The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment

The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment




In the chapter “Crime and Punishment” (429-443 in McQuilken and Copan), various alternatives to prison are presented, and a short section deals with “Christian Responsibility for Criminal Justice.” Consider the ideas presented in these sections specifically in light of the USA’s continuing battle with illegal drug use. (In light of this, also be aware that Michelle Alexander, in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness [The New Press, 2012], has pointed out that millions of young men are in prison today for minor drug possession offences, or small crimes). Consider the different possibilities and Christian responses in this chapter, and defend, in your initial post, a possible way to deal with minor drug offences that might be more effective than jail terms. You may want to do some internet searching on the matter as well–and if so, include the sources at the bottom of your initial thread. Four Hundred words–minimum (be sure to include the word count





Below is the pages from the book to use for the assignment.



Crime and Punishment (PAGE 429)


A crime is some activity or negligence that a human authority has decided should be punished, usually because it is deemed injurious to others. Crime and sin are not synonymous. Sin is Godward, and not all sin is criminal (lust or pride). And not all crime is sinful (publicly proclaiming Christ in certain societies).

Crime and its punishment are determined by a society, presumably for the welfare of its members and hopefully based on objective moral principles. Since crime is against others, it normally violates the biblical law of love and often harms another person. Thus, broadly speaking, it fits under the sixth commandment. The punishment of crime is certainly a life issue—depriving criminals of part or all of their lives as free citizens. But controversy rages as to the cause of crime, the nature of crime, the purpose of punishment, and the kind of punishment a just and merciful society may employ. On these issues the Bible sheds significant light.


Philosophical Issues (PAGE 430)


The cause of crime.

Until the end of the nineteenth century, crime in the West was generally considered the outworking of a sinful disposition. And even where moral implications were disallowed, crime was universally considered an act for which the criminals themselves were responsible. That began to change in the last century with other proposed explanations—physiological, psychological, sociological. Through Freud’s influence, mentally sick persons are not responsible for their behavior. The end result of the general acceptance of this approach was to distinguish between criminals who were normal and thus responsible for their crime and those who were abnormal and needed treatment, not punishment. A legal definition of insanity, determined by the Supreme Court in the M’Naghten Rule (1843), was gradually refined until most courts in the United States came to rely on the American Law Institute Rule, which states that “a person is not responsible for criminal conduct if at the time of such conduct as a result of mental disease or defect he lacks substantial capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law.”[1]

With the advent of sociology, the line of reason initiated earlier by psychology has been taken much further. Not just the mentally ill, but all people are products of their environment—a point behaviorist B. F. Skinner drove home in his Walden Two. So the person who commits a crime is not guilty, but the society (environment) that produced such a person. Famed psychiatrist Karl Menninger’s book The Crime of Punishment argues that the crimes committed against criminals are greater than the crimes they commit.[2] Today, many psychologists challenge the very concept of mental illness.

Who is to judge which person is abnormal or “ill”? We’ve all been shaped by our culture, and each person’s behavior is normal to that person. Thus cultural relativism leads inexorably to radical personal autonomy and the rejection of all behavioral norms—a downward spiral that still continues. This viewpoint increasingly prevails in one form or another and has profound effects on a society’s view of crime and punishment. Scripture teaches that environment has a very powerful influence on a person. Criminals have been strongly influenced by their environments, and, hopefully, a change of environment might assist them toward making better choices. But determining what elements in a person’s environment were most influential and trying to create an environment that will help a person change for the better seem very elusive.

Does poverty produce criminal behavior? This is doubtful. For example, criminal activity in America did not rise during the Great Depression. The late James Q. Wilson documented how for decades before 1960, the population grew by the millions, the murder rate steadily fell, and poverty was declining. However, after this time, America’s legal system and idea-shapers began to focus on “root causes” of crime to figure out why criminals did what they did. In addition, the government and legal system increased the number of prisoners’ “rights,” gave lighter sentences, and delayed the execution of convicted death-row criminals. From 1961 to 1974, the murder rate would more than double, and employment of non-whites increased. Poverty was certainly not the problem.[3]

Blaming society means abdicating personal responsibility for the direction of one’s life. And this refusal to own up to one’s wrongdoing shuts the door to the possibility of salvation by God’s grace. The Bible is much more realistic (see part three, “Sin”). It both recognizes the influence of environment (“the world”) and thus the responsibility of people to create as good an environment as possible for others as well as for themselves. It also recognizes the role of responsible choice. Our path to the proper solution for crime means each person taking responsibility for his own actions. Crime’s root is sin, and the final responsibility for crime rests with the sinner. Lack of discipline or love in the home, failure of justice in society, evil companions and poor education all may contribute, but in the final analysis, we sin because we are sinners and choose to sin—and thus contribute to the deterioration of our character.

