Does the Bible Command Us to Kill Apostates?

Author Alan Shlemon Published on 07/10/2024

It’s well known that Islam strongly discourages apostasy. Abandon the faith, and you might end up dead. Though many Christians point to this practice as a blight on the Islamic faith, some skeptics claim that Christianity requires a similar punishment for disbelievers (a command allegedly found in Deuteronomy 13:6–10) and, therefore, is just as unjust. This challenge—and how it’s resolved—demonstrates the importance of knowing your theology and proper interpretative principles.

Read the Text

First, it’s always important to read the passage yourself. Don’t assume another person’s interpretation is correct. Here’s the passage in question:

If your brother, your mother’s son, or your son or daughter, or the wife you cherish, or your friend who is as your own soul, entice you secretly, saying, “Let us go and serve other gods” (whom neither you nor your fathers have known, of the gods of the peoples who are around you, near you or far from you, from one end of the earth to the other end), you shall not yield to him or listen to him; and your eye shall not pity him, nor shall you spare or conceal him. But you shall surely kill him; your hand shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people. So you shall stone him to death because he has sought to seduce you from the Lord your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. (Deut. 13:6–10)

Upon a cursory reading, there’s no command to kill apostates. An apostate would be a person who was once a Jew but has now abandoned his religion. There’s no indication that someone fell away from their faith. Instead, the passage commands you to stone a person who tries to “entice you secretly” to “go and serve other gods.” That’s a problem because they are tempting you to break the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Ex. 20:3). Notice, also, the problem isn’t merely having another god; it’s serving another god. This is an important distinction, and the next point reveals why.

Study the Context

Second, never read a Bible verse. This Stand to Reason axiom is a reminder to never try to understand the meaning of a passage without reading the context. Always read the text before and after the passage in question so you better understand what’s being said. In this case, the preceding chapter (only eight verses away) provides valuable information that explains why enticing a person to serve another god is an abominable crime. Deuteronomy 12:30–31 warns the Israelites:

Beware that you are not ensnared to follow them, after they are destroyed before you, and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, “How do these nations serve their gods, that I also may do likewise?” You shall not behave thus toward the Lord your God, for every abominable act which the Lord hates they have done for their gods; for they even burn their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods.

Notice that serving other gods entails sacrificing their sons and daughters by burning them! This explains why the Israelites were commanded to kill those who enticed them to serve other gods. The other nations were sacrificing their children in fire and enticing the Israelites to do the same with their own children. Therefore, this passage wasn’t a command to kill apostates. Rather, it was a command to protect innocent children from being burned to death in a ritual sacrifice. It also deterred the Israelites from following the practices of pagan nations.

Consider Relevant Theology

Third, consider relevant theology. The passage in question (Deut. 13:6–10) is part of the Mosaic Law, a contract God established with the Jews that was meant to govern the theocracy in Israel. That contract—and its commands—are no longer in force for three reasons: Its laws were only relevant for theocratic Israel (Lev. 26:46, Rom. 9:4), Jesus fulfilled the terms of that contract (Matt. 5:17), and God established a new contract, called the New Covenant in Christ (Luke 22:20, Heb. 8:13). Therefore, even if Deuteronomy 13:6–10 were a command to kill apostates (which I’ve argued that it’s not), that law would no longer be in force. No Christian would be obligated to kill an apostate.

By taking a little time to read the text in question, it becomes obvious the passage isn’t referring to apostates. Rather, when you read the context, you discover that believers were being enticed to serve other gods, which would entail sacrificing children on an altar. Therefore, the passage isn’t about killing apostates, but about punishing people who sacrificed children and enticed others to do the same. Reading the text, studying the context, and considering the theology of covenants enables you to address this objection and provides a technique for answering countless others.