PUNISHMENT AND VENGEANCE -
Wholly Evil Concepts?
During the last decade or so, we have witnessed the growth and influence of certain tenets held by some social liberals which challenge many aspects of Christian teaching.
Recommended Degree courses for those who will go into the Social Services are now steeped in a philosophical approach which students are being taught to apply to a complete cross-section of social problems. Moreover, the statistical data already available for many of these social problem areas is no longer considered as important as the imposing of this philosophical approach! Why is this important? It is important because many social liberals are no longer as interested in statistics which could be of use to them as they once were. Sometimes statistics which are plainly helpful are being rejected in a most cavalier fashion.
Example? Statistically, it can be shown that stern punishments for crime provide a deterrent to the potential criminal - but this is now frequently brushed aside by those who have become steeped in the new social liberalism because their philosophical approach has led to them believing that the concepts of punishment and vengeance are wrong! There are increasing calls, for example, that we should completely remove the concept of punishment from our treatment of criminals. Teach them better ways, don't lock them up, many are saying; these people need rehabilitation - not punishment! But while, of course, recognising the place of rehabilitation for criminals, should we take the whole concept of punishment out of the treatment of criminals? Few, it seems, stop to consider what the affect would be of totally removing the principle of a deterrent!
Indeed, I sometimes find that such social liberals will assume that Christians will agree with them that the concepts of punishment and vengeance are wholly wrong. I'm afraid that one reason for this is the huge influence of a purely liberal form of Christianity.
But what about this? Are the concepts of punishment and vengeance wholly wrong as so many social liberals now believe?
First of all, let us define these words:
The closest dictionary definition seems to be something like, 'that which an offender is made to suffer for his or her offence' Sometimes, of course, the word is used in a somewhat incorrect way when we might say that a criminal, say, 'punished' a bank by robbing it, or, 'punished' a person unknown to the criminal by stealing their car. But I think we should all be able to see that these are less than perfect uses of that word. Punishment is what - strictly speaking - is handed out to the doer of some plain misdeed, if not criminal action.
Although social liberals are increasingly inferring that vengeance and punishment are one and the same thing, I'm afraid that this betrays a rather poor comprehension of the English language!
Comparing two or three dictionaries, the closest one can get to the meaning of this word would be something like, 'revenge for hurt or harm to oneself or to a person or cause which one supports. A form of 'getting even' or, 'settling the score' with a suggestion of vindictiveness and a pleasing satisfaction'
Many, of course, have taken real joy in avenging real or imagined wrongs. I just heard about a wife whose husband left her for another woman who took real joy in cutting up all of his clothes. Another similarly wronged wife sent all her husbands clothes to Oxfam, the charity shop! When this lady was asked about this, she claimed that this gave her real satisfaction and joy since some of the things she gave to Oxfam were especially favourite clothes of her husband!
So, punishment is the concept of punishing a wrong-doer. Vengeance also includes that concept but goes further, including a degree of satisfaction that such people have received their 'just desserts' (as we may say); 'they had it coming to them', and there can be a satisfaction when justice is done to wrong-doers. Punishment contains no concept of joy or satisfaction that the criminal is punished because it simply refers to the act of punishing - nothing more. There is also another slight difference; Punishment carries a sense of authority, the sense of a punishment legally carried out. Vengeance, however, can belong to anybody, to the good and evil alike.
We see, therefore, that while there are similarities between the meanings of these two words, their differences are rather important!
First of all, let us consider vengeance.
While - without doubt - the Old Testament records several really vengeful acts, God bars His people from 'taking vengeance' on those who have wronged them;
It is unchristian for us to take joy in the destruction of our enemies even though - without a doubt - those who continue to remain the enemies of Christians are headed for destruction!
"Vengeance is Mine, and recompense; their foot shall slip in due time; for the day of their calamity is at hand, and the things to come hasten upon them"
(Deuteronomy 32: 35)
"For we know Him who said, "Vengeance is Mine, I will repay," says the Lord. And again, "The Lord will judge His people." It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God"
(Hebrews 10: 30-31)
Actually, the desire for vengeance when good people are wronged is perfectly understandable and is a very natural human emotion. But God instructs those of us who are believers not to allow vengeful desires to gain a foothold. The terms of the New Covenant, outlined in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), leave no room for allowing such vengeful desires to hold sway in a Christian's life. After all, how can we correlate 'turning the other cheek' with a desire for vengeance?
