It is interesting to see the ethical questions that surface in the wake of Osama Bin Laden’s death. When the report came out it looked like New Year’s Eve in the streets of New York. We certainly understand the jubilation. For ten years a genocidal monster has evaded justice leaving broken victims without resolution and the rest of us fearing a repeat from the same hands. When Bin Laden died at the hands of the very nation he afflicted, a million loose ends were tied up—justice being the most obvious.
But the question soon surfaced, “Should we really be celebrating death?” Some said yes, and others said no. Some said yes because justice is worth celebrating but the counter point was that we all stand guilty before a holy God and deserve judgment for our sins. Before we emotionally react to the latter response we need to understand that, biblically speaking, it is correct. Romans 3:23 says “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Ephesians 2:3 says that without the saving blood of Christ we are all “children of wrath.” If you don’t believe this then you don’t believe Jesus died for sins. Isaiah chapter 53 makes it very clear that Christ took our sins upon himself to experience the wrath we deserve; a wrath we will experience if we do not , in repentance, surrender our life to our Creator-Lord.
So what are we to make of this argument that rejoicing over the death of the wicked is wrong since we are all undeserving beggars of grace?
Well, if this were the only lens through which we are to look at life then the opposite emotion would be wrong as well—grief over injustice. The next time we read about the abduction and murder of an “innocent” civilian (innocent under civil law) we should not be grieved since, well, we all fall short of God’s holiness and don’t deserve judgment in the end. While that is true in one sense we do not see God responding like this in the Scripture. We do not see God indifferent to injustice done to orphans and widows even though, at the end of the day, we all stand guilty before Him. Rather, we see God responding with righteous anger at the injustice of murder, rape, theft, etc. Why? Because God looks at life through two lenses.
1. Lens one is the Kingdom of God where all are measured by the standard of God’s holiness. It’s easy to demonstrate that God’s Word teaches we all happily rebel against God and live for Self. We are unholy criminals and need to be rescued from the penalty of our sins.
2. Lens two is the Kingdom of Man. The kingdom of man is governed by God’s institution—human government. Yes, government was God’s idea (Romans 13:1-7; Genesis 9:1-7) and is only as good as it enforces God’s moral law—that which we, by nature, know is wrong. The role of the government is to punish evil and promote justice. Unlike the Kingdom of God where all are guilty under the Gospel, in the Kingdom of Man not all are guilty because not all are violators of civil law. So, before I was saved through faith in Christ, I was guilty in the Kingdom of God but not in the Kingdom of Man. (I’ve had a few speeding tickets in my day but justice was served and I became a little poorer.) There are many Scripture verses that show God looking at humanity through both these lenses (Deuteronomy 16:18-20; Proverbs 17:26, Rom. 13, etc.)
God can refer to someone as judicially innocent under civil law yet still a rebel at heart when measured against the law of God’s character. This makes sense since civil law is external (don’t commit murder) and God’s law is internal (hatred in the heart is murder, 1 John 3:15). So when we look at humanity through these two biblical lenses we can rejoice when justice is exacted upon the guilty who murder the innocent (according to civil law in the kingdom of man) and yet my rejoicing must be tempered by the fact that I stand before God as a terrorist of His glory and in need of grace (according to the law of God’s character expressed in the Gospel).
This discrete rejoicing is the spirit of Scripture. Proverbs 11:10 says, “When it goes well with the righteous the city rejoices, and when the wicked perish, there is joyful shouting.” Proverbs 21:15 says, “The exercise of justice is joy for the righteous, but is terror to the workers of iniquity.” Psalm 58:10-11 says, “The righteous will rejoice when he sees the vengeance; He will wash his feet in the blood of the wicked. And men will say, ‘Surely there is a reward for the righteous; Surely there is a God who judges on earth!’”
But lest my rejoicing produce within me a self-righteous spirit I need only remember what my guilt cost God. Isaiah 53:6 soberly reminds me. “All of us have strayed away like sheep. We have left God’s paths to follow our own. Yet the LORD laid on him [Christ] the guilt and sins of us all.”