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Saturday, May 22, 2010

Theories of Punishment

Why do we punish wrongdoers? What is the purpose of the punishment? It is crucial to understand the theories of punishment in order to properly understand the rationale behind the Penal Substitutionary Theory (PST) of the atonement.

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.
Now which one(s) of these theories serves as the basis for the PST of the atonement? Why did Jesus have to die in order for man to be forgiven? I think it is primarily (1a). The theory of punishment which the Bible teaches is definitely the Reciprocal or Classic Retributive Theory. While there are hints of the other theories, it seems clear that (1a) is the primary one.

 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.


  1. I was having a discussion with a co-worker the other day, and she is neither a skeptic nor a religious person, so it was interesting to try to draw out of her some intuitions. One thing which I was trying to get at is whether or not retributive punishment has any intrinsic value.

    A thought experiment: Imagine a society where punishing criminals has no deterring effect on other members of the society. Whether or not criminals are punished shows absolutely no difference in the likelihood that other members of the society will commit that same crime. Also, imagine that humans have discovered a way to determine whether or not a criminal is rehabilitated and is more likely than your average law abiding citizen to commit a crime (for the sake of argument, it has a success rate of 99.9%). If he passes, then incarcerating the criminal for the purposes of rehabilitation would be inefficacious and unneccesary.

    Moreover, if we imagine a crime where complete restitution is possible (say a burglary, and the perp could return all the stolen goods), we get to a point where we realize that if a punishment was still enforced, the only reason for enforcing it would be merely retribution. Her intuitions led her to the same conclusion as mine. Retributive justice has no intrinsic purpose. It merely serves to placate the feelings of the one harmed and is more primal than logical. Also, it is completely subjective, because if I were the wronged in this scenario, I would feel no need to punish the criminal in question. But, for retributive justice to have intrinsic value, it's purpose would have to objective,

    Well, for the purposes of this blog, if God were to imprison sinners in Hell for eternity, it would serve no other purpose than for God to exact retribution upon the sinners. Sinners being in hell does nothing to rehabilitate them, since their sentence is eternal. It does nothing to deter sinners, since God never made its existence certain beyond a reasonable doubt, and the overwhelming majority of manking is heading there (nice job, omnipotent God). It does nothing to restitute past crimes. If your mother was killed by a criminal who later found Jesus and was saved, yet your mother was a devout Muslim, as are you, well you're both in Hell now, while the criminal is in Heaven. I fail to see how the crime was restituted. (In fact, of all the Christian theories of salvation, the only one that comes close to satisfying the rehabilitative and restitutive theories of justice is Christian Universalism; probably why I was so tempted to believe it during my deconversion, and even to this day, I wish it were true).

    Point being, Hell is nothing more than retribution, and of the most nauseating kind, since it never expires. I fail to see how any could even WANT to worship such a deity, let alone consider him the ultimate standard of good. IF he is the ultimate standard of good, then the word good doesn't line up with any definition I've ever heard.

  2. Very good points. For example, prison sentences are only useful to keep the public safe for a while. They do nothing to rehabilitate criminals. In fact they are more likely to learn new and improved ways of committing more crimes in the future, as well as becoming bitter towards society in general. Restitution is a good idea, but does not help if someone is killed or injured. It's not a bad idea for theft or damage to property. I believe this happens more often in native or some African cultures.

  3. ---

    As humans are limited, flawed and imperfect, this is to be expected. But since God is omnipotent, he could do things to restitue even the most heinous of crimes. Moreover, he would have an infinite amounts of ways to rehabilitate criminals. But, we are told that he has eschewed all these paths, and chosen simply the path of retribution for those who don't love him.

    How sad...

  4. So all we need to do is pray for the criminals and god will make them see the error of their ways if we are to believe that god answers the prayer of a righteous man. So are christians praying for those who are in jail or are they only praying for themselves?

  5. David are all of us going to hell? We once believe in jesus as our lord and saviour we were baptized in name of the god, jesus and the holy spirit and probably many of us actually led someone to the lord. I know I did and yet we now say this is no longer true. How can you read the testimonies of those who are no longer believers and reconcile it with what you now believe. Are all of us going to hell because we do not believe in that jesus died for us????

  6. @Exploring -- You are asking, in essence, "Is retribution utilitarian?" As Ken pointed out, retribution and utilitarian are two completely different things. You might have started with asking, "Is a dog a cat?", and then concluded with "I don't like dogs, because they're not cats, and I like cats". Most modern people would say, "I don't like retributive justice, because it's not utilitarian, and I like utilitarian"

    @Ken -- This is a really good post. I agree with everything you say here. I wonder if you are planning on writing a book about this topic someday?

  7. “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.”

    One of the most misquoted phrases from the Bible is, “ eye for an eye, a tooth or a tooth...” If you want to follow a straight forward reading, then you must quote the entire paragraph so that you know what this phrase refers to. Taking a quote out of context from the Hebrew writings and using it to twist its meaning is something the Greek writers did in the NT. A faulty argument only undermines your theory. These verses actually help you prove that PST is not found in the Torah. In fact, these verses fall under your category of Restorative Theory - this theory holds that the damage done by the wrongful act needs to be repaired or corrected. This involves restitution.

