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Issues: Jesus and Punishment

How might Jesus’ example impact a Christian’s view of punishment?


For Christians, Jesus’ teaching and actions have a huge influence over their perspectives on ethical issues. In the case of punishment, Jesus is repeatedly shown to look beyond what people have done and offer mercy to them. One example is found in John’s gospel. In Chapter 8, some religious leaders bring a woman caught in adultery to Jesus and ask him whether she should be stoned to death. This was the standard penalty for adultery at the time.

But Jesus does not follow the letter of the law: he instead tells them that whoever is without sin (i.e. has never done anything wrong themselves) should throw the first stone. None of the men could do it; all had committed wrong-doing and so left. When Jesus asks the woman where her accusers were, and she pointed out that they had gone, he tells her ‘Then neither do I condemn you: go and sin no more.’

Mercy’ means not giving people what they deserve. Although the law had said she ought to pay for what she had done wrong, Jesus let her off the hook, but with a command not to do it again. She was forgiven and offered the chance to make things right.

This idea, of bringing guilty people to a place where they can live good lives, is fundamental in many Christians’ view of punishment. It is not punishment for punishment’s sake, but something that aims to restore people, always offering the offender a second chance. This links into the wider issue of what Christians believe about human nature, sin and forgiveness.

The Bible teaches that all people have messed up and have gone against the will of God. All people fall short of God's standards. Christians believe that God became human, in the form of Jesus, and died on the cross as a way of taking the punishment that people deserve. It is because of Jesus' death and resurrection that Christians believe humans can have their sins forgiven. So for Christians, even the most hardened criminal can receive God's forgiveness if they are sorry and repent. Everyone is capable of change.

Furthermore, Christians believe that when people allow God to take control of their life, they can be completely transformed into a new person (see Romans 12:2). A Christian would say that there is always hope that an offender could be reformed or rehabilitated. Therefore, the punishment meted out to criminals should always allow for the possibility that they could reform.

Did you know? One of the first and greatest prison reformers in the UK was a Quaker named Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845). She visited the notorious Newgate Prison in London, to find women and children in cramped, dirty conditions. Shocked, she took steps to improve conditions and raised awareness of the need to educate and reform prisoners for the good of themselves and society.
‘Punishment is not for revenge, but to lessen crime and reform the criminal.’ Elizabeth Fry, Christian and Prison Reformer