God Punishes Because He Must

‘Why Punish?’ — An Essay

There are three primary reasons that crimes are punished: to deter society from committing the crime, to reform the perpetrator of the crime, and to avenge the victim of the crime. Each of these aspects of punishment could be explored from a number of angles: philosophical[1], historical[2], evolutionary[3], judicial[4] – the list continues. Our interest is in the theological question: Why does God punish? Our focus shall in fact be narrowed even further, resting on the third aspect of punishment mentioned. That is, why does God avenge crime? – which is to say, why does God avenge sin? The immediate answer, we believe, is essentially simple: Because God’s inherent righteousness requires that God must punish. This is not the only answer. God’s punishment also serves to clear the way for his restoration. After all, the book of Revelation does not end with a lake of fire, but with the restored Jerusalem. However, the narrower question is the more controversial – given a number of recent writers such as Finlan and Daly who seem eager to undo any idea that God might have said “Vengeance is mine” (Deut. 32:25), and the quickly growing and highly sophisticated school of Girardian disciples. It will therefore be this narrower question that occupies our attention.

Before we begin it is worth commenting that the aim of our discussion is not apologetic. Particularly with the recent popular rise of the so-called New Atheism, it has been commonplace to find those who are eager to criticise the biblical conception of God – ordinarily the Old Testament’s portrayal is particularly singled out for abuse, although this Marcionite tendency to set the Old Testament against the New is ultimately unsustainable. Richard Dawkins’ comment is typical: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filiacidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”[5] Such a comment begs to be addressed, but we must leave that task to others, for a number of reasons. First, such is the thoroughness with which Dawkins has emptied his thesaurus of offensive adjectives, that any successful response must necessarily be equally thorough, a task that cannot be attempted here. Second, the task of humbly and honestly facing the ‘tough questions of faith’ has been taken up by other Christian writers[6] since before Dawkins was a twinkling in his mother’s eye, and will doubtless continue to be after he has been long forgotten. Third, if God is the God who raised up Babylonian armies to take into exile his chosen people because they had tarnished the glory of his name then He is a God perfectly capable of defending his own honour. There is a sense in which an overly eager attempt to ‘defend’ God becomes ridiculous.[7] One is also in danger of letting one’s focus be dictated by polemical concerns – and here we should note J. I. Packer’s comment that the painstakingly elaborate attempt “to show that God did nothing illegal or unjust makes a strange impression on the post-Watergate reader”[8].

We come then to Anselm, the theologian who has stated most influentially that God cannot but penalise sin. His argument seeks to demonstrate the necessity by which “did God become a man and by his death restore life to the world”[9] in order to answer “the objections of unbelievers who reject the Christian faith because they think it militates against reason”[10] – for it seems foolish and unreasonable for God to send his Son to die when sin could have been forgiven in some simpler manner. It begins by eliminating the possibility of God forgiving sin – which he sees as involving “nothing other than not to render God what is due”[11] – without any payment of the sinner’s debt. If God were to do this, “God would be dealing with the sinner and the non-sinner in the same way”, and “then injustice is more at liberty than is justice” – and in fact injustice would “resemble God, for as God is subject to no-one’s law, neither would injustice be”[12]. Further, “if God forgives what man ought willingly to pay… simply because man is unable… – what does this amount to other than that God forgives what He cannot obtain?”[13] Anselm argues that “it would be a mockery to attribute this kind of mercy to God”[14]. In addition, Anselm sees sin as having real cosmic effects which must be satisfactorily dealt with. He uses the analogy of a dirtied pearl, which no wise person would return to its “clean and costly receptacle” while “still dirty and unwashed”[15]. Similarly, man has been “stained by the mire of sin” and “without satisfaction it would not be the case that man is really restored”[16]. Man must therefore either be punished, either by enduring eternal suffering or by offering some penalty to God in order to compensate for sins committed. If no payment is offered then it is necessary for God to inflict everlasting punishment on the sinner, for by failing to give God due honour, the cosmos has been put into disarray. Therefore it is necessary that Christ become the incarnate God-man, and give up his life as a representative of the race of Adam. Because He is God His sacrifice is of greater worth than all of creation, and because He does not share in human sin and thence not in human mortality, He is able to freely give up his life as the penalty for sin “for God does not exact His life from Him as something owed”[17]. Thus it is that Christ “paid on behalf of sinners that which He did not already owe for Himself”[18].

