The Judgement of God as a Problem

The Judgement of God as a Problem 3 1 The Judgement of God as a Problem The Problem The notion of divine judgement has never been particularly...
Author: Molly King
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The Judgement of God as a Problem

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The Judgement of God as a Problem

The Problem The notion of divine judgement has never been particularly popular, except perhaps among those who were convinced that they, at least, were exempt from its terrors. Bishop John Robinson commented: We live . . . in a world without judgment, a world where at the last frontier post you simply go out – and nothing happens. It is like coming to the customs and finding there are none after all. And the suspicion that this is in fact the case spreads fast: for it is what we should all like to believe.1

Yet the notion that human beings are accountable to God for our choices and actions invests our lives with ultimate significance, and this is a powerful reason for taking it seriously. Perhaps our problem lies not so much with the idea of divine judgement itself, but with distorted understandings of divine action expressed both within the church (such as, ‘The God of the Old Testament is a God of justice, the God of the New Testament is a God of love’) and in the occasional utterances of critics of Christian faith. For example, the Oxford philosopher Richard Robinson wrote: If it really were probable that we should burn eternally, or not burn eternally, according as we disobeyed or obeyed a certain set of moral laws, that would, indeed, be an excellent reason for obeying them. But . . . it would be a poor reason for respecting them . . . On the contrary, they and the god who imposed them on us in this unbelievably brutal way, could only be regarded as beneath contempt.2

This study attempts to lay bare significant elements of New Testament teachings on this topic, focusing particularly on the question: Does God deal with human beings according to the principle of retribution? I hope thereby to shed light on a number of important themes and ‘problem texts’.

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Christ and the Judgement of God

In its aspect of punishment, the question may be elaborated like this: What is God’s attitude to any who reject his offer of forgiveness? Is it that of the Lord High Executioner in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado? My object all sublime I shall achieve in time – To let the punishment fit the crime.3

Is it that of a dictator who executes his opponents so that they may trouble him no more? Is it expressed in the saying, ‘Fiat iustitia, et pereat mundus’ – let there be justice, even if it means the damnation of the whole world?4 Or is it something on a quite different level from this, something more obviously consistent with God’s love? For even if God has personally willed the severe consequences of sin, it does not necessarily follow that he has willed them retributively.5 Similarly, when ‘reward’ is discussed, the question will be, ‘Can people in any sense earn or deserve God’s favour, so as to establish a claim to divine recompense? Retribution has often been discussed, especially by British theologians, in connection with the doctrine of the atonement. I have felt it useful and important to consider divine judgement and retribution apart from the atonement, in order to get a clearer and more detailed look at these particular ideas. But then, in the section on the theology of Paul, I will include a chapter (Chapter 12) which seeks to work out the implications of my perspective on judgement and retribution for interpretation of the apostle’s understanding of the atonement.6 So, after an attempt to define terms, a brief discussion of the Old Testament and Jewish literature will be followed by an examination of Paul’s letters, the four gospels and the Apocalypse. The method will mainly be to study words, ideas and passages which ‘look retributive’ and have often been regarded as such by scholars, and thus to assess the significance of retributive ideas in the major ‘strands’ of the New Testament. In the process, I shall argue that New Testament language which ‘looks retributive’ is best understood in relation to a non-retributive theology of judgement.

Retribution and Related Ideas Terms such as justice, reward, punishment and retribution are often used loosely in common speech, but a study of this kind must begin by trying to define them more precisely.7



