Introduction to Retributive Justice

Developing a Coherent Concept

Abjan van Meerten
7 min readMar 21, 2024


When people talk about God’s ‘justice’, it is interesting to ask what they mean precisely — i.e., what concept of justice they presuppose (something they may not have thought deeply about). One answer you will often hear is that God’s justice means that ‘he must punish sin/transgression’ (and not, say, ‘he must save transgressors’). [1] This answer betrays a primarily punitive account of justice that, moreover, tends to overrule or control other considerations (such as God’s patience and kindness, etc.) — God must punish. [2] Moreover, looking a bit closer, we see that this concept of justice is tied up with the law, which delineates transgressions — i.e., it is a forensic or juridical view of justice, with God functioning as lawgiver and judge. The root metaphor operative here, then, is that of a (modern) courtroom, where God is the prosecutor and judge and humans are the defendant or criminal. Thus, we are really talking about ‘criminal justice’ here, rather than civil justice. [3]

Digging deeper still, we see that the law here functions like a contract that structures the relationship between God and humans: as we just saw, God ‘must’ do some things, and humans ‘must’ do some things as well, and both ‘musts’ are governed by the law. God fulfils the role of the ‘government’, as it were, legislating, judging, and executing the law. [4] Humans, in turn, function as ‘citizens’ who are obligated — or, technically, have obligated themselves [5]— to keep the law, in return for some benefits (freedom, etc.), and at risk of coercive punishment in the case of disobedience. Thus, what we have here is a cosmic theocracy that is also a meritocracy, as we will see below.

Contractual Obligations

We can expand on the obligations of the two parties as follows, using largely uncontested presuppositions about retributive justice and (Protestant) soteriology.

  • In his legislating role, God must prescribe laws that are just, and that means, i.a., practical and beneficial: humans must be capable of knowing about these laws and carrying them out, and doing so must be for their good, i.e. contribute to their flourishing; laws cannot be arbitrary. (And, importantly, it must be practical for all and beneficial for all, except when laws are explicitly said to apply only to certain constituencies.) Moreover, God must stipulate punishments (and rewards) that are proportional to and fit the (mis)deed. [6] And if someone were to be qualified for these tasks, it would have to be the all-wise creator God!
  • In his judicial role, God must, above all, be impartial; God must evaluate all humans equally and not employ any double standards. Moreover, he must take all the relevant facts into account, including any possible excusing factors, and thus render a fair judgment, which is made possible by his omniscience. Furthermore, the outcome of the evaluative process is either justification — people are ‘declared righteous’ — or condemnation — people are ‘declared wicked’ — what we might dub binary evaluation.
  • In his executive role, God must actually distribute the personal retribution, consisting of reward or punishment, to each individual for their deeds, in correspondence with his pronouncement of justification or condemnation; and seeing his omnipotence, this should not be a problem. [7] At present, this retribution is distributed through the divinely authorized state; in the future, Christ will fulfil this role as the ‘right hand’ of God, rendering the definite judgment at the end of the age, with eternal consequences. Moreover, punitive retribution takes a coercive form, namely incapacitation and even, in some accounts, torture.
  • What is required of humans is, in a sense, simpler: they must obey the law, be virtuous, do ‘good works’ (and avoid bad ones). This is because people are judged on the basis of their own merit, which is constituted by what they choose to do (what we might call ‘voluntarism’). In that sense, their destiny lies in their own hands. [8] They can, and must, submit to God’s legal authority, take responsibility for keeping God’s law, and respond appropriately to the outcomes of God’s judgment, namely boast in, and praise others for, justification and be ashamed of, and shame others for, condemnation. Morever, they must fulfil their duties to perfection, since even the smallest breach of contract triggers a punitive response by God. But why wouldn’t they? Even if people lacked a sense of duty and had a recalcitrant character, they would still want to obey God because doing anything less would be irrational — that is, against their self-interest! Being self-interested, humans are deterred by punishment and motivated by reward.

The above is a consistent and fairly comprehensive account of retributive justice that is deeply entrenched in the Western consciousness and can be traced throughout Western thought. Its presuppositions are often so self-evident to people that they are not questioned— but of course, they are, in principle at least, questionable.

