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RETRIBUTION. The word is not found in Scripture, but the idea is expressed in reference to the wrath of God, vengeance, punishment, and judgment when God “will give to each person according to what he has done” (Rom.2.6). The concept reminds us not to be so fully engrossed in the grace of the gospel that we overlook God’s judgment on the impenitent sinner (Rom.1.18). Retribution is the natural outcome of sin (Gal.6.7-Gal.6.8), the thought of which was reflected in John the Baptist’s warning to “flee from the coming wrath” (Matt.3.7; Luke.3.7; cf. 1Thess.1.10). One of the NT’s most terrible references is to “the wrath of the Lamb” (Rev.6.16).

RETRIBUTION. The act of paying back to someone according to his just deserts. Retribution is usually, although not exclusively, considered in terms of punishment for wrongdoing. In systematic theology, the distinction is sometimes made between God’s remunerative justice in which He distributes rewards and His retributive justice in which He expresses His wrath against sin by inflicting penalties.

Biblical words used.

The word retribution is not used in the RSV or the KJV. However, both use the synonymous words requite and recompense. For example, Psalm 62:12b, “Thou dost requite (KJV ‘renderest,’ Heb. shãlam) a man according to his work,” which statement significantly is given as evidence that power and steadfast love are attributes of God. 2 Timothy 4:14: “Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will requite (KJV ‘reward,’ Gr. apodídōmi) him for his deeds.” Note that in both cases God deals with the person in response to the person’s actions. Jeremiah 51:56: “for a destroyer has come upon her, upon Babylon; her warriors are taken, their bows are broken in pieces; for the Lord is a God of recompense (KJV ‘recompences,’ Heb. gemūlãh), he will surely requite” (KJV “requite,” Heb. shãlam). Again, Babylon is suffering because of what she has done, and this suffering occurs because of the nature of God. Revelation 22:12: “Behold, I am coming soon bringing my recompense (KJV ‘reward,’ Gr. misthós) to repay every one for what he has done.”

However, the NEB does use the word retribution. For example, Romans 1:18: “For we see divine retribution (KJV and RSV ‘wrath,’ Gr. orgə) revealed from heaven and falling upon all the godless wickedness of men.” Revelation 11:18: “The nations raged, but thy day of retribution (KJV and RSV ‘wrath,’ Gr. orgə) has come. Now is the time for the dead to be judged, now is the time for recompense to thy servants the prophets....” Note the parallel between retribution, judgment, and recompense. (See also Rev 19:15.)

Biblical principles

The nature of God.

As can be seen from the above discussion, the doctrine of retribution flows from the very nature of God. The God of Scripture is a God clearly characterized by righteousness, justice, and omnipotence. Therefore, He desires to, and is able to, punish evil and reward righteousness. Because He is such a God, people receive exactly what they deserve, except when His justice is tempered by His mercy, in which case He treats people better than they deserve. The retributive nature of God is revealed in Scripture. Mercy is not simply a matter of ignoring evil, but God in Christ crucified takes the just deserts of sin upon Himself rather than letting sin go unpunished. (See 2 Cor 5:21.)

The inevitability of retribution.

Because retribution is founded on the very nature of God, the Bible pictures it as inescapable. Galatians 6:7, 8: “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption; but he who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.” This is only a reflection of the teaching already found in the OT: “You have plowed iniquity, you have reaped injustice” (Hos 10:13). The use of this parallel to sowing seed indicates that punishment is an inner necessity and a natural consequence and yet is also a result of the action of God. It is significant that the Heb. word ’ãwon means both sin and punishment. Not only Special Revelation but also the conscience of man is deeply imbued with the conviction that a man will be punished according to his deeds. The whole order of the natural world is one in which the violation of physical laws produces inescapable disaster. Every action produces exact and inescapable reaction.

The suitability of punishment.

The Bible stresses the idea that there is a “poetic justice,” a punishment which exactly fits the crime. As Jesus taught, “For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get” (Matt 7:2). The writer of Proverbs states: “He who digs a pit will fall into it, and a stone will come back upon him who starts it rolling” (Prov 26:27). Revelation 16:6 says, “For men have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and thou hast given them blood to drink. It is their due!” (See also Rom 1:27, Rev 18:6, 7.)

Apparent contradictions.

The OT deals with the problem of the apparent contradictions to the principle of retribution. The Book of Job esp. considers the fact that the superficial application of this idea is false. Job seems to be suffering out of all proportion to his sin and in spite of his outstanding godliness while many ungodly men prosper. Other sections of the OT also deal with this problem. “Behold, these are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches. All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence. For all the day long I have been stricken, and chastened every morning” (Ps 73:12-14). “Their houses are full of treachery; therefore they have become great and rich, they have grown fat and sleek. They know no bounds in deeds of wickedness” (Jer 5:27, 28).

