Towards a Social Theology of Punishment


Professor of Sociology & Family Development
Fuller School of Psychology
180 North Oakland
Pasadena, CA 91882

From: PSCF 41 (December 1989): 221-226.

It is suggested that a biblical view of punishment must be recognized as incorporating both motive  and act , and justice  and mercy . Based upon this recognition, a model is presented which seeks to balance an emphasis on inflicting pain or loss upon the offender with an emphasis on rehabilitating the offender. In rejecting the contemporary societal view of punishment as too individualistic, the model further emphasizes concern for society, which incorporates the ascending biblical ideas of public safety, deterrence, restitution,  and restoration or shalom.

In a society which has become increasingly relativistic, it is understandably tempting for Christians to take unambiguous and uncomplicated positions on a contemporary moral issue such as punishment. In seeking to use the Bible as their source book, alternative Christian groups have offered unambiguous "Christian" views of punishment, which are often contradictory. The biblical view of punishment is far from uncomplicated, however, and what might be most helpful is the development of a social theology which recognizes and incorporates the complexities of punishment as found in the Scriptures.

To punish is to cause a person to undergo pain, loss, or suffering for a wrongdoing. Punishment implies the infliction of some penalty on a wrongdoer. As a concept used in the legal system, punishment is the penalty imposed on a criminal for a criminal offense. A criminal offense is an offense against society, and it is within a societal context that an attempt will be made to develop a social theology of punishment.

The Balanced View of Punishment in the Bible

The biblical view of punishment is best understood as a balance among several seeming incongruities which form the motivational basis for punishment. The biblical view of punishment can be seen as balancing the motivational incongruities of act vs. motive  and justice vs. mercy. Before attempting to develop a social theology of punishment, I will present a brief discussion as to how the biblical view of punishment seems to balance each of these sets of apparent incongruities.

Motive and Act

A criminal offense includes two elements: the act of the offense and the intent of the offender. In determining the type of punishment to be served up to the offender, our current legal system takes both of these elements of a crime into account. For example, an automobile driver who accidentally hits and kills a person in an act of reckless driving can only be charged with manslaughter, rather than murder, because the intent to kill was not present. On the other hand, the person who picks up a gun and fires it at another with the intent to kill, but misses the would-be victim, would be charged with intent to murder. In neither case will the offender be charged with first degree murder, for this charge must carry with it both the premeditated intent to kill and the act of killing. Neither, however, will the persons in the above examples go "scott free," for each is held accountable for either their act or motive in relationship to another person. That this is so is an encouraging sign that our criminal system is at least in part a reflection of biblical ethics. The Bible clearly teaches that punishment for an offense must take into account both the act and the motive. This is perhaps most clearly stated in Exodus 21:12-15:

Anyone who strikes a man and kills him shall surely be put to death. However, if he does not do it intentionally, but God lets it happen, he is to flee to a place [God] will designate. But if a man schemes and kills another man deliberately, take him away from my altar and put him to death. (NIV)

An understanding of the Ten Commandments will also yield God's intent for a moral law which balances act and intent.

Punishment in the Bible must be understood as encompassing both justice and mercy. This dual concern is, of course, part of the larger biblical teachings about law and grace. Our understanding of the relationship between law and grace is perhaps most clearly addressed by Paul in his statement, "Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes" (Romans 11:4). As Paul elaborates on this text we learn that there is nothing wrong with the law itself, for it points the way to live according to God's intention. The problem with the law is that because no one is perfect, the law can't be fulfilled. Christ is the end of the law in the sense that he is the perfect fulfillment of the law. Because of Christ's perfection and righteousness, our righteousness is not dependent upon keeping the law but upon our faith in Christ.

We can understand the relationship between justice and mercy in the same way, for God demands justice because of His holiness, but demonstrates mercy through the giving of Jesus Christ. God has provided an example of how, when we assume human control over punishment within our society, we also might demand justice but demonstrate mercy.

In a general sense, justice shows concern for the victim, while mercy shows concern for the offender. The emphasis in the Old Testament seems to be more for the victim than the offender. An attempt to build a philosophy of punishment only upon Old Testament teachings, as some Christians seek to do, yields a view which shows little concern for the offender. What the Old Testament says has to be tempered by the examples of mercy shown by Jesus. When the Pharisees brought to Jesus a woman who had been caught in adultery, they were quite right that the law of Moses demanded that she be stoned. (Actually, according to the letter of the law, both she and the man with whom she committed adultery were to be stoned; Deuteronomy 22:22-24). Jesus, however, showed mercy when he replied to the Pharisees, "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her." After her accusers had left, Jesus turned to the woman and said, "Then neither do I condemn you.... Go now and leave your life of sin" (John 8:8-10). Before God, all of us are accused and found guilty. But by giving the life of Jesus Christ, God showed mercy to us. Christ's example has shown us how we might be more merciful, too. It is with an eye towards God's great mercy that we are to understand Jesus' comments in Matthew 5:38-39, "You have heard that it was said, `Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.'... But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also."

