Where is God in Tragedy?

Link to Live News report from BBC News
Link to Live News report from BBC News

No words will ease the pain of the families and community members of Newtown, Connecticut in light of this morning’s elementary school shooting. I cannot imagine losing a child, particularly through such an unexpected act of hatred and violence. The injured and the families of those teachers and children who were lost will be close to my heart and in my prayers.

Whether it’s a mass shooting in Norway, Afghanistan, Germany, Finland, or the United States, the world watches the news and, upon hearing the devastating news, begins to contemplate the fragility of life and the prevalence of violence.

Where is God? Why do such horrific acts of violence occur?

Not long after the July shooting in a Colorado cinema, Justin Holcomb wrote an article with the purpose of offering an answer-a hopeful answer-to those questions:

“Here are some questions I’ve heard frequently already:

  • “What in the world is going on?”
  • “How are we to think and feel about violence?”
  • “Does the Bible say anything about violence?”

The Bible begins with God, the sovereign, good Creator of all things: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). God’s creative handiwork—everything from light to land to living creatures—is called “good.” But humanity, being the very image of God, is the crown of God’s good creation: “behold, it was very good” (Gen 1:31). As the pinnacle of God’s creation, human beings reveal God more wonderfully than any other creature—as they were created to be like God, by God, for God, and to be with God (Gen. 1:26–27, 2:15)

In Genesis 1:26, God says “Let us make man in our image.” In the very beginning, our Creator gave us a remarkable title: he called us the image of God. This reveals the inherent dignity of all human beings.

Peace . . .

In Genesis 1 and 2, we see that God’s plan for humanity was for the earth to be filled with his image bearers, who were to glorify him through worship and obedience. This beautiful state of being, enjoying the cosmic bliss of God’s intended blessing and his wise rule, is called shalom (the Hebrew word for “peace”). As the scholar Cornelius Plantinga Jr. writes

In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight—a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.

Shalom means fullness of peace. It is the vision of a society without violence or fear: “I will give peace (shalom) in the land, and you shall lie down, and none shall make you afraid” (Lev. 26:6). Shalom is a profound and comprehensive sort of well-being—abundant welfare—with its connotations of peace, justice, and the common good. Biblical writers use the word shalom to describe the world of universal peace, safety, justice, order, and wholeness God intended (Isa. 32:14–20).

. . . and Violence

Genesis 3 records the terrible day when humanity fell into sin and shalom was violated. Adam and Eve violated their relationship with God by rebelling against his command. This was a moment of cosmic treason. Instead of trusting in God’s wise and good word, they trusted in the crafty and deceitful words of the serpent. In response, the Creator placed a curse on our parents that cast the whole human race into futility and death. The royal image of God fell into the severe ignobility we all experience.

This tragic fall from grace into disgrace plunged humankind into a relational abyss. Paul Tripp writes:

What seemed once unthinkably wrong and out of character for the world that God had made now became a daily experience. Words like falsehood, enemy, danger, sin, destruction, war, murder, sickness, fear, and hatred became regular parts of the fallen-world vocabulary. For the first time, the harmony between people was broken. Shame, fear, guilt, blame, greed, envy, conflict, and hurt made relationships a minefield they were never intended to be. People looked at other people as obstacles to getting what they wanted or as dangers to be avoided. Even families were unable to coexist in any kind of lasting and peaceful union. Violence became a common response to problems that had never before existed. Conflict existed in the human community as an experience more regular than peace. Marriage became a battle for control, and children’s rebellion became a more natural response than willing submission. Things became more valuable than people, and they willingly competed with others in order to acquire more. The human community was more divided by love for self than united by love of neighbor. The words of people, meant to express truth and love, became weapons of anger and instruments of deceit. In an instant, the sweet music of human harmony had become the mournful dirge of human war.

God’s good creation is now cursed because of the entrance of sin (Gen. 3:14–24). The world is simply not the way it’s supposed to be. The entrance of sin into God’s good world leads to the shattering of shalom. Sin, in other words, is “culpable shalom-breaking.”

Evil is an intrusion upon shalom. Sin wrecks the order and goodness of God’s world. Sin is the “vandalism of shalom.” Plantinga writes:

God hates sin not just because it violates his law but, more substantively, because it violates shalom, because it breaks the peace, because it interferes with the way things are supposed to be. God is for shalom and therefore against sin. In fact, we may safely describe evil as any spoiling of shalom, whether physically, morally, spiritually, or otherwise.

Regarding this dimension of sin, Plantinga writes:

All sin has first and finally a Godward force. Let us say that a sin is any act—any thought, desire, emotion, word, or deed—or its particular absence, that displeases God and deserves blame. Let us add that the disposition to commit sins also displeases God and deserves blame, and let us therefore use the word sin to refer to such instances of both act and disposition. Sin is a culpable and personal affront to a personal God.

God’s image-bearers were created to worship and obey him and to reflect his glory to his good creation. According to G. K. Beale:

God has made humans to reflect him, but if they do not commit themselves to him, they will not reflect him but something else in creation. At the core of our beings we are imaging creatures. It is not possible to be neutral on this issue: we either reflect the Creator or something in creation.

After the fall, humankind was enslaved to idolatry (hatred for God) and violence (hatred for each other). Sin inverts love for God, which in turn becomes idolatry, and inverts love for neighbor, which becomes exploitation of others. Instead of worshiping God, our inclination is to worship anything else but God. Idolatry is not the ceasing of worship. Rather, it is misdirected worship, and at the core of idolatry is self-worship.

