On the first day of October, Chris Harper Mercer murdered eight students and their professor in an English writing class at Umpqua Community College in southwestern Oregon.
Mercer asked the class members, “Are you a Christian? Do you believe in God?” When one would say yes, he said, “Good, I’ll send you to God. You’ll be visiting God pretty soon.” And then he shot them.
Outrageous. But even if he hadn’t targeted Christians, our outrage would be the same. His mental issues may explain his actions but they are no cover for his evil and the suffering he has caused.
At least one school shooting per week has popped up on my “Breaking News” app for many months now. The shock of what happened at Columbine High School in Colorado over 16 years ago is now a weekly event.
How do we as followers of Christ respond?
In Oregon, from 18 year old Quinn Glen Cooper, who in his first days of college, to his 67 year old English teacher, Lawrence Levine, the depths of grief are paralyzing.
“We are in shock this happened,” Quinn’s family said. “No one should ever have to feel the pain we are feeling.”
People in the midst of such suffering do not need theological justification to explain the reality of evil – they are reeling from its impact. Presence, comfort and empathy are the gifts they require.
But in those moments when emotions are not raw, the problems of moral evil and suffering can stalk the heart and mind of even the most committed follower.
Where is God?
Well-known atheist Bart Ehrman claims the reality of evil in the world convinced him there was no God. Professor Ehrman wrote: “A large part of my movement away from the faith was driven by my concern for suffering…. To say that he eventually will make right all that is wrong seems to me, now, to be pure wishful thinking.”
If God created the world good, what happened? And why doesn’t he do something about it?
This is a question as old as humanity. In the early third century BC, it is said Epicurus argued if God really existed, he would want to eliminate evil. So why is it still here?
A Biblical Worldview
It is at this point the biblical world view speaks. God does not shy away from addressing evil and suffering – and what he has to say is not what most people would expect. Nowhere in the Bible does God deny, excuse, or gloss over the reality of evil. In fact, its awful presence is woven in to the fabric of all human history and experience.
Four major truths help us with a biblical perspective.
- The origins of evil and suffering are shrouded in mystery.
“There is a mysteriousness about evil we simply cannot understand,” says Christopher Wright.
The Scriptures are clear: God created everything “good.” Evil is not the antithesis of God’s good; rather, it is good twisted, perverted. Evil is a parasite and cannot exist on its own.
Biblically, we have poetic accounts of an angelic fall into rebellion (Isaiah 14:12-15; Ezekiel 28:14-19), but we don’t know enough to understand completely the how and why. Speculative theological explanations are helpful but the bottom line is God allowed something to pervert the good of his creation. As several theologians have said, God did not create evil, but he created a world in which evil was possible.
The subsequent sin of our first parents in the garden set in motion an avalanche of abysmal consequences hurling humanity and the world on a downward spiral of depravity.
- Evil and suffering are essential elements of the Biblical worldview.
Those who consider evil and suffering as reasons for rejecting God will find no help from the Bible. God does not try to explain away or give complicated answers for them. C. S. Lewis boldly claimed: “Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free-wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.”
A broken world caused by evil is entrenched in the deepest truths of Scripture.
Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble . . .” (John 16:33).
“Man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7).
The Apostle Paul was driven to “know Christ – yes, to know the power of his resurrection and the participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Philippians 3:10).
Philosophers develop syllogisms demonstrating why a God of love would have eliminated evil and kept his creation from suffering. But again, Lewis speaks to this faulty perspective: “The problem of reconciling human suffering with the existence of a God who loves, is only insoluble so long as we attach a trivial meaning to the word “love”, and look on things as if man were the centre of them. Man is not the centre. God does not exist for the sake of man. Man does not exist for his own sake.”
Even more shocking from the biblical perspective is that God took his own medicine. He is not above all the suffering unleashed on the world though sin. The incarnate God suffered deception, betrayal, injustice, brutality, and death. At the foundation of the Christian message and hope is Christ crucified. He suffered with us and for us. Grace is a bloody cross.
- It’s OK to be angry, lament and complain about the evil and suffering in the world and in our lives.
Not only does the Biblical worldview speak honestly and openly about evil but we find we are not alone in our anger towards the pain and anguish of life. We are in a long line of God’s people who express their dislike for what was happening:
Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? (Psalm 10:1)
God has wronged me. . .He has blocked my way. . . (Job 19:6, 8)
Why is my pain unending and my wound grievous and incurable? You [God] are to me like a deceptive brook, Like a spring that fails. (Jeremiah 15:18).
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? (Psalm 13:1)
The list of laments in the Bible is long, but in almost every case, the troubled, angry soul expresses trust and hope in God:
But I trust in your unfailing love; My heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing the Lord’s praise, For he has been good to me. (Psalm 13:5-6).
They cry, “I am angry and perplexed, not only at my circumstances but often at you, God. Do you really care? Do you really love me? But, I trust you. Please help me.”
- Evil and suffering will be eradicated forever.
The reason God’s people can trust him is they know the reign of evil and terror has an endpoint. Paul refers to his sufferings as “light and momentary” compared to the outweighing “eternal glory” to come (2 Corinthians 4:17).
The early Christians lived this truth and transformed an empire. For them, suffering for whatever reason was a call to action. Wherever there were needs, Christians showed up to help, even if it meant sacrificing their own lives. When plagues struck the Roman Empire in the third century, Christians rose to the occasion. Dionysius (ca. AD 260) wrote, ““Heedless of danger, [Christians] took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected with the disease . . .”
A Distant Memory
We all know that pain and suffering alerts us when something is wrong whether in our bodies or in our culture. Sometimes it is the only way God can get the attention of an easily distracted people.
Yes, Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble . . .”
But he went on to say, “. . . but take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33).
Christ’s victory through his death and resurrection established a beachhead in God’s ultimate triumph over evil. The victory is not yet complete but God is on the move. Today, almost 80,000 people will come to faith in Christ – 10,000 of them Muslim.
The biblical worldview assures us that tragedies like the Oregon shootings will one day be a distant memory from another time. Until then, we weep, we mourn and then join in God’s triumphant restoration of all things.