A Brief History of Punishment

By: Wendell Krossa

In the earliest human writing (Sumerian) we find that ancient people already believed that the gods were punishing spirits. Note, for instance, that Enki was punished with illness for eating forbidden fruit (Epic of Enki and Ninhursag). The theme of punishment then developed into the myth of an apocalypse as a great final punishment of all people (Sumerian Flood myth).The god Enlil wanted to destroy all humanity with a great deluge.  The threat of divine punishment, in turn, sparked the appeasement response among people- how to avoid punishment by offering sacrifice to the threatening gods (i.e. salvation religion).  We can argue that religion emerged as the social institution to tell people how to appease and please threatening and punitive deity.  Christianity later introduced the innovation of punishing an innocent victim in place of guilty people (reviving the idea of human sacrifice).  This orientation to punishment has remained dominant in human society over history in such things as punitive justice.  It is all built on a horrific error in early human thinking and mythology.

I believe that the greatest error in human perception is that there is some punitive force/spirit behind life.  Punishment is the most destructive feature that has been projected onto ultimate ideals or authorities.  Why should that concern us?  Because people have always appealed to higher ideals and authorities to validate their lives.  Consequently, the belief in punishing gods has long supported punishing violence in human society.  Vengeful gods have long validated vengeful response among people.  Theology (how we view the gods) has always been used to validate ethics or human behavior.  The way we view ultimate ideals and authorities (i.e. gods) very much determines how we behave and how we live our lives.

To see this in operation visit religious sites or read religious literature and note how people repeatedly validate their behavior by appeal to the “will of God” or the “law of God”.  Or just look across the world today at people claiming that they are killing their enemies because that is the will of their vengeful and violent God.   Note the same punishing treatment of others in a variety of less extreme situations such as engaging justice as punishment (i.e. notably the US, a significantly Christian nation, that imprisons more people than any other nation on Earth).  Note also in relation to this, that punishment responses do not work with children or criminal offenders in general (see report by Australian Psychological Society).

Jesus’ theological breakthrough makes Paul’s retreat all the more stunning and shameful.  When he embedded punishment at the center of his Christ myth (i.e. a sacrifice of atonement) he contradicted entirely the central theme of Jesus.  In doing that he missed an unparalleled opportunity to profoundly change the belief/behavior linkage for the better. It was a huge blunder and tragedy for Christianity to make that retreat to pagan mythology. Like many others Paul probably felt that Jesus’ new theology of non-punishment was just too scandalous and impractical. It violated his sense of fairness and right, his belief in justice as proper payback. Just like those characters in the stories of Jesus that were upset with the scandalous generosity being exhibited (i.e. the Father of the Prodigal son and the vineyard owner).

Why include the historical Jesus in this discussion?  Because the historical Jesus made the critical breakthrough that directly and potently countered the destructive ideas of punishment, retaliation, and revenge.  His stunning breakthrough was that God does not retaliate or punish.  That was the first clear challenge to the primitive error of punishing deity.  It was a radical challenge to all previous human perception of deity.  It went to the heart of the problem, to the highest of human ideals- that of God- and especially to the idea of retaliating gods that had long supported inhuman practices of punishment.  His insight then demolished the foundation of most religion which had claimed that people needed to appease the threatening gods in some manner, to pay for sin (i.e. that people were required to engage some salvation or atonement).  In doing this Jesus offered humanity the greatest liberation movement ever- the liberation of mind, consciousness, and spirit.  It was liberation from the fear of ultimate threat, ultimate retaliation, and ultimate obligation.

Paul, unfortunately, reversed the brilliant insight of Jesus and returned to primitive atonement theology (appeasing a punishing God).  Paul re-established that pagan error of punitive deity at the foundation of his new religion, Christianity. It is critically important to once again recover the key insight of the historical Jesus (that God does not punish), an insight that has long been buried under the Christian theology of retaliating deity. That insight is vital to the full liberation of human consciousness and to our progress toward a more humane future.

“Note: Advocating for the unconditional treatment of every human person is not advocacy for pacifism.  It has a lot to do with the attitudes that shape us as human (note comment below from Karen Armstrong on the Chinese sage).  And it has to do with the ideals that we strive toward, and our personal responses to others, as we try to make a better world.  Also, any common sense understanding of love embraces the responsibility to protect the innocent (including the active use of force to stop violent offenders).  However, in all our qualifying of unconditional (i.e. how we actually apply it in the messy reality of life) we need to be careful that we do not diminish the scandalous wonder of the core reality that we are talking about.”