Divine Punishment as a Problem in Theodicy
by Roberta Allen
Many people consider all suffering to be a kind of punishment and even if this view is fallacious, it is necessarily true that all punishment involves suffering; furthermore, it involves inflicting suffering. Because suffering is considered to be an evil it requires justification, and because punishment is inflicted suffering, justification is even more important. The justification of punishment is a subject of philosophy, but few contemporary theologians are concerned with it. This lack of concern is an erroneous omission in theodicy; as E. Moberly points out(1) theodicists tend always to be concerned with innocent suffering; they question why God permits such suffering rather than what is done about it, punishing the guilty for example.
There are several possible reasons why divine punishment is not a popular topic today: God is the God of love and conflicting doctrines, including hell and damnation, receive treatment on the Procrustean bed; God is not considered to intervene and therefore temporal suffering, as punishment or otherwise, cannot be accredited to him. There are also sociological reasons: the fact that we live in what could be called a hedonistic society plays an important part in the need for theodicy, but it may also be responsible for the fact that the theory of punishment which appears to have the most biblical backing, retribution, has for a long time been the wicked witch of the penal system. Finally, there is always the possibility that the reason is simpler - punishment is a fact of life, it is 'natural'.
We all involve ourselves in acts of punishment whether by punishing our children or by willing punishment on others. In the former there is usually a moral concern involved, the punishment is primarily seen as a means to an end which is good. In the latter, however, it could be said that we are responding instinctively, the instinct of retaliation, of reciprocating evil with evil, being widespread. A lot of confusion has arisen because these motives are not clearly distinguished. In many cases of punishment the reason of doing good is used to excuse or disguise the 'natural' tendency to retaliate. Thus punishment is often justified on the grounds that it helps people; in this type of justification another word may be substituted for punishment, e.g. reform or rehabilitation.
The growth of the idea that punishment is barbaric led many Christians to involve themselves in penal reform. Their objection could be substantiated by biblical texts such as "See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all" (1 Thess. 5:15), and "Vengeance is mine, and recompense" (Deut. 32:35). Condemning punishment on such grounds has serious repercussions for theodicy, for having condemned human punishment as barbaric while accepting divine punishment, or worse - vengeance, the implication could be that God is barbaric.
Many people believe that God punishes temporally, that is, by inflicting some kind of suffering on sinners during their earthly lifetime, and although this theory does offer one solution to the problem of evil, ironically it usually offers a solution to 'innocent' or unexplained suffering. If this theory is carried to its logical conclusion one needs to posit an afterlife where the obvious injustices of temporal existence will be balanced. In this dissertation I intend to look at some of the problems that the concept of divine punishment raises and at what it might actually mean.
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