Sunday, May 01, 2011

Judgment as Retribution and Restoration?

A common theme in recent theological work is to stress God’s justice as restorative rather than retributive. The underlying assumption appears to be that retribution is mean, nasty, and unnice and therefore unworthy of a God of love, grace, and mercy. For instance, Tom Smail comments: “God’s justice is concerned less with punishing wrong relationships than with restoring right ones. Like the heroes of the Book of Judges, Jesus is concerned with freeing the land from the evil forces that have infested it and setting our humanity free from the personal and social twistedness that is corrupting and destroying it.”[1] Stephen Travis believes that “Retributive concepts are forced toward the edges of New Testament thought by the nature of the Christian gospel. It is a gospel that proclaims Christ as the one through whom people are invited into a relationship with God. Once the relationship to Christ and to God is seen as central, retributive concepts become inappropriate. The experience described by such terms as forgiveness, love, grace and acceptance overrides them. And the experience of those who refuse to respond to this gospel is not so much an experience of retributive punishment as the negation of all that is offered in Christ.” He points out that the biblical imagery for justice contains warnings of retribution against the wicked, but they are largely metaphors for exclusion from God’s presence rather than speculative descriptions of postmortem torments like that found in some Jewish literature. Moreover, retributive judgment is frequently juxtaposed with wider visions of the triumph of God’s glory and love. In his conclusion he asks whether “retributive language should be displaced from Christian vocabulary” in favor of “the language of a relationship to Christ”.[2]

Now I can genuinely sympathize with a desire to escape the western captivity to a contractual understanding of divine-human relationships and the limitation of justice to recompense of deeds. Aristotle and Anselm have set the agenda and grammar for theology for too long. So instead may God give us a covenant relationship rather than a contract. May his justice be transformative rather than punitive. But the more I think about this the more baby and bath water comes to my mind. God’s covenants are intimately relational, but they are also legally binding, hence the law-suit motif one finds in the Pentateuch and Prophets. God’s justice will transform the world, but a transformed world must be one where the most insidious of evils and their perpetrators are not lightly rinsed with a perfume of goodness. Evil is such that it must be destroyed or quarantined if the goodness of God has utter supremacy in the new creation. Precisely because God condescends to covenant with creation is why he can prosecute his contention when his covenant partners fail to follow the obligations in that relationship. Precisely because God is love is why he must not allow evil to have the last enduring word in any corner of the galaxy.

We do not have to choose between retributive and restorative schemes of divine justice. The righteousness that brings judgment also fills the universe with God’s shalom for. For “the fruit of that righteousness will be peace; its effect will be quietness and confidence forever” (Isa 32:17; cf. Ps 85:10; Isa 9:7; Heb 12:11). There can be no reconciliation without recompense otherwise the disorder, destruction, and decay of evil prevents peace from lasting. The incarnation and the cross achieve both: juridical judgment and relational peace wrought in the atonement. As Henri Blocher comments: “Retribution and restoration are not mutually exclusive; the good news is the retribution, and the basis of restoration is in the person of the head and substitute.”[3] Theologians will protest that this is divine violence and it sanctions human violence rather than preventing it. Yet God’s justice is about vindication not vindictiveness. The “vengeance” (ekdikeō) of God is not his unbridled and disproportionate violence unleashed through an unchecked hatred at his opponents. It is more properly his righteous decision to be the God who vindicates those who suffer and avenge their pain with an appropriate action that holds the subjects of evil responsible for their actions (see esp. Deut 32:43; Luke 18:3, 5; Rom 12:19; Rev 6:10). Divine vengeance – like it or not there is such a thing – is not a license for human violence, but the grounds for the end of it. As Miroslav Volf states: “The certainty of God’s judgment at the end of history is the presupposition for the renunciation of violence. The divine system of judgment is not the flip side of the human reign of terror, but a necessary correlate of human nonviolence”.[4]

[1] Tom Small, Once and For All: A Confession of the Cross (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1998), 95.

[2] Stephen H. Travis, Christ and the Judgment of God: The Limits of Divine Retribution in New Testament Thought (2nd ed.; Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster, 2008), 325,327.

[3] Henri Blocher, “God and the Cross,” in Engaging the Doctrine of God: Contemporary Protestant Perspectives, ed. B.L. McCormack (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2008), 140 (125-41).

