The Evangelical Universalist Forum

Is It Just To Punish The Innocent?

It would only be unjust to punish the innocent in certain circumstances if one holds to a retributive theory of justice. Consequentialist theories say that the punishment of the innocent can be justified in certain circumstances because of the benefits that can be accrued like deterring crimes or reforming people. I’m convinced that the punishment that God inflicted on Christ was indeed consequentialist. The Bible says Christ learned obedience through what He suffered. And punishing an innocent person would be justified if it saved the whole world from suffering in hell. Thomas Aquinas held that at the cross Jesus suffered and bore the punishment for our sins. But this punishment was medicinal punishment. It’s not the same as John Calvin’s penal substitution. We know it was disciplinary because of Isaiah 53:5 -

The chastening for our well being fell upon Him.

The Hebrew word here is musar


discipline, chastening, correction

The NASB Strongest Exhaustive Concordance

The punishment is one of medicine and well being. There’s nothing retributive in the word. Therefore, God’s justice is consequentialist in nature at the cross. Punishing Christ for our sins is justified because it gives eternal life to the world. Punishing Christ prevents the lost from suffering in hell and Christ learned obedience through what He suffered. Therefore the punishment was just.

The Bible tells us that the punishment of hell is corrective but it’s also retributive. There are no innocents in hell. The Bible tells us that the punishment at the cross was not retributive but consequentialist. Either way Christ bore the punishment for sin and it wasn’t unjust.

“If we speak of that satisfactory punishment, which one takes upon oneself voluntarily, one may bear another’s punishment…. If, however, we speak of punishment inflicted on account of sin, inasmuch as it is penal, then each one is punished for his own sin only, because the sinful act is something personal. But if we speak of a punishment that is medicinal, in this way it does happen that one is punished for another’s sin.”

— Thomas Aquinas

It’s also true that even the staunchest retributivist believes that one can relax the demands of retributive justice in particular instances when the outcome of the punishment leads to greater benefifts. In the particular instance of Christ the benefits of reconciling the whole world would justify the punishment. The demands of retribution could be relaxed for such a thing. Relaxing the demand or standard happens all the time in law.