‘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, historical, evolutionary, judicial – 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
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.” 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 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. 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”.
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” in order to answer “the objections of unbelievers who reject the Christian faith because they think it militates against reason” – 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” – 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”. 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?” Anselm argues that “it would be a mockery to attribute this kind of mercy to God”. 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”. Similarly, man has been “stained by the mire of sin” and “without satisfaction it would not be the case that man is really restored”. 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”. Thus it is that Christ “paid on behalf of sinners that which He did not already owe for Himself”.
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. 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”.
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”. 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”. 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
Following these statements of the impossibility of God clearing the guilty or unconditionally 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 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
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”. 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: 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
Second, consider Jesus’ prayer in the
Third, consider the fact that the cross of Christ is described in various 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
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.
Bavinck, Herman trans. Dutch Reformed Translation Society (2006), Reformed Dogmatics Volume 3: Sin and Salvation in Christ,
Calvin, trans. McKee, Elsie Anne (2009), Institutes of the Christian Religion: 1541 French Edition,
Calvin, trans. T.H.L. Parker (1961), The Gospel according to
Daly, Robert J. (2009), Sacrifice Unveiled,
Dawkins, Richard (2006), The God Delusion,
Finlan, S. (2005), Problems with the Atonement, Collegeville, Liturgical Press.
Foucault, M. trans.
Gunton, Colin E. (1998), Actuality of Atonement,
Heim, S. Mark (2006), Saved From Sacrifice: a theology of the cross,
Marshall, Christopher D. (2001), Beyond retribution,
McCullough, Michael E. (2008), Beyond revenge,
Murray, John (1979), Redemption: Accomplished and Applied,
Owen, John (1978), The Death of Christ,
Packer, J.I. (1974), What Did The Cross Achieve? The Logic of Penal Substitution,
Stump, Eleonore (2003), Aquinas, Abingdon, Routledge.
Stott, John (1986), The Cross of Christ,
Walker, Nigel (2001), Why Punish,
Wenham, John W. (1975) The Goodness of God,
Wright, Christopher J.H. (2008), The God I Don’t Understand,
 Foucault (Discipline and Punish) takes this approach.
 McCullough (Beyond Revenge) takes this approach.
 Walker (Why Punish) takes this approach.
 Dawkins, Richard (2006), The God Delusion,
 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.
 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”.
 Packer, J.I. (2001), What Did The Cross Achieve? RTSF Booklets, footnote 2.
 Anselm, Cur Deus Homo (henceforth CDH) I.1. From
 CDH Preface.
 CDH I.11.
 CDH I.12.
 CDH I.24.
 CDH I.19.
 CDH II.11.
 CDH II.18.
 Cf. Anselm, Monologion, ch.10. From Hopkins and Richardson, Complete…Treatises of Anselm.
 Murray, John (1979), Redemption: Accomplished and Applied,
 Aquinas, Summa Theologica 3.46.2.
 Calvin, trans. T.H.L. Parker (1961), The Gospel according to
 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).
 Originally, of course, the listener.
 Bavinck, Herman trans. Dutch Reformed Translation Society (2006), Reformed Dogmatics Volume 3: Sin and Salvation in Christ,
 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).
 Bavinck, p.160.
 Given that the tenth of the city who fell and the ten thousand who were killed can be identified with each other.
 Owen, p.558.
 Mostly Johannine, a focus that perhaps should not be surprising given that John was “the disciple Jesus loved”. But cf. also Eph. 5:25.
 Marshall, Christopher D. (2001), Beyond retribution,