Written by Vladimir Moss



     The abolition of the death penalty occupies a very important place in contemporary liberalism. One of the major signs of a civilized society, according to the liberals, besides democracy, free trade and the abolition of slavery, is the abolition of the death penalty. Many Orthodox priests and intellectuals are also against capital punishment. But the question is: can this opinion be justified by Orthodox Tradition?

     The first person to introduce the death penalty was God. He sentenced Adam and Eve, and all their descendants, to death for their sin in Paradise. Moreover, His very first commandment to Noah as he emerged from the ark to make a new beginning for the human race was: “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” (Genesis 9.5-6). The Law of Moses instituted the death penalty for many offences, and the Lord never showed any desire to revise this part of the Law – which of course owed its origin to Him. When the Pharisees urged that the death penalty should be applied to the woman taken in adultery, in accordance with the Law, He did not demur, but simply said: “Let him who is without sin among you cast the first stone” (John 8.7). The point here was not that the law was unjust, but that those who were urging its execution were hypocrites – they themselves were adulterers. True justice requires that the executors of the law should be innocent of the crimes that they punish.

     If anyone doubts whether the Lord was at all squeamish about the application of the death penalty, then we need only cite His words on crimes against children: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18.8).

     The rest of the New Testament gives no support to opponents of the death penalty. St. Paul speaks about those who, “knowing the righteous judgement of God, that those who practice such things [a whole series of sins] are deserving of death…” (Romans 1.32) And later in the same epistle he explicitly states that the Roman emperor “does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil” (Romans 13.4). In Acts chapter 5, we read how the Apostle Peter more or less executed Ananias and Sapphira. And in Eusebius’ Church History we read how the Apostles Peter and Paul prayed in the Colisseum that Simon Magus’ demonically-inspired flying displays should be terminated – and he fell crashing to the ground.

     In the Lives of the Saints there are many more such examples. A particularly striking case comes from the life of St. Leo, bishop of Catania (February 20). The Catania diocese had been plagued by a sorcerer, Hermogenes, who was able to fly from Sicily to Constantinople and in this way was drawing many away from the faith. St. Leo exhorted him to mend his ways, but he refused. Then the saint ordered a bonfire to be built and set alight. Taking his omophorion off, he put it around the neck of the sorcerer, thereby nullifying his strength. Then he went together with the bound Hermogenes into the blazing fire. Hermogenes burned to death, but the saint was untouched by the flames…

     Almost all Orthodox states, including the Byzantine and Russian empires, had the death penalty on their books for various crimes, including blasphemy and sorcery. Although, to the present writer’s knowledge, there was never any dispute over whether murderers and similar criminals should be executed, there was a dispute, in early sixteenth-century Russia, over whether the death penalty should be applied to the Judaizing heretics who almost seized control of the Russian State. St. Nilus of Sora argued against the death penalty, and St. Joseph of Volokolamsk – for it. In his work The Enlightener, St. Joseph argued with extensive quotations from the Holy Scriptures and the Holy Fathers, that while heresy as such was never punished with death in the Orthodox tradition, those who persistently and stubbornly tried to spread their heretical views and impose them on others were in a different category. St. Joseph’s views prevailed, and about three leading Judaizers were executed…

     By the last decades of the nineteenth century, however, Russian practice was beginning to be influenced by the ideas of the liberals. The burning issue was how to deal with revolutionaries. While educated society, steeped in liberal ideas, regarded them as victims of the regime and even, sometimes, as martyrs for the truth, most Orthodox, including the tsarist authorities, thought that they merited the death penalty. Even Tsar Nicholas II, an extremely merciful and soft-hearted man by nature, made no moves to abolish the death penalty. Although he often exercised his right to commute a sentence of death to something more lenient, he recognized that for the most impenitent criminals the death penalty was appropriate.     

     After the abortive revolution of 1905, the restoration of order in Russia was accomplished largely through the efforts of one of the great servants of the tsarist regime, the Interior Minister and later Prime Minister Peter Arkadyevich Stolypin, who was himself later killed by a Jewish terrorist. In the Duma his military field tribunals, which decreed capital punishment for the revolutionaries, were often criticized. But he replied to one such critic: “Learn to distinguish the blood on the hands of a doctor from the blood on the hands of an executioner…”[1]



     There are three main arguments against the death penalty. The first claims that it is wrong because we are commanded: “Thou shalt not kill”. But the same Lawgiver Who said: “Thou shalt not kill” also instituted the death penalty for various crimes. So there is a contradiction here. But the contradiction is easily resolved: “Thou shalt not kill” means “Thou shalt not commit murder”, which is very different from the carrying out of the death sentence in accordance with the law.

