In response to my article “The Reason for Hell: A critical engagement with Timothy Keller (Part 3)” FroKid04 wrote the following:
“The consistent Biblical definition of retribution is the return of the sinner’s own sin upon his own head. The righteous judgment of God is a wrath that sinner’s have “stored up for themselves” (Rom 2:5). Jer 50:15 says “For this is the vengeance of the Lord: As [Babylon] has done to others, so do to her.” Rev 11:18 says that God “destroys those who destroy the earth.” And Jesus says, “If you do not forgive others, then your heavenly Father will not forgive your transgressions (Matt 6:15).”
This is classically what we would call “lex talionis” or a legally authorized, commensurate punitive retaliation. Colloquially, it is justice in terms of “an eye for an eye”.
There is a logic to lex talionis with which everyone can identify. That is, it correlates punishment to the type of indiscretion or crime committed. If I dump my scalding coffee on your three dollar potted fern out of anger a different kind of punishment is required than if I dump my scalding coffee on your three year old child.
But what does it mean to apply the logic? If I commit the crime of retributively scalding your three year old, does the law require that my child be burned with hot liquid? It is at that point that people part ways with the principle.
This isn’t just a theoretical discussion. Perhaps you’ve heard of the case in Saudi Arabia where a man paralyzed his friend through a knife attack when the two were in their early teens. And now the courts have handed down a sentence that the attacker, presently in his early twenties, should himself be paralyzed in a brutal application of an eye for an eye. You can read Amnesty International’s account of the case here.
I suspect most people today immediately believe that it is wrong to paralyze one man for paralyzing another. Should we trust this intuition that lex talionis, or at least this application of it, is a violation of justice? Or are those intuitions wrong such that it is just to paralyze one man for paralyzing another?
Let me close with an irony. Consider the following applications of lex talionis:
(1) If Jones maliciously paralyzes Smith then Jones should be paralyzed.
(2) If Jones maliciously gouges out Smith’s eye then Jones’ eye should be gouged out.
(3) If Jones murders (that is, maliciously kills) Smith then Jones should be killed.
Now admittedly I’m going to do some guessing here, but I think it is a good guess. And my guess is this: that more people surveyed would agree to (3) than to (1) or (2). This despite the following: (i) (3) applies the very same principle as (1) and (2); (ii) (3) is a more extreme application of the principle than (1) or (2) since (3) involves the killing of Jones.
Presumably there is an additional intuition at work here to justify the contrast. I suspect the intuition is that somehow it is absolutely wrong to mutilate a person punitively. But why would it be absolutely wrong to mutilate a person punitively but not wrong to kill a person punitively?