Theories of punishment are classified based on whether they are backward-looking (focused on the crime) or forward-looking (focused on the future). The former justifies punishment based on the crime's intrinsic wrong (the theory is based on a deontological theory of ethics). The latter justifies punishment based on what future consequences the punishment may accomplish (the theory is based on a consequentialist or utilitarian theory of ethics). [See "Punishment," Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy].
1. Retributive Theories (Backward-Looking)
- (1a) Reciprocal (or Classic Retributive) Theory ("getting even")-- this theory holds that the wrongful act itself merits punishment. The act has caused harm to someone and the perpetrator needs to feel something of the pain that the victim felt. In this theory, the punishment is seen as good in itself just as the criminal act was evil in itself. It is sometimes called "mirror punishment," i. e., the practice of “repaying” a wrongdoer "in kind." This may also be termed lex talonis ("an eye for an eye").
- (1b) Expressive (or Denunciation) Theory ("being put in your place")--this theory holds that the wrongful act degraded the victim. The perpetrator "expressed" an improper view of the status of the victim. The victim's dignity was lowered by the act. The perpetrator needs to be punished in order to restore the dignity of the victim and to lower the dignity of the perpetrator.
- (1c) Restorative Theory ("making things right")--this theory holds that the damage done by the wrongful act needs to be repaired or corrected. This involves restitution.
2. Utilitarian Theories (Forward-Looking)
- (2a) Deterrence Theory ("keep others from making the same mistake")--this theory holds that the purpose of the punishment is to deter others from committing the same or a similar offence. By making an example of the perpetrator, the community is warned of the consequences of such behavior.
- (2b) Protection Theory ("you won't make the same mistake again")--this theory holds that the purpose of punishment is to deter the perpetrator from committing the same crime again. The punishment serves to protect the community from this person's future actions and usually involves incarceration. It could also involve castration for a sex offender.
- (2c) Rehabilitative Theory ("make you a changed man")--this theory holds that purpose of punishment is to change the person's future behavior. It is designed to make him look inside of himself and determine why he acted wrongly and correct those internal defects so that he won't commit the same act again.
In the very beginning of the Bible, God makes it clear that the punishment for disobeying him (sin) is death. (Genesis 2:16-17). The story of the flood of Noah in chapter six of Genesis also illustrates God’s concept of retributive justice. Because man had become so corrupt in sinning against God, God decided to send a flood to destroy mankind (Genesis 6:13-14). In God’s mind, sin deserves punishment and that punishment must be death. Thus, the whole world, with the exception of Noah’s family, must die. The first case of retribution being ordered for crimes that a man commits against another man is found in Genesis 9:6—"Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.” God decrees that if a man kills another man, he must be punished with the same punishment, namely death.
One of the best known phrases from the Bible is “an eye for eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” This illustrates very clearly the concept of retributive justice that God commanded his people to follow. It is the principle of lex talionis, the punishment should be proportionate to the crime. The phrase is found three places in the Old Testament. Exodus 21:23-25—“But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.“ Leviticus 24:19-20—“If anyone injures his neighbor, whatever he has done must be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. As he has injured the other, so he is to be injured. “ Deuteronomy 19:21—“Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”
All three of these passages are found in sections of the Torah in which God is laying out the principles of justice that he wants his chosen people, the Israelites, to follow. A straightforward reading of these passages makes it very clear that in God’s mind there is only form of justice, namely, retributive justice.
Now it is true that Jesus seems to repeal this form of justice in Matthew 5:38-39—“You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.“ Typically, Christian commentators have interpreted this to refer to interpersonal relations. In other words, if you as an individual are mistreated by another person, you should not seek retaliation. While Jesus does not explicitly say so here, in Romans 12, discussed below, the idea is that retribution will come against the wrongdoer but it will be God who exacts the punishment.
In the writings of Paul, we find the concept of retributive justice to be a dominant theme. A key word is ἀνταποδίδωμι, (to repay, requite) which is translated in the King James Version as “recompense,” and in the New International Version as “pay back.” Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words defines the word (ἀνταποδίδωμι): "to give back as an equivalent, to requite, recompense" (the anti expressing the idea of a complete return).”
In Romans 12:17-19, Paul, in harmony with what Jesus said in Matthew 5:38-39 (see above), says that Christians are not to exact retribution from those who are persecuting them but rather to leave that in God’s hands. He writes: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay (ἀνταποδίδωμι)," says the Lord. “
If this retribution does not take place before, it will, according to Paul, when Jesus returns from heaven. He writes in 2 Thessalonians 1:6-8 : “God is just: He will pay back (ἀνταποδίδωμι) trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. “ This shows that God has not changed his mind, at least if one can believe Paul, about the retributive theory of justice (see Hebrews 10:30).
The last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation, also makes it clear that God will exact retribution against the world for its sin. In agreement with Paul’s teaching in 2 Thessalonians, John sees Jesus coming back from heaven and executing judgment on the people of the earth (Revelation 19:11-15). This judgment is the display of God’s wrath against sinners. In chapter 20:11-15, the final judgment is depicted in which all men are resurrected to stand before God and to be judged on the basis of their works. The sinners are thrown into the lake of fire for eternity in retribution for their evil deeds.
Thus, it seems evident that the Bible consistently teaches the (1a) Reciprocal or Classical Retributive theory of justice from beginning (Genesis) to end (Revelation). If my conclusion is correct, then the only theory of the atonement that meets the criteria for the punishment of Jesus is the PST. The (1b) Expressive (or Denunciation) Theory and the (1c) Restorative Theory would align more with the Satisfaction Theory of the atonement which says that God's honor has been insulted by sin and that his honor must be restored.
While the Bible certainly presents the atonement as having many future benefits and consequences, those benefits are all possible because retribution has been accomplished. In other words, the Bible does not teach that the reason why Jesus had to die was so that man might learn a lesson about the seriousness of sin (Governmental Theory of atonement) or so that man might love God more (Moral Influence Theory of atonement). These are by-products of the atonement but not the primary purpose behind it. The primary purpose (i.e., that which necessitated it), of the atonement was to propitiate the wrath of God or to placate the vengenance which God sought for being wronged. Thus the punishment of Jesus (i.e., the Atonement) is based upon the (1a) Reciprocal or Classic Retributive Theory of punishment.
The question to be asked next is: Is the Reciprocal or Classic Retributive theory of punishment a just theory? That question is for another post.