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Ethics and Religion Talk: Is the Death Penalty Ethical?

Can you imagine any circumstances which would justify imposing a death penalty? What standard of proof or evidentiary requirements would you require in order to consider a death penalty to be an ethical and fair punishment?

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“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at More recent columns can be found on by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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Rev. Salvatore Sapienza, the Senior Pastor at Douglas Congregational United Church of Christ in Saugatuck/Douglas, responds:

More than 30 years ago, the World Council of Churches declared their overwhelming opposition to the death penalty. In no uncertain terms, they stated that “in taking away human life, the state usurps the will of God.” 

More recently, Pope Francis urged the Roman Catholic Church to support the elimination of the death penalty. He said, “The death penalty is morally inadmissible, for it destroys the most important gift we have received: life.”

The sacredness of human life is a key tenet of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Ten Commandments proclaimed, “Thou shall not kill,” and Jesus instructed his followers to “love thy enemy,” “turn the other cheek,” “bless those who persecute you,” and “forgive those who have wronged you seventy times seven times.”

As a Christian pastor, I cannot imagine any circumstance which would justify capital punishment, and it befuddles me when passionate “pro-life” Christians proclaim their unwavering support of the death penalty in the name of justice. For, as Bishop Desmond Tutu said, “There is no justice in killing in the name of justice.”

The Reverend Colleen Squires, minister at All Souls Community Church of West Michigan, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, responds:

As difficult as this is for some to understand, there is no circumstance that would justify imposing the death penalty. I do believe there are some or a few truly evil acting human beings in this world but I also believe the death penalty is wrong. Unitarian Universalists believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person, there is no exception to this Principle. 

Rev. Ray Lanning, a retired minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, responds:

By divine institution (Genesis 9:5, 6), the act of murder is a crime for which the murderer ought to die. The only further qualifications are first, to distinguish between murder and manslaughter, or unintentionally causing the death of a fellow human being; and second, the necessity of determining, through judicial process, the guilt of the one charged with this crime, beyond all doubt. 

Moses’ law ordains that, “At the mouth of two witnesses, or three, shall he that is worthy of death be put to death; but at the mouth of one witness he shall not be put to death” (Deuteronomy 17:6). This Mosaic provision implies that a court has been duly constituted, a charge has been laid, evidence has been examined, and testimony has been heard. There are serious penalties for those who bear false witness in such a proceeding; and a very heavy duty is laid on those who come forward to testify:  “The hands of the witnesses shall be first upon him to put him to death” (v. 7). 

Many and weighty are the arguments against capital punishment. Much less attention is given to the modern alternative of imprisonment for life. The nation’s prisons are bursting at the seams, full of vice and crime, staffed by guards who often prey upon and exploit the prisoners, and operated for profit by businesses in the private sector. In short, it is a system that has failed badly. Life imprisonment may not be any more humane as a form of punishment than a death sentence.

Linda Knieriemen, Senior Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Holland, responds:

In 1959 the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (the branch which would become the PC(USA) wrote that “that capital punishment cannot be condoned by an interpretation of the Bible based upon the revelation of God’s love in Jesus Christ,” and called on Christians to “seek the redemption of evil doers and not their death” and noted that “the use of the death penalty tends to brutalize the society that condones it.”

More recently, in 2021 the  Presbyterian Church USA made this statement to guide the church: 

We believe that the death penalty challenges the redemptive power of the cross. God's grace is sufficient for all humans regardless of their sin. As Christians, we must 'seek the redemption of evildoers and not their death.

So no, there is no situation where the death penalty is an ethical and fair punishment. 

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

In matters of criminal punishment, I have always opposed the death penalty. However, the realities of war often upset our higher ideals. If there is irrefutable proof of treason or other high crimes committed during wartime, I understand the need for swift action that will keep our troops safe and not compromise our battle strategy. 

In the Hindu code of ethics (Yoga Sutras Chapter 2, Sloka 35) ahimsa (nonviolence) is highly valued as a virtue. But as with most other religions, there are important exceptions that allow force to be used to protect the innocent. 

My response:

Jewish tradition in general disapproves of the death penalty unless there is evidence that that the murder rate is increasing as a result of leniency in punishment. On top of this, however, the evidentiary standard for the imposition of the death penalty is beyond the shadow of a doubt, rather than the beyond reasonable doubt standard in criminal trials.


This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up in the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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