A Social Theology of Punishment

With this consideration of how punishment was viewed in the Bible, we are now ready to develop a social theology of punishment suitable for application in contemporary society. A social theology of punishment must balance an emphasis upon inflicting the pain of punishment upon the offender, and an emphasis on attempting to rehabilitate the offender.

Figure 1 depicts how this balance might be conceptualized. In Figure 1, the emphasis upon inflicting pain on the offender is represented on a continuum of low at the left side to high at the right side, while the continuum emphasizing rehabilitation ranges from low at the bottom of the figure to high at the top. The different ways in which these two emphases can be balanced is represented by the different points within the box. Thus, where there is a low emphasis on inflicting pain upon the offender and a low emphasis upon rehabilitating the offender, we have a condition which can be called societal neglect. A society in which this is found would tend toward anarchy - the absence of government or law - for which there is no collective mechanism to handle wrongs which one person may inflict upon another.

A society which has a high emphasis on inflicting pain upon the offender, but a low emphasis upon rehabilitating the offender, is practicing retribution. Retribution shows concern for the need of revenge for the victim, and demands that an offender must "pay" for the offense committed (Sheleff 1987:3 - 24). The law of revenge as practiced by the ancient Hebrews not only provided punishment similar in nature to the offense, but specified the maximum limit the punishment could take (Exodus 21:23-35). There is a sense in which retribution not only attempts to "equal the score" between the offender and the victim, but it might also serve to have a unifying effect upon society by drawing attention to the legitimacy of the societal norm which had been violated.

A low emphasis on inflicting pain on the offender combined with a high emphasis on rehabilitating the offender constitutes reformation. There are some who believe that reformation should be the only consideration used in deciding the most appropriate punishment. Those who hold to this position are often identified as "secular humanists," who understand behavior as "determined by our genes, our environment, and the associations of infancy," with "the result that all too frequently the criminal is regarded not as an offender but as a victim of his circumstances who needs treatment rather than punishment" (Hughes 1983:113).

The problem with the reformation view is not only that it fails to show concern for the victim, but that it also fails to treat the offender as a responsible human being. To not hold a person responsible for his or her own behavior renders a person less than the choice-making, responsible human being that God created. As C.S. Lewis has stated, "when we cease to consider what the criminal deserves and consider only what will cure him or deter others, we have tacitly removed him from the sphere of justice altogether; instead of a person, a subject of rights, we now have a mere object, a patient, a `case'..." (Lewis 1970:287).

A third reason for punishment, one which must be balanced with concern for the victim and concern for the offender, is concern for I. Punishment motivated by concern for the good of society is usually referred to as I. The reasoning behind deterrence is that punishing the offender will, by example, discourage others from committing the same offense. Inversely, if the offender is not punished or is only lightly punished, then others may be less resistant to committing the same offense (Nathanson 1987:15-32). Where there is low concern for society (represented in the lower left corner of Figure 1), deterrence as a motivational force is low. As concern for society increases (represented in Figure 1 as a movement toward the upper right corner), there is an increase in deterrence. However, punishment for the good of society can be motivationally expressed at several different levels.

At a lower level, the act of removing the offender from society can be motivated by a desire for public safety . Merely getting the offender off the streets is a less ambitious motive than holding the offender up as an example, and thus is represented a little further down on the "concern for society" continuum than is I. To the upper end of this same continuum are restitution and restoration, which represent two "concern for society" motives which are more ambitious than mere deterrence. Although punishment in modern society is rarely based on concerns for restitution and restoration, these are two of the dominant reasons for punishment given in the Bible.


In restitution the punishment recompenses in some direct way the harm done to the victim. Chapter 21 of Exodus contains a number of examples of punishment as restitution:

If men quarrel and one hits the other with a stone or with his fist-he must pay the injured man for the loss of his time and see that he is completely healed. (21:18)

If a man hits a manservant or maidservant in the eye and destroys it, he must let the servant go free to compensate for the eye. (21:26)

If a man uncovers a pit or digs one and fails to cover it and an ox or a donkey falls into it, the owner of the pit must pay for the loss; he must pay its owner, and the dead animal will be his. (21:35) (NIV)

Exodus 22:1 teaches that in certain cases restitution needs to be more than the loss inflicted on another: "If a man steals an ox or a sheep and slaughters it or sells it, he must pay back five head of cattle for the ox and four sheep for the sheep." So strong was the Old Testament emphasis upon restitution that inability to pay back a loss to the victim could result in the offender being "sold to pay for his theft" (Exodus 22:2). The rest of chapter 22 of Exodus continues to detail types of punishment which are to be carried out based upon the principle of restitution.