[4] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 302.


John Thomson said...

Excellent blog.

Small or Smail?

in said...

Well by this reckoning, the new covenant isn't new at all, it's the same old Calvinist Baptist logic of 'the good news is that although you DESERVE eternal torment for not worshipping God (who really is love)he's slaughtered his Beloved Son instead of you, now just show your gratitude by enduring dull sermons and paying the tithe off land you don't own. HAHLALUJAH
Personally the most aspect of O.T. law is that it's proportional, unlike our evangelical's idea of 'justice'. Even Don Corleone has a better sense of justice with his undertaker. Maybe you need to focus more on the 'my thoughts are not your thoughts and my ways are not your ways' part of Isaiah.

Randy said...


I'd have to respectfully disagree with you here.

Mike says, "The “vengeance” (ekdikeō) of God is not his unbridled and disproportionate violence unleashed through an unchecked hatred at his opponents. It is more properly his righteous decision to be the God who vindicates those who suffer and avenge their pain with an appropriate action that holds the subjects of evil responsible for their actions."

This is much, much more nuanced than many accounts by Reformed theologians. The fact that Mike pays heed to the notion of punishment as retribution AND restoration is a concession that many Reformed thinkers simply aren't willing to make. For them, punishment tends to be simply retributive following Aristotle and Anselm as he notes above.

Mike paints the way for us to see punishment as multi-faceted, yet in my opinion if we follow through on this logic, we must reframe the traditional doctrine of Hell is some ways (and I'm fine with that actually). If, God offers no "disproportionate punishments" and only offers "appropriate actions" towards sinners, than how can we continue to paint Hell as a place of eternal conscious torment (ECT)? The whole ECT view of Hell turns on the outdated mode of punishment present in the retributive theory of justice, yet it there it is inconsistent with itself.

If, the retributive theory of punishment states that the punishment must fit the crime, then how is ECT a fitting crime for finite sins committed in a finite duration of time? The next rebut from the traditional perspective on Hell would be to follow Anselm in noting that we are sinning against an infinite deity, thus making our sins infinite transgressions. This again turns on an outdated mode of thinking about punishment: we no longer punish people (as they did in Anselm's time) based on the victim's stature.

The further rebut to this by traditional ECT thinkers is that God may punishment people differently in Hell, according to their "levels of sin" in this life. Again though this is problematic; God may punish them with differing levels in Hell, but they are still suffering eternal conscious torment as is everyone else there! The same punishment undergirding the differentiation in still in force, ECT.

Having said all that, I've not positing that we abandon the doctrine of Hell, but that we rethink it in light of the fact that our traditional doctrine was tied to particular philosophical conceptions of punishment that are no longer the primary way of examining the issue. What does that look like? For some, it would be the evangelical universalism of Parry, Talbott, et al., for others, it would be annihilationism. I'm not quite sure these are the most satisfactory solutions as of this moment. Has anyone else seen a satisfactory rethinking of Hell that is untethered from "pure" philosophical conceptions of punishment?

Unknown said...

Mike: One correlate of what you're saying, and the antidote, it seems to me, for the notion that divine vengeance sanctions human vengeance/violence is the oft-repeated biblical warning: "Vengeance is mine, I [God] will repay." And Rom 12:18 makes it clear that this extends beyond the Hebrew Bible. How do human beings get past this at all to assume that they may take vengeance?

Peter Gurry said...

Good thoughts, Mike. Volf has some amazing critiques of those who regard any notion of divine vengeance as an implicit sanction of human violence. I got chills when I read this line: "And so violence thrives, secretly nourished by belief in a God who refuses to wield the sword."

Randy, I'm not sure the following is (a) true or (b) relevant: [The infinite offensiveness of sin against God] again turns on an outdated mode of thinking about punishment: we no longer punish people (as they did in Anselm's time) based on the victim's stature." True, our more democratic basis for justice is not shared by Anselm, but the question is not "Is it outdated?" but rather "Is it Biblical?" Whether modern Western justice systems punish people based on the victim's stature is not really the issue here. The question is, How does God determine the offensiveness of a crime? Joseph and David both realized that God is always the most offended party in any sin (cf. Gen 39:9; Ps 51:4). At this point, there is simply no correlation between God's justice and ours. We are never the most offended party in any offense. He always is. No justice system that I know of operates this way. Is God therefore "outdated"? I'm thinking that any theology of justice that builds from the ground up is doomed to failure before it even gets out of the gate.

