The Paradox Of Punishment

What’s the point of punishment?


Think about it:  What’s the point of doing something unpleasant to a person just because they’ve done something unpleasant first?

Now, before any law & order types start ranting and raving, let me draw a sharp distinction between deterrence and punishment.

Putting a violent felon in jail is deterrence:  Behind bars the felon has limited chances of harming another person.

They are deterred from inflicting violence on the innocent & defenseless.

But deterrence is not necessarily punishment and not necessarily justice.  Rather, it’s a common sense step by legal means for society at large to prevent a person from doing more harm.

Consider:  A person suffering from a severe violent psychosis needs to be confined so they won’t harm others or themselves.  They don’t need to be guilty of any crime (and in fact, legally can’t be held guilty due to their psychosis).

And while we’re discussing felons, “harm” comes in a variety of forms.  Shoplifting, counterfeiting, running a Ponzi scheme are harmful to people in a variety of direct / indirect ways that aren’t physically violent.

But deterrence is just only insofar as the person being deterred is prevented from committing more harm.  There are some sticky-fingered shoplifters who need to be locked up for life:  They’ll never stop stealing otherwise.  Conversely, some violent felons may quickly realize the enormity of what they’ve done and sincerely change their attitudes and mindset so they’ll never be a threat to anyone again.

We human beings cannot read the hearts & minds of those who commit crimes/do wrong.  Only God can judge a person’s character, all we can do is judge their actions.

We judge some actions to be so harmful that the person who did them needs to be isolated from society for a long, long time just to be sure they don’t do it again.[1]

But that in and of itself is not justice.  Justice is a balancing of the scales, it is an attempt to return to the way things were before the crime.

If a thief steals my car and wrecks it, I’ll never get that car back no matter how long the thief is put in jail.  Even if my insurance company pays for another car, I have still suffered through the shock & inconvenience of having my car stolen in the first place.

While others may benefit from the car thief being locked up (i.e., their cars won’t be stolen), I get no justice from his imprisonment.

Suppose I took matters in my own hands and when the thief was released from jail I tracked him down and worked him over with a baseball bat.

That’s revenge, not justice.  It might make me feel good, but it does nothing to make others safe (in fact, it might endanger others by making a previously non-violent thief more likely to kill a victim to escape punishment in the future).

God did not seek revenge on Cain for killing his brother, Able.  Cain’s death would not bring Able back.

God’s justice was far more severe:  He made Cain live not just with the consequences of his own evil, but the awareness of it as well.

God didn’t dump on an innocent person, He let a guilty person carry his brother’s murder with him for the rest of his life.

That hurts.

The problem we humans have in trying to comprehend God’s righteousness & justice, especially in light of His love & mercy, is that we too often look at it purely from a primitive human level.

God is quick to forgive.  Look at some of the sinners He had to deal with:  Jacob, forger & embezzler; Moses, murderer; Jonah, coward & deserter; David, adulterer & murderer; Peter, coward & deserter; Paul, religious bigot & accessory to murder.

Look at what God repeatedly tells us:  “Come now, and let us reason together…though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.”  (Isaiah 1:18 KJV)

Unfortunately, through much of human history, people couldn’t comprehend God’s loving mercy.

Suppose there’s a toddler who persists in trying to climb up on a hot stove.  Her mother may warn her repeatedly, her mother may show her how hot the stove is, but if the child persists, sooner or later she’ll inflict grave harm to herself and perhaps cause an accident that will harm others as well.

So the mother uses punishment as a deterrent.  Maybe this means a time out, maybe it means slapping her hand, maybe it means scolding her.

The little bit of unpleasantness is to prevent something far, far worse.

God never really punishes anyone.  He permits us to suffer from our own sins & shortcomings, but He never seeks to harm us.[2]

Humans too often perceive God’s justice as vengeance, but God is not in the revenge business.  “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (Exodus 21:24 KJV) was handed down to prevent escalating revenge by setting a limit to what a just punishment could be (check out the story of Dinah in Genesis 34 to understand how ancient Semitic retribution went far beyond any boundaries of what we would consider justice today).[3]

God is quick to forgive.  He cautions us “Judge not, that ye be not judged.  For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again” (Matthew 7:1-2 KJV) and “Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful.  Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven” (Luke 6:36-37 KJV).

God wants to forgive us.  He’s eager to forgive us.  He sent His son so we might be forgiven.  Christ, the only perfectly holy and perfectly sinless human to have ever lived, died for our sins so that the injustice of His agony and death would outweigh the justice coming to us as sinners.

We will not be punished if we don’t accept Christ.

Rather, we will be cutting ourselves off from the greatest blessing God ever bestowed on the human race.

God wants neither revenge nor justice.  He would rather “have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4 KJV).

Christ wants to save us from ourselves.  That’s why He taught “Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:  But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also…Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matthew 5:38-39, 44 KJV).

That’s the paradox of punishment.  When we seek to punish others, we’re really just punishing ourselves.




[1]  For those who wonder, I am opposed to capital punishment on conservative grounds:  I don’t believe any government should ever take anything it can’t restore.  Freedom, money, and property can always be restored / reimbursed, but until Christ returns death is pretty permanent.

[2]  There are places in the Bible where God, who has perfect knowledge of every human being and of everything that has happened and is yet to happen, will permit an individual or a tribe to perish because He knows they will not repent and turn from their evil.  In order to save those who can be saved, God will allow the destruction of some who won’t.  He will stay His hand when an evil person will stop being a threat to the innocent, and He never allows destruction to befall a person or tribe without first giving them warning.

[3]  Even more interesting, the full passage shows it is about an injury inflicted on a woman by a man:  “If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman's husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine.  And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”  (Exodus 21:22-25 KJV).  Compare this with Paul’s “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28 KJV) and one sees God has always regarded men and women as equals, it’s human beings who screwed things up.

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