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The Bible and Punishment
What does the Bible say about punishment?
There are many laws written in the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments, which deal with the issue of punishment. This resource explores different teachings within both testaments.
Several Old Testament books are entirely made up of laws for how the ancient Israelites should live together. These cover laws relating to all kinds of aspects of life, for example:
- The worship of God.
- Relationships with each other.
- The treatment of weaker members of the community.
- How to deal with people who have injured others in some way.
In the Bible, justice is about making things right. In the books of the law in the Old Testament, retribution (i.e. paying somebody back) is cited as a legitimate aim of punishment. This is a means of making things right for the victim.
In Leviticus 24:19-20, it says: "If anyone injures his neighbour, whatever he has done must be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for an eye, tooth for tooth. As he has injured, so he is to be injured". This suggests that the criminal had to make reparation (or pay for) his crime.
The commandment's original intention was to limit revenge, for example, if someone had wronged you, you could take the revenge you were due but no more (so if someone had knocked one of your teeth out you had the right to knock out one of theirs, but not to break their leg as well). Once the criminal had paid someone back for his/her crime, he/she was cleared of their guilt. In relation to capital punishment,
in Deuteronomy 17:12-13, it is suggested that punishing people by death is a way of deterring others from committing the same crime: "Everyone will hear about it and be afraid to act so arrogantly." However, there were also systems in place to protect people who had broken the law unintentionally,
in order that they received a fair trial. Numbers 35:11-24 talks about ‘cities of refuge’: places where people who have committed manslaughter can seek asylum to escape vengeance at the hands of an angry mob and instead wait for the religious leaders to decide their fate.
In the Book of Romans in the New Testament, St Paul writes that "the authorities that exist have been established by God" (Romans 13:1). This suggests that the government of a country has been put there by God, and therefore has a God-given duty to punish criminals on behalf of the society they govern.
When thinking about the purpose and methods of punishment today, many Christians give the most weight to Jesus’ example and teaching. He famously quoted the ‘eye for an eye’ verse from Leviticus which encouraged a purely revenge/retribution approach and suggested there were other ways of dealing with wrongs, by choosing love, expressed in mercy and forgiveness. The Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 5, has some excellent teachings on this issue.