Restorative Justice Over Meritocratic-Retributive | A Long Repentance Post #13 |The Anástasis Center for Christian Education & Ministry: Sangwon Yang & Mako Nagasawa


The Maori in New Zealand practice restorative justice.  This image comes from a documentary about the Maori called Restoring Hope, found here.

The Purpose of A Long Repentance Blog Series

People talk about issues of race and justice in the United States as issues of ‘justice and injustice.’  Sometimes we launch into debates about ‘the proper role of government.’  But is that the original framework from which these issues were asked and debated?

The purpose of the blog post series called A Long Repentance: Exploring Christian Mistakes About Race, Politics, and Justice in the United States is to remind our readers that these issues began as Christian heresies.  They were at variance from Christian beliefs prior to colonialism.  Since Christians enacted and institutionalized what we believe to be heretical ideas, they were very destructive and harmful, then as now.  And we bear a unique responsibility for them.  As a result, we believe we must engage in a long repentance.  We must continue to resist the very heresies that we put into motion.  Thus the title of this blog series, A Long Repentance.  The journey is long and challenging.  It may be impossible to see the end.  But along the way, it is also inspiring and sometimes breathtaking.

We also encourage you to explore this booklet, A Long Repentance: A Study Guide, for further reflections and discussion questions.

In Post #2 and Post #5, we explored how white American Protestants promoted the heretical view of Genesis 1 taught by John Locke, that the productive can take land/property from the unproductive.   Setting themselves up for deep anxiety, they also maintained that the social system they set up was fair and ‘meritocratic’ – as opposed to blatantly racist.  They tended to believe that their ‘individual success’ was the result of their ‘personal hard work.’  White Americans even hid from themselves the fact that they used massive government intervention to set up a deeply unequal and racialized social system that continues to this day.  In past posts, we looked at why meritocracy has been an illusion covering over racism in housing, schooling, and criminal justice.  In this post, we explore the even more fundamental question of whether meritocratic-retributive justice is what we should be aiming for.  We argue it should not.  Instead, we should build a social system around a Christian restorative justice paradigm.


Restorative vs. Retributive Justice

“Restorative justice comes from your Christian faith?” asked Michaela.

“It does,” Brian replied.  “I believe that God is a God of restorative justice.”

“I’ve not had that impression of Christian faith,” Michaela said.  “And I’m a little dubious of what you’re saying.  I thought that the Christian God was punitive and retributive.  Isn’t that what the idea of hell is all about?  Isn’t God going to punish evil and disbelief?”

“Where did you get that impression?” asked Brian.

“I grew up sometimes going to an Irish Catholic parish, but I don’t remember much from that,” Michaela replied.  “Then I went to a Baptist church with my cousin for a while, as a kid.  There was a lot of hellfire and brimstone.  In college, I read some things written by Christians.  Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards, in Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, says,

“The God that holds you over the Pit of Hell, much as one holds a Spider, or some loathsome Insect, over the Fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his Wrath towards you burns like Fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the Fire; he is of purer Eyes than to bear to have you in his Sight; you are ten thousand Times so abominable in his Eyes as the most hateful venomous Serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn Rebel did his Prince: and yet ‘tis nothing but his Hand that holds you from falling into the Fire every Moment.’”[1]

For a while, I visited a “seeker sensitive” Reformed church with a lot of feel-good messaging.  But inside that velvet glove was the iron fist.

“The King may not turn a blind eye to sin and forget to punish. The righteous character of God demands punishment”[2] for every sin.

The only difference was the emphasis.  Meanwhile, there were the Pentecostal preachers on the streets with “turn or burn” signs.  So I know the basic story.  Christians believe that on the cross, Jesus took a punishment from God for them, if you believe in him, right?”

“Many Protestants do believe that,” said Brian.  “But that punitive, retributive view of God comes from Martin Luther and John Calvin.  It’s when a pagan Greek and Latin strain of retributive justice crept back into Christian thinking about God.[3]  As if God is “satisfied” by human suffering.  But originally, for a millennium and a half, Christians believed God’s justice was restorative.[4]  The Orthodox churches continue to believe that.  So the punitive, retributive view of God is an expression of Western European Protestant theology.  Many White Americans chose to believe this partly paganized version of Christianity, but I believe it is wrong.  And then using it as the inspiration for public justice, especially against black and brown people, is a form of cultural imperialism.  They put the velvet glove of Jesus’ name on the iron fist of the pagan Greco-Roman principle of retributive justice.”