Though some blame the courts and the process of criminal justice for the increase in crime, others blame the educational system, the violence and sex of television, narcotics, racial discrimination, and unemployment. We believe the breakdown of the family is the leading negative environmental influence. Public education and the media share major responsibility in eroding virtue and moral duty.

Since environment is a major influence in the formation of human personality and character, we must work to make it as just and merciful as humanly possible. At the same time, we must insist that each person is responsible for her own moral destiny and is held accountable for any conduct that is injurious to others.




Nature of crime. (PAGE 431)


While God punishes sin, humans punish crime. Since humans are not authorized to punish sin, society must wisely determine which sins are criminal and therefore punishable. While it is a neutral matter that the British drive on the left rather than right side of the road, a good deal of law has to do with morality. And by making a matter law, it becomes a moral issue.


What about “private” morality?

Most people would agree that private sins should not be punished in law courts. But what is “private sin”? Ultimately, no sin is truly private, since every sin has an adverse effect on others in the life of the sinner. Consider how men who view pornography in private are adversely affected in their (objectified) view of women and intimacy in marriage. Drinking may be private, but so many homicides and traffic fatalities in the United States are alcohol related.


To say “you can’t legislate morality” is false. We are grateful that the government criminalizes rape, murder and child abuse. But governments should be careful not to over-legislate either. It seems that all that can be done by law is to hold a person accountable for unwarranted injury to another’s property or person or for behavior that might jeopardize another. Because of this legitimate distinction between sin and crime, a strong movement has emerged toward decriminalizing “victimless” crimes—crimes in which there is no complainant. These include drug use, drunkenness, gambling, vagrancy, prostitution and pornography. Of course, if all these were decriminalized, a large portion of the current law enforcement overload would be eliminated.

Any behavior that a society believes is directly or potentially injurious to others may be legitimately outlawed. Of course, a society is responsible to enact only laws that it intends to enforce and can enforce. Any behavior, private or public, victimless or not, which a society declares criminal and then does not enforce undermines the rule of law, promoting a lawless society.

So the crucial element in lawmaking is not whether an act is private or whether there is a direct victim who complains, but whether that society judges the behavior to be potentially or actually injurious to others and whether society has the will to enforce the legislation.


Purpose of Punishment (PAGE 432)



Whether in the judgment of Israel in the Old Testament or the discipline of church members in the New, God’s primary purpose in punishment has always been the restoration of the sinner. “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?” (Ezek 18:23RSV; cf. 1 Cor 5:5; 1 Tim 1:19-20). So the position of humanitarian criminologists that rehabilitation is the purpose of punishment has strong biblical precedent. But contemporary theory makes rehabilitation virtually the only valid reason for punishment, and most Western governments have abandoned such efforts. Moreover, apart from regeneration, the only factor known to improve the behavior of criminals is age—moving to mature adulthood, during which time criminal activity lessens.[4]

Deterrence. A second biblical reason for punishment is to deter others from doing wrong. “As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear” (1 Tim 5:20RSV). Both Testaments indicate that punishment can serve as a warning to other potential lawbreakers (Deut 17:12-13; Acts 5:1-11; Rom 13:1-7). Despite the claim that rehabilitation alone (and not deterrence) is the purpose of punishment, it seems manifestly clear that punishment—particularly prompt, consistent punishment—does deter. Consider police-strike situations when there is little or no enforcement of criminal law; criminal activity rises sharply.[5]

The penologist Ernest van den Haag emphasizes the deterrent and quarantine value of imprisonment as over against elusive rehabilitation. He suggests more severe sentences for second-time offenders committing serious crimes. He advocates not releasing violent, serial criminals before age forty, since few people commit violent crimes after age thirty-five.[6]

An additional benefit of incarceration is that letting dangerous criminals loose is more costly to society than incarcerating them. For example, in 2008 Britain’s total cost of the prison system per year was found to be 1.9 billion pounds sterling; in contrast, the financial cost alone of crimes committed per year by criminals was approximately 60 billion pounds sterling.[7]

Though there is no consensus as to what actually deters a person from criminal behavior, there is something of a consensus that the certainty and swiftness of apprehension and punishment do deter. But if sure and swift punishment is the greatest deterrent, our present system can hardly be expected to deter.


