What Is Divine Retribution?

Divine retribution is supernatural punishment of a person, a group of people, or everyone by a deity in response to some action. Many cultures have a story about how a deity exacted punishment upon previous inhabitants of their land, causing their doom.

An example of divine retribution is the story found in many cultures about a great flood destroying all of humanity, as described in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Hindu Vedas, or Book of Genesis (6:9–8:22), leaving one principal ‘chosen’ survivor. In the first example, it is Utnapishtim, and in the last example Noah. References in the Quran to a man named Nuh (Noah) who was commanded by God to build an ark also suggest that one man and his followers were saved in a great flood.

The End of the World, commonly known as The Great Day of His Wrath, an 1851–1853 oil painting on canvas by the English painter John Martin.

The End of the World, commonly known as The Great Day of His Wrath, an 1851–1853 oil painting on canvas by the English painter John Martin. According to Frances Carey, the painting shows the “destruction of Babylon and the material world by natural cataclysm”. This painting, Frances Carey holds, is a response to the emerging industrial scene of London as a metropolis in the early nineteenth century, and the original growth of the Babylon civilisation and its final destruction. Some other scholars such as William Feaver see the painting as “the collapse of Edinburgh in Scotland”. Charles F. Stuckey is sceptical of the link with Edinburgh. According to the Tate, the painting depicts a portion of Revelation 16, a chapter from the New Testament.

Other examples in Hebrew religious literature include the dispersion of the builders of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1–9), the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:20–21, 19:23–28) (Quran 7:80–84), and the Ten Plagues visited upon the ancient Egyptians for persecuting the children of Israel (Exodus, Chapters 7–12). Similarly, in Greek mythology, the goddess Hera often became enraged when her husband, Zeus, would impregnate mortal women, and would exact divine retribution on the children born of such affairs. In some versions of the myth, Medusa was turned into her monstrous form as divine retribution for her vanity; in others it was as punishment for being raped by Poseidon.

The Bible refers to divine retribution as, in most cases, being delayed or “treasured up” to a future time. Sight of God’s supernatural works and retribution would militate against faith in God’s Word. William Lane Craig says, in Paul’s view, God’s properties, his eternal power and deity, are clearly revealed in creation, so that people who fail to believe in an eternal, powerful creator of the world are without excuse. Indeed, Paul says that they actually do know that God exists, but they suppress this truth because of their unrighteousness.

Some religions or philosophical positions have no concept of divine retribution, nor posit a God being capable of or willing to express such human sentiments as jealousy, vengeance, or wrath. For example, in Deism and Pandeism, the creator does not intervene in our Universe at all, either for good or for ill, and therefore exhibits no such behavior. In Pantheism (as reflected in Pandeism as well), God is the Universe and encompasses everything within it, and so has no need for retribution, as all things against which retribution might be taken are simply within God. This view is reflected in some pantheistic or pandeistic forms of Hinduism, as well.


The concept of divine retribution is resolutely denied in Buddhism. Gautama Buddha did not endorse belief in a creator deity, refused to express any views on creation and stated that questions on the origin of the world are worthless. The non-adherence to the notion of an omnipotent creator deity or a prime mover is seen by many as a key distinction between Buddhism and other religions.

But Buddhists do accept the existence of beings in higher realms (see Buddhist cosmology), known as devas, but they, like humans, are said to be suffering in samsara, and are not necessarily wiser than us. The Buddha is often portrayed as a teacher of the gods, and superior to them. Despite this, there are believed to be enlightened devas. But since there may also be unenlightened devas, there also may be godlike beings who engage in retributive acts, but if they do so, then they do so out of their own ignorance of a greater truth.

Despite this nontheism, Buddhism nevertheless fully accepts the theory of karma, which posts punishment-like effects, such as rebirths in realms of torment, as an invariable consequence of wrongful actions. Unlike in most Abrahamic monotheistic religions, these effects are not eternal, though they can last for a very long time. Even theistic religions do not necessarily see such effects as “punishment” imposed by a higher authority, rather than natural consequences of wrongful action.

Abrahamic religion

Divine retribution in the Torah

Divine retribution is easily portrayed in the Torah or first five books of the Bible. Major examples of divine retribution in the Torah include:

