Is God’s justice retributive, restorative, or both?
by George Sidney Hurd
The nature of God’s justice has been the topic of much debate in recent years, alongside of the polemic concerning the nature of Christ’s atonement. Some Conservative scholars only seem to acknowledge God’s retributive justice, whereas many Progressives insist that all of His judgments are purely restorative in nature.
Brian Zahnd, in his typically sardonic and polemic communicative style, is representative of a growing number of Progressives who mock any idea of Christ’s death involving a payment for our sins as our substitute in order to save us from God’s retributive justice. He says:
“The cross is not a picture of payment; the cross is a picture of forgiveness… The justice of God is not retributive; the justice of God is restorative… The cross is not where God finds a whipping boy to vent his rage upon; the cross is where God saves the world through self-sacrificing love. The only thing God will call justice is setting the world right, not punishing an innocent substitute for the petty sake of appeasement.” 
While Brian deliberately mischaracterizes the beliefs of his opponents with false dichotomies and inflammatory statements in order to gain an emotional advantage, rather than simply reasoning from the Scriptures, he is nevertheless representative of a growing number of Progressive scholars who offhandedly reject any notion of God’s justice being in any way retributive, or of Christ’s death satisfying God’s justice in our stead, thereby enabling Him to justly justify sinners. I consider the arguments for Christ’s penal substitutionary atonement in my blog “Did Christ’s Sacrifice on the Cross change God’s Attitude toward Us?” and also in my book “The Ways of God (As seen through the eyes of a Conservative Restorationist)”. In this blog I simply want to briefly consider their claim that God’s justice is in no way retributive.
First, I would like to define the terms being used. Our word “retribution” is from the Latin re- + tribuere “to pay,” thus meaning “payback or retribution.” The term “retributive justice” refers both to the just reward of the righteous as well as the just penalty or payback for the sins of the unrepentant (cf. Rom 2:5-11; Rev 22:12; 2Thess 1:8 ).
Until now our judicial systems have operated almost exclusively based upon retributive justice in which the wrongdoer is penalized, and the innocent victims receive compensation for damages inflicted upon them. However, shortly after the criminal psychologist Albert Eglash presented his thesis in favor of replacing retributive justice with a humanistic form of restorative justice in 1977, there has been a major shift away from retributive justice in favor of restorative justice.
Just as with Communism, the concept of restorative justice sounds good in theory, but in practice our whole justice system would fall apart if we were to abandon retributive justice in favor of a purely restorative justice, since it fails to take into account man’s fallen sinful nature. In order for restorative justice to work, both the offender and the victims must not only be willing to meet together in group sessions but the offender must truly repent and the victims must forgive the offender – something that rarely occurs in real life. The Progressive logic behind restorative justice goes hand-in-hand with recent arguments in favor of defunding law enforcement.
In my youth during the 1960s, before coming to the Lord, I served more than three years in correctional institutions and saw firsthand how often inmates managed to make parole early by playing the system, feigning repentance just to get back on the streets in order to continue their life of crime. It’s not hard to imagine how these same individuals would use this so-called restorative justice therapy to their own advantage.
In reality, the traditional justice system is not purely retributive but has restoration as its ultimate objective. If the judge sees that the offender is repentant and not likely to repeat the same crime it is taken into account during the trial. Also, within the penal institutions there are regular group counseling sessions designed to reform the inmates. Additionally, each inmate is periodically reviewed by the parole board, and if they feel that the individual has been adequately rehabilitated, they grant him an early parole.
As I hope to demonstrate, while ultimately God’s justice is restorative in that it culminates in restoration rather than eternal condemnation, it is more comparable to the retributive justice of our traditional penal system than it is to the progressive model of a purely restorative justice. God’s justice is best seen as retributive justice with a view to the restoration of the transgressor.
The main difference between our justice system and God’s justice is that He knows our hearts and judges with perfect judgment according to truth and not appearances. No one can play the system with God, feigning repentance. His punishments always fit the crime, and in His judgments He always remembers mercy. As soon as man repents, God relents.
