The Virginia Tech Massacre – Some Afterthoughts

The deadliest mass shooting in US history occurred Monday morning, April 18th.  The total deaths as of this post are 33.  The killer is a young man who was deeply troubled, to say the least.  This entire event is beyond perplexing and vexing.  It is perplexing because of the ever-present problem of evil in our world and the existence of a God who is sovereign and good.  It is vexing because one wonders why Cho Seung-Hui felt it necessary to take the lives of so many.

To begin with let me say that pastors do not have a corner on the mind of God.  We ought not pretend to have an answer to the indefatigable, unavoidable, and understandable “why?” question in times like this.  Isaiah 55:8-9 reminds us that God’s thoughts are infinitely beyond ours: 

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. [9] For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Moreover, the “why?” question is not always for us to know and therefore we are wise to restrain curiosity or it will eat us alive from the inside out.  Deuteronomy 29:29 says:

The secret things belong to the Lord our God.

Therefore, we are wise to have humility be the light that guides our intellect and exercise discernment as a rudder that directs our response to this horrendous incident.  It is all to easy to be visceral at times like this; I am certainly no exception.

There are four problems that I’d like to consider on the surface in the aftermath of this profound tragedy.  Perhaps these may lead to more significant discussions.  It is my desire that this becomes a discussion rather than perceived as a lecture.  I invite the reader to engage me as I attempt to work through these profound problems.

First, The Problem of Evil: Evil is ubiquitous.  What transpired on Monday was nothing short of evil.  It is a grim reminder that evil is around us – this is what ubiquitous means, all-around, ever-present.  I suggest that we consider two perspectives in light of this event: A) the evil carried out by this young man in not new.  What happened was shocking, horrific, appalling, catastrophic, etc. but as we look back in history, even recent history, this is not the first of its kind nor will it be the last.  This is in no way intended to minimize these killings; it is instead an observation that cannot be overlooked.  My point is simply that evil is a reality in our world and this is one heinous manifestation of it.  B) Events like this give shape to our worldview.  The word “evil” is defined by this massacre.  The lines of “good” and “evil” are less fuzzy than we might think.  This event challenges us to consider that perhaps there is, after all, less gray area in defining “good” and “evil.”  Let me also say that this is a bleak reminder that evil is not only around us but also in us.  Jeremiah 17:9 teaches us that “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”  Beyond a doubt, Seung-Hui had a sick heart, but the Bible tells us that we all do.  This truth is called the “depravity of man.”  This means that every single person (without exception) are affected by sin (cf. Genesis 3:1-7) in all facets of his being: intellect, emotions, and will.  While I make a theological assertion, the anecdotal evidence certainly supports, rather than refutes, my statement.  Indeed, today a man took the life of a hostage and his own at the Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas.  Also consider this incredible account:

“Holocaust survivor Yehiel Dinur was a witness during the trial of Adolph Eichmann, the architect of the Nazi ‘final solution’ during World War II. Eichmann presided over the slaughter of millions. ‘The court was hushed as a victim confronted a butcher.’ Suddenly Dinur broke into uncontrollable sobs, and collapsed to the floor. When asked later to explain his actions, he said, ‘I was afraid about myself. I saw that I am capable to do this…Exactly like he.’ The reporter who interviewed Dinur concluded that the most chilling fact about Adolph Eichmann was that he was normal. ‘Eichmann is in all of us’” (read the artcile here)

It is shocking for you to hear that there is a Cho Seung-Hui in all of us?  We are all depraved, some manifest it to a greater degree than others, but depraved nevertheless.  Having said this, evil in the world is a reality that will remain with us until the Lord rules and reigns in righteousness.  Evil exists, but not forever.  The question is, what has a good and sovereign God done about this matter of evil now? 

Second, the problem of justice: blood shed in vain?  When these incredible tragedies occur, the last life often taken is the killer’s own.  This has been true in several high-profile murders, including the Columbine shootings. This phenomenon raises the question if these killers do this in a cognitive state of sanity rather than insanity – which would undoubtedly be used to defend Seung-Hui.  This final murder (by taking their own life) suggests that they are well aware the consequences that will follow and are too cowardly to face them.  So when or how will Seung-Hui “face the music?”  Did he go out on his own terms or is there an account yet to come? 

Justice is contingent on the existence of a judge.  But what judge can exercise jurisprudence beyond the grave?  What is more, it is presupposed that this judge has observed the externals actions and even knows internal motivation for such an act.  The existence of a holy, righteous God is vital to answering this question.  If one is an atheist, there will be no justice ever brought upon Seung-Hui.  He has spilled the blood of other humans and perhaps ceased to exist.  If one is an agnostic, at best, one can only hope that something or someone exists out there who will make Seung-Hui give an account for his actions.  The Christian however understands that our thoughts, words, and deeds are always beheld by at least an audience of One—the Judge of the earth.  He observes all things” Proverbs 15:3 “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good.”  Genesis 18:25 says “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”  Who is being referred to here?  It is Jehovah, or the LORD.  Not only is He a judge, God is a righteous, just Judge that does not look upon evil lightly.  Psalm 7:11 states: “God is a righteous judge, and a God who feels indignation every day.”  Moreover, Psalm 50:6 “The heavens declare his righteousness, for God himself is judge!”  His holiness allows Him to exercise judgment without partiality.  Psalm 67:4 declares “Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity.”  In other words, from a Christian perspective, Seung-Hui did not go out on his own terms and without having justice carried out.  In the second following his death, Seung-Hui stood before this righteous God with blood on his hands, as it were.  He has received the just reward for his heinous actions. 

