too must offer salvation, not condemnation.

It is not our right to decide when someone’s opportunity for forgiveness is over. Paul makes clear that it is not our right to avenge. If God desires, He will take care of that in His time with His tools.37 We are to show mercy.

The lethal injection room at San Quentin State Prison, completed in 2010

What we could gain, what we could miss

Let’s end with a different death penalty trial.

In Acts 6-7, the evangelist Stephen is seized and brought to the Assembly under a false charge of blasphemy. Before the high priest and witnesses, Stephan gives his Christian testimony. Enraged, the witnesses rush Stephen. Scripture states:

They bundled him out of the city and stoned him. The witnesses laid down their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul. So they stoned Stephen.

“Lord Jesus,” he cried out, ‘receive my Spirit!” Then he knelt down and shouted at the top of his voice, “Do not let this sin stand against them.”

Once he had said this, he fell asleep. Now Saul was giving his consent to Stephen’s death.38

After this incident Saul persecutes the followers of Jesus, going from house to house and dragging believers off to prison, scattering the church everywhere. He is reported to be “breathing out threats and murder on the Lord’s disciples.”39 He then sets out on the road to Damascus to drag off more followers of Jesus, and….

If you had caught Saul right there, would you have killed him?

Would you have advocated that the secular authorities sentence him to death for his murderous crimes?

Or would you be willing to forgive?

If we could judge anyone in the New Testament as deserving death, we would judge Saul. Yet we know that Saul, a great sinner,40 was chased down by God, forgiven, and accepted into the Church. He became Paul, a great apostle. Neither God nor the Church needed to take life for life, to deal Paul our “justice” for his transgression. Instead, he lived out his repentance for thirty years, to the glory of God and the benefit of many.

When we condemn, we take away that person’s chance to repent. We cannot predict who will be the next Paul. We don’t know when the hope of forgiveness should be over. We make an eternal decision about another person’s fate with limited, faulty knowledge.

We need to look for another way, a way to deal with sinners, even murderous criminals, that gives glory to the Kingdom of God and shines light on the hope that Jesus brings.

It must be remembered that our responsibility does not end when we have made the decision whether or not to kill. In the words of theologians Glen Stassen and David Gushee:

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus did not simply oppose evils such as killing, lying and hating the enemy; Jesus consistently emphasized a transforming initiative that could deliver us from the vicious cycle of violence or alienation. Simply to oppose the death penalty is unlikely to be effective. People feel too much anger about murder to give up the death penalty if there is not an alternative that takes injustice seriously and does something about the murderous violence in our society. The biblical clue is to look for transforming initiatives that can begin to deliver us from the cycles of violence that we experience.41

It is no accident that nearly all those who are condemned to death are poor.42 Nearly all come from dysfunctional backgrounds. A disproportionate number come from minority communities.43 This does not mean that middle class or wealthy or white people don’t commit murder. But they are rarely sentenced to death for it. The manner in which we dole out death says more about our own dysfunctions as a society than it does about our hope for the souls of the individuals thus sentenced.

We need to find alternatives. We need to look for redemptive methods of dealing with murderers that protect society, while at the same time addressing the broken families and communities that nearly all death penalty defendants come from.

We can work to transform people rather than killing them, and we can do this because of the forgiveness and mercy which we have already known from God. When the world is stuck on, “life for a life”, we are to show them another way.

What positive acts of forgiveness, mercy, and transformation can you engage in that will supplant the need for judgment and condemnation?

“You heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: love your enemies! Pray for people who persecute you! That way, you’ll be children of your father in heaven! After all, he makes the sun rise on bad and good alike, and sends rain both on the upright and on the unjust.”44

“You heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you: don’t use violence to resist evil! Instead, when someone hits you on the right cheek, turn the other one towards him.”45

“You heard that it was said to the ancient people, ‘You shall not murder’; and anyone who commits murder shall be liable to judgment. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment.”46

“So you have no excuse—anyone, whoever you are, who sit in judgment! When you judge someone else, you condemn yourself, because you, who are behaving as a judge, are doing the same things. God’s judgment falls, we know, in accordance with the truth, on those who do such things. But if you judge those who do them and yet do them yourself, do you really suppose you will escape God’s judgment?

