Moral Equivalence and Bin Laden

Doug Wilson and Kevin DeYoung both have helpful warnings against making a moral equivalence between the crimes of Osama bin Laden and the lesser shortcomings of the average Christian. First, Doug Wilson:

“Just a few cautions for Christians as they talk about this. The fact that we are all sinners, and that we all deserve death and judgment, is quite true. But if we hasten to remind ourselves of this reality at moments like this, the effect is not to heighten our sense of awareness of sin, but rather to flatten it. A bizarre kind of moral equivalence takes over our thought processes, and we begin to think that God will have no work to do in the judgment whatever — all He has to settle is that we are all sinners and we all died. But God will not judge us by the crateload. The Bible teaches plainly that the unconverted will be judged in accordance with their works, and the Scriptures say just as clearly that not all works are the same. Evil is something that can grow and mature.”

And Kevin DeYoung:

“Every sin is not the same in God’s eyes… I think many Christians have lurched headlong down the slip-n-slide of moral equivalence. So the elder who battles the temptation to take a second look at the racy section of the Lands’ End catalog shouldn’t dare exercise church discipline on the 20-year old fornicating with every co-ed that moves. When we can no longer see the different gradations among sins and sinners and sinful nations, we have not succeeded in respecting our own badness, we’ve cheapened God’s goodness. God knows that some sins are more grievous than others. We would do well to see the world with God’s eyes as best we can.”

25 Responses to Moral Equivalence and Bin Laden

  1. yankeegospelgirl May 3, 2011 at 9:46 am #

    Bravo. Excellent. Spot-on. I’m running out of adjectives.

  2. donsands May 3, 2011 at 9:55 am #

    Excellent quotes. I always think of Peter when this subject comes up. Though he denied his Lord three times, he preached boldly to the the Jewish crowd that they denied the Lord.

    I remember rebuking this guy on the construction site fro cussing like crazy. I then saw him a bit later sitting by his truck, and so I went over and told him that I used to cuss like he did, but Christ changed my life, and I was able to leave the broad and wide way, and walk the narrow path. He actually felt bad about his cussing, and said, “I should really get back to church.” I hpe he did get right with the Lord.

  3. yankeegospelgirl May 3, 2011 at 10:00 am #

    I like that story Don! Wonderful way to witness.

  4. JohnnyM May 3, 2011 at 10:38 am #

    So if there are sins more grievous than others, and the unsaved will be judged by those sins, does that then imply that there will be different levels of punishment for these sins?

    If all the unsaved are to burn in Hell for all eternity, then how can one say this sin is worse than that, if they all produce the same punishment? An average unsaved Joe has the same eternal fate as a Hitler, even though the latter was much more sinful and evil.

  5. Barbara May 3, 2011 at 10:53 am #

    I just wonder this –

    I understand that there are differing degrees of sin, but aren’t we in danger of minimizing the heinousness of our own sin? I remember retching and holding back the vomit in the light of Christ’s revelation for the blackness I could see in my heart in deigning to live a life that flowed from that blackened heart that “simply” held my own wisdom and judgment over and above the wisdom and majesty of the God who created and sustains the universe and who reveals Himself in His word. The sin of which I was convicted? Breaking the first commandment. Everything else flowed through that and at once as I was reading Ezekiel 1 it was as if I were before the Throne of God in light of His righteousness and there I was, agreeing with my own damnation. I can’t minimize that and say that I am any less guilty than Bin Laden. I know what I am. Paul knew what he was, when he called himself the chief of sinners. John Bunyan likewise considered himself the chief of sinners. So in light of that, and knowing that that black heart is only just a glimpse of the depth of my own sinfulness, which continues to be exposed and cleansed on a regular basis by Grace, it seems that even in an effort to caution us against taking a lower view of our own sinfulness by equating it with Bin Laden’s sin, I’m afraid it may have an opposite effect.

  6. John May 3, 2011 at 11:15 am #

    I think we are morally retarded.


    Why else would we uphold abortion as a right, and execution as a crime? By the way, I am not using retarded as a pejorative, but rather in the dictionary sense – “held back”.

  7. JohnnyM May 3, 2011 at 11:20 am #

    So if there are sins more grievous than others, and the unsaved will be judged by those sins, does that then imply that there will be different levels of punishment for these sins?

