Between Canada and the United States lies the longest unprotected border in the world. I remember how when I was a kid and we visited Vancouver, we could cross the border for a day and have a blast in the US with our weak Canadian dollar, then return home without needing our passports because not only was the border unprotected, it was wide open! Then came 911, where the border cinched tight and has remained far more restricted ever since.
The terrorist activity on September 11, 2001 changed the political and social climate of both the US and Canada for at least the rest of this generation. It was precisely such a shocking and significant event because it was so abnormal. I remember exactly where I was when I saw the news, and I’ll likely never forget the images of that day. Yet even now, Canada and the US have enjoyed a highly peaceful existence for at well over 60 years. I mean, Canada hasn’t really had any significant terrorism outside of things like Flight 182 in 1985, the Encana bombings in 2008/09 or last year’s attempted assassination of Pauline Marois because, well, we’re becoming a base of operations for many terrorist groups (I guess it’s nice to be loved…?!?). The US has had a lot more bombings and shootings than Canada, for sure, but even the US isn’t anywhere close to being Israel, where an average of 4 rockets are fired at Israel a day, every day.
That’s not to downplay any of the heinous acts of violence in Canadian or American history, but only to say that things like terrorist bombings and rocket attacks aren’t part of regular Canadian or American life for anyone, including most law enforcement professionals. Most of us will never find ourselves in the midst of a scene like the one that occurred in Boston on April 15th, where 2 bombs went off at the Boston marathon, killing 3 people and injuring 180+ at the time of this writing. Canadians and Americans alike are generally unfamiliar with public acts of terrorism/violence like what occurred in Boston, and for that I certainly praise the Lord.
Still, in our media generation where cameras are everywhere and everyone hears about everything within minutes of its occurrence, the world feels a whole lot smaller and far more dangerous than in the past. We see pictures of scenes of terrorism thousands of miles away and events that we would never have heard of 100 years ago become immediate parts of our daily lives in brilliant color and gruesome detail. We’re far more aware of what’s going on around us (if we choose to be) and the world seems a whole lot smaller.
With all the videos, pictures and news comes the necessity to process the information. For many Christians for whom violence and warfare aren’t a normal part of life, common questions frequently arise: Where was God? How could he let this happen? What good could possibly come from the death of children? If God loves people so much, why doesn’t he stop them from getting slaughtered? Is this because Boston passed bill (insert city bylaw about gay marriage, Chick-fil-a or whatever)?
The questions are numerous, but they all have answers in the scripture. Let’s let God speak for himself:
1. Where was God?
1a. One needs to be cautious to ascribe the actions of men to God in a direct and personal sense. Sinners are the ones who sin, and they sin because they crave it.
James 4:1-2 says “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?You desire and do not have, so you murder.” The term “passions” is translated from the Greek word hēdonē, which means “desire for pleasure”. Those various desires for pleasure wage war against each other and seek a victory that will overflow into action. The term “desire” in the next sentence is translated from the Greek word epithymeō, which basically carries the idea of a desire in the sense of a hunger; it isn’t a rational “I want”, but more of a non-rational “rumbly tummy”. Sinners desire something, don’t have it, and attempt to get it via violence.
What did those bombers want? I don’t know, and time may sort that out as they’re caught or more information is uncovered, or it may remain a mystery until they stand before the Lord to account for their actions.
1b. One also needs to remember that though God doesn’t pull triggers or build pipe bombs himself, he’s still present in those events because he decreed that they occur and has divine purpose in those events.
God is meticulously sovereign and has no shame in taking the credit for orchestrating everything that occurs in the universe:
– His is sovereign over the affairs of nations:
In Amos 3:6-7, God says through his prophet Amos “If an alarm sounds in a city, do people not fear? If disaster overtakes a city, is the Lord not responsible?”
In Daniel 1:1-2, Daniel sums up the entire Babylonian siege of Jerusalem with the words “In the third year of the reign of King Jehoiakim of Judah, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon advanced against Jerusalem and laid it under siege. Now the Lord delivered King Jehoiakim of Judah into his power, along with some of the vessels of the temple of God.”