Which Culture Should Win?

“That’s a strong claim, I’d think,” said Michaela.

“Absolutely,” said Brian.  “But other cultures practice restorative justice over retributive, most famously the Maori in New Zealand, or the Scandinavian countries.  So why should one culture’s approach to justice be preferred over another?  Is there a belief system that tells you what we should do with an offender?  Ask yourself this:  Should we make an offender suffer the same thing (roughly) as what he did to others, which is retributive justice?  Or should we make an offender help undo the harm he’s done, which is restorative justice?  Which definition of justice is higher, or truer?  Retributive or restorative?”

“I don’t know,” said Michaela.

“Right,” said Brian, “because nothing in secular thought answers that for us.  It’s a spiritual question, a theological question, because it requires that we say something about the heart of reality.  And if you don’t actually have a real foundation of truth for your definition of justice, then you’re just using power to impose your opinion or your culture on someone else.”

Which Theology Should Win? Patrick and Athanasius Over Luther and Calvin

“Ouch,” said Michaela.  “I can see what you mean.  You have to make a claim to truth – and a verifiable claim.  Otherwise, you only have a claim to power.  You’re saying that Luther and Calvin are responsible for this particular flavor of Christian faith?””

“Your Irish ancestors didn’t believe that type of Christian faith,” said Brian.  “Neither did the first African Christians.”

“People like who?” asked Michaela.

“People like Saint Patrick of Ireland (5th century),” Brian replied.  “And Saint Athanasius of Egypt (4th century).”

“And what did those Christians believe about God, before Luther and Calvin?” asked Michaela.  “You’re saying there was a more original type of Christian faith?”

“Yes,” said Brian.  “For example, Athanasius said this about the original human beings:

“Had it been a case of a trespass only, and not of a subsequent corruption, repentance would have been well enough…”[5]

“Wait right there,” Michaela interrupted.  “You mean to say that if Adam and Eve made some other kind of mistake, they could have just apologized?  I thought God had to punish every single sin, no matter how big or small.  In fact, I thought God had to punish every sin infinitely, because every sin is a rebellion against God, an infinite being?[6]  Infinite retribution for an infinite offense.”

“Athanasius[7] defended the Nicene Creed with his life,” said Brian.  “He was also the first to define the New Testament as the 27 books which we now receive.  But he didn’t believe in this idea of God storing up infinite retribution for people.  That was a late idea.  For Athanasius, God became human in Jesus to restore human nature to what He always meant it to be:

“when once transgression had begun men came under the power of the corruption proper to their nature and were bereft of the grace which belonged to them as creatures in the Image of God.  No, repentance could not meet the case… Once man was in existence, and… demanded to be healed, it followed as a matter of course that the Healer and Savior should align Himself with those things that existed already, in order to heal the existing evil. For that reason, therefore, He was made man [as Jesus], and used the body as His human instrument.”[8]

“I don’t quite understand,” said Michaela.  “Can you put that into modern language?  Jesus used his body as a human instrument for what?”

“If evil is a disease in us, then in modern medical terms, Jesus used his human body to create the antibodies for our disease in himself,” said Brian.  “Jesus healed the human nature he took on, through his human choices.  The “existing evil,” as Athanasius puts it, is in us.  God is like a great and good doctor.  He wants to heal the damage we’ve caused to our human nature, with our partnership.  But because no one could follow the demanding health regimen that was needed, God came in the person of Jesus.  He acquired a human nature in his human body.  And he healed the corruption in it, so he could give his healed humanity back to us, spiritually (e.g. Dt.30:6; Jer.31:31 – 34; Ezk.11:18; 36:26 – 36; Rom.2:28 – 29; 6:6; 8:3 – 4).”

The Bible and the Church’s Restorative Justice Record

“So, you’re saying,” said Michaela, “God is most angry about the disease in us, because God cares about us, which is why God wants us to cooperate with Jesus.”

“Exactly,” said Brian.  “And that’s what makes Jesus fit so well with restorative justice.  Jesus calls us to restore the damage we’ve done to ourselves, by partnering with him.  In the Hebrew Bible, God called His people to “circumcise their hearts” (Dt.10:16), for example.  It was a figure of speech referring to an internal cleansing of human nature, through a human process of human choices.  God gave Israel commandments to help humans grow, in general (Pr.8:22 – 36), and in light of the fall, to work with them to cleanse their human nature (Rom.8:3).  And that’s why, on the human level, Jesus also calls us to help undo the damage we’ve done to others.”

