Retribution Theology in Job and Proverbs

One need not search long in the texts of Proverbs or Job to find what is called “retribution theology,” the idea that good deeds are always rewarded and bad deeds are always punished. To be sure, this concept simplifies the task of determining what is right and what is wrong. If a dog’s owner hits him with a pillow every time the dog barks, the dog will quickly learn not to do it. “Barking is bad,” it will think, “and I can be certain on this point, because my owner never hits me with pillows when I follow his commands.”

Simple as the idea may be to understand, it has some serious weaknesses, rooted in the simplicity itself. It would be foolish to think that the ever-vexing dilemma of human suffering could be resolved in as few words as, “You get what you deserve.” It is clearly not the entirety of daily human experience. Bad things happen to good people every single day.

A second flaw in this dichotomy is its failure to account for the wide spectrum of humans’ moral worth. A man can be very good one day and very bad the next. He could starve his children in order to donate more money to charity. He could sacrifice his life to save the life of his illicit lover’s husband. We vary in too many ways to be placed in binary opposition to one another.

From a purely pragmatic point of view, it would be unwise to convince the masses that they are composed of the righteous and the wicked, and to inform the righteous that they will have the privilege of watching and mocking as the wicked are being punished. That sort of thinking is not only childish and petty, but also unproductive. It leads to the sort of fanaticism plaguing the world today. After all, if it is God’s will that the wicked be punished, and my goal in life is to carry out God’s will, what higher calling can there be than to practice vigilante justice in his name?

It might be argued that I fail to render the position of the book of Proverbs fairly, that it does indeed account logically for the presence of suffering in the lives of kind and decent people. I would be interested to know how that is accomplished without first assuming the imperfection of God and his creation. For if God is perfect and omnipotent, His creation must naturally operate exactly as He intended. Thus, if good people are protected from harm, as asserted by Proverbs, and bad people can be recognized by the presence of a punishment, as Job’s friends maintain, then suffering must be to sin as smoke is to fire. Transgression is the sine qua non of punishment.

As it is very difficult to prove the innocence of a human, let us take an easier example. As we have no record of a rabbit eating from the tree of knowledge, and no sin exists unless one knows better, we will assume that a rabbit is always a good rabbit — or at least, it can’t be a wicked rabbit. Can’t a rabbit suffer? If it is thirsty or cold, injured or ill, doesn’t it still experience pain? Sometimes, things just happen, and it there’s no easy way to explain.

The character Job would agree with me on this point. While the book bearing his name contains many arguments that suffering is a symptom of guilt, these words aren’t put into Job’s mouth, but rather the mouths of his friends. Even in terms of the metaphors and cliches used, his friends are far more apt to mirror the ideas in the Proverbs than Job is. Generally, Job’s words only resemble the Proverbs when he is telling his friends to be quiet, or when he parallels something they’ve said in order to negate it.

The logic of retribution theology starts on a strong note: Bad deeds (like drug abuse) have natural, painful consequences, and they can be addicting. Good deeds bring sweeter rewards than bad deeds ever could. The logic becomes problematic and even laughable when it claims to be true in all situations. There are rich scoundrels, just as surely as there are poor, ugly, ill, and wretched saints with terrible luck. There is no way to reconcile the ideal of retribution administered by a just, personal, and omnipotent God with the reality of suffering in our world, which is universal and blind to matters of virtue and vice. In Job, God prefers the one who argued with Him to the ones willing to point the finger at a friend in pain and say, “You get what you deserve.”

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