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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Does the Bible Teach Retributive Justice?

One of the problems faced by those evangelicals who deny the Penal Substitutionary Theory (PST) of the Atonement (and they are a distinct minority within evangelicalism) is that the Bible teaches retributive justice.

What precisely is the retributive theory of justice? The basic principle is that the guilty person has committed a wrong and he must be "paid-back" or "recompensed" for his offense. When a person is wronged, the scale of justice, as it were, has been tipped against him. In order to bring that scale back to equilibrium, the offender must suffer harm in proportion to what he caused the victim. That is the essence of retributive justice. It is not concerned primarily with the consequences of the punishment, whether or not it benefits anyone, but with the fact that the evil committed deserves to be punished. It is based on a deontological view of ethics, namely that some acts are intrinsically wrong, and therefore, deserving of punishment. The philosopher Immanuel Kant was one of the strongest advocates of the retributive theory of justice. In The Metaphysical Elements of Justice , he wrote:
Judicial punishment can never be used merely as a means to promote some other good for the criminal himself or for civil society, but instead it must in all cases be imposed on him only on the ground that he has committed a crime (p. 138).

Does the Bible teach the retributive theory of justice? The answer is an emphatic, Yes. In the beginning of the Bible, God makes it clear that the punishment for disobeying him (sin) is death. Shortly after creating Adam and Eve, God told them:
"You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die" (Genesis 2:16-17, New International Version).
After the first couple sinned by eating the forbidden fruit, they realized that they were naked and the Bible says: “The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21). This was the first instance of death recorded in the Bible. Animals died in order for God to clothe Adam and Eve with animal skins. Christian theologians have consistently argued that this was the first case of sacrificial substitution in the Bible. Innocent animals were killed in order for Adam and Eve to be clothed.

Someone might ask, “I thought that God told Adam that “he would surely die,” if he ate the forbidden fruit? It’s true that God did say that and most Christian commentators have explained God's statement in the following way: Adam and Eve died spiritually, that is, they were cut off from the blessing of unhindered fellowship with God. When they ate the fruit,the seeds of mortality were also planted in them so that eventually they would die physically. In the meantime, the death of the animals served as a vivid illustration of the consequences of sin.

The story of the flood of Noah in chapter six of Genesis also illustrates the 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. This verse illustrates another aspect of retributive justice--that the punishment must fit the crime.

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,that is, the punishment should be proportionate to the crime. The phrase is found three places in the Hebrew Bible:
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.

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 command 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.

When we come to 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 passage shows that God has not changed his mind, at least if one can believe Paul, about the retributive theory of justice.

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 implication is that the punishment is in proportion to the evil committed (retributive justice).

Thus, the Bible consistently teaches the retributive theory of justice from beginning (Genesis) to end (Revelation). In accordance with these principles of retributive justice, theologians have constructed the PST of the atonement. Only this theory of the atonement satisfies the demands of retributive justice.


  1. Hi Ken

    You must really be one of the foremost experts on the atonement. Thanks for all the hard work in educating us on this ghoulish doctrine.

  2. I appreciate your daily posts. Thnks for helping us all to think about christianity and what we have been taught in the past.

  3. There's a flaw in your argument:

    Biblically, eternal life is a gift, not an innate possession, as in "the gift of God is eternal life" (Romans 6:23)...

    Thus, when the wages of sin is death, you're only reaping the natural result of what you inherit without a special gift. Both men and animals die.

    Animals do not sin, but they also see death: would you say that God is "paying back" these animals for their sins?

    "Man hath no preeminance above a beast" (Ecclesiastes 3:19).

    The only difference here between man and beast is the man will be resurrected to a judgment, and may die a second time. This isn't about scale, it's about extinction. The judgment may be terrible, but you won't remember a thing once you're dead (for the final time!)

    I think that is certainly just. Perhaps you never asked to be born, and you didn't want to exist in the first place. In the end you'll be no worse off than when you started. That's justice.

    For those that love their creator and their fellow man, the pain and hurt that they've all suffered will be erased. That's mercy.

    Rev 21:4
    (4) And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.

  4. What Bible are you reading? Adam and Eve were not the first couple on Earth! They did not cloth themselves in animal skin. Nothing you say can ever be believed. They clothed themselves as the Hebrew text says, in fig leaves! The Hebrew text is also very clear about the 6th day creation.