A Lesson from Those Who Sought the End: A Hopeless Life is a Life without True Worship

You may have seen one of these recently. Over 5000 were purchased throughout the country as part of one of the biggest doomsday campaigns in our country's history.

There was probably no one on the planet Sunday who felt lousier than Harold Camping.  The 89-year-old retired civil engineer had been “prophesying” for months in a nationwide, 100 million dollar plus campaign that the end of the world was going to be on May 21, 2011.  His ministry proclaimed that when that Saturday arrived, 200 million Christians would be “raptured” to heaven as a result of Christ’s return.  Obviously, since you’re here and I’m here and Camping is still here and not a single person on the planet went missing this weekend as the result of supernatural forces, Camping was clearly wrong.  But how does someone who is so inaccurate get so sure of something so important?  And more importantly, why is anyone willing to follow him?

The truth is, Harold Camping had been very wrong before.  He had previously predicted judgment days on May 21, 1988, and September 7, 1994 (for which he wrote the book 1994?).  Camping was and is and always will be wrong because he bases his calculations for the end of the world on a strange hybrid of pseudo-faith & pseudo-science called biblical numerology.

Biblical numerology began as a practice that was heavily influenced by foreign, pagan societies like the Babylonians and eventually found its way into faith traditions more closely associated with the Bible, like early Gnosticism, Christian mysticism, and Hebrew Kabbalah – you know, like Madonna (not the weird early years, but the even weirder later years).  All of these belief systems sought “hidden answers” to knowing God because when Jesus said that he was the only way to know God, they didn’t fully believe him.  Instead, they went rummaging through the Bible not to collect clear meaning and understanding, but to excavate hidden meaning – an approach that is sure to lead someone into confusion and ultimately away from faith.

Biblical numerology became such a dangerous and influential practice in the early church that in 325 A.D., following the First Council of Nicaea (the event from which we received the Nicene Creed), the practice was assigned to the field of unapproved beliefs along with astrology and other forms of divination and magic by the hundreds of orthodox Christian leaders who had gathered.  This kind of anti-Christian interpretation of Scripture is the kind that Harold Camping was practicing.

But, you say, he’s just a sweet little old man.  How can you dare call him anti-Christian?  Simple.  Because he willfully and overtly teaches doctrine that opposes Christ’s own teaching.

Like many today, Jesus’ own disciples were fascinated at the thought of the end of the world too, so they asked him about it, recorded for us in Matthew 24.  And this is what Jesus replied:  “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; 39 and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. 41Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.  42 “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.” (Matthew 24:36-42)

Harold Camping sure thought he knew the day.  In fact, he’s thought he’s known several times.  But he ignored Christ’s words that no one will know.  Rather, Jesus says that the end of the world will be a surprise to all, like a thief in the night.

Say a prayer for Mr. Camping.  We all know what it feels like to look like an idiot.  No one looked like a bigger one this weekend than he did.  And frankly, he deserved it.  Nonetheless, despite this and some other “out there” beliefs regarding God and the Bible and the Church, this is a man who seemingly has a very high regard for Scriptural authority and a high regard for God’s grace and the Lordship of Jesus Christ.  So there obviously remains hope for him and I’d rather not spend the rest of the time talking about how crazy he is.

Rather, what struck me in the days and months leading up to the big May 21 date, is how many other people – young, employed, hard-working people – were willing to hop on Camping’s nutbag end-of-world ride.  What it tells me is that there are a lot of Christians out there who are so scared of life, so desperate to get out of it, that they’re willing to follow a very old man who practices a very pagan approach to the Bible and has a poor track record of doing so, all because they’re just looking to have a little hope for some relief.

I get it.  I’m not always crazy about life either.  So much of it seems so pointless.  So much of it and the people we encounter throughout it are so discouraging.  At some point, I think every Christian stops in their tracks and thinks, “What am I even doing here?”  New Testament writers, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, even write that way sometimes.  Somewhat ironically, writing in what is called his “Letter of Joy” (Philippians), Paul talks about his desire to die and leave this world to be in heaven.  He says, “I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far.” (Philippians 1:23)  You see, some Christians struggle with dying, because they’re afraid of what they might leave behind or uncertain of what may be ahead.  Others, like people desperate for the end of the world, struggle with living, because they know how good heaven is going to be and they feel like this lifetime is pointless.

