The Bible and torture

February 21, 2019

The Bible and torture

Andrew Schmidt

Torture is widely accepted to be a moral wrong and is prohibited by international law. Article 5 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights states:

No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

This prohibition is elaborated on by the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1984),[1] which aims to prevent ‘the intentional infliction of severe pain or suffering’ as well as ‘inhuman or degrading treatment’.[2]  These concepts are different, although they overlap,[3] which raises an interesting question about what is the essence of the evil targeted by the Convention.  Is it the experience of pain and suffering by a human subject, or is it the way that human is viewed by others?

An interesting and relevant perspective on this matter is offered by Deuteronomy 25:3 (ESV):

Forty stripes may be given him, but not more, lest, if one should go on to beat him with more stripes than these, your brother be degraded in your sight.

This verse places a limit on the number of times a guilty man may be beaten in punishment for his crime.  It is the reason why the Jews would inflict only 39 lashes (2 Corinthians 11:24), leaving a one lash margin for error, so as to stay well clear of contravening the Law of Moses.

Of special interest is the reason given for the limitation: to prevent the fellow Israelite from being ‘degraded in your sight’.  The rule was put in place to preserve the community’s respect for the punished individual.  The mention of sight (lit. ‘in your eyes’) accents the visual aspect.  The punishment is not to become a spectacle.

Was this principally for the benefit of the punished man (that he not be overwhelmed by shame) or for the benefit of the community (that they be spared the moral damage that would be occasioned by seeing a brother degraded)?  The text is not specific about this, but it is tempting to say ‘both’.  Either way, it is not directly about limiting pain and suffering.  Rather, what God seeks to protect here is the way we view one another.  Even the just punishment of wrongdoing must not be permitted to turn a human being into a thing of little account.  (Moreover, the punishment would not necessarily have to take place in public in order to cause degradation.  Even in private, there is always a victim and at least one perpetrator who knows what is going on, and whose view of a fellow human being is affected by it.)

In the biblical world view, it is natural to link the Mosaic Law’s ethical stance concerning human degradation with our status as the image of God.  The ultimate reason why we must not allow another human to become contemptible in our eyes is that she has been made in God’s image, and if I can hold her in contempt, then I am showing contempt for her Maker.

This concept of degradation in the eyes of others is arguably a sounder basis for the rule against torture than ‘severe pain and suffering’.  The law clearly allows the infliction of some level of pain and suffering; as a result, there can always be debate about what constitutes ‘severe’.  ‘Degradation’, however, is a line which should never be crossed, both because it is cruel, and because it damages the perpetrator and the whole community.  While there will inevitably be debate as to what sort of treatment constitutes degradation, a more meaningful and rigorous discussion is possible around this concept than around ‘severity’.

It would be difficult to make the case that Deuteronomy 25:3 has been a major influence in the development of international law against torture, although it is probably significant that the rule has reached its fullest expression in the West, where the Bible’s underlying influence is still strong.  At the very least, these brief thoughts have hopefully served to show that the Bible does speak against torture, and that it bases this discussion firmly on the distinctive Christian idea that humans are made in the image of God. 


[1] 165 states, including Australia, are parties to this Convention: (accessed 23.1.19)

[2] Geoffrey Robertson, Crimes Against Humanity Third Edition (Penguin, 2006), p268

[3] Degradation may result from such behaviours as insults, ostracism, and bullying, which need not involve physical pain and suffering at all, and so is not limited to physical torture.

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