A just world is properly ordered:
God is recognized as Lord, while humans live as stewards over creation.
In a just world, humans are mutually caring.
When injustice occurs, restitution must follow, in order to re-establish the just world.
God is establishing a just world.
Those who will not commit to the just world will not be permitted into the just world.
Exclusion from the just world is separation from God.
Apart from God there is no life.
Justice depends on the societal conviction that all people are to be treated fairly and respectfully. This truth is not self-evident; it cannot be intuited. It is based on the revelation that all humans are created in the image of God and are, therefore, of great value. While no human is equal to another—all are unique—all are assigned the title of image bearer, which is indicative of equal precious value.
In a perfect society there is no need for law enforcement, or laws, for that matter, because people understand how to behave out of good sense and brotherly love. But this is not the world we live in. We’re born into a world of thieves, liars, abusers, mentally disturbed, confused, and self-oriented people. Most people are not dramatically guilty of these faults, but all are guilty of at least some of them. Therefore we must be protected from others, and we must protect others from ourselves. We even need to protect ourselves from ourselves. We must have laws, we must have law enforcement, and we must employ punishment against those who break laws.
Injustice is indebtedness. Jesus talked about sin as a kind of debt. The world’s most famous prayer includes the phrase, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” All wrong-doing can be understood in this light. Those who do harm become indebted to their victims. For justice to be re-established after acts of injustice, restitution must be made.
The Prototypical Punishment
Christians believe that all people, except Adam and Eve, are born having inherited the sentence of death. What a morbid religion. Of course, it’s not that Christians believe in an eventuality that’s different from what others expect. The difference is that others, humanists in particular, see death as the way of nature. Humanists hate physical degeneration every bit as much as orthodox Christians, and are rightfully terrified by it, even as they attempt to shrug it off as “the cycle of life”. This hatred/acceptance is a profound incongruity. Suppression, distraction, intoxication & medication are all strategies for managing the incongruity. Even suicide is a strategy employed by those for whom the fear of death is worse than death itself. The Christian doctrine may be grim, but it is not incongruous, and it comes with a hopeful rider called Resurrection.
Why is death a necessary consequence of sin? Why would eating a piece of fruit result in expulsion from the Garden, as well as death for the entire human race? Isn’t this extreme? Doesn’t this reveal God to be vicious and spiteful? Didn’t the omniscient Maker know that Adam and Eve would fail the test? And, if so, isn’t their failure really his fault? These are important but tangential questions to the matter at hand, and are addressed in a separate essay.
Sin is fundamentally distrust of God. This is my view of it, but we should note that it has been defined in various ways. Some consider it fundamentally rebellion against God. Some see it as the expression of human pride. Some look at it as disobedience to God. Perhaps these variations are merely different emphases of the same problem. But I will argue from the perspective of distrust. One support for this argument is the most famous verse in the Bible, John 3.16: For God so loved the world,that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. The belief in John 3.16 is not like the belief in the Easter Bunny. Believing in the existence of Jesus, even the existence of Jesus as Lord of the universe means very little. The devils believe and tremble. But trusting this Jesus is the key to life. To believe in him is to believe all that he claims for himself. Distrusting this Jesus is the key to death.
Adam and Eve knew they hadn’t created themselves. They knew they had been honored with stewardship over all the earth. They knew they had been provided for, having been given all the fruit of every tree in the garden except the one tree. God had given Eve to Adam and Adam to Eve. God had made no demands of them that were not pleasant. He told them to work the garden, name the animals, rule over the earth, be fruitful and multiply. Pleasant environment, good company, and interesting, fun things to do. They could set their own work plan and their own hours. It was like retirement, except they had young, beautiful bodies. They had every reason to trust God, but they made a decision that depended on God being a liar.
Genesis 3 speaks of a serpent who talked them into this decision. Biblical scholars generally believe the serpent represents Satan. Was Satan in disguise? Can he shape shift? Was the Fall scenario somehow representative rather than literal? I don’t have convictions on these questions. What I do think noteworthy is that the serpent was a creature that Adam and Eve were to have ruled over. The eating of the fruit was not about eating fruit; it was about turning reality on its head. Adam and Eve submitted to the direction of the beast they were to have ruled. They should have commanded the serpent to be quiet, stop spreading lies, and go away. Instead, they mentally demoted the Creator of the universe to a status less than their own by judging him unworthy of trust. The evidence was overwhelming that they should have trusted God, and the evidence was scant that they should have trusted the serpent. This is a characteristic of all sin: it requires suppression of the evidence. True faith, contrary to the common secular narrative, always carefully accounts for the evidence.