If you tend to fall into that latter category (i.e. “life is pointless”), recognize the second half of the Apostle Paul’s statement.  While acknowledging his excitement for heaven, at the same time he understands the responsibilities he has to carry out here on earth.  He says in Philippians 1:24, “but it is more necessary for you (Philippian Christians) that I remain in the body.”  In essence, what Paul is saying is that God is keeping him alive because he has a purpose for Paul, a plan to carry out, that involves ministering to those believers.  Paul recognized that it was okay (even healthy) for a Christian to joyfully long for the days of heaven which Christ has earned for us.  But Paul also understood that since God is the author of life, as long as he keeps Paul alive, he has a purpose for him, a very real “necessity” in Paul being there.  To carry this out, Paul must continue to grow in Christ here on earth and continue to live out his faith.

God’s will for our lives as his redeemed children, as we continue on this planet, is also abundantly clear – to minister on his behalf.  No, I’m not saying everyone should become a public minister or a travelling missionary like Paul.  I’m saying that every Christian already is a Christian minister as part of the universal priesthood.  Living out that priesthood means offering up my life as a living sacrifice – conforming myself to Christ’s likeness, loving God above all and loving others, spreading the gospel, caring for the ailing, comforting the worried, warning the unrepentant and laughing with the saved.

Ministering for Christ on earth involves understanding that there is really no difference between “secular” and “sacred” in our lives.  Everything is sacred, since everything may be done to the glory of God.  Therefore everything is also significant.  Many Christians miss this point and wander through life somewhat directionless.  As our king, Jesus is not only the ruler over all the nations on the earth, but he’s the ruler of every decision we make and every thought that we have.  He rules over our jobs, our web browsers, our refrigerators, our debit cards, our car horns, our clothing choices, our words, the tone we use, what we communicate through our facial expressions and body language, etc.  In short, Jesus rules EVERYTHING in the Christian’s life.

Everything we do, every thought we have, every decision we make, therefore is an act of worship.  It is a reflection of what we prize most greatly.  When we understand that, everything in life then becomes about giving glory to God.  For a Christian, that means purpose.  Christians who struggle with finding meaning here, who are desperate for Judgment Day or end of life, are without a doubt failing to see Jesus in every moment of their lives, failing to see how all they take part in is opportunity to “do it all for the glory of God.”  (1 Corinthians 10:31)  They are failing to recognize that they are here by necessity.  They are failing to realize that God works through their obedience to generate something spectacular in this world and for this world, particularly for the people they encounter in life.

God created humans for worship.  Whether we realize it or not, that’s what we’re all doing all the time: worshipping.  What or whom we choose to worship is directly related to whether or not we understand our purpose in life.  If you are lacking true hope or purpose or meaning in life, ask yourself this question: what/who am I worshipping?  It could be something as trite as money or sex or pride.  Then again, what you might be tempted to worship could be something a little more complex, like a relationship other than the one with Jesus, or a perception of who you think you’re supposed to be, or your sense of justice that’s leading you into bitterness toward God and others.

Whatever it may be (and we’ve all got something), it doesn’t deserve your worship.  Only the one who gave you life and bought back your life with his own deserves such worship.  That’s Jesus.  And when you give him your worship, both your life and your future will have meaning and hope.

America’s Churches are Emptying and Why that’s Not ALL Bad

Do the increasingly empty pews in Protestant churches spell the end of Christianity in our country?

As a pastor, it’s easy to get discouraged by the fact that the sanctuary is not packed for every worship service every weekend.  Too much good seating is too available too often.  And many churches and church bodies have been experiencing this.  Mainline Protestant churches have been bleeding membership slowly for years now.  What’s the cause?  Should we panic?  Is this spelling the death of Christianity in America? 