God’s Retributive Justice seen in History
While God’s retributive justice is primarily eschatological, being “treasured up” for the day of judgment (Rom 2:5), His retributive justice can also be seen in history. While many examples could be cited, here I want to focus upon four major examples in the Old Testament: 1) the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, 2) the flood 3) Sodom and Gomorra and 4) the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian captivity in 568 B.C.
God’s Retributive Justice seen in Eden
In the very beginning we see God’s retributive justice being carried out when Adam and Eve transgressed God’s command to not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They were warned that it would result in their certain death, and just as God had warned them, they, as well as all of their descendants, were deprived of the tree of life and died as a consequence of their original sin. Also, the woman’s pain in childbirth was greatly increased and the ground was cursed, requiring man to toil all the days of his life until he returned to the dust from which he came (Gen 3:16-19). Here we can clearly see God’s retributive judgment. He sent them out of the Garden and placed Cherubim there to keep them from partaking of the tree of life (Gen 3:23-24).
God’s Retributive Justice seen in the Flood
The universal flood is another primary example of God’s retributive justice. God sent the flood in judgment because the whole earth had become corrupt and filled with violence (Gen 6:11-13). The Lord said to Noah: “the earth is filled with violence through them; and behold, I will destroy them with the earth.” In His patience, God gave them 120 more years to repent while Noah prepared the ark (Gen 6:3; 1Pet 3:20). Then the Lord shut the doors of the ark and sent the flood. Jesus warns that the judgment at His Second Coming will be similar to that which took place in the days of Noah (Luke 17:26-27; Matt 25:31-46).
God’s Retributive Justice seen in the Destruction of Sodom
The third major judgment was that of Sodom. Their wickedness reached the point where there were not even ten righteous among them. The two angels said to Lot: “the outcry against them has grown great before the face of the Lord, and the Lord has sent us to destroy it” (Gen 19:13). The outcry of their victims against them became so great that God intervened and sent fire and brimstone from heaven, destroying them all. I consider the nature of this judgment with more detail in my blog: “Who Destroyed Sodom and Why?” Peter makes it clear that this is retributive justice, saying that God “condemned them (katakrino “to judge against, to sentence”) to destruction, making them an example to those who afterward would live ungodly” (2 Peter 2:6). Likewise, Jude says that they were “set forth as an example, suffering the vengeance (dike ‘justice’) of eternal fire (pur aionios, ‘age during fire’).” (Jude 7) The word dike, translated “vengeance” means justice. However, in the context it is clearly retributive justice and not restorative.
God’s Retributive Justice seen in the Destruction of Jerusalem in 568 B.C.
The final example of judgment which I would like to consider is that of the destruction of Jerusalem followed by the Babylonian captivity. God declared His judgment against the inhabitants of Jerusalem saying:
“And you, even yourself, shall let go of your heritage which I gave you; and I will cause you to serve your enemies in the land which you do not know; For you have kindled a fire in My anger which shall burn forever.” (Jer 17:4)
“behold, I will send and take all the families of the north, ‘says the Lord,’ and Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, My servant, and will bring them against this land, against its inhabitants, and against these nations all around, and will utterly destroy them, and make them an astonishment, a hissing, and perpetual (olam) desolations.” (Jer 25:9)
Clearly, there is no hint of restorative justice in these pronouncements of judgement against Jerusalem and its inhabitants. If we were to stop here, it would appear that God’s justice is purely retributive. The same could be said of what we have seen so far in all the previous examples of God’s judgments.
God’s Judgments are Temporal, culminating in Restoration.
While it is true that God’s justice is retributive, many fail to see beyond God’s temporal judgments. They have mistakenly concluded that the end-result of God’s judgments for the great majority of mankind is an unending retribution, as if such a logical and moral contradiction were possible. Such reasoning fails to take into account the end of the Lord which is restoration – not eternal retribution. As James says:
“You have seen the end of the Lord, how that the Lord is full of pity, and merciful.” (James 5:11 ASV)
While the Church during the time of the Apostles apparently saw that the end of the Lord is good, sadly, upon entering the Dark Ages, the Church in general lost sight of the truth of God’s immutable goodness, even in the midst of His most severe judgments.