But what happened when they decided that a slithering creature was the key to understanding life? What happened when they decided that God was a cheat? They turned their back on the author and sustainer of life. God’s sentence was not so much a sentence as a concession. He let them have it their way. “You want to determine your own future? You want to define reality? Okay.” But God held back. Rather than give Adam and Eve a full measure of what they had chosen, he assigned them a strong taste of it.
Before God confronted Adam and Eve directly, they covered themselves with fig leaves. This was indicative of relational break-down. They were hiding from each other. They had been told by their Maker that eating the fruit would result in death. Eve ate the fruit, bringing the sentence on herself. But then she enticed Adam to follow, bringing the sentence on him, as well. Thus, she betrayed Adam. But Adam did not have to cave in to Eve’s enticements. He could have trusted God but he, too, subverted reality by considering his relationship with Eve more important than his relationship with God. Adam may have been able to salvage the situation by obeying God and seeking mercy for Eve. He did neither of these things. Instead, he betrayed God, and he betrayed Eve by listening to her. Where once their relationship had been free and joyful, it became afflicted with doubt and fear. They suddenly realized they could not fully trust one another. Nakedness is vulnerability. Such vulnerability is frightening in the presence of those whose designs are suspect. So they covered themselves (as humans have covered themselves ever since, and for the same reason.)
Then when God came to the garden to be with them, they hid. Their loincloths were superficial and insufficient means of addressing their own relational breakdown. It was obvious to them from the start that the loincloths were useless protection against their betrayal of God. They hid. That didn’t work either. (Humans cannot hide from God.) God asked Adam about his sudden concern about nakedness. Then Adam really knocked over the coffee table: “The woman you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree.” Instead of owning up to his own failure, Adam blamed God for giving him Eve. It was God’s fault. Then he blamed Eve. To top it off, he disassociated himself from Eve by describing her as “the woman you gave to be with me.” He denied their commitment. She was not his wife; she was just a passing diversion. (“You should take her back now, God. What a troublemaker she is!”)
When God had first given Eve to Adam, Adam gushed, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh!” All the plants, animals, mountains, and streams were wonderful but they were different. Adam was delighted to no longer be alone. Through the Great Betrayal the most important creature in the entire universe was suddenly expendable.
Eve does a little better but she also fails to take responsibility for her actions. She does not admit to disobeying God, nor to causing Adam to stumble. She blames the serpent. Adam and Eve inverted reality, awarding the serpent the title of Author of Truth, the title that belonged to God, while simultaneously assigning God a position below their feet: The One Who Cannot Be Trusted. The inversion was the prototypical delusion.
God’s stepping back had immediate effects. There was a removal of ease. Work changed from being a joyful fulfillment to an experience of sweat and drudgery. Childbirth, perhaps the greatest human privilege, was newly characterized by difficulty, followed by the difficulty of childrearing. But the worst repercussion was the realized problem of human self-determination: life itself. The death sentence we find ourselves under is not so much a punishment as it is a powerful reminder of our creatureliness. Children, at an early age, begin to worry about growing up, because growing up means taking on responsibility in a harsh world (full of mean people), and because growing up is the first step to growing old, which is the last step before the withering demise.
God had warned of the consequences of disobedience. If I warned you that the horizon was not the rise of a hill but a dangerous cliff, you could hardly blame me if you decide to run off the edge to test my word. Adam and Eve judged themselves.
But why should all of humanity suffer for the errors of Adam and Eve? Because we are no different. We manufacture hundreds of millions of guns with which we can kill one another. In fact, we’ve created atomic weapons sufficient to obliterate all life forms. We are careless with our environment, filling it with noise, and plastic, and covering it with asphalt. We release noxious fumes into the air we breath, and we dump toxic chemicals into the water we drink. We send our children to holding facilities and deny them opportunities for meaningful education. We sell each other life-destroying drugs. We abort our children. We squabble over political power, while neglecting our responsibilities to govern. We reject our given sexualities, even as we argue that sexual differences are superficial, and then we argue for sexual preferences. We Sex, even as we employ it to manipulate or to exploit. We patronize; we embrace victimhood. We preen and strive for status, while avoiding responsibility. We insist that morality is relative, even as we demand moral conformity. We complain about privilege, even as we demand privileges. We make snap judgments. We reserve our research for data and anecdotes that conform to our preferences. We demonize those who contradict our assumptions, excusing ourselves from the responsibility of listening to them.