I mentioned something in my sermon this past weekend that I could tell got a couple of quizzical looks.  Talking about the Israelites lack of trust in the LORD and failure to uphold/defend the name of the LORD as the Philistine warrior Goliath blasphemed him, I reasoned that this unfaithfulness on the part of the Israelites brought more disrespect to God’s name than anything one giant fool spouting off at the mouth could ever do.  The application I made was this: Either be a Christian or don’t be a Christian, but don’t call yourself a Christian and then willfully live in an unchristian manner, because the name of the LORD just gets trashed in the process. 

I actually think people in our society are starting to pick up on this – that nominal Christianity is really no Christianity at all.  I think what we’re seeing in society as churches are emptying is the death of a fairly soft, uncommitted and relatively apathetic group.  And I don’t know as that’s a bad thing.  The statistics seem to show that what is happening is a growth in legitimately devoted Christians AND a growth in agnosticism and skepticism.  This seems a little paradoxical, but really isn’t. 

What we’ve had in our country for many, many years is that there were very few outright “atheists” or “unbelievers.”  Just about everybody called themselves Christians but only a fraction of those were really committed to the Christian message in their lives.  So, you had a bunch of people who went to church occasionally or even regularly simply because “that’s what our culture does” and “that’s what I’m supposed to do.”  If you’re familiar with the popular animated satire The Simpsons, then you know what I’m talking about.  The family attends worship with their church weekly, but can’t wait to bust free after the final “Amen.”  And what the Simpson family learned in worship, if anything, ends up having very little impact on the rest of their week.  Today, moving from the coasts inward, that segment of the population gradually seems to be going away and therefore some churches are emptying out.  But again, is that really a bad thing?  It’s bad in the sense that the only way those nominal Christians were going to grow in spiritual vitality was if they were connected to the gospel and now they don’t have that.  But, it’s good in the sense that it’s clarifying in what Christianity really means.  When new Christians do legitimately come into the church now, hopefully they are less likely to see bad examples of spiritual lethargy and indifference and think “Well, this is what Christianity must be.” and subsequently follow the pattern.  Likewise, more time and energy can be devoted to ministering to and with those who actually desire it. 

The “ultra-devoteds” are growing and the “ultra-skepticals” are growing, for a net “loss” in Christian numbers because the nominal middle is disappearing.  Somewhat ironic in all of this is that many Christians are often alarmed at the lack of Christians (especially young people) in church and at the exact same time, many skeptics are sometimes alarmed at the growth of what’s called Christian fundamentalism.  In reality, both assessments are accurate, and for Christianity, what that means is that we’re refining to a group that actually knows why it believes what it believes and is legitimately committed to that. 

I don’t think our country is becoming less religious or anything.  I think we’re more clearly defining what’s really, authentically in our hearts and being open and honest about that.  That’s beneficial.  Historically, whenever you have the cultural expectation to have allegiance to the true God, it hasn’t gone particularly well – e.g. O.T. Israelites, Christianized Rome, the European Church of the Middle Ages.  While I’m sure there are exceptions to this, there seems to be something about the cultural expectation of faithfulness to God that seems to squelch true spiritual health.  So, while I sometimes speak in pessimistic terms regarding Christianity in America, I actually think we might be moving in the right direction and I’m very excited and hopeful about that.  The more clearly we define Christianity, the more clearly we define the love and truth of the one we reflect – Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.  And when he is clearly seen, new and true spiritual life begins. 

To the church in Laodicea, God told the Apostle John to write these words: “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! 16 So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth…19 Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. 20 Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” (Revelation 3:15-16, 19-20)

NOTE: There are a number of other factors that contribute to lowering worship attendances in many Protestant churches.  One that many will point to is the rise of large Evangelical churches (often called “megachurches”), which, irrespective of doctrine, often grow simply because they do a lot of practical things very, very well and meet people’s perceived needs very well, which leads to them absorbing many of the disgruntled Protestant worshippers leaving other churches.  None of that discounts what I’ve mentioned above though.  It just means that there are several factors contributing to a noticeable trend.