Protection of the innocent. (PAGE 433)


A third legitimate purpose of two forms of punishment—imprisonment and execution—is to protect others from criminals. Western society seems to increasingly emphasize the quarantine purpose of imprisonment. While over 95 percent of present American inmates will be returned to society, around two-thirds of them will commit further crime.


Scripture is filled with admonitions to protect the innocent and helpless—the widow, the fatherless, the alien, the weak. Government is established so that citizens may lead a “quiet and peaceable life” (1 Tim 2:2 RSV). Therefore, any just society must create structures to protect its citizens—something our society is not doing well at present. Prison sentences are short, early parole the rule, and subsequent crime all but certain.


Restitution is one form of protecting the rights of crime victims and the state which has gained some attention, thanks to the work of Prison Fellowship (PF), founded by the late Charles Colson. This ministry recognizes the vital role of restitution—a concept found in the Mosaic law (e.g., Ex 22:12; Lev 6:2-5; Num 5:7): criminals pay back the victims(and the government) for damages done; they should also give back to the community through various work projects for the benefit of society at large. Merely “warehousing” prisoners is inadequate. Restitution, however, affirms the criminal’s dignity and moral responsibility without minimizing the proper place of punishment. Yet we should make room for restorative justice. Of course, Prison Fellowship recognizes the transforming role of the gospel: prisoners making a commitment to Christ and growing in their faith while in prison are far less likely to return to crime and end up back in prison.[8]



Punitive(PAGE 434)


Retribution is the one purpose almost universally disallowed by many inside and outside the church; it is considered “uncivilized” because of its apparent vindictiveness. Yet justice means giving to a person his due—giving what is deserved. So we cannot neglect the place of just desert—a vindication of justice in proportion to the crime committed. Yet, though this is not the sole reason given in Scripture, the New Testament clearly identifies the vindication of justice as one basic purpose of criminal punishment. Government officials are established to mete out vengeance on evildoers (Rom 13:4: “to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer” [RSV]; 1 Pet 2:14: “to punish those who do wrong” [RSV]). In the Old Testament, an “eye for an eye” (lex talionis) demanded proportionality: the punishment must fit the crime. Retribution, then, is not revenge, which springs from personal animosity or hostility.

Once we have abandoned the criterion of desert, C. S. Lewis said, “all punishments have to be justified, if at all, on other grounds that have nothing to do with desert.”[9] Moreover, “when we cease to consider what the criminal deserves and consider only what will cure him or deter others, we have tacitly removed him from the sphere of justice altogether; instead of a person, a subject of rights, we now have a mere object, a patient, a ‘case.’”[10] Therapy or rehabilitation should not be a substitute for justice: “How can you pardon a man for having a gumboil or a club foot?”[11] Furthermore, granting pardon or mercy implies guilt and desert: “Mercy, detached from Justice, grows unmerciful. . . . Mercy will flower only when it grows in the crannies of the rock of Justice.”[12]

All four purposes of punishment for crime are biblically valid and should be emphasized in law and criminal justice. The biblical order of priority in emphasis is probably (1) rehabilitation, (2) justice, (3) protection of the innocent and (4) deterrence.


Varieties of Punishment (PAGE 435)


Good law versus bad law.

In general good law reinforces moral standards, and bad law weakens moral standards. There are many ways to create bad law or systems of justice.

Unenforceable law (or laws that society does not choose to enforce, such as America’s Prohibition) is bad because non enforcement undermines respect for the law and promotes corruption among the citizenry and law enforcement officials.

Unjust law comes in many forms. It is unjust to accept hearsay evidence or to convict without adequate evidence. It is unjust to subject a victim of sexual assault or child abuse to repeated emotional and mental assault, shame, and intimidation in the courtroom. One pervasive form of injustice in our present system is that the poor and those without friends in high places do not have adequate legal representation as the wealthy who know how to work the system. What of a law requiring a prison sentence for shoplifting fifty dollars’ worth of merchandise while there is no law to keep the owner of the chain store from unjustly depriving the government of hundreds of thousands of dollars in income tax.