The Book of Job indicates that the problem is more complex than it had been thought to be, and that God has other purposes for suffering besides punishment. The Psalms sometimes express the conviction that although there seems to be a contradiction, this condition is only temporary and the ungodly who are prospering will surely yet be punished. See esp. Psalm 37:1, “Fret not yourself because of the wicked, be not envious of wrongdoers! For they will soon fade like the grass, and wither like the green herb.” The final answer to this apparent contradiction to the doctrine of retribution, however, comes in the NT, which places its stress on retribution in the world to come.

Retribution in this life

Old Testament emphasis.

The OT emphasizes the fact of retribution in this life. For example, this is the basic theme of Psalm 1 and is also mentioned in many other passages such as Proverbs 11:31: “If the righteous is requited on earth, how much more the wicked and the sinner!”

The individual and the group.

There is considerable emphasis in Scripture on retribution being administered to the collective group. Paul shows that the sin of Adam had its effects on all men (Rom 5:12-19). The obedience of Abraham had an obvious effect on his seed as well as upon himself. The entire family of Achan was punished for his sin (Josh 7:10-26). When, however, the people of Judah used the sins of their forefathers as the excuse for their troubles, the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel stressed the fact that the individual will be punished for his own sins. Jeremiah 31:30: “But every one shall die for his own sin; each man who eats sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge.” (See also Ezek 18:4-20.)

Use of human instruments.

Sometimes God uses human instruments to carry out His retribution. For example Babylon was the instrument of God to punish wicked Judah. When Habakkuk complained of the fact that the sins of Judah went unpunished, God said, “For lo, I am rousing the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, who march through the breadth of the earth, to seize habitations not their own” (Hab 1:6). But, in turn, God used other nations to punish wicked Babylon, for when Habakkuk complained that Babylon was even more ungodly than Judah, God’s answer concerning Babylon’s fate was: “Because you have plundered many nations, all the remnant of the peoples shall plunder you” (2:8).

The individual Christian, however, is not to take the administration of retribution into his own hands. He is not to operate on the OT principle of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (Matt 5:38, 39). In fact, the Christian can dare to live on a higher plane because he is assured of the just administration of retribution on the part of God. “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Rom 12:19).

Retribution in the world to come.

God’s people are not to be surprised when in spite of their righteousness they suffer a great deal in this life, for the promise is not that godliness will result in ease in this life: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Pet 4:12). All of this will be taken into account by God in distributing the eternal reward. “For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor 4:17). Conversely, although the wicked seem to prosper, the Bible teaches that they will be fittingly punished by God for all eternity. It is then that the ungodly will suffer the full effects of God’s retributive justice.


W. Jackson, The Doctrine of Retribution (1875); E. Beecher, History of Opinions on the Scriptural Doctrine of Retribution (1878); G. W. King, Future Retribution (1891); S. H. Kellog, “Eternal Retribution,” Presbyterian and Reformed Review (1891), 561-578; C. Anthony, “The Doctrine of Divine Retribution,” Methodist Review (1901), 105-113; H. Buis, The Doctrine of Eternal Punishment (1957).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)


1. New Testament Terms

2. A Revelation of Wrath as Well as Grace

3. Witness of Natural Theology

4. Retribution the Natural Consequence of Sin

5. Also the Positive Infliction of Divine Wrath

6. Instances of Use of Orge and Thumos

7. Instances of Use of Greek Words for "Vengeance"

8. Words Meaning "Chastisement" Not Used of the Impenitent

9. Judgment Implies Retribution

10. Moral Sense Demands Vindication of God’s Righteousness

11. Scripture Indicates Certainty of Vindication


1. New Testament Terms:

The word as applied to the divine administration is not used in Scripture, but undoubtedly the idea is commonly enough expressed. The words which come nearest to it are orge, and thumos wrath attributed to God; ekdikeo, ekdikesis, ekdikos, and dike, all giving the idea of vengeance; kolasis, and timoria, "punishment"; besides krino, and its derivatives, words expressive of judgment.

2. A Revelation of Wrath as Well as Grace:

Romans 2 is full of the thought of retribution. The apostle, in 2:5,6, comes very near to using the word itself, and gives indeed a good description of the thing: the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, "who will render to every man according to his works." It is well in approaching the subject to remind ourselves that there is undoubtedly, as the apostle says, a Revelation of wrath. We are so accustomed to think of the gracious revelation which the gospel brings us, and to approach the subject of the doom of the impenitent under the influence of the kindly sentiments engendered thereby, and with a view of God’s gracious character as revealed in salvation, that we are apt to overlook somewhat the sterner facts of sin, and to misconceive the divine attitude toward the impenitent sinner. It is certainly well that we should let the grace of the gospel have full influence upon all our thinking, but we must beware of being too fully engrossed with one phase of the divine character. It is an infirmity of human nature that we find it difficult to let two seemingly conflicting conceptions find a place in our thought. We are apt to surrender ourselves to the sway of one or the other of them according to the pressure of the moment.