“And the early Christians practiced restorative justice in the way you talked about?” asked Michaela.

“Yes,” said Brian, “in two ways.  First, they called for penance, which was abused later on, but it was when the offender had to make the effort to repair harm.  Second, Christian leaders in the Roman Empire became trusted mediators in conflicts.  Instead of going to a Roman law court for a conflict, people started going before Christian bishops.  These were called “church courts.”[9]  They tried to operate on the principles of Christian restorative justice.  Christian restorative justice has resurfaced today in Peace Churches like the Mennonites,[10] and in the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in South Africa, Rwanda, and other places.[11]  TRC’s were designed by Christian leaders.”

Even Hell Is Restorative?

“So Christians really did believe God was restorative,” said Michaela.  “So where did the idea of hell come from?  A New Yorker Magazine article called “How the Idea of Hell Has Shaped the Way We Think” says that

“Torturous places such as the Gulag, the gas chamber, death row, and the detainment site are often comprehended, and depicted, as new iterations of perdition.”[12]

American slave plantations also fit the pattern, which the author points out.”

“Hell was there in both Judaism and Christianity,” Brian answered.  “But the key question was how hell was understood.  If we choose to become addicted to something that is not Jesus, then we will experience Jesus as someone who denies us our addiction.  Think about this as an analogy:  A determined alcoholic will experience as torment someone who insists that they give up their alcoholism and refuses to give them any alcohol.  That’s why, in the Bible, fire represented God in a positive sense, like how a refining fire has a positive effect on gold, by purifying away the dross (Mal.3:2 – 3).[13]  When God appeared as a fire, He was calling people to be purified:  the fiery sword outside the garden of Eden (Gen.3:24); Jesus later described himself as a fiery sword because he is bringing us back to the garden (Rev.1:12-20); the fiery torch in Abraham’s vision (Gen.15:17); the fire in the burning bush (Ex.3:2); the pillar of fire and light when God delivered Israel out of Egypt (Ex.14:24); the fire on Mount Sinai (Ex.19:18) which purified Moses (Ex.34:29-35); the fiery coal in Isaiah’s vision which purified Isaiah’s lips (Isa.6:6).  It’s only when people resist God’s call to partner with a Him in their purification and restoration does fire as a symbol take on a painful quality.”

“So people make hell for themselves?” asked Michaela.  “And they could quit their addictions either now, or in the afterlife?  The time doesn’t matter?”

“The time does matter,” said Brian, “because it’s easier to break an addiction the earlier you catch it.  Once people meet Jesus face to face, we finally decide what kind of human being we are becoming.  At that point, if someone decides against Jesus, because they are addicted to something or someone else, the more they will increase in their resentment against Jesus, eternally.  C.S. Lewis said that the gates of hell are locked from the inside.”[14]

“Pastor Robert Jeffress,” said Michaela, “said that heaven will have walls to keep non-Christians out.[15]  He was endorsing Trump’s border wall.  I guess he was praying for God’s will to be done on earth as in heaven?”

“Jeffress is yet another white evangelical twisting Christian faith around to make it nationalistic and retributive,” Brian said.  “The book of Revelation uses the image of a city whose gates will never be closed (Rev.21:25).  We make decisions about our hearts’ openness to Jesus, or not.  We either partner with Jesus in the restoration of our humanness, or by definition we try to construct our own definition of humanness.”

“Well, I’ll have to think about that more,” said Michaela, “But it does make our choices really significant.”

“Our choices matter, and shape our nature,” said Brian.  “From Jesus’ perspective, we identify ourselves with him, or with the thing that he is calling us to burn away.  Personal responsibility matters in that sense.  But let me come back to the question of which principle of justice takes priority:  restorative or meritocratic-retributive.  On a strictly human level, that question is raised by comparing cultures, but it cannot be answered by comparing cultures.  It cannot be answered by philosophy.  It has to be answered theologically.  Otherwise, your notion of justice isn’t really “justice.”  It’s just power and your desire to impose your opinion on other people.  So how do you justify your definition of “justice”?”

For further reflections and discussion questions, see the Study Guide.

Read this earlier post on how your atonement theory shapes your views on restorative and retributive justice, and expressions of them.


