The Gospel and NewtownBy Cory Varden
(Response from Pastor David Platt to the tragedy in Newtown, CT)
As a father of four children, the oldest one in first grade and the youngest one born just last week, my heart has been profoundly heavy since I first heard of the heinous massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. Like many others, I’m sure, my emotions have swung from sadness to anger and from shock to disbelief. Along with many others, I’ve found myself asking, “How do we respond to the story of a 20-year-old young man walking into an elementary school and in a matter of moments murdering 28 people, including 20 children? How do we react to such unexplainable horror amidst such indescribable grief?”
Inevitably, many people turn to God. Leaders from every arena of public life seem to offer their support and prayers to the families of victims. People participate in candlelight vigils, assemble for prayer gatherings, and stream into churches for counseling. Yet these apparent outward attempts to turn to God are often accompanied by deep inward struggles concerning the reality of God. At one moment, we find ourselves turning to God, yet in the next moment we find ourselves wondering, “Where is God? Does He even exist? And if He does, what kind of God is He to let this kind of thing happen?”
In the face of tragic evil, we naturally begin to ask two historic and personal questions—historic because they have been asked for centuries, and personal because they strike deep at the core of who we are…and who God is.
On one hand, we begin questioning God’s greatness, wondering, “Can He prevent evil?” Is God able to stop things like this from happening? This question was vocalized clearly in a bestselling book years ago by Rabbi Harold Kushner entitled When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Kushner had lost his son, and his grief drove him to question his traditional Jewish faith. Though a rabbi, Kushner came to believe that God simply didn’t have power to prevent his son’s death. Kushner wrote: “I can worship a God who hates suffering but cannot eliminate it, more easily than I can worship a God who chooses to make children suffer and die.” In the end, Kushner argued that God is doing the best He can under the circumstances, but He lacks the power to change what happens in this life. A similar idea drives various theologians today who believe that God hates evil, but He has no power to do anything about it. According to some, God is limited in the face of evil.
But even for those who affirm God’s limitless greatness, this answer seemingly leads us to question God’s goodness as we wonder, “Why does God permit evil?” After all, if God has the power to prevent evil, then why doesn’t He do it? If God had the power to stop the merciless killing of elementary school children, then why did He let it happen? On a larger scale, why would a good God allow millions of Jews or Chinese or Soviets to be systematically killed as they have been in world history? Or on a smaller scale, why does a good God allow horrible suffering that you may have personally experienced in your life?
These are questions that go far back in history. Epicurus, the Fourth Century philosopher, made the famous statement: “Either God wants to abolish evil, and cannot; or he can, but does not want to…If he wants to, but cannot, he is impotent. If he can, and does not want to, he is wicked. But, if God both can and wants to abolish evil, then [why do we have] evil in the world?”
Now let me be clear: I’m not presuming to come on the scene of human history to solve this age-old problem and answer this age-old question. Nor am I assuming that what is needed in Newtown right now is a deep theological discussion on the problem of evil in the world. Particularly for moms, dads, family members, and friends who are mourning the loss of precious children and the priceless teachers who cared for them, what they need most is prayer and presence—the prayers of men and women across the church, and the presence of men and women who will love them, listen to them, weep with them, and walk with them through the long journey ahead.
Yet at the same time, moments like these often lead even Bible-believing Christians, in an effort to find explanations for what has happened, to unbiblical conclusions regarding what has happened. Amidst the emotional weight of our questions, we can unknowingly and subtly begin to undercut the biblical foundations that God has given us to stand on in this fallen world. So as many people grapple today (and as many pastors prepare to preach tomorrow) on these age-old questions, here is my humble attempt to identify four age-old truths that the Bible gives us to stand upon in times like these. These truths are grounded primarily in the biblical story of Job as he heard news of the sudden death of every one of his children, yet these truths extend throughout Scripture and apply throughout history. Listen to the story of Job, and then consider the truth of God’s Word.
Now there was a day when his sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother’s house, and there came a messenger to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys feeding beside them, and the Sabeans fell upon them and took them and struck down the servants with the edge of the sword, and I alone have escaped to tell you.” While he was yet speaking, there came another and said, “The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants and consumed them, and I alone have escaped to tell you.” While he was yet speaking, there came another and said, “The Chaldeans formed three groups and made a raid on the camels and took them and struck down the servants with the edge of the sword, and I alone have escaped to tell you.” While he was yet speaking, there came another and said, “Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother’s house, and behold, a great wind came across the wilderness and struck the four corners of the house, and it fell upon the young people, and they are dead, and I alone have escaped to tell you.”
Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.”
In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong. Again there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the LORD. And the LORD said to Satan, “From where have you come?” Satan answered the LORD and said, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” And the LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil? He still holds fast his integrity, although you incited me against him to destroy him without reason.” Then Satan answered the LORD and said, “Skin for skin! All that a man has he will give for his life. But stretch out your hand and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.” And the LORD said to Satan, “Behold, he is in your hand; only spare his life.”
