Arguments Against Universalism: Justice Must Be Served, Part 3–An Eye for an Eye?


Last time we discussed whether infinite retribution for even the worst of finite sins is just.  Our answer to that was, “No.”  Here, though, we’ll look at a more fundamental question:  Is retributive justice itself truly just?

In the first post of this discussion, we looked at the various types of punishments for transgression, and what purposes they try to achieve:

  1.  Restitution seeks to redress a loss.  For example, if you steal from me, you must give the money back.
  2.  Prevention or containment seeks to prevent a crime from happening again.  If you’re in jail for bank robbery, you can’t rob another bank (at least until you are released).
  3.  Deterrence seeks to prevent crime in the first place.  If I know I’ll go to jail for bank robbery, I’ll be less inclined to rob banks to begin with.
  4.  Rehabilitation seeks to retrain or reform a criminal so that he or she can become, in the words of the cliche, a “productive member of society” who will not be inclined to be a repeat offender.
  5.  Retribution is the notion that certain responses are inherently appropriate for certain offenses.

All of these models of punishment are more or less intuitively obvious.  Certainly a criminal should make restitution for his or her crime; prevention and deterrence are fairly obvious motivations for punishment; and while rehabilitation had been controversial for various reasons, it still is fairly logical on its face.  Retribution–that a person deserves a certain punishment because of what he or she did–is, however, more mysterious.  It seems to be uncontroversial and intuitively right; and yet it seems to defy easy analysis.

Concepts of retribution are in general rooted in variations of the so-called lex talionis (“law of retaliation”).  This is commonly phrased as “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” but the concept is more subtle.  From the Wikipedia article linked above (my emphasis):

The term lex talionis does not always and only refer to literal eye-for-an-eye codes of justice (see rather mirror punishment) but applies to the broader class of legal systems that specify formulate penalties for specific crimes, which are thought to be fitting in their severity. Some propose that this was at least in part intended to prevent excessive punishment at the hands of either an avenging private party or the state.[3] The most common expression of lex talionis is “an eye for an eye”, but other interpretations have been given as well. Legal codes following the principle of lex talionis have one thing in common: prescribed ‘fitting’ counter punishment for a felony. In the famous legal code written by Hammurabi, the principle of exact reciprocity is very clearly used. For example, if a person caused the death of another person, the killer would be put to death.

Thus, the notion is that there is something intrinsic about the punishment that “fits” the crime; or to reverse it, something intrinsic to the crime that requires a specific punishment.  It is important to note that retribution or retaliation does not fulfill any of the other functions of punishment.  It certainly doesn’t make restitution–if you put out  my eye and I put out yours, mine is not restored.  If you kill my kinsman and I kill you, my kinsman is still dead.  It is claimed sometimes that draconian punishments do prevent and/or deter crime–if I know I’ll lose an eye or a tooth or a hand or a life for my actions, I’ll be less likely to commit crimes.  However, many criminals are desperate and will commit crime even under regimes of the lex talionis.  Of course, as in any society, some criminals will have connections that help protect them from coming to justice to begin with.  There is evidence that harsher punishments in and of themselves do not, in fact, lower crime; or that when they do, it is because they’re more tightly targeted.  In any case, prevention and deterrence are not given as motivations for retribution.  Even if a person received retribution privately, so that no one else knew about it and thus would not be deterred, proponents of retribution would argue that justice had still been served.  Finally, while a person who received retributive justice might, in fact, be inclined to turn over a new leaf, it is certainly the case that rehabilitation is not a goal or even an expectation of retribution.  If the malefactor reforms, so much the better; but retribution is for its own sake.

So what is the logic of retribution?

On the primal level, it’s probably a matter of stimulus and response.  Someone hits me, I strike back.  Even small children and animals do this.  It’s probably a survival instinct–strike back in the hopes of chasing off your opponent or neutralizing him.  This, I suspect, is why the seeming gut-level feeling of “rightness” with regard to retribution is so strong in us.  Of course, as a child grows up–and as a society gets more complex–simple striking back doesn’t always work.  I strike back at you, you strike back at me, I kill you, your brother kills me, mine kills him–it becomes an unending, self-perpetuating feud.  Many scholars think that lex talionis-style legal codes were to mitigate such things.  The classic literary presentation of this is in Aeschylus’ masterpiece, the trilogy of plays known as the Oristeia.

