Does Christ's Sacrifice ransom God's Noahic commandment of capital punishment for murder?

Disclaimer: this is not meant as a conversation about opinions on capital punishment, nor about opinions on recent catechetical revisions under Pope Francis. I’m seeking an educative response to the question as it is presented. I wish to understand where the (Catholic) Church ought to stand on the matter of capital punishment as a form of justice specifically for the remedy of murder with respect to Christ’s sacrifice.

My understanding, when putting aside contextual readings of various points in scripture, is that God’s commandment to Noah in Genesis 9:6 clearly and firmly establishes a binding commandment on all of man that murder should be remedied via capital punishment precisely because we are made in the image of God:

“Whoever sheds man’s blood, By man his blood shall be shed, For in the image of God He made man.” (NASB)

What I wish to know, however, is whether there has been any formal attempt at demonstrating whether Christ’s sacrifice satisfies capital punishment, and further, to what extent Christ’s sacrifice satisfies Noahic prescriptions for justice.

No. Christ’s sacrifice does not satisfy temporal justice. Otherwise, it would do away with all punishment and all debts, not just this particular one.

This is no longer, however, a positive law that must be applied always and everywhere. The advisability of capital punishment in particular circumstances is left up to those responsible for the common good, like the execution of all human law.

It has, however, been traditionally cited to demonstrate that capital punishment is not contrary to the law of God. Likewise, the underlying principle, however, remains in force which demonstrates that the application of the penalty of death for murder is not contrary to the dignity of the human person, but rather, when it is justified, it is justified because of that dignity.


Would you be able to dive into this more? Can you elaborate what you mean by “positive law”, and why the commandment in question ceases to be so?

And while it is inarguable that Christ’s death does not satisfy temporal justice, could it not be said that it does “fulfill” certain prescriptions for temporal justice (ie numerous Mosaic prescriptions for putting one to death or sacrificing animals)?

Tricky question, but the answer is “no,” Christ was not “punished” for man’s sin. He offered a perfect sacrifice that redeemed us, but Christ specifically was not “punished” for man’s sin in order to make satisfaction to the Father. If he were, that would mean God the Father put an innocent man to death, which would be a grave injustice. Your question seems to come (intentionally or not) from the Protestant concept of “penal substitution.” The Catholic view is called “vicarious satisfaction”, whereby Christ acts on our behalf to make up for the offence of humanity. Now, it may seem like I’m saying the same thing, but there is a very important distinction: What redeemed us, and merited salvation was the perfect love and obedience the Son showed the Father by accepting suffering and death. Its all about perfect love and obedience to the Father to make up for the sin and disobedience of Adam.

“And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore, God has highly exalted him…” (Phil 2:8-9)

I hope this helps.


The way I can see Christ’s death being relevant in regard to murder is in Christ’s reaction to his own murder. He didn’t call his disciples to shed blood and take a life for an innocent life, but he prayed the Father for his executioners’ forgiveness.

But that is relevant insofar as we are called to a Christ-like life, not from a juridical point of view.

Thank you for clarifying this. As far as the distinction is concerned, that makes perfect sense. To then rephrase my question: did Christ’s willing sacrifice vicariously satisfy human offense to the extent that man is no longer obligated to the juridical prescription of Genesis 9:6?

I was afraid you were going to ask a follow up :grinning:

I just finished this semester’s final on the Trinity / Christology / Soteriology…we covered vicarious satisfaction a couple of weeks ago, so the topic was fresh in my memory. Now I have to delve back into my dusty memory files to answer.

Your question is a good one because normally, I get questions about the laws found in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. For those laws (the juridical and ceremonial ones), they were for a specific group of people (The Jews) for a specific period of time (until the Messiah). The moral laws, like the 10 commandments, are also part of natural law and are timeless and always apply. The tricky part is this: there was no “Jewish Nation” until Exodus. By the way, here is a link to an article about those laws:

So what about this verse from Genesis?

Well, I would have to guess…perhaps someone with a bit more expertise can assist here. My guess is this particular law is no longer an obligation as well. From a historical perspective, the people alive back then were probably quite uncivilized, by today’s standards. We know they were “corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.” (Gen 6:11), which is why there was a flood. So after the flood, God wants a law in place to tell people “don’t take life”, and He put a death penalty in place to ensure murder was discouraged. Now that is just opinion…I am now officially out of my expertise

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If this was true then it would also be true that (virtually) all of the Fathers, all of the Doctors, and all of the popes for 2000 years completely misunderstood this point. I’m unwilling to believe the Church was so wrong for so long about such a major concept.

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However the Jewish people regarded the death penalty as an ‘allowance’ rather than a commandment. The Mishnah tells of it as a token act.

“A sanhedrin that executes once in seven years, is called murderous. Rabbi Eliezer b. Azariah Says: once in seventy years. Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva say: “Had we been members of a sanhedrin, no person would ever be put to death. Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel remarked: “They would also multiply murderers in Israel.””

The claim that Genesis 9 created a binding judicial commandment is a bit of revisionism.

While it may of use to understand how the Israelites understood Genesis 9, it’s not necessary. I’m interested primarily in what God himself intended through these words to Noah, an event which though preserved through the Israelites, preceded them.

We cannot say anything is a revisionism when what’s staring back at us on the page seems at least to be straighforward in tone and intention.

God’s ‘statement’ preceding Chapter 9:6 demonstrates that He is speaking about something more symbolic than judicial.

