God’s justice is retributive. That means He gives us what we deserve.
Sometimes people contrast this justice with utilitarian views of justice. The utilitarians criticise retribution as vengeance – as pay back – as primitive and pointless. Utilitarians look forward to improve us or our society rather than look backward to what we deserve. They look forward to the outcomes of justice – to rehabilitation, deterrence and the protection of society. Ultimately utilitarians are more concerned with harm minimisation than justice.
But the dichotomy is false for at least two reasons. One is that without retribution utilitarianism is unjust. The other is that retribution has important utilitarian outcomes.
In the new age of terrorism, drug pushers and bikie gangs, utilitarian legislation is being enacted which seems to by-pass the basic premise of justice. Society needs protection from violent men but at other times society needs protection from tyrannical and oppressive governments. The laws by which one generation protects society can easily become the laws by which society will oppress another generation.
Without retribution all utilitarian justice is unjust. Why should I be punished without having committed a crime? Why should I be punished for associating with criminals? The Government may protect society from my potential crime but why should I be punished before I commit a crime? And furthermore who determines what rehabilitation looks like or whether there is any limit to the pain that can be inflicted upon me in order to rehabilitate me?
With retribution we have a just basis upon which to treat people. Because somebody has done the wrong thing we can justifiably force him to undergo rehabilitation. We could not hurt him beyond the level of hurt he has caused to others. The limit is clearly set out in the maxim “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. But we could enforce equivalent punishment for his wrongdoing.
Furthermore with retribution we teach people that their behaviour matters, their actions have consequences, and there is a right and a wrong. It declares that people should do the good and not the bad. It treats them as responsible human beings able to make moral decisions. It creates the moral context of responsibility, which has enormously beneficial consequences for the individual and society.
What we need is justice – God’s justice. What we need is God giving us what we deserve. This is what God promises to do when He judges all people by the secrets of our hearts. But what about justice in this world?
People are not to take justice into their own hands. “The anger of man does not produce the righteousness that God requires” (James 1:20). So when Christians are mistreated or persecuted the Scripture says ” Repay no one evil for evil, … Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord” (Romans 12:17, 19).
But what about this world – does God’s justice exist in the here and now or only in the world to come? In the next few verses of Romans we read that God appoints governing authorities in this world to execute His justice. So Romans 13 talks of God appointing authorities to whom we must submit: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1). It goes on to say: “God’s servant … does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4).
Vengeance is God’s, but He gives it to His appointed human authorities to administer justly. As God is slow to anger, so his righteousness is to be worked out in the measured courts of human justice. It is not a matter of the temper or the violent uncontrollable anger of the wounded victim – but the just work of the Government.
Yet Government is not the only authority appointed by God to administer His justice. Parents are also to stand for Him in their relationship with their children. It is as a father that God disciplines us for our good (Hebrews 12). Parents do no favour to their children by avoiding their God given responsibility to deliver God’s retributive justice to and for their children.
It is of course possible, even likely, that sinful authorities will abuse their power. Instead of delivering justice, they will arrogantly please themselves and use their power to serve their own interests. They will override God’s justice in the laws that they pass, as they prosecute the innocent and exonerate the guilty. Yet the Christian is to submit to them prayerfully knowing that God has appointed them and that one day they will answer to Him, for He will ultimately bring justice. “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
Isn’t it great news that God has extended to us His mercy in the death of His Son? Whenever God appoints us to authority we too must seek to extend His mercy in the context of His justice.