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Repayment for moral guilt or virtue. Recompense for injustices was exacted by human custom and law in Biblical history, just as rewards were allotted by human agents in return for good actions. This article's main concern, however, is to examine the evolution of Biblical thought and expression concerning divine retribution, or how the Judeo-Christian God was considered to reward virtue and to punish vice.

Old Testament Retribution

Israelite ideas about God's rewards and punishments for moral actions were limited, almost until the Christian Era, to sanctions given in this world (see afterlife, 2) and, for the most part, they focused on divine recompense to the whole group rather than to individual persons.


OT rewards were mainly material, and, even when they were spiritual, e.g., a closer friendship with God, they ceased with death. [see death (in the bible).] In sheol (abode of the dead) the dead could no longer praise God; the just who died were united with the unjust in a common lot (Jb 3.1319). Observers of the Mosaic law would enjoy a long and prosperous life in the promised land and would die surrounded by their numerous progeny (Dt 5.16; 6.13, 1015). Pentateuchal and prophetic doctrine proclaimed only earthly rewards or punishments for those who fulfilled or transgressed the obligations of God's covenant (Jet 11.112). In the sapiential books rewards for good conduct were all of a temporal naturewealth and honor, land and possessions, and healthy, numerous children, whereas the folly of wickedness brought sudden and early death (Prv8.1721; 10.27; 22.2223). Only in the latest OT books was the notion of reward connected with life after death.

Repayment for the crime or virtuous act of an individual affected the group to which the person belonged. Hebrew tribal background was a source of this idea, but a more important reason was that God had chosen the Israelites and made a religious pact with them, not as individuals, but as a collective entity, His holy people (see election, divine). Consequently, God was conceived of as punishing the group for one person's sin and as rewarding it for another's good action.

Collective Punishment for Individual Fault. The obvious example of solidarity in punishment is the story of the fall of man (Gn ch. 3), but there are many others. Cain's murder brought a crescendo of corruption on his whole line. Simeon and Levi, by their violent revenge (Gn 34.2531), were the remote causes for the dispersion of their tribes throughout Israel (49.57). Achan's violation of the ban (anathema) led to the obliteration of his whole family (Jos 6.277.1, 2426). Even King david, by his adultery followed by murder, doomed the son of the adulterous union to death and his royal line to perpetual warfare and violence (2 Sm 12.714). Not only a person's descendants but even the whole nation could be punished for the sin of one of its members, as in the cases of Achan (Jos 22.20), Saul (2 Sm 21.1), and David (2 Sm ch. 24).

The classical statement of punishment meted out by Yahweh on the presumably innocent children of evil men is found in Ex 34.7, in a context, however, that makes sure to highlight His mercy and forgiveness "for a thousand generations." One is confronted here with thought patterns of a nomadic, tribal solidarity in fortune and misfortune, good and evil, merit and guilt. The custom of blood vengeance, which found its excessive expression in Lamech's savage poem (Gn 4.2324), is another example of such solidarity. A society without a police force or courts of law needed such a custom as a deterrent to crime. Its origin was even attributed to God in the story of Cain; very likely, the token or mark given Cain by God made it apparent to anyone who wished to harm him that he belonged to a tribe that would avenge his murder severely (Gn 4.1516). Later in Israel's history the law of exact retaliation (Ex 21.24) introduced a wise control over indiscriminate vengeance that could decimate whole tribes and families. By demanding in Israel a compensation exactly equal to an injury, this law, which seems so harsh now, curbed excessive revenge and concentrated the people's attention on the precise crime and its perpetrator rather than on the whole group to which the criminal belonged. It was a step toward the separation of the innocent from the guilt brought upon a group by a single offender and affected the Israelite idea of the justice of god in avenging sin. [see sin (in the bible).] As tribal influences gradually died out with the coming of the monarchy and more developed government by statute (see israel, 3), collective retribution gave way to a more discriminating justice that found its expression in Dt 24.16 and its application in 2 Kgs 14.6, where Joash refrains from slaying the children of his father's murderers. The advanced principle had been stated, "Only for his own guilt shall a man be put to death" (Dt 24.16), but the older customs continued to be practiced, and what was of timeless value in the basic idea of the contagion of sin and solidarity in guilt continued to evolve [Ps 108 (109). 916; Sir 41.59; Wis 3.1619].