Biblical passages Incident Reason
Genesis 3:14–24 Curse upon Adam and Eve and expulsion from the Garden of Eden Disobedience
Genesis 4:9–15 Curse upon Cain after his slaying of his brother, Abel Murder
Genesis 6–7 The Great Flood Rampant evil and Nephilim
Genesis 11:1–9 The confusion of languages at the Tower of Babel To scatter them over the Earth
Genesis 19:23–29 Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah people of no redeeming value
Genesis 38:6–10 Destruction of Er and Onan wickedness in the Lord’s sight
Exodus 7–14 Plagues of Egypt to establish his power over that of the gods of Egypt
Exodus 19:10–25 Divine threatenings at Mount Sinai warn that the mountain is off limits and holy
Exodus 32 Plagues at the incident of the golden calf disowning the people for breaking his covenant with them
Leviticus 10:1–2 Nadab and Abihu are burned offering unauthorized fire in their censers
Leviticus 26:14–39 Curses upon the disobedient divine warning
Numbers 11 A plague accompanies the giving of manna in the wilderness rejecting his gracious gift of heavenly food and failing his test of obedience
Numbers 16 The rebellion of Korah, Dathan and Abiram – Their supernatural deaths and the plague that followed insolence and attempting self-promotion to roles they were unworthy of holding
Numbers 20:9–13 Reprimand of Moses at the water of Meribah disobeying the Lord’s instruction, showing distrust and indífference in God’s presence
Numbers 21 Murmuring of the people and the plague of fiery serpents spurning God’s grace
Numbers 25 Whoredom with the Moabites and resulting plague breaching God’s covenant through sexual immorality and worshipping other gods
Deuteronomy 28 Curses pronounced upon the disobedient another divine warning

New Testament

See also: Attributes of God in Christianity § Wrath

The wrath of God“, an anthropomorphic expression for the attitude which some believe God has towards sin, is mentioned many times in the Christian Bible. Leaving aside the references to divine wrath in the Old Testament, where it is used of God not only when punishing the wicked but also when sending trials to the just, as in Job 14:13, it is mentioned in at least twenty verses of the New Testament. Examples are:

John 3:36 – Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.

Romans 1:18 – For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.

Romans 5:9 – Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.

Romans 12:19 – 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.”

Ephesians 5:6 – Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.

Revelation 6:17 – For the great day of his wrath has come, and who is able to withstand?

Revelation 14:19 – So the angel swung his sickle across the earth and gathered the grape harvest of the earth and threw it into the great winepress of the wrath of God.

Revelation 15:1 – Then I saw another sign in heaven, great and marvelous: seven angels having the seven last plagues, for in them the wrath of God was finished.

Revelation 19:15 –- From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty.

The New Testament associates the wrath of God particularly with imagery of the Last Day, described allegorically in Romans 2:5 as the “day of wrath”, and the Book of Revelation.

Noah's Ark Mosaic Iconography Russian Church

Noah’s Ark Mosaic Iconography Russian Church

Other notable biblical retributions

The Bible being full of cases of divine retribution, some instances are particularly notable for heralding in new eras, while others were meant to serve as abject lessons in dealing with God and keeping faithful to his commands.

Biblical passages Incident Reason
1 Samuel 6:19 some/many men of Beth Shemesh killed Looking into the Ark of the Covenant
2 Samuel 6:1–7 Uzzah struck dead Touching the Ark of the Covenant
1 Kings 11 God promises to tear Solomon’s kingdom from his son except for a single tribe. Building altars to other gods for his wives
Acts 5:1 Ananias and his wife Sapphira struck dead Holding back some of the proceeds after selling a piece of property

View on natural disasters

There is a controversial view that describes natural disasters as divine retribution.


Various Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious leaders claimed that Hurricane Katrina was God’s punishment on America, New Orleans or the world for any of a variety of alleged sins, including abortion, sexual immorality (including the gay pride event Southern Decadence), the policies of the “American Empire”, failure to support Israel, and failure of black people to study the Torah.

The 2007 UK floods were claimed by Graham Dow to be God’s punishment against homosexuals.

Televangelist Pat Robertson stirred up controversy after claiming that the 2010 Haiti earthquake may have been God’s belated punishment on Haitians for allegedly having made a “pact with the Devil” to overthrow the French during the Haitian Revolution. Yehuda Levin, a Jewish religious leader, linked the earthquake to gays in the military via an alleged Talmudic teaching that homosexuality causes earthquakes. Levin posted a video onto YouTube the same day as 2011 Virginia earthquake in which he said, “The Talmud states, “You have shaken your male member in a place where it doesn’t belong. I too, will shake the Earth.” He said that homosexuals shouldn’t take it personally: “We don’t hate homosexuals. I feel bad for homosexuals. It’s a revolt against God and literally, there’s hell to pay.”

Chaplain John McTernan said that Hurricane Isaac (2012), like Hurricane Katrina, was God’s punishment on homosexuals. Buster Wilson of the American Family Association concurred that statement.

McTernan also said that Hurricane Sandy may have been God’s punishment against homosexuals. In addition, World Net Daily columnist William Koenig, along with McTernan himself, suggested that American support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict led to the hurricane.


Shmuley Boteach denounces such claims since they carry the implication of victim blaming, writing that “For many of the faithful, the closer they come to G-d, the more they become enemies of man.” He contrasts the Jewish tradition, which affords a special place to “arguing with God”, with an approach to religion that “taught people not to challenge, but to submit. Not to question, but to obey. Not how to stand erect, but to be stooped and bent in the broken posture of the meek and pious”.

A Jesuit priest, James Martin, wrote on Twitter in response to Hurricane Sandy that “If any religious leaders say tomorrow that the hurricane is God’s punishment against some group they’re idiots. God’s ways are not our ways.”

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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