A mother flogs her child…..a husband beats his wife….. a feuding family-member tries to give a younger sibling their ‘come uppance’… a gang leader issues a contract on a rival … Police seek to let a suspected terrorist “feel the full weight of the law”… …..and, some would say, God is “angry at sinners every day.” Is the world basically a violent and brutal place, where vengeance is the best that “justice” can produce?
What place does vengeance have in our private lives and public institutions? Must justice involve vengeance? Can our theology differentiate between Divine discipline and Divine retribution? Does God’s love make it impossible for Him to chastise us for our eventual benefit? Can God sometimes exercise retribution and still be unconditionally loving?
Here I argue that the Gospel should change our minds about such matters, and then affect our views of our secular criminal judicial processes.
What do we mean by the terms “punishment” and “retribution”? According to the Oxford English dictionary “vengeance” means
“punishment inflicted or retribution exacted for an injury or wrong.”
The word “punishment” can equally be used to describe discipline as well as vengeance, so this word is ambiguous and useless for deciding our questions here. The word “retribution” is clearer since it is more consistently associated with the common meanings of vengeance and revenge. The Oxford English dictionary defines “retribution” as
“punishment that is considered to be morally right and fully deserved.”
This definition focuses on the right of an implied authority to inflict a punishment on the basis of it being considered “morally right and fully deserved (by the offender).” There is no suggestion of the recipient benefitting from this punishment per se, and I suggest that the essential difference between discipline and vengeance (or retribution) is a matter of whether the punishment is intended to provide an overall benefit to the offender or whether just the opposite is the case – that the punishment is intended to produce an overall loss to the offender.
This is reflected in the distinct modus operandi of discipline in contrast to revenge/retribution. In discipline, where the aim is to provide an offender with an overall benefit, the painful or difficult consequences are imposed respectfully and with reassurances in order to preserve the pre-existing positive relationship and to maximize the learning of and benefit to the offender. On the other hand, in vengeance or retribution consideration is given to how to make the offender suffer pain and/or loss in a way that most practicably reproduces or represents the pain or loss they have caused another.
Wherever a process of punishment aims to result in personal emotional or practical loss for the one punished, and that loss is a source of satisfaction (or compensation) for those offended against, the punishment is revenge, not discipline. In discipline, there will (hopefully) be a satisfaction for the discipliner also, but this satisfaction will pertain to the (hopefully positive) outcome of the punishment rather than the pain or hardship in the process of the punishment.
In retribution the focus is neither on the outcome nor on any benefit for the offender, but on whether the victim/punisher will feel better because of the pain inflicted on a particular other. And this is in my opinion is why vengeance is so objectionable – it both contradicts the ideal of love of neighbour and enemy, and in addition it renders impossible the goal of enduring peace among and between all societies, since in the cycle of violence, retribution progressively increases and tends to draw more and more people into the conflict.
Vengeance and Substitionary Atonement
What about God? No cycle of violence is possible against God. He is the absolutely powerful party. Is He vengeful?
I suggest that applying the above definitions and understandings of discipline vs retribution, we should conclude that only discipline – and not retribution – is compatible with love. This implies that a loving God is never vengeful.
However, a substitutionary or Anselmic models of atonement teach that God’s love provides for our salvation by satisfying His (retribution-demanding) holiness within the Godhead. i.e. God saves us from His own holiness by interposing Himself to take His own retribution for us. Supposedly this is the best possible outcome for us.
The downside is that such schema attempt to justify a view of God as sometimes retributive – and that, in my view, is terrible news for Humanity…. it opens the way for Humanity to be retributive – providing of course that we are doing the will of God.
This is not the only problem, enormous though it is in itself. The bigger problem from a logical point of view is the self-contradiction within the Anselmic /substitutionary model itself. The contradiction is around the essential natures of love and retribution. Love seeks the other’s benefit and to join with the other, whilst retribution seeks the other’s unilateral loss for it’s own individual satisfaction/gain. Therefore the two are mutually exclusive in time and space. If God was to ever be vengeful (as I have defined it here), He would not at that moment be loving. He would therefore not be always-loving, nor all-loving.