You can pick up the newspaper or sign into any news feed on any given day and see that we are every bit as self-destructive and truth-avoiding as Adam and Eve. Perhaps we are more sophisticated in our stupidity. Little solace. It’s the difference between being thrown off a ship, tied to a hundred-pound rock verses being thrown off a ship, tied to a hundred-pound EV battery. We continue the pattern established by Adam and Eve by judging ourselves.
To say that God has cause to be exasperated with us is the understatement of all time. Even so, the amazing thing is that he is not fond of tragedy. He is the God of The Comedy, determined to exalt a people who will trust him. God’s primary work in this universe is the exaltation of a people he has created by making them into a society that reflects his glorious character and capabilities. This historical narrative is the basis on which the principles of justice can be derived.
Timothy Keller sums up God’s justice in this way: “Biblical justice is not first of all a set of bullet points or a set of rules and guidelines. It is rooted in the very character of God and it is the outworking of that character, which is never less than just.
“In his magisterial work on God’s attributes, Herman Bavinck argues that in the Bible, God’s justice is both retributive and reparative. It not only punishes evildoing, but it restores those who are victims of injustice. Yet interestingly, ‘God’s restorative justice is far more prominent in Scripture than his retributive justice.’ God stands against ‘perverting the justice due the poor… slaying the innocent and righteous… accepting bribes…. oppressing the alien, the widow, and the orphan…’ God ‘raises them to a position of honor and well-being…Doing justice with an eye to the needy becomes an act of grace and mercy.’ And therefore, God’s restorative justice ‘is not, like his anger, opposed to his steadfast love but is closely akin and synonymous with it.’ His justice is ‘simultaneously the manifestation of his grace (Psalm 97:11-12; 112:3-6; 116:5; 118:15-19).’”
God did not leave Adam and Eve to their own devices. He promised a resolution to their predicament.
The Prototypical Crime
Let us not leave the Fall quite yet. One question I think worth considering is, how can we sin against God? In what way can we possibly harm him? When Adam and Eve sinned by distrusting God, deciding that the creature was more trustworthy than He, it was an incredible and dangerous distortion. Moderns aren’t so simple-minded, of course. “More and more, people look to apes, as in the past they looked to God, to understand human behavior, impulses, and desires.” – from the magazine, Lingua Franca, Oct., 2000. Evolutionary theory is the modern version of looking to the Serpent for understanding what it means to be human.
But did this gross distortion hurt God? No. Did God cease to be the Creator and Lord of the universe? No. Did Satan wreck God’s plans? No. Did Adam and Eve throw God a curveball and make him have to recalculate history? No. God knew from the beginning how history would develop.
Did Adam and Eve hurt God’s feelings? It’s clear that God does have feelings and that he experiences sorrow. Jesus lamented over the hard-headedness in Israel: O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! – Matthew 23.37.
Jesus cried at the death of Lazarus, and probably, at the same time, out of sorrow for the disciples’ thin faith in him.When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.“Where have you laid him?” he asked. “Come and see, Lord,” they replied. Jesus wept. John 11.33-35.
Thankfully, amazingly, God is also moved to happiness and delight by his earthly children: The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing. – Zephaniah 3.17.
But God’s emotions are not like our emotions. Jesus, as a man, was surely afflicted by anxiety and fear, particularly as he was well aware that his life on earth was to end via torture. But, as God, there can be no fear when there is no force that can actually harm him. Life was stolen from Jesus, but he took it back. God cannot be outsmarted. Our foolish behavior must be painful to him, but he has always known why, when, and how we would act foolishly. When we say foolish things about God and fail to trust him, his sadness is primarily due to his knowing how our foolishness hurts humans. Similarly, we glorify God, not to build up his self-confidence and ego, but because when we speak the truth about him, it always benefits people. It points others in the right direction; it reminds us of the right direction.