    If all the unsaved are going to burn in Hell for all eternity, then how can one say this sin is worse than that, if they all produce the same punishment? An average unsaved Joe has the same eternal fate as a Hitler, even though the latter was much more sinful and evil.

  8. Jared O May 3, 2011 at 12:01 pm #


    While they all will suffer for eternity, the degree of punishment will not be the same for everyone. In Luke 10:13 Jesus denounces a couple cities who have committed a greater sin of rebellion towards God, and tells them if the works done for them had been done for others they would have repented. Then in v.14 He says it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for them.

    This along with other Scriptures making it clear that each person will be judged individually for their works, teaches us that not all sins are the same, and not all eternal punishment is the same. The punishment will fit the crime.

    As a simple illustration: Bin Laden may be in solitary confinement for all eternity while others are in a community cell (varying punishment), even though they will all be in the same prison (eternity).

    Hope that helps!

  9. Barbara May 3, 2011 at 12:03 pm #

    In response to JohnnyM, I would hearken back to 2 Peter 2 where he speaks of those who have known the way of peace but turned from it, and that it would be better for them to have never known it at all. Jesus also said that the day of judgment would be better even for Tyre and Sidon than for the Pharisees and in Ezekiel we have Israel in her idolatry told that Sodom and Gomorrah had nothing on her. So I know there are differing degrees of sin and greater depths of sinfulness and I’m sure that will be reflected in the degree of torment that is received – our God is a just God – but at the same time I have to go back to my initial concern which is that the aforementioned exhortations might miss the mark a bit. I mean, c’mon… the example given by Doug Wilson as a sin that people might use as comparison with bin Laden was this: too much eyeshadow (or was it lipstick?) on a girl on a poster in a mall. Really? That’s sinful? And what verse is that, exactly? That seems almost a caricature instead of a genuine understanding of the depths of our own individual depravity. That’s my concern.

  10. Mark Mansfield May 3, 2011 at 2:39 pm #

    Moral equivalence is not the same as highlighting the fact that Christ died for all, great sinners or “little” sinners. While certain sins are more “serious” whether they involve others, even “little” sins make people ineligible to appear before God in heaven without the redemption of Christ’s death. While some saints might have more jewels in their crowns that they then cast at the feet of Jesus, or some sinners will have a longer time to sit in front of the Throne of Judgement to hear their sins listed, the ultimate determination is the same regardless of the length or number – grace and salvation through faith in Jesus Christ alone is dispositive of where a soul goes.

  11. donsands May 3, 2011 at 6:32 pm #

    And there is the secret intents of the heart, that only Christ can see. But, he will reveal all secrets on that day. Unless you are washed in the blood of the Lamb of God. Then you are clean, and as white as snow. Hallelujah! What a Savior!

  12. Justin F May 4, 2011 at 12:45 pm #

    I think there is a real danger in seeing ourselves(Americans) as morally superior to other countries/nationalities. Even bin Laden and the Middle East.

    I’ve never stolen anything
    We’ll have you ever missed a meal in your life?

    I’ve never killed anyone
    We’ll have you ever had everything you cherish stolen from you?

    I’ve never cheated on my wife
    Have you ever been far from home with no companionship?

    Just because you’ve never committed the act, doesn’t mean you lack the capability given the right circumstances. You’ve just never been tested. (But consider how you react when someone cuts you off in traffic)

    For example, Hitler seems to come up as the most common example of evil personified. (How could Hitler ever be in heaven? But I digress) But to the best of my knowledge, Hitler never killed anyone. The lesson of the Holocaust is not that an opportunistic, megolamaniac killed 6 million Jews. The horrifying reality of the Holocaust is that it was executed by sophisticated, civilized, Western, Christian Germans. Ordinary people, who felt slighted and oppressed, lashed out against the scapegoat Jews and committed genocide. Hitler is not innocent, but he didn’t stand guard outside the shower while the gas was pumped in. You think that Americans could never reach this point? Why don’t you ask a Native American.

