One moment they said, “peace and safety,” but then came sudden destruction like a thief in the night. For Osama bin Laden and his entourage, calamity struck in the form of American helicopters and US Navy Seals. After a few moments of frenetic terror, bin Laden was dispatched into eternity.
The world has not mourned his slaying. Quite the opposite. When news of his death broke, crowds gathered spontaneously, breaking into impromptu celebration and song. A Philadelphia baseball game came to a halt as fans, and then players, burst into cheers and chants.
Why such jubilation? Why celebrate a human death? It would be easy to dismiss this elation—and some have—as a coarse expression of American triumphalism, as if America were the studio audience and bin Laden were an especially unpopular guest on the Jerry Springer show. A few Christian pundits have worried whether such jubilation is compatible with Christian love and the desire for reconciliation.
Those who experience such concerns should spend a few hours pondering the ferocity of Psalm 137 or reflecting upon the taunt against the king of Babylon in Ezekiel 28. They might even consider the ground of the encouragement that Paul offers in 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9. The sensibilities of these and similar Scriptures cannot be confined to some different dispensation. What they express is a legitimate aspect of the life of faith, and we deny or suppress these expressions to our detriment.
Previous generations understood such things. The day that Bloody Mary died was celebrated as a national holiday for 200 years. Her reign of terror had been an assault, not upon an individual here or there, but upon an entire people and, indeed, upon the gospel itself. She was not simply an inconvenience or an annoyance, but an oppressor. It is right for the oppressed to rejoice in the overthrow of the oppressor.
Osama bin Laden was not merely an enemy of the United States. Through his organization he targeted the innocent and filled millions with fear. He was an oppressor of many peoples. Far from being simply an opponent of one country, he was an enemy of humanity.
When he was struck down, most of the world felt as if a weight had been lifted. That weight was the burden of oppression, and it was lifted (as it only ever can be) by the execution of justice. Justice is the antidote to oppression, and when justice finally arrives, the lifting of the weight is sometimes dramatic, like the sudden and swift departure of a terrible disease. Those who pass through it will experience a mixture of sensations: relief, amazement, and joy, with a new-felt capacity for life. It is like emerging from deep water and being able to breathe again. The natural overflow of these sensations is jubilation—the kind of exultation that takes to the streets, waves flags, and breaks into song.
How does justice lift the weight of oppression? Not simply by mitigating suffering or repairing harm. While relief from affliction is always welcome, it does not rise to the level of justice. Justice requires something more, some other factor that defines it as justice. That factor is retribution.
Retribution is distinct from reparation. Simply because an evildoer is forced to offer reparation does not mean that justice has been vindicated. If police catch a bank robber, they do not set him free when he offers to turn over the loot. Something more is necessary, and that something is retribution.
Retribution is the imposition of a penalty. Reparation corrects the harm that evil does against its victims, but retribution deals with the guilt that is created when evil assaults what is right. The penalty is imposed, not merely because this or that person was injured, but because right itself was affronted. The insult against right incurs guilt, and guilt is erased only through retribution.
The lawful pronouncement and administration of retribution (i.e., the decision by one who possesses the right of retribution) is called judgment. Judgment differs from mere revenge in that it is not a private attempt to retaliate, but rather a public administration of penalty in order to even the scales of justice. True, justice can miscarry. Innocent parties may be treated as guilty, or penalties may be made more severe than an infraction warrants. The possibility of these miscarriages leads some to shrink from the execution of judgment. It is worth remembering, however, that justice always miscarries if those who possess the right of judgment refuse to exercise it.
Celebration at the death of Osama bin Laden is entirely appropriate. Such celebrations are directed not so much at the death of a fellow human as at the overthrow of an evildoer. The jubilation emerges, not because a Son of Adam has fallen, but because justice has been vindicated, at least to some small degree.
When Jesus comes, He will inaugurate His Kingdom with just such an administration of justice. Indeed, this is one of the reasons that premillennial eschatology is so important. Justice must be seen to triumph in history, and not merely in some ahistorical eternal state. Otherwise, the whole story of human history becomes a failed experiment over which God somehow lost control. Justice must win, and it must be seen to win, on planet earth in space and time.
Justice does not triumph, however, through slow degrees of human improvement. Justice reigns when evildoers and oppressors are overthrown and penalty is imposed. To put it bluntly, there is no Kingdom without justice, there is no justice without judgment, and there is no judgment without retribution.
When Jesus reigns, a scepter of justice will be the scepter of His Kingdom. While His administration of justice will have a positive side, sorting out all the tangles that finite human judges find so difficult, it will also have a very retributive side. When He commences His second work on earth, He will be wearing robes that are spattered in the blood of His enemies. When He destroys the beast and the false prophet, and when He overthrows the nations that are aligned with them, then He will relieve this world of its last and greatest oppressors.
The world will rejoice. Jesus Himself will rejoice. The oil of celebration will characterize His Kingdom, and He will be anointed with it even more than His companions. The celebration, however, cannot begin until retribution has been administered, judgment has fallen, and justice has been done. Before the day of exultation comes the day of the treading out of the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God, the day when He slays with the sword that goes out of His mouth.
Pretribulationists anticipate deliverance from affliction at the Rapture. Even at the Rapture, however, justice is not yet served. Indeed, the Rapture is followed immediately by a seven-year outpouring of God’s retributive justice, climaxing in the consummation of judgment at the Second Advent. Consequently, pretribulationists look beyond the Rapture to the Second Coming and the inauguration of Jesus’ realm upon earth. Then will arrive the day of their vindication, for that will be the day of judgment, the day of justice, and the day of retribution.
Here and now, we see an imperfect justice administered intermittently by humans who are themselves unjust. Human attempts to establish justice are always proximate, they always reflect the finiteness and sinfulness of the human judges, and they often simply trade off one injustice for another. Sinful people cannot establish absolute justice, which is why Christian attempts to usher in the Kingdom have almost invariably resulted in massive oppression of some form. We must beware of Christian leaders who urge the church to wield the terrible, swift sword.
In the day of Jesus’ coming, however, we will witness perfect judgment executed with utter impartiality by a judge whose eyes are a flame of fire. We ourselves would be consumed by its fierceness, except that the judge Himself has already borne retribution for us. If we have obeyed the gospel, we shall witness the final dissolution of evildoers and oppressors before the establishment of a reign of unparalleled justice. And we shall rejoice, not in spite of, but because of His terrible, swift sword.
Psalm 49. v. 14, 15. Part 2
Death and the Resurrection
Isaac Watts (1674-1748)
Ye sons of pride, that hate the just
And trample on the poor,
When death has brought you down to dust,
Your pomp shall rise no more.
The last great day shall change the scene;
When will that hour appear?
When shall the just revive, and reign
O’er all that scorned them here?
God will my naked soul receive,
When sep’rate from the flesh;
And break the prison of the grave,
To raise my bones afresh.
Heav’n is my everlasting home,
Th’ inheritance is sure:
Let men of pride their rage resume,
But I’ll repine no more.