Should Christians Rejoice Over The Death of the Wicked?

After some (long) time of hunting, the American special forces have successfully found and killed Osama Bin Laden, fulfilling the mission that was implemented under the command of President Bush. As President Obama echoed the words of said president, the American resolve remained united, and an enemy was stopped. And with the preparation for the announcement came a wave of rejoicing: “Ding Dong, Osama’s dead” and “Obama got Osama” and “Thank God, Osama’s dead!”

This is not the only death that revealed people rejoicing. Adolf Hitler. Saddam Hussein. Pol Pot. As life goes on and more enemies are killed people will rejoice.

In all this, an ethical question arises: should a Christian rejoice in the death of an enemy?

In this article I will argue that not only is it fine for a Christian to rejoice, but also it should be done—though not done in the gruesome way that I have seen it being done. I think it would also be helpful if the reader references my examination of an imprecatory Psalm (that is, when the Psalmist prays for the destruction of his enemies) and the post on Christian and Curses and my post on the image of God.

This article will be divided into four major sections: (1) Where Rejoicing is Wrong; (2) Where Rejoicing is Right; (3) Where Theology Meets Practice;  and (4) Conclusion. The first three major sections will each have a summarizing point to help the skimmers but I strongly encourage reading through them and the cited verses.

Where Rejoicing Is Wrong.
It must be frankly admitted that there is a reason why Christians struggle with this. We do have explicit passages that speak into this matter of rejoicing over the fall of an enemy. Proverbs 24:17-18 says:

“Do not rejoice when your enemy falls and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles; or the Lord will see and be displeased and turn His anger away from him.”

And the passage echoes other passages. Job, for instance, sees himself as righteous because he hasn’t rejoiced at the death of his enemies (Job 31:29). Or when we see the wicked doing it, we automatically know it isn’t right (Judges 16:25; 2Sa 16:5-6; Psalm 35:13-15; 42:10;  Micah 7:8).

Indeed, the Proverbs go on to be careful with gloating at all over disaster (Proverbs 17:5) and call for the righteous to care for their enemies—to clothe them and feed them (Prov 25:21) something our Lord Himself says (Lev 19:17–18; Matt 5:44) and which Paul repeats (Rom 12:14).

This whole idea of not rejoicing for the wicked is evidenced when God says (Ezekiel 18:23; 33:11)

“As surely as I live,” declares the Lord God, “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, oh house of Israel?”

God would rather the people repent. Peter echoes this idea when he looks back and sees that God’s forbearance is the only reason people haven’t been wiped out (2 Peter 3:9)

Section 1 Summarizing Point: Obviously we see that rejoicing over the death of “my” personal enemy is wrong. It seems to indicate that the personal tramping on an individual’s enemy is not something that is applauded. We see that although God judges the wicked, he’s not happy about it but rather patient, affording time so that they may repent.

 

Where Rejoicing Is Right.
Now there are also plenty of passages which are overlooked. For example, Proverbs 11:10 says

When the righteous prosper, the city rejoices; they shout for joy when the wicked die

The Proverb seems to be working with the antithesis of what happens when the wicked are in charge. When they’re in charge the righteous groan and are oppressed (Prov 11:11; 28:12; 29:2,11 )

Indeed, this idea isn’t foreign to the rest of Scripture either.  For example we have in Psalm 58:10 this idea of the people corporately rejoicing in the death of their enemies

The righteous will be glad when they are avenged, when they bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked.

This bathing their feet in blood (battlefield imagery) happens elsewhere in the Psalms in case you’re wondering (Psalm 68:23). And lest we get ideas that this is something that merely happens and isn’t to be applauded, we have Psalm 91:8 making it an expectation, a final shutting up of the wicked (Psalm 107:42) . All of Psalm 52 seems to be an expectation for the righteous to witness the destruction of the wicked.

In Deuteronomy 32:43 we hear this clarion call to corporately rejoice:

Rejoice, O nations, with his people, for he will avenge the blood of his servants; he will take vengeance on his enemies and make atonement for his land and people.

Indeed, Jeremiah prays for it (Jer 11:20; 20:12).

