Theodicy and the Death of Osama bin Laden

As everyone in the world with access to a television now knows, U.S. President Barack Obama announced last night that terrorist and Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was shot and killed in a military operation conducted by U.S. special forces.

Nationally (for the U.S. and her allies), this event carries tremendous weight in the war on terror.  This will be considered a great victory by many, will strengthen the position of the U.S. in the region, and will cause turmoil in the Al Qaeda ranks.

Politically, this event is huge for President Obama, who was careful to note in his speech last night that all intelligence operations and military actions resulting in bin Laben’s death occurred by his order under his direct supervision.  The not-so-subtle suggestion will be that Obama has succeeded where predecessors have failed.

Internationally, the death of bin Laden will encourage allies to continue working with the U.S. military as they continue to operate in the middle-east.  Enemies of peace in the region will take note that even top leaders cannot hide forever.  But ultimately, things will likely remain much the same as they have been, especially in regions where the news will spread slowly and may be dismissed as psychological warfare.

How, then, has this news been received by Christians?  I can only speak of the response I see from American Christians, since this is my context, though I would venture to guess from past experience that the response is very similar around the world. While opinions are certainly varied, there does seem to be a front-runner when it comes to Christian responses to bin Laden’s demise.  More than anything else, Christians seem to be viewing this event in terms of Theodicy.

For those who don’t spend their time sifting through theological treatises, theodicy is most simply defined as:

The vindication of the goodness of God in the face of the existence of evil.

This term is also used for the branch of Christian theology concerned with defending the attributes of God from objections derived from the existence of moral and physical evil in the world.

Some Christians (and indeed many non-believers who might be called ‘theists’) seem to be viewing bin Laden’s death, in some sense, as a vindication of God’s justice.  According to this view, his death is an example of the cost or punishment for evil works.  It shows that ‘good’ ultimately wins out.  It engenders feelings of pride and excitement that ‘we’ are ‘winning’.

But is this response really a ‘Christian’ one?  Is this how we, as disciples of Jesus Christ, ought to view the death of an evil man?

My good friend Ben Howard posted a couple verses of scripture to Facebook this morning that speak to this discussion.

Do not gloat when your enemy falls;
when he stumbles, do not let your heart rejoice,
or the Lord will see and disapprove
and turn his wrath away from him. (Proverbs 24:17-18)

But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:44-45a)

Does that sound like the talk you have heard today regarding the death of bin Laden and the ‘war on terror’?

You see, as Christians, we are called to view the happenings of this world through a different lens; one of grace, mercy, and hope.  We are called to love the unlovable, to pray for our enemies.  But why?  Is this just some mushy dumbed down version of the social gospel we are talking about here?

Let’s view that second scripture passage from Matthew 5 in its context:

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’44 But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?47 And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?

48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48)

God is holy; he is a righteous judge who abhors evil.  And at the end of all things, when Christ returns, he will judged the righteous and the wicked, and scripture tells us that the wicked will suffer eternal torment, separated from God for their sin and rebellion (sorry Rob Bell).  We also know from scripture that God does sometimes act to bring temporal judgment on the wicked.  We see this time and again in the Old Testament (Egypt, Sodom, the Canaanites, etc – even Israel, when she turns from Him).

But here is the thing.  These works of judgment and retribution, justice and punishment don’t belong to human beings.  They belong to God.  They belong to Jesus Christ.  They do not belong to people.

As Christians, we are called to live in the light of the abundant grace and mercy that God has offered us through the cross of Jesus.  We are called to live as citizens of the Kingdom of God, not the kingdoms of man.  We are called to recognize that, while God is a just judge, he is also a loving Father.  We are called to recognize that it is God who will judge the wicked, not us.

We are called to be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfectWe are called to be perfect in our love.

So, then, what should our response be to the news that Osama bin Laden has been killed?  If we live in the light of God’s mercy and grace, as those who live not for the present, but for the hope of future glory, then I think our response should be one of profound sadness.  I believe that it grieves the heart of God when even one person dies in sin.

While I do believe that God sometimes acts to remove the wicked from power (think Pharaoh), this should not be viewed as a cause for celebration, for God does not celebrate the loss of his creation.  Rather, we should pray for peace, we should pray for those who have had to take life and for those who have lost life, and though it goes against every fiber of our being at times, we should pray for our enemies, that they might come to know the loving grace and mercy of our heavenly Father, and so that we might not sin by rejoicing in death, even the death of a wicked man.

If you remain unconvinced, think on this:  what would have happened if Osama bin Laden had repented of his sins and become a disciple of Jesus Christ?  What if all it would take for this to occur is the prayer of the faithful on his behalf?


2 thoughts on “Theodicy and the Death of Osama bin Laden

  1. Great post. I too join with you in expressing sadness, as a Christian, at the death of even one person; no matter how morally reprehensible that person has been. This is not a victory, since I join with the Paul in exclaiming “where O death is thy victory?” (1 Cor 15:55).

    Finally, in answer to your concluding questions, I think we sing what could be our best response to that… “The vilest offender who truly believes that moment from Jesus a pardon receives. Praise the Lord!”

  2. Adam,

    Thanks for your comments and for quoting that hymn. I’ve not heard it in some time. It is precisely because Jesus saved me in the midst of my wretchedness that I have hope, not just for myself but also for others who have not yet met the risen Christ.

    On a side note, I just checked out the website for the Australasian Wesley Centre and was pleased to see your research listed there. Keep up the good work.



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