The following is an initial summary of crime and punishment. It is largely taken from the source cited at the end with some comments of my own.

Perhaps, no area of ethics or worldview has been so neglected by modern Christians that the area of crime and punishment except perhaps by theonomists. The book by Vern Poythress, cited below, is by far the most extensive of which I am aware. Robertson McQuilkin, in his comprehensive book on Biblical ethics, also addresses the issues of Crime and Punishment (pages 352-369).

We begin with a definition from Webster’s 1828 dictionary.


An act which violates a law, divine or human; an act which violates a rule of moral duty; an offense against the laws of right, prescribed by God or man, or against any rule of duty plainly implied in those laws. A crime may consist in omission or neglect, as well as in commission, or positive transgression. The commander of a fortress who suffers the enemy to take possession by neglect, is as really criminal, as one who voluntarily opens the gates without resistance.

But in a more common and restricted sense, a crime denotes an offense, or violation of public law, of a deeper and more atrocious nature; a public wrong; or a violation of the commands of God, and the offenses against the laws made to preserve the public rights; as treason, murder, robbery, theft, arson, etc. The minor wrongs committed against individuals or private rights, are denominated trespasses, and the minor wrongs against public rights are called misdemeanors. Crimes and misdemeanors are punishable by indictment, information or public prosecution; trespasses or private injuries, at the suit of the individuals injured. But in many cases an act is considered both as a public offense and a trespass, and is punishable both by the public and the individual injured.

“There is … a serious danger in trying to bypass the Bible’s concrete expression of God’s justice. However, there is also a danger in the opposite direction. We could try to ignore questions of principle entirely, and without reflection apply the Mosaic law in a slavish, wooden way.” (Poythress, page 225) By far, the more serious neglect of our times is the neglect of the study and equitable application of all Biblical law.

“While historically it was emphasized that offenders are penalized to vindicate the righteousness of God, it became popular to assert that punishment exists for the good of society or the correction of the offender.” (C.F.H. Henry, Aspects of Christian Social Ethics, page 162)

  1. Crimes defined by the state are not always sinful acts. (Exodus 1:15-19; Acts 5:29) Currently, abortion in the United States is legal, but forbidden by God (Exodus 20:13)
  2. “Any sin is an injury against God and will be repaid by Him at the Last Judgment (cf. I Corinthians 3:17)” (page 156). Thus, any crime, if a sinful act (see #1 above), is also a sin against God. Just punishment for crimes must reflect the ultimate example of love, mercy, and punishment that God demonstrated in the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. No sin will go unpunished by God Himself except for those forgiven in Jesus Christ. Love and punishment are not inconsistent with each other but are part of the same process according to God’s laws and the laws of the state. For example, God’s love of His own does not preclude the consequences of sin (and crime) in this earthly life. A convicted murder who is sentenced to capital punishment who is, or has become, a Christian is still subject to that sentence of death.

There is also punishment at a personal level, perhaps better called “chastening.” God chastens his own (Hebrews 12:6). Parents chasten their children. Employers chasten employees.

  • “All actions of the state ought to conform to God’s standards of justice revealed in Christ.” (Poythress, page 156) Also, see #1 above.
  • “The modern state derives its authority from God and from Christ (Romans 13:1-7)” (page 156). All governments of the past also derive their authority from God. Jesus Christ is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. The government is on His shoulders. He will eventually put all enemies under His feet.
  • “Christians can properly serve as officers of the state.” (page 157)
  • “The same Christian who as a judge pronounces judgment may as a Christian pray for the criminal, exhort him to repent, and perhaps even give him some gift to bring happiness into his life.” (page 158)
  • “The state deals with injuries against other human beings, not injuries against God.” (page 159) Great errors and harm have been caused by the Church using civil power to achieve its ends, or the state being involved with ecclesiastical disputes of doctrine.

(Ed’s note: In this context, we are discussing events that are labeled “crimes.” What is said here does not necessarily preclude “blue laws” or oaths of office that have to do with the first table of the Ten Commandments.)

  • In fulfilling its responsibilities, the state must not insist on attaining divine perfection…. (For example), Moses indicates that two witnesses are necessary for conviction (Numbers 35:30; Deuteronomy 17:6; 19:15).” (page 160).

The common argument by many Christians, relative to capital punishment, is that we can never be certain of a person’s guilt. Yet, God has instructed that 2-3 witnesses in the due process of law is sufficient for capital punishment. If God trusts man to execute capital punishment, then Christians who argue against capital punishment because of the possibility that the accused may be innocent, even though he was convicted by due process, are arguing against God Himself.

  • “The state is obliged to act only when disputes and injuries are not settled privately.” (page 161) Today, in many cases of personal injury, the state is the prosecutor, having taken a prerogative that it does not have. Of course, here we are speaking of civil offenses, and not those of which God clearly requires the state to prosecute, for example, rape and murder.
  • “The earthly character of the state and the imperfect, shadowy character of its of its justice resemble the situation of Israel in many ways. There is something to be learned from Israelite law about ways in which God’s justice can be concretely embodied and practiced by imperfect agents in an imperfect world.” (page 161)
  • Biblical justice includes the “twin features of restoration (retribution) and punishment… In some cases, fit punishment may also achieve subsidiary results in terms of deterrence and rehabilitation…. The thief who learns honest work in the process of being forced to pay may learn the value of honest work…. (But) according to modern humanism, retribution is barbarous…. “Despite its plausibility, basing punishment exclusively on deterrence and rehabilitation is ultimately inhumane… (converting) the offender into an object to be manipulated rather than being responsible for wrongdoing…. In reality, rehabilitation becomes a code-word for unlimited bondage.” (page 162)

There follows three chapters to the above (briefly presented) ideas:

Chapter 12: Just Penalties for Many Crimes

Chapter 13: Just Penalties for Sexual Crimes

Chapter 14: Deterrence and Rehabilitation

These are excellent chapters, but I would like to focus on the concept of modern penology, which contrasts so vividly with the Biblical idea of restitution and punishment.

