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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Retribution (2)

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RETRIBUTION.—We shall understand by this word the operation of the Divine justice, rewarding and punishing, in this world and the next. (For human justice see art. Vengeance).

1. The doctrine in our Lord’s time.—As is well known, the primitive religious consciousness of the Jews expected earthly happiness to correspond strictly to merit and demerit. Facts made it impossible to hold such a theory, and we have the problem of the Divine justice as it is raised in the Psalms, Job, etc. The remarkable thing is that the next life is not, at least with any consistency of belief, called in to redress the balance of this (see, e.g., Kirkpatrick, Psalms, p. xciv.). Later Jewish thought, developing the doctrine of immortality, found in it the natural answer to the problem, as in the opening chapters of the Book of Wisdom. But the conception of recompense moved mainly on external lines; the rewards and punishments which did not come in this life were expected in the next, or in a Golden Age on earth. And so in our Lord’s day—

‘The religious relation between God and His people was a legal one, upheld by God as righteous Judge, in the way of service and counterservice, reward and punishment.’ Pious Jews here and there might remember that forgiveness and free grace were part of the character of Jahweh, ‘but with most Jews this mode of view was overshadowed by the legalistic conception, whereby every act of obedience was regarded as having an exact recompense, and every blessing to be obtained as requiring previous service.’ ‘Desiring to earn a Divine reward, and as great reward as possible, they sought to practise a strict legal righteousness, and, wherever possible, to exceed what the law demanded. But yet again, anxious to attain that reward on the easiest possible terms, they wished to do no more than was absolutely necessary for attaining their purpose’ (Wendt, Teaching of Jesus, i. p. 39 ff.).

The charge that religion is only an enlightened selfishness, is valid against this position and the popular conception of Christianity. The object of this article will be to show that it is not valid as against the teaching of Christ.

2. The teaching of Christ.—(1) He showed once for all that there is no invariable connexion between individual suffering and sin in this world. The Heavenly Father bestows His gifts on evil and good alike (Matthew 5:45, Luke 6:35). Luke 13:1 ff. is decisive on this point. (‘Ye shall all in like manner perish’ refers to the special doom of the Jewish nation, and falls under the exception mentioned below). It is true there may be a connexion between suffering and sin, but it is undefined (Matthew 9:2, John 5:14), and it must not be assumed in any given case (John 9:3). There are in the Gospels no ‘poetic justice’ parables, no limelight scenes of sensational punishments of evil-doers or dramatic vindication of virtue. There is no hint of any special doom on the Herods, Pilate, or the priests as individuals (cf. per contra Acts 12:20). Judas is an exception, though Christ Himself never speaks of his punishment in this world. The treatment of nations and cities is also an exception (Jerusalem [Matthew 21:43; Matthew 23:35, Luke 19:41-44], Chorazin, etc. [Matthew 10:15; Matthew 11:20]). The life of the nation or city is long enough to show the inevitable results of moral decay. Further, all desire for personal vengeance now is forbidden (Sermon on the Mount, Luke 9:51 ff.). There is nothing of the spirit of the imprecatory Psalms or the Apocalyptic literature.* [Note: An exception is Luke 18:7, which is closely akin to Revelation 6:10 and to the frequent prayers for vengeance which meet us in Enoch. But the vengeance in this passage is that of the Last Day, and is part of the final consummation, which is the real object to which the prayers of the elect are directed.]

The clearest and most decisive proof of the truth we are considering is Christ’s own death and the sufferings and persecutions promised to His followers. Suffering may be a mark of God’s love no less than of His anger (cf. Hebrews 12); the grain of wheat must die to bring forth fruit (John 12:24), therefore death and all that leads to it cannot be regarded as retributive. The cup of suffering which the disciple drinks is the cup of Christ, not the wine of the wrath of God.

(2) Christ teaches equally decisively the fact of retribution in the next world, and uses freely the language of reward and punishment. The doctrine of personal responsibility is indeed fundamental to Christianity, and it is necessary to refer to only a few typical passages: Parables (Matthew 13:24; Matthew 18:23; Matthew 22:2; Matthew 22:25, Luke 12:16; Luke 12:16), Rewards (Matthew 19:28, Luke 14:14), Punishments (Matthew 5:26; Matthew 10:28; Matthew 12:36, Mark 9:42; Mark 14:21, John 5:29).

