and Punishment: Beginning Summary Principles
is an initial summary of crime and punishment. It is largely
taken from the source cited at the end with some comments of my
Perhaps, no area of
ethics or worldview has been so neglected by modern Christians
that the area of crime and punishment except perhaps by
theonomists. The book by Vern Poythress, cited
below, is by far the
most extensive of which I am aware. Robertson McQuilkin, in his
comprehensive book on Biblical ethics, also addresses the issues
of Crime and Punishment (pages 352-369). See Our Bookstore to
obtain this book.
We begin with a
definition from Webster's 1828 dictionary.
act which violates a law, divine or human; an act which
violates a rule of moral duty; an offense against the laws
of right, prescribed by God or man, or against any rule of
duty plainly implied in those laws. A crime may consist in
omission or neglect, as well as in commission, or positive
transgression. The commander of a fortress who suffers the
enemy to take possession by neglect, is as really criminal,
as one who voluntarily opens the gates without resistance.
But in a more
common and restricted sense, a crime denotes an offense, or
violation of public law, of a deeper and more atrocious
nature; a public wrong; or a violation of the commands of
God, and the offenses against the laws made to preserve the
public rights; as treason, murder, robbery, theft, arson,
etc. The minor wrongs committed against individuals or
private rights, are denominated trespasses, and the minor
wrongs against public rights are called misdemeanors. Crimes
and misdemeanors are punishable by indictment, information
or public prosecution; trespasses or private injuries, at
the suit of the individuals injured. But in many cases an
act is considered both as a public offense and a trespass,
and is punishable both by the public and the individual
“There is … a serious
danger in trying to bypass the Bible’s concrete expression of
God’s justice. However, there is also a danger in the opposite
direction. We could try to ignore questions of principle
entirely, and without reflection apply the Mosaic law in a
slavish, wooden way.” (Poythress, page 225) By far, the more serious
neglect of our times is the neglect of the study and equitable
application of all Biblical law.
"While historically it
was emphasized that offenders are penalized to vindicate the
righteousness of God, it became popular to assert that
punishment exists for the good of society or the correction of
the offender." (C.F.H. Henry, Aspects of Christian
Social Ethics, page 162)
1. Crimes defined by
the state are not always sinful acts. (Exodus 1:15-19; Acts
5:29) Currently, abortion in the United States is legal, but
forbidden by God (Exodus 20:13)
2. “Any sin is an
injury against God and will be repaid by Him at the Last
Judgment (cf. I Corinthians 3:17)” (page 156). Thus, any crime,
if a sinful act (see #1 above), is also a sin against God. Just
punishment for crimes must reflect the ultimate example of love,
mercy, and punishment that God demonstrated in the sacrificial
death of Jesus Christ. No sin will go unpunished by God Himself
except for those forgiven in Jesus Christ. Love and punishment
are not inconsistent with each other but are part of the same
process according to God’s laws and the laws of the state. For
example, God’s love of His own does not preclude the
consequences of sin (and crime) in this earthly life. A
convicted murder who is sentenced to capital punishment who is,
or has become, a Christian is still subject to that sentence of
There is also
punishment at a personal level, perhaps better called
“chastening.” God chastens his own (Hebrews 12:6). Parents
chasten their children. Employers chasten employees.
3. “All actions of the
state ought to conform to God’s standards of justice revealed in
Christ.” (Poythress, page 156) Also, see #1 above.
4. “The modern state
derives its authority from God and from Christ (Romans 13:1-7)”
(page 156). All governments of the past also derive their
authority from God. Jesus Christ is the King of Kings and Lord
of Lords. The government is on His shoulders. He will eventually
put all enemies under His feet.
5. “Christians can
properly serve as officers of the state.” (page 157)
6. “The same Christian
who as a judge pronounces judgment may as a Christian pray for
the criminal, exhort him to repent, and perhaps even give him
some gift to bring happiness into his life.” (page 158)
7. “The state deals
with injuries against other human beings, not injuries against
God.” (page 159) Great errors and harm have been caused by the
Church using civil power to achieve its ends, or the state being
involved with ecclesiastical disputes of doctrine.