If then we accept that Jesus’ came to reveal the character of the Living God (cf Heb 1:3), and if we accept that Jesus’ primary teaching and example was around love for God and neighbour (enemies as well as friends) and around Humanity becoming unified (“one”) with itself and with God, then we indeed see that indeed “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:17). But then we must find ways of understanding salvation, history and the character of God that don’t involve Divine retribution. I’ll come back to a consideration of the Bible’s teaching about God and vengeance shortly, but I have come to believe that people’s theological views for vengeance don’t exist in a vacuum, but within particular sociological and psychological contexts. We may look at these as “practical” or real world objections to non-vengeance.
Practical objections to non-vengeance
Aside from theological questions, practical and moral objections arise if one tries to separate God from vengeance, such as: Why try to live a good life if everyone goes to heaven in the end? How can we respect God if His justice toward the likes of Hitler are merely discipline for their benefit? Could law and order really be maintained in our own community if we decided the degree of punishment not by the severity of the effects on the victims (a lá retribution) but by the needs of offenders (a lá discipline) (in addition to the needs of the victims)? How will the victims in our community who have suffered violations and bereavements recover if they can’t see at least some “retribution” (called “justice” by unenlightened minds?) done?
These dilemmas, of which I hardly need say more, highlight, in my opinion, the most basic reason behind the severity of criminal sentencing in our societies: people have deep biases for wanting to believe vengeance is sometimes necessary and right. I suggest that this is a very large part of the problem of sin and of the reason God became incarnate, and that the Gospel, rightly understood, disabuses us of such biases.
Does the Bible teach that God is vengeful?
I’ll just scrape the surface of this question, but I’ll start with some seemingly clear teaching for the affirmative case. Paul quotes from the Old Testament saying “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord. I will repay” in Romans 12:19. However, my Concordant Literal New Testament concordance has the Greek word for vengeance, ekdikos meaning “out-justing”. I like the notion that “out-justing” someone is like out-running or out-manoeuvring a competitor. I believe that when it comes to the dilemmas of the previous section God will “out-just” us with responses that are more just than we can conceive or do – such is the wisdom, love and goodness of God (and by which He is glorified).
This should alert us to the possibility that what some translations have as God’s “vengeance” is really God’s “justice”, and that we must look in more detail at how God’s justice is portrayed in the Bible in order to decide whether the Bible anywhere teaches that God sometimes unilaterally seeks another’s loss for His own satisfaction or gain, or whether He always seeks to unite with us and to benefit us, even from severe or scary disciplines. Where the Bible is silent about the motive of God for particular interventions, we will need to be guided by our beliefs about the essential nature of God.
Overall then as we choose our own conception of God, much will depend on how we wish to view God. For instance, the metaphor that God is “a consuming fire” first strikes us as a destructive and unforgiving image. Yet we read of fire being a refiner of what is precious, and of servants of God who are not hurt by fire (Daniel & co). For a current real-life image we need turn no further than to the silk mantel in a camping lantern, which is transformed by a flame so that what “cannot be burnt/ ‘consumed’” (the silk ash) then can shine white hot in the heart of the flame. I have found that it is not so hard to find a non-retributive God throughout the Bible, but it does need for us to be aware of our cultural blinkers around justice as a concept, and also of our beliefs around death. I look at our conceptions of both justice and death next.
What is justice?
I suggest that we need to think clearly about justice. Either justice is fundamentally and always related to retribution (besides other things as well) or it never is. If justice is not essentially about retribution, an alternative candidate for the fundamental ingredient of justice is the putting right of things. This is “justice” as the restoration of just (fair) conditions.
