Pitying Criminals and Imprisoning Society
In addition to the many rich theological insights one will glean from working through Herman Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics, there are equally profound sociological observations from which we could benefit today. When he came to tackle the question of crime and punishment in a society that has cast off biblical definitions of God and sin, Bavinck made the following profound observation about the inevitable consequences and implications regarding criminals in such a society. He wrote:
"The decline of the ancient Christian worldview has also resulted in the modification, indeed the abolition and banishment of the concepts of good and evil, responsibility and accountability, guilt and punishment. Along with belief in the justice of God, belief in justice on earth disappeared as well. Atheism proved to be the annihilation of all justice and morality: no God, no master. The modern, positivist, evolutionistic worldview, after all, though it cannot deny the fact that there is something like good and evil, sin and virtue, guilt and punishment, looks at and attempts to explain these things very differently. Sin and crime are not traceable to the evil will of individual persons, are not their responsibility nor imputable to them personally, but are, generally speaking, remnants or aftereffects of the animal ancestry of humans and to be explained in terms of their nature or of their environment.
...Others regarded every criminal case separately and individually and viewed criminals as victims of heredity, people who stayed behind in the evolutionary process...[and] crime as a symptom of social disease, a necessary product of circumstances, a consequence of ignorance, poverty, poor upbringing, and heredity...From this position, naturally, it becomes impossible to maintain the justice and essential character of punishment. For if crime can, in fact, be totally traced to the innate animal nature of humans or to the environment in which they grew up, and their own evil nature need not or may not be taken into account, criminals are completely free of blame, and society loses all right to punish them. Rightly considered, the roles are even totally reversed. Criminals have nothing on their conscience vis-à-vis society, but society bears an enormous burden of guilt toward them...Society has failed to nurture and educate them into civilized moral beings. Just as nowadays many educationists tell us that the parents are to blame for the badness of their children, so also many criminologists have adopted the opinion that society is to blame for its criminals.
It is difficult, however, to be consistent in this connection. For then we would have to pity criminals and imprison society as the really guilty party. But since this is impracticable, people commit two inconsistencies. The first is that they accuse society of every possible injustice; the criminal is excused, defended, sometimes even praised and glorified, but to modern criminologists, educationists, and sociologists, society is proportionately all the worse. No words are sharp enough to condemn it, no columns of print long or wide enough to properly castigate it. But if in the case of crime the evil will, personal responsibility, accountability, and culpability may not at all be considered, where do people then derive the right to bring all these ethical factors to bear in the case of society? Criminals can only be the persons they are, but can society be other than it is? Does society not have a past to which it is bound, from which it came into being? Does society have a free will, the very thing that is denied to all its members personally? Clearly, those who throw away ethical standards in the case of the crime of the individual cannot again pick them up when it concerns that of society."
1. Bavinck, H., Bolt, J., & Vriend, J. (2006). Reformed Dogmatics: Sin and Salvation in Christ (Vol. 3, pp. 163-165). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.