I happened to be in Las Vegas this weekend during the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. I was actually sitting outside of my hotel (also a casino, as nearly all hotels are in that city) enjoying the cool desert night when my scrolling through Twitter alerted me to what was happening. It was an eerie feeling, especially given the rampant rumors when the news was just getting out. Reports of multiple gunmen in multiple casinos made me uneasy, despite my safe distance about 10 minutes from the Las Vegas strip. I made my way up to my room to watch the news and to pray.
The church where I was speaking last weekend is pastored by some great men, including a fellow who serves as a chaplain in the police department. He was up all Sunday night visiting the hospitals. Pray for these folks and their churches; there are some good ministries that have been seeking to bring the message of Christ to this broken city for quite a while. And tragedies as enormous as these murders often prompt otherwise-ambivalent souls to lean into the message of hope found in the gospel. Perhaps the murderer’s unintended consequence may be desperate souls saved.
I find it difficult to articulate anything immediately applicable to this tragedy. Though I was in the city, I was not close enough to have witnessed it. I am not close enough to be a part of the ongoing ministry efforts in the wake. I rode home on a plane Monday morning with some fairly shell-shocked people, including a couple of women who were at the concert, who did witness the carnage, and who were still trembling, tear-streaked faces held up to phones connected to loved ones while in the gate area before boarding. I don’t have it in me to offer a hot-take or one more emotional re-run about gun control or terrorism or even a sincere inspirational devotion.
So I’ll offer a different kind of re-run. Five years ago, a young man murdered 26 people in Newtown, Connecticut, including 20 kindergarteners. Like many of you, I wrestled with the horror and the spiritual gravity of this event. For the first time ever, I interrupted my regularly scheduled Sunday sermon (at Middletown Church in Vermont) and early that Sunday morning I was to preach, I sketched out an outline I am sharing below. It was my heart that morning—and this morning—about what I think God is saying when these sorts of evils occur.
What Is God saying?
At least five things.
1. “The world is broken, and evil is real.”
Even the most hardened atheist and subscriber to moral relativism must struggle labeling these murders as anything but evil. Any waffling about the reality of moral absolutes is vanquished by sins like this. Normal, sober-minded people should have no problem calling it a violation of the moral code, of human rights, of human dignity.
People who commit such heinous crimes may have social, emotional, or psychological problems, but we should have no problem whatsoever labeling these acts as evil. God certainly says they are. “Thou shalt not murder” has no caveats or exclusionary fine print. Motive does not matter. The taking of innocent life is a crime against not just them, but God himself.
The sooner we face this reality, the sooner we can get to the real solution.
2. “I know what it feels like. I weep with you.”
John 11:35 – “Jesus wept.”
God is not ambivalent about, nor is he unfamiliar with human atrocities. He knows what it’s like to grieve. He knows what it’s like to hurt. He knows what it’s like to feel abandoned—“My God, My God why have you forsaken me?”
Jesus knows what it’s like to be killed while innocent. And the Father knows what it’s like to have a Son die.
Exodus 2:25 “God saw the people of Israel—and God knew.”
3. “I am just.”
God says, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay” not because there is no vengeance to be had. It belongs to him, and he will bring it. He “will by no means clear the guilty.” Those with innocent blood on their hands, even if they were to take their own lives to escape human justice, only face an eternity of torment from a holy God. Those who deny or denigrate the idea of hell must reckon with the injustice of God posed by murderers like these who may unrepentantly escape the punishment for their sins.
4. “Repent and believe.”
In Luke 13, Pilate’s murdering of Galileans is brought up to Jesus, and he takes the prospect down a surprising path. He mentions also the falling of the Tower of Siloam, an accidental tragedy that took many lives. In both cases, he says, we ought to reflect on the shortness and the sheer mortality of our lives and leverage this sobriety into a turn to God in faith. “Unless you repent,” he says, “you will all likewise perish.”
Tragedies like this remind us that life is precious but also that time is precious. Which one of you, after hearing of the murders at the Sandy Hook school, couldn’t wait to get to your kids and hug their necks? Why? Because suddenly you were reminded to make much of your time. You were reminded not to waste your time.
None of us is promised tomorrow. Or even our next breath. We have to get this sorted now, this very moment.
5. “Be not afraid.”
For the believer in Christ, especially, we are to weep with those who weep and grieve the evil in the world, but we are not to be shaken to despair by events like these. We are not called to give up the reality that God is real, God is here, and God is putting all things in subjection under the feet of Jesus.
Paul tells the timid Timothy, “God has not given us a spirit of fear.” Why? Because he knows that greater is he that is in me than he that is in the world.
We will weep with those who weep, we will bring comfort to those who mourn, but we will take courage because we know that sin and death are not the end of the story. We know that death’s days are numbered. We know that those who mourn will be comforted, because Christ has triumphed over sin at the cross, and he has triumphed over death in his resurrection, and so he has given his word that he will have the final word.
No one is promised tomorrow, but the Christian is promised eternity. And this above all is why we must fix our eyes on Christ, the author and perfecter of our faith. This is why we may get discouraged, but we should not get discombobulated.
And it is why the American Church will not be distracted or dissuaded from the gospel. It is the only hope for a world that feels hopeless, and it is the blessed hope for a world that is wasting away. Cute inspirational aphorisms cannot even begin to account for or answer to tragedies like mass murder. Only the gospel of the supremacy of Christ can do such a thing.