In Lamentations 2:4-8, the Lord personally takes responsibility for both Babylon’s conquest of Jerusalem and the resultant damage and death:
He has bent his bow like an enemy,
with his right hand set like a foe;
and he has killed all who were delightful in our eyes
in the tent of the daughter of Zion;
he has poured out his fury like fire.
The Lord has become like an enemy;
he has swallowed up Israel;
he has swallowed up all its palaces;
he has laid in ruins its strongholds,
and he has multiplied in the daughter of Judah
mourning and lamentation.
He has laid waste his booth like a garden,
laid in ruins his meeting place;
the Lord has made Zion forget
festival and Sabbath,
and in his fierce indignation has spurned king and priest.
The Lord has scorned his altar,
disowned his sanctuary;
he has delivered into the hand of the enemy
the walls of her palaces;
they raised a clamor in the house of the Lord
as on the day of festival.
The Lord determined to lay in ruins
the wall of the daughter of Zion;
he stretched out the measuring line;
he did not restrain his hand from destroying;
he caused rampart and wall to lament;
they languished together.
In Isaiah 45:7 God says equally clearly “I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the Lord, who does all these things.”
-He is sovereign over life and death:
In Job 1:21 when Job lost his health and wealth and possibly thought his life was going to be lost as well, he said “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will return there. The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. May the name of the Lord be blessed!”
In Deuteronomy 32:39 God describes himself by saying :”there is no other god besides me. I kill and give life, I smash and I heal, and none can resist my power.”
– He is sovereign over the formation of all people and personally assembles them in the womb:
In Job 31:15 Job describes God as “the one who made me in the womb”.
In Psalm 139:13 David says of God “Certainly you made my mind and heart; you wove me together in my mother’s womb.”
Psalm 139:16 says “Your eyes saw me when I was inside the womb. All the days ordained for me were recorded in your scroll before one of them came into existence.”
In Isaiah 44:2 Isaiah opens up his prophecy to Israel with the words “This is what the Lord, the one who made you, says— the one who formed you in the womb and helps you…”
In Isaiah 44:24 God says to Cyrus “This is what the Lord, your protector, says, the one who formed you in the womb”
In Jeremiah 1:5 God says to Jeremiah “Before I formed you in your mother’s womb I chose you. Before you were born I set you apart.”
– He is sovereign over disease and infirmity:
In Exodus 4:11, when Moses protests against God’s commissioning of him to speak to Pharaoh, God answers by saying “Who gave a mouth to man, or who makes a person mute or deaf or seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?”
In Deuteronomy 28:58-59, Israel was warned that “If you refuse to obey all the words of this law, the things written in this scroll, and refuse to fear this glorious and awesome name, the Lord your God, then the Lord will increase your punishments and those of your descendants—great and long-lasting afflictions and severe, enduring illnesses.”
In 2 Samuel 12:15 it speaks of the son of Bathsheba and David and says “The Lord struck the child that Uriah’s wife had borne to David, and the child became very ill”.
In 2 Kings 15:5 it speaks of king Azariah’s 52 year reign of Israel and says “The Lord afflicted the king with an illness; he suffered from a skin disease until the day he died.”
In Daniel 4:19-35 Nebuchadnezzar has a dream in which God predicts that he will go insane (and suffer from clinical lycanthropy) for seven years, and then one year later, God simply removes his sanity for seven years, just as he said he would.
In John 9:2-3, Jesus has this interesting dialogue with his disciples “Rabbi, who committed the sin that caused him to be born blind, this man or his parents? Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but he was born blind so that the acts of God may be revealed through what happens to him.”
In Revelation 2:21-22 Jesus speaks to Thyatira about Jezebel and says “I have given her time to repent, but she is not willing to repent of her sexual immorality. Look! I am throwing her onto a bed of violent illness, and those who commit adultery with her into terrible suffering, unless they repent of her deeds.”
– God is sovereign over the free choices of people:
Proverbs 21:1 says “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord like channels of water; he turns it wherever he wants.”
