What makes an act of violence so emotionally draining on those who encounter it is not so much the amount of blood that was shed, but the amount of inexplicability surrounding the bloodshed. Turn on the news and see that ISIS has butchered a village of Iraqi Christians, and you’ll certainly feel sorrow, empathy, and a host of other appropriate emotions.
But you probably won’t lay awake at night with your mind replaying those images on the grimmest of tape loops because, while the butchery is deplorable, it’s understandable. ISIS subscribes to an interpretation of Islam that demands the utter domination and destruction of those who don’t embrace their Islamic vision. Those Iraqi Christians didn’t embrace it. That’s why they were slaughtered. In response to the horror, you looked for an explanation, an answer to the question “why did this happen?” You found one, you wept, and you moved on.
But acts of violence like the WDBJ shooting in Virginia are often much harder to deal with. These brief acts of small-scale murder take far fewer lives than wars or natural disasters or organized terrorist attacks. But often they haunt our memories far longer than events with a much higher body count because they refuse to give a sufficient explanation for themselves.
The Less Sense It Makes, The Harder We Look
Why did this happen? Why, in Virginia, did a fame-seeking man (whose name I will not type) film himself murdering two entirely innocent people? How could an act of such of deliberate, unprovoked evil explode in the banal context of a morning interview on local TV?
We don’t know, so we keep staring at the images. We remember those terrified faces as we go to the gym. We hear the gunfire echoing in our memory as we pick our kids up from school. We fixate on this tragedy longer than we would on a bloodier one simply because this tragedy doesn’t make any sense. The less sense it makes, the more our eyes keep looking around the scene of the crime to make eye contact with someone who can explain it.
In particular, we look for God in the violence. We dive into theodicy. We ask Him, “Why would you let something like this happen? How can you be a good Creator while allowing this evil to befall your creation?” But God won’t make eye contact here. We ask Him to explain what we see before us, but He only tells us to look elsewhere.
God does this when the crowds in Matthew 11 wonder why He’s not using His divine power to bust John out of prison and escape certain death from Herod. Jesus responds by saying, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force,” going on to assert that John is simply going to suffer the martyrdom that’s par for the course with prophets like him. John’s disciples want a clear answer. Jesus won’t give it.
The Answer to Silence Is Faith
When some of those surrounding Jesus in Luke 13 tell him “about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices,” they want confirmation that their theoretical explanation is correct, that God let it happen because these men had committed sins meriting divine wrath. But Christ continues to hide the eyes of God from them, responding with, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
In other words, “No, you haven’t found an explanation for this specific atrocity. Instead, fix your eyes on your own sins and your own need for forgiveness.” When we ask, “Why, God, why?” He’ll tell us when we have the wrong answer, but, stubbornly, He won’t give us the right one.
Many Christian authors, in response to this divine silence, have encouraged us to find peace with what C.S. Lewis famously called, in his work of the same name, “the problem of pain.” Lewis encourages us to trust, when we can’t find the eyes of God, “that love may cause pain to its object, only on the supposition that the object needs alteration to become fully lovable.” Tragedies of this nature are simply the result of those in a sinful world being “conformed to the image of His Son,” to use Saint Paul’s language from Romans 8, Lewis states.
For non-Christians, this explanation is woefully insufficient, especially for atheists who often think that God not acting in a way they approve of or comprehend somehow disproves His existence. But for Christians, who will always struggle with doubt and despair in this life, the temptation to find an answer God won’t give is very strong. So together we all go, believers and unbelievers alike, surveying the site of the carnage, trying to lock eyes with anyone or anything who will take away a bit of our sorrow by telling us why this happened.
This Is Why Some Think Laws Can Fix Evil
Some of us have locked eyes on liberal sages who tell us this is all the result of insufficient gun laws. They explain that this event took place because a troubled individual dug his hands into our NRA/GOP created, firearm-sprouting American soil and shed the innocent blood that those who bitterly cling to their guns were unwilling to protect. These eyes have locked with ours and given us a motive. They’ve given us someone beyond the now un-punishable dead gunman that we can blame.
Those who are convinced by these eyes have their explanation. They now know why this happened. They can weep, move on, and hope to build a country where such events will never again take place.
Others, however, have been convinced by the flag-waving eyes that met with ours and told us that this happened because the man behind the trigger was obsessed with the invented bogeyman of racial injustice. They comforted us with the explanation that this deeply disturbed young man was exploited by a liberal culture saturated with identity politics and white guilt. The killer was, in a sense, victimized by a victimization culture. “That’s what allowed this to happen. Burn the race card and this won’t happen again,” those who are convinced by the conservative eyes tell themselves as they dry their tears and resume their circadian rhythm.
But when we find an explanation to a tragedy that conveniently fits our preexisting political leanings, we haven’t really answered the problem of pain. Rather, we’ve just changed the question we were asking.
Citing a gun culture or identity politics doesn’t answer why this evil happened. It explains how this evil happened, how it manifested itself in this one particular moment in this one particular set of circumstances. While answering “how did this evil happen” may give us hope that we can prevent the next angry gun nut/angry young race-warmonger from working a similar evil with a similar weapon on similar targets, it doesn’t actually teach us how to trust God’s goodness in the midst of all evil.
Where to Find God Amid Evil
So if we want to trust in the goodness of God, we shouldn’t try to make eye contact with Him where He’s told us we won’t find His eyes. We shouldn’t demand that He give us a word where He’s already promised to be silent. Rather, we should look for His eyes and His voice in the place where He’s promised to be—namely, in the cross of Christ.
God doesn’t answer the question, “Why, God, did you allow this evil?” But in the cross, He does answer the question, “What, God, have you done with this evil?” And His answer is clear. He has pierced it, along with all other sins, into the hands and feet of Jesus. He has drowned it in the blood of Christ and buried it in His tomb. When we ask God how He could be good and allow this evil, He points our eyes to the dying eyes of Jesus upon the cross and tells us, “Ask me instead what I am doing with this evil, because the answer is that I am defeating it.”
In the midst of our sorrow over this tragic, senseless shooting, don’t think that God doesn’t care. The same Jesus who allowed John to be beheaded gave His life so John could arise in recapitated glory on the Last Day. The same Jesus who wouldn’t say why His Father allowed the blood of those Galileans to be mingled with their sacrifices offered His blood as the perfect sacrifice to win salvation for those victims of Pilate’s wrath.
And the same Jesus who won’t tell us why He didn’t send an angel to stop those bullets in Virginia has told us why He didn’t command twelve legions of angels to stop those who sought his own death—so He could break and hinder every evil plan and purpose of the devil, so He could render evil powerless by forgiving those who committed it, and by winning eternal life for those who were killed by it.