Punishment involves suffering, be it big or small. Humans intuitively recognize that it is wrong to inflict suffering on someone, thus it follows that it is wrong to punish someone. So, why would an all-loving, all-good God make someone suffer by punishing them? Why would God send some people to suffer in hell as punishment?
Responsibility and Punishment
To address these questions, we will consider free will and how society rewards or punishes choices people make. In human society, we generally accept that it is morally justified to punish criminal behavior. When society punishes someone for committing a crime, it holds that person responsible for a free choice made. Likewise, when society praises someone for making a commendable choice, it holds that person responsible for praiseworthy behavior.
When society punishes a criminal, they are blaming that person appropriately for freely choosing to commit the crime. None of this is to say that there are not cases in the criminal justice system where we find that someone who committed a criminal act should not be held responsible because they suffer from a cognitive limitation. In these cases, we hold that the individual was not responsible for the act as they did not fully understand their actions.
Are We Humans or Animals?
Nevertheless, respecting free choice treats people as individuals who are rational and capable of exercising moral judgment. Yet some, like philosopher and political activist Bertrand Russell, have argued that we should not punish criminals, but treat their criminal actions as symptoms of a disease.1 These groups often advocate for what they believe are more “compassionate” treatments. But a world that absolves criminals of responsibility for those crimes would be highly problematic. Christian writer and intellectual C. S. Lewis wrote:
To be “cured” against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level with those who have not yet reached the age of reason…and domestic animals. But to be punished, however severely, because we have deserved it, because we “ought to have known better,” is to be treated as a human person made in God’s image.2
I agree with Lewis. If we don’t punish people for wrong actions they chose to do, then we are really treating them like animals. Animals are not morally responsible for their actions. If my dog relieves himself on the carpet, I work to train my dog not to do that in the future. However, if a person commits a crime, we do not merely train them not to do it again. They cannot be trained, like an animal, not to do certain things; rather they must freely choose not to do those things in the future. We cannot override their free will through training. And most people have a deep sense that it is inappropriate to treat a person in the same way we would treat an animal.
Philosopher Herbert Morris pointed out further problems with no-punishment treatments. He argued that a world that treats criminals as suffering from a disease would permit preventive detention before any offense is committed, if someone is believed to have dangerous tendencies. He wrote:
In the punishment system, because we are dealing with deprivations, it is understandable that we should forbear from imposing them until we are quite sure of guilt. In the therapy system, dealing as it does with benefits, there is less reason for forbearance from treatment at an early stage.3
It would also not allow offenders to pay back their debt to society. If you did not earn a punishment, then how can you earn back the respect of society? Morris wrote:
Infliction of the prescribed punishment carries the implication…that one has “paid one’s debt” to society, for the punishment is the taking from the person of something commonly recognized as valuable…What is clear is that the conceptions of “paying a debt” or “having a debt forgiven” or pardoning have no place in a system of therapy.4
Respect and Mercy
Punishment respects our free choices and respects us as persons capable of making moral decisions. If God holds us responsible for our moral actions, then he treats us like rational people who are responsible for our choices. In punishing those who do wrong God is not being unfair or mean, but is treating us with respect. This is the same way the criminal justice system, when properly applied, respects offenders as persons by punishing them rather than treating their offenses as something they had no control over.
The good news is that God extends mercy—even though we deserve divine punishment due to our free choices to do moral wrongs. This is not to say that God takes our moral wrongs lightly and dismisses them easily. Rather, Jesus took the punishment that we deserved by suffering and dying in our place. His righteousness (moral goodness) is imputed to us if we choose to follow and obey Him. Moreover, as Morris and Lewis pointed out, mercy only makes sense if someone deserves to be punished and punishment is not carried out. Lewis wrote: “If crime is only a disease which needs cure, not sin which deserves punishment, it cannot be pardoned. How can you pardon a man for having a humboil or a club foot?”5 Therefore, in order to be merciful, God must hold us responsible, and mercy is clearly an exercise of a loving God.6
- Bertrand Russell, Proposed Roads to Freedom (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1919), 125.
- S. Lewis, “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2014), 287–301.
- Herbert Morris, “Persons and Punishment,” The Monist 52, no. 4 (October 1, 1968): 475–501, https://doi.org/10.5840/monist196852436.
- Herbert Morris, “Persons and Punishment,” 484.
- Lewis, “Punishment,” 294.
- This is not to say that those to whom God extends mercy will not suffer in life, as suffering can develop character (Romans 5:5). Rather, believers in Christ will not suffer the eternal punishment they deserve for sin.