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Aristotle’s detailed discussion of justice in Nicomachaean Ethics book 5 deeply influenced many later thinkers. He emphasized equality or equivalence as the essential feature of justice in its various aspects. Thus when an offence, for example theft or assault, has been committed by one party against another, ‘corrective justice’ seeks, by the intervention of the judge, to ensure an exact correspondence between an offence and its punishment. ‘Distribute justice’, by which honours and goods are shared out in a community, aims at giving each member a share proportionate to their merit or desert. Since people are not all equal, for example in rank or wealth, the principle of equality can be upheld only by their receiving unequal shares. There would be no equality if equal treatment were given to unequal desert (Nicomachaean Ethics, 1130b­–1132b). Aristotle’s idea of distributive justice as proportional equality according to desert became the basis of the formula of Ulpian (d. ad 228), Iustitia est constans et perpetua voluntas ius suum cuique tribuendi (‘Justice is the constant and perpetual willingness to render to every man his right’, Digest 1.1.10). Its huge influence on Christian theology was established through Augustine, who assumes Ulpian’s definition (On Free Will 1.27; De Civitate 20.21), and Thomas Aquinas, who expresses approval of it (Summa Theologica 2.2, Q. 58, Art. 11). Thus it came to be widely held that justice, both human and divine, involves the distribution of rewards and punishments in proportion to people’s deserts, and works on the basis of an equality or equivalence between desert and its reward or punishment. Now we look more closely at the concepts of reward and punishment. Reward denotes a benefit bestowed on someone in consequence of, and in proportion to, their merit. Reward is not intrinsic to the meritorious deed, but is ‘added’ to it by another party. When used in this strict sense of the distribution of benefits in proportion to people’s meritorious deeds, ‘reward’ is a retributive word. This strict sense of the word must be distinguished from the element of arbitrariness which is often associated with the word ‘reward’ in common speech. For example, a child who finds a lost cat may or may not receive a ‘reward’, and there may or may not be an attempt to make such a reward ‘correspond’ to the amount of effort involved in finding it. It is significant, then, that the biblical words sometimes translated ‘reward’ (Hebrew śākar, Greek misthos) are metaphors from the world of work and business, where they denote a fixed and certain recompense for work done. So, however we may interpret the biblical idea of reward, we should be wary of attributing an arbitrary or capricious quality to it.

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Christ and the Judgement of God

Punishment is a more complex issue. For theorists often speak of punishment as ‘deterrent’ or ‘reformatory’ as well as ‘retributive’, and we shall need to distinguish carefully between these terms. A classic definition of punishment is that of Hugo Grotius (1583–1645): Malum passionis quod infligitur ob malum actionis (‘an evil suffered which is inflicted on account of an evil done’).8 While Grotius himself described this definition as generalis significatus, the ‘common reference’ or initial description rather than an actual theory of punishment, Walter Moberly drew out the implications of the definition as follows: 1. What is inflicted is an ill – something unpleasant. 2. It is a sequel to some act that has gone before and is disapproved by some authority. 3. There is some correspondence between the punishment and the deed that has evoked it. 4. The punishment is inflicted from outside, by someone’s voluntary act. 5. The punishment is inflicted on the criminal, in view of his offence.9 If we then ask for what purpose punishment is inflicted we move from description to theories of punishment. Advocates of the retributive theory of punishment argue that punishment is a particular application of the principle of justice that people should be given their due. A typical statement is that of F.H. Bradley: Punishment is punishment, only where it is deserved. We pay the penalty, because we owe it, and for no other reason; and if punishment is inflicted for any other reason than because it is merited by wrong, it is a gross immorality, a crying injustice, an abominable crime, and not what it pretends to be.10

A further point stressed by retributivists is the necessity for an equivalence between the crime and the punishment. The lex talionis (‘law of retaliation’, expressed in the form ‘an eye for an eye’, etc., as in Exod. 21:24; Lev. 24:20; Deut. 19:21) is the classical expression of equivalence, though few retributivists have ever insisted on such a literal equivalence.11 These two points, the principle of desert and the stress on equivalence, are really more emphatic expressions of Moberly’s second and third points above. They, together with the three other points enumerated by Moberly, constitute the definition of retributive punishment with which I shall work in this study.12



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Clarification is also needed of Moberly’s fourth point, to which he adds: ‘Disagreeable consequences which follow wrongdoing by natural causation, as disease or poverty sometimes follow, are not “punishment” unless they are supposed to be deliberately brought about by some superhuman personal agency.’ This means, I presume, that where natural catastrophes are believed to happen by the personal will of God (as often in the Old Testament), they are to be understood as retributive punishment. But it does not follow from this that all expressions of divine judgement are necessarily to be seen as retributive. Each example must be tested against Moberly’s cluster of criteria to see whether it counts as retributive according to that definition.13 Retribution has sometimes been defended in the form of the ‘disowning by a community of acts done by its members’.14 In order to reinforce and protect its moral standards, a society expresses its disapproval of an offence by punishing the offender. But, strictly speaking, ‘retribution’ and ‘denunciation’ should not be so confused. The denunciatory idea rests on the debatable assumption that the infliction of suffering is a uniquely appropriate way of expressing moral condemnation. If it were defended on the grounds that this form of denunciation is effective in instilling in the offender and in others respect for the moral code, which has been violated, it would in fact be coming close to the deterrent theory. According to the deterrent theory, punishment is inflicted in order to discourage future wrong acts by the offender and by others. On this view, punishment looks to the future rather than to the past. To punish merely because a wrong has been done is simply to do a fresh wrong. And it is not revulsion for the crime, but fear of punishment, which is held to deter. Two versions of the reformatory theory may be distinguished. One holds that punishment in itself may have a reformative effect on the criminal, while the other stresses the value of reformative treatment – for example, the visit of the prison chaplain or psychiatrist, or the provision of educational opportunities – made available to the person in prison. The former version is found repeatedly in the Bible in connection with divine punishment, while the latter is not strictly reformative punishment at all, since the reformative process is distinct from the punishment (which is constituted by the deprivation of freedom to the prisoner). In recent years a more radical variation on the reformatory theory has been developed by the advocates of restorative justice. Christopher Marshall characterizes ‘restorative justice’ as follows:

