The (False) Doctrine of Divine Retribution

Last weekend I lived through my first hurricane, Hurricane Irene…sort of. The storm hit the New Jersey shore as a weak category 1 hurricane but in reality, we only experienced tropical-storm force winds. However, as has been reported all over the news, there has been extensive damage done across the east coast from flooding including as of now, the loss of forty-two lives.

As it unfortunately happens way too often under such circumstances, I heard some rumblings about this hurricane being an act of God punishing the wicked. Since the loss of my own son, Kenny, in 2002, I’ve been more attuned to the question of human suffering. Far too often I have heard claims trying to simplistically explain suffering as an act of God punishing the wicked.

Such statements assume that the world operates under the doctrine of divine retribution which believes that good fortunes come to those who live morally upright lives and bad fortunes come those who live in wickedness. Consequently, according to this doctrine we can determine who are the righteous and who are the wicked based on the blessings (or curses) people receive in life.

From a biblical perspective, this doctrine runs into trouble. In the book of Job, the opening verse of the prologue describes Job saying, “This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil” (Job 1.1). This is not saying that Job was sinless, it simply is a statement about his moral character and faith (see Gordis, The Book of Job, 11). Job was a righteous man. In fact, Job even defended himself as righteous in his confrontation with Yahweh (Job 29.14) and never is this claim rebutted by Yahweh. Yet if you know the story of Job then you know that Job suffered in every conceivable way short of dying.

Though there are accounts in the biblical canon where people are afflicted for their wickedness, one of the things the book of Job is saying to us is that human suffering cannot always be reduced to the simple explanation of divine retribution. Whatever the reasons for human suffering, the doctrine of divine retribution is a false doctrine which fails to explain the mystery of suffering.

I don’t know why human suffering occurs. All I know is that as a person of God I must pray for those who are suffering, be present with them, serve as I can, and trust that God is making all things new in Christ.

6 responses to “The (False) Doctrine of Divine Retribution

  1. Thank you for this post! I totally agree and I am always amazed at the assumptions people make when tragedies occur! Thanks again!

  2. I think calling it a “false” doctrine is going a bit too far. You admit that there are examples in Scripture of divine retribution; which therefore admits it isn’t exactly a “false” doctrine. However, the point to be made is that we can never presume that something is an act of divine retribution – and on the flip side, we can never presume that something is definitely not an act of divine retribution. Both presume too much; namely, knowledge of transcendent purposes which are often hidden from us (like they were hidden from Job). So it’s not necessarily a “false” doctrine; but instead a doctrine which should not be presumed. Indeed, we should comfort those who need comforting, and leave the hidden things to God (Deuteronomy 29:29).

    And your point on those who assume suffering is because one person is more unrighteous than another is exactly right, as Jesus makes clear in Luke 13:1-5 (“do you presume they were worse sinners because they died in this way? No, but I tell you repent or you will likewise perish”). So Amen to that.

    Grace be with you –

    • I see your point but I still think the doctrine of divine retribution as I understand says that human suffering can *always* be explained as a divine punishment upon the wicked. That’s what makes it a false and faulty explanation for human suffering. Beyond that, I assume that those subscribing to the view of divine retribution do so because of the accounts of such in scripture. But I don’t believe that such an assumption takes account the cross of Jesus Christ as God’s instrument to deal with sin/evil.

      Any ways, thanks for stopping by and commenting.

      Grace and Peace,


  3. This post makes a good point and JR makes a good elaboration, IMO. When disaster strikes and men suffer, it is simply wrong to assume that it is Divine Retribution that is to be divined in the event; on the other hand, in similar circumstances, even though Christ did not perceive Divine Retribution (as in the case that JR mentioned of the tower that fell on men) within the immediate history, He nevertheless perceived God ‘speaking’ iconically through it; and the icon that was present in that Gospel story was that calamatous events in this temporal world are icons of Eternal Judgment, and a call for All of us to Repent, lest we perish, not in a temporal manner, but in an Eternal One. So, I suppose you could say that it is often a mistake to read history fundamentalistically, but I would suggest that God is always ‘speaking’ in all of History and it is the task of those who exegete history to understand, at least in the case of temporal calamity, the Eternal Calamity to which it points, and calls, every man to Repent. ‘help us to number our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.’

    I would try to stir up a conversation on the ‘why’ of suffering. Pastor Rex says he does not know why we suffer. We know why Christ suffered. He was ‘perfected’ through sufferings. We know that those who are baptized into Christ are baptized into His sufferings, so that now, by our co-suffering with Him, we participate in the Grace that was manifested in the Passion of Christ and that eventuated in Resurrection. Suffering, through Christ, is now a portal into indomitable resurrection Life. And as we co-suffer with Him, and find ourselves resurrected with Him, we can say that we have been witnesses of the resurrection of Christ, for we are being co-resurrected by our cooperation with the grace that was given at Baptism.

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