David put it in a way that seems to contradict what I am saying: Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment. – Psalm 51.4. But this only appears to be a contradiction. Yes, all sin is fundamentally sin against God. Take theft, for example. Stealing is motivated by the perception that we don’t have enough. But to believe that we don’t have enough is to say to God that he is faithless and does not provide for our needs. It is to say that we have a better idea of what we need than he does. To steal is to call God a liar. To steal is to join Adam and Eve in their inverted universe. But at the same time, we can’t actually take anything from God. Stealing does hurt the person we steal from. David is right in that the theft is fundamentally a sin against God, but here’s the other universal truth: when we sin against God, it’s our neighbors, our environment, and our selves that are injured.
The Impact of Grace on Justice
For God, mercy and justice are inseparable. From our perspective mercy is something other than justice. One meaning of mercy is “pardon”. Using this sense of mercy, a person who has committed a crime is simply released from punishment. Sometimes pardons are assigned to individuals on the basis that they have lived exemplary, service-oriented lives that outweigh the lesser crimes for which they have been found guilty. Perhaps the guilty party is of an advanced age and it seems harsh to commit him to jail for his final years. Or the pardon may be more of a public statement in which a ruler wishes to demonstrate his benevolence.
The Christian community is made up entirely of individuals who are the beneficiaries of something akin to pardon. It is not exactly pardon because the punishment due to Christians was carried out on Jesus Christ. He was/is the substitute for all our sins. Thus, we were not technically pardoned, though our sins have been removed. But like a pardon, we were guilty and have been released from due punishment.
Mercy is a powerful force at the core of God’s being. He made this abundantly clear when he became incarnate, i.e., when he took on human flesh. God did not just look down from above and have his heart stirred at the pathetic plight of the human race; he entered into the human experience in order that he could fully empathize with humanity. Can the omniscient God of the universe learn something? I would think not, but this is what the Bible says: Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. – Hebrews 2.17,18.
We cannot say that God learned from being incarnate. It is more accurate, even if more difficult to understand, to say that the God who exists outside of time has always owned the experience in which he entered into time through the embodied Jesus. But while it is right for us to be amazed by God’s powers, our amazement should center on his grace and on the extreme action taken by God in order that he could empathize with us, and act sacrificially to save us.
God says that there must be an accounting for sin. Sin does its damage and the damage must be paid for. The damage must be undone. But he also says that he has no desire to see anyone perish. He takes the punishment himself, allowing humans the means to be delivered from punishment (and to be freed from the ongoing destructive habit of sin). Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel? – Ezekiel 33.11
God does not define justice as “What goes around comes around”. Though we often do reap what we sow, it is not true that we are bound to sow tomorrow the same as we sowed yesterday. Christianity is not the prison called Karma. Freedom from the past is possible. Reformation is possible, and it is guaranteed to those who repent of reality inversion, putting their full trust in the God who is true and good. Grace says in a profound way that we do not always reap what we sow.
God’s justice is not a system that insists that evil must be repaid with evil or harm with harm. You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. – Matthew 5.43-45.
Jesus further emphasized this through his parable about the debtors. Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.
“Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” – Matthew 18.21-35
When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray, Jesus responded with what we now know as “The Lord’s Prayer”. This brief prayer provides the framework for all prayer. One of its lines is: “Forgive our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Jesus instructs the disciples (all Christians) to pray to God for forgiveness. While we can never presume on God’s forgiveness, Jesus taught that God will forgive our debts when we pray with integrity. Note, too, that the expectation of charity from God also presumes that charity will flow outward from the petitioner. He who hopes for forgiveness must practice forgiveness.
Forgiveness is simply impossible for humans to accomplish independently from the accomplishments of Jesus. We do not have the power to say to someone else, “The mean, destructive thing you did is okay. I will forget it. I undo the damage.” We can’t make sins go away. The harms of sin linger in many ways: in physical scars and in emotional scars. We cannot dismiss our memories. When our injuries return to plague our thoughts, we must fight to remember our promise to forgive; we must fight to avoid placing the injury back in the debtor’s account book. We must fight…and we frequently lose those fights. It is only possible for us to forgive when we have the knowledge that Jesus has covered all our sins. We are able to forgive because all the debts have actually been paid. We are free to forgive when we realize that all sins have been addressed and all sins will be redressed.
