LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–On Sunday, we all learned that U.S. special forces killed Osama bin Laden as he was hiding out in a mansion in Pakistan. The reaction to the news across the U.S. has been remarkable. I cannot remember another instance in my lifetime when throngs of people gathered spontaneously in the streets of our major cities to celebrate, but that is indeed what happened.
How should we as Christians react to the news? Here are a few thoughts:
1. Romans 13:4, “[Government] does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.” If ever there were a just use of force, this was it. The U.S. government carried out its God-ordained task and has acted as God’s minister, bringing His wrath upon one who practiced evil. The U.S. government isn’t God’s only minister of the sword. But Sunday night was our night, and I am grateful that justice was served.
2. Hebrews 10:31, “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” Isaiah 33:14, “Who among us can live with the consuming fire? Who among us can live with continual burning?” I shudder to think of what bin Laden is facing right now. I do not question the justice of it, but I can hardly bear to contemplate the horror of it. If my thinking is defective now, it won’t always be. The day will come when God will command me to rejoice in His justice in the damnation of the wicked (Revelation 18:20). Until then, the horror should serve as a motivation to warn people to flee the wrath to come (1 Thessalonians 1:8-10; 2 Corinthians 5:18-21).
3. I think Christians are right to contemplate how jubilation (like we saw on TV) is consistent with Ezekiel 33:11, “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live.” It is no surprise that many Christians are asking, “If God is not delighting in the death of the wicked, then how can we?” But does this verse really teach that God never delights in the death of the wicked? If so, what are we to do with the myriad of biblical texts that say things like:
— “So the LORD will delight over you to make you perish and destroy you; and you will be torn from the land where you are entering to possess it” (Deuteronomy 28:63).
— “For You are not a God who takes pleasure in wickedness; No evil dwells with You. The boastful shall not stand before Your eyes; You hate all who do iniquity. You destroy those who speak falsehood; The LORD abhors the man of bloodshed and deceit” (Psalm 5:4-6).
So is there a contradiction between these texts and Ezekiel 33:11? No, there is not. There is confusion on this point because Ezekiel 33:11 is easily misunderstood. The second part of the verse is key to understanding its meaning. The text is not trying to say that God never delights in the death of the wicked. Rather, the verse means that God prefers for sinners to repent rather than to perish. If they refuse to repent, however, God delights in His own justice enough to punish them appropriately (e.g., Psalm 1:5-6; 5:4-6; 68:2; Isaiah 13:1-22; Jeremiah 18:11). Sometimes that justice begins with the imperfect ministers that He has appointed to bear the sword (Romans 13:4). For this reason, we have to be willing to praise God for His justice one way or the other (Psalm 139:19-22; Proverbs 11:10; 28:28; Revelation 19:1-3).
So what do we make of the celebrations in the streets? Perhaps we could all learn a lesson or two about celebrating God’s justice from Lincoln’s second inaugural address. Lincoln at once recognized the justice of his cause but at the same time was humbled by his own side’s shortcomings. And after contemplating all the misery of the war, he offered a kind of grim affirmation of Scripture saying, “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether” (Psalm 19:9).
Perhaps a recognition of this kind of justice would be less likely to result in patriotic celebrations in the streets and more likely to produce a kind of somber, humble gratitude for the common grace of God. I am not righteous, but God is. Even though I shudder to think of the Lord’s righteous judgment, I am nevertheless grateful to Him for whatever measure of common grace justice He grants us on this side of glory. With last night’s announcement, I think what He has given is a generous portion.
Denny Burk is associate professor of biblical studies at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. This column first appeared at his blog, DennyBurk.com.