A Theology of Revenge
By Bryan Johnson
I recently watched a gripping movie where the main character was part of a vulnerable people group who were suffering horrifically at the hands of evil perpetrators. When confronted by a friend who exhorted him to rise up and seek revenge by killing the enemies, the main character calmly refused. He claimed there was a better course of action than retribution.
The movie was provocative, but it got me thinking about the topic of revenge and why it’s such a strong temptation for us in the face of evil and injustice. We’ve all been injured and maligned by someone and felt the urge to settle the score. As Christians, however, we know we shouldn’t seek revenge when we’re wronged. Rom. 12:19 states: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” In a passage that outlines practical Christian behavior, Paul quotes Deut. 32:35 where Moses offers his final song to the Israelites before they cross over to claim the Promised Land. God is praiseworthy because (among other reasons) He’s the Great Avenger when His people have been treated wickedly. Thus, the people are not their own avenger. God is their Avenger.
Paul’s point is this: God is the avenger of all injustice. Therefore, instead of ever seeking revenge on our own, we’re to leave all retribution to Him. But what does that mean? To leave our injustices to the wrath of God? For that matter, what does His vengeance and repayment look like? And why are we never to avenge ourselves? I offer two brief answers that require an eternal perspective:
First, heaven will be so gloriously and incomprehensibly wonderful that it will reduce all of our earthly injustices and pain to a place of insignificance.
Once in heaven, all temporal pain and unjust suffering will seem as nothing to us. Rom. 8:18: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” Once in heaven, we will be overwhelmed by glory. As a result, the injustices of this life (regardless of how deep and painful) will instantly be worthless by comparison. One commentator says, on that day, they will be “inconsequential.” 2 Cor. 4:17 adds: “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” This is why we need an eternal perspective in order to keep from seeking revenge on those who’ve wronged us. Because in heaven, those injustices won’t even matter. It’s hard to imagine now, but glory will be so mind-blowingly spectacular in its weightiness that our sufferings on earth will be considered petty and light by comparison.
Secondly, we don’t need to seek revenge on our enemies because the punishment of hell will be so extremely awful and dreadful that it will render the perpetrator’s wickedness justly and fully recompensed.
“Vengeance is mine. I will repay, says the Lord.” And remember, Rom. 6:23 assures us that “the wages (or repayment) of sin is death.” Eternal death. God will repay evildoers their wages in full in hell. No wicked perpetrator will escape God’s perfect order of justice. Instead, His unmitigated wrath will be meted out in its eternal entirety upon those who mistreated His chosen people. Lam. 3:64: “You will repay them, O LORD, according to the work of their hands.” Consequently, no evil brought upon us will go unpunished. Instead, complete justice will be served in every instance. Though divine justice is often delayed justice (from our perspective), it is nonetheless absolute justice. This is why we don’t ever have to get revenge when we’re mistreated or sinned against. God will do it for us. He will avenge all the wrongs committed against us, and He will do so perfectly and completely in eternity.
In conclusion, we are not the Great Avenger. God alone is. And He proved it at Calvary. Therefore, by patiently enduring injustices, we follow our Lord’s example, who “when He suffered, He did not threaten, but continued entrusting Himself to Him who judges justly” (1 Pet. 3:23). Furthermore, to refuse to avenge ourselves is essentially to believe the gospel. On the cross, Jesus avenges all those who place their faith in Him for salvation by justly paying the price for their sin. And, by loving our enemies (instead of seeking revenge), we demonstrate that we long for them to believe in Christ and have all their sins covered by His blood as well.