Minutes after the long-awaited announcement that U.S. soldiers had put two bullets into Osama bin Laden’s forehead, jubilant Americans gathered spontaneously outside the White House and at Ground Zero in New York, chanting, “USA! USA!” and singing the national anthem. One held a sign: “Osama bin gotten.”

Other responses to bin Laden’s death were even more graphic. A huge, all-caps headline superimposed over a photo of bin Laden on Page One of the New York Daily News blared, “ROT IN HELL!”

“It is unusual to celebrate a death,” said former pastor Mike Huckabee, a once and likely future Republican presidential candidate. “Today Americans and decent people the world over cheer the news that madman, murderer and terrorist Osama bin Laden is dead.”

Huckabee also, as if he were an underworld greeter, addressed the deceased terrorist directly, saying, “Welcome to hell.”

However, David Gushee, a politically liberal Christian who represents the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, urges Christians to refrain from celebrating bin Laden’s demise. “A nation has a right to defend itself,” Gushee said. “From the perspective of the fundamental national security of the United States, this action is legitimately viewed as an expression of self-defense.

“But as Christians, we believe that there can no celebrating, no dancing in the streets, no joy, in relation to the death of Osama bin Laden.”

To make his case, Gushee quotes Proverbs 24:17, which says: “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles.” And didn’t Jesus Matthew 5:44 to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us?

Who is right? Should Christians join in the celebrations of Osama bin Laden’s death?

When news of the raid interrupted my Sunday night television choice, my initial reaction was one of disbelief, followed by real satisfaction that a hate-filled mass murderer had finally been brought to justice. Then I had the brief, tentative hope (or was it a prayer?) that perhaps bin Laden might have repented before the end and received Christ’s forgiveness.

As monstrous as bin Laden was, I was surprised that I had at least a flickering of compassion for him. Knowing that I never want to go to hell, I found it difficult to wish that bin Laden would be there for all eternity, however much he might deserve it.

Gushee’s caution against celebrating bin Laden’s “takedown,” however, struck me as not quite on the mark, however. Celebrating as an American for the demise of a dangerous enemy seems appropriate. We ought to celebrate the heroism of the Navy SEALs who pulled off this daring operation.

But what about celebrating bin Laden’s death as a Christian? Isn’t there something right about celebrating when evil men get what they deserve? Indeed there is. The Bible speaks over and over about God’s holiness and justice and indeed Leviticus 20:26Leviticus 20:27 to be holy because he is holy.

And it goes further. God’s Word presents one scene after another of God’s people celebrating after God’s enemies get their comeuppance.

After God destroyed Pharaoh’s army, Exodus 15:21: “I will sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.”

  • After Deborah and Barak defeat the evil Sisera, Judges 5:31, “So may all your enemies perish, O LORD! But your friends be like the sun as he rises in his might.”
  • In Revelation, God’s people regularly Revelation 6:10 on God to judge: “They cried out with a loud voice, ‘O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?’”
  • The Jews Esther 9 one of their national celebrations, Purim, after the death of the anti-Semitic Haman.

So it is simplistic, to say the least, to assert, as Gushee does, “In obedience to scripture, there can be no rejoicing when our enemies fall.” Clearly, Scripture is not so cut and dried on this subject. In fact, the following verse, Proverbs 24:18, which Gushee fails to quote, seems to undermine the only verse he does quote to make his case. Here is what both verses say together:

17Do not rejoice when your enemy falls,
   and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles,
18lest the LORD see it and be displeased,
   and turn away his anger from him.

The focus of this proverb, when quoted in full, seems to be on the fact that if we really want to see our enemy punished, we should avoid schadenfreud, as this may call down God’s compassion on him. (It certainly pales in comparison with Ezekiel 33:11, which loftily states, “As I live, declares the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked.”)

The morning after bin Laden’s announced death, I opened my Bible to Psalms 64 and found its take on the wicked to be oddly appropriate. Let’s take a look at the final three verses.

But God shoots his arrow at them;
   they are wounded suddenly.
They are brought to ruin, with their own tongues turned against them;
   all who see them will wag their heads.
Then all mankind fears;
   they tell what God has brought about
   and ponder what he has done.

Let the righteous one rejoice in the LORD
  and take refuge in him!
Let all the upright in heart exult!

In these texts, we see a focus on God and his justice, not on personal or national score-settling. It is God who lays low evildoers, such as bin Laden, and it is God whom we are called to celebrate. Romans 12:19-21. This is the compassionate Judge, as Exodus 34:7 in his holy Name given to Moses:

“The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”

In his holiness God cannot leave sin unpunished, and if we are holy, we will agree with him. Yet we must remember that we are also sinners and Romans 3:23 before God. But as Christians we can rejoice that, in God’s mercy and grace, the punishment due to us was taken by Christ: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).

This is the God whom we ponder, fear … and celebrate. While gross, nationalistic depictions of bin Laden in hell are out of line, we Christians can pray, however tentatively and imperfectly, that God’s grace finds the worst of sinners—including us.

Stan Guthrie, a Christianity Todayeditor at large, is author of All That Jesus Asks: How His Questions Can Teach and Transform Us and coauthor of The Sacrament of Evangelism. Stan blogs at http://stanguthrie.com.