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Mapping the Terrain—Punishment

Punishment—the act of penalizing someone for a sin, misbehavior, or crime—is recompense for wrongdoing. It is as old as human disobedience (Gen. 3) and potentially as permanent as hell (Rev. 20:11-15).

Though punishment may serve ancillary purposes, such as deterrence, rehabilitation, and the segregation of dangerous people, its essential quality is retribution—paying back the offender for his offense. If any standard other than retribution is given primacy, then grave injustice can occur, whether in the form of cruel excess or serious affronts to human dignity.

As harsh as it may sound to modern ears, the biblical standard of “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (the lex talionis) is the model of justice. Indeed, it is a limiting and civilizing factor—only an eye for an eye, only a tooth for a tooth. One may not press beyond fair limits to suppress crime, placate public passion, or protect the government, however attractive the harsh alternatives may be, for then the authority moves beyond punishment to abuse.

Punishment is not the prerogative of just anyone who is aware of misconduct; it should be imposed by some person or group that has been given the “duly constituted” moral or legal authority to punish and should not be left up to the whim or caprice of individuals.

According to the Bible, parents may (and should) appropriately punish their children (Prov. 3:11-12; 29:15). Likewise, the civil magistrate may (and should) punish wrongdoers (Rom. 13:1-4). Finally, as the ultimate authority, the Holy God punishes justly in His perfect wisdom.

Punishment is not to be confused with human torture or personal vengeance, which is condemned in Romans 12. It is, instead, honorable, not ignoble. Yes, there may be a place for passionate indignation in the pursuit of justice. Of course, some measures of coercive, yet non-damaging, interrogation in the prosecution of war may be justified. But, authorities must not stoop to victimizing those they pursue or detain.

Genuine, selective mercy makes sense only against a backdrop of prevailing retribution. Otherwise, it is a product of mere indulgence, moral lassitude, or even contempt for the gravity of crime. By excusing criminality in the name of compassion, the state can trivialize injustice and the sufferings of the innocent.

Just retribution may even require the application of capital punishment, for it is a terrible thing to take an innocent human life. The burden of proof surely falls upon the person who would argue that such a heinous offense warrants less than the surrender of the guilty life of the murderer. Of course, the utmost care should be exercised in building a case against the accused; the state should take great pains to flee the possibility of error. But when the judgment is sure, the formula of proportional1 justice found in Exodus 21:24 pertains—not only requiring “eye for eye, tooth for tooth,” but also “life for life.”


As distinct from “identical justice,” which would require the state to rape the rapist, kill the child of the one who killed his neighbor’s child, etc.