So Satan went out from the presence of the LORD and struck Job with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. And he took a piece of broken pottery with which to scrape himself while he sat in the ashes.
Then his wife said to him, “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die.” But he said to her, “You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.
1. Evil is tragically real.
This truth seems basic, almost too obvious to even need pointing out, but it is key. The Bible does not gloss over the tragic reality of evil. All over the Bible, and even here in the first two chapters of Job, we see both natural evil and moral evil. Natural evil includes events like natural disasters: hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, volcanic eruptions, and tsunamis, many of which bring catastrophic losses of life. When we think about natural evil, we also think about suffering and death due to cancer, AIDS, other diseases. All of this is natural evil—evil that is not directly connected to something someone does to another person. That sort of evil would be moral evil, which is the category where we would put things such as wars, crimes, offenses, terrorist attacks…and school shootings.
Natural evil and moral evil are both involved here in Job’s story. In Chapter 2 it’s sores and disease all over Job’s body, and in Chapter 1 we see everything from foreign armies attacking Job’s property to a windstorm that collapses the house where his children are celebrating, killing all of them.
So first and foremost, we need to realize as we approach God’ Word that Scripture is not giving us trite answers here that suppose things are not all that bad. Scripture makes clear that things are that bad, and this is a world that is filled with evil on multiple levels.
Now it’s worth noting at this point that many people, in response to evil in the world, simply assume that there must not be a God. But the reality is that the very existence of evil actually points us to the existence of God. The existence of a conscience ingrained upon our minds and a moral law written upon our hearts is one of the classic proofs for the existence of God. If evil exists, it necessarily follows that good exists. The existence of good and evil then point us to a moral law which exists by which we understand (and classify) what is good and what is evil. This sense of morality (this sense of understanding the difference between good and evil) points us to a God who put this moral law on our hearts in the first place. Paul makes clear in Romans 2:12-16 that we all know the difference between right and wrong, good and evil, because God has instilled this within us. The moral law written on our hearts points us to a Moral Law-Giver, God, who put it there. In this way, the very presence of evil (along with good and the differentiation between the two) points us to the existence of God.
Subsequently, the converse reality is true: If God does not exist, then good and evil do not exist. If there is no God, then there is no transcendent basis for understanding good and evil. We are simply products of chance and culture, with no rhyme, reason, ultimate meaning, or transcendent definition of what is good and what is evil. Listen to Richard Dawkins, an avowed atheist from Oxford, who expresses this reality in chilling terms: “In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at the bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no other good. Nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.” What frightening words. It’s as if he would say, “This gunman in Newtown was neither evil nor good; he was simply dancing to his DNA.”
But we all know instinctively different. We all know that this was a heinous act of evil, and the very fact that we know this points us to the existence of a moral God who has put His law on each of our hearts, helping us to see, feel, and know the difference between that which is right and that which is wrong—that which is good and that which is evil. Scripture is clear: God exists, and evil is tragically real.
2. God is supremely great.
So is God able to prevent evil? Does He have power and authority over evil? Or is this a dualistic Star Wars-type world, where good and evil are fighting one another as equal forces in a cosmic battle? Is God supreme or not?
Scripture resounds with one answer to this question: Absolutely, God is supreme. He is supremely great. This truth is here in Job and all over Scripture. God is sovereign (meaning He has power and authority) over evil nations and rulers. Daniel 2:20-21 says, “Praise be to the name of God for ever and ever; wisdom and power are his. He changes times and seasons; he sets up kings and deposes them. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the discerning.” Proverbs 21:1 says, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will.” When you read Isaiah 37:23-29, you hear God speaking to the Assyrians, and He tells them, “You think you have conquered nations and won wars and you think you are indestructible, but I hold you in my hand, and I am the One who directs your steps.” God has sovereign authority and power over all nations and rulers, including the most evil of them.
And God is sovereign over the devil and demonic spirits. Notice in Job 2 that Satan only does what he does to Job because he has permission. The power of Satan is limited by the prerogative of God. We see this clearly in Christ, for example, in Mark 5:6-10, when a demon-possessed man bows down before Jesus, afraid of Him, and Jesus sends a legion of demonic spirits from this man into a herd of pigs. Jesus speaks, and demons listen. Jesus speaks, and demons obey. For God has sovereign power and authority over the devil and demonic spirits. God is sovereign; Satan is not.
Further, God is sovereign over trials and temptations. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:13 that God is able to keep us from being tempted beyond what we can bear. The trials that come our way, even as with Job, exist under the power and authority of God. Remember Jesus’ words to Simon Peter in Luke 22: “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” Don’t overlook the reality that Satan is not sovereign in the trials and temptations of Job’s life or Peter’s life or your life. Instead, God is sovereign over our trials and temptations.