It is common to find that those who are uncomfortable with discussion of the righteous wrath of God to claim that Anselm is merely projecting medieval ideas of feudal justice onto God, and that the idea of retribution being necessary because of offended honour is unworthy of God. Unfortunately it is true that Anselm does often succumb to the temptation to think upward from familiar human models to make definitive claims about the divine nature of God. His bold attempt in the Monologion to demonstrate by means of reason alone the triune nature of God is an example of this: his reasoning there depends on the assumption that God’s intellectual activity is essentially the same as that of a human craftsman, and is thus questionable to say the least. It may be true that there exists a similarity in relationship between the divine Father and Logos and that of a craftsman and the mental conception he has before making something.[19] It is, however, highly presumptuous – for “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways,” says the LORD” (Is. 55:8) – to say that given the fact that a human craftsman requires a mental conception of what he is making if he is to make anything, therefore the same must hold true of God. But is this the case also in Anselm’s argument concerning the justice of God? Is he merely making the same mistake that he makes in the Monologion, and speaking of God in an insufficiently nuanced human way? We should note at this point that while God is certainly omnipotent and unconstrained by anything outside of himself, that does not make it impossible to speak of what is ‘necessary’ for God – it merely establishes that these necessities are inherent to the divine nature and are not contingent on anything outside of God. John Murray notes that “it belongs to our faith in God to avow that He cannot lie and that He cannot deny himself. Such divine ‘cannots’ are his glory”[20].

Our case is perhaps not helped by the fact that some noteworthy theologians who are less brash in their reasoning concerning things divine disagree with the assertion that God must necessarily penalise sin. For example Thomas Aquinas argues, with Augustine and on the basis of the declaration in Luke 1:37 that “no word shall be impossible with God”, that “speaking simply and absolutely, it was possible for God to deliver mankind otherwise than by the Passion of Christ”[21]. Thomas interprets those texts that would appear to suggest necessary retribution by qualifying them: such retributive justice is necessary, he argues, only on the supposition that God has freely decided to require sins to be subject to proportionate penalties. Calvin also seems to subscribe to such an understanding, for he writes, while commenting on John 15:13, that “God could have redeemed us by a word or a wish, save that another way seemed to Him best for our sakes”[22]. These are weighty theological authorities and so, in spite of the influence of Anselm, the burden of proof would appear to rest firmly on our shoulders.

It is therefore time that we engaged directly with our only authoritative source of information concerning the nature of God, and considered the witness of Scriptural revelation concerning the justice of God. First let us consider God’s revelation of his glory to Moses in Exodus 34:6-7, where He proclaims his name: “the LORD, the LORD God… forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but by no means clearing the guilty”. Here we have the mystery of God’s forgiveness proclaimed with breathtaking brevity as God’s forgiveness of every kind of wrong-doing (“iniquity… transgression… sin”) is coupled with the declaration that on no condition may He clear the guilty. The “by no means” puts it in superlatively strong terms: God may – and does! – mercifully and graciously forgive, but mysteriously He does so in such a way that the punishment due the guilty is not simply “cleared”. How this can be is a thing we, from the vantage point of Calvary, have the privilege of beholding – but we are getting ahead of ourselves. In a similar vein we could cite Joshua’s concluding warning to the Israelites that they will find that they “cannot serve the LORD, for He is a holy God. He is a jealous God; He will not forgive your transgressions nor your sins” (Josh. 24:19). Rather than argue foolishly that Joshua has forgotten the declaration that God does forgive, it is better to see the themes in common with Ex. 34:14 “the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God”, and with the assertion just considered that God will not “clear the guilty”. To this could be added the opening words of the quite terrifying burden of Nahum: “God is jealous, and the LORD avenges; the LORD avenges and is furious. The LORD will take vengeance on his adversaries, and He reserves wrath for His enemies; the LORD is slow to anger and great in power, and will not at all acquit the wicked” (Nah. 1:2-3). If ever a point could be made simply by virtue of determined repetition, then Nahum makes his point: God avenges, and for the wicked there can be no acquital.