In Daniel 4:35 Nebuchaddnezzar speaks of God “All the inhabitants of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as he wishes with the army of heaven and with those who inhabit the earth. No one slaps his hand and says to him, ‘What have you done?” That’s pretty broad language; God does what he wants with everyone in everything they do and nobody slaps his hand.
In Acts 4:27-28 Peter and John pray and describe the crucifixion by saying “For indeed both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, assembled together in this city against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed,to do as much as your power and your plan had decided beforehand would happen”. Think of that. How many people were involved in the crucifixion? Hundreds? Thousands? All doing exactly what they wanted, and yet all doing exactly what the Lord has decided they would do.
In Acts 13:48 after Paul preached in Psidian Antioch, the scripture records “When the Gentiles heard this, they began to rejoice and praise the word of the Lord, and all who had been appointed for eternal life believed.” All those that God had decided would believe the message of the gospel (before they were born) heard it and believed it because they chose to.
-He is sovereign over the events and creatures of nature:
God is the one who brings famine (2 Sam. 21:1; 1 Ki. 17:1, 18:1;2 Ki. 8:1; Ps. 105:16-17, 135:7, 147:18, 148:8; Ez. 5:17)
God is the one who brings the wind (Ex. 10:13; Num. 11:31; Jer. 10:13; Matt. 8:27)
God is the one who brings rain (Deut. 28:12; 1 sam. 12:17; Ps. 135:7; Jer. 5:24, 14:22)
God is the one who brings earthquakes (1 Ki. 19:11-12; Is. 29:6; Ez. 38:19; Matt. 24:7; 27:54; Rev. 6:12, 8:5, 11:13)
God directs the actions of animals (Ex. 8:16-18, 10:12-14; Num. 21:6-7; 1 Ki. 17:2-6; 2 Ki. 2:24, 17:25; Is. 7:18-19; Ez. 5:17; Dan. 6:22)
He is sovereign over the seemingly inconsequential events of life:
Proverbs 16:33 states “The dice are thrown into the lap, but their every decision is from the Lord.”
In Matthew 10:29-30 Jesus comments further on the extent of the sovereignty of God when he says “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered.” God’s rule extends to every detail of life including the seemingly insignificant; sparrows only die when God gives them permission and each hair that falls from a head does so in obedience to the Lord.
Theologians sometimes express this idea in this way: God is the ultimate cause of evil, but not the proximate cause. Another way of saying that would be to beware of two equally unbiblical ideas: (a) blaming God for pulling the trigger, and (b) saying that God wasn’t involved in what happened.
God brings all things that pass to pass, and nothing happens outside of his sovereign decree, which leads us to the second question.
2. How could he let this happen?
If everything happens due to God’s divine decree, is there a reason behind everything?
Most certainly, yes.
In Genesis 50:20, after Joseph’s father was dead and his brothers assumed that Joseph was now afraid to enact his revenge on them (for selling him into slavery and faking his death) without having to face his father’s disapproval, Joseph comments upon his whole multi-decade affair with these words: “As for you, you meant to harm me, but God intended it for a good purpose, so he could preserve the lives of many people, as you can see this day.”
Joseph’s brothers had a purpose in their wickedness, but God had an altogether different purpose in the exact same events.
In Exodus 9:16 Moses speaks to Pharaoh and explains why God has brought Pharaoh to his place of power (and given Egypt it’s vast power): “But for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.” Remember that this was in the context of the plagues of Egypt and after the first six had already occurred.
God had raised Pharoah up to humiliate and destroy him before the whole world.
In Job 42:2, after all Job’s suffering at the hands of Satan (who was acting at the permission of God), Job says “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.” God had a divine purpose in Job’s suffering and illness, and that purpose was to prove for all time that true faith endures (remember the accusations from Satan that started the whole situation…).
In Psalm 57:2 David states clearly that “I cry out to God Most High, to God who fulfills his purpose for me.” God had a specific purpose for David and all the events of his life (remember? David had a lot of “events” in his life!)
