On the evening of May 1, 2011, the President of the United States announced the death of one of the world’s most infamous terrorists, Osama bin Laden. Almost immediately after President Obama’s official announcement, spontaneous celebrations broke out in front of the White House, at Ground Zero, and around the country. News of such celebrations left me a little hollow. I certainly want to rejoice that the face of terrorism is no longer able to devise wicked schemes for destroying other lives, but I am also saddened by the fact that a soul now has found his eternal destiny separated from God.
On the news this morning, I watched an interview with the mother of one of the victims on United Airlines Flight 93 that crashed in Pennsylvania after passengers rushed the cockpit. She had a balanced view concerning Bin Laden’s death. She said it was a bittersweet moment because justice had been served but it also served as a reminder of the tragedies of that day nearly ten years ago.
Twitter also lit up with news and reaction about Bin Laden’s death. Most of the tweets related joy, happiness, and satisfaction in the terrorist’s death. Some noted congratulatory sentiments to Presidents Obama and Bush. Others cheered the efforts of the Navy SEALS who carried out the plan to attack Bin Laden’s compound.
Finally, the crowd at the nationally-televised baseball game between the New York Mets and the Philadelphia Phillies began chants of “U-S-A, U-S-A, U-S-A” as the news of the announcement spread via social media, text messages, and emails.
So, what is the proper biblical reaction to the death of a terrorist? How should we feel? Should we join the crowds and rejoice in the streets? Should we cry over a soul eternally condemned to hell? Should we feel justified in a country that diligently pursued a perpetrator and administered justice? I want to provide three thoughts for consideration as we reflect upon the death of a terrorist.
First, we can know that justice was administered by a properly established authority. There is no doubt that President George W. Bush struggled with the decision to wage a “War on Terror” after the devastation of September 11, 2001. Just as Presidents before him had carried the burden of placing the lives of their military in harm’s way to enact justice, President Bush had to bear such a burden. No one probably thought that such a war would continue for ten years before the mastermind of the attacks was captured or killed, but that is what happened. In my recent readings on just war theory, I was reminded of one of the first principles of jus ad bellum (just principles for going to war). The principle of legitimate authority requires that war be waged only by those that have the legitimate authority to do so. Historically, this has been interpreted to mean sovereign governments over nation states. Thus, the United States of America in her sovereign authority waged war in order to administer justice for evils perpetrated against her people.
In Romans 13:1-4. Paul describes the role of the government in administering justice. He writes:
Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.
Note the final line of the quotation (v. 4). The governing authority “is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.” From a biblical standpoint, we can rest assured that the American government has fulfilled its God-given duty in bringing wrath on one who practices evil.
Second, we can lament that a life has been taken. But you may protest, “Bin Laden was responsible for the deaths of thousands, why should we lament the death of such a wicked man?” We lament because that is what God does. In Ezekiel 33:11, God tells Ezekiel, “‘As I live!’ declares the Lord GOD, ‘I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil ways!’” God does not rejoice when life is taken, especially when those who have no concern for the truth of God are killed. Even when we see God taking the lives of those who have turned from him (e.g., Nadab and Abihu in Lev 10:1-7), we do not see rejoicing from God. It is solemn and terrifying that life is squelched for the sake of justice.
The more disheartening thing about it is the warranted assumption that Bin Laden’s eternal destiny in hell has been sealed. Of course, we do not know his heart nor the possibility of a last minute conversion to faith in Christ; however, it seems safe to assume that Bin Laden never placed his faith in Christ as his personal Savior. His actions did not give evidence of a life that has been surrendered to God. In 1 John, the apostle gives us a few thoughts concerning our actions that give evidence to our spiritual lives. In 1 John 1:6, we see, “If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.” In 1 John 2:11, the apostle tells us, “But the one who hates his brother is in the darkness, and does not know where he is going because the darkness has blinded his eyes.” Finally, in 1 John 5:12, we read, “He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life.” Based on Bin Laden’s actions and his murderous background, we have warrant to assume that his life was characterized by darkness rather than the light of a relationship with Christ. Thus, his eternal destiny would be separation from God in hell.
Finally, we should use this occasion as an opportunity to remember that sin has a drastic impact on our world. From the days of Genesis 3 onward, we have battled the effects of sin on a personal and global level. It is easy to point a finger at Bin Laden and say, “He was evil!” It is much harder to point a finger at ourselves and say, “I am evil!” However, that is exactly what the Bible tells us about ourselves. In Romans 3:9-12, we read:
What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; as it is written, ‘There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one.’
Thankfully, that is not the end of the story. Christ sacrificed his own life for us and paid the penalty for our sin. As we see later in Romans 10:9-13, Paul states:
If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation. For the Scripture says, ‘Whoever believes in him will not be disappointed.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call on Him; for ‘Whoever will call on the name of the lord will be saved.’
Though sin has brought evil and death to us and our world, Christ has overcome evil through his death, burial, and resurrection. May the people of the world see the death of a terrorist and be reminded of their own impending deaths. As a result, I pray that they would turn to Christ with childlike faith and trust in him for their eternal destiny.