     The second argument is that man has a right to life. However, as all Christians know, since the fall of Adam and Eve, man has no right to life – in fact, he is under the sentence of death. And God carries out that sentence on each one of us sooner or later. Moreover, as we have seen, He has given the right to carry out the death sentence on murderers to men – not all men, of course, but to those who are given authority in and by the State.

     The third argument derives from the undeniable fact that miscarriages of justice sometimes take place. So it is better, it is argued, not to execute criminals at all. However, if the God of justice commands that murderers be executed, how can justice be served by disobeying His command?! Of course, every precaution must be taken to avoid injustice, and when, in spite of all precautions, injustice is done, it should be recognized, repented of, and lessons learned for the future. But almost every thing worth doing in life involves risk. Drivers risk their and other lives every time they go on the roads – but nobody seriously argues that all mechanized transport should be banned (as opposed to introducing speed limits and penalties for careless driving). Surgeons run the risk of killing their patients every time they undertake a major operation – but nobody seriously suggests that surgery should be banned. Fishing on the high seas can still be a dangerous activity – but nobody suggests that we should be content only with the fish caught in fresh-water rivers and lakes. Life is fraught with the risk of mistakes, injustices and accidental death, and no amount of human ingenuity will remove such dangers completely. 

     In any case, the removal of the death penalty invariably entrains different, but no less great injustices. The newly-converted St. Vladimir of Kiev was minded to remove the death penalty because he thought that was the Christian and merciful thing to do. But his Greek bishops pointed out that the death penalty acts as a deterrent – not for all criminals, but for a significant proportion of them, - and that since his abolition of the death penalty crime was on the increase in his kingdom.

     Moreover, by being “merciful” to a criminal without having reformed him, you increase the likelihood that he will commit the same crime again. The British newspapers today are full of stories of murderers who are released, and then commit the same crime again – and again. These further murders must be at least partially on the conscience of those who decided to be “merciful” but in fact proved themselves to be unmerciful to the later victims.

     Not only does the death penalty deter some criminals, and make impossible the commitment of further murders by impenitent murderers: it also significantly aids the process of repentance. In religious times, many people, when faced with death on the gallows, reviewed their lives and repented of their evil deeds – Dostoyevsky is a famous example. This is much rarer in our irreligious times. But the possibility still exists, and we can such cases. What is indisputable is that long prison sentences with the promise of early release for (often hypocritically) “good behaviour” rarely lead to repentance, but much more often to re-offending.

     Even for a man who has been unjustly sentenced, the death penalty may provide a vital spiritual opportunity. If he is honest with himself, he may come to the conclusion that, while he is not guilty of this particular crime, he has committed other, hardly less serious sins. And by accepting an unjust death as the just reward for his general spiritual state, he may earn the salvation of his soul…

     The supreme fact, which almost all opponents of the death penalty ignore, is that death is not the end and that every man faces another, far more terrifying and final verdict on his deeds immediately after his death (Hebrews 9.27). At that absolutely impartial judgement-seat, there will be true justice for all. For those who have been unjustly executed will be rewarded for their patient endurance of injustice, those who have been justly executed and have accepted the justice of the verdict with true repentance will be forgiven and rewarded, and those who have been justly executed but have not repented will experience an eternal continuation of their punishment…

     In the last analysis, all of us have to recognize that we have been justly sentenced to death for our sins, and that the execution of that sentence will come to each one of us at precisely the time and in precisely the manner that God, and not man, decrees. As for the judgement after death, the only way we will escape the penalty of eternal death is to say, as the good thief said to the bad one at the Cross of Christ: “Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds…” (Luke 23.40-41).


July 21 / August 3, 2013.

[1] Ariadna Tyrkova-Wiliams, “Na Putiakh k Svobode”, in Petr Stolypin, Moscow, 1998, p. 221. 

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