Inappropriate or unequal punishment is another kind of bad law. For instance, while ordinary criminals may receive harsh penalties, media or music celebrities often get their wrists slapped. But such disproportionate penalties regularly extend beyond this demographic. In October 1964 in Sicily, Gaetano Furnari killed a college professor who had seduced his daughter; in Manila a Chinese businessman was apprehended for kissing his Filipino secretary five years earlier. The murderer and the kisser were both given four years in prison. At about the same time, I (Robertson) read in a Tokyo newspaper the story of some young men who got drunk, captured a swan from the imperial palace moat, roasted the swan, and were given four years in prison. Buried in an inside column of the same paper was the brief report of a young mother who deliberately drowned her infant in a cesspool; she was given a two-year sentence, suspended. Good law and good law enforcement must be equitable and appropriate to the crime. In protecting the innocent, good law does not make an unwarranted infringement on the rights and freedoms of others. This delicate balance is difficult but is the object of good law.

Nonpunishment. Is it always wrong for society not to punish a crime? Apparently not, since crimes went unpunished in the annals of Scripture. Although God severely judged the household of the wife-stealing, murderous king David, David himself was not punished according to the Mosaic law—although death came to his family as a result (2 Sam 12:10). In Hosea, Gomer the harlot is not executed—although she would serve as an illustration of rebellious Israel in the face of divine, wooing love. Paul was a persecutor of the church but would become an apostle of Christ. This does not mean that crime should be overlooked or that criminal justice should be subverted; Scripture is abundantly clear on that. But it does mean that mercy and forgiveness may sometimes be legitimate without violating justice, but mercy can only make sense in the context of justice.


Alternatives to imprisonment. (PAGE 436)


The American system of imprisonment is the primary sanction against crime, whereas in Scripture it was not mandated for that purpose. The prison system has utterly failed in three of the four purposes of punishment. It only functions well as a just form of punishment; retributive justice is served—although, insofar as criminals are behind bars, they will not be a danger to the public (protection of the innocent). And despite rampant violence, corruption, drugs and homosexual activity in our prisons, we see no serious attempts at prison reform. Are there any viable alternatives?


Deprivation of privilege is a common form of punishment, whether relatively light (loss of a driver’s license or right to vote) or severe (losing one’s license to practice medicine or law). Perhaps there are other creative ways to match the crime with appropriate deprivation of something of value other than freedom to live in normal society.

Corporal punishment is unlikely to be acceptable any time soon in Western society. Banishment, or exile, formerly common, also has fallen out of favor except in the deportation of criminal aliens. It would seem less cruel than the typical prison environment, but that would depend largely on the place of exile. Military service is used in some societies as a form of punishment. None of these could be ruled out on biblical grounds, but none is likely to be acceptable in America today.


There is one present form of punishment that could be greatly expanded—the monetary fine or expropriation of property. The convicted criminal could be required to pay a stipulated amount to the victim and to the government (for costs of apprehension and prosecution) in monthly installments if necessary. This could be restricted to the 75 percent of the prison population who are not guilty of violent crimes. Supervising such a program would be a fraction of the cost of incarceration, and the victim would have some hope of restitution for the loss suffered. A by-product would be to keep first offenders from the prison “schoolhouse in crime” and the brutalizing effect of prison.


Other alternatives would be a community service assignment or an assignment to serve or care for the victim in some way. These might be especially appropriate for juvenile offenders, many of whom are guilty of truancy, incorrigibility and other offenses that would not be punishable as an adult criminal. These juveniles crowd the system and are society’s greatest loss. Surely a society with creativity sufficient to put a person on the moon need not settle for a failed system of punishment here on earth.

Capital Punishment


There are two prevailing views on what Scripture teaches about executing convicted capital offenders: those who advocate abolition of capital punishment and those who advocate capital punishment for premeditated homicide.



Abolition of capital punishment. (PAGE 437)


Britain abolished the death penalty in December 1969, and a number of other nations have followed. In the United States, only seventeen states and the District of Columbia outlaw capital punishment. The Old Testament permits capital punishment for certain crimes. Scholarly debate whether all sixteen or so crimes would have been capitally punished, apart from, say, murder or idolatry. Instead, monetary payment would have been utilized. Passages advancing the death penalty for sabbath-breaking or rebelling against parents were likely viewed as maximum penalties to present a tone of severity, even though judges would typically have opted for lesser penalties (cf. Ex 21:30).[13] For example, the “indecency” (Deut 24:1-4) as grounds for divorce includes adultery, but in this case, the death penalty is not mandated.