Collective Reward Merited by an Individual. Group solidarity in the achievements and rewards of just individuals was the logical converse of solidarity in an individual's punishment. This happier aspect of a person's involvement with his family, tribe, and nation was exemplified by the Deluge and the common lot of his family with the just noah, by the blessings promised to the Patriarch abraham for his posterity, and, through it for all mankind, by the immunity granted Rahab's family (Jos2.1718), and by many other examples. In fact, God's willingness to show mercy and forgive sins because of the loyalty of a few or only of one person revealed His nature more accurately to the Israelites than did His punishment (Ex 32.1114; 33. 1217; 34.67a). Thus, in Jer5.1 and Ez 22.30, God would forgive and spare Jerusalem, were only one just man discovered there. The bargaining between Abraham and God over Sodom was based not on the personal value of each just man, but on how few just men would be needed to win pardon for all their wicked compatriots; Abraham did not even ask that the just men be spared individually, although God later spared Lot's daughters because of their just father (Gn 18.2333; 19.1215). Finally, the suffering of one man, described in the Songs of the suffering servant, was going to save the whole nation (Isaia ch. 53). Here the solidarity of God's people in punishment for one man's sin is paradoxically reversed; the mysterious servant of the Lord, an innocent individual, at least in the author's description of him, receives the punishment due the manyand thereby, justifies the many by bearing their guilt. God's mercy and forgiveness, in view of one man's loyalty, is granted the whole group. This oracle was the OT's deepest delving into the mystery of God's collective reward in consideration of the good actions and faithfulness of one individual; it is no wonder that the prediction was not understood until it had been realized in Christ's salvific death and Resurrection.

Retribution for a Whole Group's Guilt or Virtue. The judgment of God [see judgment, divine (in the bible)] upon mankind in general for its collective sinfulness is described in the etiological stories of the flood and the tower of babel. (see etiology.) Smaller groups were punished for collective guilt, e.g., the people of Sodom and Gomorra, the tribe of Benjamin (Jgs ch. 1920), ca naan and the Canaanites (Dt 9.5), and the Israelites themselves (Jer ch. 2; Is 1.29). The Prophets from Amos to Ezechiel constantly warned God's people of their collective infidelity to the covenant, which would bring upon them, first, the destruction of the Northern Kingdom and, then, of judah. Only a small remnant of israel would eventually be saved (Am 3.12; 5.15; 9.810; Is 10.2023; Ez ch. 9). Editorial additions of the deuteronomists to their great collection (Joshua to 2 Kgs) can be easily distinguished by the theme that all the catastrophes that ever afflicted Israel were due to God's punishment for its collective infidelity to His pact (Jos 24.1920; Jgs 2.1115; 1 Kgs 8.3340; 2 Kgs 17.718; Dt 28.1546). That just men were caught in this collective retribution was accepted with difficulty and without an adequate explanation (Gn 18.25; Ez 21.110). This problem led, especially in Ezechiel and the wisdom literature, to a greater emphasis on individual guilt and merit.

Individual Retribution. The Hebrew words for retribution came from the basic experience of a man earning wages or gain as the result of a pact or contract entered into with someone who desired his services. When this concept was transferred to the relationship between God and man, it was adapted to Israel's experience with God, and retribution became the result of God visiting His people to reward or punish His servant in consideration of the way His bondsman fulfilled his service. In this way the principle was evolved that God would repay every man according to his works (1 Sm 26.23; Prv 12.14; Is 59.18; Sir 51.30; Rom 2.6). That this principle involved the individual in its collective horizon from the very beginning is evident from the most ancient Mosaic penal codes that were sanctioned by God and often adjudicated by ordeal (Nm 5.1131). That an individual's crime or virtuous act affected the group to which he belonged only tended to heighten his concern for the results of his actions. There were, however, many cases in which the individual was repaid for his own action, without any apparent retribution for his group. So, Er and Onan died because of their wickedness (Gn 38.710); whereas Shiphrah and Phuah were rewarded by God for protecting Hebrew infants (Ex 1.1520).

Both during and after the period of the scourge of the Exile of Israel the idea of collective punishment evolved so that greater concern was given to an individual's responsibility for his actions before God. If one was to live or die (the perspective was still limited to this side of the tomb), it was to be the result of one's own virtuous or evil deeds. The sinner could repent, do good, and live; the just man could turn to sin and die (Ez ch. 18). What had already been clearly expressed in the story of Abraham's bargaining with God over Sodom, "Far be it from you to do such a thing as kill the just with the wicked, treating just and wicked alike!" (Gn 18.25), became with Ezechiel and the wisdom writers a common teaching for enticing individual Israelites to return to God and act justly so that they might receive, as individuals, His rewards. God had "no pleasure in the death" of the sinner; He wanted everyone to "return and live" (Ez 18.32). When such a principle was applied solely to temporal sanctions without any hope of a retribution beyond the tomb, it soon became evident that it ran contrary to man's experience. The just man did not always live; in fact, for the most part, the just were oppressed and downtrodden by evil men, while God remained aloof in His heavens. The stage had been set for the revelation of God's plan for rewarding and punishing men beyond the confines of their mortal life.