Following these statements of the impossibility of God clearing the guilty or unconditionally[23] forgiving sinners or acquiting the guilty, we must now turn to those places which describe the way that God hates sin, as something utterly contrary to himself. Ps. 11:5, Deut. 12:31, Is. 1:14, Amos 5:21, Mal. 2:15 are just a small selection of those places which speak of the attitude of the LORD towards sin (respectively towards violence, child sacrifice, hypocritical worship, robbery, and divorce). And the burden of these passages is not merely to note in passing that sin is disagreeable, but rather to confront the reader[24] with the incoherence of the idea that God could peacefully endure evil. Observe the diverse ways in which Isaiah communicates this: the hypocrisy of the people is described as “an abomination” and “a burden” which God “cannot endure” but rather “hates” and is “weary of bearing them”. This hatred towards the deeds of “the wicked and the one who loves violence”(Ps.11:5) – a necessary consequence of the holiness of God (Ps. 11:4) – means that “upon the wicked He will rain coals, fire and brimstone and a burning wind” (Ps. 11:6). Why will this be? The verse immediately following declares to us the answer: “for the LORD is righteous” (Ps.11:6-7). Let us again underline our point: God does not inflict violent punishment on “the one who loves violence” because of any arbitrary (and if it were arbitrary it would seem to be hypocritical) decision but because the divine righteousness necessitates it.

On the contrary, there are a variety of places where God is portrayed as inflicting the inevitable punishment due to sin only with great reluctance and sorrow. In Hosea we see God lamenting: “O Ephraim, what shall I do to you? O Judah, what shall I do to you?” (Hos. 6:4), for “when I would have healed Israel, then the iniquity of Ephraim was uncovered… [for] they do not consider in their hearts that I remember all their wickedness” (7:1). Because of their adultery (7:4), drunkenness (7:5), scheming (7:6) lawlessness and apostasy (7:7), God has no choice but to bring “destruction to them, because they have transgressed against me”. Ezekiel too testifies to the fact that God has “no pleasure in the death of the wicked” (Ez. 33:11; cf. Ez. 18:32). How then can one claim that God punishes the wicked – a punishment that ultimately consists in “death in its totality and fullness”[25], as Bavinck soberly describes it – only from his free decree? Surely God must act according to his good pleasure? But God emphasises – even swearing by himself, “As I live”[26] – that He takes “no pleasure in the death of the wicked”. Someone may try to argue that here God is speaking solely of the unrepentant wicked, and that this passage sees no necessity for any penalty to be required of the one who repents. Do we not have here an Abelardian understanding of atonement, where “when the wicked turns from his wickedness and does what is lawful and right” (33:19) that in itself shall mean that “he shall live because of it”? Are we who argue that God will not simply acquit the guilty just doing what the house of Israel was doing, in claiming that “the way of the LORD is not fair”(33:20) if it does not include righteous retribution? If such a position were worthy of consideration an argument would still have to be made which recognised the broader context of widespread testimony that God will “by no means clear the guilty”. But in fact we see that in this very context, “turning from sin and doing what is lawful and right” (33:14) is explicated in terms which acknowledge that such a thing requires a person “giving back what he has stolen” (33:15). And this is the very crux of the matter: that there is no way that man can repay to God “what he has stolen”. This is what Anselm saw so clearly and communicated so compellingly. The psalmist puts it like this: “None can by any means redeem his brother, nor give to God a ransom for him – for the redemption of their souls is costly” (Ps. 49:7-9). At the same time he does not lose hope, for with prophetic insight into “the mystery which was kept secret since the world began” the psalmist then declares in faith that “God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave” (Ps. 49:15). It would be appropriate to note at this point that the idea of God redeeming sinful humanity by paying a ransom to God is not an absurd notion simply concocted by medieval theologians in order to resolve the difficulties raised by the implications of Gregory of Nyssa’s idea that a ransom had to be paid to Satan because sin had given him some right over sinners. On the contrary, it is found here in the forty-ninth psalm, where it is necessary that someone “give to God a ransom” and the only one who can is God himself.

