What is the Retribution Principle?
In searching for inspiration for today’s post, I was looking through old papers I wrote during my time at Criswell College in Dallas, TX. One that stuck out to me was a short essay regarding the retribution principle in the book of Job.
This principle, often referred to by Old Testament scholars as the doctrine of retribution, claims that those who sin deserve punishment or suffering. Within the book of Job, this can be seen in places such as 4:7-11.
7 Consider: who has perished when he was innocent?
Where have the honest been destroyed?
8 In my experience, those who plow injustice
and those who sow trouble reap the same.
9 They perish at a single blast from God
and come to an end by the breath of His nostrils.
10 The lion may roar and the fierce lion growl,
but the fangs of young lions are broken.
11 The strong lion dies if it catches no prey,
and the cubs of the lioness are scattered.
Here, Job’s friend Eliphaz is telling him that those who suffer his plight all have something in common: they were deserving of it. The implication? Job must be deserving of it as well, meaning Job has done something wrong to bring this calamity on himself and his family. This introduces us to the concept of “double retribution” which claims that if sin leads to suffering, then all who suffer must have sinned.
The question is this: Does God really function according to the doctrine of retribution? Is the experience of suffering or even death always an indicator of sin in one’s life? Not necessarily.
Readers of the book of Job have background info that Job did not. We know from the opening chapters that the plight of Job was brought about not by any wrongdoing on his part, but by a conversation between God and Satan. Even though he isn’t aware of this, and despite the harsh words of his friends, Job stands by his claim of innocence throughout the book.
Can sickness, suffering, and even death be caused by sinful behavior? Sure they can (think of the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11). But is sickness and suffering always an indicator of sin—the claim of the retribution principle? No.
So are Old Testament scholars who discuss this principle or doctrine wrong? No. They do not necessarily hold this position for themselves, they simply explain that this was a common way of thinking during the time of the Old Testament. And if we want to understand the Bible as it was intended to be understood, then we have to understood the principles that were believed to govern life, such as the retribution principle and the idea of double retribution.