(Photo: Reuters / Shannon Stapleton)
After watching President Obama announce the killing of the world’s most wanted terrorist, Christopher Morgan, associate dean of the School of Christian Ministries at California Baptist University, reflected on some deeper issues such as the justice of God.
When he was writing a blog entry, entitled "Grieving, Rejoicing that Osama bin Laden Is Dead," drawing parallels between his reaction to Osama bin Laden's death and God's view of the sinner and hell, following the announcement late Sunday night that “justice had been done,” people were celebrating on the streets of Washington, D.C., and New York City.
Morgan wrote, "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."
He corresponded with The Christian Post on Wednesday to expound on God's view of justice and the reaction to the terrorist's death just as the Obama administration decided not to release photos of bin Laden's fatal gun wounds.
CP: In your blog post, "Grieving, Rejoicing that Osama bin Laden Is Dead" you discuss the nature of God (He does not find pleasure in the punishment of the wicked yet triumphs through the punishment of sin). How does that discussion connect with the government's attack on Osama bin Laden?
Morgan: Just as [the] police do not find pleasure in killing a murderer, in certain circumstances doing so can still be right and necessary. It can display partial justice. And that display of partial justice (not the killing of a person itself) is a cause for feeling good.
CP: How is Osama bin Laden's death a display of partial justice?
Morgan: On this side of the final judgment and heaven, human justice will always be somewhat partial. We are not perfect and we do not strive to carry out heaven's justice. God alone has the wisdom and the prerogative to do that. But governments are called by God to promote justice, peace, and an orderly society. Passages like Romans 13:1-7 make this clear. And governments have the power and authority to use force to accomplish this. Of course, that force should be measured, in accordance with the crime addressed. So to shoot a jaywalker is obviously wrong. But to kill a terrorist may be apt, especially one like bin Laden who has confessed and taken credit for his crimes.
CP: Although the achievement of justice merits joy, can people go overboard? As you said in your blog, God "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)." Should our celebration have a more somber tone?
Morgan: I wrote the blog within an hour of the president's announcement of bin Laden's death. So when I commented on the dancing in the streets, I was referencing the first hour. At that point, I believe some of the smiles, relief, and joy could be viewed as right and good.
Of course, crowds can go overboard and some surely did. I think the Christian approach is to feel the gravity of the death of any human being, while also recognizing that the death of bin Laden resulted from partial justice. And that display of partial justice is good and naturally leads people to feel good about it.
CP: Some celebrity Christians have denounced the praise of bin Laden's death saying that by doing so we are mirroring his behavior. What misunderstandings do those who take this position have about God's sense of Justice?
Morgan: Yes, as Christians we believe we are all sinners and deserve hell. But this does not flatten out sin, evil, and guilt, and some helpful bloggers have recently observed. We can humbly recognize that apart from the grace of God we too could follow a similar path.
But that does not mean we do not also take note of and stand up against obvious, outward, exceptional evil. The judge who sentences the guilty to prison is not necessarily proud, but [is] likely just doing her job. The family who lost a loved one at the hands of a murderer can rightly feel good about that murderer being appropriately punished. Neither the judge nor the suffering family should be asked to spend time reflecting on how similar they are to the murderer. They can simply be happy that some justice has taken place. Perfect justice has not, or no one would have been murdered. But given the tragic circumstances, a punished murderer is a good outcome.
Further, unless people are committing mass murder, they are not mirroring bin Laden. Unless they are dancing in the streets because of innocent people dying in droves, they are not mirroring bin Laden. To be happy that a terrorist has been brought to justice is appropriate, not a moral problem.
CP: How do the misgivings people have about praising the justice of Osama bin Laden's death resemble the misgivings people have about the existence of hell?
Morgan: This is a complex question, so allow me to offer just one small portion of a response. One similarity is that people in both cases have a view of love that is more sentimental than biblical. In the Bible, God's love has important nuances and does not comprehensively define God. God is also good, holy, sovereign, just, etc. Today, many forget that.
Similarly, Jesus telling us to love our enemies is important and yet not the only principle in Christian relations with enemies. Many passages address this. Further, the personal Christian ethic is not identical to a governmental ethic. A government, for example, is to punish the guilty; but Christians leave vengeance to the Lord. And both truths are found back to back in Romans (12:19-13:7)! It is all too common to focus on one truth or principle and not think through how twenty other principles relate to it and clarify it.
CP: In your opinion, why do so many Christians readily embrace a one-dimensional view of God that excludes justice and punishment for sin?
Morgan: They may not have given sufficient attention to the abundance of biblical passages that show the goodness of justice. Exodus 15; 2 Thessalonians 1:5-11; James 5:1-6; Revelation 18-20-to name a few.
CP: Please expound on what is "the goodness of justice" and why Christians should be eager to accept it. How would a God that does not execute justice on the deserving affect our Christian faith?
Morgan: God is good, righteous and just. He is just and he administers justly. He demands righteousness, goodness, and justice from humans and judges accordingly. Humans all are sinners and are rightly under the just judgment of God. We are condemned in sin (John 3:16-18; Rom 3:9-20; Rom 5:5-21; Eph 2:1-3; etc.), standing before him as guilty, deserving of punishment. Thankfully, the good news is that Jesus comes to die for us-in our place (and as our ransom, victor, etc.). But there is no need for a substitutionary death of Christ if God is not just and does not demand justice. Jesus dies in our place, because God is love, and because God is just. He takes sin and guilt so seriously that Jesus dies to pay for it.
CP: Are catchy statements such as "Love wins in the end" adequate ways of helping those learning more about God understand His approach to justice? Why or why not?
Morgan: "Love wins" and such catchphrases are theoretically okay, but too often manipulated. It has been used lately to promote universalism, the idea that all people are saved in the end-including bin Laden, Hitler, Satan.
The church has consistently recognized that universalism is unbiblical and false. Jesus spoke plainly about hell -hell as a real place of eternal punishment, banishment, and destruction (see. And so did every author of the New Testament. Some examples include Mark (9:42-48); Matthew (5:20-30; 24-25); Luke (16:19-31); Paul (2 Thess. 1:5-10); the author of Hebrews (10:27-31); James (4:12; 5:1-5); Peter (2 Pet. 2:4-17); Jude (13-23); and John (Rev. 21:8; 22:15).
In the end, God wins-God himself, not just a sentimental view of love that is divorced from the biblical portrait of God. And because the true and biblical God wins, evil is defeated, righteousness upheld, goodness vindicated, his people saved, the wicked punished, and his glory displayed (Rev. 20-22).
CP: Referring back to your editorial's description of God's nature, how is that God can both grieve sin and punish the wicked without compromising? How can we do the same in our daily lives?
Morgan: We need to get beyond bumper sticker sloganeering and realize there are a variety of important issues that relate to these matters. We rightly grieve that people rebel against God, rightly long for their conversion, and rightly weep at their demise. But we also are rightly outraged at their evil, rightly defend those whom they oppress, and rightly appreciate when they are punished for their evil atrocities. The just punishment of evil is good, right, fitting-even if impartial, incomplete, and imperfect on this side of the final judgment. We know this of peace and love, and we tend to forget this when we think of justice. For example, when there is some peace in the world, we can celebrate that, all the while knowing the peace is imperfect, partial, and incomplete. But it is still good, a foretaste of the ultimate display of God's cosmic reconciliation. Some justice on earth still shows sparks of the final, future justice that is to come. Yes, today's version, the human version, is always tainted and fragmented. But it is still good and worthy of our appreciation.