Further, the Bible teaches that God is sovereign over both natural disasters and moral atrocities. Again, this is evident in Job 1-2 on both a natural and moral level, and later in the book. In Job 37:10-14, we see these words describing God’s sovereignty over storms: “The breath of God produces ice, and the broad waters become frozen. He loads the clouds with moisture; he scatters his lightning through them. At his direction they swirl around over the face of the whole earth to do whatever he commands them. He brings the clouds to punish men, or to water his earth and show his love. Listen to this, Job; stop and consider God’s wonders.” God, not Satan, is the ultimate ruler of the wind and the waves.
Ultimately, God is sovereign over disease and death. God’s sovereignty over disease is evident in Jesus’ ability to heal the sick throughout the New Testament, and God’s sovereignty over death is evident in the words of Deuteronomy 32:39: “See now that I myself am He! There is no god besides me. I put to death and I bring to life, I have wounded and I will heal, and no one can deliver out of my hand.” Scripture is clear: If the Lord wills, we will live. And if He doesn’t, we will die. Our lives are not ultimately in Satan’s hands; our lives are in God’s hands.
The testimony of Scripture, then, is clear: God is supremely great. It is impossible to believe God’s Word and disbelieve God’s power and authority—His sovereign reign and rule over all things. He is supremely great. So when we ask the question, “Is God great? Can He prevent evil?” the answer is, “Absolutely, God is great, and God is sovereign over evil.”
Now that immediately and inevitably leads us directly to the follow-up question: “Is God good?” And Scripture is just as clear on the answer to that question.
3. God is absolutely good.
But how can God be good, and at the same time, to use Job’s words, we receive evil? Consider how God relates to sin, evil and good in Scripture.
God relates to sin in many ways. At times in Scripture, we see that God prevents sin. There are passages in the Bible where God stops sin from occurring. In Genesis 20:6, God tells Abimilech, “I have kept you from sinning against me.” The psalmist prays in Psalm 19:13, “Keep your servant from willful sins; may they not rule over me.” This is a prayer for God to prevent sin, which God does. In 1 Corinthians 10:13, which we considered earlier, the Bible says that God will provide a way out from sin. He prevents sin.
At the same time, we sometimes see Scripture pointing to how God permits sin. The way this is often phrased in Scripture is in the language of God giving His people over to their sin. In Psalm 81:11-12, God says, “But my people would not listen to me; Israel would not submit to me. So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts to follow their own devices.” Then in Romans 1:24, Paul writes, “Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another….Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts….Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done.” So God permits sin in the sense that He gives us over to our sin.
At the same time, God also limits sin. Even here in Job 1-2, God puts a limit on what the devil and his demons can do to Job. And then God uses sin, meaning that God, in a very real sense, uses even evil to bring about good. This is evident in Genesis 50:19-20 when after Joseph’s brothers had sold him to slavery, Joseph says to his brothers: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” God accomplishes ultimate good even through evil.
Now we must be very careful here, in all of this, to realize that God never sins. God never directly causes sin, and He is never blamed for sin in Scripture. This is clear all over the Bible, and it’s summarized in James 1:13-15: “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.”
This is hugely important. Though God is sovereign over even evil deeds, Scripture nowhere depicts God as directly doing anything evil. God is never stained by evil in any way. He is holy—even when He uses sin. John Calvin once wrote, “God so uses the works of the ungodly, and so bends their minds to carry out his judgments that he remains pure from every stain.” This is extremely significant because if we’re not careful at this point, we will fall off the threshold of Scripture very quickly. If we say that God Himself is evil, then we obviously deny His goodness, His righteousness, and His holiness. At the same time, if we say that God is so removed from evil that He is not in control (i.e., if we say that God was not sovereign over what happened in Newtown), then we say that there is evil in the universe that is not under His control, and in this way, God does not have all power, and His purposes may (or may not) be fulfilled. So we want to be careful to hold to what Scripture says and not to wander into what Scripture doesn’t say.
So then, how do we understand God’s relationship to both good and evil? Scripture is clear that God relates to good and evil in different ways. When it comes to good, as we’ve seen, everything that is good is under his sovereignty. God is good, Psalm 107:1 says. He does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked, but calls them to turn from evil, because He is good (Ezekiel 33:11). This is key: God does not take pleasure in evil, precisely because He is good. And everything that is good is morally attributed to him. In the words of James 1:17, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” Everything that is good is morally attributed to Him…not us. When it comes to us, Romans 3:10-12 makes clear that among us “there is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” Goodness is not attributed to us; goodness is attributed to God. This doesn’t mean we can’t do anything good, but it does mean that we can only do good because of the goodness of God toward us, in us, and through us. We’re secondary agents, and God is the primary agent in all that is good. Everything that is good is under his sovereignty and is morally attributed to him.
