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Thinking it through: Crying out for justice

February 2019 | by Stephen Rees

For the next twelve months, we have asked Stephen Rees – an experienced pastor – to share some thoughts on various topics. Whilst his column may be edited for reasons of length or style, his words and opinions are his own and may not necessarily reflect the views of the Evangelical Times.

What is the most important duty of a government, any government?  Is it to make sure that the country becomes and stays as wealthy as possible?  Is it to keep the citizens happy?  Is it to provide education, health treatment, an efficient transport system for all?

Well, a government may rightly aim at all those things.  But the Bible makes it plain that a government has one duty that comes before all of them.  Every government has a God-given duty to exercise justice.

What does that mean?  It means that those who govern a country should make it their business to reward people who do good and to punish those who do evil.

Peter, whom Jesus appointed to be the leader among his disciples, wrote this: ‘Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil, and to praise those who do good…’  (1 Peter 2:13-14).

Peter insists that Christians must recognise human rulers as sent by the Lord.  Our rulers may not see themselves in that way.  They may be atheists or followers of some false religion.  Yet God has appointed them and given them a role to play.  And what is that role?  To act as his agents, exercising justice on his behalf.

Paul puts it even more strongly.  ‘The one in authority is… the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer…’  (Romans 13:4).

Even a godless ruler like the Roman Emperors of Paul’s day is a servant of God, and when he punishes wrongdoers, he is acting as an avenger, bringing God’s vengeance on them.  The punishment he inflicts is God’s wrath channelled through a human agent.

Peter and Paul both use strong words when they describe the way authorities must deal with evil-doers: they must punish, they must act as avengers, they must bring God’s wrath.  Such words are rarely used today to describe the way we deal with offenders.  But they express precisely what the Bible means by justice.

Justice, in the Bible, means treating people exactly as they deserve.  People who do good deserve to be rewarded.  But what evil-doers deserve is to experience God’s wrath, and the suffering God’s wrath inflicts.

We call this the principle of retribution.  And it is found throughout the Bible.  Why does God insist that human rulers must reward good and avenge evil?  Because that is his own nature.  He himself is determined to act in justice, to bring vengeance and distress on evil-doers.

‘Know therefore that the LORD your God is God, the faithful God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love to a thousandth generation with those who love him and keep his commandments to a thousand generations, and repays to their face those who hate him, by destroying them.  He will not be slack with one who hates him.  He will repay him to his face’ (Deuteronomy 7:9 -10).

‘The LORD is a jealous and avenging God; the LORD is avenging and wrathful; the LORD takes vengeance on his adversaries and keeps wrath for his enemies.  The LORD is slow to anger and great in power, and the LORD will by no means clear the guilty’ (Nahum 1:2-3).

‘Because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil…but glory and honour and peace for everyone who does good…’ (Romans 2: 5-11).

‘God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance…’ (2 Thessalonians 1:6-8).

God’s own sense of justice requires that people who do good should be rewarded for it; people who do evil should be afflicted for it.  David, king over Israel, recognised that he could not please God unless he ruled the country on that basis.

‘I will sing of steadfast love and justice; to you O LORD, I will make music.  I will ponder the way that is blameless.  Oh, when will you come to me?… I hate the work of those who fall away; it shall not cling to me. A perverse heart shall be far from me; I will know nothing of evil.  Whoever slanders his neighbour secretly, I will destroy. Whoever has a haughty look and an arrogant heart I will not endure.  I will look with favour on the faithful of the land… Morning by morning I will destroy all the wicked in the land…’ (Psalm 101: 1-8).

Of course, retribution must be proportionate.  Some crimes are more wicked than others, and deserve a more dreadful vengeance.  Right back in the days of Noah, God made it clear that the crime of murder was so evil that there could only be one proper punishment for it.

‘Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image’ (Genesis 9:6).  The punishment must match the crime.