(3) Retribution is to the character rather than to the act, and is automatic. ‘Every act rewards itself, or, in other words, integrates itself, in a two-fold manner; first, in the thing, or in real nature; and secondly, in the circumstance, or in apparent nature. Men call the circumstance the retribution. The causal retribution is in the thing, and is seen by the soul’ (Emerson, Essay on ‘Compensation’). The truth is seen most clearly in the Fourth Gospel. Life is the result of faith in Christ and of the knowledge of God (John 3:18; John 5:24; John 17:3). Judgment is immediate, the self-inflicted result of wilful blindness, and of the rejection of the message of life (John 3:19, John 8:24, John 12:48). At the same time this is no purely abstract law; behind it is the personal God, and the Son to whom judgment is committed (John 5:22); see Westcott, St. John, p. xlviii. So in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, ‘the gulf’ is the character* [Note: The name ‘Lazarus’ (‘God has helped’)—the only name given in a parable—must be intended to be significant of character, no less than the names in the Pilgrim’s Progress.] which has been formed on earth and is unalterable. The spiritual condition of the two cannot be altered by a mere change of place. In the parables of the Talents and the Pounds, neglect of opportunity brings unfitness for trust; use of opportunity automatically opens the door to the reward of greater opportunity. The cutting down of the fig-tree is the inevitable doom of its barrenness (Luke 13:6; cf. Mark 11:13 and the teaching of the Baptist, Matthew 3:10). The same principle is seen in the blindness men bring on themselves (Matthew 6:22; Matthew 13:12), and if the blind lead the blind, they must fall into the ditch (Matthew 15:14). The measure we receive is in the nature of things the counterpart of that which we give to others (Matthew 7:2), the judgment the counterpart of our judgment, God’s forgiveness of our forgiveness (Matthew 6:14). The house must stand or fall according to the foundation on which it is built (Matthew 7:24-27).

Accordingly, acts have their results rather than their rewards, and the idea of ‘the punisher’ tends to disappear.

‘It is well to remember that infliction from without, by another, so far from being an essential element in all thought of punishment, tends more and more completely to disappear, as having no longer even an accidental place, in those deeper realities of punishment which human punishments do but outwardly symbolize. The more we discern their process and character, the more profoundly do we recognize that the punishments of God are what we should call self-acting. There is nothing in them that is arbitrary, imposed, or in any strict propriety of the word, inflicted. As death is the natural consummation of mortal disease, not as an arbitrary consequence inflicted by one who resented the mortal disease, but as its own inherent and inevitable climax; so what is called the judgment of God upon sin is but the gradual necessary development, in the consistent sinner, of what sin inherently is’ (Moberly, Atonement and Personality, p. 15).

It is from this point of view alone that we can harmonize the fact of forgiveness with that of judgment or retribution. So long as we look on the latter as the inevitable result of acts considered each on its merits, there can be no room for forgiveness, or at least it appears as an arbitrary interference with law. As soon as we realize that both have to do with character, the difficulty largely disappears. Our retribution depends on character. Forgiveness affects the character, being bound up with μετάνοια, the change of character. The dying thief may have lived a life of sin; under the attraction of the grace of Christ, his whole self experiences a change, and so his future can be changed too. The woman who loves much finds the sins of her past forgiven because she has become a new creature. The unmerciful servant finds his old debt back upon him, because the conditional forgiveness of his master has not touched his character.* [Note: The significance of the truth may best be emphasized by a contrast. Buddhism, strictly interpreted, leaves no loophole for forgiveness. Its doctrine of Karma is that every act has its. strict and inevitable resultant in another existence, either by transmigration, or in heaven or hell. This effect depends on the act per se, and has nothing to do with the character. The embryo-Buddha in one of his existences destroyed a widow’s, hut in a fit of temper. Though he repented and built her a better house, and had performed innumerable other good deeds, yet for this he suffered in hell for eighty thousand years.]