The greatest advance toward conceiving that human justice or evilness had to wait until after death before being requited by God was made by a remarkable man whose name has not been recorded, the author of the book of job.

The Problem in Job and Ecclesiastes. The author of the Book of Job attacked frontally a traditional teaching because it gave rise to more problems than it answered. Job's innocence is affirmed by God Himself before He allows Satan to test him by taking away every shred of temporal reward. As a result the consequent dialogue between Job and his friends clearly indicates the author's problem: just men who are miserable in this life (and most of them are) must of necessity encounter God Himself whom they know is just but whom they also feel in their flesh is acting unjustly. The author eventually capitulates to the traditional view by having Job vindicated by God with twice as many material blessings than before, but this is only because he cannot formulate a solution to his basic problem, except the unfathomable mystery of God. God alone knows the answer to the obvious injustices to which the innocent succumb. With Job the author makes every innocent man confronted with a death he did not deserve desire to stand up on some vague day beyond his death to receive a human awareness of God's vindication (Jb 19.2329). He does not say that such an event will ever happen, but he knows that such a desire is in the heart of every just man faced with an unwarranted death. God's benign creativity seems to be canceled out by His cruel governance of human destiny in which the just are never fully vindicated for their service to Him. Yet God is just. What, then, is the solution? It is, at least, God Himself who hides Himself in a whirlwind and from it demands man to submit to His mysterious plans.

The anthologist who composed the Book of ecclesi astes faced more bitterly and less profoundly the same problem. He was very much aware that the just suffered in life while the wicked prospered (Eccl 7.15; 8.10, 14). Death above all, death and oblivion, is the common lot of all men, good and evil alike (8.169.10). A concrete horror of death is his contribution to the evolution of retribution; everything in life, all the rewards held up to the Israelite have no meaning when confronted by death; everything flattens out and there is no lasting pleasure. A Christian is startled not so much at Qoheleth's bitterness as at the fact that the Israelites had to wait so long a time to hear it expressed. From about the time of Ecclesiastes the thought of Jews took another turn and longed for the never ending happiness hidden behind all their concrete symbols for the happy life with their God.

Intimations of a Resurrection of the Dead. A few intimate friends of God had already attempted to pierce these symbols in order to reach God Himself. They knew God was good, full of loving loyalty to His promises, but, oppressed and suffering as they were, they never experienced the concrete pleasures contained in the traditional symbols for happiness. Yet their faithful Lord had held out to them these rewards; the only solution was to hope, blindly, in His goodness. Their return of filial loyalty to God and the joy in sorrow that it made them experience led them to desire to be with Him forever, despite the frustration of their human experience. Thus Jeremiah, at his loneliest, when he complains most bitterly against the degradation brought on him by his faithful service to God, still realizes that God is with him and will, somehow and at sometime, reward him (Jer 15.1021;20.1113). The sapiential poet of Psalm 72 (73) penetrates, with Jeremiah, God's mystery and affirms confidently, against his experience, that God will, Himself, be the just person's reward, his "portion forever," even though his flesh now groans in pain; while he is with God, he has no desire for earthly pleasures, and to be apart from God is to perish [Ps 72 (73).2328]. Psalm 15 (16) clarifies this teaching by expressing a trust that the just man's close friendship with God will be prolonged beyond the threat of the grave and he will enjoy a happy life at God's side indefinitely [Ps 15 (16).811]. Perhaps this Psalmist did not have so clear an insight into the blessed afterlife reserved for the just as has been claimed by some, but his longing to be with God has nothing material connected with it, and he fears death only because it will destroy his friendship with God. His is a definitive step toward a belief in the resurrection of the just. Almost as an answer to the bitterness of Ecclesiastes and his reluctant satisfaction with this world's pleasures the sage of Psalm 48 (49) concludes that wealth and earthly splendor are traps that lead men to be content with this life and the death that must follow it, while the poor but wise and upright man is much better off, for God will redeem him from the power of the abode of the dead, snatching him away from death's rule [Ps 48 (49).1416]. The need of the impoverished and oppressed upright man for God's vindication, therefore, evoked from him a blind but confident cry that God would, indeed, prove His fidelity and justice despite death's universal reign.