Our first question should not therefore be whether "just, infinite punishment" is a contradiction in terms. The first question is how offensive is our sin against God? Is it even possible that it could be infinite? If not why not? And how close is the connection between the duration of a crime and its offensiveness? If it only takes a man 30 seconds to end another man's life, is it just to punish him with life in prison? These are important counter-questions to the common objection that infinite punishment cannot possibly be the just recompense for a finite crime.

I know Mike didn't address hell directly, but it's worth noting that if hell is unending punishment, it simply can't be retributive and restorative, right? You can't truly restore someone without end, can you?

Randy said...


My statement you quoted above is actually highly relevant because for centuries Christian theologians have read the notions of punishment present in current philosophical discourse into Scripture and this has predominantly been that of retributive justice. I think you have actually subtly done the same thing: when you ask "if it (the theory that finite sins deserve infinite punishment) is biblical (and inferring yes with your answers)?, I sense you reading this form of punishment into Scripture and then attempting to read it back out. You have not presented a case for the fact that our finite sins against God, according to Scripture, point towards an infinite punishment. Where in Scripture do you see this? I'm not saying its not there, but I'm simply saying that for the most part theologians and pastors alike have taken this as Scriptural with no backing and that is because it derives from tradition, which itself is derived from philosophies of punishment!

I am actually arguing that we must attempt to return to Scripture and understand the notion of justice present there (as Mike has pointed up for us) and sense what God is doing when he punishes people. Is it purely retributive? Restorative? I think we can say clearly that both function in the pages of Scripture.

I agree that we should attempt to understand Scripturally the offensiveness of our sins towards God and I'm not denying that the offense is not possibly infinite, just asking for a Scriptural case to be presented. With humility, I think your quote of "it only takes a man 30 seconds to end another man's life, is it just to punish him with life in prison," is extremely weak. And irrelevant. The "time" it takes to accomplish the crime is not under discussion; we are discussing the "level" of offense. Time and level are two different things and I don't see how the time it takes to commit one particular offense is relevant to the punishment meted out. The level of offense for murder obviously deserves a severe punishment such as life in prison and this is just.

Grace and peace to you! And I would love to continue our conversation, pressing into what Scripture teaches because at the end of the day as an evangelical, I uphold the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. Sadly, I think some evangelicals have given their traditional notions the upper hand over against Scripture and are deviating from Protestant norms. Anyways, if, you'd like to e-mail me, you'll find my info on my blog.

Peter Gurry said...

Thanks, Randy. I appreciate the engagement.

Brandon said...

Mike wrote, "Evil is such that it must be destroyed or quarantined..."

Mike correct me if I'm wrong here, but you seem to be allowing for the possibility of either annihilationism or eternal conscious torment. Perhaps I'm misreading you?

John Thomson said...


I agree God's judgements are proportional. What is proportional violence for sin that is infinite in nature (definace of an infinite being) and infinite in duration (defiance of an infinite being forever)?


As above - where do you get the idea that human rebellion against an infinite God is a finite sin? At what 'level' of offence do you place deicide?

MS said...

Just to say thanks to Randy for good and relevant comments. I definitely agree with you that "The fact that Mike pays heed to the notion of punishment as retribution AND restoration is a concession that many Reformed thinkers simply aren't willing to make." This is already to appreciate that restoration is really the ultimate purpose of the atonement (although both hands can be used by God of course.) Would that many more in the Reformed and Lutheran camps would appreciate the restorational approach.

On another angle, there is a problem in using the line that (per Volf) that "...violence thrives, secretly nourished by belief in a God who refuses to wield the sword." This is a one-sided view, the other side of this argument being that any 'believer' can carry out (almost) any action in the name of the kingdom of God (witness history). This is a difficult one that can raise all sorts of related issues.

Thank you Mike for your blog.
MS, Springwood, NSW, Australia

outlook fly said...

With Microsoft outlook 2010 , you're in control of getting things done and delivering amazing results according to your schedule. More communication tools in Download Outlook 2010 help you stay in touch and organized.