Question: "What is retribution theology?"
Answer: Retribution theology is basically the idea that you get what you deserve. God sees to it that the good people get good things in life, and the bad people get bad things. God punishes people in this world in direct response to their actions. Retribution theology says, for example, if you get cancer, it’s a sign that God is punishing you for something bad you’ve done. If your business prospers, it’s a sign that God is pleased with you. Retribution theology is thus an overly simplistic interpretation of life events that makes assumptions about God’s intentions.
The Bible certainly teaches the concept of sowing and reaping (Galatians 6:7). God will take vengeance on evildoers some day (Micah 5:15; Matthew 3:7), and He promises a final judgment (Isaiah 1:24; Revelation 20:11–15). So, there will be retribution. But the final judgment is yet future. Retribution theology is concerned with rewards and punishments here and now.
Retribution theology is countered in Scripture. The fact is that not all good people are rewarded with good things in this life (Job and Paul are notable examples). And not all wicked people receive punishment immediately; otherwise, we wouldn’t have questions like “How long, LORD, will the wicked, how long will the wicked be jubilant?” in Psalm 94:3 (cf. Psalm 73:2–16). King Ahab was one of the wickedest kings ever to defame a throne, yet he reigned twenty-two years in Samaria (1 Kings 16:29). Twenty-two years of luxury for the evil king, while the righteous in Israel were being persecuted; there weren’t many believers in retribution theology in Ahab’s day.
When Job’s friends came to speak to Job in his misery, they brought with them their retribution theology. Eliphaz sets the stage early on: “Consider now: Who, being innocent, has ever perished? Where were the upright ever destroyed? As I have observed, those who plow evil and those who sow trouble reap it. At the breath of God they perish; at the blast of his anger they are no more” (Job 4:7–9). In other words, Eliphaz simplistically concluded that the innocent are protected in this world and the wicked perish. Bildad and Zophar echo the same sentiments, accusing Job of wrongdoing, as evidenced by his plight (Job 8:6; 20:27–29). But all three of Job’s friends were wrong about Job and wrong about God (Job 42:7).
When Jesus’ disciples saw a man born blind, they asked, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). Such a question shows an underlying belief in retribution theology—either the man or his parents were being punished for some wrongdoing. Jesus’ answer quashes that notion: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned” (verse 3). God had purposes in the man’s blindness other than punishing sin.
Jesus once referenced a local tragedy to make a point about repentance: “Those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish” (Luke 13:4–5). In calling all men to repent, Jesus also countered retribution theology—those who died in Siloam were not killed because of any special sin they had committed; the tower’s fall was not God’s retribution.
Some people see retribution theology taught in the book of Proverbs. Many proverbs seem to promise good things for the righteous and bad things for the wicked. For example, “The LORD’s curse is on the house of the wicked, but he blesses the home of the righteous” (Proverbs 3:33). Also, “Before a downfall the heart is haughty, but humility comes before honor” (Proverbs 18:12), and “The righteous eat to their hearts’ content, but the stomach of the wicked goes hungry” (Proverbs 13:25). We must remember something about the nature of proverbs: namely, proverbs are not promises; rather, they are general truths about life. Generally speaking, making wise choices in life brings better results than making foolish choices. Living godly usually has practical, temporal benefits in addition to the eternal benefits. There may be exceptions to the rule, such as when a godly man is thrown into a den of lions (Daniel 6:16) or lowered into a mud pit (Jeremiah 38:6).
Others look to the blessings and cursings attached to the Mosaic Law for proof of retribution theology: “I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess” (Deuteronomy 30:16–18). It’s true that, under Israel’s theocracy, God promised retribution upon the disobedient. Sometimes that retribution fell quickly (Numbers 11:33), and sometimes not so quickly (Psalm 35:17). But God’s treatment of Israel under the dispensation of the Law cannot be the basis of our theology in the dispensation of grace.
When the ship carrying Paul was shipwrecked on the island of Malta, the apostle gathered sticks to help build a fire on the shore. As he threw some sticks into the flames, a viper came out and bit his hand. Immediately, the islanders assumed they knew why: “They said to each other, ‘This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live’” (Acts 28:4). The islanders believed in retribution theology, but they were wrong about Paul.
When Jesus was hanging on the cross between two criminals, the passersby assumed Jesus was getting what He deserved: “We considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted” (Isaiah 53:4). That’s the kind of assumption common in retribution theology, but, in Jesus’ case, it was wrong again.
One day, God will judge the world in righteousness and perfect justice. Retribution is coming (Revelation 22:12). Until that day, we are careful not to assume God’s blessing or judgment on individuals based on their external circumstances. We trust the Judge of all the earth to always do what’s right (Genesis 18:25).