(Ed’s note: In this
context, we are discussing events that are labeled “crimes.”
What is said here does not necessarily preclude “blue laws” or
oaths of office that have to do with the first table of the Ten
8. In fulfilling its
responsibilities, the state must not insist on attaining divine
perfection…. (For example), Moses indicates that two witnesses
are necessary for conviction (Numbers 35:30; Deuteronomy 17:6;
19:15).” (page 160).
argument by many Christians, relative to capital
punishment, is that we can never be certain of a
person’s guilt. Yet, God has instructed that 2-3
witnesses in the due process of law is sufficient for
capital punishment. If God trusts man to execute capital
punishment, then Christians who argue against capital
punishment because of the possibility that the accused
may be innocent, even though he was convicted by due
process, are arguing against God Himself.
9. “The state is
obliged to act only when disputes and injuries are not settled
privately.” (page 161) Today, in many cases of personal injury,
the state is the prosecutor, having taken a prerogative that it
does not have. Of course, here we are speaking of civil
offenses, and not those of which God clearly requires the state
to prosecute, for example, rape and murder.
10. “The earthly
character of the state and the imperfect, shadowy character of
its of its justice resemble the situation of Israel in many
ways. There is something to be learned from Israelite law about
ways in which God’s justice can be concretely embodied and
practiced by imperfect agents in an imperfect world.” (page 161)
11. Biblical justice
includes the “twin features of restoration (retribution) and
punishment… In some cases, fit punishment may also achieve
subsidiary results in terms of deterrence and rehabilitation….
The thief who learns honest work in the process of being forced
to pay may learn the value of honest work…. (But) according to
modern humanism, retribution is barbarous…. “Despite its
plausibility, basing punishment exclusively on deterrence and
rehabilitation is ultimately inhumane… (converting) the offender
into an object to be manipulated rather than being responsible
for wrongdoing…. In reality, rehabilitation becomes a code-word
for unlimited bondage.” (page 162)
There follows three
chapters to the above (briefly presented) ideas:
Chapter 12: Just
Penalties for Many Crimes
Chapter 13: Just
Penalties for Sexual Crimes
Deterrence and Rehabilitation
These are excellent
chapters, but I would like to focus on the concept of modern
penology, which contrasts so vividly with the Biblical idea of
restitution and punishment.
Prison does not fit
Biblical criteria of just punishment.
This subject is sorely neglected, by virtually all Christian
teachers, from professors of ethics to Christians in prison
ministry who fail to see the unbiblical and “cruel and unusual
punishment” that prison life is for inmates.
“Most modern societies
use imprisonment as the primary form of punishment for crime….
The deliberate use of prison for the punishment of offenders …
is a disaster. (page 235) I recall studies that recidivism is
about 80 percent. A disaster, indeed! And, the victim gets
1. “A proper
response to crime (civil justice) involves four elements:
restoration, punishment, deterrence, and rehabilitation.
Restoration and punishment must be our primary concern. But
deterrence and rehabilitation can be significant secondary
indicators of whether a proposed solution makes contact with the
reality of the human condition.” (page 236) See note below.
2. “We should
distinguish carefully between using prison for punishment and
using it as a means of custody before trial. The use of some
form of custody until the time of trial is attested in the Bible
itself (Leviticus 24:12; Acts 21:34; 23:35).… To prevent this
practice from becoming an unacknowledged or unintentional form
of punishment, state authorities have an obligation to work for
practices that promote speedy trial.” (page 235)
3. “Prison in itself
obviously restores nothing. Moreover, in cases where restoration
involves the use of money, prison (as it now functions -- Ed)
works against restoration by destroying the offender’s capacity
to work in order to obtain money to pay his victim.” (page 236)
4. “No plausible means
exists for determining a just quantity of (time for) punishment.