    And this is the danger I see Western Christianity stuck in, we’ve reduced sin to merely acts of individuals. Sin is bigger, much bigger. Sin is worshipping at the altar of death. I push my opponent closer to death, so that I may be futher from death. Scale that up and you have drug dealing, poverty, racism, consumerism, and war.

    America itself is deeply entrenched in sin, just like every other country. We have our positives like philanthropy, but ultimately we are no better nor any worse than other countries. We have our good moments, and our shameful ones. (Vietnam, Nagasaki and Hiroshima, slavery)

    But this is what Jesus came to free us from. We don’t shun our culture and country, and we don’t fully embrace it either. We are called to revolution.

  13. yankeegospelgirl May 4, 2011 at 1:07 pm #

    “But to the best of my knowledge, Hitler never killed anyone. The lesson of the Holocaust is not that an opportunistic, megolamaniac killed 6 million Jews. The horrifying reality of the Holocaust is that it was executed by sophisticated, civilized, Western, Christian Germans. Ordinary people, who felt slighted and oppressed, lashed out against the scapegoat Jews and committed genocide. Hitler is not innocent, but he didn’t stand guard outside the shower while the gas was pumped in. You think that Americans could never reach this point? Why don’t you ask a Native American.”

    I’m absolutely speechless. That’s just so stunningly weak that I literally don’t know what to say. I can’t say anything.

  14. Justin F May 4, 2011 at 5:42 pm #

    What do you mean by weak? What do you think my intention is in this section? And what do you think I’m saying overall? It’s certainly intended to be shocking, but more importantly it’s supposed to make people think beyond the end of the post.

  15. Nate May 5, 2011 at 10:00 am #


    Seriously… Hitler never killed anyone? Do you understand moral authority? So the person who pulls the switch on the electric chair is the one who sentenced the crimminal? That person was the judge and jury, and the executioner? Furthermore, your insinuations that Hitler, Himmler, and the SS were “Christians” is a laughable oversimplification. Moreover, Jesus’ words to the Pharisees and scribes that it would be more tolerable on the day of judgment for others than them is in direct opposition to your insinuations, as is the Law in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers.

    While all sin leads to death, all sin is not equal.

  16. yankeegospelgirl May 5, 2011 at 10:02 am #

    Nate said it for me.

  17. Justin F May 5, 2011 at 12:48 pm #

    You’ve missed my point entirely, which I knew would be a likely possibilty considering the controversial nature of the material I chose. But I took the risk anyway.
    Was Hitler the head of the demonic enterprise, and is the blood of 6 millions Jews on his hands? Absolutely. I was being very literal in my use of “killed”, as in, he didn’t pull out a gun execute anyone himself. But maybe he did, I just don’t know of any examples.(Perhaps I just like to stir the pot sometimes) But in my discussion of the “reality” of the Holocaust, I wasn’t referring to “Hitler, Himmler, and the SS ” as being Christian institutions. Although I know that is thrown around in some popular circles, but I agree that it’s a gross oversimplification. I was referring to the millions of civilized Germans, many of whom were in fact Christian. They failed to resist their leadership, and they were the ones to execute the despicable plan. Hitler gave the order, but it was the farmboy from the country who threw the switch. We tend to put all the blame on Hitler(again not that he’s innocent), but he couldn’t have done it without the help of an entire nation.
    And I’m certainly not disagreeing with you that there are degrees of punishment. I just think that it’s easy for us to denounce others as evil when they kill our people, but then we look the other way at our own national atrocities (my example of the early Western military campaigns against Native Americans). Jesus didn’t just come to fix our individual sin problem, he also came to dismantle the sin structures resulting from abuses of institutions, governments, tribes, etc.
    I think this song by Bob Dylan does a pretty good job conveying the tone of my post.

    Oh my name it is nothin’
    My age it means less
    The country I come from
    Is called the Midwest
    I’s taught and brought up there
    The laws to abide
    And that land that I live in
    Has God on its side.

    Oh the history books tell it
    They tell it so well
    The cavalries charged
    The Indians fell
    The cavalries charged
    The Indians died
    Oh the country was young
    With God on its side.

    Oh the Spanish-American
    War had its day
    And the Civil War too
    Was soon laid away
    And the names of the heroes
    I’s made to memorize
    With guns in their hands
    And God on their side.

