Who Should Inflict Punishment, Man or God?

People are less likely to punish others for their misdeeds if they believe it is "God's job" to do so, a recently released study suggests.

In order to find out how people felt about punishment, researchers conducted five separate studies. In the first three, participants were surveyed to find out the degree to which they believed in "powerful, intervening Gods," and then they participated in an exercise in which some of them had the opportunity to punish others for being uncooperative.

The findings from the first three studies show that those who believe in intervening gods are less likely to personally punish violators, and are also less likely to support government spending to carry out punishments.

"People who believe in powerful, intervening Gods might believe that punishment – at least immediate, earthly punishment – is a less appropriate response to misdeeds," the report says.

The fourth study was divided into two parts, and examined several attributes of God and whether or not they affected each person's view of punishment.

 "In spite of a tendency for religious people in general to punish more," the researchers concluded, "those with the specific belief in powerful and involved Gods showed less willingness to engage in altruistic punishment."

The researchers suggest that belief in gods who punish people may have developed as a way for societies to avoid having to conduct punishments themselves. The threat of being punished by a god, they suggest, is much more effective at deterring bad behavior than the threat of being punished by one's peer.

The concepts of punishment and forgiveness are certainly familiar to Christianity. Christians believe Jesus Christ took the punishment for their sins upon himself, yet at the same time understand that there are earthly consequences for sin as well.

Jeremy Schweyer, senior pastor of The Movement Church in Barberton, Ohio, says the Bible describes God as being forgiving but also willing to let Christians deal with some of the consequences of their sins.

"To hold someone accountable for their sin is a character trait of God," Schweyer told The Christian Post via email on Saturday. "Psalm 99:8 says, 'O LORD our God, you answered them; you were to Israel a forgiving God, though you punished their misdeed.'"
Schweyer also suggested that one reason God allows Christians to endure the earthly consequences of their sin is so that they can become mature and more obedient.

"Though my sin will not lead to eternal damnation, because of Jesus' substitutionary death upon the cross, it doesn't exempt me from experiencing the correction of my God upon my life as a result of my disobedience," he said. "Punishment is impersonal, while discipline is loving."

The report, titled "Outsourcing punishment to God: beliefs in divine control reduce earthly punishment," appeared in the online version of the Proceedings of The Royal Society B journal this past week. The research was spearheaded by Kristin Laurin, a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of Waterloo in British Columbia, Canada, with the assistance of Azim F. Shariff, Joseph Henrich and Aaron C. Kay.