    The phrase, “ eye for an eye...” is for monetary compensation only. This law was a unique advancement in the ancient judicial system. This judgement was apply by the Jewish court system for personal damages only. There is no connection at all for someone dying for another man’s sin. It is only your own transgression that you are punished for, never someone elses as the following verses prove.

    Exodus 21:22-25 refers to two men fighting violently and a pregnant woman comes by and she is inadvertently struck and the court system has the men “pay it by order of the judges”. If the pregnant woman is killed, then the question is - was it premeditated murder. If it was then the death penalty would be required. If not, then monetary damages, equal to the value of the life of the pregnant woman, were to be paid.

    Leviticus 24:17-21 also deal with monetary compensation. Lv 18 And a man who strikes mortally an animal life shall make restitution, a life or a life. Certainly this does not mean a man must die in place of an animal. And certainly it does not apply to a man who slaughters an animal for food. This describes a man who kills someone else’s animal, he must make monetary restitution.

    Deuteronomy 19:15-21 deals with witnesses, in court, who testify falsely against a man and it is found they are lying. Those witnesses are to pay the same amount of damages that the man they testified against would have paid. Deut 19:19 You shall do to him as he conspired to do to his fellow. If this is a capital offense case, then the witnesses who conspired to have the accused receive the death penalty, would also pay with their lives. This law certainly falls under your 2a - Deterrence Theory, but I do not see “getting even” as much as the wrongful act itself merits punishment.

    Do not take my word or your word for this -please confirm this understanding with Jewish scholars. After all it is their book.

  8. Excellent analysis Ken!

  9. @Emet - You seem to be confusing retributive justice with substitutionary atonement. You just quoted a bunch of verses that are about retribution against the offender, and concluded that the Bible doesn't teach substitutionary atonement. Besides the fact that it's off-topic (Ken wasn't writing about substitutionary atonement), it's also illogical. It's like quoting a bunch of verses about food prohibitions and concluding that the Bible doesn't have any laws about sexual practices.

    The OT is about retribution, as is the NT. Both the OT and the NT have verses which explicitly prohibit people from trying to apply judgment in a utilitarian way.

    Do not take my word or your word for this -please confirm this understanding with Jewish scholars. After all it is their book.

    Leaving aside the absurd claim that "only a modern Jew can read the plain text of the Torah", I've read plenty of Jewish Midrashim and the Talmud. The Jewish scholars all seem to see "retribution" in the scriptures. In fact, I would've thought that the Christian "innovation" is that we read the OT to be about a plan for "restoration".

  10. Joshua Allen,

    You said - ",,,I've read plenty of Jewish Midrashim and the Talmud."

    Since you have read the Talmud and the Midrashim will you explain what the Talmud or Midrashim says about the quotes for Exodus 21:22-25, Leviticus 24:17-21, and Deuteronomy 19:15-21 and show me where I am incorrect?

  11. Emet,

    I have no problem recognizing that (1c) The Restorative Theory is involved with the "eye for eye" law. It certainly is in many cases but its still one of the Retributive theories. There are cases though when things can't be restored. For example, in murder. That is why Gen. 9:6 says that the murderer will be executed. That certainly fits under (1a) The Reciprocal Theory. Other examples of the (1a) are found in the Hebrew Scriptures including Ezekile 18, where it is said that "the soul that sins shall die." There are examples I think of (1b) The Expressive Theory also in the Bible. My point though is that when it comes to the ultimate punishment for man being a sinner, (1a) is the theory that applies and thus it is the foundation for the PST.

  12. Emet,

    BTW, I am not saying that the PST is taught in the Hebrew scriptures, I don't think it is. The only possible exception being Isaiah 53 but I think that is better understood as the nation suffering not an individual.

    What I am saying is that the theory of punishment taught in the Hebrew Scriptures is the foundation and basis for the PST. The NT writers made that application and of course the Jews rejected it.

  13. Good post Ken. I'm not a Bible scholar so I can't argue with you. I would like to say though that the way I see the atonement is that Christ was removing God's wrath from my vision so that I could see and savor the Divine Beauty. While it doesn't say everything about atonement it's the main thing that I see that was going on.

  14. @Emet - In the Jewish commentaries, it will normally be covered as mida keneged mida, or מידה כנגד מידה. The examples that Ken gave are clearly examples of retributive justice. There is nothing controversial about this.

    The fact that there are portions of the law which are restorative (e.g. property crime) does not negate the fact that the Bible teaches retributive justice, especially when condemning sinners to death. In the first example you gave, Exodus 21, what is the death penalty if not retributive? How is the death penalty "restorative"?

  15. Are you trying to become the #1 atheistic thinker on penal substitutionary theory? If so, you're doing a damn good job of it.

  16. Ken, I think your detailed analysis of the PST along with an examination of all other atonement theories would be worthy of an Oxford University Press or Blackwell book. I strongly encourage you to write that book. It would be a tour de force in the academic world; sure to be reckoned with by apologists in coming generations. I'm sure of it.

  17. To my simple mind that's read the good book but which hasn't done much other big book reading it seems clear that God was putting the punishment on himself rather than somebody else, and that the purpose that Jesus willingly came for in that hour can't and should not be whittled down as to having only one meaning. Theres lots of elements and themes and results of this one action and probaly more like several theories all at one time.