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Christ and the Judgement of God Unlike retributive justice, which centres on the notions of law-breaking, guilt, and punishment, restorative justice focuses on relationships, reconciliation, and reparation of harm done . . . ‘It does not counter harm done by a new harm, but with a healing response to victim, offender and the wider community . . .’ [It] ‘insists on accountability, reparation and reform – but tries to avoid ostracization, stigmatization, and the compounding of old violence with new violence.’15

So the emphasis in restorative justice is not on ‘paying back’ the offender, but on positively ‘putting right’ what has gone wrong between the offender and the victim, and between the offender and the community, and on promoting restoration or healing within the offender’s own character and behaviour. The main purpose of Marshall’s book is to advocate such an approach to justice, crime and punishment and to argue that it coheres with biblical approaches to justice and Christian themes of repentance, reconciliation and repentance. The pros and cons of these understandings of justice and punishment have long been debated.16 These are big questions. But my purpose here is to define terms, not to argue for or against any particular theory about the purpose or value of punishment in the context of criminal law. And it may in any case be dangerous to argue by analogy from what is appropriate in judicial punishment to what is appropriate in divine judgement. Such argument by analogy finds classic expression in Augustine and Aquinas (Summa Theologica 1, Q. 21, Art.1). The whole argument of Augustine’s On Free Will is based on the assumption that, just as human justice manifests itself in distribution of rewards and punishments, so does the justice of God’s government of the world.17 Although we have no option but to use human language and the structures of human society in developing our language about God, it is not necessarily the case that divine judgement functions in the same way as the judgements of human courts and criminal systems. Analogical argument about divine punishment may be questioned for four reasons. Firstly, judicial punishment deals only with crimes – overt, detectable acts. But God has to do with whole personalities: he will judge ‘the secret thoughts of all’ (Rom. 2:16). Secondly, judicial punishment is essentially external. It is by convention rather than by divine necessity that criminals are punished by the infliction of pain (deprivation of freedom or, in some societies, actual physical harm). ‘No intrinsic relationship can exist between moral guilt and bodily suffering; they are incommensurable magnitudes, and



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attempts to express the one in terms of the other must forever remain as futile as attempts to square the circle.’18 Thirdly, our ideas and standards of punishment are constantly changing over time. Therefore our analogies can have, at best, only illustrative value. Fourthly, in the Bible itself there are indications that divine judgement does not always work out on the same principles as judicial punishment. For example, M. Greenberg has shown that some Old Testament writers, while accepting the principle of communal punishment by God, specifically reject it in the context of criminal law (compare Deut. 5:9 with 24:16).19 And the God of the Bible often finds justification for withholding punishment in ways that are not regarded as appropriate in a human court. It is precisely for this reason that we should be cautious about assuming that divine judgement works by the same criteria and with the same intention as human courts; and we should define retribution carefully rather than loosely in order to determine thoughtfully the extent to which God’s judgement can be understood retributively. I shall not therefore enter into evaluation of the various theories of judicial punishment in the hope that this would point us towards conclusions about the appropriateness of retribution or deterrence or reformation or restoration in the context of divine judgement. I have simply attempted to determine the meaning of these terms, without evaluating them, in order to clarify the discussion, which will follow. But two observations may be made before we study the biblical evidence. First, we may pose the question whether there is any real place for retribution, in the sense defined above, in the context of personal relationship. People are rewarded or punished (retributively) not because of their character, but because of some specific overt act, which they have done. Retribution thus operates on a less than fully personal level, and it deals with externals.20 Second, a distinction must be made between ‘extrinsic’ and ‘intrinsic’ consequences of actions. This is expressed by T.E. Davitt: Examples of extrinsic sanctions would be rewards offered by law for the apprehension of criminals, or punishments which consist in the deprivation of property by fine, of freedom by imprisonment, of physical well-being by flogging, of life itself by execution. Examples of intrinsic sanction would be the reward of safe driving conditions that result from observing traffic laws, or the punishment of dangerous driving conditions that ensue from violating the laws.21