Jesus is the Bottom Line Answer in the Very Big Story

ABC's hit series LOST captivated and frustrated millions of viewers for 6 seasons, and in doing so shed some light on the pursuits and pitfalls of our world today.

There’s a good chance that one of my favorite shows of all time may also be one of yours.  It was a little project designed by ABC with the original intention of being a cross between Gilligan’s Island and the reality show Survivor, and entail elements of the movie Castaway and the book Lord of the Flies.  The tv show was called LOST.  During its run on tv from 2004-2010, most television critics also recognized it as one of the best shows on tv (particularly during its first 3 seasons), as it garnered about 15 million viewers/week and accumulated numerous critical awards. 

The premise of LOST was that a group of individuals survived a plane crash somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, landing on a mysterious island.  But it seemed destined to happen.  Over the course of their journey on that mysterious island together, the characters encounter such supernatural elements as a “Smoke Monster,” a group of other mysterious island inhabitants whom they call “the Others,” the remnants of a secret scientific organization called the Dharma Initiative that had researched the supposed powers of the island, a sequence of numbers that frequently appeared in the lives of the characters in the past, present and future, as well as synchronic personal connections between the characters that they are often unaware of.  All of these characters arrive at the island with sordid pasts filled with dysfunctional families and often strained relationships with fathers, and from episode to episode they appear to shift from black to white so often in their decision-making that we can never really tell who is good and who is evil.  Eventually, working together in hope of getting off the island at some point, they, in essence, find out who they really are. 

The excitement and mystery of the journey and the character growth are really what the show is about.  On the surface, it looks as though the show is about a magical island that holds the keys to the secrets of the universe and possesses the power to start, stop, fast-forward, or rewind human existence.  It’s not.  And this is part of the reason why LOST lost about 1/3 of its viewership after the third season.  While the ride was exciting and the characters were evolving, questions continued to be raised that were never really answered.  Many people got frustrated and gave the show up.  Last spring, the series finale ran, the show concluded, and many were still disappointed when satisfactory answers were really never given to all of the big questions.  Viewers really never had the right to be disappointed though.  If they were looking for answers, they should have jumped ship with the other disgruntled viewers 3 seasons earlier.  The show never really intended to offer answers.  It was about the journey and the character evolution.

I’ve noticed this somewhat maddening trait of LOST in the other projects of writer, director, producer J.J. Abrams as well.  My wife and I weekly watch another one of his shows, a science fiction mystery-drama that feels like an updated X-Files, called Fringe.  Having just concluded season three of Fringe, it’s the same situation – a preposterous amount of questions that will never be satisfactorily answered.  They were really never intended to be though.  Abrams has flat-out said in interviews before that his theory on storytelling is about taking a mystery and enjoying the journey as you grow with the characters.  If you want to hear it from his own mouth, here (particularly minutes 4:00-6:30) is a fascinating seminar speech he gave several years ago.  (please note: Abrams language falls into the PG-13 category). 

One of the reasons that Abrams, one of the more acclaimed writers/directors/producers of the past 25 years, has been so incredibly successful in his career is simply that he is a very talented storyteller.  However, another reason for his success is that he fully identifies with and embraces the thought process, paradigm, worldview of our culture today – that life is more about the journey and personal evolution than it is about the actual, big answers.  This is one of main tenets of a philosophically postmodern world.  That approach to life, however, will ultimately lead many to become like LOST viewers after a series finale party – scratching their heads and wishing they had answers. 

It amazes me how many people are currently content with not legitimately pursuing answers in life.  These people range from happy to miserable, young to old, wealthy to needy.  If life is going well right now, people conveniently push thoughts of death or the next life out-of-mind because they’re only concerned with trying to fill their bellies with happiness now.  Even those who are unhappy often seem more interested in complaining about life and perhaps playing the various lotteries of life in hope of circumstances becoming better rather than actually investigating the book that promises answers.  Young people are too busy for God.  Elderly…let me share one personal example…I have an 80-year-old gentleman that lives in my apartment complex whom I care about dearly.  He’s outgoing, a little rough on the exterior, but very warm and generous and friendly.  I’ve invited him to come to worship with me and my church numerous times, but he often changes the conversation.  He talks about how much he’s grown over the years and how his perspective on life has changed.  But while he’s enjoyed the journey of life along with its ups and downs and while he feels he has evolved as a person, he currently doesn’t really want to invest himself in finding answers.  Many don’t. 