The presumption of forgiveness flowing steadily through relationships is no invitation for license, though. We’re not supposed to be incurring debts; we’re not supposed to be injuring our neighbors. The next line of the Lord’s Prayer is: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” The system of forgiveness is interwoven with the system in which participants are committed to holiness, committed to justice.
Having an idea of God’s view of justice, an understanding of his plan for human flourishing, we have a basis on which to build earthly justice. The first step in the establishment of justice is the enactment of fair laws. Those who write laws must be impartial analysts determined to establish only needed laws that assure that all citizens are treated fairly. The laws must assign reasonable negative consequences for those who ignore the laws. A legislative body that fails to write fair legislation fails at its duty to promote justice. Legislators who fail at their duties for must be replaced.
Publication of legislation is also critical to the establishment of justice. If people are to be governed by laws, they need to know what the laws are. Making laws public serves two purposes. First, it provides a hedge against the establishment of questionable legislation. More importantly, it provides a guiding effect. Stop signs are not put in place to frustrate travel; they are put in place to facilitate safe travel. Noise regulations are not written to stifle joyful expression, but to remind people that they should avoid disturbing other people whenever possible. There are laws against theft. These laws are not in place as a means of keeping people in poverty; their purpose is to remind society that wealth is to be gained through industry and discipline rather than by taking what others have obtained legitimately. Laws should provide society with guideposts that inform the populace of appropriate behavior.
Creating laws and educating the people about them is not enough. We must also enforce compliance. Enforcement begins with the threat of punishment. “If you steal from this store you will be prosecuted.” “If you trespass on this property you will be subject to arrest.” For most people the threat of punishment is enough of a deterrent to keep them from lawbreaking. For others, punishment is necessary. Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding, which must be curbed with bit and bridle… – Psalm 32.9.
The best means for restoring justice is the practice of restitution. If a harm can be undone, it should be undone. Expanding the practice of restitution would greatly benefit society.
Restitution calls for full repayment. For example, if someone stole $10,000, restitution would require a larger sum. Justice restores victims to their previous state, with compensation for their inconveniences and losses, due to being deprived of their assets for a time. If you steal my car, returning it a month later would not be full compensation. For a month I was without the car, which caused me some inconvenience and expense. That loss should be accounted for and compensated.
Restitution is not to be treated like winning the lottery; it is not an opportunity for victims to get rich. It is not an opportunity for lawyers to get rich. Neither should restitution be given for “pain and suffering,” unless it is the clear physical suffering and disabling trauma experienced by the actual victim. Restitution is not to be used as a reward for psychological fragility. Neither is restitution a perpetual opportunity. Restitution is for victims, not for their progeny, their relatives, or their associates. The exception to this is for murder. It is not possible to provide restitution to someone who has been killed. Restitution in this case should be assigned on the same legal bases that govern inheritance. Neither can restitution be sought retroactively for changed laws. If the law is changed today to say that people cannot use two straws to drink from a cup, I cannot be charged for the crime of drinking with two straws yesterday.
Restitution is to make it clear to criminals that crime does not pay.
Determining fair restitution can be difficult, of course, but good legislation can provide guidelines. Theft, which we’ve just considered, is probably the easiest harm to quantify. But what is the compensation for, say, slander? Slander can be of little significance: “He leaves the light on in the basement all the time.” Or it can be devastating: “He raped me Friday night.” Slander can cost a person his job. It can weaken relationships and destroy marriages. Some cases of slander have been so difficult to bear that individuals have taken their own lives. Slander is a theft of reputation; it is malignment of character. We may rightfully think a strong person should not be overly concerned about defaming lies. But when a person is slandered, he may experience the shocks of abandonment and accusation, even from people he expects to provide him with support. It is a hard thing to be despised by people who, at least, ought to be suspending judgement until fully investigating the facts.
It’s also not easy to walk back slander. First of all, there are not many who have the courage and moral backbone to confess to slander. But secondly, slander has a technicolor aspect that makes it into front page news. Retractions, on the other hand, tend to be found on page 17 and in small print. Slander explodes a building that takes years to reconstruct. Slander that costs a person his job is an issue worthy of court consideration. Restitution would restore financial losses and would correct false public allegations.