Next we must look at the places that portray punishment as the necessary and inevitable consequence of sin. Paul, in Rom. 6:23, describes death as “the wages of sin” – in contrast to the free “gift of God [which] is eternal life”, death is called “wages”, showing that while eternal life is the result purely of God’s free will, the connection between sin and death is non-negotiable. As Paul says in Rom. 5:16, “the gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned”. The full range of Old Testament generic material testifies in confirmation of the certainty of this: a prophetic oracle, Jer. 17:10: “I the Lord test the heart… even to give every man according to his ways, and according to the fruit of his doings”; a proverb, Prov. 24:12: “Will He not render to each man according to his deeds?”; and the prayer of Psalm 62:12 “You [LORD] render to each one according to his work”. For further explanation of what it means for God to “render to each one according to his deeds”, we turn to Paul’s exegesis of the phrase in Romans 2, where he explains that the fact that “there is no partiality with God” means that “as many as have sinned without law will also perish without law, and as many as have sinned in the law will be judged by the law”.

We have shown that the Bible testifies that God cannot merely acquit the guilty without penalty. But let us fully persuade ourselves of this fearful truth, by considering whether God’s punishment could simply exist in order reform sinners and to deter them from future transgression. Certainly, it must be affirmed that this is one purpose. Bavinck comments that “All the consequences and punishments that went into effect after the entry of sin, accordingly, from that moment display a double character. They are not merely the consequences and punishments appointed by God’s justice but, from another perspective, also all without exception appointed means of grace”[27]. We find an example of this in Revelation 11:13, where “there was a great earthquake, and a tenth of the city fell. In the earthquake ten thousand men were killed, and the rest were afraid and gave glory to the God of heaven”. Here the temporal punishment results in the repentance – and we must therefore conclude, salvation – of ninety thousand[28]: certainly a happy consequence. Nevertheless, this is clearly not always the case – as, for example, in Rev. 16:9 where “men were scorched with great heat, and they blasphemed the name of God who has power over these plagues; and they did not repent and give Him glory”. Moreover, if divine justice were utilitarian, how could we make any sense of the final judgement – of the hell of which Jesus speaks with such insistent concern (eg. Mk. 9:42-48; Matt. 5:21-30; Lk. 16:19-31)?

We come at last then to the “Son of Man... [who came] to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45). If the arguments amassed thus far are sound, then this redemption was necessary for salvation. But there is more explicit evidence to support this conclusion. First, observe Jesus’ own repeated assertion that the “Son of Man must suffer many things” (Mk. 8:31; cf. 9:12). The assertion that the “must” here holds true only insofar as God has freely chosen that this must happen seems less close to the thought of Jesus – who in the ensuing dialogue reminds his disciples of the key question, “what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Mk. 8:37) – than it does of Peter, whose opposition to Jesus’ necessary suffering is met by a firm rebuke: “Get behind me, Satan!” (Mk. 8:33). Such a rebuke should sober those who think that they honor God’s liberty in claiming God’s freedom to ignore sin.

Second, consider Jesus’ prayer in the garden of Gethsemane: “O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me” (Mt. 26:39). Surely we must believe that the prayer of the very Son of God, “sorrowful and deeply distressed” (26:37) as He was, would have been heard by the Father? The fact that the cup was not allowed to pass, so to speak, would therefore seem definitely to show that there was no other way for sinners to be saved from judgement, as indeed is indicated by Jesus’ petition, “if this cannot pass unless I drink it, Your will be done” (26:42). (Noting that “this” stands for the cup of God’s righteous wrath, so vividly described by the prophets. Cf. eg. Isa. 63:3-6). Admittedly, this comes out more clearly in the Matthean rendition of Jesus’ words in the garden – “if it is possible” – than it does in the Marcan and Lucan parallels, which respectively read “all things are possible…” (Mk. 14:36) and “if you are willing” (Lk. 22:42), suggesting initially that to “remove this cup” lay in the realms of possibility for the Father, and was a question of God’s free will. John Owen resolves the apparent dilemna by noting that “antecedent to any free act of the divine will… it was not impossible that that cup should pass from Christ… [but] it being supposed that God willed to pardon any sins to sinners, it could not be done without laying their punishment upon the surety”[29].

