Sunday Night, the greatest villain in the Western mind was announced dead. Ever since the tragic attack on September 11, 2001, Osama Bin Laden has grown to be the face of evil to an entire generation and as the news quickly filtered through Social Media sites, news station, and then finally declared by President Obama, the mantra “Justice Has Been Done” echoed through the night and has continued ever since.
Bin Laden not only orchestrated the killing of thousands in the attack on the twin towers, but has led a subversive radical regime which has taken hundreds of thousands of lives since its inception. The label “evil” is appropriate for him. Throughout history, when evil people finally got their just desserts (Hitler committing suicide, Bundy getting executed, Hussein being executed), the world rejoices over the justice that has been done. Regardless of the progress of human history, there is something inherent that enjoys seeing evil punished. Civilization is reassured that despite the overwhelming evil that goes unpunished, sometimes evil is conquered. Justice is done.
Prior to the events of Sunday night, the topic of heaven and hell dominated theological conversation and debate. With the release of Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, the question of how a loving God can sentence people like Gandhi to eternal hell just because he didn’t believe in Jesus has come into the forefront. While many in the Evangelical community have written Bell off as a Universalist, the overwhelming popularity of the book indicates that Bell’s concerns with the traditional understanding of hell are shared by many in America, especially amongst the younger generation.
Although I personally disagree with Bell, I do however understand the angst and difficulty of reconciling a loving God with hell. What I found lacking in the conversation prior to Sunday night is the other side of the argument, a side that has been made explicit in America’s reaction to Bin Laden’s death. If we refuse to accept that Gandhi will spend eternity in hell for rejecting Jesus, and that he, through God’s love, will eventually be brought into heaven, then the same must be true for Bin Laden. It seems almost cool to ask how a loving God can send people to hell. But is it equally cool to ask how a just God can let evil go unpunished? Will Osama eventually be in heaven without any repentance or contrition? Can a just God truly ignore the overwhelming evil of this man?
There is a false dichotomy in the religious expectations of Americans. On the one hand, we want to believe that God’s love will just turn a blind eye towards our sin and allow us into his presence. On the other hand, we see the death of Bin Laden and the hell awaiting him as justice and we revel in seeing it. We want a love that ignores evil while at the same time wanting a justice that punishes it. In a recent article in the New York Times by Ross Douthat, this same problem is discussed. He takes the example of the fictional Tony Soprano and asks if we really believe a guy like that, his archetype, could ever be accepted into heaven by a just and loving God.
A few weeks ago, I asked the question of whether or not hell exists. Hell may not be popular to a Western World that has been overwhelmingly anesthetized to the true effects of an evil world, but for those who have seen first hand violent oppression, genocides, terrorism, and holocaust, its hard to imagine a spiritual realm without hell. If God is just, there must be a real punishment for evil. Justice must be done. As Psalm 11:5-6 says, “The LORD tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence. 6Let him rain coals on the wicked; fire and sulfur and a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup. 7For the LORD is righteous; he loves righteous deeds; the upright shall behold his face.”
As we process the news of Sunday night, I hope we can take a deeper look at our religious expectations. It might be easy to shrug off hell as an outdated dogma used by the church for control. But if we do that, what will we do with evil men like Bin Laden? Furthermore, what about all the evil in the world? Can God’s love be applied like a band-aid to the massacred flesh of a world infused with evil, or does Jesus’ death mean more than that? Is more action required from God for justice to be done?