Tragic incidents such as the recent Aurora, Colorado theater massacre always bring with them a mountain of difficult theological questions, such as Why would God allow this? or Why didn’t God stop this? All such questions are certainly legitimate and must eventually be answered, but it is seldom the appropriate time or place to do so when the tragedy itself is still fresh and raw.
In the immediate aftermath of a tragedy the best ministry is simply that of presence. When people are shell-shocked by horrific events, they don’t need answers so much as they need our comfort, help, sympathy and empathy. Instead, the best thing for them is to have those who care about them form a wall of support around them and let them grieve through those first days. Whether it is for a nation, a community, a family or an individual, the time and place for answers will come in due course, and it seems to me that enough time has now passed to offer some thoughts on God’s culpability regarding the Aurora tragedy.
In my experience, the why would God? or why didn’t God questions boil down to the idea that we think God should stop all things evil or tragic. When He doesn’t do so, it then follows that He isn’t worthy of our worship, which is fair enough thinking in my view. The reasoning here is that a loving God would surely stop these things from happening out of His love, and that an all-powerful God would surely stop these things from happening out of his omnipotence. Since he does not, He must not be loving or omnipotent. Or to rephrase it, God is mean and weak.
So let’s try an experiment. We’ll wave our magic wand and cause God to be loving and omnipotent according to our desired definition of the terms. We now have the opportunity to change our world for the better by getting rid of all evil and tragedy, and we’re going to start with the worst case scenario for evil, which is genocide. Poof! Just like that, genocide has been removed from human possibility, and so anytime one group of people is about to annihilate another group of people, they stop in their tracks and cannot go through with it. Humanity has lost a bit of its freedom, but that’s okay, because it was definitely worth it. The world is now a much better place.
However, we have to stop all evil, and so we must keep going. Next on our list is murder, so with a poof! all murder ceases. Whenever someone is about to commit murder, they stop in their tracks and cannot go through with it. We’ve lost a bit more freedom, but it’s definitely worth it. The world is now a much better place.
And now we have to move on and stop rape, incest, domestic violence, driving under the influence, theft, cheating, lying, bullying, divorce, adultery, fornication, homosexuality, disobedience to parents and many other things, because if we’re eradicating evil, we must eradicate it completely. Once we’ve done all of this through our love and omnipotence, no one on Earth can commit any of these evil things any longer, because we’ve put an end to all evil. But what’s more, we must also lose the freedom to even think of these things, because merely considering them is evil as well (Matthew 5:21-28). Once this elimination of evil thought is complete, we can no longer think or do anything bad. How do we like living in our brave new world so far?
But we’re not finished yet, because we still haven’t dealt with the idea of tragedy. A God who’s loving and omnipotent according to our definition must also shield us from all tragedy, much of which happens through no action of evil on anyone’s part (such as the tsunami that hit Japan in 2011). Poof! Anything that causes pain, suffering or harm has now been stopped. What would such a wonderful world look like?
A shortstop about to make a spectacular diving play would be frozen before leaping because he would have sprained his wrist upon impact with the ground, causing harm and pain. A boy couldn’t learn to ride a bike because it would result in his falling and scraping a knee or elbow. We would be stopped from putting any food in our mouths that caused any degree of harm to a single molecule in our body. Women would no longer be able to have children. Manufacturing and progress would cease because everything would come to a halt whenever injury, pain or harm was about to affect an employee. Our cars would refuse to move if there was anything threatening on the trip we had planned, and the very Laws of Nature would need to be abolished to save us from anything negative affecting the planet.
And so we have now succeeded in relieving our world of evil and suffering, but we find ourselves to be nothing more than unthinking, pampered automatons incapable of the exercise of free will in such a world. This shows us that if God were to do what we’ve asked of Him, He would have to relieve us of our very humanity in order to do so, and we naturally (and rightly) recoil in horror at the thought of being reduced to lifeless, preprogrammed robots. And the God who created us and loves us recoils in horror at that thought as well. What He has given us instead is the ability to understand the nature of evil and to guard ourselves against it.
Thankfully, there will one day come a time when evil and tragedy will be banished from human existence by God (Revelation 20:11 – 21:27), but this will not be done at the expense of our humanity. Until then, we must see to the affairs of Earth with all due diligence, for the affairs of Earth are human affairs (Genesis 1:26). This diligence requires that we understand the nature of evil and the existence of the sinful human nature (Romans 7:1 – 8:17; Genesis 6:5; Romans 1:18-32), and order our affairs accordingly.
Over the years the significance of Luke 22:36 has become more and more evident to me. This verse is where Jesus told his disciples that He was sending them out into the real world without any special provisions or promise of being shielded from the realities and tragedies of life. His followers were to experience evil and sorrows just like every other fallen human being upon Earth, or otherwise everyone would become a Christian in order to escape such things. And so His followers were given the right (by carrying weapons) to protect themselves from those who would do them harm in a fallen world, even while they were trying to make that world a better place by being salt and light in it (Matthew 5:13-16). There is great wisdom in the balance of these principles, and though space here does not permit me to fully develop the idea, this balance means that we must understand evil, expect evil, be prepared for evil, combat evil and punish evildoers.
Because we lost perfection in the Fall (Genesis 3), human existence is a parade of tragedies interspersed with moments of joy and beauty, but I would not trade those joys and beauties to be rid of the tragedies that are our inheritance upon Earth. For no matter how fleeting, each glimpse of beauty, joy and dignity are a glimpse of what is to come in the promised days of perfection. And it is our hope in that day (and in the One who will see us through to it) that enables us to lift our saddened brows above those awful and sorrowful things that currently plague our existence.
Let us therefore see to the arranging of human affairs according to the principles of Scripture in order to lessen the dominance of evil and tragedy in our midst (Deuteronomy 28). Let us also humble ourselves and invite God to be gracious to our land (2 Chronicles 7:14), and let us offer the hope and love of Christ to all who suffer loss, for He is able to turn what is meant for evil into good (Genesis 50:20; Romans 8:28).