Reading the above passages in Jeremiah concerning God’s judgment which resulted in Jerusalem’s destruction and their captivity in Babylon in isolation from the rest of Scripture gives the impression that retribution rather than mercy was the end of the Lord in their case. However, “eternal wrath” and “perpetual destruction” in this instance are clearly only for a time (olam). In the case of Judah, He specifies that olam, which was mistranslated “eternal” and “perpetual,” would only last seventy years, as we see in the following verses:
“And this whole land shall be a desolation and an astonishment, and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years. 12 'Then it will come to pass, when seventy years are completed, that I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation, the land of the Chaldeans, for their iniquity, says the Lord; and I will make it a perpetual desolation.” (Jer 25:11-12)
Then, in chapter 29, even before carrying out His judgment against Judah, He assures them that His plans for them, even in His most severe judgments, were for their own good:
“For thus says the Lord: After seventy years are completed at Babylon, I will visit you and perform My good word toward you, and cause you to return to this place. 11 For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope. 12 Then you will call upon Me and go and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. 13 And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back from your captivity; I will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you to the place from which I cause you to be carried away captive.” (Jer 29:10-14)
Even in the midst of God’s judgments against them, the prophet Jeremiah did not lose sight of the goodness of God. In Lamentations, when all looked hopeless, he could still declare:
“For the Lord will not cast off forever. 32 Though He causes grief, yet He will show compassion according to the multitude of His mercies. 33 For He does not afflict willingly, nor grieve the children of men.” (Lam 3:31-33)
Jeremiah understood a universal truth concerning God’s nature which applies, not merely to the Jews, but to all “the children of men” – the end of the Lord is good, He will not cast off forever because He is good and His mercy endures forever. Even in the judgments mentioned in Scripture without any specific mention of a final restoration, we know that the end of the Lord is always good and ends with the final restoration of all the children of men (Acts 3:21).
God’s Judgment of the Fall culminates in Restoration
This restorative end-result of God’s retributive judgments can be seen from the very beginning. The same day that Adam and Eve sinned, God shed innocent blood to clothe them, foreshadowing Christ’s offering of His own blood in order to take away our sins and clothe us with His own righteousness. Furthermore, God implicitly promised Eve that her seed would destroy the power of the serpent and reverse the fall (Gen 3:15). This Jesus did as our Last Adam. All who were condemned in Adam are justified in Christ and all who die in Adam will be made alive in Him (Rom 5:18; 1Cor 15:22). In the future New Jerusalem we see the tree of life and those still outside invited to cleanse their robes so as to be able to enter and eat of its leaves for their healing (Rev 22:1-2;14).
God’s Judgment of the Flood culminates in Restoration
While the judgment of the flood was indisputably retributive, we also see the Holy Spirit emphasizing through Peter that even those who perished in the flood will finally be restored. Peter said concerning those who perished in the flood:
“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, 19 by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, 20 who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water.” (1Peter 3:18-20)
Here we see that Christ descended into Hades and preached the gospel to those who were formerly disobedient in the days of Noah. We can see that they were persistently and obstinately disobedient since God in His longsuffering waited 120 years while Noah prepared the ark before finally destroying them in the flood (Gen 6:3).
Some argue that the word “preached” (kerusso) doesn’t have reference to the preaching of the gospel to the spirits of those who were destroyed in the flood, but rather they take it as meaning that He went and proclaimed His victory over the angels who left their first estate and are being kept in Tartarus until the day of judgment (2Peter 2:4; Jude 6). However, there are at least three reasons why we should understand this as having reference to Christ preaching the gospel to the people who perished in the flood rather than Him proclaiming the defeat of the fallen angels held in Tartarus.