Or do you despise the riches of God’s kindness, forbearance and patience? Don’t you know that God’s kindness is meant to bring you to repentance? But by your hard, unrepentant heart you are building up a store of anger for yourself on the day of anger, the day when God’s just judgment will be unveiled—the God who will “repay everyone according to their works.”47

Final note on the death penalty in the Old Testament:

Advocates for the death penalty invariably point to Old Testament law for support. It is important to reflect that if we actually relied on Old Testament law, we would decree that the death penalty be enforced for adultery, kidnapping, false witness in death penalty trials, bestiality, disobedience/abuse of parents, homosexuality, witchcraft, Sabbath-breaking, false prophecy, blasphemy, marrying foreigners, and owning an animal who kills someone.48

Christ states that in the New Covenant, we have a new way of life. We now have a heart of flesh, not a heart of stone. We are now under Christ’s Law. And the center of Christ’s Law is the Prodigal Son, the redemption of sinners, the refusal to follow through and stone the woman, the rebuke of Peter who takes up the sword (even in the defense of his Lord) and the praise of those who take up the Cross instead. In Paul’s words we are the “strange procession”49 who willingly accepts the death penalty unto ourselves, not the power-hungry leaders of Gentiles who wield it.

In fact, the Jews themselves soon moved away from condemning others unto death. Two prominent rabbis of the late first century, Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiba, stated: ”Had we been in the Sanhedrin none would ever have been put to death” and Rabbi Simeon ben Gamaliel says that for the Sanhedrin to put someone to death ”would have multiplied the shedders of blood in Israel.” By 200 A.D., the Mishnah records that Jewish law now required that a death penalty trial have 23 judges, at least two eyewitnesses to the act, and that relatives, women, slaves, and people of poor reputation could not qualify as witnesses. These conditions made it practically impossible for a death penalty to be carried out. The Mishnah states that a court that executes even one man in seven years is ”ruinous”, and records Rabbi Eliezar ben Azariah going further to say, ”Or one in every seventy years.”50 It is unknown whether this movement reflects the influence of Jesus and the Church on the Jews, or simply a parallel movement towards greater understanding of the limitless potential of God’s mercy.


[1] Deuteronomy 19:21, see also Leviticus 24:19-21 and Exodus 21:23-35

[2] Luke 6:37. “Judge not, lest you be judged” is also found in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5

[3] Matthew 18:15-22 being the most obvious example

[4] Matthew 5:22 and 5:28, with more examples in the surrounding context

[5] Romans 2:1-3

[6] See Matthew 13:24-43

[7] Matthew 5:21-48

[8] Genesis 9:4-6 is sometimes taken as a command to condemn murderers to death. That is a misuse of the passage and its context. Rather than commanding action, the statement “Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human will that person’s blood be shed” is worded as a general descriptor of reality. Like Jesus’s warning to Peter, “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword”, the statement is focused on the sin we are to avoid, not the method with which we are to punish it. A survey of prominent figures in the Bible who shed blood (Cain, Moses, David, Saul of Taursus, etc.) shows that even within the Old Covenant, Genesis 9:6 was not treated as an edict. God ensures that no one kill Cain, calls Moses without mentioning his murder, decrees that David shall not die for his crime, saves Saul/Paul from his life of sin without requiring his blood. If prior to Christ’s death God can show mercy and forgiveness for such sin and build His nation on such sinners, then who are we, the redeemed sinners washed clean by Christ’s blood, to decide that the time for God’s mercy has passed and that we must kill such men?

[9] James 4:12; see also Romans 2:1-11, 14:10-19

[10] 1 Corinthians 4:5

[11] Anthenagoras, “A Plea for the Christians”, 35. After speaking against execution Anthenagoras goes on in the next line to speak out against abortion, and against infanticide in the line after that.

[12] Tertullian in “De Corona” 11, “De Idolatria” 19, “De Resurrectione Carnis” 16, and “De Spectaculis” 2

[13] Hippolytus, “Apostolic Tradition” 16.9-20

[14] Origen, “Against Celsus”, 3:7

[15] Lactantius, the teacher of Constantine’s son, appears to have written negatively towards the death penalty before Constantine came into power (“Divine Institutes”, 6:20), and then to have justified it in a different writing later (“De Ira Dei” 17). His words in the first of those writings had little ambiguity: “For when God forbids us to kill, he not only prohibits us from open violence, which is not even allowed by the public laws, but he warns us against the commission of those beings which are esteemed lawful among men….Therefore, with regard to this precept of God, there ought to be no exception at all, but that it is always unlawful to put to death a man, whom God willed to be a sacred animal.”