The Bible clearly teaches that punishment for an offense 
must take into account both the act and the motive.

The absence of restitution as a form of punishment in society today may reflect the hyper-¨individualistic emphasis which pervades contemporary society. Our legal system seeks to make the punishment given to the offender equivalent to the harm done to the victim. But rarely is the offender made to recompense the victim directly. Only through restitution can the victim hope to be, even in part, recompensed for the real loss incurred at the hands of the offender. The absence of restitution may be one of the reasons why victims in our society cry out so harshly for revenge. Our legal system rarely provides any other way in which the victim can feel that his or her loss is being "paid for." Restitution might be especially appropriate when the victim is society at large. An example of this took place a few years ago when a highway contracting company in Nebraska pleaded guilty to bid-rigging. Instead of sending the guilty to prison, the judge ordered them to endow a $1,475,000 Chair of Ethics at the University of Nebraska (Bennett 1987:269 - 270).

To not hold a person responsible for his or her own behavior renders 
a person less than the choice-making, responsible human being that God created.

Restitution may also be a more effective way to bring about rehabilitation in the offender. In the existing system, most offenders leave penal institutions more hardened than when they entered. Part of this may well have to do with the lack of logic between the offense committed and the punishment given.


The upper right corner of Figure 1 represents an ideal where there is high concern for the victim, high concern for the offender, and high concern for society. A society which combines these three motivations for punishment is practicing restoration. At the interpersonal level, restoration is the process of attempting to repair or reestablish the accord which was present before an offense occurred. Restitution can begin the process of restoration at the interpersonal level. This is so because restitution focuses upon reestablishing equity in the relationship between the offender and the victim. Interpersonal restoration is possible only after there is a change in both the offender and the victim. The offender must go through a process of sorrow, confession, true repentance and asking forgiveness for the wrong committed.

The Christian basis for interpersonal restoration is the biblical model of reconciliation. In the Old Testament, reconciliation was made possible when a sacrificial atonement (the Hebrew verb kaphar, meaning "to cover") was offered for sin (Leviticus 6:30; 16:20). Jesus radicalized the concept of reconciliation by tying it to the seeking of reconciliation from an offending brother: "Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift" (Matthew 5:23 - 24). It is noteworthy that the Greek word for "being reconciled" is diallattomai, which means "to be changed entirely." Reconciliation or interpersonal restoration is for the benefit of the offended as well as the offender. It is God's desire that all broken relationships be restored.

Although punishment in modern society is rarely based on concerns for restitution 
and restoration, these are two of the dominant reasons 
for punishment given in the Bible.

It is significant that Jesus taught that Christians should take the initiative in seeking reconciliation. The basis of this is found in the reconciliation made possible by Christ's atoning death: "Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (II Corinthians 5:20 - 21). The theology of the cross provides a basis for Christians to pursue and achieve reconciliation with an offending person.

Reconciliation or restoration in the offender-victim relationship must not be superficially rushed, however (Sheleff 1987:357). Victims must be given time to admit to and experience deep feelings of betrayal, grieving, anger, rage, and desire for revenge. The last thing they need (quite literally) is to be urged to forgive the offender. Forgiveness is possible only after the victim has been able to let go and disarm the emotional power that the offense has over his or her life. Forgiveness never means condoning or excusing the offense. It must be a conscious choice on the part of the victim to let go, a choice which can be aided by the empowering of God's grace. (See Lewis Smede's book, Forgive and Forget, for an excellent discussion of this.) Before true reconciliation can take place, the person who instigated the offense must also be fully penitent for the wrong committed. When true repentance from the offender and forgiveness from the victim take place, restoration takes the form of interpersonal reconciliation. In terms of the biblical parable of the good neighbor, interpersonal restoration is the process of becoming a neighbor to one another.

In addition, however, a biblical view of punishment calls for restoration at the societal level. Societal structures themselves can be, at least in part, responsible for creating an environment within which certain types of criminal offense are likely to occur. Social structures, for example, which allow a few to accumulate vast wealth, while others are left poor and destitute, are by their very natures structures which encourage criminal activity. Such social structures are evil and must undergo restoration.

In his 1985 book, Sense and Nonsense About Crime, Samuel Walker argues that a radical reorientation of our economic structure has eroded real economic opportunity. He believes none of the major crime reduction strategies, including well-intended social programs, are effective because they merely tinker with the existing system. Walker concludes that, although it is futile to strike back at crime directly, "We can attack crime indirectly by attacking economic opportunity directly" (Walker 1985:224). In biblical terms, this criminologist is suggesting that restoration is needed at the societal level.