3. Witness of Natural Theology:

Putting ourselves back into the position of those who have only the light of natural theology, we find that all deductions from the perfections of God, as revealed in His works, combined with a consideration of man’s sin and want of harmony with the Holy One, lead to the conclusion announced by the apostle: "The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men" (Ro 1:18). Wrath implies punishment, punishment is decreed, punishment is denounced. The word of God but confirms the verdict which conscience forecasts. Nature teaches that punishment, retribution, must follow sin. Within the sphere of physical law this is clearly exemplified. No breach of the so-called laws of Nature is tolerated. Strictly speaking, the laws of Nature cannot be broken, but let a man fail to keep in harmony with them, and the natural consequences will be trouble, punishment, retribution. Harmony with law is blessing; collision with law is loss. Thus law in Nature "worketh wrath" to the neglecters of it. Punishment necessarily results. So we may well expect that in the higher sphere, God’s moral laws cannot be neglected or violated with impunity, and Scripture fully justifies the expectation and shows that sin must be punished. All things considered, the fact of punishment for sinners need not surprise; the fact of pardon is the surprising thing. The surprise of pardon has ceased to surprise us because we are so familiar with the thought. We know the "how" of it because of the revelation of grace. Grace, however, saves on certain conditions, and there is no such thing known in Scripture as indiscriminate, necessary, universal grace. It is only from the Bible that we know of the salvation by grace. That same revelation shows that the grace does not come to all, in the sense of saving all; though, of course, it may be considered as presented to all. Those who are not touched and saved by grace remain shut up in their sins. They are, and must be, in the nature of the case, left to the consequences of their sins, with the added guilt of rejecting the offered grace. "Except ye believe that I am he," said Incarnate Grace, "ye shall die in your sins" (Joh 8:24).

4. Retribution the Natural Consequence of Sin:

Another conclusion we may draw from the general Scriptural representation is that the future retribution is one aspect of the natural consequence of sin, yet it is also in another aspect the positive infliction of divine wrath. It is shown to be the natural outcome of sin in such passages as "Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap" (Ga 6:7); "He that soweth unto his own flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption" (Ga 6:8). It is not without suggestiveness that the Hebrew word `awon means both iniquity and punishment, and when Cain said "My punishment is greater than I can bear" (Ge 4:13), he really said "My iniquity is greater than I can bear"; his iniquity became his punishment. A due consideration of this thought goes a long way toward meeting many of the objections brought against the doctrine of future punishment.

5. Also the Positive Infliction of Divine Wrath:

The other statement, however, remains true and must be emphasized, that there is an actual infliction of divine wrath. All the great statements about the divine judgment imply this, and while it is wrong not to take account of the natural working out of sin in its terrible consequences, it is equally wrong, perhaps more so, to refuse to recognize this positive divine infliction of punishment. This, indeed, is the outstanding feature of retribution as it assumes form in Scripture. Even the natural consequences of sin, rightly viewed, are part of the divine infliction, since God, in the nature of things, has conjoined sin and its consequences, and part of the positive infliction is the judicial shutting up of the sinner to the consequences of his sin. So in the case of Cain, his iniquity became his punishment, inasmuch as God sentenced him to bear the consequences of that iniquity. On the other hand, we might say that even the terribly positive outpourings of God’s wrath upon the sinner are the natural consequences of sin, since sin in its very nature calls down the divine displeasure. Indeed, these two phases of future punishment are so very closely connected that a right view of the matter compels us to keep both before us, and no full explanation of the punishment is possible when either phase is ignored.