Now, no biblical scholar assumes that contemporary societies should put to death an idolater. The Mosaic law was not intended to be universally applied. Further, biblical advocates of abolition hold that the teaching of Christ deliberately set aside capital punishment. Did not Jesus set aside the Old Testament’s lex talionis (Ex 21:23-25), the eye-for-an-eye demand for equivalent retribution (Mt 5:38-42)? He emphasizes that divorce—not death—for adultery is morally permissible (Mt 5:31-32; 19:9). For sexual immorality in Corinth, Paul mentions excommunication as the penalty (1 Cor 5).


Doesn’t the New Testament’s law of love rule out capital punishment? How can one love the one he is executing? Isn’t this the very opposite of being pro-life?



Death penalty for premeditated homicide. (PAGE 438)


Though some advocates of capital punishment hold that the death penalty should be applied in cases of rape and treason, most who write on the subject speak primarily of murder as the one capital offense. Some advocate that capital punishment should be reserved for the most heinous kinds of murder—say, mass murder or genocidal acts such as in Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia. Various scholars will point to a more universalizing text like Genesis 9:6 to legitimize capital punishment: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed” (RSV).


Others will suggest that this is a proverb—much like Jesus’ statement that those who take up the sword will perish by the sword (Mt 26:52); that is, violence and bloodshed lead to more of the same. However, Genesis text continues: “for in the image of God has God made man.” The text more likely indicates something more than proverbial—namely, to the legitimacy of capital punishment as an adequate retribution for violating the divine image. Though the structure of the Hebrew could either be a statement of fact or a command, biblical scholars generally hold that a command was intended.


Advocates hold that the New Testament also is clear. Jesus seems to assume capital punishment (cf. Mt 15:4). And as we noted, Paul’s instruction on civil authority (Rom 13:4) speaks of the sword not merely as a symbol of authority or even imprisonment—the use of “avenger” and “wrath” would not fit here—but as a symbol of the specific authority to execute.

Can executing a criminal be done in love? It seems so—as with the same reluctant love that God shows in letting sinners go their way and separate themselves from God. Certainly, those with the heavy responsibility to take a human life should do so in light of strong evidence—and with reluctance and sorrow rather than pleasure. And criminals on death row have an uncommon opportunity to know in advance the time of their death and to repent and prepare to meet their Maker.


Does capital punishment deter more than other punishment? The question is hotly debated. The criminal underworld certainly thinks it deters and so applies the principle ruthlessly. The deterrent value, if any, is greatly reduced because few expect to meet such a fate. Even when capital punishment was in full force in the United States, fewer than 1 percent of murderers were executed. Furthermore, the majority of murders are crimes of passion—family members or close acquaintances. Of course, those who forfeit their lives will not kill again; obviously, this would deter them from committing any future crimes.

To some degree, the threat of capital punishment can have a sobering effect on would-be perpetrators (Deut 17:12-13; cf. Acts 5:11). Yet deterrent value is the least important consideration when it comes to biblical reasons for punishment.



Conclusion. (PAGE 439)


Our personal conclusion is a mediating one. Capital punishment cannot be inherently immoral because God mandates this for universal application (Gen 9:6). On the other hand, God himself did not insist on it, either for the first murderer, Cain, or for the most prominent, David. Therefore, it cannot be wrong to show mercy, although mercy cannot be properly understood without first grasping justice and desert. In the light of this biblical tension, it seems to us that the death penalty should be viewed more as a prerogative of human government than as a mandate.


Therefore, for capital punishment to be properly appropriated, it should not be carried out when gross social injustices have not been eliminated. By “injustices,” we mean, for example, the former pattern in America in which 50 percent of those executed between 1930 and 1967 were black. Black killing of a white brought almost certain death, white killing of a black almost never. Furthermore, executions were reserved primarily for the poor and ignorant who could not afford adequate representation or did not understand how to seek assistance. Often they were mentally retarded, almost always poorly educated.


Another form of injustice, mistaken execution of the innocent, has been overemphasized. The most liberal estimates of all varieties of crime in which innocent persons have been convicted is up to 5 percent. In capital cases, where no expense is spared and no avenue of defense is unprobed, such error is highly unlikely, but in the rare instance when it may occur, one is faced with the alternative of what the lack of this sanction may do in a society. As much as the naturalistic humanitarian might protest, extension of physical life is not the ultimate value. Further, lifelong imprisonment as opposed to the death penalty is itself a serious deprivation and loss. Also, simply because governments have divine authority to capitally execute (Rom 13:4), the expectation is that they will be pursuing justice rather than violating it. For example, Pilate did wrong in allowing Jesus to be killed (Jn 18:38; Acts 3:13-17); Stephen was unjustly stoned (Acts 7). Indeed, there are times when God must be obeyed over against human authorities (Acts 5:29).

