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Rehabilitation or Punishment?

This article was published in the Presbyterian Standard, Issue No. 21, January-March 2001.

WHEN the toddler James Bulger was murdered in 1993 the country was shocked. How could two young boys of only ten years of age perpetrate such an evil crime? Eight years later and the two murderers are eligible for parole. Further, their names are to be changed in order to protect their anonymity once they are freed.

Once again the question of what is a suitable period of incarsaration for such a crime is brought into focus. When, if ever, should these young men be released? There is also the question of capital punishment - should it be re-introduced for the crime of murder? These are but some of the questions the Christian must face in the light of Scripture.

Many think they understand how a veteran like Herod the Great could murder children (Matt. 2:16) - he was, after all, an old man with seasoned lust and pride to satisfy. Yet the fact that two young boys commit such a crime proves it is more than experience that causes corruption. It rather proves the inherent depravity of human nature. While restraining providence prevents many young people from falling into extremes of sin, and opportunity encourages others into iniquity, outward circumstance on its own cannot account for such behaviour. Children are not, as the world would have us believe, innocent and pure. They are conceived in guiltiness and in sin.

Setting aside the question of capital punishment (which we believe is biblical and should be re-introduced for the crime of murder) there is obvious confusion as to what judicial sentencing involves. The common idea is that it has the exclusive purpose of rehabilitating the offender. The release of the two murders of James Bulger will be based on this assumption.

The Bible, however, makes it very clear that punishment should be an integral part of judicial sentencing. Cain, the first murderer, states; "My punishment is greater than I can bear." (Gen. 4:13) "Wherefore doth a living man complain, a man for the punishment of his sins?" says the prophet. (Lam. 3:39) The society that rejects the idea of punishment removes accountability from the offender. The two murderers of James Bulger are responsible for their deeds. Criminals need to be punished as well as rehabilitated. Behind it all is yet another vain attempt by man to avoid his own accountability before God. The Lord Jesus, in describing the final judgement, states: "And these shall go away into everlasting punishment." (Matt. 25:46).