[1] Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” July 8, 1741

[2] Erik Raymond, “The Cross Displays God’s Attributes in Perfect Harmony,” The Gospel Coalition, October 3, 2017,

[3] In key passages like Romans 3:21 – 26, some Protestant evangelicals define God’s “righteousness” as moral purity, but especially as God’s disposition to reward every good work and punish every sin, i.e. to be an impartial Western judge. When we define it that way, the word “righteousness” becomes a rough equivalent for “meritocratic-retributive justice.” You “earn” and “deserve” everything you get from God, whether reward or punishment — and ultimately, mostly punishment.

But Alister E. McGrath, in his long-awaited 4th edition of Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 4th edition printed in 2020) shows that the word “righteousness” refers primarily to God’s original vision for relationship. God cared about people’s relationship with Himself, with each other, and even with the land. So restoring people — like the poor and marginalized — was “righteousness” both for biblical Israel and for God.

“Although there are many instances where sedaqa can be regarded as corresponding to the concept of iustitia distributiva [where “justice” means how rewards and punishments are distributed], which has come to dominate western thinking on the nature of justice (despite the rival claims of iustitia commutativa [where “justice” is the realization of morality in human social relationships, the state of character and practice of giving to each person what is his or hers]), there remains a significant number which cannot. A particularly significant illustration of this may be found in the Old Testament attitude to the poor, needy and destitute. As we have noted, sedaqa refers to the ‘right order of affairs’ which is violated, at least in part, by the very existence of such deprived or marginalized social groups [e.g. the poor have human rights]. God’s sedaqa is such that God must deliver them from their plight – and it is this aspect of the Hebrew concept of sedaqa which has proved so intractable to those who attempted to interpret it solely as iustitia distributiva. It is clear that this aspect of the Hebraic understanding of ‘righteousness’ cannot adequately be understood in terms of an impartial judge who administers justice according to which party has broken a universally accepted law.” (p.17)

Unfortunately, many Protestants since the Reformation make a further mistake in their study of Hebrew and Greek. They thought that God’s “righteousness” was an opposite of God’s “mercy,” in key passages about the meaning of Jesus’ death such as Romans 3:21 – 26. Here is why they made that mistake.

“While the translators of the Septuagint generally appear to have attempted consistency in their translation of Hebrew terms, they were unable to accommodate the meaning of sedaqa by the simple substitution of dikaiosyne in every case. Of particular interest is the translation of sdq in the construct form (e.g. at Leviticus 19:36, Deuteronomy 25:15 and Ezekiel 45:10). Here, the Hebrew clearly has the sense of ‘accurate’ – that is, in the case of Leviticus 19:36, the weights are ‘as they are intended to be’ – namely, accurate. The Septuagint, however, translates this phrase as the ‘weights of righteousness.’ This phrase could easily be misunderstood as possessing developed cultic or religious overtones, when it clearly denotes nothing more than accurate weights. Similarly, the Septuagint’s ‘sacrifices of righteousness’ (Deuteronomy 33:19; Psalms 4:6; 51:21) are essentially ‘correct sacrifices’ – that is, those which are ‘in order’ under the cultic prescriptions of the covenant, rather than sacrifices which are to be thought of as ethically ‘righteous’ in themselves.

“The basic meaning of the sdq group as ‘conformity to a requirement’, illustrated by the use of sdq in the construct form, caused some difficulty for the Septuagint’s translators, in that there was no satisfactory Greek equivalent for this grammatical form. While the dik-lexical group appears to have been considered capable of translating the sdq group in the majority of cases, the soteriological connotations of sedaqa were occasionally so strong that it could not be translated by dikaiosyne, the translators being instead forced to use eleemosyne – in other words, ‘mercy’. This would be expected to have at least one very significant consequence for Greek readers of the Old Testament unfamiliar with its Hebrew original; here they might encounter a reference to God’s dikaiosyne, there to God’s eleemosyne – without knowing that the same Hebrew word, sedaqa, lies behind both. A reader who was unaware that the same Hebrew word was being ‘translated’ in each case might thus conceivably set God’s ‘righteousness’ and ‘mercy’ in opposition, where no such tension is warranted on the basis of the text itself. If anything, righteousness and mercy are to be seen as theologically interconnected.” (p.19 – 20)

God’s righteousness and mercy are not opposites. This background adds decisive weight to the case that God’s justice is restorative, not meritocratic-retributive. This has enormous implications for Christian engagement with economics, education, criminal justice, housing, etc. Conservative Christians in the U.S. tend to believe that meritocratic-retributive justice is the highest form of justice that should exist in the public square. But if God’s justice is restorative, relating to a relational vision, then Christians have an entirely different ethos and directive for public life.