Consider for a moment now that because God the Judge of the Universe is holy, He must judge all wrong.  This means that He sees your actions: “the eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good” (Proverbs 15:3); your thoughts:  “the Lord—knows the thoughts of man” (Psalm 94:11); and your motives: “I the Lord search the heart and test the mind” (Jeremiah 17:1).  All moral infractions: lying, cheating, stealing, fornication, adultery, drunkenness, etc. require a penalty.  The penalty for sin is separation from a holy God in a place called hell.  We are told in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 “They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.”  Let me put this as plainly as I can put this: sin—all sin—requires a penalty because God’s righteous law has been broken.  How can we stand right before God?  We cannot stand righteous by earning righteous or “making up” for the sins we have committed.  He can a sinful person attain to the standard of a holy God?  It can’t happen.  We require a righteousness which is alien to us.  We can stand righteous, or not guilty, before God only by having the righteousness of God in Christ credited to our account.  How is this credited to our account?  Simply by believing the gospel—nothing more, nothing less (cf. Romans 1:16; 2 Corinthians 5:21). 

So, rest assured, Seung-Hui has given an account for his actions.  The problem of justice is that we too must all give an account to this holy, righteous Judge.

Third, The Problem of God: A Jack-in-the-Box God.  Not too long ago, a now infamous Minnesota Governor stated “religion is the opium of the people” citing Karl Marx.  Taken at face-value there is truth in this statement.  Notice that the statement mentions religion not Christianity.  Perhaps orthodox Christianity is what was partially in view but it was likely more inclusive.  Nevertheless, I would agree that religion is an opiate of the masses.  This is all too evident during events like this.

Think of the recent history of our country: prayer was banned in schools; the Ten Commandments essentially forbidden in governmental centers; students must refrain from mentioning God or Christ in their speeches; and Creation and “intelligent design” are anathema in schools.  All this points to the expulsion of God from the public square.  God is not welcome in our daily lives.  However, when disaster strikes we invoke Him and His comfort and His blessing and the security of knowing that our loved ones are “in a better place.”  Psalm 23 is read aloud; “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” becomes our anthem; and the bagpipes are heard playing “Amazing Grace.”  God has become nothing more than a divine shoulder-to-cry on who we expect to pop-up like a jack-in-the-box when we wind it up.  This is tragic, but certainly a sign of the times.   

Perhaps some of you wonder if God exists (and I whole-heartedly believe He does), why would He allow such tradgedies to occur.  There are two instances where God ordained moral evil for the purposes of His greater good.  You may remember the account of Joseph.  His brothers were jealous of him.  So much so that they threw him into a pit and sold him into slavery.  He was taken off into Egypt.  In time, he found favor with Pharaoh and become a very high-ranking official in Pharaoh’s government.  Joseph eventually meets his brothers again when they are in need of food during a famine.  Joseph says to them: Genesis 50:20, Joseph says to his brothers when they fear his vengeance, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.”   Furthermore, we have the quintessential example of moral evil when Jesus was subjected to the cruel death of Roman crucifixion.  Acts 4:27-28, “Truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur.”   These two passages clearly show that God is sovereign over all events in the world.  IN other words God is sovereign.  This quote serves my purposes quite well and indeed, states it far better than I could:

So the answer to the question in the title of this message, “Is God less glorious because he ordained that evil be?” is no, just the opposite. God is more glorious for having conceived and created and governed a world like this with all its evil. The effort to absolve him by denying his foreknowledge of sin (as we saw this afternoon) or by denying his control of sin (which we have seen this evening) is fatal, and a great dishonor to his word and his wisdom. Evangelicals, who are seeking the glory of God, look well to the teaching of your churches and your schools. But most of all look well to your souls.

If you would see God’s glory and savor his glory and magnify his glory in this world, do not remain wavering before the sovereignty of God in the face of great evil. Take his book in your hand, plead for his Spirit of illumination and humility and trust, and settle this matter, that you might be unshakable in the day of your own calamity. My prayer is that what I have said will sharpen and deepen your God-entranced world view, and that in the day of your loss you will be like Job who, when he lost all his children, fell down and worshipped, and said, “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away. Blessed be the name of the LORD”  (I would commend the reading of this entire sermon). 

In short, we must remember that 1) this event did not catch God by surprise for He does not slumber nor sleep; indeed, He ordains all that transpires in the world.  2)  God is most glorified when we realize His full and free sovereignty over the affairs of our lives.  The problem of God is always set before us in a way that cannot be overlooked.  When tragedies like these occur, they point us to a greater reality than our leisure, fishing, hunting, a weekend at the cabin, summer vacations, and fulfilling the American dream.  The point us to a transcendent Reality; a God who ordains everything in this world and one who loved us so much that He gave His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, that whoever believes in Him, should not perish but have everlasting life (John 3:16).  It is likely that in a short time, if not already, we have already pushed Him back down and closed the lid waiting to crank the handle when the next tragedy occurs.      

Fourth, The Problem of Reality: Now what?  The final problem is what do we do in light of such tragic events?  We can quickly set it behind us and move on slightly more fearful of our future.  We might also press on with a greater resolve to not allow such acts keep us from living in a constant state of fear.  Or perhaps it might lead us to ponder a greater reality; one that transcends this life.  I hope the latter option is the path you choose.  If it is, please read this. 

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