Instead of loving one another as God originally intended, fallen humanity expresses hatred and violence toward their neighbors. Sigmund Freud serves unexpectedly as a theologian of original sin. In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud writes:

Men are not gentle, friendly creatures wishing for love, who simply defend themselves if they are attacked, but that a powerful measure of desire for aggression has to be reckoned as part of their instinctual endowment. The result is that their neighbor is to them not only a possible helper or sexual object, but also a temptation to them to gratify their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without recompense, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him. Homo homini lupus [“man is a wolf to his fellow man”]; who has the courage to dispute it in the face of all the evidence in his own life and in history?

Both the vertical relationship with God and the horizontal relationship with God’s image-bearers are fractured by the fall. Evil is anti-creation, anti-life, and the force that seeks to oppose, deface, and destroy God, his good world, and his image-bearers. Simply put, when someone defaces a human being—God’s image bearer—ultimately an attack is being waged against God himself.

The foundational premise of the Bible after Genesis 3, therefore, is that this fallen world, particularly fallen humanity, is violent. The cosmic war begun by the serpent in Eden, described in Genesis 3, produces collateral damage in the very next chapter. Immediately after the fall, there is a radical shift from shalom to violence, as the first murder takes place in Genesis 4. After God shows regard to Abel’s worshipful offering, Cain responds by raging against God and murdering his brother (Gen. 4:4–5, 8). The downward spiral of humankind and the constant spread of sin continued as God’s blessing are replaced by God’s curse.

Violence is sin against both God and his image-bearers. In our hatred for God, we hoard worship for self and strike against those who reflect God’s glory. Plantinga explains:

Godlessness is anti-shalom. Godlessness spoils the proper relation between human beings and their Maker and Savior. Sin offends God not only because it bereaves or assaults God directly, as in impiety or blasphemy, but also because it bereaves and assaults what God has made.

A portion of the Old Testament is a catalog of cruelty. Widespread violence and the appalling evil of fallen humanity are recorded in detail on nearly every page of the Hebrew Bible:

Acts of reprobate violence explode from the pages of the Old Testament as evil people perform unspeakable acts: Children are cannibalized (2 Kings 6:28–29; Ezek. 5:10; Lam. 2:20), boiled (Lam. 4:10), and dashed against a rock (Ps. 137:9). During the Babylonian invasion, Zedekiah is forced to watch his sons slaughtered, after which his own eyes are gouged out (Jer. 52:10–11). Pregnant women are ripped open (2 Kings 15:16; Amos 1:13). Other women are raped (Gen. 34:1–5; 1 Sam. 13:1–15; Ezek. 22:11); one of them is gang raped to the point of death (Judg. 19:22–30). Military atrocities are equally shocking. We read about stabbings (Judg. 3:12–20; 2 Sam. 2:23; 20:10) and beheadings (1 Sam. 17:54; 2 Sam. 4:7–9). These are normal military atrocities. More extraordinary cases involve torture and mutilation: limbs are cut off (Judg. 1:6–7), bodies hewed in pieces (1 Sam. 15:33), eyes gouged out (Judg. 16:21; 2 Kings 25:7), skulls punctured (Judg. 4:12–23; 5:26–27) or crushed by a millstone pushed from a city wall (Judg. 9:53). Two hundred foreskins are collected (1 Sam. 18:27), seventy heads gathered (2 Kings 10:7–8), thirty men killed for their clothing (Judg. 14:19). Bodies are hanged (Josh. 8:29), mutilated and displayed as trophies (1 Sam. 31:9–10), trampled beyond recognition (2 Kings 9:30–37), destroyed by wild beasts (Josh. 13:8; 2 Kings 2:23–24) or flailed with briers (Judg. 8:16). Entire groups are massacred (1 Sam. 22:18–19; 1 Kings 16:8–14) or led into captivity strung together with hooks through their lips (Amos 4:2).

Grieve with Hope

Violence is a bitter fruit of the fall and is, without question, a “vandalism of shalom.” God’s response to evil and violence is redemption, renewal, and re-creation. Evil and violence are not the final word. They are not capable of creating or defining reality. That is God’s prerogative alone. However, evil and violence can pervert, distort, and destroy. They are parasitic on the original good of God’s creation.

The cross is both the consequence of evil and God’s method of accomplishing redemption. Jesus proves, by the resurrection, that God redeems and heals. And when Jesus returns, he will make all things new. 

Until Jesus returns, we groan (Rom. 8:23) and we grieve (1 Thess. 4:13). Grief is not a sinful emotion but is the result of sin. God and his people have legitimate grief because of sin and the pain it brings. Because of God’s redemptive work through Jesus Christ, he will wipe away all of your tears (Rev. 7:17; 21:4). We look forward to the day when grief will be banished. Therefore, you can have hope, which invites you to grieve, but not to grieve as one who does not have hope (1 Thess. 4:13; 1 Cor. 15:55–57). We grieve with hope because Jesus’ resurrection is proof to us that God is about healing, redeeming, and making all things new.

What Jesus’ resurrection began will find its completion in the new creation. The new heavens and the new earth described in Revelation 21:3–5 is a picture of perfection:

Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. . . . Behold, I am making all things new.”

Parts of this post are adapted from Justin’s book Rid of My Disgrace.

You can read the above article, by Justin Holcomb, here.

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