In Psalm 138:7-8, David says the same thing with specific references to his trouble when he writes:
“Though I walk in the midst of trouble,
you preserve my life;
you stretch out your hand against the wrath of my enemies,
and your right hand delivers me.
The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me;
your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever.
Do not forsake the work of your hands.”
In Isaiah 14:24-27 God speaks specifically of Assyria, commenting on his purpose for Assyria:
The Lord of hosts has sworn:
“As I have planned,
so shall it be,
and as I have purposed,
so shall it stand,
that I will break the Assyrian in my land,
and on my mountains trample him underfoot;
and his yoke shall depart from them,
and his burden from their shoulder.”
This is the purpose that is purposed
concerning the whole earth,
and this is the hand that is stretched out
over all the nations.
For the Lord of hosts has purposed,
and who will annul it?
His hand is stretched out,
and who will turn it back?
In Acts 2:23 Peter spoke to the crowd that had gathered at Pentecost and said “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” The crucifixion of Christ, including all its meticulous details, was planned and purposed long beforehand by God.
God has a plan and purpose for all things, including the wicked actions of wicked men. This leads us to the next obvious question…
3. What good could possibly come from the death of children?
If God is meticulously sovereign and has a purpose behind everything, the what in the world is it? More so, what could possibly be the purpose in what appears to be the senseless suffering and death of young children/the handicapped/”the innocent”?
3a. First off, we don’t get specific answers to every question about purpose because of two reasons:
– The creator doesn’t owe explanations to his creation.
In the scriptures, there’s an analogy that comes up frequently regarding what it’s like to God when people attempt to “wear his shoes”…
In Isaiah 29:16, Isaiah writes “You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay, that the thing made should say of its maker, “He did not make me”; or the thing formed say of him who formed it,“He has no understanding”?
In Isaiah 64:8-9, after contemplating on the outcome of Israel’s rebellion against the Lord, Isaiah says “But now, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Be not so terribly angry, O Lord, and remember not iniquity forever.”
In Jeremiah 18:6-10, Jeremiah says to Israel “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? declares the Lord. Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it.”
In Romans 9:20, Paul cites this idea when he says “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?'”
– We wouldn’t have the ability or perspective to understand the answers we are asking for.
In Job 39:2-3 after Job demands an audience with God to ask him to give an explanation for Job’s suffering, God responds to Job from a whirlwind and says “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me.”
God then proceeds to wage an onslaught of questions against Job that are all questions regarding the natural world and closes of his first volley of questions with “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it.” (Job 40:2). Job then responds “Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further” (Job 40:4-5).
God then continues to hammer home his point with another series of questions that opens with “Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me. Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be in the right? Have you an arm like God, and can you thunder with a voice like his?” (Job 40:7-9)
The Lord hammers Job with 2 more chapters of questions which leads Job to confessing “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” (Job 42:3)
The whole idea here is that if a person cannot fathom the simple workings of God in the operations of the natural world (you know, little things like the entirety of all information related to biology, physics and chemistry), what in blue blazes gives them any reason to suspect that they’ll be able to fathom the plans, purposes and procedures that lie behind those operations?
Good luck Chuck.
3b. Secondly, we do have broad answers in the scripture, but the problem for most people is that they’re simply too broad:
– Romans 8:28 – “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” This passage is quoted so much in Evangelicalism that it’s completely cliche, and it’s still true. What good could possibly come from the death of children? We don’t know, but God has promised that there will be good that comes of this (for those who love him).
– Jeremiah 29:10 records the Lord promising Israel “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place”. That’s a rather broad summary of 70 years of national suffering involving tens of thousands of people and innumerable events in those lives, but God states the good outcome explicitly – “I will fulfill my promise and bring you back”. Then in Jeremiah 29:11 God gives the reason that Israel should trust his promise: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” That’s a fairly broad answer to people who are wondering about waiting 70 years to try to leave Babylon! God simply says to the exiles in Babylon “I’ve got a plan and it’s a plan for your good. Trust me.”
