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The Death of Osama bin Laden: What Kind of Justice Has Been Done?

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Osama Bin Laden - Dead 2011Dr. Horton's post below was originally published on Christianity Today.

Understandably, news of Osama bin Laden's demise at the hands of U. S. Navy Seals provoked cries of celebration. The mastermind of terror, even against civilians (indeed, against fellow Muslims) has been brought to justice. But what kind of justice?

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, President George W. Bush authorized "Operation Infinite Justice." Especially after his comment that "this crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while," however, the mission was renamed "Operation Enduring Freedom." Reportedly, the name-change was due at least in part to the concern raised by Muslims that only God can execute "infinite justice." One would have hoped that the change had been provoked instead by Christian reaction.

Islam, of course, is not just a religion; it's a cultural and even geo-political reality. As such, its strict adherents excoriate co-religionists like Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im who call for an "Islamic Reformation" that would make jihad into a spiritual struggle rather than an armed military conflict.

Unfortunately, Christianity has had a long and complicated history of its own on this score. On one hand, the fourth-century theologian Augustine responded to the sacking of Rome with a detailed scriptural argument for two cities: the City of Man and the City of God. Each city has its own origins, ends, and means. As citizens of both kingdoms, every believer is called to recognize the difference between them. Compared with the City of God, the City of Man is hardly a true commonwealth. It cannot ensure ultimate peace, security, justice, and love. Nevertheless, Augustine argues, it can still be considered a commonwealth in a limited, provisional, and penultimate sense. Out of these reflections (especially in the City of God) there arose a legacy of just war theory and a Christian realism about the legitimacy and limitation of human societies in this time between the times.

Nevertheless, the Middle Ages gave rise to a fusion of Christ and culture known as "Christendom." In the name of Christendom, kings and their knights rode off to crusades with papal blessing, as David and the hosts of Yahweh redivivus, cleansing the Holy Land of infidels.

In spite of its own contradictions in practice, the magisterial Reformation sought to distinguish between the kingdom of Christ, which conquers by Word and Spirit, and the kingdoms of this age that are given the divine authority to defend temporal justice. Drawing on the New Testament and church fathers, especially Augustine, the reformers realized that there was no theocracy in the new covenant; all nation-states were "secular" in the sense of being common rather than holy. With no holy land, there can be no holy war. Only just wars, based on natural law.

But ideas like "Christendom" die hard. We saw that with the memorial service after 9/11. Held in a building popularly known as the "National Cathedral," with military honor guards processing and the strains of "Onward, Christian Soldiers," announcements of a resolve to secure infinite justice in an open-ended "crusade" provided fodder for Islamic extremists in their effort to replay ancient battles. A romantic patriotism has always seethed beneath the professed separation of church and state, as in the famous "Battle Hymn of the Republic." Written by a Unitarian, the hymn confuses Union victory with Christ's final judgment. Something very close to "infinite justice."

Cultures are the most dangerous when they invoke holy texts for their defense of holy land through holy war. However, Christians have no biblical basis for doing this in the first place. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus clearly abrogated the ceremonial and civil law that God had given uniquely to the nation of Israel. Now is the era of common grace and common land, obeying rulers—even pagan ones—and living under constitutions other than the one that God gave through Moses. As Paul reminds us in Romans 13, secular rulers are given the power of the temporal sword—finite justice—while the gospel conquers in the power of the Spirit through that Word "above all earthly pow'rs."

What does all of this mean for our response to the news about the most notorious terrorist in recent history?

First, it means that we can rejoice that even in this present evil age, God's common grace and common justice are being displayed through secular authorities. "For [the ruler] is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. … Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed" (Rom. 13:4, 7). Yet the divine wrath that rulers execute is temporal and finite rather than eternal and infinite. Such justice is never so pure that it is unmingled with injustice, never so final that it satisfies God's eternal law. In view of the image of God stamped on every person, justice must always be tempered by love. Commenting on Genesis 9:6, John Calvin reminded us that we cannot hate even our most perverse enemies, because of the image of God in them. In one sense, the creation of every person in God's image provokes the temporal sword against murderers. Yet in another sense, it also restrains our lust for revenge. "Should any one object, that this divine image has been obliterated, the solution is easy; first, there yet exists some remnant of it, so that man is possessed of no small dignity; and, secondly, the Celestial Creator himself, however corrupted man may be, still keeps in view the end of his original creation; and according to his example, we ought to consider for what end he created men, and what excellence he has bestowed upon them above the rest of living beings."

Second, it means that we cannot rejoice in the death of the wicked any more than does God (Ezek. 18:23). We may take satisfaction that temporal justice has been served, but Christians should display a sober restraint. When Christ returns, bringing infinite justice in his wake, his saints will rejoice in the death of his enemies. For now, however, he calls us to pray for our enemies, even for those who persecute us (Matt. 5:44). This is the day of salvation, calling sinners to repent and believe the gospel. We may delight in the temporal justice shown to evildoers, but leave the final justice to God.