Many Christians fall into this mentality as well.  We’ll put tons of time and energy and money into seeking to improve this life and grow as people (better degrees, fitter bodies, more socially involved families), which is all great, but we don’t really come with the same passion to  understanding our purpose or place in this world.  In such cases, Christianity becomes a family tradition, a societal average, and a label that we categorize ourselves as on social media, instead of a continual and growing relationship with an Almighty God (who governs the circumstances of our lives – the journey) and our Risen Lord (who transforms the hearts and characters of his followers – personal growth).  More than that though, the other end of this relationship (i.e. Jesus) saves us from all of the mistakes we’ve made throughout life. 

What LOST was missing was a bottom line that tied everything together and made sense of everything.  And that’s what many in this world in general are missing.  Christians have access to that bottom line though.  It’s Jesus.  Our purpose in life is not to produce, achieve, or pursue excitement or health or happiness or wealth or status or anything more or less noble sounding.  Our purpose is to glorify Jesus.  Our place is with Jesus.  Our fight is for Jesus.  Our sense of being is in Jesus.  Our God is Jesus.  Our joy is Jesus. 

Look at the Apostle Paul’s words from the great “Resurrection Chapter” of the Bible: “Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand.  By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.  For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” (1 Corinthians 15:1-4)  What Paul refers to here as “of first importance” is not the journey or personal improvement, it’s the end result of Jesus’ work, the “big answer” of life, the bottom line of spiritual welfare.  Our sins are paid for by Jesus’ sacrifice and we are right with God eternally and will live in paradise with God eternally.  That bottom line truth shifts our pursuits in life, our pleasures in life, and our perspective of life. 

To borrow a quote from one of my favorite Christian writers, Marc Driscoll, “the central point of the New Testament is that we are more wicked than we ever feared, yet more loved than we ever dreamed.”   No one in this life is currently living their dream.  Not a single person.  You are not.  I am not.  I just read yesterday that Arnold Schwarzenegger is getting a divorce after 25 years of marriage.  He was a Mr. Universe winner, at one point the biggest box office draw in the world, the governor of the biggest state in our country, and now he’s getting a divorce.  Something went wrong.  Life is not perfect.  This life will never be perfect.  So if pursuing this world’s successes – an exciting journey or personal growth – is your primary goal, you will end up dissatisfied.  If you pursue Jesus, you will not end up dissatisfied.  He is life.  Out of his own mouth, Jesus said, “My purpose is to give (my sheep) a rich and satisfying life.” (John 10:10 NLT)  Regardless of what your question in life is right now, there’s your answer.  If you look in Him, you will find what you’re looking for and more.

Is it okay to cheer when someone dies?

The death of bin Laden brought about some reactions that our country has really never seen.

Alright, so I’m probably about the last person using social media to comment on the death of Osama bin Laden.  Nonetheless, this is the type of episode that really only comes along perhaps once a generation or so, so I’m not sure we’ve fully taken in what we’ve seen unfold over recent days.  One significant example of what I’m talking about was seen within minutes of President Obama’s national announcement of bin Laden’s death – celebration in the streets.

Now someone can feel free to correct me if I’m wrong here, but not within my lifetime, and I don’t recall seeing any documentation from years earlier, have we actually seen Americans literally cheering, singing, dancing, and in general, rejoicing, over the death of a specific individual, as we do here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6kI8EUqbWdM

Comedian and political commentator Jon Stewart, whom I don’t always agree with but don’t deny is unquestionably very intelligent and most often quite funny, said that because he was so close to the whole situation (covering bin Laden for years in the media, living in New York City, etc.), he probably was too close to it all to be the best person to objectively comment on bin Laden’s death.