Of course, it would not be wrong when one sees the poor and weak wronged by the powerful to long for justice to be done.
But the Bible does not teach that vengeance is necessarily evil but, rather, that it is the property of God alone. We are not to appropriate what is in God's domain. Indeed God Himself will eventually take vengeance on evil-doers and especially on those who persecute His people!
"The wicked plots against the just, and gnashes at him with his teeth. The Lord laughs at him, for He sees that his day is coming"
While the picture of God laughing could be accomadatory language for the benefit of the reader of the Scripture, to laugh at the future which lies in wait for the persecutors of God's people is vengeful ; that is, it is taking a certain joy and satisfaction when calamity strikes people. The point is: God has this right because He is the Lord of all creation.
So we see that while it is not wrong to long for justice to be done for the needy, Christians are not to embrace deep feelings of a desire for vengeance. Vengeance is within the domain of God alone.
Now let us consider punishment.
God has granted every parent the right to punish their children in order to teach them right from wrong,
"Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child. But the rod of correction will drive it far from him"
Of course, this is not saying that parents should strike their children with 'rods' when they are naughty; the rod is a symbol of authority - parents are commanded to take authority over their children and not to allow them to run amok - to the annoyance of all, and to the ruination of the child's character! Elsewhere, parents are told not to let 'their souls spare for their crying'. No the principle of punishment in order to teach children obedience is always upheld in the Bible. Yet today many are saying that we should never punish our children! First of all the cry was 'never smack them', but now - dissatisfied with this - many social liberals are even starting to say, 'Don't punish them' To me, this just demonstates a lack of understanding of children and one has noticed how often those who would take the whole principle of punishment out of child rearing, either have no children of their own, or ignore these principles when it comes to their own families!
The principle of punishment for the wrong-doer is absolutely intrinsic to the Old Covenant code ratified at Mount Sinai! Examples of this are simply too abundant to list all the examples, but many will be aware that capital punishment was part of this code; not just for murder but for many serious offences including kidnapping, sorcery and serious sexual crimes. The principle of compensation was also much in evidence in the 'eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth' teaching. We just cannot avoid the fact that punishment is absolutely pivotal to the way God deals with us. I heard somebody say, 'Yes, but we now know that the Israelite ancients were wrong which is why we have the New Testament. There is no punishment in the New Testament' But, with the greatest of respect to the person who said that, it is a theologically incorrect statement! First of all, its not that the Israelites 'had it wrong'; they lived under the Old Covenant and the Mosaic laws themselves were God-given . The Ten Commandments and the whole package of laws were given by Almighty God Himself and had His full authority! Today, its true, Christians do not live under that huge package of laws, but under the New Covenant, this being on the authority of Jesus Christ. But why did Christ have to die upon the cross? The penalty for the sins of mankind had to be paid in some way. God is utterly consistent, He doesn't just waive sin aside in a most cavalier and carefree style! Punishment has to be carried out! The principle that any misdemeanour must carry a penalty is absolutely intrinsic to the whole revelation of God to Mankind contained in the Holy Bible. We can't reason around this!
So the idea that the concept of punishment is just wicked just cannot be upheld by the Christian. God has permitted all societies to punish wrong-doers. The fact that some punishments which are carried out are unbalanced and frankly cruel cannot alter the fact that the principle of punishment for wrongdoing is a godly principle.
To be frank, if some social liberals had their way and our society really did abandon the principle of punishment both as a deterrent to others and as a noble form of justice, we would have complete anarchy: 'Do as you like, express yourself no matter who it hurts for there are no penalties any longer' - actually we have little doubt that the most highly permissive liberal would reject this after their home was burgled, their car was stolen and their children assaulted by a criminal 'expressing himself' in a new anti-law, non-punishment society!
Robin A. Brace
© This article is Copyright Robin A. Brace 1999. If you want it on your own website please do the honourable thing and come to us for permission first. It is forbidden to excerpt this article without our permission. Thank you.
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