We find the early church citing Psalm 2 as part of their corporate prayers after Peter and John were beaten (Acts 4:23-30) and they request that the Lord stretches out his hand to heal, perform signs and wonders in the name of God’s servant Jesus. This is interesting, because in Psalm 2, the Lord God is laughing at the enemies of his anointed one (Psalm 2:4) because they stand there daring to revolt. When the early Church prays for God to perform wonders, it is recalling the wonders done before Pharaoh: powerful signs that prove that God, the creator of heaven and earth, is in charge (check Exodus 1 – 15 for the original story).

Upon the destruction of Babylon the Great, we see a call for the people of God, heaven itself, to rejoice over her destruction (Rev 18:20):

Rejoice over her, O heaven, and you saints and apostles and prophets, for God has pronounced judgment  against her on your behalf!

This is a call that is taken up elsewhere in the apocalypse (Rev 12:12 ) and obeyed in the Rev 19:1-4 in heaven rejoicing over the destruction of their enemy. It’s not the first time that there is singing in heaven as we see in Rev 15:3 the people singing the song of Moses.

Which immediately recalls two songs from the day of Moses. The song of Moses from Deuteronomy 32 where we have clauses of God defeating Israel’s enemies, and the Song of Moses and the Israelites from Exodus 15 where Moses and the people sing and rejoice because the Lord has destroyed their enemies. It wouldn’t be the last time where the people of Israel rejoice over the death of their enemies (Esther 8:15;  2 Kings 11:20 ).

Section 2 summarizing point: We can either conclude that there is a contradiction, a contradiction, or a contradistinction: that the joy in these passages is distinctly different from the joy in the previous section. I think that the verses here reflect that, since it isn’t an individual rejoicing against his or her personal offender, but an individual joining the corporate rejoicing against their corporate enemy. Rejoicing in this sense is apparently justified and expected. They also reflect that although God is not willing that the wicked perish, he does have the wicked perish and he expects his people to be happy about his activity.

 

Where Theology Meets Practice
I think we Protestants suffer from a very deistic view of reality, something that I applaud the Orthodox and the Roman Catholics for properly addressing. Reality, say the Orthodox and the Roman Catholics, is not a two-tier house where you have This Physical Realm and then, the second floor with That Spiritual Realm. Reality is more like one floor where the spiritual and the physical co-exist. Now, they take this to a whole ‘nuther realm by having prayer for the dead and praying to God through icons—which all is wrong—but they make a good point. A point that the Psalter repeatedly makes: justice is not merely the purview of That Spiritual Realm. The Justice of God definitively begins here, in This Physical Realm because it is all (yes, all) God’s reality.

So you’ll have Paul looking at sinful humans acting in accordance with their lusts and saying that the wrath of God is (currently) evident (Romans 1). Or you’ll have Paul warning believers to obey their governing body because it is God’s instrument and it properly carries the sword of wrath against injustice (Romans 13).

And when you have judgment poured out against Israel via the Assyrians or the Babylonians, we find that God is speaking saying that this is his judgment—a foreign people attacking the Israelites like a wielded axe. These foreigners are an instrument in his hand for wrath. So you’ll have the entire book of Hosea speaking about the righteous surviving God’s wrath not so much in some future spiritual realm but right then, holding on to the Lord’s salvation.

The idea of God’s justice is something that results not only in Angels chanting, or people rejoicing, but the very physical creation yearns for it (Romans 8) and rejoices when it happens. So you’ll see a great pairing of Psalms, with one calling for the Lord to stamp down the wicked (Psalm 94), the Psalmist depending on the Lord to do it, and then (Psalm 95 and 96) the mountains and oceans rejoicing when it does happen.

Of course, a point that I made in a previous post still stands: that when imprecation is leveled against the Psalmists’ enemies, it is almost always coupled with self-examination. The reason is that justice is a thematic thread throughout the Psalter—and all of Scripture. There is a constant expectation for the balancing of scales; but when it happens in the Now, there is rejoicing: something that the section up above reflected quite concisely.

You’ll see God saying things like Ezekiel 18:32 where he doesn’t rejoice in the death of anyone—and yet he still has people die and be punished because he judges the earth (Psalm 58:11). We hear Lamentations 3:33 where he doesn’t willingly bring affliction or grief to the children of Men and we have the entire book of Job where God was willing to bring affliction to a child of men.