6. Instances of the Use of Orge and Thumos:

The terms in Scripture applied to the doom of sinners all imply divine displeasure, punitive action, retribution. The two outstanding Greek words for "wrath," orge and thumos, are both freely applied to God. Orge indicates settled displeasure, whereas thumos is rather the blazing out of the anger. The former is, as we should expect, more frequently applied to God, and, of course, all that is capricious and reprehensible in human wrath must be eliminated from the word as used of God. It indicates the settled opposition of His holy nature against sin. It was an affection found in the sinless Saviour Himself, for "he looked round about on them with anger" (Mr 3:5). In the Baptist’s warning "to flee from the wrath to come" (Mt 3:7; Lu 3:7), it is unquestionably the wrath of God that is meant, the manifestation of that being further described as the burning of the chaff with unquenchable fire (Mt 3:12). In Joh 3:36 it is said of the unbeliever that "the wrath of God" abideth on him. In Romans it is used at least 9 times in reference to God, first in Ro 1:18, the great passage we have already quoted about "the wrath of God revealed from heaven." The connection is a suggestive one and is often overlooked. In the passage Paul has quite a chain of reasons; he is ready to preach the gospel at Rome for he is not ashamed of the gospel; he is not ashamed of the gospel for it is the power of God unto salvation; it is the "power of God" for therein is revealed the righteousness of God by faith; and this salvation by faith is a necessity "for the wrath of God is revealed," etc. Thus the divine wrath on account of sin is the dark background of the gospel message. Had there been no such just wrath upon men, there had been no need for the divine salvation. The despising of God’s goodness by the impenitent means a treasuring up of "wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God" (Ro 2:3-5). God "visiteth with wrath" (Ro 3:5).

7. Instances of Use of Greek Words for "Vengeance":

8. Words Meaning "Chastisement" Not Used of the Impenitent:

It is very remarkable that the terms in Greek which would carry the meaning of punishment for the good of the offender are never used in the New Testament of the infliction which comes upon the impenitent; these are paideia and paideuo, and they are frequently used of the "chastisement" of believers, but not of the impenitent. It is often claimed that the word kolasis used in Mt 25:46 carries the meaning of chastisement for the improvement of the offender, but although Aristotle, in comparing it with timoria, may seem to suggest that it is meant for the improvement of the offender (what he really says is that it is tou paschontos heneka, "on account of the one suffering it," "has the punished one in view," whereas timoria is tou poiountos, "on account of the one inflicting" "that he may be satisfied"), the usage even in classical Greek is predominantly against making the supposed distinction. Both words are used interchangeably by the leading classical authors, including Aristotle himself, and kolasis is continually employed where no thought of betterment can be in question, while all admit that in Hellenistic Greek the distinction is not maintained, and in any case timoria is also used of the punishment of the sinner (Heb 10:29).

9. Judgment Implies Retribution:

All the representations of the coming day of judgment tell of the fact of retribution, and Christ Himself distinctly asserts it. Apart from His great eschatological discourses, concerning which criticism still hesitates and stammers, we have the solemn close of the Sermon on the Mount, and the pregnant statement of Mt 16:27, "The Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then shall he render unto every man according to his deeds," and all the apostolic teaching upon the solemn theme is but the unfolding of the same great thought.

10. Moral Sense Demands Vindication of God’s Righteousness:

The conception of God as a perfect moral governor demands that His righteousness shall be fully vindicated. Looking at the course of history as it unfolds itself before us, we cannot fail to be struck with the anomalies which are presented. Righteousness does not always triumph, goodness is often put to shame, wickedness appears to be profitable, and wicked men often prosper while good men are under a cloud. Sometimes signal divine interpositions proclaim that God is indeed on the side of righteousness, but too often it seems as if He were unmindful, and men are tempted to ask the old question, "How doth God know? And is there knowledge in the Most High?" (Ps 73:11), while the righteous say in their distress, "Yahweh, how long shall the wicked, how long shall the wicked triumph?" (Ps 94:3). The moral sense cries out for some divine vindication, and the Scriptures, in harmony with this feeling, indicate that the final judgment will bring such vindication.

11. Scripture Indicates Certainty of Vindication:

In the Old Testament it is frequently presented as the solution of the baffling problems which beset the ethical sphere, as for instance in that fine utterance of religious philosophy in Ps 73; the Psalmist has before him all the puzzling elements of the problem; the prosperity, the insolent and aggressive prosperity of the wicked, the non-success, the oppression, the misery of the righteous; he is well-nigh overwhelmed by the contemplation, and nearly loses his footing on the eternal verities, until he carries the whole problem into the light of God’s presence and revelation, and then he understands that the end will bring the true solution.

So too the somber ruminations of the Preacher upon the contradictions arid anomalies and mysteries of human life, "under the sun," close in the reflection which throws its searchlight upon all the blackness: "This is the end of the matter: .... Fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every work into judgment, with every hidden thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil" (Ec 12:13 f). In the light of the same truth, the apostles labored, believing that when the Lord comes He "will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and make manifest the counsels of the hearts" (1Co 4:5). The more fully the subject is considered, the more we must feel that for the vindication of righteousness, the justification of the divine procedure, the rectification of wrongs, the explanation of mysteries, the reward and triumph of the righteous and the confession and punishment of the wicked, a great final, retributive judgment is Scriptural, reasonable, necessary.


See the articles on PUNISHMENT, EVERLASTING; JUDGMENT; SHEOL, etc., and the works cited there.

Archibald M’Caig