I have been arguing that there is something morally problematic about the imprecation which expresses hatred of one’s enemy and relishes the coming destruction of one’s enemy. But this doesn’t mean I don’t want God’s kingdom to come in its fullness. And yet, Jerry inexplicably seems to have thought that in some sense this was the case. And now he wants to know how somebody who doesn’t hate the reprobate and relish their impending destruction should think about the passages that describe precisely this destruction. This is what he says: “I want to know what the implications are for you that these passages are not just about being grudgingly satisfied, but about praising, worshiping, exalting God with loud and exuberant songs for carrying out these judgments.”
I don’t find this position nearly as curious as Jerry seems to. At this point I’ll expand on an illustration I already gave in reply to Jerry to make the point for a wider audience.
Billy’s best friend growing up in Elm Town was Luke. They did everything together and looked out for each other. But now dark days have come to Elm Town. A serial rapist has assaulted five women over the last year and the community is terrified. Both Billy and Luke, deeply angered by this assault on their community, decide to take action. They decide to adopt the role of amateur detectives by amassing all the available evidence and thinking through the list of possible suspects. Perhaps they can figure out some detail that the police have missed. Billy heads over to Luke’s house on Tuesday evening intending to have the first discussion where they try to break the case. But when he arrives police cars are surrounding Luke’s house with lights flashing. In horror and disbelief Billy learns that his friend, his beloved friend, his Jonathan to Billy’s David, has been arrested for the crimes. As Luke is led to the car he turns to Billy and says “The evidence is overwhelming. I’ll confess Billy because there’s no other way. I did it.”
Assuming that Billy has no reason to believe there was a coerced confession and that the evidence is overwhelming, is he “grudgingly satisfied” as Jerry puts it? No. And frankly, that’s a very strange way to put things. Simply put, Billy is of two minds about the whole thing. On the one hand he has enormous relief that the police have caught the rapist. And he has great hope that the community can heal, and he even has a glimmer of joy returning as he anticipates better days for Elm Town. But at the same time, Billy feels enormous anger toward Luke that he would do such a thing. And he feels great pain and sadness over the loss of a friend who chose such a wicked course for himself.
The day of execution arrives. Luke is led in front of a crowd of citizens from Elm Town on the way to the gallows. Many of them are cheering. They are screaming hatred at Luke. They are laughing in anticipation of his impending demise. Billy understands why they’re doing that. He understands the rage they feel. He doesn’t deny that Luke needs to pay for his crimes with the ultimate price. He wants to see justice done. Billy hates Luke’s crimes, but he doesn’t think that means he has to hate Luke. He doesn’t think dancing while Luke squirms on the gallows is appropriate. He just wants the matter to be done quickly so Elm Town can begin to heal.
I hope the Calvinists who pray the imprecatory psalms can appreciate why other Christians do not. It is not because they are “grudgingly satisfied” at the coming of God’s kingdom, at “the world being put to rights” (as Tom Wright likes to say). Their satisfaction at that is unqualified. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t mixed with grief over the choices some people have made.
I suspect that most people will agree that the picture of people dancing while a rapist writhes in agony on the gallows looks ugly, even immoral. So why would anybody defend such a response in the final judgment as an appropriate one?
At this point I have heard Calvinists often respond by saying that this only looks offensive because we don’t appreciate how ugly sin is and that is because we are inadequately sanctified.
That kind of response has a huge cost however. The first cost is the danger of moral skepticism. I understand fully the notion of delighting in evildoers being brought to justice. But I don’t understand at all delighting in the agony inflicted on those evildoers for their sin. In fact that looks absolutely contrary to what I think a moral person conformed to the image of God should look like. So to say that this is exactly what a moral person conformed to the image of God should look like suggests that my most basic moral intuitions (intuitions shared by most people thankfully) are fundamentally mistaken. And that is a significant cost.
There is another cost as well which is, perhaps, more significant. Think back to Billy’s friendship growing up with Luke. That is part of his sadness now. Even if Luke has become a monster now, Billy can still remember that time when he was seven and Luke defended him against a bully on the playground. He remembers when they played with their Christmas gifts together. He remembers when they shared Halloween candy and Luke always saved the Snickers bars for Billy because he knew Billy loved them.
Billy feels sadness at Luke’s demise because of what has been lost. Because he knew that there was goodness in Luke and he has glimmers of that goodness in all the memories they share. The loss of that goodness, the fact that it was overtaken by horrific crimes, is a ground for great grief on Billy’s part.
If the imprecatory Calvinist has no such grief then he or she must deny that there was any such goodness in their relationships with the reprobate. There was nothing lost. There is nothing to grieve or lament. All there is is a litany of evil culminating in swift justice and an unqualified celebration. In other words, the very logic of the Calvinist attitude toward imprecations is to deny the goodness that was lost in others, because if there was goodness lost in another then grief and sorrow would have to be mixed in with satisfaction in judgment.
Finally, let’s put this in personal terms. On that final day a father who is saved discovers that his daughter, his beloved daughter, is reprobated for eternity. The Calvinist wants us to view that father, now perfectly sanctified, laughing in anticipation at his daughter’s impending damnation as he delights in God’s swift justice. As I said, if this is really true, if this is what a perfectly sanctified individual looks like, then the intuitions most of us have about love are fundamentally mistaken. And the love that that father shares now with his daughter really is chimerical. There is nothing to lament, there is no loss at all. There is only a growing chorus of praise as the father watches his daughter being cast into the flames forever.