Tension between divine retribution and human justice?


A recent post I wrote on CADRE may be of interest to this forum:

Quite often defenders of the necessity of divine retribution in response to human sin invoke examples of terrible injustices committed in this life by human beings against fellow human beings, often done with deliberate forethought and malice. Anything less than hell does not seem just as a fate for Hitler, or Pol Pot, or Stalin. Or, on the more down-to-earth level, for a shameless alcoholic wife-beater. This approach to the theodicy of hell has been summed up as the ‘argument for damnation’, and was given eloquent expression by Peter Berger in his Rumor of Angels. It is summed up thus by Matt Proctor:

It is certainly a compelling argument on moral grounds. Despite self-serving distortions that we introduce mostly to excuse our own nastiness, human beings have a craving for justice. We want things to be made right, and it seems intolerable that perpetrators of such horrific atrocities should be let off the hook by simply being forgiven. I know people who have called Gandhi a ‘soft-headed fool’ for taking a nonviolent and conciliatory stance towards the British oppressors when they were driven out of India, and then towards the Muslims in the bitter partition that took place in the aftermath of independence. I suspect that an argument similar to the above is implicitly at play behind such expressions of disgust. Surely victims of injustice deserve to see their oppressors humiliated and punished for their offense. They deserve satisfaction for the offense committed against them.

The problem, however, is that on traditional understandings of salvation, the partition of humanity that is of ultimate moral significance is not between oppressor and oppressed, between offender and victim, but between the elect and the reprobate. The elect (predestined before the foundation of the world, on the Calvinist scheme) are absolved of their sins and granted eternal life and joy in the presence of God and the Son, while the reprobate are (justly, it is argued) damned for their sin and suffer unending punishment in hell (I am not here implying a particular conception of this unending punishment, about which there is no consensus even among advocates of divine retribution, but simply focusing on the fact that the reprobate are forever excluded from enjoying the presence of God and the blessings of the kingdom).

What is troubling about this scheme is that it seems to imply a relativization of justice that is completely at odds with the argument for damnation (and with all human justice, I might add), for a simple reason: there is ample evidence that among the elect are people who before their conversion committed atrocious crimes against others (take the apostle Paul as an example) which were subsequently forgiven and ‘blotted out’ (on the penal substitution view, atoned for by Christ’s suffering on the cross), while there is every reason to think that among the reprobate are many victims of terrible injustices here on Earth. On this view Jewish victims of the Holocaust who did not make a confession of faith before being roasted in the ovens or gassed to death still have to account for their idolatrous rebellion against God and their rejection of Jesus as Savior, and thus will pass from the unbearable suffering of the Holocaust to the unbearable suffering of eternal separation from God. Or a wife who suffers from years of spousal abuse might as a result lose all confidence in God and therefore be consigned to a similar fate.

Rachel Held Evans has articulated the problem well. In her recent memoir she recalls watching the execution of Zarmina, a Moslem woman who was accused of murdering her abusive husband, on CNN. This woman’s confession had been beaten out of her, after which she spent three years in an Afghan prison while her oldest daughters were sold into sex slavery by relatives. By all accounts she was a devout Muslim who prayed the traditional prayers before her execution. This means, on a traditional understanding of salvation, that she was definitely among the reprobate, those who have not trusted in Christ’s atoning sacrifice which is the only way to escape the wrath of God against human sin.

It is hard to see what sort of meaning if any divine justice can have for such a person. As Evans says, “I felt like I could come to terms with Zarmina’s suffering if it were restricted to this lifetime, if I knew that God would grant her some sort of justice after death. But the idea that this woman passed from agony to agony, from torture to torture, from a lifetime of pain and sadness to an eternity of pain and sadness, all because she had less information about the gospel than I did, seemed cruel, even sadistic.” (p.91) More generally, Evans comments:

What satisfaction, if any, could Zarmina derive from knowing that, even if she herself is consigned to hell after a lifetime of misery, that those who executed her and sold her children into sex slavery might also be in there with her? What sort of justice can she expect from God? Worse, what if one of her persecutors was among those predestined to election, so that as a result his sins are blotted out and he is redeemed to enjoy God’s presence forever?

I certainly anticipate objections here. For one thing, it might be argued that divine retribution and retribution in general do not aim primarily at the satisfaction of the victims but the satisfaction of some abstract judicial order, in which an imbalance introduced by committing an offense must be rectified by the infliction of punishment. The satisfaction of the victim is at best a secondary or derivative benefit of retributive justice. All I can say in response is that this conception of justice seems completely alien to any sense of justice we have as human beings, whether fallen or regenerate. It suggests that the harm done to the victim is outrageous primarily because it is forbidden by some abstract moral code, not that the suffering inflicted is itself wrong. It excludes the victim from justice, which is solely between God and the offender. God is outraged at the offender, not because of His love for the victim, but because His moral laws should not be broken.

It might also be argued that merely being the victim of horrific injustice does not itself absolve the person of accountability for their fundamental rebellion against God. To take an extreme analogy, a rapist is not let out of prison just because he was raped in prison. He must still serve the sentence required for his own crimes. Each person is accountable on their own in the sight of God, regardless of whatever suffering they endure from other human beings. All I can say in response to this objection is that I cannot see how it does not make an absolute mockery of God’s purposes for Creation. Again, suffering is secondary to some abstract sense of justice which is primarily about God upholding the moral fabric of the Universe rather than reaching out to His fallen creatures in compassion with the desire to restore them to fellowship. Zarmina is damned for her fundamental rebellion against God, while her persecutors, if they are damned, are not damned because of what they did to Zarmina but also because of their fundamental rebellion against God. Even if that persecution was a reflection of that fundamental rebellion, ultimately the only offense that matters is the one against God, not Zarmina. Regardless, God loses Zarmina and her persecutors from his salvific purposes.

Now this might be acceptable to some Christians, who will insist that the satisfaction of God’s justice is far more important than the satisfaction of victims of human injustice. Perhaps it does not bother them that many of the victims of injustices which provoke so much (understandable) outrage are among the reprobate (or if it does bother them, they have convinced themselves that they are just feeling a sentimental outburst of unruly sympathetic emotions that must be deadened). But if so, I suggest that they abandon all talk of human justice as an illustration of the necessity of divine retribution. They should divorce Christian witness from any response to atrocity as if it were primarily the suffering of human beings that makes the atrocity so outrageous. And really, they should admit that divine justice has absolutely no analogy to or connection with human justice, and that the fundamental categories under which human beings will be judged are not ‘just’ under any sense we have of the term. They cannot argue that only the Christian worldview provides grounds for hope that injustice in this life will be rectified at the final judgment. Or if there is such hope, it is not necessarily hope for the victims.

I wish I could give a more positive spin to the arguments in favor of divine retribution, so if somebody has one to offer I will gladly hear it. I would honestly love to be convinced that ultimately human suffering does matter to God and that he will satisfy all victims of injustice, not just the martyrs under the throne in Revelation, as if only the elect have the right to be compensated for their suffering. For now this is how things appear to me to stand with respect to the justice of hell.


I enjoyed this post, and have been intending to reply as soon as I can get my thoughts on it to coalesce into something intelligible. :confused: I’m surprised that no one else has commented.

I see divine retribution as closely tied to human justice–as opposed to being merely God avenging his own personal injuries. God’s justice, in my view, includes the comforting of the hurt and oppressed–blessed are those who mourn.

But my ideas on these things have changed since I expanded my idea of salvation to include all. I thought you expressed very well the difficulties presented by the more traditional teachings.