A Set of Principles

And question them we will. To facilitate that critical process, we can summarise the above description with a set of theoretical principles (and we could even provide shorthands of these principles):

  1. The principle of legalism or contractualism (PLegCon)— the law is of central importance with regard to the contractual structuring of divine-human relationships
  2. The principle of practicality (PPrac) — the law must be practical for humans; or, focusing on the human side, the principle of capability (PCap) — humans must be capable of performing the law
  3. The principle of beneficialness (PBen) — the law must be beneficial for humans
  4. The principle of proportionality (PProp) — retribution must be proportional to and fit the (mis)deed
  5. The principle of impartiality (PIm) — God must judge humans impartially, with no double standards whatsoever
  6. The principle of binary evaluation (PBinE)— God evaluates humans as either righteous or wicked, and thus divides humanity into two fundamentally distinct groups, one good and one bad
  7. The principle of fairness (PFair) — God must judge humans fairly, taking their circumstances into account
  8. The principle of personal retribution (PPerR) — God must retribute humans for their own deeds/merit, and not someone else’s
  9. The principle of coercion (PCo) — God inflicts punitive retribution coercively
  10. The principle of voluntarism (PVol) — God retributes humans for their choices (and not things that lie outside of their control)
  11. The principle of merit (PMer) — God retributes humans exclusively on the basis of their merit (as constituted by their deeds), and not on the basis of other considerations, such as his generosity
  12. The principle of boasting/shaming (PBo/Sh) — since everyone gets what they deserve, rewarded humans rightly boast in themselves and are rightly praised by others, and punished humans rightly shame themselves and are rightly shamed by others [9]
  13. The principle of perfectionism (PPerf) — humans must keep God’s laws perfectly — or, seen from the divine side, the principle of nontolerance (PNont) — God cannot tolerate and must punish every little human sin, however small; he cannot suspend justice at will
  14. The principle of self-interest (PS-i) — humans are principally motivated by self-interest, namely by wanting to avoid punishment and obtain reward; or, focusing on the legal side, the principle of deterrence (PDet)— punishment deters humans from transgressing (and reward motivates them to obey)

These principles overlap and intertwine in various ways. They are meant to cast light on different aspects of ultimately the same thing, namely the contractually stipulated procedure of retributive justice.

Looking Ahead

In the next instalment of this series, we will investigate Romans 1–3 using these principles. We will see that this concept of justice is very much present in Romans 1–3, at least in part, but that the text, if taken to be a monolithic exposition of Paul’s thought, argues itself into an ultimately incoherent and even theologically extreme direction.


[1] For the attentive reader, these two definitions of iustitia Dei (divine justice) correspond to the notions of iustitia distributiva (what we now call retributive justice) and iustitia salitufera (saving justice).

[2] For more on this in the context of a discussion of Hell, see this article, passim (and on this specific point, see note 9).

[3] This will become relevant later when we consider metaphors of ‘mediation’ (i.e. Christ as ‘mediator’ in the courtroom).

[4] And of course, this being a pre-modern conceptualisation, there is no trias politica or separation of powers. However, the three powers are distinguishable as functions within the one central power.

[5] Humans are born into the contract and cannot ‘opt out’, so there really is no choice involved here. However, this is similar to modern-day social contracts.

[6] Due to the extensive use of the criminal justice courtroom metaphor, the focus is more on punishment than reward.

[7] This completes the classic triad of omnibenevolence, omniscience, and omnipotence: God wills the best for all people, knows everything about their behavior, and can carry out any punishment or reward, even of infinite duration. However, it must be noted that the first notion is generally the least emphasised by modern (Protestant) Christians.

[8] The classic promise of any meritocracy; but for a good critique of this in relation to contemporary society, see Michael Sandell, The Tyranny of Merit.

[9] Again, Sandell draws attention to the danger of this principle in contemporary society when it is assumed to be a functioning meritocracy when it is actually not, and people end up boasting or shaming without merit.



Abjan van Meerten

Thoughts on the liberating theology of Paul and the universal love of God