And when the Lord made his covenant with Israel and gave that nation its legal system, he made it clear that that principle must apply to all crimes.

Crimes against property were less serious than injuries committed against human life and deserved lesser punishments.  A man who stole a sheep, or damaged someone else’s property might be fined heavily.

But a person who injured a fellow-citizen must experience the same suffering he had inflicted on another.  ‘…if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe…’ (Exodus 21:22).

A man who knocked out another man’s tooth should lose his own.  Why?  Because that’s what he deserved.  A man who burned another man should suffer the pain of burning.  Why?  Because that’s what he deserved.  A man who took another man’s life should have his own life taken away.  Why?  Because that’s what he deserved.  God made it clear that the duty of lawmakers is to uphold justice.  And justice means retribution.

These may seem harsh words.  But most human beings instinctively recognise that this is how it should be.  When we hear of some horrible crime — an act of sadistic cruelty, the brutal rape of a woman, the murder of a child — how do we react?  Something in us says, ‘he should be made to pay for that’!

What we mean is, ‘he should be made to suffer for that’.  And that is the right way to react.  God reacts the same way.  And he has written that instinctive reaction into our nature.  Paul says that human beings ‘know that those who practise such things deserve to die…’ (Romans 1:32).  God has created us with an instinctive certainty that those who do wicked deeds should be made to pay for them.

Yet in our country today, very few politicians would dare to say it.  It is rare to hear any of our leaders talking about the need for retribution, let alone using words like vengeance.   Why is that?

Well, I believe it is for one simple reason.  Deep down, in most cases unconsciously, they are trying to suppress the thought that God is going to judge them and that he will punish every sin as it deserves.

They don’t want to think of God in that way because if they did, they would be frightened.  So they tell themselves that the very idea of retribution is an old-fashioned idea which we shouldn’t pay any attention to.

If you asked them whether people should be made to suffer for their crimes, they would say, ‘oh no, that’s a primitive, barbaric idea — we are more civilised now!’

Many of them would go further and deny that human beings are responsible for any of the evil things they do.  They would say that if people commit crimes, it’s not really their fault.  It’s because they’re suffering from a mental illness or a personality disorder.

Or it’s because they’re poor.  Or it’s because of the unhappy circumstances they’re in.  Or it’s because of the structures of society which have driven them to crime.

Do you remember Tony Blair’s pledge to be ‘tough on crime — tough on the causes of crime’?  Just think about that last phrase: the causes of crime?  Blair wants to believe that human beings are basically good, and if they do wicked things, their crimes have been caused by poverty, or deprivation, or lack of education.

The Bible tells us that we do bad things because we are bad. Poverty, deprivation, harsh social conditions may bring out the badness that’s in us.  But the real cause of crime lies in our own wicked hearts.  We are to blame for it, and we deserve to be punished for it.

Of course, the modern refusal to believe in retribution leaves politicians with an awkward problem.  They have to deal somehow with crime.  They can’t have people going round stealing property openly, attacking others, abusing children, committing murder freely.  If they did, society would completely collapse.

The only way of restraining such antisocial behaviour is through a system of sanctions — fines, deprivation of rights, imprisonment.  But they can’t say that they are inflicting these sanctions because the criminals deserve them, as retribution.  So they have to find other ways of justifying the unpleasant treatment that they force upon the offender.

What reasons do they give?  There are many that are regularly offered.  But broadly, they can be reduced to four.

1)  Restraint.  Why lock up criminals, sometimes for years on end, in a few cases for a lifetime?  The reason given by many of our politicians is that we do it to protect society.  ‘We are not out to punish the criminal.  We are simply preventing him from doing more harm.  It’s necessary for the survival of society that he should be removed from our midst’.

The government-appointed Parole Board states that ‘a life sentence prisoner should be released when it is satisfied that it is no longer necessary for the protection of the public that the prisoner should be confined…’

Do you see what they are saying?   According to the Parole Board, when they ask ‘should this man be kept in prison?’ the question is not ‘how much punishment does he deserve?’  the question is ‘can we release him without endangering the public?’