5 For your own lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning: from every animal I will require it and from human beings, each one for the blood of another, I will require a reckoning for human life.

We don’t put dumb animals on trial in human courts. The penalty means nothing to it and doesn’t serve any purpose in human justice other than to protect people from further harm it may cause in the future.

The verses clearly have symbolism at heart.

Ah, but though they assented to it, has doctrine ever defined recourse to its use?

You’re partly correct. The verse has nothing at all to do with conducting a trial. And you’re also right that animals do not stand trial. Trials are not conducted in order to pass sentences, but so that the accused may defend their innocence. But neither is the conversation about conducting trials. It is specifically about what justice should be had for one who has ended human life unjustly.

There is no language in Genesis 9 that suggests symbolism. Genesis 9:5 in fact further affirms God’s insistence that the transgression of Human life, as made in His image, be remedied by the death of the transgressor. What God is saying is that even the animal that kills a man must have its life forfeit because it has turned against its steward, who is the likeness of God.

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I’m not quite sure I understand this. Are you asking whether the church ever called for it to be the default punishment? The Papal States had their own executioner, and the Vatican had the death penalty on its books well into the 1960s. There is also this:

It is lawful for a Christian magistrate to punish with death disturbers of the public peace. It is proved, first, from the Scriptures, for in the law of nature, of Moses, and of the Gospels, we have precepts and examples of this. For God says, “Whosoever shall shed man’s blood, his blood shall be shed.” These words cannot utter a prophecy, since a prophecy of this sort would often be false, but a decree and a precept. (St Bellarmine, De Laicis ch 13)

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I mean to ask: Has the Magisterium, either ordinarily or extraordinarily, ever dogmatically defined any recourse man has to the use of capital punishment?

The validity of using capital punishment has been specifically recognized in at least a half dozen catechisms going back to the Catechism of St. Thomas in about 1250, and at least that many popes have expressly acknowledged it as valid. Is that what you’re referring to as “dogmatically defined”?

Another kind of lawful slaying belongs to the civil authorities, to whom is entrusted power of life and death, by the legal and judicious exercise of which they punish the guilty and protect the innocent. The just use of this power, far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this Commandment which prohibits murder. (Catechism of Trent)

Infallibly defined, either by way of ecumenical council, ex cathedra pronouncement, papal bull, etc…

Catechisms would not fall under this category, as theyare educational in scope and intent, not pastoral.

The validity of capital punishment has not been expressly identified as infallible.

That said, it is expressly accepted in the Catechism of Trent which flowed directly from the Council of Trent. The Fourth Lateran Council forbade clerics from shedding blood but did not impose that ban on civil authorities.

18. Clerics to dissociate from shedding-blood

No cleric may pronounce a sentence of death, or execute such a sentence, or be present at its execution. If anyone in consequence of this prohibition (hujusmodi occasions statuti) should presume to inflict damage on churches or injury on ecclesiastical persons, let him be restrained by ecclesiastical censure. Nor may any cleric write or dictate letters destined for the execution of such a sentence. Wherefore, in the chanceries of the princes let this matter be committed to laymen and not to clerics.

And while it is inarguable that Christ’s death does not satisfy temporal justice, could it not be said that it does “fulfill” certain prescriptions for temporal justice (ie numerous Mosaic prescriptions for putting one to death or sacrificing animals)?

Sacrificing animals was a spiritual prescription, it was a physical act, but which served a spiritual purpose (pleasing God, etc.).

Further, Mosaic law is a complex issue, first because an in-depth reading shows that what actually happens is that the people of Israel sin with the Golden Calf, and Moses begs God for mercy, to which God’s reply is Leviticus and Deuteronomy. God could (and if memory serves, was initially going to) kill them, but rather punishes them with the law (all the restrictions etc. from Lev. and Deut.) which would otherwise not have been there. These restrictions are mostly a sort of way of getting the people ready for the comming of Christ, who upon comming “fufills the law”, and are needed because of their stiff-neck-ed-ness.

To compound this, the Mosaic law can be broken down into categories. Pope Benedict XVI broke it down into 2, but I am going to break it down into 3 (because it is clearer this way, and (more significantly) I don’t know enough to break it down Pope Benedict’s way).
The first type of law is Temple law, these are the laws of clean and unclean which are done away with (in part) by Christ (God commands that St. Peter et al. should not refrain from things like ham), and fully gone now, because the Temple was destroyed, and couldn’t be rebuilt. Temple law serves to govern the Temple and ensure the people have discipline.
Second is Kingdom Law, which serves to govern the kingdom of Israel, and the people within (ie the prescribed punishments for immoral acts etc.) which served to maintain legal order within Israel. As there is no longer the Kindgom of Israel (modern Israel is much different from the ancient Kingdom), these laws too are now invalid.
The third is Moral Law, which contains natural law, and the 10 commandments. These are binding on all the world, and further expounding on them is found mixed in the other laws withing Lev and Deut. These laws can often be distinguished by bearing the penalty of execution, and are also known as Natural law, because they flow from the nature (philosophical def: “quidity- the what-it-is-for-ness”) of things (namely us).

So while it could be said Christ “fulfill’s” them, all he is doing is making them lack a purpose, and therby cease to endure. The temporal punishment isn’t satisfied, it just ceases to be expressed in the same way.

Short answer is no. Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient to justify us before God upon repentance. That does not however excuse the civil authorities from exacting justice through the application of the law.

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