[16] Ambrose in “Letter to Studius (Letter 25)”, John Chrysostom in “Homilies on the Statues”, 17.3 , Augustine in “City of God”, 5.24, “Augustine to Apringius (Letter 134)”, and “Augustine to Boniface (Letter 189)”

[17] Ambrose, “Cain and Abel”, Book II, 7.38

[18] Matthew 13:24-43

[19] Matthew 6:14-15, see also Matthew 18:21-35, Mark 11:25, Luke 6:37

[20] A 9th century Islamic hadith, recorded in the Kitab al-Zuhd, goes as follows. A man who had committed adultery was brought to Jesus, who ordered them to stone him. Jesus said, ‘But no one should stone him who has committed what he has committed.’ They let the stones fall from their hands, all except John son of Zachariah. I have only placed it here to illustrate a fantastic exercise in missing the point!

[21] Psalm 130:3-4

[22] Ephesians 4:31-32

[23] Colossians 3:13

[24] Matthew 18:21-35

[25] Matthew 18:35

[26] James 2:13

[27] Luke 6:36

[28] Matthew 5:7

[29] Matthew 9:10-13/Mark 2:15-17/Luke 5:29-32

[30] Isaiah 55:8-9; see also Hosea 11:8-9

[31] See the preceding verse, Isaiah 55:7; “Let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.”

[32] Luke 15:1-7; also Matthew 18:10-14

[33] John 4:1-42

[34] Luke 15:11-32

[35] Luke 7:36-50

[36] John 12:47

[37] Romans 12:19. The verses that follow lead to the question, “Can the prohibition against Christian participation in vengeance be ignored if the Christian has government authority?” I will leave that question for a separate essay, but for now note that every command Paul gives to Christians in this passage states NOT to participate in such violence.

[38] Acts 7:58-8:1

[39] Acts 9:1

[40] 1 Timothy 1:12-15

[41] Stassen and Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, pg 213

[42] In 1979, Walter Berns, a death penalty advocate, admitted that no affluent person has ever been given the death penalty in American history. (Stassen, Capital Punishment, pgs 33-34). The death penalty is almost entirely reserved for poor people with terrible legal representation, though an occasional working-class person will be caught up into it in extreme circumstances. In India, a country in which 1/3 of the Parliament has rape or murder cases standing against them and wealthy religious leaders and popular gangland figures are known killers and rapists, it was instead the case of four slum dwellers who had raped a medical student that led to national outrage and a renewed call for the death penalty.

[43] The evidence of racial bias in the American use of the death penalty is too extensive to be captured adequately here. I suggest reading, “The Death Penalty in Black and White: Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Decides,” by Richard C. Dieter or “Is the Death Penalty in Actual Practice Unjust” from Stassen and Gushee’s Kingdom Ethics, pages 210-214. To summarize, the district attorneys who bring death penalty cases are nearly always White, the juries who decide to administer the death penalty are nearly always White, and statistical analyses across the nation show that Black defendants are at least three to four times more likely to be sentenced to death than White defendants. The likelihood of a death sentence is even higher if the victim is White. Also, studies of past cases show that a large majority of death penalty cases include errors serious enough that they could have been reversed on appeal.

[44] Matthew 5:43-45

[45] Matthew 5:38-39

[46] Matthew 5:21-22

[47] Romans 2:1-6

[48] The insistence by some to rely on Genesis 9:6 is not any more consistent. Throughout Genesis are other commands and sayings that are no longer followed in the New Covenant, including within Genesis 9 itself.

[49] 2 Corinthians 2:14-17. N.T. Wright and others note the likely intentional ironic implications of Paul describing the crucified Christ triumphantly leading a procession where he spreads the fragrance of the imprisoned and suffering Paul.

[50] These statements all come from Makkot 1.10 in the Mishnah, translated by Herbert Danby, as quoted in Stassen and Gushee, Kingdom Ethics

4 thoughts on “Would you throw the first stone?

  1. I think that, in the United States at least, capital punishment exists only to sate the bloodlust of the populace. It certainly doesn’t do anything to reduce crime.


  2. Pingback: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Powerlessness – Stranger in a Slum

  3. Pingback: Defining nonviolence – Stranger in a Slum

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