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The Thin Blue Life

Nature of Law Enforcement

Most Cops Know That A Healthy Fear of Punishment Is… Healthy!

Most Cops Know That A Healthy Fear Of Punishment Is Healthy
Image Credit: RODNAE Productions from Pexels

A few years back I was interviewed on the radio and the discussion wandered to the issue of violence in schools and a recent school shooting. I sometimes get asked about this topic due to my background as a homicide detective, and I’m happy to share my three pronged (and hopefully balanced) view related to the issue. I do believe that one leg of this controversial “stool” involves the secularization of our culture.

It’s not the only factor that is in play (issues related to gun control and mental health are also important parts of the equation), but I think it’s impossible to deny that a culture that slowly rejects the transcendent grounding of objective moral truth (and, therefore, an eternal consequence for violating such truth) will eventually become more and more violent. As police officers, most of us understand the important role punishment (even “prospective” punishment) plays in curbing behavior. Current surveys and investigations only confirm what we, as police officers, comprehend, even of only on a temporal level.

A recent study published by the Public Library of Science journal, “PLoS ONE” reported that criminal activity is lower in societies that are more focused on “supernatural punishment” rather than “supernatural benevolence”. In other words, the fear of hell is far more likely to motivate people to do the right thing than the promise of heaven.

This is supported by a 2011 Harvard study that found that undergraduate students were far more likely to cheat if they saw God as loving and forgiving than if they saw God as punishing.

A 2008 study also found that opportunistic selfishness is restrained by a belief in, and fear of, eternal punishment.

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Finally, a 2003 Harvard study found that the gross domestic product of developed countries was higher when people believed in hell than when they believed in heaven alone.

Now, none of this serves as evidence that our beliefs in heaven or hell are actually true, and as an atheist for most of my life, I simply argued that hell was an evolutionary construct that emerged within the species because it assisted us in “getting along” and surviving. But even if evolution alone accounts for the existence of beliefs related to heaven and hell, this “evolutionary process” now seems to be moving the species away from such beliefs about eternity. Criminal activity is lower in societies that are more focused on “supernatural punishment” rather than “supernatural benevolence”. The fear of hell is more likely to motivate people than the promise of heaven. Share on X

As societies become less religious (and less likely to embrace a view of heaven or hell), the results seem less than beneficial. Evolution, as an explanation for our views about eternity, seems rather unstable; it appears to be leading us toward an understanding of reality that results in more crime, more dishonesty, more selfishness and less productivity.

How precisely does this shift in beliefs benefit the species?

If an understanding of eternal punishment and reward is simply a social construction, don’t expect it to have any staying power. Unless the reality of eternal punishment is transcendently true, it can come and go like other societal fads and fashions. A healthy fear of eternal punishment has a long term benefit to our species only if it is grounded in transcendent, objective truth. The fear of punishment must be more than a subjective, useful delusion; it needs to be rooted in an eternal reality. Thankfully, it is.

If you’re a police officer and you haven’t considered the true existence of God or the transcendent, objective power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, now is the time to investigate the source of the moral codes you’ve been enforcing.

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Written By

J. Warner Wallace is a Dateline featured cold-case homicide detective, popular national speaker and best-selling author. He continues to consult on cold-case investigations while serving as a Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He is also an Adj. Professor of Christian Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, and a faculty member at Summit Ministries. J. Warner presently serves as a chaplain for his agency and holds a BA in Design (from CSULB), an MA in Architecture (from UCLA), and an MA in Theological Studies (from Gateway Seminary).



  1. Pingback: Most Cops Know That A Healthy Fear of Punishment Is… Healthy! by J. Warner Wallace | Current Events in Light of the Kingdom of God

  2. Andres Villarreal

    July 8, 2021 at 6:06 pm

    In my country, Colombia, during the worst drug-related violence we have had, the contract killers, most aged 14 to 20, went to church to pray to the Virgin Mary for precision for their shots. And this is just one example. People will not fear hell when they believe their god is behind them, and a god that does not show its face can always be seen as supporting those who believe in it.

    Fear of God has not stopped politicians from stealing, many times with fatal consequences, and has not stopped a single bank executive from stealing the homes of people who were on the wrong side of Wall Street. In fact, you can only find a few people in jail who are also in fear of God, to make an article like this one.

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