Whenever politicians or others say that criminals must be locked up ‘to keep the streets safe’ they’ve adopted this approach.

2) Deterrence.  Why impose penalties on criminals?  Some say that the chief reason is in order to deter the criminal from committing further crimes, or to deter others from committing similar crimes.

Michael Howard, when he was Home Secretary famously said, ‘the best way to reduce re-offending is to increase the deterrent effect of sentencing — by sending more offenders to prison, making prison life harder, making sentences longer, and making community punishments more demanding’.

Judges in a recent case, reviewing the sentences of a group of rioters, declared that punishments must be ‘designed to deter others from similar criminal activity’.

There are constant debates in the political and legal world about how far prison and other penalties do deter serious crime, but the majority of our leaders take it for granted that deterrence is what we’re aiming for when we sentence criminals.

3) Rehabilitation.  Those who argue for restraint or for deterrence tell us that criminals must face penalties for the good of society.  A third suggestion is that they should be punished for their own good.

The penalties they suffer should not only deter them from future crime, but should be an opportunity for them to be rehabilitated — to learn lessons, to change their outlook, to become more socially aware, to become better people, to be made more capable of fitting into society.

Very few experts believe that that is actually the result of our present system. In practice, many criminals either laugh off the punishments they receive or they are corrupted and hardened by them.  But advocates of rehabilitation still argue that when society imposes sanctions on anyone, the goal should be to transform that person for the better.

4) Reparation (or Restitution).  The final approach tells us that criminals must face sanctions for the good of their victims.  The hope is that the victim may be helped to come to terms with what has happened, if she/he knows that the criminal is facing some penalty.

She may feel more secure if the criminal is locked away, incapable of doing more harm. She may feel that the criminal is more capable of understanding what he has made her suffer, if he is made to suffer himself.

Having been made to feel helpless, she may feel ‘empowered’ if she has the opportunity to tell the court what penalty she thinks appropriate.  She may find some ‘closure’ if the criminal can be persuaded to come and apologise to her.  One way or another, the goal is to make things better for the victim.


Well, I have no doubt that all four goals are right and proper.  Of course a government should try to protect the public.  Of course it is good to deter people from committing crimes.  Of course, we give thanks if a criminal is turned away from wickedness and learns to live a life that benefits others.  Of course we want the victim of every crime to be cared for and to receive restitution.

The Bible talks about the importance of all those things.  And I have no doubt that a legal system that is functioning as it should will further all those good things.  But none of those goals gives a valid basis for punishing wrongdoers.  And no just society can let those four goals dictate the way we deal with wrongdoers.

If we deny that wrongdoers deserve to be made to suffer, then we must not inflict suffering on them regardless of what benefits it may bring to them or to others.  A politician says that he does not believe in retribution.  But then he says we must be prepared to make criminals suffer in order to safeguard society, or to deter others, or to change the criminal, or to help the victim.

Strip away the caring-sounding words and what you’re left with is this.  He is saying to the criminal: ‘You have really not done anything for which we can blame you.  You do not deserve to suffer at our hands.  But we are going to make you suffer because we think that will benefit society, or because we have decided that it would be good for you’.

To abolish the principle of retribution may sound enlightened and merciful but it means abandoning the entire concept of justice.

As C. S. Lewis pointed out many years ago, such ‘enlightened’ thinking may lead to the most horrible abuses. First, if the state can decree suffering for someone on the basis that it will be good for that person, or for society, it can be inflicted on anyone.

Mr X has beaten up a neighbour.  On the basis of the modern enlightened approach, we can’t punish him just because he deserves to suffer.  But we can make him suffer in order to deter others from beating up neighbours.

