Christian Ethics Today

A Christian Understanding of Punishment

Punishment by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Pix4free

By Fisher Humphreys


In this article I will attempt to describe a Christian understanding of punishment. I am not thinking about God’s punishment of sin but about the punishment we humans carry out: the punishment of a child who hits his baby sister, or of a student who repeatedly disrupts a classroom, or of a criminal who assaults and robs an elderly person, or of a company that dumps toxic waste near a town’s water supply.

But can there be a Christian understanding of punishment? After all, when you punish people, you are deliberately making them unhappy. Isn’t there something un-Christian about that?

Punishment and Revenge

If we are to understand how punishment can be Christian, we must distinguish carefully between punishment and revenge.

Revenge is an emotional reaction to being mistreated. When you hurt me or someone I love, that makes me angry and I want to hurt you back. The whole point of revenge is to hit back so as to discharge the anger we feel when we have been mistreated and hurt.

We know what the Christian view of revenge is. Jesus was opposed to it. “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (Mt. 5:39-29). Jesus practiced what he preached. Instead of seeking revenge against those who crucified him, he prayed, “Father, forgive them” (Luke 23:34). Revenge is un-Christian.

It’s understandable that people confuse revenge and punishment. They have two important things in common. Both of them are responses to being mistreated and hurt, and both of them make the people who hurt us unhappy.

But in at least four other ways they are quite different:

*    Revenge is a natural reaction. Punishment is a response that must be learned.

*    Revenge is an emotional reaction. Punishment is a moral response.

*    Revenge is carried out by people acting as individuals. Punishment is carried out by a community.

*    The objective of revenge is to hurt those who hurt us. The objective of punishment is to protect and maintain the life of a community and its members.

Understanding Punishment

Here is our definition: Punishment is what a community does to one of its members in order to dissociate itself from that member’s behavior.

Understood in this way, only communities can punish; individuals can’t. An individual child on a school playground can’t punish another child who hit him; only a teacher who represents the school community can do that.

A family is a community, and in families it is usually the parents who act on behalf of the community. If a little boy hits his baby sister, the parents punish him. Perhaps they use words to punish him; they scold him. Perhaps they do not allow him to play or to move about freely for a period of time. For small children this is called time-out; for older children it is called being grounded.

By scolding or by making the boy take a time-out, the parents are in effect saying, “Hitting your little sister was wrong. In our family, this is unacceptable behavior. We want you to learn not to hit your sister in the future.”

By punishing the boy, the parents are avoiding at least four undesirable alternatives:

* The parents are not reacting emotionally or violently. They are not taking revenge.

* The parents are not ignoring the boy’s conduct. This would make them, and therefore the family, complicit in his conduct. Complicity with any evil—in this case, violence—is destructive of the family’s life together as well as of the boy’s life for the future.

* The parents are not expelling the boy from the family. What is being disowned is not the boy but the boy’s behavior. In fact, it is precisely because the boy is still a member of the family that he needs to learn not to hit his sister.

* The parents’ objective isn’t to make the boy unhappy. It is true that they are making him unhappy, but that is a means, not an end. The end is to protect the life of the family and all its members. This includes the boy himself. By dissociating the family from the boy’s action, the parents are maintaining the integrity of the family.

This understanding of punishment applies to all communities. It is why a school may suspend a student, a military may demote a soldier, a sports team may fine a player, and a society may incarcerate a criminal.

Is Punishment Right?

Thinking of punishment in the way I have outlined, as a community’s dissociation of itself from the behavior of one of its members, helps us to address some of the concerns that people feel about punishment.

The most basic concern is whether it can ever be right to deliberately inflict pain on anyone. Even though punishment is not inflicting pain for its own sake, it does include inflicting pain, and it is important not to overlook or deny or minimize this fact.

Upon reflection, we realize that we frequently inflict pain on people deliberately. A nurse who gives a child an injection inflicts pain. So do parents who insist that their child stop watching television and go to bed. So do schools who require students to sit quietly in classrooms when the students would prefer to be running around on the playground. In these and many other situations, we are confident that inflicting paint is right because it is the best way to accomplish something good that is greater than the pain inflicted.

So: can it ever be right for parents to deliberately make their child unhappy by punishing him?

I think the answer is yes. I think punishment is right in at least three senses. When parents scold their son who has hit his little sister, that is right for the family, right for the boy, and right for his little sister.