A resurrection of Israel as a whole had already been conceived by Ezekiel in his Vision of the Dry Bones (ch.37) and, later, by the Apocalypse of Isaiah (Is 26.19), but this was only a figure for God's restoration of the Israelite people after the Exile. Yet, the images were there in their tradition, and when the poor of Yahweh were suffering the terrible persecution of the second century b.c., they recalled the images from the depths of their need for Yahweh's vindication, and one of them shouted out at his executioner that the King of the world would raise all of them up to an eternal life for having died for His laws (2 Mc 7.9). Daniel's message, given about the same time, contains a more explicit teaching: those who are asleep in the dust will awaken, some to receive eternal life, the others to live in eternal horror. (see resurrection of the dead, 1.)

Immortality in the Book of Wisdom. Because of the Biblical concept of man as a unit and not as a composite made of body and soul, the Israelites did not conceive of the soul as a subsistent element of man, destined to have a separate existence after the death of the body. [see man, 1; soul (in the bible).] It was only very late in their history that Greek psychological influences on Alexandrian Judaism led the author of the Book of wisdom to postulate some kind of happy and vital existence for the just who died prematurely and after an unhappy mortal life. Yet this author is still thoroughly Jewish in his monistic ideas and does not classify the body as the soul's prison from which the best that is in man escapes at death. The immortality that he offers as the just person's reward is one that is based essentially on the Israelite God's creative power and His hatred of death (Wis 1.1215); it is an immortality that comes to the total man so that he may enjoy God's friendship forever in the traditional Israelite context of the day of the lord (Wis ch. 35). Here the desire of the Psalmists [Ps 15 (16).10; 48 (49).16; 72 (73).24] has received a more explicit statement in terminology redolent of Jewish eschatology and only slightly akin to Greek ideas about immortality; yet, it is remarkable that this somewhat Hellenized Jew of Alexandria says nothing about a resurrection of the just or of the wicked, although such a belief had already been stated in the Book of Daniel a century before he wrote and had been carried to Alexandria from Palestine by 2 Maccabees. Perhaps, already, a resurrection of dead, just men for their reward had become a laughingstock to certain elements of Hellenized Judaism as it was for the sadducees and for Paul's audience at Athens (Acts 17.32). A definitive doctrine about retribution after death had to wait for the proclamation of Christ's victory over sin and death before it could evoke a longing response of faith from those who saw in Christ the fulfillment of OT desires.

Retribution in the New Testament

The problem of temporal reward and punishment did not disappear as soon as Christians believed that the ultimate retribution for just and wicked alike would come at the parousia of the Lord Jesus.


The recompense for following Jesus was nothing other than the possession of the kingdom of God (Mt5.111). This kingdom, however, was to have two stages in its existence, one in this world, governed by the Lord Jesus through the Holy Spirit, the other in heaven, the final kingdom that would come only after the Son had submitted everything, which had been subjected to Him in His kingdom, to the Father (1 Cor 15.2428; Mt 16.2728; 10.23; 24.30, 34; 26.64).

In the first stage it would be a sufficient reward for Christ's disciple to be like His master in suffering and service (Mt 10.2425, 3739; Mk 10.4145). In fact, a disciple's happiness on earth was to consist in being insulted and persecuted as Christ had been, for then he knew that his recompense was great in heaven (Mt5.1112; Acts 5.4041; 21.13; 1 Pt 4.1319; Rom 5.34; 2 Cor 12.910). Earthly rewards, even the honor accorded holy persons by others, were not to be desired by the Christian whose repayment for virtue was being stored up for him in the secrecy of the Father's realm (Mt6.16). The unjust rich, however, would find that they were completely bankrupt on the Last Day (Jas 5.16; Lk 12.1621; 16.1926). In the matter of temporal need Christ's disciple must abandon himself completely to God's loving concern; after all, the kingdom itself has been given to him (Lk 12.2232; Mt 6.2533). Luke, especially, emphasized that the basic principle of Christian foresight and prudence was the complete detachment from earthly wealth (Lk 14.2833; 16.113). When he prays, the Christian should ask not for what other men are anxious to gain but for whatever good things the Father, who is good, wants to give him, above all, the Holy Spirit (Mt 7.711; Lk 11.913). The only passage in the NT that seems to offer earthly rewards to Christ's disciples is Mk 10.30: those who have left all to follow Jesus will "receive now in the present time a hundredfold as much, houses, and brothers, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and landsalong with persecutions ." However, the obvious parabolic overstatement of this saying, combined with the "along with persecutions," indicates that Christ promises His disciples not a superabundance of material wealth or mere human relations but the supereminent spiritual benefits that will accrue to them even in the present age from being conformed to Him in suffering and poverty, in other words, the graces of Redemption and justification.

