Osama bin Laden is dead.
How do we as Christians respond?
As I watched the news reports, various passages came to mind—everything from Jesus' teaching on loving and praying for enemies, to James' forceful picture of a future slaughterhouse coming upon oppressors of God's people. The more I reflect on it, the more I realize that my internal tension is similar to another one I have felt many times before-a tension related to the biblical doctrine of hell.
As strange as it seems, hell is depicted in the Bible both as tragedy and victory. Hell is tragic, as it is awful that people rebel against God and persistently spurn the Savior. God is “slow to anger,” “abounding in love and faithfulness” (Exod. 34:6-7
), and does not take pleasure in the punishment of the wicked, just as he does not find pleasure in the existence of sin (Ezek. 18:23
). Jesus likewise grieved and wept over human lostness, sin, and the impending judgment (Matt. 23:37
; Luke 19:41
). The apostle Paul also shared this perspective, earnestly longing and praying for the conversion of his lost fellow-Jews, even to the point of being willing to undergo God's wrath for them (Rom. 9:1-6
). That sinners go to hell is tragic and should break our hearts.
Yet hell is also portrayed as God's triumph. Hell is linked to his righteous judgment and the day of Yahweh, even called “the day of God's wrath” (Rom. 2:5
). As such, hell answers (not raises) ultimate questions related to the justice of God. Through the coming wrath, judgment, and hell, God's ultimate victory is displayed over evil, and his righteousness is vindicated. There is a “comfort” to hell (2 Thess. 1:5-11
; James 5:1-6
; Rev. 18-22), as its hard reality offers hope to and encourages perseverance in persecuted saints. God will judge everyone, and he will avenge his people; God will win in the end, and justice will prevail. And through his righteous judgment and ultimate victory, God will glorify himself, displaying his greatness and receiving the worship he is due (e.g., Rom. 9:22-23
; Rev. 6:10
Though the comparison is by no means perfect, and though it is on a much smaller scale, I tend to think that we can rightly grieve that Osama bin Laden opposed the true and living God and will be punished accordingly. But we also can rightly rejoice in the defeat and judgment upon people who are evil—and he was clearly evil and deserving of every punishment earth can give. The dancing in the streets may not merely be American nationalism, but an appropriate response to the partial display of human justice as we await the final and perfect display of divine justice in the coming age.
Christopher Morgan serves as professor of theology and dean of the School of Christian Ministries at California Baptist University in Riverside. He is the co-editor of Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment and Faith Comes by Hearing: A Response to Inclusivism.