Is there a biblical principle behind the punishment of those who break the law?


Many evangelical christians believe that when it comes to wrongdoers (or criminals), the state's first task is to make them suffer for the wrong they have done. Whether the lash, or exile from one's homeland, or a stretch on the rack, or exposure to public shame (The Scarlet Letter), or confinement in jail—or even the noose—punishment is expected.

Is there a Christian principle from which retributive justice is derived? Retributive justice did not arise from any Christian principle; almost every pre-Christian society dealt with wrongdoers by causing them pain. Even so, retributive justice is supported by biblical example.

In ancient Israel, God's commandments were the law of the land. Therefore, all wrongdoing (violating God's law) was a criminal offense for which the wrongdoers paid a penalty, often a shockingly steep one such as stoning.

Though it brings the good news of grace to sinners, the New Testament does not disavow the Old Testament way of punishing wrongdoers. The apostle Paul insists (Rom. 13) that God invested the state with a sword. And what is a sword for but to kill or to cause pain? Jesus said that we should render to the state what properly belongs to the state, and though he had taxes in mind, we might reasonably infer that giving the state the job of punishing wrongdoers is one way of giving the state its due.

Jesus implied—did he not?—that God gave Pilate the authority to execute wrongdoers, even when, as in Jesus' own case, he had an innocent person on his hands. It seems, then, that the New Testament grants the state the right to punish wrongdoers.

Even the cross of Christ seems to support retributive justice—that is certainly ...

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Christianity Today
How to Deal with Criminals
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July 8, 2002

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