    Oh the First World War, boys
    It closed out its fate
    The reason for fighting
    I never got straight
    But I learned to accept it
    Accept it with pride
    For you don’t count the dead
    When God’s on your side.

    When the Second World War
    Came to an end
    We forgave the Germans
    And we were friends
    Though they murdered six million
    In the ovens they fried
    The Germans now too
    Have God on their side.

    I’ve learned to hate Russians
    All through my whole life
    If another war starts
    It’s them we must fight
    To hate them and fear them
    To run and to hide
    And accept it all bravely
    With God on my side.

    But now we got weapons
    Of the chemical dust
    If fire them we’re forced to
    Then fire them we must
    One push of the button
    And a shot the world wide
    And you never ask questions
    When God’s on your side.

    In a many dark hour
    I’ve been thinkin’ about this
    That Jesus Christ
    Was betrayed by a kiss
    But I can’t think for you
    You’ll have to decide
    Whether Judas Iscariot
    Had God on his side.

    So now as I’m leavin’
    I’m weary as Hell
    The confusion I’m feelin’
    Ain’t no tongue can tell
    The words fill my head
    And fall to the floor
    If God’s on our side
    He’ll stop the next war.

  18. yankeegospelgirl May 5, 2011 at 12:55 pm #

    There is such a thing as just war.

  19. Nate May 5, 2011 at 2:43 pm #


    So a dictator can’t do things without the nation assisting him? Really! So the Russian people rounded up all the millions that Stalin murdered? All the Chinese people rounded up the millions that Mao mudered?

    I follow what you are saying, but you should have stressed many of things you are now espousing in your first post, a post by the way, was clearly (and by your own admission) posted to get a rise out of people.

    Furthermore, to insinuate that a majority of German Christians knew of Hitler’s plan to annihilate the Jews is reading backwards into history. While certainly there were many who knew of atrocities being committed, there were not un-enlisted Germans leading the Jews to the gas chambers, it was the SS. This doesn’t lessen national responsibility, but it certainly isn’t connected as closely as you portend.

    Also, your continual jump from the German holocaust to the United States’ expansion of its territory is typical of moral relativism. There is about as much connection with German genocide of the Jews and the American battles with Native Americans as there is between gasoline and chocolate cake. While atrocities were committed, they were committed by both parties. Moreover, the Indian nation(s) (note the plural) fought and warred against each other for territories long before we showed up with many tribes who were vicious in their methods of war, whereas the Jews never raised arms against the Germans nor were they a nation unto themselves.

    You really need to read history before you make such comparisons. Note: I never stated that the United States was totally innocent of commiting atrocities, but your connection between the two (Germans/Jews and Americans/Indians) hampers your ability to present your point of view.

    Quite frankly, history is replete with examples of nations who were once foes that became allies. Dylan’s song “With God on My Side” while seeming symbolic came from a man, who at the time, refused to take a stand, except to stand against everything (which in reality means he stood for nothing). As did many of his ilk in the 60s. Of which, by the way, is my generation, so I think I have to right to at least place my two cents in on that subject. Feel free to disagree, but if you didn’t live in it, I’m not sure you can use Dylan’s lyrics as your justification of your argument.

  20. yankeegospelgirl May 5, 2011 at 3:45 pm #

    *likes Nate’s comment*

  21. Justin F May 5, 2011 at 5:42 pm #

    To be honest, I’m a little frustrated by your tone. You can disagree with me, that’s totally acceptable. But the condescending language is unfair. Yes, on a blog comment one runs the risk of oversimplying things. Your history points are certainly valid, but still not reflective of the main point of what I am trying to say.
    And the main point of the post was not to get a rise out of people, the point of the post was to give another perspective on this discussion. That one line was supposed to be attention grabbing/controversial/etc, but it was clarified by the remainder of that post and the post after that.
    And yes, the American Expansion and Holocaust are seperate events in history with different factors political and otherwise. But we still have a similar result, a whole lot of death.
    But you can spend all day picking out all the flaws in my example, (for all I know you are a history Prof) or you can try to catch what I am saying in my flawed/incomplete little post.

