Vengeance is condemned in the three Abrahamic faiths because of its religious construction as a quality that God possesses.
Ideally, people suppress the angry and vengeful voice inside them more than encourage it into action. Vengeance, especially, has always been disapproved of and condemned. It is one of the behaviors people would not want to see coming from the ones they love. But are we wrongly misjudging such a behavior? Are we giving it a more demonized image than needed?
Why do we demonize the actions of those expressing their anger over the death of George Floyd, for example? Black lives matter, and so does the anger expressed in their demonstrations.
After all, some systems respond positively to demands with political change out of fear from angry actions and vengeful people. In fact, Donald Trump’s presidential victory came as a result of vengeful, working-class white Americans who felt let down and abandoned by liberal politics.
Vengeance has always been morally condemned and given a dark image. Most cultures disapprove of it and encourage forgiveness instead.
Vengeance is condemned in the three Abrahamic faiths — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — because of its religious construction as a quality that God possesses. Attributing such a quality to human beings is qualifying human nature and ability to that of God’s.
When a human being adopts this quality, the divine becomes human. Henceforth, condemning vengeance can be attributed to the deeply engraved religious thought that God is glorious and none of the divine qualities he possesses should be in human beings. Such power of being vengeful is also what gives God the definition of God we should all fear.
How is vengeance a quality of God?
As I come from a Muslim background, I am aware that the 81st name of Allah is Al Montaqim, “the Avenger.”
In Islam, it is believed that Allah has 99 names that were revealed to man in the Qur’an. These are called Asmae Allah Al Husna. A proper translation would be the 99 attributes of Allah, which are all qualities that describe God and the abilities he possesses.
Islamic scholars often condemn giving names to humans from this list of names of Allah. What they say is acceptable, however, is adding to those names the prefix “Abd,” an Arabic adjective for “worshipper.”
For example, it is not acceptable to name your son Jabbar (the powerful). The only Al Jabbar (powerful) is God. What is acceptable instead is to name a child Abd Al Jabbar, the worshipper of the powerful.
The same can be applied to Al Montaqim (the Avenger). The only avenger is God, and we are all Abds (worshippers) of Al Montaqim (the Avenger). If we are to describe ourselves, we are the worshippers of the Avenger, not avengers ourselves.
It seems clear, according to Amsae Allah Al Husna, that the quality of vengeance is a Godly and must remain as such.
From another point of view, the concept of hell and God’s punishment represent the idea of vengeance. In the three Abrahamic religions, the principle of God’s punishment is that those who did not follow God’s teachings will end up in hell.
God values those who are in his favor and do as he instructed them. They are therefore rewarded with paradise. As for those who disobeyed him, their destiny is hell, where they will be punished with eternal fire.
If we make sense of these two worlds — hell and paradise — the vengeful quality of God is reflected in structuring two categories of people: The saved and the condemned.
This is similar to the way the logic of structuring our relations with those we consider friends and those we consider enemies, or those we want to value and reward and those we want to discard and punish.
Revenge and punishment
To make this point clear, let’s make a differentiation between the two elements that might cause confusion: Revenge and punishment.
Revenge and punishment are distinguished by motivation and goals. Revenge seeks to have the transgressor suffer while punishment looks to improve the transgressor’s behavior or to deter future bad behavior.
If the concept of hell is eternal suffering, then the best way to describe it is God’s revenge, not just punishment.
Hell is not aimed at improving the transgressor’s behavior or deter future bad behavior. Hell is the end of the journey for human beings behaving badly and against God’s will. Hell is the point of limit where no further transgressions of a human being will be made against God or another human being. After hell, there is no such thing as improving the transgressor’s behavior or deter future bad behavior.
We feel emotionally troubled by the concept of hell. So, if hell is a real place, then it is a pure representation of revenge which makes us fear God and his anger.
God is vindictive. This narrative of hell and paradise might be suited for a Middle Age religious state of mind as the West now has moved quite far towards the concept of a forgiving God. However, this balance of reward and punishment represented in hell and paradise is still relevant in Catholic and Evangelical churches. The same belief is still very relevant in Islam. We fear being vindictive because we fear or are made to fear putting ourselves in a Godly position.
Unfortunately, a conservative America will stir the religious wrong fear. It will rush again to wave the Bible in the face of demonstrators and label their actions as unholy and evil in the name of Jesus. And so, will many governments around the world, including Muslim countries, to contain our anger.