Why does God punish? It seems clear from scripture that there is more than one reason. In discussing punishment Utilitarians like Beccaria, Bentham and Mill, and others stressed deterrence almost to the exclusion of everything else. What justifies punishing anyone, they said, is a double deterrent effect. It will deter the specific criminal and so protect society from him and it will deter criminal behavior in general. We find this in scripture when God brings an oppressive power down to keep it from continuing to abuse its neighboring nations. In bringing Assyria down we would have a case of individual deterrence (that criminal is stopped) but Assyriaís punishment would warn the nations at large and deter them from abuseógeneral deterrence. When Godís judgements are in the earth all the nations learn righteousness (Isaiah 26:9).
The book of Jonah says God cares deeply for Nineveh the oppressor and the book of Nahum says God cares deeply for the nations Nineveh is oppressing. God punishes nations (and individuals) to deter them from hurting someone else but he also punishes them for their own sake. He wants to deter them from oppression because by sinning they dig a grave for themselves. They do it internally by moral deterioration and eschatologically because final judgement is coming. Romans 2:4 and Acts 17:30-31 would illustrate.
Repeatedly in the prophets we hear of God punishing Israel for her wickedness in order to bring her back to him. Haggai 2:17, Jeremiah 5:3 and the whole of Amos 4 make the point that God wants Israel to return to him that they might live. "I gave you empty stomachs in every city," God says, "yet you have not returned to me." This phrase runs through the chapter (4:6,8,9,10 and 11) and underscores what it was that God was after in punishing them.
But it would be a mistake to think that God was interested in a heartless obedience. It would be a mistake to think that he would have been satisfied if the idols had been smashed to pieces, the heathen shrines torn down so that Israel was toeing the line in order to get blessing rather than punishment. God watched Israel carefully and at one point says (Isaiah 29:13). "These people come near me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me." See Christís use of the text in Matthew 15:8-9. Repeatedly he condemns mere externalism and at times sounds almost out of patience as he does it. In Isaiah 1 he is weary of all the ritual and ceremonies and sighs that he has had enough of their sacrifices and church-going (1:10-14). He then goes on to tell them what he truly wants from them (1:16-17) and what grand possibilities lie before them. The same message comes through in Micah 6:6-8 when in response to people who say they donít know how to please him he thunders back that he has shown them what he wants. He wants them to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with the God who saved them, the God to whom they had committed themselves. God punishes Israel in order to bring them back to holy fellowship with him so while itís certainly legitimate to define punishment in the abstract, punishment in the biblical context when God is the one administering punishment is a reality of a different order. The righteous God is dealing with moral beings and he wants them to turn back to him in a heartfelt return.
But punishment does not atone for the wrong though when rightly administered (as by God) it marks the presence of wrong and an opposing righteousness. Nothing can change the fact that the wrong has been done and punishing the offender does not obliterate the sin, especially if the offender still inwardly cherishes the offense. Punishment doesnít turn back the clock to the time before the wrong was committed nor does it obliterate the harm done to others by the wrong. Transgression has an inner and moral effect that is downward and punishment as administered by God is meant to redeem the sinner from that moral deterioration. It isnít a legal issue at all though a Holy Fatherís law has been broken. Punishment is not so much pain for so much punishment for so much wrongdoing; it is righteousness opposing unrighteousness with a view to overcoming it in that person or people. Its aim is to produce in the sinner a change of heart and is not a divine tit for tat.
That heartfelt return to God we most often call "repentance". Like any loving and righteous parent that must take account of their childís evil God would prefer not to have to punish his children. "Do you think I find pleasure in the death of the wicked?" he wants to know in Ezekiel 18:32. "Iíd rather they turned and lived." But thereís more than that. We hear that in all their distress he was distressed (Isaiah 63:9) and in the book of Judges weíre given the picture of God watching Israelís misery until he could bear it no longer (10:16). In all of these cases Israel has behaved abominably and God punishes them but itís clear that this isnít something he relishes. Nevertheless, because he means to bring them to repentance that they might have life with him, he is willing to subject them to pain or loss.
The punishment aims to bring Israel (or whoever) to repentance and not simply to a return to material prosperity because prosperity and repentance while they may be connected are not at all of the same order. Repentance is an inner realignment with the heart and will of God which may or may not exist alongside material or social prosperity. Repentance may be connected with material prosperity but it is inextricably connected with internal and moral prosperity. Punishment may lead a person to think only of ease or relief without any inward transformation but repentance is an inner transformation. Rightly administered punishment aims to bring a person to repentance. [The matter of eternal punishment would need to be considered as outside the boundary of humanityís present phase of living before God. It would suggest that there comes a point when God closes the door to the opportunity for repentance. But as long as God allows for the possibility of repentance punishment would need to be viewed as working to achieve that.]
Punishment as administered by God, in the words of Walter Moberly, is "not simply a hurting, but the hurting of righteousness, the assertion of righteousness in the form of the chastisement of unrighteousness." The hurting is not righteousness but it is righteousness responding to unrighteousness with a view to bringing the unrighteous person to a heartfelt homage to righteousness (to repentance).
Sin is not simply an act. It is an act by a moral being that is accountable. (Infants and others who are disabled or diseased in mind could not commit sin.) But sin is more than simply an act by a morally accountable being for it is an act that expresses the inner state of the one that acts. Our sins are us in action and not something external to us or independent of us. When a man commits a crime we do not punish the crime. We do this for several obvious reasons among which is the fact that the crime is the criminal in action. When God works to bring a person to repentance he is not dealing merely the sinful acts nor is he merely wanting him to avoid doing such acts. He wants to change him so that he will avoid doing them because he is morally realigned with God and pays homage to Godís righteousness. God wants more from the sinner than a confession that a specific act is wrong, he wants a change of heart that rises beyond a long series of confessions about a long series of actions. He wants to change the person! He is not aiming at convincing him that that deed, viewed in isolation, is evilóend of story! He aims to bring him to a new moral state. Repentance is more that prudence. Many of us will avoid doing some evil not because we do not hunger to do itófor we do hunger to do itóbut because we are afraid of the consequences if we are discovered. This prudent avoidance of the evil act is not repentance because there is no inner homage to Godís righteousness. The prudent avoidance of evil for fear of consequences expresses an inner moral state that cares more about self-satisfaction and self-preservation than about Godís heartís desire. Repentance is more than the mere (but genuine) confession that this act or that is sin for there may be many causes at work that lead us to confess (will we be given more sympathy if we openly confess?). Repentance has to do with the moral state as well as other fruits that would grow out of it.
Repentance is not "the state of having been punished"! The state of "having been punished" is external to the offender whose inner moral state may still be unchanged. Punishment does not atone nor does it reconcile! A spiteful child sent to his room is now "a spiteful child in a room" until he comes to the inner and embraced-as-his-own conviction that the righteousness that expressed itself in sending him to his room has indeed done the right thing. He now agrees that the judgement against his spitefulness is fully warranted and is not to be seen as mere retaliation or returned spite. He now sees his spite with the eyes of the loving and righteous parent. This heartfelt agreement is his change of mind and to the degree that it is genuine he will consider all spiteful behavior as rightly subject to judgement by righteousness. He has now become the judge of his own crime! Though he cannot change his I-have-sinned status, inwardly he has now crossed over to the judgeís side and is at-one with the judge.