Well, I’m not too close.  I’m not in the media.  While I’m incredibly grateful for our country’s armed forces, I really don’t have any close familial ties to the U.S. military.  I’ve only driven through NYC once.  And my take on what I saw Sunday night was: Cheering someone’s death DOES seem a little weird.  Millions of tweets and Facebook statuses immediately rejoicing in someone’s death is a bit peculiar.  This is something that, as far as I know, we haven’t seen as a culture before.  One of my favorite descriptions from an analyst was that the celebration “looked like the Ewok party at the end of Return of the Jedi.”  In fact, what it looked like was similar to the footage of what we saw many Middle Eastern children doing on 9/11.  It looked more like people interested in winning than people concerned for or about life.

Now, our country (and others) have cheered the end of war before.    And since bin Laden was clearly the head of a terrorist organization in Al-Qaeda that some hold responsible for the deaths of anywhere from 100,000 to a million civilian deaths, maybe ending his life is as clear of a victory as we can get in the War on Terror.  In other words, maybe it could be interpreted more as celebration of a war coming to a close rather than celebration over an individual’s death.  Nonetheless, it looked strange.  It looked more like the USA had won the Super Bowl than a war and it felt more like people were cheering the fact that “USA won” and “bin Laden’s dead” more than the fact that lives may be spared from the hands of a Sharia law Muslim madman.

Aside from hearing Geraldo Rivera on FOX reference this as the Old Testament’s injunction of an “eye for an eye,”  I’m yet to hear too many in the mainstream reference “what the Bible might say” about such things, which is a little odd in that, while bin Laden was not necessarily a Muslim leader, his beliefs were undeniably attached to his Muslim faith.  One notable individual often linked with Christian thought that weighed in was Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee, whose official statement (i.e. not what he blurted out, but what he actually thought through and then wrote down as a statement to the world) much like many/most Americans, voiced more joy over bin Laden’s death than concern for bin Laden’s (or anyone else’s) soul.  He said this:

It is unusual to celebrate a death, but today Americans and decent people the world over cheer the news that madman, murderer and terrorist Osama Bin Laden is dead…It has taken a long time for this monster to be brought to justice. Welcome to hell, bin Laden. Let us all hope that his demise will serve notice to Islamic radicals the world over that the United States will be relentless in tracking down and terminating those who would inflict terror, mayhem and death on any of our citizens.

I guess I’d respond to his statement like this: If I am the face of American politics that is perhaps most closely associated with the Christian faith, I don’t say that.  It recalls the spirit of Peter chopping off Malchius’ ear in Gethsemane, not Jesus healing it.  And while I fully believe that God has given the government the right to take life from those who themselves have been so careless as to take life, Huckabee’s words sound more like dialogue from Bruce Willis in Die Hard, not a Christian, or even a politician.

In 2002, bin Laden wrote a public letter in which he called for Americans to “reject the immoral acts of fornication (sex before marriage), homosexuality, intoxicants, gambling, and usury (unjust interest collection).”  As a Christian pastor, I’m not sure he wasn’t on to something.  In the sermon I preached this past Sunday (linked here: http://resrochmn.wordpress.com/), I mentioned how the United States, by most definitions, is considered the “Most Christian Country” on the planet.  And yet we have countless statistics that don’t jive with our “Christian” beliefs.  We are a country that is willing to call Jesus “God” but refuses to follow Jesus as “Lord.”  Bin Laden’s problem was that he went about trying to “fix” America’s problems in the most godless, careless, and devilish of ways.  He deserved to die for his actions.  And his death is perfectly biblically defensible.  However, the drunken, spoiled rich kids and homosexual activist groups that I saw dancing in the streets at the announcement of bin Laden’s death made clear to me that the good/evil lines aren’t drawn as clearly and neatly as the national or political boundaries.