Prison Does not fit Biblical Criteria of Just Punishment

This subject is sorely neglected, by virtually all Christian teachers, from professors of ethics to Christians in prison ministry who fail to see the unbiblical and “cruel and unusual punishment” that prison life is for inmates.

“Most modern societies use imprisonment as the primary form of punishment for crime…. The deliberate use of prison for the punishment of offenders … is a disaster. (page 235) I recall studies that recidivism is about 80 percent. A disaster, indeed! And, the victim gets nothing.

  1. A proper response to crime (civil justice) involves four elements: restoration, punishment, deterrence, and rehabilitation. Restoration and punishment must be our primary concern. But deterrence and rehabilitation can be significant secondary indicators of whether a proposed solution makes contact with the reality of the human condition.” (page 236) See note below.
  2. “We should distinguish carefully between using prison for punishment and using it as a means of custody before trial. The use of some form of custody until the time of trial is attested in the Bible itself (Leviticus 24:12; Acts 21:34; 23:35).… To prevent this practice from becoming an unacknowledged or unintentional form of punishment, state authorities have an obligation to work for practices that promote speedy trial.” (page 235)
  3. “Prison in itself obviously restores nothing. Moreover, in cases where restoration involves the use of money, prison (as it now functions — Ed) works against restoration by destroying the offender’s capacity to work in order to obtain money to pay his victim.” (page 236)
  4. “No plausible means exists for determining a just quantity of (time for) punishment. If (in other types of) punishment, it matches the crime… its quantity is automatically determined at least in a rough way… (But) how much time in prison corresponds to the amount of a theft? We cannot say, because time and money do not directly match. How much time corresponds to murder? … to adultery?” (page 237)
  5. “Criminals have a greater chance to reform if they are in contact with normal society…. The abnormalities of prison life can never become a viable environment for training in righteousness. In fact, prison frequently produces results in the opposite direction because the morality of a subculture of criminals reverses the morality of normal society.” (page 239)
  6. “Because doing time does not effectively match the nature of the criminal’s crime, it does not effectively take away his motive for committing crime again.” (page 238)
  7. Prison is an opportunity for prisoners to perpetrate crimes on other prisoners. The “bad attitudes” and evil behaviors of some inmates hinder any rehabilitation that might take place among prisoners who are motivated in that direction.
  8. “Prisoners have the most hope of for rehabilitation if they feel that the justice of their punishment.” (page 239) Many with the exception of psychopaths and others with hardened consciences have an innate sense of justice. They are willing to accept punishment if it seems appropriate to their crime. And, if they restore some or much of the damage (restitution) that they caused, then, they have a sense of restoring themselves.
  9. Prisons actually increase the cost of punishment. I recall more than 20 years ago that the cost of maintaining one prisoner for one year was over $30,000. With inflation, that cost must now be around $50,000. On this basis alone, a criminal who has finished his sentence has not “paid his debt to society.” He has increased it, but while he may be responsible for his crime, he is not responsible for that incurred debt that the state has foisted upon him.

Definition of crime from Webster’s 1828 Dictionary.

Quotes are from Vern S. Poythress’ The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses, which devotes 100 of its 422 pages to Biblical justice. I have cited selective texts here as an introduction to this subject.

Note: Robertson McQuilkin (Biblical Ethics, see Our Bookstore) lists four purposes of civil justice in response to crime, also. He names three of the same as Poythress: rehabilitation, deterrence, and punishment (punitive). However, McQuilkin does not list retribution. Instead, he names “protection of the innocent.”

Robertson McQuilkin has written this great book that I endorse fully and completely. It is far more comprehensive than most books of the subject of Biblical ethics. However, I do not agree with “protection of the innocent” as a purpose of Biblical justice for crimes. While this “protection” does occur in the case of imprisonment and capital punishment, McQuilkin himself agrees that imprisonment has “utterly failed” (page 362).

Actually, restoration (which McQuilkin does not mention) likely will place the criminal in close proximity to the victim in several ways: monetary or equivalent payment to the victim or actually working for or under the victim.

A fifth purpose of Biblical punishment is that the offender knows that he has been justified. While this result is a by-product and not a goal of the process, nevertheless it has a restorative effect. The offender knows when inappropriate punishment, as imprisonment, has been carried out, or whether justice has been done. While he may balk or even resist the process, justice will restore in his soul the wrong that was caused by his offense.

Additional Comments


English and American law tradition evaluated the criminal as to his potential of correcting his ways. There were laws to execute a criminal after his third crime. This principle contrasts with the view of a man as basically good or basically bad. Modern sociology does not believe in incorrigibility. All persons are “good” with something gone wrong in their childhood or background. Thus, our prisons are a revolving door of repetitive offenders.

I believe that criminals should have every chance to be rehabilitated and make restitution for their crimes. I would design low security prisons with every opportunity for education and job-training. But, in this system criminals convicted of capital crimes would be executed. Escape from this low-security system would be a capital offense.

Repetitive offenses demonstrate incorrigibility. The Bible would call this “hardness of heart.” Apart from regeneration, these criminals should get their just deserts on this earth.

Additional Resources On capital punishment in the New Testament, the woman caught in adultery, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” personal vengeance, turning the other cheek, Pharisaic traditions vs. Mosaic law, etc.

Ron Gleason, The Death Penalty on Trial: Taking a Life for a Life Taken, (Venture, CA: Nordskog Publishing, 2008). A short, excellent book on the death penalty.