Temporal punishment for evil was a more apparent form of retribution for the first stage of God's kingdom. An incestuous Corinthian was delivered to Satan to suffer pain in his physical life so that his spiritual life might be saved on the Day of the Lord (1 Cor 5.25). Paul interpreted that the diseases and deaths among the Corinthians were punishments for their irreverent and selfish practices at the celebration of the lord's supper (1 Cor 11.3034). He also warned them against false worship by recalling the sudden punishments meted out to idolaters in the OT (1 Cor 10.610, 22). Testing the Holy Spirit by a lie brought instant death to an early Christian couple (Acts 5.111).

Jesus, Himself, foretold that the coming of the Son of Man with power would bring about the destruction of Jerusalem before the generation He was addressing passed away (Lk 21.536, especially v. 32; Luke, more clearly than Matthew or Mark, distinguished between the coming of the Son's kingdom through the retributive destruction of Jerusalem, the definitive closing of the old order, resulting from its rejection of the Messiah, and the Son's coming on the Last Day to establish His Father's kingdom, described in Lk 17.2237). Punishment for sin on earth remained, therefore, an important Christian theme that found its fullest expression throughout the book of Revelation, whereas earthly material reward for good actions was hardly, if at all, put forth as a legitimate Christian motive for virtue.


The solidarity of Jesus Christ with the sinfulness of, and the punishment due, all mankind, revealed by the mystery of His salvific death and Resurrection, changed forever humanity's concept of repayment from God for services rendered. Henceforth, mankind was forced to admit, in order to attain happiness, that eternal reward was not due to it apart from Jesus' action. Man's ultimate happiness depended on the acceptance of God's favor manifested to him in Christ's propitiatory death, i.e., on his acceptance by faith of the justifying value and gratuitous nature of Jesus' submission to the Father's will (Rom 3.2126). Retribution, then, takes on a meaning that identifies it more with Redemption and reconciliation than the just repayment for service given. [see redemp tion (in the bible)]. A completely innocent man had become sin on behalf of all sinners, i.e., the rest of mankind (2 Cor 5.21). As a result, the Christian can no longer conceive that his ultimate happiness is something due him, except in so far as he is united to Christ, the perfect servant of God. Christ's reward, His Resurrection, exaltation, and His eternal human life with God, is strictly due Him, in accord with the contract He entered into with His Father (Phil 2.511). By His obedience the Son freely submitted to the Father's demand for justice in view of mankind's sinfulness, and by being lifted up on the cross He drew to Himself a new human race that could perfectly serve the Divinity through Him (Jn 12.3233; Rom5.1219). The service offered the Father by this new humanity in and through the Son is being and will continue to be rewarded by the life of the Spirit, by which Christians work out their ultimate salvation while on earth (Rom ch. 8); and ultimately, it will be rewarded by the resurrection to an incorruptible life with Christ (1 Cor ch.15) for each individual. In the world the Christian's union with Christ is already, in a true sense, a participation in the life Christ now leads (Rom 6.111; Col 3.14). A Johannine theme bears the same message: those who believe in God's Word, who come to the Light and accept Jesus' death as the glorification of the Son of Man, have already been reborn from on high and possess, already, eternal life. For those others who do not accept Him there is only darkness, and the wrath of God already rests upon them (Jn 3.1621, 3136). Reward and punishment have become the acceptance or refusal of God's gift in Christ Jesus.

Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. By l. hartman (New York 1963), from a. van den born, Bijbels Woordenboek 203240. c. wiÉner, in Vocabulaire de théologie biblique, ed. x. lÉon-dufour (Paris 1962) 919925. p. e. davies, The Interpreters' Dictionary of the Bible, ed. g. a. buttrick (Nashville 1962) 4:7174. e. wÜrthwein, Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament, g. kittel, (Stuttgart 1935) 4:710718. j. guillet, Themes of the Bible, tr. a. j. lamothe (Notre Dame, Ind. 1960) 24170. f. horst et al., Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart (3d ed. Tübingen 195765) 6:134349. w. stÄrk, Vorsehung und Vergeltung (Berlin 1931). a. m. dubarle, Les Sages d'Israël (Paris 1946) 46173. e. f. sutcliffe, Providence and Suffering in the Old and New Testaments (London 1953). p. van imschoot, Théologie de l'Ancien Testament, 2 v. (Tournai 195456) 303314.

[j. e. fallon]