Help to make sense of tragedy
We might forget the date (it was Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017), but the world will remember the Las Vegas shooting for a long time. Stephen Paddock, a lone gunman perched in his 32nd-floor suite in the Mandalay Bay, killed 58 people not counting himself. And 546 others were injured, most from his arsenal of weapons. President Trump called it "an act of pure evil."
Several things contribute to the infamy surrounding this shooting. First, it is the deadliest mass shooting by an individual in recent U.S. history, passing the 49 deaths at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando on June 12, 2016.
Second, the victims were from all over the world, and so the horror speaks close to home. There were four Canadians among the dead – Jessica Klymchuk, Jordan McIldoon, Calla Medig and Tara Roe.
Third, as of mid-October police can’t figure out a motive. Paddock left no messages about his reasons, his girlfriend and brother have no explanation, and there is no credible link to any terrorist group. An autopsy on his brain showed no clues to the evil.
I’ve noticed over the years that outsized acts of darkness lead people to try to explain evil. This happened after 9/11. In Canada, both the École Polytechnique massacre in 1989 and the Quebec mosque shooting in 2016 brought deep reflection. But these at least can have understandable motives.
Of course, even if we find out why Paddock killed and maimed, such evil leads to larger questions. Why does evil happen at all? Does pain and suffering (a type of evil) have a plus side? Do overt acts of evil lead to good? How should Christians respond to sordid realities like the Vegas shooting, or news of a friend’s cancer, or the report of a child mauled to death by dogs?
Let me make three practical suggestions and then four theological comments.
First, most people who experience tragedy or face pain and suffering want emotional and spiritual comfort – more than they want intellectual or theological analysis.
Second, bringing comfort is not complicated. In 2004 when I had spinal surgery and spent 77 days in hospital/rehab, cards in the mail and news that someone was praying meant everything. When my niece Jennifer died tragically in September 2014, hugs, tears and flowers from relatives and friends played a big part in handling the grief.
Third, don’t oversell the positive results of bad things. Yes I grew spiritually and emotionally when my mother died in 1974 when she was only 49. That good result does very little to lessen the sadness that she never got to see her two sons married or see her grandchildren or great-grandchildren.
As we all know, atheists can use the Las Vegas killings as proof to argue that God does not exist or, like atheist Susan Jacoby, write that if God exists, then evil is the reason He should be despised.
We have recently learned Elie Wiesel, the famous Jewish writer on the Holocaust, carried more anger against God than previously known. Another version of his famous memoir Night was uncovered in 2016 that contains some very bitter comments against God. (Read a thoughtful commentary from The Tabletpublished recently: L.FaithToday.ca/WTablet.)
Among the friends and family of those killed and maimed by the Vegas killer, there are likely some that have anger at God or lost faith altogether. What can be said to those who struggle to believe?
First, believe it or not, some people come to belief in God precisely because of seeing evil. Taylor Benge, a survivor of the Vegas shooting, said that facing the evil up close helped lead him to trust God. Some Christian apologists even argue logically for God’s existence because of the reality of evil.
Second, honesty with God or about belief is the best policy. If God exists, He already knows your thoughts. (If God doesn’t exist, well, honesty is still healthiest according to psychologists.) As C. S. Lewis noted in The Problem of Pain, we should not allow attention to horrendous evils to keep us from facing our own darkness.
Third, we need to deeply consider that Jesus experienced pain, suffering and evil. My mom died before Easter time when I was 20. One night I was crying about her death and in prayer had the deepest realization Jesus died too. What I knew academically became a spiritual truth.
And finally, as an antidote to evil, we need to focus on the truths that Jesus conquered death and promises eternal life where there are no more tears. Many of us struggle with the problem of evil from an intellectual angle, but it is hard to fathom any answer to the problem better than the gospel of Jesus.
James A. Beverley is professor of Christian thought and ethics at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto. He has been studying new religions since 1976. Find more of these columns at www.FaithToday.ca/ReligionWatch.