The more I think about it, the more I think that we as a country had a chance as “THE most influential Christian country” to show the world how to properly understand this – complete and necessary justice, but sad in the loss of human life, particularly a human life that is unquestionably bound for hell in his rejection of Jesus Christ as his Savior.  Instead, I think we kind of blew it with drunken parties and official statements from supposed Christian leaders saying things like, “Welcome to hell, bin Laden.”  I’m not convinced, as a people, that we’re much better than what bin Laden thought.

As with all things, there are certainly two sides to this.  While bin Laden’s death doesn’t bring back the husbands and wives of those who lost family members and friends on 9/11 or any other of al-Qaeda’s terrorist events, seeing the man killed is certainly evidence that there remains some sense of “justice” still sought on our planet.  And that, in itself, is something to take comfort in.

I also think that wishing for & praying for evil or evildoers to be brought to justice is certainly in line with the Christian faith.  We see that quite clearly in what are called the “imprecatory psalms” of the Old Testament.  Major Imprecatory Psalms include Psalm 69 and Psalm 109 with another dozen and a half or so also falling under the “imprecatory” (i.e. calling down curses) category.  And it’s not as though they were just seeking a form of Old Testament, old covenant, justice.  These psalms are quoted frequently in the New Testament.  For instance, Jesus quotes from them in John 2:17 and John 15:25, and the Apostle Paul quotes from Psalm 69 in Romans 11:9-10 and 15:3.  Here are a couple of examples of what imprecatory psalms look like:

  • May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow.  May his children be wandering beggars; may they be driven from their ruined homes.  May a creditor seize all he has; may strangers plunder the fruits of his labor.  May no one extend kindness to him or take pity on his fatherless children. (Psalm 109:9-12)
  • May their eyes be darkened so they cannot see, and their backs be bent forever.  Pour out your wrath on them; let your fierce anger overtake them.  (Psalm 69:23-24)
  • O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us—he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.  (Psalm 137:9-10)

Now the diary-style psalms are often raw.  There are other places in the psalms where the psalmists at times offer words that seem to show moments of weak faith/trust in God, so I’m not sure we’d want to take EVERY attitude that we see in the psalms and always hold them up as the ideal to emulate.  Nonetheless, there are plenty of other spots in the Bible where godly leaders pray for the destruction of those who oppose God’s will.   Naturally, if these enemies oppose God’s will, then it would clearly be God’s will first that they repent of their wicked ways, but finally, if they refuse, he would desire for them and their will to be destroyed.

In reference to the Lord’s Prayer, Luther once pointed out that when one prays, “Hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” then he must put all the opposition to this in one category and say: “Curses, maledictions and disgrace upon every other name and every other kingdom. May they be ruined and torn apart and may all their schemes and wisdom and plans run aground.”  Again, the idea is, if a person is in clear opposition to the will of our Lord, then that person is at the same time both 1) a lost soul who needs the love, kindness, and the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ to touch their heart and turn their life around, but that person, if persistently unrepentant of their evil, is also 2) an enemy of God and (by extension) us.

So the other side of the debate in the question of “Is it okay to cheer when someone dies?” is that it would seem to be a cause for rejoicing whenever an open and obvious enemy of Christ is brought to justice.  But we never cheer in life lost.  We cheer that God is glorified when his enemies are subdued.  It might look like a subtle difference, but it is a profound one.  In this case it could be the difference between blood-thirsty, nationalistic vengeance and humble praise.  One is Christian.  One is not.

I want to remind you that I’m not trying to tell anyone what they’re “supposed to feel” at a time like this.  It’s an emotional and complex time for many families.  Am I proud to be an American?  Well, let me put it like this: I have no idea why I’m so incredibly fortunate that I was born into a Christian family in a country with a combination of unmatched prosperity and unparalleled religious freedom.  The odds are so small, humbling in fact.  I could just have easily been a pagan peasant child in the Soviet Union or China or a militant Muslim in the Middle East.  I’m so thankful to be an American, and incredibly grateful to our armed forces currently serving as well as to those who have done so in years past.  Regardless of how the masses or some leaders in our country have handled (or mishandled) bin Laden’s death, it doesn’t change that.