When tragedy strikes, or more appropriately, a heinous crime against humanity is committed, as happened last week at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, it is a time for utmost sensitivity and prayer for the community and those who are mourning the loss of loved ones in a senseless, violent attack. At our small church in the country two and a quarter hours east of Aurora, I personally led prayers for the victims’ families last Sunday, and for the shooter—that God would change his heart. This is a time when people can tend to question the basic fabric of the universe. Does anything make sense when these things can happen? The world as most of us live and experience every day seems to be shattered. We no longer feel safe. If we can’t rest easy at a movie, where can we? So it may be natural to pose the question: “Where was God in all this?” This question was asked today by the people at the CNN belief blog, and as a local church theologian I tweeted appropriately in response, “In short, God was in complete control, exercising His will. I intend to write a blog post for a more detailed explanation.” As one might imagine, my single tweet reposted by the CNN Belief Blog drew no shortage of negative responses from Christians and non-Christians alike.
Well, I promised a fuller response, so here it is:
- The only direct response to the question, “where was God in this?” from a consistent Christian point of view is that God was in complete control exercising His will.
It is abundantly clear from the Holy Scriptures of both the Old and New Testaments that God is in absolute control of everything that happens in His universe. We read:
Amos 3:6b shall there be evil in a city, and the LORD hath not done it?
Proverbs 16:33 The lot is cast into the lap; but the whole disposing thereof is of the LORD.
Daniel 4:35 And all the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing: and he doeth according to his will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth: and none can stay his hand, or say unto him, What doest thou?
Ephesians 1:11c him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will:
Therefore, when asked the question whether the massacre was according to God’s sovereign will, the Christian must answer, “yes!” He is not permitted to deny it any more than he may deny that God exists.
- This does not reduce or mitigate the guilt of the alleged perpetrator.
Providence is not precept. It is basic to an understanding of Scripture that God’s prescriptive will (what He commands and approves by His character) must be distinguished from His sovereign will, by which He secretly directs all of creation including everything that happens here, for His own ultimate purposes. God clearly condemns murder, requiring the death penalty and eternal suffering in hell for unrepentant murderers. (Genesis 9:5, Revelation 21:8) If the reports of what transpired are accurate, and the killer does not receive the death penalty, it will be an egregious injustice. But even the death penalty pales in comparison to what punishment will be meted out by God for murderers forever, (those who never repent of their sin and trust in the Savior.) Although God was in sovereign control of the events on that night, He retains every right to judge and punish the perpetrator for his wicked sin against God when he killed fellow humans created after His image. In the Bible, God frequently uses evil men to do evil things for His own good purpose, and then later punishes them for their evil actions. Just ask Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar!
And although God is gracious, loving and merciful, He is also Sovereign. What God commands for human beings to follow is not identical to what He does by His hidden providence. There is no injustice in this. He is God and He made us. He has a right to do with His creation as He pleases. (Romans 9:14-24) Now naturally, this biblical teaching of who God is will not sit well with the Me-ology of those folks who would like to construct a therapeutic deity they can call on when they need him, but who doesn’t control much, (like a genie in a bottle they put back on the shelf when done.) But that topic will have to await another day.
- God turns evil actions of wicked men, like this murderous massacre, for a good purpose.
Christians believe that God is working all things for a good purpose. Life in this sinful world is messy, and often painful. There are terrible tragedies that just happen and we can’t explain them. Like a beautiful woven rug viewed from the bottom, all the strands (including many painful ones) of human life appear crisscrossed and confused. But God sees the whole picture, on the other side, where a beautifully intricate and breathtakingly splendid rug can be fully admired. On this side of heaven, it takes faith to believe that God is working everything out for good, because we can’t see how all the pain and tragedy in this valley of tears that we call life on earth could possibly work for good. But we believe it just the same. The God who predetermined the sale of Joseph the patriarch into slavery by his brothers to preserve the whole family of Israel, and the crucifixion of the Lord of Glory to save many sinners, is also working out the shootings in Aurora for a good purpose, unbeknownst to us at this point in time.
- The surviving victims and the families and friends of all victims are in need of empathy and support in this difficult time.
Although many well-meaning people will tell the victims and family members that this shooting was not God’s will, and they have the best of intentions, they are merely adding salt to the wound in reality. A world which is ruled by chaos, where only the decisions of independent actors hold sway, and God is not actually in control, is a much scarier place to live in than one in which a good God works evil actions for ultimate good. This must be expressed carefully and tenderly to those who have been touched by tragic events. But ultimately, the truth that God is in control working everything for good is a much more comforting thought than the false idea that God was helpless to stop it.