From here:

Atreus, Agamemnon’s father, murdered the children of twin brother Thyestes and fed them to Thyestes after discovering Thyestes’ adultery with his wife Aerope. Thyestes fathered Aegisthus with his own daughter, Pelopia, and this son vowed gruesome revenge on Atreus’ children. Aegisthus successfully murdered Atreus and restored his father to the throne. Aegisthus took possession of the throne of Mycenae and jointly ruled with Thyestes. During this period Agamemnon and his brother, Menelaus, took refuge with Tyndareus, King of Sparta. There they respectively married Tyndareus’ daughters Clytemnestra and Helen. Agamemnon and Clytemnestra had four children: one son, Orestes, and three daughters, Iphigenia, Electra and Chrysothemis. Menelaus succeeded Tyndareus in Sparta, while Agamemnon, with his brother’s assistance, drove out Aegisthus and Thyestes to recover his father’s kingdom.

The sordid tale of revenge and counter-revenge continues when Agamemnon returns from the Trojan war, only to be murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra, who has been having an affair with his cousin, Aegisthus.  Orestes then kills his own mother to avenge his father.  This brings down the wrath of the Furies on him, and Orestes flees.  In the final play, The Eumenides, Athena holds a court which eventually acquits Orestes, mollifies the Furies, and sets a precedent for orderly adjudication of crimes, rather than blood vengeance.  Thus, legal codes enjoining clearly and narrowly defined retribution were able to curtail excessive vengeance (you put out my eye and I kill you) and to establish a structure that eventually evolved into an orderly legal system in which other means of dealing with crime than a mere tit-for-tat system of retribution came into play.

Thus, it seems that the idea of retribution was a step in the evolution of justice away from blood feuds of the sort still prevalent in some tribal societies, and toward a more objective and humane standard of justice.  It would seem then that if retribution is a lower step in human development, then a fortiori it is not worthy of God.  Alas, all too many still insist that this is exactly how God indeed works.  Why?  I would argue that there are two bases for this, augmented by a third.

First, as I said, there is the deep, gut-level feeling we have for the rightness of retribution.  As noted, this probably goes back to primitive instincts to defend oneself against attack.  The more ancient instincts that are lower on the evolutionary scale are often the most powerful–certainly more powerful than more sophisticated but later-evolved mechanisms such as reason.  Second, retribution is a very simple model.  No complexities about whether it deters crime or not, no worries about whether rehabilitation or recompense is possible, no courtrooms or lawyers.  Just eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life.  Very simple–and in a complex world such as ours, we should never underestimate the appeal of simplicity.  Finally, retribution has been more or less “baked into the cake” of many traditional religions–look at Leviticus for just one example.  Religion changes and evolves, of course; but all too often the scriptures and traditions of earlier times become ossified and are used to justify things that would otherwise never be countenanced.

Thus, I think we can understand why retribution has such a strong hold on our religious and moral imagination.  However, if God is all good; if His ways are as far above ours as Heaven is above Earth (Isaiah 55:9); and if retribution is a necessary but earlier stage in human society; then it is difficult to see why God Himself feels the need to mete out retribution.  Put it like this:  Crawling is a necessary stage between lying in a crib and walking for a human infant.  An adult, though, walks.  Likewise, retributive justice is a necessary step on the way from destructive blood feuds and disproportionate vengeance to an orderly justice system in a civilized society.  Thus, just as an adult no longer crawls, it seems to me that a mature society no longer needs retribution as a motivation for punishment.  Certainly such retribution is useless and repugnant to God, who is above such human needs and who wishes all to be saved (1 Timothy 2:3-4).

I realize that to those to whom the justice of retribution is as obvious as gravity, this will not hold water.  Nevertheless, I think we can make a strong case that God does not cast people into Hell as Divine retribution.  Such would not befit the God of love taught by Christ.  So, then, if God does not damn people to Hell, do they damn themselves?  We will look at that next.

Part of the series “Universalism (What the Hell?!)


Posted on 02/05/2016, in Christianity, ethics, philosophy, religion, theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

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