Third, consider the fact that the cross of Christ is described in various[30] places as the supreme demonstration of the love of God: “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 Jn. 4:10); “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (Jn. 15:14); “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life” (Jn. 3:16). If, as we are arguing, Christ’s death was absolutely necessary to make possible the consummation of God’s love for us, then the fact that He was willing to do the utmost necessary to save us must be cherished as a sweet and glorious thing. But if such a thing was not necessary then Christ’s Passion would indeed appear to be almost masochistic, for it is hard to see how undergoing unnecessary suffering is any way demonstrative of love. If Paul can write “scarcely for a righteous man will one die” (Rom. 5:7), how much more is it true that scarcely will one die for someone when there is no benefit that will follow that could not be obtained otherwise? But the love of God shines brightly in the light of the fact that “Christ died for us” because only “justified by his blood” could we “be saved from wrath” (Rom. 5:9). And what is more, it was “while we were still sinners”! Completely undeserving of anything but wrath, Christ brought us “into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Rom. 5:2).

As we conclude our investigation into the punitive righteousness of God, we must admit the narrow scope of our labour. Our desire has not been to deny Marshall‘s claim that “God’s final word is not retribution but restoration, the recreation of heaven and earth so that sin, suffering, sickness, and death are no more”[31]. Rather, our concern has been to reinforce the foundations of our appreciation of God’s righteousness. If the church today is to stand in the midst of volcanoes in Iceland and earthquakes in Haiti, amidst wars in Afghanistan and rumours of weapons of war in Iraq – if, in the midst of all of this, the church is to not “speak as a man” (as Paul puts it) by saying that “God [is] unjust who inflicts wrath” (Rom. 3:5), then it is required that the she begin to understand that “these are the beginning of sorrows” (Matt. 24:8), “for the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (Rom. 1:18). If the church is to be able to “worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness” (Ps. 29:2; 96:9) then we must learn again “the terror of the LORD and the glory of His majesty” (Is. 2:10; 2:19; 2:21). “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

The consideration of the question of why God punishes is thus concluded. May it provoke us to strive more zealously to mortify sin, to treasure more joyfully the redemption accomplished by our Saviour on the cross, and to declare more boldly the gospel of that salvation.


ed. Acton, H. B. (1969), The Philosophy of Punishment, London, Macmillan.

Anselm, trans. Hopkins, Jasper and Richardson, Herbert (2000), Complete Philosophical and Theological Treatises of Anselm of Canterbury, Minneapolis, Banning Press.

Bavinck, Herman trans. Dutch Reformed Translation Society (2006), Reformed Dogmatics Volume 3: Sin and Salvation in Christ, Grand Rapids, Baker Academic.

Calvin, trans. McKee, Elsie Anne (2009), Institutes of the Christian Religion: 1541 French Edition, Cambridge, Eerdmans.

Calvin, trans. T.H.L. Parker (1961), The Gospel according to ST JOHN 11-21 and The First Epistle of John, Edinburgh, Oliver and Boyd.

Daly, Robert J. (2009), Sacrifice Unveiled, London, Continuum.

Dawkins, Richard (2006), The God Delusion, London, Bantam.

Finlan, S. (2005), Problems with the Atonement, Collegeville, Liturgical Press.

Foucault, M. trans. Sheridan, A (1995) Discipline and Punish, New York, Vintage Books.

Gunton, Colin E. (1998), Actuality of Atonement, London, T&T Clark.

Heim, S. Mark (2006), Saved From Sacrifice: a theology of the cross, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans.

Marshall, Christopher D. (2001), Beyond retribution, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans.