In the first place, 59 of the 61 times kerusso appears in the New Testament it clearly refers to the preaching of the gospel, and not once is it used to announce someone’s defeat. In the second place, while it is true that angels are spirits, the term “spirit” is not normally used to refer to angels. Spirits are actually distinguished from angels in Acts 23:9. When reference is made to a spirit in the New Testament it is either a demon spirit or the spirit of a dead person. In the third place, within the context of 1Peter 3:18-20, Peter further clarifies that the gospel was preached to the dead and not merely to fallen angels. Only eight verses later Peter gives more specific details concerning the proclamation made to the spirits in prison. He said:
“For this reason, the gospel was preached also to those who are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.” (1Peter 4:6)
Here the phrase “the gospel was preached” is the single word “euaggelizo” which literally means “to bring good news.” What Jesus preached to the spirits in prison was the good news of the gospel in order that, even though they had previously been judged for being disobedient in the flesh, they might live to God in the spirit. Clearly, if the gospel is preached to the dead after having been judged in the flesh, God’s justice ends in restoration and not in eternal condemnation as traditionally believed.
God’s Judgment of Sodom culminates in Restoration.
Sodom is perhaps one of the clearest demonstrations that even God’s most severe retributive judgments culminate in restoration rather than eternal damnation as traditionally taught. As we saw earlier, Sodom’s destruction is a clear example of God’s retributive justice. However, we see in Scripture that the end of the Lord for Sodom is restoration, not eternal retribution.
In Ezekiel 16 the Lord tells the inhabitants of Jerusalem that they had become worse than Samaria and Sodom, and for that reason His retribution against them was impending. However, His pronouncement of judgment is immediately followed-up by a promise that they, along with Samaria and Sodom, will ultimately be restored. He said:
“Nevertheless, I will restore their captivity, the captivity of Sodom and her daughters, the captivity of Samaria and her daughters, and along with them your own captivity, 54 in order that you may bear your humiliation and feel ashamed for all that you have done when you become a consolation to them. 55 ‘Your sisters, Sodom with her daughters and Samaria with her daughters, will return to their former state, and you with your daughters will also return to your former state.” (Ezek 16:53-55 NASU) 
This restoration of Sodom can only refer to the very same individuals who were destroyed by fire in Lot’s day since no inhabitant of Sodom survived its destruction. Likewise, Samaria, referring to the 10 northern tribes of Israel (often erroneously referred to as “the 10 lost tribes”), will also be restored. Some, in spite of this text and many other passages to the contrary, still insist that neither Judah nor the 10 northern tribes will ever be restored. I counter their arguments in a series of blogs entitled: “Has God Rejected Israel?” God has sworn by Himself that all will finally be restored unto Himself, bowing the knee and confessing Jesus Christ as Lord (Isa 45:22-24; Phil 2:10-11; 1Cor 15:28; Ps 22:27; Ps 66:3-4; Ps 86:9, etc.).
In conclusion, God’s justice is presented throughout the entire Bible as retributive, and if we are going to be true to Scripture, we must emphasize it as such, even though it is rejected by our Postmodern culture (2Tim 4:2-5). Paul warns us saying: “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap” (Gal 6:7). It is a grave error to tell those who persist in willful sin that God’s justice for them will only be restorative, when in reality they are treasuring up for themselves wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will render to each one according to his deeds (Rom 2:5-6).
God’s immutable justice requires retribution. That is why the cross was necessary. If God were loving but not just, He would simply look the other way when we sin. If He were just but not loving, He would have never sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins in order to be able to pardon or justify us without violating His immutable justice (1Jn 4:10; Rom 3:25-26).
Jesus saves us from the coming wrath (1Thess 1:10). He said that whoever believes on Him is not condemned, but the one who does not believe is already condemned and the wrath of God remains upon him because he has not believed on Him – the only way to the Father. (Jn 3:18,36; Jn 14:6).
Rather than reassuring the unrepentant that all is well and there is no need to fear God’s retributive justice since it is purely restorative, we need to call them to repent and look to Jesus who alone saves us from the wrath to come (God’s retributive justice). As Paul says, knowing the terror (phobos) of the Lord we should persuade men (2Cor 5:11; cf. Heb 10:30-31).
 Zahnd, Brian. Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God (p. 86). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 I quote here from a version other than the King James Version for a good reason. The King James translators changed the beginning of verse 53, making it read: “When I restore…,” which would leave open the possibility that the Lord didn’t really mean that He was actually going to restore them. However, most recent translators, even though they are not Universalists, have corrected this apparently intentional mistranslation of the text, making it correctly read: “I will restore…”
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