On Monday morning I, my wife, and sister-in-law were returning home from a weekend in Washington, DC. The night before, we had attended my daughter’s senior recital in violin performance marking the culmination of her undergraduate preparation for a career in music.
We left the DC area around 5:30 AM. Despite the dark, overcast sky and blustery weather, our spirits were riding high over my daughter’s performance. Until, that is, around 8:30.
From the rear view, I noticed familiar flashing blue lights approaching at a breath-taking rate. In moments, the state trooper zoomed past us in a blur. Then another. And another. One, my sister-in-law remarked, was a county sheriff. This kept up until we passed Roanoke. Needless to say, our thrill over the prior evening gave way to curiosity and concern.
Over the course of the next hundred miles, we lost count of the trooper cruisers and emergency vehicles in the opposing lanes racing toward the Roanoke area.
Scanning for news coverage in a weak reception area, we strained to hear that there had been a shooting at Virginia Tech with one confirmed fatality. An hour or so later, we heard that the number killed was twenty; then thirty. By the end of the day, the death toll had climbed to an unfathomable, 32 victims.
In the aftermath
I have no experience to draw upon to understand the pain of those left behind in this tragedy. I can only grieve with the rest of our nation for the victims of this unspeakable horror and their families. It is times like this, when the question “Where was God?” is on the minds of many.
The senseless massacre at Virginia Tech is but the latest in a long line of tragedies, like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and the Indonesian tsunami, that emphatically remind us of our struggle against the capricious forces of evil in a world that, in the words of theologian Cornelius Plantinga, is “not the way it’s supposed to be.”
According to Christian teaching, manifestations of evil, while not created or propagated by God, are allowed for “a season” according to the hidden purposes of God. At the same time, we would do well to heed the counsel of theologian David B. Hart regarding the Indonesian disaster:
“When we see the entire littoral rim of the Indian Ocean strewn with tens of thousands of corpses, a third of them children's-- no Christian is licensed to utter odious banalities about God's inscrutable counsels or blasphemous suggestions that all this mysteriously serves God's good ends.”
The sovereign will of God is fundamental to Christian doctrine. Yet, as Mr. Hart suggests, platitudes about “God’s ultimate good ends” offered to the afflicted are offensive because it is cheap compassion, often offered to relieve our own discomfort while avoiding the costly compassion of real action.
Eight days prior to the loss at Virginia Tech we were reminded of another occasion, 2000 years earlier, in which God abandoned his Son to be nailed to a tree. The crucifixion, which was followed three days later by the Resurrection, stands as a shocking display of God’s reach to a fractured and hurting world—a world which, in this present age, seems to be wobbling uncontrollably from the effects of unrestrained evil. The Resurrection is a preview of the final victory over evil—one that will not be won by man, but by God who is at once, all-powerful and all-good, transcendent and immanent; who is above all and in all; who spoke the universe into existence, and yet numbers the hairs on our head. He is the One who departed with the assuring promise, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
“Where was God?” we ask of this past week. The words of Elaine V. Emeth cut deep as she addresses the horrors of another generation,
“Where was God when the Holocaust took place? At Auschwitz and Birkenau, God was unloaded from transport trains; was terrorized, starved, and beaten with slave laborers; was gassed and cremated…Christ died one-and-a-half million deaths at Auschwitz and Birkenau…”
As the words of Elaine Emeth remind us, God’s unfailing presence is in keeping with his title, Immanuel—God with us. And although that knowledge can lessen our sense of isolation, there are times when the victims of evil’s reign need something more tangible. They need a flesh and blood Jesus. They need costly compassion from those who will touch them, comfort them, listen to their hurts, and dress their wounds.
The challenge for Christians, now and always, is that whenever and wherever the anguished cry of “Where is God?” wells up, it will be answered in the hands and feet, as well as, in the prayers of his image-bearers.
“Our God cares, for this God is Immanuel, God with us, who joins us in our dumbfounded speechlessness and bewilderment and this God does not give advice from a safe distance but enters the fiery furnace of our anguish and God wipes away our tears, this God who knows us by name, from whose nothing, not even death can separate us.” –Desmond Tutu
What are your thoughts on the Virginia Tech tragedy? Post them here.
For Further Reading:
Evil Exists; Faith Endures, Cal Thomas
God Cares. God Loves. We Choose, Desmond Tutu
Commentary by other religious notables, Washington Post
Lessons from the Holocaust, by Elaine V. Emeth, Weavings March/April 1998
Scripture References: John 8:31, Matthew 28:19, Luke 19:44, Matthew 4:4 (New International Version)