Revenge originates from the French ‘venger’. Its meaning is ‘to punish an offence, or to obtain reparation’. This true meaning is much closer to the English word ‘justice’ than it is to the commonly accepted meaning of ‘retaliation’. This is unfortunate, because English usage gives revenge a bad name that it does not deserve. This carries over to other words of similar origin, avenge, vengeance, and vengeful. I began to think seriously about revenge whilst planning a chapter on Religion for my next book. At the same time, I was reading a book about morals and ethics. At some point it clicked that Revenge, Morals and Religion are linked.


Individuals seek revenge because they have been harmed, or someone close to them has. They may have been harmed physically, injured in some way; economically, financially damaged; or psychologically, by having their self-esteem damaged. Either way, they feel hurt, angry, and bitter. If the cause of the hurt is someone they know and the harm was intentional, they will also feel let down, disillusioned, and disappointed. Trust will be lost, relationships damaged, maybe irreparably. Why do we feel that way? Through evolution, we are genetically programmed to act in ways that are beneficial for our survival as a species. This works by the body responding to stimulation that our brains interpret as feelings. If those feelings are negative, then we will act to reverse them and make them positive. In this case, harm has caused the negative feelings and the reversal mechanism is revenge. We must seek revenge to feel better, we have no choice, we are only human.

Seeking revenge in the form of justice is not the same as taking revenge in the form of retaliation, an eye for an eye. Retaliation is an impulsive, intuitive response but it is rarely satisfying after the event. Will a person feel better after inflicting the same harm on the perpetrator as was done to them? Probably not. After all, the reason they felt hurt in the first place was because what was done to them offended their own values and principles. They perceived it as immoral. By replicating the offence, they have themselves breached their own principles and nothing is more guaranteed to make a person feel bad. Engaging in conduct that offends your principles will make you feel guilty and ashamed, it strikes at the very core of your identity, your integrity, you risk losing trust in yourself. Recent research has confirmed that people who retaliate feel no better afterwards than before, more often they feel worse. Conversely, research has also shown that thinking about retaliation, fantasising about taking revenge has a real and positive effect on feelings.


Revenge is a story of morals. Something immoral has been done; morally, something must be done about that; morally, what is done cannot be to repeat what has gone before. As Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind.” For me, the answer can be found in the phrase ‘revenge is a dish best served cold’. The way to resolve the moral conundrum is to resist the temptation to retaliate in the heat of the moment, and give careful consideration to the appropriate way to punish the offence and obtain reparation in the cold light of day. From the point of view of the person harmed, their judgement of a suitable revenge is the right one. They are the judge of what is morally right and wrong for them. However, if they are not to retaliate, then how do they get the revenge they seek? The way to morally seek revenge is through ‘justice’.

Unfortunately, justice can be complicated and may not satisfy the need for revenge. Long ago, when humans lived in small groups, one person causing harm to another would be dealt with summarily by the alpha male or the matriarch or by the group as a whole. Punishment and reparation would be swift and highly visible to all, the group’s moral code would be affirmed and order maintained. In modern society, with much larger groups, justice is far more complex. Moral and ethical codes are developed in great detail over a long time. The content of these codes depends largely on the form of government and administration that applies to the particular society. In a modern, western style, democracy morals and ethics are largely a matter of consensus. Not so in a dictatorship, autocracy, monarchy or theocracy. There, the codes will be a reflection of the principles held by those in power. Mistakenly, we often have the view that our society’s core morals and ethics are shared by all, that they are universal. There are many examples that show this is not the case. Homosexuality is not morally acceptable everywhere, slavery was, and still is, morally acceptable in many places, women are not equal in many societies and so on.

The same is true when we compare our individual principles, our personal moral code, with that of the society in which we live. Our personal principles are our own judgements of right and wrong, formed over many years through our childhood and adolescence. They are the result of our learning through our environment and interactions with others. There will probably be a high degree of alignment between our principles and our society’s morals. After all, we learned our lessons from others who are part of that society. But alignment in general is not the same as a perfect match. The result of this is that one person’s judgement of what is immoral and justifies punishment and reparation may not be shared by their society. For example, consider adultery. Whilst, as an individual harmed by an unfaithful spouse, you may feel that revenge is justified, in the UK it is not illegal and justice will not bring revenge. In other countries, it is illegal. You would not be surprised that this includes strict Muslim states, but you may be surprised that it still illegal in many US states. There are alternative forms of ‘justice’ that may work as an alternative to the criminal law. There is the possibility of civil action, or trial ‘by media’, or shaming on the internet. The net result of this story of morals is that, for an individual who has been wronged, revenge may not be achieved, there is no punishment or reparation, they won’t necessarily feel any better. Insult is added to injury.


Religion is a form of culture, and in many societies religion and culture are synonymous. Both religion and culture are commonly referred to as ‘a way of life’. The characteristic that singles out a religion from other forms of culture is belief in the supernatural, something that transcends human knowledge and power. Frequently, that includes some form of deity, a god or gods, an afterlife, power beyond that of normal humans. How does that link to the issue of morals and revenge? So far, I have tried to show that revenge, in the true sense, is a human necessity and that, in a modern society, justice, in the eyes of the victim, may not be forthcoming. How then, can humans satisfy the need for revenge, how can they make themselves feel better? Through the relatively simple mechanism of belief that justice will be delivered by a power beyond that of humans. The belief that revenge will be forthcoming, if not in this world, then in the next.

Belief in the supernatural gives us a source of revenge, retaliation, retribution and justice beyond ourselves and our society. Whether that revenge takes the form of divine intervention, karma, particular judgement, voodoo or witchcraft is a matter of personal belief. What matters is that our thirst for revenge can be satiated even when our system of justice fails us. We can fantasise about the form of revenge and imagine it to be as gruesome as we choose without the consequences of offending our principles or morals. We need feel no guilt or shame. After all, we have no control over the outcome, we are not to blame, we are not responsible. Justice was enforced by a supernatural power beyond our control. This is the best of both worlds. That is the link, belief in the supernatural allows us to exact revenge without offending our principles, a win-win.