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Robin Parry is the husband of but one wife (Carol) and the father of the two most beautiful girls in the universe (Hannah and Jessica). He also has a lovely cat called Monty (who has only three legs). Living in the city of Worcester, UK, he works as an Editor for Wipf and Stock — a US-based theological publisher. Robin was a Sixth Form College teacher for 11 years and has worked in publishing since 2001 (2001–2010 for Paternoster and 2010– for W&S).

Monday, 3 August 2009

Divine Punishment - Retributive or Restorative? Must we choose?

NOTE: this really is a thought off the top of my head. I have not checked it out with Scripture nor with much thought. It is a 'scribble' right and proper. Bear that in mind when you go for my jugular.

What is the reason for divine punishment? Does God punish in order to satisfy justice or in order to correct/restore people? Does God punish because people deserve it or to redirect them? Is divine punishment retributive or restorative?

Scripture seems to present both rationalles. So is some punishment restorative and some punishment retributive? Maybe, but I think I am right to say that some specific punishments seem to be presented as both at the same time (e.g., the exile of Israel is presented at times as retributive and at times as corrective).

The problem is that holding a single punishment to be grounded on both retributive and restorative bases raises problems. What if retribution requires a different punishment than restoration requires? Indeed, what if retribution ultimately requires eternal, conscious torment (as the classical tradition has held)? That is hard to square with restorative punishment (for obvious reasons). It might turn out that the same punishment cannot be both retributive and restorative.

But wait a mo! How about this weird thought? Suppose that God punishes someone because they deserve it (i.e., retribution is the grounding). Suppose further that in his infinite wisdom God determines that this punishment should also serve to correct people. That seems possible.

But what happens when there's a clash? To take the limit example, what if retribution requires eternal, conscious torment in Hell (which, for the sake of argument I shall assume, although I am not at all persuaded that it is the case). How can God sentence someone to eternal conscious torment and also use that punishment as restorative? Here's a crazy idea:

John is a sinner and is justly sentenced to Hell for eternity because it is what he deserves. However, God in his wisdom also determins that this punishment should provoke John to see the true horror of his sins, to repent, to turn to God for grace and mercy. Suppose that John does this. God, by the Spirit, unites him to Christ and saves him. So John is saved from Hell.

So John never actually lives out the full sentence of eternal, conscious punishment even though he deserved it and one of God's reasons for punishing him is to punish him forever because he deserves it.

But, some may object, if Christ has paid for John's sins on the cross then God cannot punish the same sins twice. John cannot suffer eternal conscious torment if Christ suffered it on his behalf. (This objection is based on a classical understanding of penal substitution). So if Christ died for John then God could not send him to Hell in the first place. Well, it is not obvious that the same sin is being punished twice because, as a matter of fact, whilst John is rightly (according to this theory) sentenced to eternal conscious torment he does not actually suffer eternal conscious torment. He only suffers temporary conscious torment.

But is it not unjust for God to rescue him from eternal conscious torment? No more so than it is for God to save anyone from this fate. He does it, on this model of atonement, by Christ suffering the punishment instead. So the punishment is metered out - to Christ in our place.

But wait! What if the punishment never has its intended restorative effect? What if John never comes to God (through Christ)? In that case John would suffer eternal conscious torment even though Christ had suffered this punishment for him.

Two thoughts. (1) Less significantly, there would never come a point at which John had suffered eternal conscious torment. The sentence would never be complete. (2) More significantly (and controversially), I just cannot see such a scenario ever being the case. Indeed, I might go as far as to say that it is not possible. I'm not going to try and justify that now.

So a punishment motivated in part by retribution can (maybe) also serve as restorative even in the limit case of clashes.

I may come to see that this is just total crap if I think about it a little more but as there's no fun in that I thought I'd throw the thought out whilst it was still stupid and interesting.

(Actually, reading it through I'm already seeing problems. Perhaps it really is rubbish)


Robin Parry said...

Here's an alternative version.

Perhaps the sinner (united to Adam) deserves eternal conscious torment. The punishment of Hell is retributive.

However, when they repent and are united to Christ they participate in his death and resurrection. Their punishment is paid IN CHRIST. So at that point the punishment ceases because in Christ the price is paid.

In retrospect we can see that the punishment served a restorative purpose.

Perhaps union with Christ deals with the problem of penal substitution and paying twice for the same sins.



Terry Wright said...

The point of theoblogging, it seems to me, is to play around with ideas!

Ryan said...

Does the parable of Lazarus and the rich man suggest that God does not save people from hell?

Ryan said...

In your post you hint in a parenthetical remark that you do not think God's retribution requires eternal punishment. I know that wasn't the point of your post but I'm really interested in pursuing that idea. Do you know of any books that develop that thought a bit more? (Sorry if this is off topic.)

Aionios said...

In the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, the rich man is in "hades" in the original Greek.

In Rev 20. 13&14 the same hades is destroyed in the Lake of Fire.

I don't think "hades" in the New Testament can be translated Hell.

Robin Parry said...


I think you are probably correct. Hades seems to be the OT sheol (the world of the dead) rather than Hell. The Rev text you cite is helpful.

I'm not entirely sure how to interpret the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. It is different from the rest of the teaching in the NT on punishment in the afterlife (not least in that it seems to conceive of punishment as occuring immediately following the point of death rather than after the coming Day of Judgement - that really is unlike the rest of the NT). I incline towards taking it as a story making a point about wealth and poverty and not as normative teaching on the afterlife (and it is very possible that Jesus was making use of a well known myth to make a point without thereby endorsing it as a literal account of how things are). A fair few evangelical scholars are very cautious about whether and how this parable might be used to yield normative teachings on postmorten existence (and this includes the British Evangelical Alliance in their very helpful report on Hell). Given all the murkiness that surrounds it I am inclined to start with texts that are clearer and then to come back to this story. All that said, I am not satisfied that I really understand the text properly.