The problem then becomes one of applying theology to our practical situation.

Some Christians take Section 1 Passages and ignore Section 2 Passages, or worse, relegate Section 2 passages to some later day. They forget that the call in the book of Proverbs, is not one so much of law (which we Christians tend to gravitate toward—check out my article on the Pearl Method) but one for wisdom.

This is why you have apparently contradictory Proverbs back to back (Prov 26:4-5) and seemingly contradictory Proverbs separated by space (Prov 11:10; 24:17). It calls for some serious wisdom on when to implement one over the other; and quite frankly it is sometimes just impossible. The nature of wisdom literature is to paint two extremes so as to reflect on the differences. It is either Lady Wisdom or Harlot Foolishness. It is either Life or it is death.

So when you read Proverbs 21:15

When justice is done, it brings joy to the righteous but terror to evildoers.

It’s not a command, nor is it something that will definitely happen, but it paints a picture of the evildoers position against justice being done.

And when you read Proverbs 24:19-20

Do not fret because of evildoers or be envious of the wicked; for there will be no future for the evil man; the lamp of the wicked will be put out

It might be read as a promise, but it should properly refer to the activity of the wise man in relation to the wave of wickedness.

Summarizing Point: Putting our theology to practice consists of a Biblical robustness that necessarily reaches beyond mere proof-texting. We can’t merely go with the romanticized internal feelings of something not feeling right, or with the rationalistic mentality of something looking like what evil people do. We need to examine a large swath of passages and see how they correlate and a wide variety of circumstances thus allowing God to say what God wishes to be said. God is supreme, and He is judge, and the Kingdoms of the World, when they do right, do right according to His will and should be applauded for that. When they do wrong, even if it is in accordance to his plans, they always are blamed because they willingly did wrong.

 

Concluding Points.
So we have passages that speak of individuals not rejoicing over the death of their personal enemies and passages speaking of corporate rejoicing over the death of their corporate enemies. We have an understanding that God judges in the future, but that we see his judgment and justice sometimes right now in the present—and that rejoicing is expected in these situations. But at this point we have to make some mental ties while avoiding extremes.

  1. One extreme is to become holier than God. Since the sinner has been punished, we should weep and pray for his soul or some such thing. It is appointed for man to die—and if his life is cut off via judgment of his instrument. It is in this world that God has cut the man off to introduce him to judgment. End of opportunity for repentance. A decision has been made. If it happens in the house of God with certain sins, suggests John, what makes us think that the God who even numbers the hairs on heads doesn’t act this way in reality? All of Scripture tells us he does (re-read the book of Daniel for instance). Trying to be holier than God is ultimately idolatrous. God judged, we must agree that He has done right, and we should be happy about that.
  2. Another extreme is to become holier than other believers in not-rejoicing. Christians are told to weep with the mourners and rejoice with the rejoicers but it also tells us to be careful when we do either. If there is a legitimate time for mourning, it is actually wrong to look at fellow tear-shedders as doing something morally wrong.  Christians should be incredibly leery of merely finding a proof-text to justify judgment of fellow believers when there is a very deep theological grid-work underlying all of it.
  3. And yet another extreme is to revel in rejoicing. We’re believers who have been called to live where we are (1 Cor 7) but that doesn’t mean that we are to be carried away in the actions and activity of the world around us. John tells us that the World System is antithetical to the Christian even while Paul tells us that the World’s Systems have been established by God. To do (horrid) things like raising a decapitated head of one’s enemies is just really missing the point of both the image of God and God’s own justice.

All of this tells me that when the enemy of the People is judged by God, cut off, and justice is served: the Lord has done right; the people should rejoice. Just like the Song of Moses rejoices in the cutting off of enemies, there is a rejoicing that should go hand in hand with justice being served. It is not to be avoided merely on the grounds that the Wicked also rejoice in wrongdoing—that just means that they have perverted something that is proper and right.

It might be a sticker situation deciding Who Are The Wicked and Who Aren’t The Wicked but that goes beyond the boundaries of it being okay or not to rejoice. I think that Hitler was obviously “The Wicked” even if the people being killed were sinners. I think that Stalin was obviously “The Wicked” even if the people being killed were unrighteous. In each of those cases, the unrighteous become “The Innocent” that can rightly bring a charge against “The Wicked” and demand a balancing of the scales. In both cases, I think it is right for the people to rejoice over the death of the wicked, but not in some horridly gruesome way (like banners with decapitated heads).

Justice, which belongs to God, triumphed and we should rejoice in that. It happened in time, right now, and that is a foretaste of a future balancing of scales where the God of heaven surely does right and every mouth is shut. We shouldn’t look down on fellow Christians that are rejoicing, but we also shouldn’t become bloodthirsty in our rejoicing.

We should, I think, act wisely in even this and realize that a robust theological foundation is much broader and all-encompassing than a mere proof-text or a blanket statement. One day, we will definitely rejoice when every knee bows, by hook or by crook, to the seated and reigning King—but in the present we can rejoice when we get a foretaste of a government that functions correctly.

Now, what about Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden: should we rejoice that justice has been served against these men? Yes, I think we should. We shouldn’t be morbidly happy about it, but we should say and believe that a government has properly used it’s God-given sword and be happy about that. We shouldn’t be morbidly happy with gruesome depictions of the dead, but we should stand with those who mourned and say “Yes, God’s arm can be seen in this bit of justice.”

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32 thoughts on “Should Christians Rejoice Over The Death of the Wicked?

  1. “when imprecation is leveled against the Psalmists’ enemies, it is almost always coupled with self-examination”

    Great point Scott! I also posted about our response to the death today but not in the wonderful detail that you did.

    Have a great week!

  2. Excellent piece. Thank for taking the time to write such a thorough essay on this issue. I’m about to spread it all over the place. :)

  3. Perfect. Ezekial 18:23 has been thrown around a lot today, and it seemed that it was being taken out of context to me, but I couldn’t put it together. Thank you for doing it so well for me.

  4. Amen. Thank you for this post. The call for “Biblical robustness” is spot on: when the Bible presents us a paradox, we need to accept it as a paradox.

  5. Just awful. I am saddened by the intellectual contortions you’ve had to go through to justify an untenable position, especially creating a false dichotomy of “individual” versus “corporate” vengeance in order to try to categorize conflicting verses in the Bible.

    I also find it really, really telling that in all of this you only mentioned Jesus once in passing. Your perspective is not founded upon the man who taught us a new way to live and be — “love your enemies” was delivered as a mandate without condition — but rather upon a tribal sense of revenge which is nothing short of ugly.

    I see nothing to celebrate in the death of a human being, even an evil man such as bin Laden. Hatred (because there is no love in that rejoicing — even you didn’t claim that) breeds hatred. Celebrating the death of an enemy — no matter whom he is the enemy of — is out of character for people who say they love and follow Jesus.

  6. Actually Sarah, I had a very long section on Jesus but I removed it. For example, I pointed to passages where Jesus is seen in the Apocalypse destroying his enemies like grapes in a wine-press. I had a long section tying Psalm 2 and the wrath of the Son to all that. I removed it, not because of embarrassment but because of length and redundancy. The point had already been proven.

    Also you have to be careful with divorcing Jesus from The Lord God. There is a fundamental connection. You can’t have the love of Jesus without the wrath of the Lamb. You can’t have the love of the Lord without the righteous anger of the Lord. There is a reason why the Song of Moses stands as a bookmark in both testaments.

    But that aside, blanket assertions without Biblical proof, like what you’re doing in your third paragraph, are really dubious.

  7. Thx rey! I have started receiving the comments.

    And sorry for calling you Scott – not that there is anything wrong with that name. :)

  8. I’m with Sarah. Pointing out that she made a statement without backing it up with Biblical proof/quotation does not invalidate her point. Indeed, the claim that “hatred breeds hatred” should surely not be controversial in any community, let alone a Christian one.

  9. While I generally disagree with Sarah, I think she had a good point that the distinction drawn ought not to be whether the oppressor was an individual vs. collective enemy that determines the proper reaction.

    Rather, I believe that the key factor is: whose justice is it?

    If I raise the bloody head of my enemy on a stick and use it as a banner, it is a sign that I am to be feared; that I exact vengeance on my enemies. This is the attitude of Lamech, who got the wrong lesson from God’s judgement of Cain. This same attitude is wrong both for individuals and collections of individuals.

    The reason is because we do not define justice: God does. It is God who executes God’s justice. Exodus 15 is not a song about what Israel does to its enemies; it is a song about what God does to the wicked.

    So, when God’s justice, which since Genesis 9:6 (and still in Romans 13) is partially delegated to human government to carry out, is accomplished, the proper response is to rejoice in God’s love and deliverance (with songs and dancing), and to fear God for his holy and omnipotent justice.

    Osama Bin Laden is dead: Praise the LORD! Fear the LORD!

  10. Sarah,

    I am sympathetic to your point. Jesus (and God) is/are love. That is not all they are. Rey and I don’t see eye to eye on many things, but he’s not the one ignoring the whole of the revelation of God here.

    “but rather upon a tribal sense of revenge which is nothing short of ugly.”

    Here you seem to fall under the impression that the unfortunately difficult parts of the Old Testament are nothing more than the rantings of an ancient tribe, at least where you find them hard to reconcile with the Jesus of the Care Bears. God set an angel with a flaming sword to guard Eden. He leveled cities and destroyed the entire world and promises to do so again. I don’t like any of that, personally. But it’s there.

    If you believe in the Trinity then you know God and Jesus are one and neither of them has changed since the beginning of time. God is and ever was a God of Mercy AND Justice. You don’t need justice unless someone has done wrong and there is a penalty to pay.

  11. Thank you very much for this post. It gave many different perspectives on the issue, all of which I certainly appreciate. Wonderful work, sir.

  12. I have no desire to be as they were over there when the towers fell. They too felt they were celebrating a victory over wickedness. I believe we are to leave it to God to judge. Humankind is fallible.

  13. A comment from my in-box made a good point. She said “One tiny piece of info is that the campaign to stop OBL was actually begun under President Clinton.”

    In my mind I had the mission statement of President Bush’s “OBL: Dead or Alive.” and “No harbor, no hiding,” etc. But she made a very good point with that and I wanted to acknowledge it.

  14. Burndive, read the passage. Ezekiel 18:23 clearly states that God’s desire is not to see the wicked slain but saved. It is His desire, but not His will. His will is that His name be glorified

  15. joshua,

    I’m not quite sure what your point is, but it seems like you’re taking issue with something I said, or failed to say.

    I fully agree God longs for the repentance of the wicked, calling on us to repent and offering mercy, forgiveness, and grace, even enabling some of us to do so.

    I don’t see how that detracts from the goodness, the right-ness, the quality-of-being-worthy-of-celebration; when his judgement finally falls on an unrepentant sinner. If God is to be glorified in His judgement, then surely we who see the value of his justice ought to rejoice. Is that not so?

    Certainly if we have His heart, then we will also rejoice along with the angels in heaven when a sinner repents, but again, this does not detract from our joy in His perfect justice, who was please to crush his Son for our sins.

    Mercy does not exist without justice. It cannot, because mercy is defined in terms of justice.

    I am trying to clarify my thoughts in the hope of drawing out an understanding of yours.

    Please clarify what you meant, so that I can understand your perspective.

  16. Good article, very well written. Just a couple of points I’d like to address.
    First….I think I have to disagree on the criticism regarding the displaying of the head. While the Bible doesn’t say how he did it, it does tell us that David took up a sword, and took the head of Goliath. Given that he did this with 2 armies watching….I personally believe that he did in fact hold it up for all to see, in the same manner as the Statue of Liberty is depicted doing. I am also just a certain that there was a deafening cheering from one side of the field, and a subdued silence from the other.

    My other point is that in 1996, Sudan had Bin Laden, and offered to take him into custody, and turn him over…although it wasn’t quite clear to whom. At the time , the US was hoping for the Saudis to take custody of him, (hoping for a quick and public beheading) but that didn’t happen. My criticism is that he was not followed and dealt with covertly by the Clinton administration. We knew where he was, and had the means; but apparently lacked the will to do it. That cost us greatly! Sudan ejected him in late 1996, and he went to Afghanistan, where he planned and financed attacks on US embassies, the attack on the USS Cole, and the 9/11 attacks

  17. Thank you, Scott, for pointing that out. I was scrolling down to say the same thing. Although hindsight is 20/20 and it was therefore an easier decision for Obama, he has created a stark contrast between himself and Bill Clinton. While I’m no fan of Obama’s, I will certainly give him credit for taking swift, effective action to get this done.

  18. Hi JC…
    While I can understand what you’re saying, and I am glad he authorized it, I can’t go overboard praising him for it. It was kind of a no-brainer, wouldn’t you say??

  19. Bin Laden died in December 2001. You must be part of a 501C religious government op. There is absolutely no proof that bin laden was killed on May 1, 2011. This is just a big government psy op to make that fool in the white house look good and to continue the oppression of the american people with manufactured terrorism.

    The bin laden story has more holes in it than a swiss cheese and it is also against christian ethics to act as a lying shill for nazi as this blog clearly is doing.

  20. Hatred is a feeling which leads to the extinction of values
    Matthew 5:43
    “You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.’ “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have

    I have sat in horror as I watched people from Muslim nations burn our flag in effigy and cry out “death to America” Nothing has ever reminded me of this so much as some of the things I have seen our own people do in the last few days. A man is dead. I’m not saying he didn’t deserve to die, but Jingles? I lived in the Middle East and I know this. The people there are, for the most part, honorable, they are in General bright and educated. I think many of their schools are better than ours. They go to work. They struggle, their mothers love their children and their fathers try to keep them safe. They are no more good or evil than we are. Are we looking for a solution to this crisis or are we only interested in winning? Don’t these people know that their singing and dancing and rejoicing will be broad cast and podcast all over the Middle East? Do we really want to inspire more hatred? Or our we so naïve that we think we bear no responsibility in this woeful state of affairs. We have for a hundred years tried to influence or control many governments in that region. We have supported dictators who treated their own people abominably beyond belief. We have tortured captives whom we believed to be terrorists though we had, in many cases, little proof, humiliated them in terrible ways and now their fathers have seen the pictures. Again I’m not saying they are right to act as they have, but given the same circumstances would many of us not act the same. We invaded one of their nations and garnered support for that invasion on lies We took a terrible act of hatred and used it for our own ends. Tens of thousands of innocents, many children, died as the result. I know that no matter how altruistic an invading nation might be were they to kill or cripple my children I would not accept the cost and seek retribution. Yes I fear we bear a far larger burden in this than we care to admit. In any conflict between nations it is the poor who suffer, the disenfranchised whom are downtrodden and forgotten. We will spend 750 billion dollars on defense in 2011 this does not include the cost of maintaining troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is twelve times the expenditure of China, our closest competitor. I can’t help but think this is a slippery slope, the temptation to rule the world or at least bend it to our will is too great. We have gone through a terrible financial crisis and given our financial system will inevitably face many more. I don’t want to face a world that hates us when we begin to crumble. Hate begets hate. I know there are intelligent reasonable people on both sides we have to talk. We have to garner understanding. Our people are the same All children of God. I know how this sounds and I’m not supporting the actions of terrorists. But we need to make sure we don’t create more terrorists by wrong action. Violence only begets violence. Hatred is the enemy of reason.

  21. The Bible says, speaking of Ishmael and his seed: “He will be a wild ass of a man, his hand will be against every man, and every man’s hand will be against him”.
    God’s word shows itself true again!!

  22. Pingback: God and Philosophy
  23. When David slayed Goliath, he cut his head off to display it to the nation of Israel. Was he sinning when he did this? Gloating over the death of his enemy…a death at his very own hands? In fact, he was honoring God and brought glory to the Creator. As a Christian, I have a responsibility to pray for my enemies, to do good. Jesus truly turned the world “upside down” and calls us to live in a way that leaves room for God’s justice. I do, however, have the convictions that causes me to praise God when the wicked do fall, but it shouldn’t be because a certain person died but because God brought about his justice for the good of all.

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