One problem with the restitution model is that most criminals are poor and incapable of paying fair restitution. (When will criminals figure out that criminals tend to get injured, tend to get killed, tend to be poor, and tend to spend large portions of their lives in jail, with devastating impacts on their personal relationships? When will they figure out that even flipping burgers at McDonald’s offers a more promising future?) The lack of resources on the part of criminals suggests the need for societal solutions. The State should make quick restitution to victims, effectively transferring criminal debt to the State. Criminals could then repay through such means as paycheck garnishing or even indentured servitude. This latter solution is typically loudly resisted, due to America’s racist history of slavery, and because of the racial imbalance in its prison populations. Such objections should be met with three arguments. The first is that indentured servitude is not a more demeaning status than prison. The second is that there are psychological benefits from participating in restitution, in contrast to the harms caused by being warehoused in places where minds and bodies atrophy. The third argument is that, while racial minorities are overrepresented in prisons, it is also true that racial minorities are overrepresented as victims. A restitutional system would, therefore, be most beneficial to racial minorities.
Would such a system be more costly to the general population than our current system of mass incarceration? This is difficult to say. However, it costs $50,000 per year to keep someone in prison, which is hardly cheap. A reduction of incarceration would free up funds. Furthermore, a system built on restitution would have a greater crime deterrence factor than imprisonment. Prison provides an escape, in the sense that it removes criminals from responsibility and it removes them from shame. Justice says that it is necessary to be responsible, and it says that shame is of value, because it drives reform.
Most of us find ways to shield ourselves from most of the costs of crimes, but this shielding is of no help to our victimized neighbors. Justice is the responsibility of all of us. Justice demands that we discontinue our practice of creating crime ghettos. Crime harms everyone but it harms the poor much more than it harms the rest, while the poor are least equipped to manage losses. Permitting crime adds to the problem of underclass entrenchment and dependency. Providing restitution for crime gives encouragement to those living in poverty, provides hope that they can escape poverty, and provides hope that their ghettos might become pleasant places to live. Financial dependency increases crime. Knowing this gives hope to the idea that restitution would help reduce crime in the first place.
Our most common form of punishment is incarceration. Incarceration fails at the primary goal of punishment, which is to restore the state of justice. Rather than putting the criminal in a position where he can make amends, prison only adds to the criminal’s debt. The greatest argument for incarceration is that it protects the innocent from incorrigible criminal behavior.
Incarceration may serve as a disincentive to crime, though the recidivism rates give pause. Recent data show that 44% of released criminals are back in jail within a year, while 82% are back in jail within ten years. Assuming that some percentage of released criminals die, or are too incapacitated to commit crime, it becomes clear that prison is doing very little in terms of behavioral reform.
Prisons must be humane, and they ought to incorporate opportunities for prisoners to do meaningful work, develop job skills, grow in moral understanding, and to prepare for reintroduction into society. At the same time, prisons should not be pleasant places to live, not because it is society’s objective to make prisoners miserable, but because it is in everyone’s best interest if prisoners resolve to never return once they are released. In any case, prison should be the punishment of last resort, applied only to those who are violent or dangerous.
The most severe punishment is execution. The strongest argument against execution is that there have been many individuals who were executed but subsequently proven innocent. An inherent weakness of human justice is that humans are imperfect judges. Witnesses lie. Juries can be biased and/or moved by public biases. Juries can be convinced by limited facts. Juries can be corrupt. Judges can be biased. Judges can be distracted. Judges can be corrupt. If our judicial systems are right 90% of the time, that’s pretty good. But no one wants to be numbered among the 10% who are judged improperly, especially in a life-or-death determination. This inherent weakness means that execution should rarely be used as a means of punishment.
In rare cases execution may be warranted. Should Adolph Hitler, the one most responsible for the destruction of Europe, as well as the murder of millions in concentration camps be exempted from execution? Should the person who stations himself in a bell tower and indiscriminately shoots people in a town square be exempted from execution? Should the religious fanatic who sets off a bomb in a crowded marketplace be exempted from execution? Should a serial killer be exempted from execution? We must ask whether it is wise to allow violent people, who have a proven disregard for human life, to continue their lives even as they present a clear danger to all who come in contact with them.