(4) Christ spiritualized the conception of reward and punishment.—Reward consists not in having certain things, but in seeing God. It is the result of character and the fruition of character. Punishment is the leaving of the self to be identified with sin, and so to depart from Christ into the outer darkness which is separation from God. Again we refer to the Johannine conception of life (John 17:3). In the Synoptics, happiness is connected with the Kingdom, as particularly in the Beatitudes; it consists of treasure in heaven (Matthew 6:20, Mark 10:21). Specially significant is Luke 10:20; the main cause of rejoicing to the disciples is not the possession of exceptional powers, but the knowledge that their names are written in heaven. All centres round the personal relation of the believer to Christ (Matthew 25, Luke 12:8). And this happiness is enjoyed even now; the believer has life (John 3:36 etc.). He enjoys the good things of this life, not as specific rewards for good actions, but as gifts of the love of God which he has fitted himself to use (Matthew 6:33). There can indeed be no thought of a claim against God (Luke 17:7; Luke 6:35). We cannot appear as litigants before His judgment-seat.

Accordingly we may say that Christ destroyed the distinction which existed in the Jewish thought of His time, and which still exists in popular ethics, between rewards in this world and the next. If men know where to find their happiness, how to seek for their reward, they have it now, just as the retribution of the evil conscience is immediate. Only this happiness will be a personal possession of the soul; it may be accompanied by trouble and persecution in the world (Mark 10:30, John 16:2; John 16:33). The believer must not look for the twelve legions of angels to vindicate him; none the less he will know the peace of Christ, and his joy will be fulfilled even here and now. The Beatitudes and the section on the rewards of discipleship (Mark 10:29) are particularly instructive on this point. [Note: It is obvious to compare Plato, Republic, x., on rewards, of the δίκαιος.]

To sum up, Christ did not so much change the place and time of happiness as alter its conception. He transformed the idea of retribution, connecting it not with the isolated act, but with the permanent character which lies behind the act. To find His deepest teaching we must go to the Fourth Gospel and to kindred sayings in the Synoptics. Few will dispute this method, whatever be our ultimate view of the nature of the Fourth Gospel. It is, of course, perfectly true that Christ uses more popular language without scruple, as all teachers must. He appeals to the fear of punishment, and speaks of many and few stripes (Luke 12:47). He figures the blessedness of the Kingdom under the current image of a feast (Matthew 22:2, Luke 14:15), and He uses freely the motive of reward (Matthew 6:1-34; Matthew 10:41; Matthew 19:28, Luke 6:23; Luke 14:12); He even speaks as though it were the conscious motive of humility (Luke 14:7-11). We must interpret such language in the light of His profounder teaching. Even so, some have found it a fault that the thought of reward does not entirely disappear. Religion should be so completely unselfish that all thought of self should be eliminated. The connexion of virtue with the desire for happiness is one of the ultimate problems of Ethics, and cannot be fully treated here. But this we may say. The claim of extreme altruism must fail because it ignores personality (Gore, Sermon on the Mount, ch. vi.). We cannot think ourselves away. We can cease to look for our own happiness in our own shortsighted manner, at the expense of others, apart from God. We can come to identify our own ends with God’s purpose for the world, but we cannot dismiss the hope that in the realization of that purpose we shall find our own happiness, that when the Kingdom comes we shall see it and have our place in it. In one sense we learn to do good, hoping for nothing again; or else in seeking to save our life we shall lose it. And yet in the background there is always the consciousness that in losing our life for Christ’s sake, we do in the fuller sense find it. In this paradox is summed up the teaching of Christ and the NT. See also Reward.

Literature.—Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible , art. ‘Eschatology’; Wendt, Teaching of Jesus (esp. i. pp. 39 ff. and 210 ff.); B. Weiss, Bibl. Theol. of NT; Moberly, Atonement and Personality (chs. i. to iii.); Du Bose, Gospel in the Gospels; Froude, Essay on ‘Job’; Emerson, Essay on ‘Compensation’; J. Drummond, Via, Veritas, Vita (1894), 269; A. T. Ormond, Concepts of Philosophy (1906), 533; C. A. Row, Future Retribution (1887); J. A. Beet, The Last Things (1905), 1; J. M. Schulhof, The Law of Forgiveness (1901), 94.

C. W. Emmet.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Retribution (2)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/r/retribution-2.html. 1906-1918.

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