McCullough, Michael E. (2008), Beyond revenge, San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

Murray, John (1979), Redemption: Accomplished and Applied, Edinburgh, Banner of Truth.

Owen, John (1978), The Death of Christ, Edinburgh, Banner of Truth.

Packer, J.I. (1974), What Did The Cross Achieve? The Logic of Penal Substitution, Leicester, Tyndale Press.

Stump, Eleonore (2003), Aquinas, Abingdon, Routledge.

Stott, John (1986), The Cross of Christ, Nottingham, Inter-varsity Press.

Walker, Nigel (2001), Why Punish, Oxford, OUP.

Wenham, John W. (1975) The Goodness of God, London, Inter-varsity Press.

Wright, Christopher J.H. (2008), The God I Don’t Understand, Grand Rapids, Zondervan.

[1] Acton (ed. Acton, H. B. (1969), The Philosophy of Punishment, London, Macmillan.) takes this approach.

[2] Foucault (Discipline and Punish) takes this approach.

[3] McCullough (Beyond Revenge) takes this approach.

[4] Walker (Why Punish) takes this approach.

[5] Dawkins, Richard (2006), The God Delusion, London, Bantam, p.31.

[6] Christopher Wright’s The God I Don’t Understand being such an example of such a work written in this generation; J. W. Wenham’s The Goodness of God engaging in an equivalent purpose previously.

[7] Charles Spurgeon’s quip springs to mind: “Defend the Bible? I’d as soon defend a lion. Let it loose and it will defend itself”.

[8] Packer, J.I. (2001), What Did The Cross Achieve? RTSF Booklets, footnote 2.

[9] Anselm, Cur Deus Homo (henceforth CDH) I.1. From Hopkins, Jasper and Richardson, Herbert (2000), Complete Philosophical and Theological Treatises of Anselm of Canterbury

, Minneapolis, Banning Press.

[10] CDH Preface.

[11] CDH I.11.

[12] CDH I.12.

[13] CDH I.24.

[14] Ibid.

[15] CDH I.19.

[16] Ibid.

[17] CDH II.11.

[18] CDH II.18.

[19] Cf. Anselm, Monologion, ch.10. From Hopkins and Richardson, Complete…Treatises of Anselm.

[20] Murray, John (1979), Redemption: Accomplished and Applied, Edinburgh, Banner of Truth. p.12.

[21] Aquinas, Summa Theologica 3.46.2.

[22] Calvin, trans. T.H.L. Parker (1961), The Gospel according to ST JOHN 11-21 and The First Epistle of John, Edinburgh, Oliver and Boyd. Though note the comment of the editors’ preface to Owen’s Dissertation on Divine Justice (Owen, John (1978), The Death of Christ, Edinburgh, Banner of Truth., p.482): “An isolated phrase, however, when the question was not specially under his review, is scarcely sufficient basis from which to infer that Calvin held the possibility of sin being forgiven without an atonement; and other parts of his works might be quoted… in such terms as almost to preclude the theory”.

[23] That is, in the sense of forgiving sin without any penalty. Not in the sense that God’s free and gracious salvation is in any way dependent on human merit, for “by grace you have been saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works…” (Eph. 2:8-9).

[24] Originally, of course, the listener.

[25] Bavinck, Herman trans. Dutch Reformed Translation Society (2006), Reformed Dogmatics Volume 3: Sin and Salvation in Christ, Grand Rapids, Baker Academic. p.161.

[26] One is reminded of the comment of the writer of the letter to the Hebrews: “because He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself” (Heb. 6:13).

[27] Bavinck, p.160.

[28] Given that the tenth of the city who fell and the ten thousand who were killed can be identified with each other.

[29] Owen, p.558.

[30] Mostly Johannine, a focus that perhaps should not be surprising given that John was “the disciple Jesus loved”. But cf. also Eph. 5:25.

[31] Marshall, Christopher D. (2001), Beyond retribution, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans. p.197. We might however question the manner in which he downplays the evidence for penal substitution and divine retribution in order to make that claim.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *