God Doesn't Give Us What We Deserve – So Should We Be Glad bin Laden "Got What He Deserved"?

Last week I began a series of three posts responding to the death of Osama bin Laden — and to the discomfort many felt at the way in which that death was celebrated by Americans, including many American Christians.  The first post considered the claim, “The people celebrating the death of bin Laden are like the people who celebrated in the ‘Angry Arab Street’ when the towers fell on 9/11.”  The second post asked “What ought we to celebrate, and what ought we not to celebrate, about bin Laden’s death?”  This third post responds to what some other folks were saying: “We shouldn’t celebrate that Osama bin Laden ‘got what he deserves,’ because God doesn’t give us what we deserve.”

It’s difficult to know where to start with this.

FIRST, at least according to traditional Christian theologies, God does give what is deserved to people who do not repent and take refuge in grace.  To those who refuse the love and the grace of their Creator, God gives them over to death and to an eternity apart from him.  In fact, there is a very real sense in which God gives what is deserved even to those who take refuge in him.  The righteousness of Christ is graciously imputed to them, so that (through the work of Christ, not through their own work) they actually deserve the favor of God and the inheritance of God’s children.

SECOND, even if we grant that God gives out mercy and not justice — that is, that God does not give people what they deserve — does it follow that we should not?  Should we not give people what they deserve?  What about the oppressed, who deserve justice in a different sense?  What about those who are wronged, who deserve restitution?  What about the poor, who deserve care?  What exactly is being suggested here?  Are we only supposed to give what is deserved when a person deserves good things, and not when a person deserves bad things?  So, were we not supposed to give bin Laden the worst of punishments?

One might object by pointing to the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, in which a king forgives a servant but revokes that forgiveness when he discovers that the servant did not extend the same forgiveness to a person in need.  So, should we have forgiven Osama bin Laden?  Radically enough, if bin Laden had repented and sought our forgiveness, then yes, we should have forgiven him.  But (a) there’s no evidence that Osama bin Laden repented, (b) forgiveness does not mean that there are no consequences, in the same way that a parent might forgive a child and yet discipline the child for disobedience, and (c) while it’s clear that God calls for individuals to forgive one another, and while God clearly calls for rulers to be merciful, God does not ask the state to forgive a horrendous lawbreaker to the point of never bringing justice upon him.  We should always be careful when we assume that God would require the same thing of the state as he requires of the individual.  The state, for instance, is not called to “turn the other cheek” when attacked.  Any state that did so would not last for long, as it would ill serve its citizens and would be exploited by others.

THIRD, there’s a difference between eternal and temporal justice.  Since God is ultimately the one who is wronged by sin, he is fully within his rights to grant forgiveness and to spare us from the fate we deserve.  And individuals may choose to give mercy to those who wronged them, and not to demand justice.  The state, however, is charged by God to defend its citizens and authorized to carry out justice on their behalf.  In this case, if the state had failed to bring death to bin Laden then it would have failed in its obligations to its citizens, and especially in its obligations to those who lost loved ones on 9/11.

FOURTH and finally, and here we enter deeper theological waters, we can trust God to make the right decisions in what God “gives” (justice or mercy) to people, in this life or the next, because God (a) knows the hearts of all people and (b) foreknows what the effects if his justice or mercy will be.  God’s intent is that all should be saved, and God knows precisely when to give mercy and when to give a person over to what he deserves.  The state is not in such a position.  The state must act on the basis of what it knows, but the state is not omniscient, so it must act according to principles of justice.  Just as the state cannot say, “I’m not going to give justice (restitution — let’s say a financial compensation) to this person who has been wronged, because I know that this reward will make the person arrogant, or the person will use the money to buy alcohol,” so the state cannot say “I’m not going to give justice (punishment) to this person who did wrong, because I know that if I give him mercy it will lead to a change of heart and he will become a better man.”  To be sure, individuals can do so, and justices are given some space for discernment and can exercise that discernment to a limited extent on the basis of what they do know, but the state writ large has to operate according to certain principles of justice.

Whether any person deserves death is another question for another time.  But I don’t find much weight to this argument that we should not celebrate that Osama received what he deserved, when we have received grace instead.

About Timothy Dalrymple

Timothy Dalrymple was raised in non-denominational evangelical congregations in California. The son and grandson of ministers, as a young boy he spent far too many hours each night staring at the ceiling and pondering the afterlife.
 
In all his work he seeks a better understanding of why people do, and do not, come to faith, and researches and teaches in religion and science, faith and reason, theology and philosophy, the origins of atheism, Christology, and the religious transformations of suffering

  • John

    Tim — I think you don’t give enough attention in your first point, to the traditional Christian theology you are citing. Specifically, I find myself often reflecting on the transition from the first to the second chapter of Romans. Paul ends Romans 1 with a strong statement on how those who “do such things”—referring, of course, to the long list of “every kind of wickedness”—deserve the death that they receive.
    But in the opening verses of Romans 2 he warns those of us who stand there, figuratively speaking, giving God high-fives, that we “do the same things,” followed by the reminder that God’s kindness is supposed to lead us to repentance.
    Isn’t the deeper point of those of us who’ve said “We aren’t getting what we deserve” is that all of us are fundamentally sinners (the doctrines of Total Depravity and Original Sin speak to this) who in and of ourselves would never have chosen God, so can’t in any way claim to deserve ourselves that which, yes, is imputed to us by Grace.
    You are playing a little too loosely with imputation when you say Christians “actually deserve” the righteousness that is imputed by grace.
    That said, you actually deserve gratitude for this lucid and insightful series. :-)

  • C. Ehrlich

    Suppose your own mother dies as an agnostic. God then sends her to eternal torment in hell. The assumption, of course, is that unbelievers deserve to be eternally tormented in hell. God, who is just, wouldn’t otherwise send unbelievers to hell.

    So should we be glad that your mother is in hell–that she is getting what she deserves?

    If not, why not? (And why wouldn’t the same reasoning apply to the bin Laden case?)


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