If (in other types of) punishment, it matches the crime… its
quantity is automatically determined at least in a rough way…
(But) how much time in prison corresponds to the amount of a
theft? We cannot say, because time and money do not directly
match. How much time corresponds to murder? … to adultery?”
5. “Criminals have a
greater chance to reform if they are in contact with normal
society…. The abnormalities of prison life can never become a
viable environment for training in righteousness. In fact,
prison frequently produces results in the opposite direction
because the morality of a subculture of criminals reverses the
morality of normal society.” (page 239)
6. “Because doing time
does not effectively match the nature of the criminal’s crime,
it does not effectively take away his motive for committing
crime again.” (page 238)
7. Prison is an
opportunity for prisoners to perpetrate crimes on other
prisoners. The “bad attitudes” and evil behaviors of some
inmates hinder any rehabilitation that might take place among
prisoners who are motivated in that direction.
8. “Prisoners have the
most hope of for rehabilitation if they feel that the justice of
their punishment.” (page 239) Many with the exception of
psychopaths and others with hardened consciences have an innate
sense of justice. They are willing to accept punishment if it
seems appropriate to their crime. And, if they restore some or
much of the damage (restitution) that they caused, then, they
have a sense of restoring themselves.
9. Prisons actually
increase the cost of punishment. I recall more than 20 years ago
that the cost of maintaining one prisoner for one year was over
$30,000. With inflation, that cost must now be around $50,000.
On this basis alone, a criminal who has finished his sentence
has not “paid his debt to society.” He has increased it, but
while he may be responsible for his crime, he is not responsible
for that incurred debt that the state has foisted upon him.
Definition of crime
Webster's 1828 Dictionary.
Quotes are from Vern S.
Poythress’ The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses,
which devotes 100 of its 422 pages to Biblical justice. I have cited
selective texts here as an introduction to this subject. The
reader may order this book from
McQuilkin (… Biblical Ethics, see Our Bookstore)
lists four purposes of civil justice in response to crime, also.
He names three of the same as Poythress: rehabilitation,
deterrence, and punishment (punitive). However, McQuilkin does
not list retribution. Instead, he names “protection of the
Robertson McQuilkin has
written this great book that I endorse fully and completely. It is
far more comprehensive than most books of the subject of
Biblical ethics. However, I do not agree with “protection of the
innocent” as a purpose of Biblical justice for crimes. While
this “protection” does occur in the case of imprisonment and
capital punishment, McQuilkin himself agrees that imprisonment
has “utterly failed” (page 362).
(which McQuilkin does not mention) likely will place the
criminal in close proximity to the victim in several ways:
monetary or equivalent payment to the victim or actually working
for or under the victim.
A fifth purpose of
Biblical punishment is that the offender knows that he has been
justified. While this result is a by-product and not a
goal of the process, nevertheless it has a restorative effect.
The offender knows when inappropriate punishment, as
imprisonment, has been carried out, or whether justice has been
done. While he may balk or even resist the process,
justice will restore in his soul the wrong that was caused by
Incorrigibility. English and American law tradition
evaluated the criminal as to his potential of correcting his
ways. There were laws to execute a criminal after his
third crime. This principle contrasts with the view of a
man as basically good or basically bad. Modern sociology
does not believe in incorrigibility. All persons are
"good" with something gone wrong in their childhood or
background. Thus, our prisons are a revolving door of
that criminals should have every chance to be rehabilitated and
make restitution for their crimes. I would design low
security prisons with every opportunity for education and
job-training. But, in this system criminals convicted of
capital crimes would be executed. Escape from this
low-security system would be a capital offense.
offenses demonstrate incorrigibility. The Bible would call
this "hardness of heart." Apart from regeneration, these
criminals should get their just deserts on this earth.
capital punishment in the New Testament, the woman caught in
adultery, "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth," personal
vengeance, turning the other cheek, Pharisaic traditions vs.
Mosaic law, etc.
Gleason, The Death Penalty on Trial: Taking a Life for a Life
Taken, (Venture, CA: Nordskog Publishing, 2008). A
short, excellent book on the death penalty.