Execution, like other punishments for violent crimes that don’t readily allow for full restitution, is a measure derived from the principle of “an eye for an eye” (which is a substitute for the principle of restitution). This generates a moral question: how is justice any better than criminal behavior if it is based on the eye-for-eye principle?
Here are five answers. First, no one wants to implement the eye-for-eye principle. If you don’t want to suffer the consequences of the principle, do no evil to your neighbor. Second, the principle puts a limit on the range of punishment. You killing my wife does not give me the right to wipe out your clan. Third, it is always preferable to use restitution as the means of justice. If you poke out my eye, it’s much better for both of us if you pay me, say, $20,000, than you having your eye poked out, too. If it’s possible to safely implement the restitution process, it is the right option. Fourth, a punishment assigned through a public, controlled process, for the benefit of society, however equivalent it may be in terms of physical harm, is otherwise very different from a crime committed out of anger or indifference or for the sake of exploitation. Fifth, the point of the punishment is to impress on the criminal, as well as society, that crime has a cost. The victim has paid the cost. And while it may not be possible to restore the victim, it remains possible to make a clear impression about the costliness. The criminal must bear the cost of restitution even if the criminal cannot actually restore.
What is torture? It is to deliberately inflict agonizing pain. Sometimes people torture because they’re sadists, taking pleasure in the misery of others. Sadism is as evil as evil can get. Oftentimes in history torture has been used by occupying powers to remind the vanquished that there are worse things than death, and that submission is the better part of valor. The crucifixion of Jesus, for example, was technically a punishment for sedition against the Roman empire. Torture is sometimes used to extract information, or to induce confessions, or recantations, or conversions. Torture often “works” by getting the tortured to say what the torturers want to hear. In most cases the words will be lies, however.
Torture is terrifying and it forces sheep to behave like sheep, but it also makes sheep into lions. Torture creates terror, and it creates hatred, which often develop into vengeful violence. Torture damages and kills the tormented, and it inevitably comes back to harm the torturer.
The vast majority of people are repulsed by the thought of torture. For Christians, torture is clearly a breech of God’s commands to respect all human life. Jesus put it this way, as recorded in Matthew, chapter 5: I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers,what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Torture has been banned by international convention. According to the United Nations 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Geneva Conventions have also repeatedly forbidden the use of torture. For example, the Convention of 1949, Article 17, states: “No physical or mental torture, nor any other form of coercion, may be inflicted on prisoners of war to secure from them information of any kind whatever.”
Torture fails in every way to accomplish the goal of punishment, which is the reestablishment of just status in community. It must, therefore, be recognized as foreign to justice.
What parts do “pay-back”, “getting even” and revenge have to do with justice? When God says, “Vengeance is mine,” it’s clear that he does not want humans to exercise vengeance. The Apostle Paul quotes Deuteronomy 32.35 and provides some commentary: Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head”. Do not be overcome by evil , but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12.19-21).
Several things should be noted about this exhortation. Paul orders the Romans to avoid vengefulness. He explains that vengeance is the province of God. Why? Because God is just, because he knows all, which enables him to make perfect judgments. He further explains that Christians are supposed to overcome evil with good rather than meeting evil with evil. Why is this? Because the business of Christians is salvation and flourishing, not injury. Adding to Paul’s explanation, we realize that all people are wicked. If we spend our time avenging all wrongs, all the people will be wounded or dead. Christians are the pardoned. Dependent on being pardoned, it is hypocrisy for Christians to be unwilling to extend pardon to others. More fundamentally, because grace permeates the heart of God, it should also permeate the hearts of his people. Grace permeates true justice.
But if that is so, why is vengeance something that God reserves for himself? Is there something good about it? Is it like a chain saw—a perfectly good tool that is not the province of children? This is a misunderstanding. When God says, “vengeance is mine,” he is not saying he will take vengeance; he is saying that he absorbs vengeance like a great tree that absorbs winds. He swallows it up like a whale swallows plankton. He tells us that vengeance is rendered unnecessary when true justice is applied. He will not take vengeance; he will repay. He will make things right.He will provide restitution for all the meanness of history.
“Retribution” comes from the Latin for giving back what’s due, either reward or punishment. Some synonyms are: compensation, recompense, requital. In other words, God sees to it that all debts are settled.