First, punishment is right for the family, in at least three ways. It keeps the family from becoming complicit in the boy’s violence. As the English theologian Leonard Hodgson wrote, “The community cannot wink at and ignore its members’ evil deeds without becoming a partner to them” (The Doctrine of the Atonement, 1951, 66). Second, it is right for the family to oppose violence so that the family members can feel safe and can flourish as individuals and be able to love and trust and enjoy one another. Third, it is right for the family because it discourages the family members from engaging in the kind of behavior that deserves punishment. If there are other children in the family, punishing the boy who hit his baby sister may discourage them from hitting.

Second, punishment is right for the boy. It can be formative for him. By punishing the boy, the family actively opposes his violence and thereby tries to help him become non-violent. Being scolded or put in time-out may help him to understand things such as:

*    His behavior matters.

*    His behavior affects other people.

*    Other people matter, and their feelings matter.

*    He has hurt his baby sister and made her unhappy.

*    It is wrong to hurt his sister.

*    His family disapproves of his hurting his sister.

*    In the future he should not hurt his sister.

The boy needs to know things like this so that he can become a better person. Being scolded and put in time-out may help to form him into the kind of boy who doesn’t hit others.

Third, punishing the boy is right for the baby sister. She does not need revenge—that doesn’t do her or anyone else any good—but she does need to be safe and to feel safe from harm. She needs to be feel loved in the family, not threatened by one of its members. By punishing the boy the parents are saying to his baby sister, “You are important, and how you feel is important. We are sorry that your brother hit you. That was wrong, and our family is going to do what it can to ensure that you won’t be hit again.”

So, yes, it is right for parents to make their son unhappy. It is right for a community to disown the behavior of one of its members. 

Retributive Justice and Restorative Justice

A second concern is whether punishment is retributive justice or restorative justice. As we have defined it, it is both.

It is retributive in the sense that it is because the little boy hit his baby sister that the parents scold him. If he had not hit his sister, then he would not have deserved to be scolded, and it would have been wrong for his parents to scold him.

But it also is restorative. Punishment helps the family to recover what it lost when the little boy hit his sister. It is for the integrity of the family and thereby for the benefit all of its members. That includes the boy as well as the others.

Some writers have promoted the restorative factor in punishment by denying the retributive factor. If their intention is to oppose revenge, that’s fine, but if they really mean that punishment is not retributive in the sense of being deserved, I believe they are mistaken. If a child does not deserve to be scolded, then scolding him is violence, not justice. The English philosopher F. H. Bradley was right: “Punishment is punishment, only where it is deserved” (Ethical Studies, 1876, 24).

Justice looks both to the past and to the future. Retributive justice looks to the wrong done in the past, and restorative justice looks to the repair needed for the future. Retributive justice and restorative justice are not adversaries. They are partners. 

Methods of Punishment

A third concern is the method of punishment. What does a community do in order to dissociate itself from the wrongdoing of its member? In families, for example, some parents spank their children, others beat their children, and others never hit their children. I myself think that hitting young children is not a wise form of punishment, for three reasons. First, it may encourage the child to hit other children. Children are imitators. They learn how to behave by watching how others behave. Hitting them may mislead them into thinking that hitting is an appropriate way to behave.

Second, it’s probably not necessary to hit a small child. Most small children crave the approval of their parents, so even mild forms of parental disapproval can be painful for them.

Third, hitting a child is not a measured, moral response. It is an emotional reaction coming out of anger which means it is revenge.

In the wider society, the most contested form of punishment nowadays is the death penalty. In Europe and North America, just two nations have the death penalty for crimes by civilians, Belarus and the United States. It is true that on the principle of “a life for a life” (see Exodus 21:23-25) the death penalty is proportional. However, modern societies are almost always able to protect themselves without executing criminals, so today the death penalty is unnecessary in the same way that beating children is unnecessary. I don’t know of any Christian justification for a community inflicting unnecessary pain on one of its members.

And there is something else. When a community punishes one of its members, it is not dissociating itself from the member. It is dissociating itself from the conduct of the member. The death penalty does not qualify as punishment under this definition because it is a rejection, indeed, it is the ultimate rejection, of the member.

There are several good reasons to oppose the death penalty as practiced in the United States today. It’s astronomically expensive, innocent people are sometimes executed, and it is difficult (some people say impossible) to administer justly. But for our purposes it is sufficient simply to say that it is unnecessary and that, because it rejects a person and not just that person’s behavior, it falls outside the boundaries of our Christian understanding of punishment. I recognize, of course, that many sincere Christians continue to support the death penalty and they do it in good faith. I myself am unable to do that.