    I tried say it more eloquently but that failed miserably (this is why I don’t have a blog of my own) so here it is:
    Main point

    We are caught up in sin bigger than all of us. Oppression war/economic/social between and within Native Americans, Middle East, Europeans, Asia, etc is a result of our sinful structure. We are all complicit in it. We can’t escape it. I don’t know how to live my life without gas from the middle east or clothes made with child labor or not pollute with every product I use. I am totally entangled in this sinful mess. But good news, God still loves you and me despite our institutions that only know how to fight each other and lead to death. And here is where I need you, we are brothers and sisters in Christ and we have a message of hope for the world. God through Christ is tearing down these walls of hate and oppression, and he’s asking us to join him. I need your help.

  22. Justin F May 5, 2011 at 5:43 pm #

    And I still like Bob Dylan 😉

  23. Nate May 5, 2011 at 6:52 pm #


    Forgive me if I come across as condescending, but you seemingly want to say, “All you need is love.” (All together now). And yes, one day, Christ will set all things in order, but until then sinful people (some far more evil than others, i.e. Hitler, Stalin, Mao) will cause trouble. And that does include you and I as well, but we can’t simply say since I am a sinner then I’m just as bad as Bin Laden, or that the U.S. was just as evil as Hitler. We also need to be sharing the gospel, and pray that extreme rebels will come to Christ, but there have to be laws otherwise anarchy would reign and Romans 13 speaks to that. Some countries wield that sword better than others. Bin Laden deserved his fate, as we all do short of the grace of God.

    Personally, I still don’t see where your original intent is going. Your original statement implied that the U.S. was no bigger a sinner than Bin Laden. Whether that was simply a provocative statement or your belief, you seemingly haven’t backed down from that line of argumentation. That is your right of opinion, but you shouldn’t be surprised when you are pressed.

    And I like Dylan too, but I’m not going to live my life by his philosophy. 🙂

  24. Justin F May 5, 2011 at 8:54 pm #

    No problem. I still have a lot to learn about blogging. To continue

    bin Laden was a violent man who died a violent death. This is the natural way of things.
    My point is that if we try to moralize his death because they are “evil” and we are “good” we are in a dangerous place. Why is he evil? Is it because he killed non-combatants, destroyed key American buildings, and tried to bring our infrastructure to its knees? Okay, now we have to ask ourselves what about the non-combatants the US has killed? UNINTENTIONALLY to be sure, but the results of this are still innocent deaths. We can say these things happen in war, but it’s been amplified by our use of bomb warfare. Is he evil because of his intent, or because of the results of his actions? Why can’t we just say, “America as a nation is using its armed forces to ensure the safety and security of its citizens first and foremost.” Why do we have to use “good” and “evil”?
    (The following is a general musing on evil, not pertaining to bin Laden) The problem with “good” and “evil” is that it’s really easy to say today I am “good”, but tomorrow I do something “evil”. Today I am oppressed, an injustice has been done to me. So I strike back and become the oppressor. Taking a risk here, but tying this back to my Germany example. The Germans at the end of WWI felt it was unjust for Germany to bear the burden of war reparations. Their sense of injustice and oppression was used by Hitler to rise to power.
    “All you need is love”. It is completely true, but then my pragmatic side takes over and says what about war? What can America do if people attempt to destroy her? It’s not an easy answer, I’m not saying it is. But war doesn’t seem to solve much, it just tends to lead to more war.
    And what should the Christian attitude be? Again, I’m not totally sure, I’m torn in all directions. I’m not gonna lie, I like feeling safe. But I believe that God has called Christians to be his agents of change, he wants us to break the cycle of violence.

    To be completely arrogant and quote myself:
    “But this is what Jesus came to free us from. We don’t shun our culture and country, and we don’t fully embrace it either. We are called to revolution.”

  25. yankeegospelgirl May 5, 2011 at 10:40 pm #

    Not all war is justified, to be sure. I would probably get some flak from conservatives if I said what I really think about the war in Iraq.

    But I’m certainly not a pacifist, and I believe moral equivalency is a very, very dangerous thing. I thought Rob Bell once said something very revealing when he said that he thought Christians were making “a mistake” to “focus so much” on abortion while not focusing on the evils of war. That shows that he doesn’t really care about the abortion issue. He’s not even trying to make any distinction between combatants and non-combatants. This is a real problem.

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