All hearts were directed to Texas on Sunday as 26 people were shot and killed when a 26-year-old gunman dressed in black opened fire as a church service was underway at a Baptist church in a small town near San Antonio, Texas. As The New York Times reported:
“A gunman clad in all black, with a ballistic vest strapped to his chest and a military-style rifle in his hands, opened fire on parishioners at a Sunday service at a small Baptist church in rural Texas, killing at least 26 people and turning this tiny town east of San Antonio into the scene of the country’s newest mass horror.”
At this point the investigation is in the earliest stages, but we already know this is an absolutely horrifying story. It is a tragedy that is only going to unfold in greater tragedy. This attack taking place as a small Baptist church in rural Texas was just beginning its worship service, it is a sign of something far deeper that has gone wrong in our society. The fact that many of the victims already have been identified as children, including the 14-year-old daughter of the church’s pastor, underlines, once again, that so much of the evil in the world is simply beyond our understanding—even our theological understanding. As is so often the case in our experience when headlines like this come at us, the facts themselves seem perplexing and overwhelming. Murder is hard enough for us to understand, mass murder just makes it all the more difficult to understand. But how can we possibly understand the intentional killing of a pregnant woman, little children, a 14-year-old, and of Christians gathered together in worship?
From a Christian worldview, we have to understand that the facts are important. It is not wrong to want to know what the dots are and then to try to connect them. God made us rational and moral creatures and this moral sense reaches out for some rational explanation of the horrifying evil of our world. But our first response should not be to try to understand the crime, but rather, to identify with the community in grief and experiencing heartbreak.
The Christian worldview dignifies the heartbroken. Heartbrokenness is a part of human existence; it will come to every single human being at some time. Jesus himself affirmed this in the Beatitudes in Matthew 5:4, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
This particular attack in Texas highlights the fact that Christians are not immune from this kind of heartbreak. We cannot understand exactly what that congregation in that community is experiencing, but we do understand heartbreak, and we know that heartbreak is at the very center of their experience at this moment.
The Christian worldview affirms the dignity of human life. According to Scripture, every single human life is of eternal value and inestimable worth. Murder is not, then, merely a crime, it is an assault on the dignity of the human being—an attack upon the image of God.
In one very important dimension, this demonstrates why the Christian worldview is so utterly different than every other worldview. Atheism, for instance, must affirm that, at its base, human life is merely a series of accidents. There is no Creator, so there is no human being made in the Creator’s image. Of course atheists would clearly classify this murderous attack in Sutherland Springs, Texas, as evil, but they have no real ability to understand or to embrace the notion of evil with any coherence. Evil is essentially a theological category. Without theism evil becomes simply the strongest word we have to describe something we wish hadn’t happened.
Christians also have to acknowledge that our affirmation of an infinitely great and an infinitely good God requires us to answer some questions that atheists don’t have to answer. The most urgent of these questions: How could an all-powerful and all-loving God, allow such evil to take place? There are those who have suggested perhaps it’s an indication that God really isn’t in control of the universe. For instance, Rabbi Harold Kushner famously argued in his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People that God is simply doing the best he can with the circumstances—and some circumstances are just too big for God to handle. This assertion, however, is a subversion of the biblical teaching concerning God. It is a repudiation of the God of the Bible. The Bible is clear: God is in control of the entire universe, there isn’t one atom or a molecule outside of his control. If there is, then we are doomed.
Other arguments have been made, suggesting that perhaps we are to understand evil, including moral evil, as having an instrumental value; perhaps God allows this because there is some kind of experience he wants us to have in order to learn some lesson we otherwise would not learn. Yet, even as the Bible indicates that pain, suffering, and mourning are teachers, we have to be very careful about telling others what God is supposedly teaching them in the midst of heartbreak.
Others have suggested that pain, suffering, and evil do not exist; they are abstractions or illusions. That’s the official teaching of the religion known as Christian Science, but in direct contradiction to Christian Science, biblical Christianity points to the fact that suffering and pain are real, that sorrow and heartbreak are real, and that, most importantly in terms of the biblical affirmation, death is all too real. It is an absolute insult, morally speaking, and it is a tremendous error, theologically speaking, to imagine addressing this community in Sutherland Springs, Texas, and telling them that death and evil are illusions and that their pain-and-suffering are not real.
Christians have learned that sometimes we have to wait for an answer, and sometimes that wait goes beyond any answer we can get in this life. Charles Spurgeon, the great Baptist preacher of the 19th century in London stated this beautifully: “When we cannot trace God’s hand, we are simply to trust his heart.”
As we’re thinking about the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs we are reminded of the testimony of the apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 4: 9, “persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.”
This throws us back on the deepest resources of biblical Christianity. This pushes us back to understanding the attributes of God as revealed in Scripture, the attributes of his power and the attributes of his morality, his greatness and his goodness, his justice, his righteousness, and his mercy. We are also reminded of the fact that the only answer Christians have is the answer of the gospel of Jesus Christ. That is the only promise of making sense out of nonsense. The gospel is the only assurance of the victory of good over evil. The gospel of Christ is the only promise of meaning and significance and satisfaction, not only in this life, but in the life to come.
Finally, in the face of this horrific tragedy we must remember the words of the prophet Isaiah as he looked upon the sacrifice of the Messiah: “surely he has borne our grief’s and carried our sorrows . . . But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed” (Isa 53:4-5).
For Christians facing the honest immensity of this challenge of evil, this is really all we have to say. And here’s our confidence. It is enough.