In primitive society punishment was left to the individuals wronged or their families, and was vindictive or retributive: in quantity and quality it would bear no special relation to the character or gravity of the offence.
Even at this stage the vindictive or retributive character of punishment remains, but gradually, and specially after the humanist movement under thinkers like Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham, new theories begin to emerge.
On the one hand the retributive principle itself has been very largely superseded by the protective and the reformative; on the other punishments involving bodily pain have become objectionable to the general sense of society.
Thus the retributive theory of punishment with its criterion of justice as an end in itself gives place to a theory which regards punishment solely as a means to an end, utilitarian or moral, according as the common advantage or the good of the criminal is sought.
Rejecting the retributive view of punishment, he describes the sufferings of Christ as those of the perfect "Penitent," and finds their expiatory value to lie in the Person of the Sufferer, the God-Man.
It may also be thought of as retributive, as a reversal of present conditions so that the miserable are comforted, and the prosperous laid low, or as a reward or punishment for good or evil desert here.
Clement of Alexandria taught that justice is not merely retributive, that punishment is remedial, that probation continues after death till the final judgment, that Christ and the apostles preached the Gospel in Hades to those who lacked knowledge, but whose heart was right, that a spiritual body will be raised.
He was a man of peace, hating war not less than he did slavery; but he warned his countrymen that if they refused to abolish slavery by moral power a retributive war must sooner or later ensue.
Humanitarian moralists, who hesitate to believe in the retributive theory of punishment because, as they think, its aim is not the criminal's future well-being but merely the vindication through pain of an outrage upon the moral law which the criminal need never have committed, might welcome a theory which urges that the sole aim of punishment should be the exercise of an influence determining the criminal's future conduct for his own or the social good.