McGrath’s work also adds decisive weight to the case that Jesus’ work of atonement was about restoring and healing human nature from its corrupted state, not about absorbing retributive wrath from God. Again, God’s righteousness and mercy are not opposites. And in order to be righteous, God is not bound to punish every single sinful act — whether now or later, whether the punishment is placed on Jesus or on people. Rather, God demonstrates His righteousness by restoring what needs to be put right, by destroying the corruption of sin in our human nature, and by showing mercy to people.

[4] Adonis Vidu, Atonement, Law, and Justice: The Cross in Historical and Cultural Contexts (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014), p.1 admits,

“It is a well-known fact that patristic reflection on the cross did not usually take the form of a full-fledged theory of penal substitution… While some would like to trace the doctrine of penal substitution precisely as understood by Calvin all the day back to Athanasius, Irenaeus, or Augustine, this is usually done at the cost of grossly distorting their thought.”

This is a significant admission because Vidu himself wishes to argue for, and re-ground, penal substitution.  Vidu examines two patristic sources:  Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine of Hippo.  Unfortunately, he mischaracterizes their teaching on atonement.  Gregory of Nyssa, for example, did not view the ransom-from-the-devil theory as fundamental; he saw it as an effect of the deeper dynamic of the medical-ontological substitutionary atonement.  For evidence from Gregory, see:

[5] Athanasius of Alexandria (c.298 – 373 AD), On the Incarnation 2.7; Clement of Alexandria (c.150 – c.215 AD), The Instructor 1.7 – 10 discusses God being by nature good, and therefore does not take revenge, but chastises humans for doing evil, for our learning and growth in goodness.  Clement of Alexandria, Stromata/Miscellanies 7.16 says God does not punish for its own sake, but only chastises to teach:

“God does not punish, for punishment is retaliation for evil. He chastises, however, for good to those who are chastised.”

[6] R.C. Sproul, “Christ’s Descent into Hell,” Ligonier Ministries, last accessed December 10, 2013, says,

“Sin against an infinite being demands an infinite punishment in hell. In a few hours, Jesus suffered and exhausted the infinite punishment that impenitent people cannot exhaust even after an eternity in hell. He could do this because, in His deity as the Son of God, He is an infinite being… On the cross He suffered the full wrath of God that is poured out in hell… the hopelessness of losing the gaze of His Father’s blessing and the torment of experiencing God’s wrath for the sins of His people.”

[7] This series of blog posts explores the significance of Athanasius:

[8] Athanasius of Alexandria, On the Incarnation 7.44

[9] The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, “Ecclesiastical Court,” Encyclopedia Britannica,, write:

“During earlier periods in history, the ecclesiastical courts often had a degree of temporal jurisdiction, and in the Middle Ages the courts of the Roman Catholic Church rivalled the temporal courts in power.”

[10] Howard Zehr, Changing Lenses: Restorative Justice for Our Times (Harrisburg, VA: Herald Press, 1990, 1995, 2005, 2015); James Samuel Logan, Good Punishment? Christian Moral Practice and U.S. Imprisonment (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008); Ted Grimsrud, “Biblical Bases for Restorative Justice,” Peace Theology, December 1, 2008,

[11] E.g. Megan Shore, “Christianity and Justice in the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission: A Case Study in Religious Conflict Resolution,” Journal of Political Theology, Volume 9, 2008 – Issue 2,

[12] Vinson Cunningham, “How the Idea of Hell Has Shaped the Way We Think,” New Yorker Magazine, January 21, 2019,

[13] See the explorations of Scripture and long collection of quotations from early church and other sources, here:  The fullest examination we can offer is by Mako A. Nagasawa, Fire and Hell as the Love of God,

[14] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York, NY: MacMillan, 1944).  Lewis offers a full exploration of this dynamic in C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (1946).

[15] Tré Goins-Phillips, “Evangelical Pastor Robert Jeffress Defends Trump: “Heaven Itself Is Gonna Have a Wall,”” FaithWire, January 10, 2019,

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