So I think that hitting children and executing criminals are examples of inappropriate ways to punish. I assume that there are other inappropriate ways, but I’m not aware of a comprehensive list of unworthy means of punishment.

Nor do I know how to draw up a list of acceptable means of punishment. I have mentioned scolding, time-out, and grounding for children, suspension for students, fines for athletes and for companies, demotion for soldiers, and incarceration for criminals. These all seem acceptable to me, and I assume that there are other acceptable means. In thinking about appropriate and inappropriate means of punishment, I think it is wise to be guided by the idea that punishment is a community’s dissociation of itself from the conduct of one of its own members. 


A related concern is proportionality. How much pain should the community inflict on the wrongdoer? If a young child hits his baby sister, it would not be enough for the parents to smile and say softly, “Now, that’s not nice, son.” On the other hand, it would be too much for the parents to beat the boy until he screams in pain. The punishment should fit the crime. It must be commensurate with the offense.

Punishment should be tailored not only to the wrongdoing but also to the response of the wrongdoer. If the boy begins to express remorse and to weep when he is being scolded, time-out may not be necessary. If he becomes stubborn and surly when he is being scolded, he may need a longer time-out to help him to internalize the fact that it was wrong for him to hurt his sister and to give him a better chance of becoming the kind of boy who doesn’t hurt others.

In families, parents usually determine proportionality intuitively, but in criminal law proportionality is given painstaking attention. For example, prison sentences are longer for armed robbery than for purse-snatching. Many law codes provide a range of possible punishments for particular crimes. This allows judges to tailor the punishment to the response of the criminal as well as to take account of mitigating factors.

Punishment and Christian Faith

Several Christian beliefs support the idea that punishment is what a community does to dissociate itself from the conduct of one of its members. I will mention just two.

One is God’s purpose in creation. Why did God create our universe? The great narrative of the Bible suggests that God’s purpose is to bring together a community of people to be the people of God. “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” This idea is found repeatedly in the Bible (see Lev. 26:12 = 2 Cor. 6:16; Jer. 7:23, 11:4, 24:7, 30:22, 31:1, 31:33, 32:38; Ezek. 11:20, 14:11, 34:30, 36:28, 37:23; Hos. 2:23 = Rom. 9:25, 26; Zech. 13:9).

God is concerned for individuals, of course. The late John Claypool liked to say that God loves each individual as if there were no others and that God loves all individuals as God loves each. God enters into a covenant relationship with individuals that is intensely personal. However, it is not a private relationship. It is a communal relationship.

Because God is concerned to create community, Christians value the creation and maintenance of community. As long as people behave badly, punishment will play an indispensable role in the maintenance of community. It is necessary for the common good and for the flourishing of individuals.

A second Christian belief that supports our understanding of punishment concerns the dignity of persons. God has created human beings in “the image of God” (Genesis 1:27-28) and has made them “a little lower than God” (Psalms 8:5). A community which punishes its erring members is showing respect for those members. It is treating them as free beings who are responsible for their actions. It is respecting them as moral beings who are able to understand, or at least to learn, right from wrong. And it is respecting them as beings who have the capacity to become better persons than they were in the past. As Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative says, We are all better than the worse thing we have ever done.

Punishment exists in a middle space between two errors. On the one hand, as we have seen, it is often confused with vengeance, and for this reason it feels violent rather than loving.

The reaction against this misunderstanding of punishment can lead to another equally false and unhelpful understanding. On this understanding, people are not free, moral beings who are responsible for their actions. They may feel free and moral and responsible, but they are not. Their DNA determines their actions. Biology is destiny.

Christian faith rejects this understanding. When parents scold their son and put him in time-out because he hurt his baby sister, they are treating him not as a pawn of his biological makeup but as a responsible person capable of knowing, or at least of learning, right from wrong and capable of becoming the kind of person who does not hit his little sister.


Punishment as we have defined it brings together a rejection of vengeance with a respect for the moral character of persons and an appreciation for human communities. It is both realistic and hopeful. Until the kingdom of God arrives and we have all become like Jesus (see 1 John 3:2), punishment will have an important role to play in our communities. I believe, therefore, that our responsibility as Christians is to do what we can to ensure that punishment is carried out in ways that are consonant with our Christian understanding of God and of human beings.

Exit mobile version