Retribution theology holds that people are treated by God based on how they behave. If you have cancer, it's because of God's punishment for your misdeeds. If you become wealthy, it's because you please God. This simplistic interpretation of our relationship with God is not based in the truth of the Bible.
What does retribution theology teach? Is it biblical?
Jesus addressed this mistaken idea several times. In John 9, His disciples asked about who sinned to cause a man to be born blind. Jesus told them it was not because of the sin of the man or his parents, but for purposes God had to glorify His Son.
At another time, He referenced the tragic death of more than a dozen people to make the point that circumstances are not a good indication of God's punishment. "'Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.'"
In the lives of Job and of Paul, we see men who pleased God suffer greatly. We also see in Scripture wicked people escape immediate punishment such as the evil King Ahab of Samaria who reigned in luxury for 22 years while clearly doing evil (1 Kings 16:29–34). Psalm 94:3 asks, "O Lord, how long shall the wicked, how long shall the wicked exult?"
With our sense of right and wrong tied with our desire for immediate justice, we want God to immediately set things right. However, Romans 3:23 teaches us that every person has sinned and deserves death. We can be thankful that our own actions don't receive swift justice.
The Bible teaches a long-term justice and that God will address evil people rightly (Micah 5:15; Matthew 3:7; John 5:21–29). There is, clearly, a final judgement that will result in retribution (Isaiah 1:24; Revelation 20:11–15).
Some see in the blessings and curses outlined in Proverbs evidence of retribution theology. Proverbs 3:33 says, "The Lord's curse is on the house of the wicked, but he blesses the dwelling of the righteous." And, in Proverbs 13:25, the writer says. "The righteous has enough to satisfy his appetite, but the belly of the wicked suffers want." However, Proverbs give us general wisdom about how to live life, rather than make promises about the results of our actions. Therein lies an important difference. Practical, common sense underlies godly living and will result, sometimes, in good returns. Of course, we see in our own lives, and the lives of some in the Bible such as Daniel and Jeremiah, that righteous living sometimes results in terrible circumstances. What did Joseph do to deserve slavery and imprisonment?
In the Mosaic Law, there are many curses and blessings attached to the behavior God expected from His people. For example, Deuteronomy 30:16–18 says, "If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess." This system, or covenant, was established by God for Israel's theocracy and when people were disobedient, they were punished. Sometimes the punishment came right away (Numbers 11:33) and sometimes later (Psalm 35:17). We, as those living in grace, should remember that this system was for those living under the law.
As for Job, his friend Eliphaz charged that Job must be suffering due to some sin he was being punished for (Job 4:7–9). Job's other friends, Bildad and Zophar, conclude the same in Job 8:6 and Job 20:27–29. However, in Job 42:7, the truth about God and Job is revealed. "After the Lord had spoken these words to Job, the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite: 'My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.'"
Acts 28:4 shows us that some people in Paul's day also believed in retribution theology when they assumed Paul was bit by a snake due to some sort of cosmic justice. Moments later when Paul failed to die from the bite as expected, they wanted to worship him as some sort of god.
God doesn't perch at the edge of heaven looking for opportunities to punish and reward those who are acting wicked or righteous, but be sure that His character includes justice and retribution will occur (Revelation 22:12). Trust Him to always do what is right (Genesis 18:25).
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