It’s kind of like with God, divine insight is on a need-to-know basis. He doesn’t promise the answers with the level of detail that we want, and I’d suggest that if everyone got some sort of specific and personal level of detail, either the Bible would be an endless piece of literature or every single person would be getting enough divine revelation every day that nobody would ever get much, if anything, done. We get what we need to know, and it’s usually along the lines of a broad universal truth that can be applied across the board to colossal groups of people: “God has the power, perspective and purpose to bring everything together for your good if you’re in right relationship to him, regardless of what you think”.
We’re not necessarily told what good will come of things, but we are promised that it will. Sometimes, over time, we get to connect the dots and see the good that God brings to pass for those who love him. Sometimes we don’t. The fact that we see it or not doesn’t change the fact that God always keeps his promises.
4. If God loves people so much, why doesn’t he stop them from suffering/dying?
4a. Here’s some biblical answers that give some framework for thinking about the question:
– Because suffering is necessary; believers are made more Christlike through suffering. (Heb. 12:11; 2 Cor. 12:7-10; James 1:2-4).
– Because God cares for believers; sometimes God takes believers out of the earth as an act of grace to prevent sin (1 Cor. 11:29-30).
– Because suffering helps believers cultivate longing for the resurrection and eternity (Rom. 8:18-24).
– Because suffering helps keep believers from being distracted away from the gospel (Phil. 1:21-26).
– Because suffering helps give believers an accurate evaluation of their spiritual character (2 Cor. 11:30).
– Because suffering draws believers closer to the Lord (2 Cor. 12:8; Lam. 3:19-24; Is. 43:2).
– Because suffering offers opportunity to display God’s power in believer’s lives (John 9:3; 2 Cor. 12:9; 1 Cor. 10:13; 1 Tim. 1:12-16).
– Because God is glorified in the radiating forth of his power, authority and wrath against sinners (Ex. 9:16; Rom. 9:22, 13:1-6).
– Because all people rightly deserve death and God is just in temporarily not restraining death (Rom.3:23, 6:23).
4b. There is an implicit idea in the question that is false; namely, that God’s main manifestation of his love should be aimed at the comfort and joy of people upon this earth. 2 Peter 3:11-14 talks about how ultimately, the entire earth will be destroyed and remade and the proper response to understanding this is to strive hard to be found righteous when you meet Christ.
If the Bible is true and this present earth will exist for a blink of time in comparison to the length of eternity, then if God truly loves people he would be concerned infinitely more with their comfort and joy for the infinite years they will spend on paradise earth rather than simply the 90(ish) years they’ll spend on the “old jalopy” earth we have now, right? Think of it this way: 10 trillion years from now, after you’ve experience just slightly under 10 trillion years of unending joy in the presence of the Lord, just how significant will a few dozen years (at most) of suffering be in comparison? If you could have more suffering now for the purpose of increased righteousness and character that would translate into more joy, every day over 10 trillion years (and then on into eternity), would you go for it?
He is going for it in your life, right now.
5. Is this because Boston passed bill (insert city bylaw about gay marriage, Chick-fil-a or whatever)?
Jesus nails this one out of the park (kinda like he always does) in Luke 13:1-5:
There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “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.Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
God doesn’t regularly cause natural disasters or horrid acts of violence in some sort of punishment against sinners in response to their sinfulness; towers fall and that’s part of living in a post-Genesis 3 world (as Al Mohler would say). Wicked men do wicked things to other wicked men; that’s simply what wicked men do. The proper response to situations like the one mentioned by Christ is to recognize the frailty of life and the significance of the grave, and respond to God accordingly. God’s priorities aren’t really focused at temporal suffering, but rather at eternal suffering; God has far more perspective than we do.
So in the future, when some heinous act of terrorism ends up on the news or even comes to your neck of the woods, know this: both wicked men and God are involved in action, purpose and plan, but God has a good purpose in it for your good if you’re a believer and commands all sinners to take heed and repent or they will likewise perish.
May you join with Job and loudly proclaim “Even if he slays me, I will hope in him!” (Job 13:15).
Until Next Time,
Lyndon “God is good all the time” Unger