Here’s an example of what I mean: Let’s say that a boy is playing cricket in the front yard of the family home. He hits a ball through a window which shatters. His dad comes out and is cross. He says the boy has to stop playing cricket in the front yard (where the best pitch is) and forego his pocket money for a month to help pay for the window repair.
But what if the boy’s cricketing companion was Jesus? And what if Jesus just miraculously made all the glass pieces reassemble and fuse back into a whole window again… plus similarly restore any other ill-effects caused…? Would there then be any purpose or benefit for a punishment? The window would be put right, so what more could there be to do?
What if in the reformed window was now stronger than the original and would never again shatter when hit by a ball? We would have ended with a better situation than existed at the start.
So here are two justice scenarios following a broken window. In one scenario, we have the hassle and expense of replacing the window with a second, a mum and dad’s disappointment and frustration, the child’s grief at the penalty and at not being able to play cricket in the front yard. The other scenario we have a window that finishes up better than new, and a cricket match is still on! I know which version of “justice” I prefer – the one that puts everything right, and which does away with the capacity for a future problem altogether.
The Biblical writers repeatedly prophecy that a putting to rights of all things is God’s plan….? For example:
- Reconciling all things… (Col 1:22?)
- His laws written on our hearts…
- Our hearts made to be hearts not of stone but flesh
- We shall be like Him 1 John 3:2
- The whole earth filled with the glory of the Lord…
- Every knee shall bow and every tongue confess Jesus Phil 2:11
- The lame to walk, the blind to see, the captive made free
- Sin and death no more – Rev
- Death swallowed up in victory
- As in Adam the multitude die, so in Christ the multitude be made alive 1 Cor 15:21?
Is there any logical reason that can’t “justice” mean “putting things to rights”? Or is it just our fallen human ways that cause “justice” in human societies and in human thought to pertain always to punishments and penalties? Who’s to say that human social justice and restorative justice movements are not be better reflections of God’s justice than human criminal justice systems? When we look closely, can we find any reason for Humanity linking God’s justice with punishment other than our worldly tradition? Is it just our smallness of mind that insists the existence of sinners threatens to render God and His universe unclean?? Are we not free to view ourselves (rather less egotistically) as merely children and our sins as a developmental stage which our wise old Heavenly Father knows how to discipline us through into maturity?
One of the unfortunate and strong reasons many Christians have for believing the Bible teaches a retributive God, are the doctrines of Hell and Substitutionary Atonement. Yet both are pagan doctrines. We know that ancient Egypt imagined postmorten and enduring punishment for the wicked, yet despite the children of Israel being immersed in Egyptian life for 400 years until the Exodus, the Old Testament does not (and scholars agree on this) teach the doctrine of Hell.
There is much to the history of the doctrine of hell and how it represents a twisting of the New Testament, which is well dealt with here – www.tentmaker.org .
The history of the doctrine of substitutionary atonement is also very interesting. It is actually a reformer’s modification of Anselm’s view published in 1097. It is not how the early church interpreted Jesus death on the Cross, and is not consistent with Scripture – see elsewhere on this site.
Though conservative Christians who question these two doctrines are liable to be regarded as heretical, the only alternative is to continue to see God as vengeful – and is that not be reason enough to re-examine these doctrines?
What is death?
Another obstacle to ridding ourselves of having to read retribution into God is our personal perception of death. If God is not (ever) retributary, then death is not retributary either. This means that if God’s punishments (e.g. in the Old Testament) involve death we must view that as disciplinary. It may be “severe” discipline but nevertheless is for our good – both the good of those who die and the good of those who witness the punishment and learn from it. Too often however we relate to death as the ultimate evil, and death then out-trumps our faith in a good God! Yet the Christian Gospel is that to die is “gain”, and that God is a God of resurrection!
Liberal or Conservative?
It may be of concern to theologically conservative Christians that most theologians who take a no-retribution approach to redemption belong to the “liberal” theological camp. However, I believe it is wholly possible to take this approach as a conservative in regard to the controversies over a Young Creation, Biblical criticism and sexual mores.