It is common to hear angry persons who have been wronged (or who are associated with someone who has been wronged) say, “I demand justice.” What they invariably mean is not that they want justice; what they want is punishment, and they want revenge. We should be wary of the love of punishment and revenge. With the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. – Matthew 7.2. Vengeance is not part of justice.
Conclusions / Summation
The very need for punishment is a temporary phenomenon. Punishment is unnecessary in societies where no one commits crime. It’s exciting to consider that human history is heading in this direction, to a place where punishment will exist only as a lesson from the past. There will be no ongoing punishment in the universe because punishment’s purpose is the restoration of justice. When justice is established, punishment will cease.
We also conclude that punishment does not exist for the sake of revenge. The purpose of punishment is to put things back in their right place. Analogously, a mother might enter a room that her children have turned into chaos. She could get “even” with them by putting all their scattered toys in the trash. But to make things right, she labors to organize the toys and put them all back where they belong. More importantly, she calls the children to work with her towards that end. When the time comes that the children have learned to do this on their own, the mother has completed her task. It would be a lot easier for her to throw everything in the trash and be done with it, but there is a bigger objective in this “establishment of justice” than a clean room. The bigger objective is the conscientiousness of her children.
Considering this analogy, you might ask, “Where’s the punishment? Is it a punishment to have children clean up after themselves?” Of course, it is not; teaching a child the value of cleanliness and organization, even if getting to that place is unpleasant, is hardly punishment. But this is true of all real correction. The purpose of punishment is always, first, to restore the victim and, second, to teach the offender wise behavior. From this perspective punishment is entirely about grace. It is simply a relatively unpleasant path for returning to the state of justice.
A further implication of punishment’s role as a servant of justice is that punishment is not genuine punishment when it fails to serve this purpose. All punishments, as they are instrumental in the reestablishment of justice, must be served. Grace expands this formula in that Jesus Christ gave himself up by taking the due punishment of the world on himself.
There is one very serious caveat or “string” that goes with this substitution, however. In order to benefit from the substitution, it is necessary to trust, which is to say, live strictly with the conviction that Jesus is Lord. Why? Because it is not possible to understand or pursue justice when we think of Jesus as a liar, or if we refuse to recognize him for who he is. Human truth frameworks are patchwork assemblies of truths and personal preferences. These frameworks always prove to be false. These frameworks all collapse under stress. They all collapse under the demands of reality. Adam and Eve learned quickly that it was not possible to conform reality to preference. Preference must conform to reality. It is not possible to believe one thing and live something else. We all live what we believe.
In order to be the recipient of grace, the receiver must accept the universe set aright. He must embrace righteousness. He must commit to justice and live as a knowledgeable, passionate citizen in the Nation of justice. And he must trust that the one who defines what justice is is the Lord of the Nation. We cannot survive as solipsistic lords of our own pretend universes. We must be servants in the great society of the King. Thus we are freed from the corruption of death, from the corruption of our spirits, and the corruption of our confused, inverted imaginings. Giving up autonomy always feels like a painful “string” in the doing, but it is a snapping of the heavy chains that bind us.
It is also important to note that Christ’s death was not merely the substitute for deserved human punishment. Christ’s death was followed by his resurrection, which created the doorway for the resurrection of a countless nation of believers. Through the resurrection God restores all of his people to a much greater status than they had previously known. He thereby provides more than the necessary restitution for all the sins his people committed and for the sins committed against them. Because God has restored all, there are no debts to be repaid. All have been set free of their debts.
There is one more restitution that has been accomplished but is not yet universally recognized. While Adam and Eve (and humanity throughout history) placed God under their feet, this falsehood has been exposed. When Jesus rose from the dead he proved all his accusers liars and he was granted Lordship over all creation. He raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet – Ephesians 1.20-23.
This Jesus is already the triumphant Lord of the universe, and is already calling together a great nation of people whose hearts are being changed to embrace truth and justice. And, yet, the world at large still does not acknowledge him. This will change. God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. – Philippians 2.10-11.
When this finally takes place at Christ’s triumphal return to earth, his name will be vindicated. He will be revealed as the God of truth, he will be universally recognized as the God of love, and he will be restored in the minds of all creation to his rightful place. This will be the grand restitution, and with it, pure justice will be restored to the universe. There will be no corner of the universe where this will not be so. God’s justice makes this demand.
Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” – Revelation 20.11-21.4