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Crime and Punishment

What are the Christian attitudes to crime and punishment?


Log onto any news website and you will find out about crime across the world. It is something that affects the lives of hundreds of thousands of people every day and pervades every area of our society. You might read about acts of theft and violence, from knife crime on the streets to domestic violence indoors. Crime can be driven by addiction, or emotion, or materialism, or just plain old irresponsibility and negligence.

What do Christians believe about crime and punishment?

Why do people commit crimes? Although from a sociological point of view there are many reasons, Christians would probably point to selfishness that seems to live in the heart of people, a desire to please ourselves, and very often at other people’s expense. This is what the Bible calls sin.

Not all that Christians call ‘sin’ is against the law, for example, adultery (sleeping with somebody else’s spouse) is not illegal. However, many of the acts that are classed as illegal in this country would also be seen as sinful, having selfishness at their heart.

LAW = A crime against the law of the country.  SIN = A crime against the law of God.

There are 4 main purposes of punishment are:

  • Protection of society
  • Retribution - punishment for the crime committed
  • Deterrence - putting people off of committing crimes
  • Rehabilitation - reforming the criminal.

Christians make personal opinions about punishment based on their interpretation of the Bible. When it comes to dealing with punishment there seem to be two key principles that the Bible promotes: justice and mercy. ‘Justice’ is about making things right for the victim. This may involve the need for recompense, for the offender to make things up to the victim, paying for any wrongdoing. This is perhaps where famous verses such as ‘eye for an eye…’ (Leviticus 24:19-20) fit in the idea that if something is taken, recompense should be made in kind so that the victim is not left without justice for what they have suffered.

Many of the books of law in the Old Testament give specific guidance on appropriate penalties and means of recompense for victims, relevant to the ancient Jewish society it was written in. But equally, the Bible has a lot to say about ‘mercy’ – that people can be spared what they ‘deserve’ for the crime or sin committed. God is spoken of as being merciful throughout the Old and New Testaments, and Christians see Jesus’ death on the cross as the ultimate example of God’s mercy: Jesus took the punishment for sin in the place of humankind.

In some circumstances, they may see that treating an offender mercifully may be the best option. For example, if they have made significant steps to change, or show deep remorse and a desire to make restitution themselves. This principle of mercy would also influence the way they see the purpose of punishment: it should equip people to live better lives afterward, as opposed to being a mechanism simply to pay for wrongdoing. The Bible asks Christians to ‘act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God.' (Micah 6:8).

For many Christians, this element of ‘humility’ is important when thinking about crime and punishment. The Bible teaches that all have sinned, no one is perfect. It is not for anybody to point the finger, but humbly recognise that all have committed sins against each other. As such many Christians recognise a need to provide help and hope for those who have committed crimes, as well as those who have suffered from it.

Bearing in mind the idea of justice in the Bible, what does this suggest the purpose of punishment should be? Taking into account the idea of mercy in the Bible, what does this suggest the purpose of punishment should be?