Third, it means that the mandate to believe and to proclaim the gospel to every person is all the more urgent. After all, where would we be ourselves if Christ, in his first advent, had brought final and infinite justice instead of bearing it on behalf of his people? On the cross, Christ willingly offered himself as the lightning rod for God's infinite wrath, rising triumphantly on the third day. The events of 9/11 did not change everything in the way that the events of 33 A.D. did. Nor will the death of Osama bin Laden on 5/1/11 satisfy the final justice that awaits him—and all of us—on the last day.

So as we take satisfaction in the honorable service of U.S. forces in bringing a terrorist to justice in the court of the temporal city, let us never dare to confuse this with "the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God" (Heb. 11:10). In our response, let us use this opportunity to display to our non-Christian neighbors the radical contrasts between the biblical view of God, humanity, redemption, and the last judgment, and the religious and secularist distortions—even those that profess to be Christian.
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  • [...] Michael Horton reflects on the death of Osama bin Laden here. No Comments Tagged Osama bin [...]

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  • Great article. God bless.

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  • Guest - Alex Darrell Sharpless

    I'm just seeing this article on 5/4/11. I felt as this article expressed while others rejoiced at the news of death or news of the killing. All men share the image of YAHWEH and
    is imprinted on all faces!

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  • It occurs to me that the more severe punishment for Osama would have been Gitmo imprisonment, not dead to become martyr, not free to live life. Moreover, alive and in prison he might have served as leverage against future bad acts by jihadists. No one knows for sure; there are vast and varying opinions about this issue, from the true date of his death to how he was tracked and by whom; it is rumored that both obama and the Pakistani govt. knew where he was and he was under the belief that he was safe, being used to track other cells' activity. Whatever the case, we will now never know the facts. Then, too, the "eye for an eye" concept can be argued here, just as "vengeance is mine, saith the Lord." One thing, however, is clear: as mortals, we cannot know and see all, and as such, must do the best we can with what little we know.

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  • Guest - Ann Burdette

    In trying to reconcile this opinion with Scripture such as Proverbs 11:10 \When the righteous prosper, the city rejoices, when the wicked perish, there are shouts of joy.\ I remember what theologian and talk show host Dennis Prager addresses as being the two \scales\ we must consider: The first microscale is the personal level--where the Christian is called on to forgive his enemy for personal offenses (turning one's cheek).

    The second is the macroscale where society at large, especially the righteous, and those informed by Scripture, rejoice at evil's demise. It is the opposite side of the same coin of hating evil as God does.

    My fear is that the more the church follows postmodern thought where evil and wickedness are not even recognized, the less she will be able to preserve the proper, godly indignation toward it. On the macroscale she will \lose her savor\ in the postmodern world. Michael Horton should not discoourage people expressing gladness over a monstrous murderer's demise. (Think of the celebrations at the news of every WWII victory in the streets, for example.) This is not barbarism but a necessary side of civility. Recognize this is an area where \both-and\ not \either-or\ applies.

    I, for one will not confuse the two, and will not allow postmodern thought to dampen my hatred of evil, while I yet strive to impart grace to those who personally offend or insult me, for Christ's sake. The two are compatible, and the first makes the second even more powerful.

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  • Guest - Alberto

    I am both a citizen of the city of man and the city of God. As a member of the city of God, I must pray for all types of men, including people that would like to see me dead. As a member of the city of man, I can engage and destroy the enemies of the United States under the authority and direction of the U.S. government without feeling guilt from wrongdoing.

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  • Guest - Frederick Santal

    Michael Horton writes from the safety of a well defended Christian nation. He would rejoice at the death of an enemy to life and liberty like the leader of lunatic jihadists bin Laden if he felt the danger more. This is a naive post, typical of modern, moralizing academic Christians.

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  • Guest - adam

    I'm surprised by a few unabashed, self-righteous comments on here... but to Frederick (who only appears critical, not self-righteous), consider this: the U.S. is not a Christian nation. But that perception aside, the hope for all of us, whether our faith is protected or persecuted in the land of our citizenship, is not that we will see God's judgment executed temporally through events like this; but rather that his Son will return victorious on the ultimate judgment day. That is why we can genuinely celebrate the display of common justice through secular authorities; yet we are out of line (and foolish) when we invoke Scripture (by pulling it out of our rear end, usually) to suggest that a group of government-trained hitmen were exacting God's wrath on their victim. The U.S. justly took out a dangerous terrorist - let's not make it more than that.

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  • Guest - Frederick Santal

    Saying the United States is not a Christian nation is worthy of an easy victim of a leftist educational establishment, but it assaults reality and common-sense rather grotesquely. The United States is not only Christian, it is Calvinist to its marrow.

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  • Guest - J Scott

    This is directed to Frederick Santal--Explain why Osama Bin Laden could not have been captured and put in prison? like Noriega Manuel? or even, like how we captured like Saddam Hussein? Way did they have to execute an unarmed man? When they could have captured him. I say this not just as a Christian but also as a veteran that was once part of a unit that help hunt down Noriega.

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