Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Punishment and Deterrence

One of those infamous recent “studies” found that 88% of America’s leading criminologists do not believe the death penalty is an effective deterrent to crime.

I use scare quotes because virtually all such “studies” are commissioned by one side or another of a major public policy divide. The questions asked are rarely framed in neutral language. The expertise of those consulted frequently turns out to be unrelated to the area of study about which the inquiries are made. Such data as may result is rarely presented scientifically and impartially.

I take them all with a truckload of salt. Most “studies” are simply propaganda exercises.

Real Expertise

There’s what the so-called experts say, then there’s my Bible. Genuine understanding of the human condition requires a spiritual perspective, not just the current data set. Looking at the disparity between the two sets of opinions, I can only conclude one of two things:

  1. The criminologists are wrong. In scripture, God periodically deals directly with sinners. The results of such involvements are often terminal and appear dissuasive, at least in the short term.
  2. Alternatively, if capital punishment does not deter disobedience, God must surely have another purpose for it that is equally valid.

Not that I expect those who support the abolition of capital punishment to find such a case compelling. Their objections are ideological, not fact-based.

The Nature of Judgment

James M. Arlandson points out that of the 499 times (by his count) that God showed wrath in the Old Testament, 448 of them occurred after the giving of the Law of Moses beginning in Exodus 20. In other words, God’s wrath was not arbitrary or capricious, but methodically responsive to acts of willful disobedience.

But what I notice most is not the harshness of the times God has directly intervened to punish violations of his revealed will, but the number of times he didn’t, or curtailed a punishment in progress out of compassion, or allowed those in violation of his laws to choose their own poison. That number is large and doesn’t get a whole lot of attention probably because, unlike judgment meted out, the results of judgment withheld are rarely visually spectacular.

On the subject of deterrence I’m with the writer of Ecclesiastes, who strongly implies the majority of America’s leading criminologists are out to lunch. He makes the case in reverse:

“Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil.”

Any parent knows that if you make a rule for your children and establish a penalty for a particular behavior, you had better follow through when the rule is broken or nobody will take you seriously. Your subsequent pronouncements with be blithely ignored and your children will be the worse for it.

This is especially true of the very first violation of any new rule.

Coming in First

While James Arlandson has meticulously documented what he calls “acts of wrath” in the Old Testament, he does not remark upon the significant number of times these acts of wrath take place in situations where God is doing something for the very first time. In such instances, it would be absolutely destructive to God’s purposes (and to the good of his people) for him to overlook the very first violation of his declared will.

The Old Testament judgments that give rise to the most acrimonious objections (usually from those less familiar with scripture) are of this sort. When you hear complaints about that “harsh, judgmental Old Testament God”, the examples cited most frequently as evidence are these same “firsts”.

This is not to suggest that God is slack about judging sin on other occasions. We could easily think of dozens of examples to demonstrate that is not the case. But God does not punish every violation of his law to the same degree or in precisely the same way. There are long, long periods — such as the one in which you and I are currently living — during which those who contend that newsworthy occurrences like the AIDS epidemic or Hurricane Katrina are evidence of the direct and personal judgment of God find themselves with nothing more than their own superstitions to back them up.

Oh, bad things still happen, of course; the indirect consequences of the Fall, the machinations of evil principalities and powers and even plain old human nature have seen to that. But the evils that do occur haven’t got any obvious stamp of divine intervention on them.

For us, that’s a good thing: the justice of a holy God consistently applied to this world would leave nothing but smoking rubble in its wake. The vast majority of human history finds God keeping his distance and holding back his wrath — for our sakes.

But where you find a “first” in the plans of God, you will almost always find a jarring and memorable judgment to accompany its initial manifestation in the world of men, be it the law, the priesthood, the temple or the empty tomb.

Behold, I Am Doing a New Thing

Here are seven examples pretty much at random, but you can likely think of many others:

  • The first sin in human history brings death to an entire race and futility to a planet and all its creatures, though not all the consequences are instant.
  • God sends Moses to Egypt to deliver his chosen people out of slavery and guide them into the land of promise. Israel is about to gain national status. On the way, we read that Jehovah met Moses and “sought to put him to death”. It appears Moses has failed as the head of his household to observe the covenant of circumcision God made with Abraham and all his descendants. He cannot presume to lead the people of God in that condition; death would be preferable and is certainly merited in accordance with the covenant. Only his wife’s timely intervention saves him.
  • The plague on account of the golden calf takes place in association with another first: the delivery of the Mosaic law (Moses is receiving the law as Israel commits idolatry), and marks its first major violation.
  • The incineration of Nadab and Abihu takes place in connection with the inauguration ceremonies for the priesthood. It may well have been their first day on the job.
  • The death of Uzzah for attempting to steady the ark of the covenant marks the beginning of the ark’s journey from the house of Abinadab to Jerusalem where the first temple would be built.
  • Elisha is replacing Elijah as the primary oracle of God in Israel. His master has just ascended to heaven in a chariot before his eyes. It is critical for their own good that God’s people recognize his authority and pay attention to what he has to say. On the very first day of Elisha’s prophetic office, only hours after he has inherited his master’s mantle, a pack of young thugs begins to mock and jeer at him. The age of these dissenters is much less significant than the fact of their rebellion against God’s order. Their cry, “Go up, you baldhead!” simultaneously expresses disbelief in Elisha’s story and rejection of his prophetic authority. Elisha curses them in the name of the Lord, and forty-two of them are mauled by a pair of bears.
  • The judgment on Ananias and Sapphira for lying to the Holy Spirit marks the first major recorded violation under the New Covenant.

The List Gets Longer

There are others. Should we count the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome circa AD 70? I think we’d better, if we take Malachi or Luke seriously. If there was ever a New Thing that God intended to authenticate in no uncertain terms, it was the new and living way based on faith in the resurrected Christ. Israel could have had “times of refreshing” if they had accepted the invitation to repent. Instead, the land was stricken with a curse that lasted almost two millennia.

So what was God’s intention here: deterrence or justice? If it was justice, it seems awfully sporadic. We can be sure God’s justice, when it is finally revealed, will be absolutely consistent. Ecclesiastes tells us, “God will bring every deed into judgment”.

Deterrence or Justice

Whenever God is doing something new, the first violation is treated with maximum severity. That’s true whether it takes the form of direct rebellion (Adam and Eve), familiarity or casual disregard (Uzzah, Moses), mocking dismissiveness (Elisha) or spiritual ‘creativity’ (Nadab and Abihu). God makes it abundantly clear there are consequences to treating his word lightly.

For me, this sort of thing happens way too many times to be mere coincidence.

Deterrence, anyone?

Experts in our day refuse to believe potential lawbreakers are dissuaded by justice swiftly meted out. Such an intellectual position is easy to hold when nobody ever sees it. But in a society that takes as given that its worst criminals merit no more than an extended “time out” paid out of the public purse, the absence of hard data on deterrence is unsurprising.

If you’re interested, scripture contains plenty.

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