Some complain that capital punishment unfairly discriminates against, say, blacks and minorities or the poor. As we noted earlier, we should distinguish between punishment and actual crimes committed. Sadly, 94 percent of black murders are committed by other blacks, who are responsible for 50 percent of all homicides in America, though they represent 13 percent of the population. The charge of unfair discrimination deals with the law’s unjust application— not with capital punishment itself. In general, we don’t abolish laws simply because they are unequally applied. For example, a police officer may, for whatever reason, be inconsistent in stopping only some speeding drivers or stopping speeding drivers at some times but not at others.


In summary, if capital punishment is part of a reasonably just system and is used only in cases of premeditated murder with no mitigating factors and certain evidence, it would probably enhance the value of life and the fabric of justice in a society. But if it is invoked capriciously or in unjust ways, it would be better to set aside this God-given prerogative of human government.

Christian Responsibility for Criminal Justice


What can the individual Christian and the church do toward promoting a just and merciful society, other than by being just and merciful and teaching God’s standards?

Rehabilitation. Although this is considered by many to be the primary purpose of punishment, there is a growing consensus that our present system works directly opposite. And here the church and individual Christians must do all within their power to promote the one thing that can rehabilitate—regeneration. To persuade individuals to take responsibility for their own failures is the first step. But more is needed—to know of God’s forgiving grace, to become a new creation, to have a caring family of God, especially after their release. This is the kind of work that Prison Fellowship does, and its volunteers participate in friendship, mentoring, Bible study, care for prisoners’ families. Its late founder, Charles Colson, was the former chief counsel under Richard Nixon. He was convicted and imprisoned for his involvement in the Watergate break-in, but became a believer in Christ. Perhaps Colson has helped to show us the way to obey Christ’s injunction to visit those in prison (Mt 25:36, 39, 43-45). It is dreadful to note what Christ promised those who fail to visit prisoners. Christians actually hold the only proven key to transforming criminals and making them good citizens—of earth and heaven!


Punishment. (PAGE 442)


If we insist that retributive justice must be restored as a primary purpose in criminal punishment, we must work hard toward a more just system of criminal justice. As citizens in a democracy we cannot sit by and shout “law and order”—or “lock them up and throw away the key.” We must listen carefully to prisoners and prison staff, scrutinize the system and, where necessary, insist on improved laws and their enforcement. While prisons partially fulfill the retributive purpose of punishment, our system does not, in that most crime goes unpunished. We must work toward the justice of consistent apprehension as well as justice in sentencing and punishment.


Protection of the innocent.

Fewer and fewer Americans are willing to take the risk of personal involvement in reporting crime. The Christian must act in love for the innocent by stopping crime through direct action, at least by reporting all crime or suspicious activity. It may prove costly, but that is what love is all about. This action is the loving response toward the criminal as well. Criminals need to be protected from accumulating ever greater guilt and to have opportunity for enforced reflection on their wicked ways and their certain end.

More stringent pretrial qualifications of bail/bond release, longer prison terms and less parole may protect society in about 25 percent of the cases. But upwards of 75 percent of convicted criminals could be punished in alternative ways at no risk of violence. We may need to redirect some of our very limited resources in criminal justice.


Deterrence. Deterrence depends, we are told, not on the severity of the threatened punishment so much as on the certainty and swiftness of apprehension and punishment. Solomon agreed (Eccles 8:11). Private citizens can assist in making apprehension more swift and certain by reporting crime or suspicious activity, but they can also contribute through advocating legal and fiscal reform. For example, more tax revenues could be allotted to criminal justice efforts, such as the development of alternative systems of punishment. This would not only reduce the overcrowded condition of prisons (which contributes to their failure), but would also make room for the enormous backlog of pending cases, which, as much as anything else, works toward long delays in prosecution and a tendency toward a light sentence and early release.

But the greatest contribution the Christian and the church can make toward deterrence is to faithfully teach God’s holy standards and God’s holy judgment.

Further Reading


Lewis, C. S. “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment,” in God in the Dock. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970.

Van Ness, Daniel, and Charles Colson. Crime and Its Victims: What We Can Do. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986.

Wilson, James Q ., and Richard J. Herrnstein. Crime and Human Nature. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985. [Robertson McQuilkin (2017). (p. 443). An Introduction to Biblical Ethics: Walking in the Way of Wisdom. Retrieved from]

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