Now think about Mr Y.  The police know that he has never beaten anyone up or committed any crime.  But they reason that if they accuse him falsely of assaulting a neighbour and convince a court that he should be locked up, the deterrent effect will be just the same as if he had committed the offence.  If the rationale for imprisoning people is to benefit society, society will benefit just as much from locking up innocent Mr Y as guilty Mr X.

Secondly, if suffering can be inflicted on someone for the benefit of that person, or for the good of society, it can be inflicted for any behaviour or viewpoint that the state thinks needs changing.

The court says to Mrs A, ‘you have stolen property from your neighbour.  We accept that you are not responsible.  And we have no interest in making you suffer.  We do not hold the old primitive view that you should be made to suffer because you deserve it. But society thinks that you need to have your attitudes to your neighbours changed.  So we will ‘treat’ you in a secure unit until we are satisfied that you have changed.  Of course the treatment may be quite painful — but be assured, we are doing it for your good’.

The following day Mrs B is in the dock.  She believes that the Bible is true, that the world was made in six days, that heaven and hell are realities.  The court says to her, ‘We do not think you have done anything wrong, anything that deserves punishment.  But for your own sake, we think you need to have these absurd views changed.  While you hold them, you will never fit into modern society or be psychologically normal.  So we are sending you to an institution for corrective treatment.  The treatment may be very unpleasant but it is for your own good’.

Once the idea of justice — i.e. retribution — is removed, the state can impose suffering on anyone for any cause — if it’s judged to be for society’s good, or for that person’s good.

Thirdly, if suffering can be inflicted for the good it will do to someone or to society, then there is no limit to what the offender may suffer.  Under Biblical law, punishment was inflicted on an individual according to what he deserved.  But once that punishment had been carried out, nothing further could be done to him.

‘A blow for a blow’ meant that once he had received the one blow he deserved for his crime, he was free.  His suffering was limited by the principle of justice, ‘he gets what he deserves and he gets no more than he deserves’.

But if the goal of the legal system is primarily to do good to the criminal or to society, who decides when enough good has been done?  ‘We could fine this man £10,000 — that may deter others from similar crimes.  But if we fine him £100,000, that will deter even more people’.

‘We’ve treated this woman for her antisocial tendencies for ten years.  She hasn’t yet changed.  So let’s treat her for another ten years’.  The suffering will continue, not until justice has been satisfied, but until the ‘good’ aimed for has been achieved.

All of those abuses have become a reality in totalitarian states across the world.  And I believe that they will become more and more prevalent in our Western society as it turns its back on the biblical view of retribution and justice.

Why have I written on this subject?  Well, because more and more often when I read the account of court cases and the comments made by judges, journalists and politicians, I find myself horrified and alarmed by their willingness to ignore the most basic principles of justice.

We cannot have justice unless we believe in retribution.  I long to see leaders raised up who actually believe that those who do good deserve to be rewarded, and that those who do evil deserve to have suffering inflicted on them.

But I have a more basic concern still.  It’s this:  I want to see people who call themselves Christians returning to the true message of the Bible.  If we abandon the principle of retribution, we abandon the Bible.  The Bible declares that God is utterly just; that he hates sin, that he must punish sin, that every sin deserves his wrath.

The Bible declares that we have committed terrible crimes against God, that we deserve to be made to suffer, that God has every reason to inflict terrible and everlasting punishment upon us.  The Bible declares that the Lord Jesus has taken the place of all who trust themselves to him, that God has inflicted on him the punishment we deserve, that he bore the suffering that would have been ours, that through him we can be justified, forgiven, restored, blessed forever.

‘Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.  But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.  All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all’ (Isaiah 53: 4-6).

That is the heart of the gospel: grace for sinners, peace and joy for believers.

For what you have done, his blood must atone;

The Father has punished for you his dear Son.

The Lord in the day of his anger did lay

Your sins on the Lamb, and he bore them away…

That’s retribution.  And it’s good news.

Stephen Rees is pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport This article first appeared in the monthly magazine and on the website of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport.

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