Murder is universally understood as one of the most heinous and serious crimes. Every jurisdiction in the world condemns murder to at least some degree. In the developed world, murder is at the top of a short list of crimes that may be punishable by death.
God prohibited murder in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:13), but He is also a God of grace and forgiveness. Is it possible that He could even forgive murderers?
God forgives repentant murderers the same as He forgives all who repent. The Bible provides several examples and important teachings specifically about forgiveness for murderers.
The Seriousness of Murder
It is right that our legal systems consider murder with such gravity. Stolen goods can be returned and damaged property can be replaced or repaired. But a life cut short is irrevocably gone. Murder cannot be undone.
How Can God Forgive Murderers?
Because of the seriousness and permanence of murder, it is hard for us to imagine that God can forgive murderers as easily as He forgives liars and thieves. Yet, if you’ve read our piece about Mortal Sins, you know that God forgives all sins equally for anyone who repents and receives the grace and mercy offered to them by Jesus on the cross.
This brings us to a second struggle when we consider how God can forgive murderers: Not only do we struggle to understand God’s grace against the gravity of murder, but we also have difficulty imagining how a murderer could possibly have a change of heart that leads to repentance.
Murderers of the Bible
Before we wrestle with the difficulties of this question, let’s set the stage by examining some well-known murderers in the Bible.
Famous in Christian circles and beyond for being the first murderer, Cain killed his brother out of jealousy (Genesis 4:8). Even as God pronounced judgment and sent Cain into exile, He ensured that Cain would be protected from retribution:
But the Lord said to him, “Not so; anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over.” Then the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him. – Genesis 4:15
We think of Moses as a hero, leader, prophet, and law-giver. And he was all of these things. But he was also a murderer:
One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to where his own people were and watched them at their hard labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his own people. Looking this way and that and seeing no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.Exodus 2:11-12
Like Cain, Moses was worried about retribution if he returned to Egypt. But when God called Moses through the burning bush, He assured Moses that he did not need to fear, saying “Go back to Egypt, for all those who wanted to kill you are dead.” (Exodus 4:19)
In the New Testament, Moses is held up as a pillar of faith (Hebrews 11:24-28) and was one of two Old Testament prophets seen with Jesus at the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-3).
David had created a mess for himself when he slept with Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, and she became pregnant. When his attempt to cover up their adultery failed, David arranged to have Uriah killed in battle (2 Samuel 11:14-17).
Yet, when the prophet Nathan confronted and rebuked David, David was repentant and the Lord’s response was gracious:
Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.”
Nathan replied, “The Lord has taken away your sin. You are not going to die.” – 2 Samuel 12:13
Despite David’s many sins—including murder—God used David to establish His earthly kingdom that would ultimately be reestablished as Jesus’ heavenly kingdom. He even described David as a man after His own heart (Acts 13:22).
A Condemned Criminal
Older English translations teach us that Jesus was crucified between two thieves, but this is an oversimplification of who these men really were. They are better understood as bandits, which in the first century involved much more than just larceny.
First-century bandits were insurrectionists who regularly participated not only in robberies but in violent uprisings. It is likely, then, that these two bandits were condemned to death because they had blood on their hands.
Still, when one repented and asked Jesus for mercy, Jesus responded by saying:
“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”Luke 23:43
Jesus on Grace
God’s grace for murderers is certainly good news for the likes of Cain, Moses, David, and the unnamed bandit. But most of us are not murderers, so we struggle to accept that God’s grace could be given to someone so undeserving.
But grace, by definition, is an undeserved favor. And we are all saved by grace.
Jesus taught this principle in the parable of the workers (Matthew 20:1-16). In this parable, the workers that signed on early in the day received a full day’s wages, as did the workers who signed on a mid-day and toward the evening.
The workers who worked a full day were upset that the others received as much pay as they had. But Jesus reminded them that they agreed to—and received—a full day’s wages.
Grace is not a zero-sum game. More grace for others doesn’t mean less grace for us, because all grace originates from our infinite God.
But Jesus’ parable focuses on the length of service, not on what the workers may have been doing before they signed on, so how do we apply this one-grace-fits-all ideal to murder?
Jesus on Murder
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.”Matthew 5:21-22a
As Jesus often does, he reminds here us that the act of murder begins with the mind and the heart. Bitterness, hatred, resentment, and unforgiveness are all attitudes that are wrapped up in Jesus’ statement—and they also feature prominently in the stories that we explored earlier.
Sin starts in the heart, and murder is no exception to this truth.
John echoes this teaching in his letters:
For this is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another. Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother’s were righteous… Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him.1 John 3:11-12, 15
Most of us wouldn’t think that we are like Cain, but according to John—and Jesus—we are more like him than we realize.
No Better than Murderers?
Jesus made another powerful statement that puts all sin on equal footing with murder, but it’s easy to miss if we’re not looking for it:
Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.Luke 13:1-3
The Galileans that Jesus refers to are not simply people who had been arbitrarily killed by Pilate’s regime, they were insurrectionists. The early readers of the Gospels would have understood this since Galilee was a hotbed of political unrest and most of the revolts against Rome originated from this very impoverished region of Israel.
The reference to Galileans then is not a statement about their geographic origin, but their political identity, and the actions that accompany such a moniker.
Yet, Jesus tells the crowd that they need repentance and grace just as much as these violent insurrectionists who have spilled blood!
Grace for All
The good news is that there is hope and mercy for all sinners—even murderers. And even those sinners who—like you and me—may have murdered only in our heads and hearts and not with our hands.
And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.1 Corinthians 6:11