Archive for April, 2012

Anders Breivik and Retributive Justice

April 20th, 2012

A year ago I had a very interesting conversation with a female student who was seriously investigating Christianity. She was clearly impressed by Jesus and seemed to like being around Christians, but she had one problem with Christianity: the Bible’s insistence on the need for retributive justice!

Now, I’ll back up a bit to keep everyone up to speed: basically, there are several reasons why societies punish people and two of the main ones are reformation (to make the offender a better person and stop them offending again) and retribution (to pay them back for their crimes). This lady believed that any form of retribution was wrong, as paying someone back for their crimes was a vindictive, mean thing. She believed (rightly) that God was neither vindictive or mean but, from this basis, reasoned God would only ever punish with a mind on reforming an individual.

While this may seem incredibly technical, it meant that she refused to accept that a payment was due for our sin, either through Jesus’ death on the cross or through an eternity in hell. As far as I know, this still is the main obstacle preventing her from becoming a Christian.

The reason I feel compelled to dredge up this unusual chat is that this very issue has been raised with some force in the news this week through the trial of Otto Breivik. Breivik is the Norwegian man who, acting entirely alone, bombed the Norwegian government building in Oslo before gunning down 77 people on a nearby island. In most countries, he would receive at the very least a lifetime in prison, but in Norway the maximum possible sentence is 21 years and Norway’s prisons are notoriously plush. In Newsweek, the journalist Stephan Theil, reporting on these elements of Norway’s penal system, concluded that Norway “considers the idea of punishment barbaric.” Norway has come to the same conclusion as the student with whom I conversed: punishment should be primarily to reform, there is no place for retribution.

Norway will certainly have to do some soul searching about this issue in the light of Breivik’s chillingly brazen show in court. However, I personally have no strong feelings about Norway’s methods of punishing criminals. In a fallen world, governments have to make calls on issues of law and order and I do not think that the Bible categorically supports any particular answer to these difficult questions. However I believe that there is a vital question looming behind all this that we need to think through and be ready to engage with our friends about: does God have the right to punish sinners?

The Bible makes it clear that we have all broken God’s law and stand before Him as criminals in the court of heaven. It is also clear in Scripture that God’s heart is to reform us. That is why he sent his son. The gospel is not just that we can escape punishment, but that we can change and become righteous. As Paul says in Romans 1:14 ‘in the gospel, a righteousness from God is revealed.’ Salvation starts with justification (an imputed righteousness) but is leads to sanctification (a stuttering but noticeable progress in our personal holiness) and finally glorification (when 1 John 3:2 says ‘we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.’ Woop woop!) One day, we will look back and see that secular Scandinavia does not have a monopoly on reformative justice, God is the master at transforming the worst sinners into Jesus’ doppelgangers!

However, the God of the Bible is a God who has put retribution at the heart of how the universe runs. Isaiah 59:18 says:

‘According to what they have done,
so will he repay
wrath to his enemies
and retribution to his foes’

and in Romans 12:19

“It is mine to avenge; I will repay,”says the Lord.

As Christians, I certainly don’t think these should be our most beloved verses and I can see why some people who aren’t Christians recoil from those who seem to take a cruel delight in God’s willingness to repay sinners for their sin. It is hard to read about Jesus and conclude that God delights in avenging sin in anything like the way he does in showing grace.

However, we need to maintain God’s prerogative to administer justice, because for all the technical terms, justice is what this involves. God is just. Justice is good. Sin needs to be paid for. That is the horrifying reality of the depths to which we have sunk, but a universe without such justice would be out of control and even more awful. In fact, it would be hell already.

Whatever Wenche Elizabeth Arntzen (the judge overseeing the Breivik trial) decides to do to Otto Breivik, there is another judge who will have the final say on the matter. Breivik’s sins will be punished by God along with all our much less public horrors. They will either be punished in the person of Jesus on the cross or in the person of Otto Breivik in an eternal Hell.

My guess is that this trial will raise serious questions about the nature of punishment in Norway and other secular nations (like ours). We must engage with those questions by presenting a God who longs to reform but who is utterly justified in taking retribution as well.

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