Schadenfreude? (Revelation 18.1–3)

Revelation 18 commemorates the destruction of Babylon with angelic choruses and earthly laments. In the course of doing so, it raises—at least in my mind—an interesting question: Is it proper for Christians to celebrate the final judgment of their enemies? The Germans have a term for the perverse happiness people sometimes feel when their adversaries experience misfortune: Schadenfreude (pronounced SHAW-den-froy-duh). Is that what Revelation 18 is—an instance of Christian Schadenfreude?
Hear the angel’s chorus:
Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!
She has becoming a dwelling place for demons,
a haunt for every unclean spirit,
a haunt for every unclean bird,
a haunt for every unclean and detestable beast.
So utter is the destruction of Babylon, the angel is singing, that she is fit habitation only for hellions and scavengers. It is a desolate and unclean place. Can a Christian celebrate such devastation?
Before we try to answer that question, consider the basis for the angel’s praise:
For all nations have drunk
the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality,
and the kings of the earth
have committed immorality with her,
and the merchants of the earth have grown rich
from the power of her luxurious living.
Now, the angel is singing in symbols. Sexual immorality is a common image throughout the Bible of idolatry. It is common precisely because promiscuous sex was a regular feature of Near Eastern, Greek, and Roman religions. So, the primary ground of Babylon’s destruction is her promiscuous idolatry. The well-connected and luxurious lifestyle also characteristic of Babylon is best understood as a lifestyle unjustly gained. Her power is built on the oppression of others, her wealth on their poverty.
So, in every respect, Babylon fails to love God and love her poor neighbors. She violates the essence of the two great commandments of God’s moral law (Matthew 22.34–40). She is judged because she lives her entire life in opposition to God’s will.
Is it appropriate for Christians to celebrate the demise of such a city? Or is it mere Schadenfreude? I think it is appropriate, with certain qualifications.
It is appropriate because a Christian should always celebrate the triumph of God over the devil and of justice over injustice. Do you remember the rapturous crowds in Baghdad that toppled Saddam Hussein’s statue when American troops entered their city? Their celebration of an evil dictator’s downfall perfectly captured the way we all will feel when God finally destroys the devil and his works. That is not Schadenfreude. It is the simple pleasure of a world turned right side up.
And yet, there is a qualification. At the present time, Scripture says, God is “patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3.9). In the future, when God decides that second chances will no longer be available, we will celebrate the triumph of God’s justice over injustice. But the present moment is not a time for such celebration, but rather prayer that all people—and perhaps especially our enemies—might discover the grace of God that has already discovered us.
To fail to seek God’s grace for all people, to be content with their current alienation from God—now that’s Schadenfreude.

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