A biblical view of justice leaves no room for a mere legalistic application of punishment for the poor in a system in which their only recourse is to steal in order to have enough food to live. The Bible demands that Christians be the creators of justice, and not merely the reinforcers of an existing order.

The absence of restitution may be one of the reasons 
why victims in our society cry out so harshly for revenge.

In contrast to Aristotle's classical model of preserving justice, biblical justice is creative justice (Mott 1982). Whereas classical justice is oriented towards sustaining people in their place in the existing social structure, biblical justice is oriented towards re-creating social structures so that all members can participate fully and equally in society. As Mott states:

The difference between scriptural and classical justice lies in the understanding of what is to be the normal situation of society. The Scriptures do not allow the presupposition of a condition in which groups or individuals are denied the ability to participate fully and equally in the life of the society. For this reason, justice is primarily spoken of by the biblical writers as activity on behalf of the disadvantaged. (p. 65)

Mott further argues that biblical justice is dominated by the principle of redress, "which postulates that inequalities in the conditions necessary to achieve the standard of well-being be corrected to approximate equality" (p. 67). He finds this principle in such biblical texts as Psalm 107:39-41: "Then their numbers decreased, and they were humbled by oppression, calamity and sorrow; he who pours contempt on nobles made them wander in a trackless waste. But he lifted the needy out of their affliction and increased their families like flocks. Redress can also be seen in the Old Testament concept of the Year of Jubilee," which stipulated that after every fifty years all confiscated land, whether sold or foreclosed, is to be returned to the family whose heritage it is (Leviticus 25:25 - 28).


I have argued that a biblical view of punishment will incorporate high concern for the victim, high concern for the offender, and high concern for society. From a societal point of view, one of the chief purposes of punishment is to keep the offender from repeating criminal acts in the future. Given that the recidivism rate among released prisoners is between 65 and 70 percent, the existing penal system is failing as a form of punishment. An examination of recent research suggests, I believe, that punishment is most effective when it most approximates the concerns of a biblical view. For example, in a study of more than two thousand juvenile offenders from four Illinois jurisdictions, John Wooldredge found that close supervision in open community facilities was more effective when compared with probation alone or with sentencing to high security detention homes (Wooldredge 1988). Wooldredge further found that among those juveniles sent to detention facilities, the rate of recidivism was the highest among those whose stay was the longest. A review of studies of juvenile correctional treatment between 1975 and 1984 reported that recidivism was reduced most when strong external controls, heavy structuring of daily schedules, and surveillance by community agencies were used (Lab and Whitehead 1988). At the individual level, a biblical application of punishment will seek to reintegrate the offender into community life, while not negating the seriousness of the offense committed.

A biblical application of punishment will also include an attempt to restore social structures to a more biblical ideal. Ideal societal structures are characterized in the Bible as shalom. Shalom is "the human being dwelling at peace in all his or her relationships: with God, with self, with fellows, with nature" (Wolterstorff 1983:69). Society will have been restored to a state of shalom when it is characterized by a just peace. Where peace and order are present without justice there is no shalom. Punishment of offenders in an unjust state which fails to address the problems of injustice or alienation reflect a secular rather than a biblical view of punishment.

A biblical view of peace and justice requires that both interpersonal and social structural restoration be a motivating goal behind the use of punishment in a legal system. Punishment is misplaced when it focuses only on retribution for the victim and rehabilitation for the offender; it must see the restoration of a just peace at all social structural levels. Such a situation is poignantly described in Isaiah 11:6 - 8: "The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and a little child shall lead them." Without losing concern for the victim and the offender, a biblical view of punishment will also encompass the holistic connotation of shalom as societal well-being.



Bennett, G. (1987). Crimewarps: The Future of Crime in America. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.

Currie, E. (1985). Confronting Crime: An American Challenge. New York: Pantheon Books.

Hughes, P. (1983). Christian Ethics in Secular Society. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

Lab, S.P. and J.T. Whitehead (1988). An analysis of juvenile correctional treatment. Crime and Delinquency 34:60 - 83.

Lewis, C.S. (1970). The humanitarian theory of punishment, in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Mott, S. (1982). Biblical Ethics and Social Change. New York: Oxford University Press.

Nathanson, S. (1987). An Eye for An Eye? The Morality of Punishing By Death. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield.

Sheleff, L.S. (1987). Ultimate Penalties: Capital Punishment, Life Imprisonment, Physical Torture. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press.

Smedes, L. (1984). To Forgive and To Forget. New York: Harper and Row.

Walker, S. (1985). Sense and Nonsense About Crime: A Policy Guide. Monterey, CA: Brooks/Coe Publishing.

Wooldredge, J.D. (1988). Differentiating the effects of juvenile court sentences on eliminating recidivism. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 25:264 - 300.