n a debate between famed atheist Christopher Hitchens and Calvinist pastor Douglas Wilson at The King’s College in 2008, Hitchens harshly criticized the biblical instruction to love one’s enemies. He said:
“I know who my enemies are. At the moment the most deadly ones are Islamist theocrats with a homicidal and genocidal agenda. I’m not going to love them. You go love them if you want. Don’t love them on my behalf. I’ll get on with killing them, destroying them, erasing them, and you can love them. But the idea that you ought to love them is not a moral idea at all. It’s a wicked idea…”
Wilson responded to Hitchens’ pessimism with a much more inspiring perspective. He said, “God destroys enemies two ways. God destroys enemies by taking them out the traditional way, and God also destroys enemies by transforming them into friends. That destroys an enemy, too.” So, destruction and love are not always concepts at odds with each other.
In fact, although Wilson is by no means a fan of universal reconciliation, this second kind of victory that he describes is a perfect picture of how God, motivated by perfect love, will destroy each and every one of his enemies in the end. This is the kind of triumph we witness taking place in Revelation 21:24-26, where the kings of the earth—formerly the resolute enemies of God who made war against him—enter into the ever open gates of the new Jerusalem, free of their former impurities.
It is this kind of conquest—a conquest of the heart—that we see take place in 2 Kings 6. We read that an army sent by the king of Aram surrounded the Israelite city of Dothan, but the soldiers were struck blind after Elisha prayed for a miracle. The prophet then led the army directly to the king of Israel in Samaria. When they arrived, their eyes were miraculously opened, and they realized they were trapped. Though they could have been slaughtered, Elisha told the king to give them food and water. After enjoying the royal feast, the soldiers returned to where they came from and we read that “the bands from Aram stopped raiding Israel’s territory” (2 Kings 6:23). So, by mercifully feeding the violent army, Israel destroyed an enemy—transforming them into a neighbor at peace with the Israelites.
Just like the Aramean army planned to harm Israel in the Old Testament, Saul in the New Testament—who became the Apostle Paul—was scheming to imprison Christians. Yet, just as the soldiers of Aram were struck with blindness at Dothan, Saul was made blind on the road to Damascus. And the loss of vision he experienced physically in that moment was also an indication of a much more dangerous blindness he had long been experiencing internally.
Saul was well known for persecuting and despising members of the early church. Since hate can surround us in darkness and blind us (1 John 2:11), the only way for anyone to escape such a condition is through a transformation based in love, which brings light. This is precisely why the followers of God, in both the story of Aram from 2 Kings and the story of Saul in Acts, respond by blessing the enemy. This is how anyone walking in the light of Christ should act toward people they encounter who appear to be in a spiritually blind condition. The light that mercy shines in the darkness can give sight to the blind and transform an enemy into a friend.
So, just as Elisha aided the men from Aram before sending them back home peacefully, Ananias, a disciple of Christ, placed his hands on Saul and “immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength” (Acts 9:18-19).
Paul, who had been known for his persecution of Christians, was transformed through their mercy toward him, manifestations of the mercy of Christ. His dramatic experiences greatly transformed his understanding of God. This deep change brought about by love in action allowed him to write in Romans 12:17-21:
"Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."
Is it possible that these “burning coals,” ignited by acts of kindness, could bring about transformation in the enemy they are “heaped” on? Even the wrath of God described in this passage can be understood as a fire that is kindled by love and brings about transformation in the one who experiences it. The destruction by fire, then, is not an annihilation of the person who God loves. It is a merciful, yet powerful, obliteration of all within that person that is opposed to holiness. This would make perfect sense as well of Paul’s concluding command to overcome evil with good. For, in the end, evil cannot be overcome by evil. Only light can cast out darkness. Only holiness can conquer sin. Only love can defeat hate.
And while the cases of blindness suffered by the Aramean army or Saul on the road to Damascus were physical afflictions, the blindness each of us suffers before being freed by God’s love is a much more pernicious type.This blindness of the mind (2 Cor. 4:4) can be healed by shining the light of Christ directly into the darkness, destroying any shadow or lingering mist of the old self. And it is this “destructive love” that Jesus calls us to show to others. For this is how, in the end, every person who is an opponent of God will be destroyed: by being transformed into a friend through experiencing the everlasting love of God. An old enemy truly and finally defeated is a new ally wholeheartedly dedicated to the king he or she had formerly opposed. A truly conquered enemy is a friend.