On the other hand, as we’ve already seen, everything that is evil is also under his sovereignty. God is sovereign over it all, which is what Job is pointing out when He says, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” Yet while everything that is evil is under God’s sovereignty, nothing that is evil is morally attributed to him, meaning very simply that Scripture never charges God with evil. This is also evident here in Job. Right after Job says, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” verse 10 says, “In all this Job did not sin with his lips.” In the previous chapter, Job 1:22 says, “In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong.” Even amidst evil, which Job received ultimately under the sovereign hand of God, Job did not charge God with wrong. He acknowledged this evil was under the sovereignty of God, but He confessed that it did not impugn the goodness of God. Evil was not in any way attributed, credited, or charged to God.
This is all over Scripture. Evil, which exists under God’s sovereignty, is always charged to secondary agents, causes, and creatures, most notably people and demons (or specifically the devil). Talking about the sin of the people in Isaiah 66:4, God says, “They did evil in my sight and chose what displeases me.” That is key. You may start to think, “Well, that’s not fair. How can I be charged with evil when God is sovereign over evil, and yet God gets all the credit for good?” But this is where we find ourselves approaching the core of the gospel in Scripture, particularly as it pertains to the sinfulness of man. The Bible is clear that we (as men and women in a fallen world) are evil. According to Genesis 8:21, “Every inclination of our heart is evil from childhood.” As we saw in Romans 3, “There is no one righteous, no one who does good, not even one.”
Yes, God is sovereign over sin, but we are responsible for sin. Now there’s mystery when it comes to how God is in control over what we do, and yet the Bible is clear that we are making real choices with real responsibility. This is another one of those questions that has been asked throughout the ages, but Scripture makes clear that God is absolutely, utterly sovereign, and man is completely, totally responsible. So was God sovereign over what was happening when a gunman entered an elementary school? Yes, He was sovereign. At the same time, that gunman was entirely responsible for what he sinfully chose to do.
Evil is real, God is great, and God is good. You say, “Well, where does that leave us? Is there any hope here?” And this is where the gospel comes right to the heart of these questions that we ask in light of Newtown. Evil is tragically real, God is supremely great, God is absolutely good, and…
4. The cross is shockingly glorious.
These first three truths intersect in a shockingly glorious way at the cross of Jesus Christ, for at Calvary, we see tragic evil under the greatness of God in a beautiful display of the goodness of God.
Behold the cross, and see the goodness of God: He is present amidst evil. Oh, the wonder of what we celebrate at Christmas. God Himself enters an evil, sin-sick world and lives among a sin-sick rebellious people. A people who reject Him—who reject Christ, God in the flesh—and nail Him to a cross. And God Himself, in His Son, takes all the payment and punishment due sin and evil in your life and my life upon Himself.
This is shocking. Where else—in what other religious system—do you see the incomprehensibly great, indescribably good Creator taking upon Himself the payment due evil creatures? What love…what mercy…what greatness…what goodness. God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility, God’s relationship to good and God’s relationship to evil—they all come together when we understand that God ordained the murder of His Son to be the means of our salvation. Listen to Peter’s words in Acts 2:22-23: “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.”
Did you see the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man in the murder of Christ? Is God sovereign over Christ’s murder? Yes. But who is responsible? “You crucified him…you killed him,” Peter says. Both are true: God is sovereign and man is responsible. Sinful men chose to crucify Christ under the sovereign wisdom of God. What a mystery…yet God ordains this for the salvation of sinful men. Oh, consider this: the very people who are crucifying Christ, in their sin, are providing for their own salvation. The very sins of the murderers are ultimately the means of their deliverance. This is shockingly glorious—that God is present amidst evil, and that Christ has taken the ultimate payment due sin and evil upon Himself. What goodness and love—that He is present amidst evil. That men, women, children, and families in Newtown, Connecticut, today, and all over a sin-sick world are not alone. God is not distant from us, but present with us. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses….Let us then draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:15-16).
And as you behold the cross, see also the greatness of God: He is victorious over evil. In the words of Acts 2:24, “God raised [Jesus] up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.” Jesus overcomes the price of sin through the power of resurrection. Paul later exclaims in 1 Corinthians 15, “Death, where is your victory? Where is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law, but thanks be to God, He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” By the power of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, we know that sin and evil do not have the last word in this world. Wars do not have the last word. Tragedy does not have the last word. School shootings do not have the last word. Crazed gunmen do not have the last word. By the power of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, a cosmic, loving Savior King will have the last word in this world.
When we consider all that Scripture teaches about God and evil, we are led inextricably to the gospel: the good news that God has taken the very worst thing that has ever happened in the history of the world (the death of His Son) and He has turned it into the very best thing that has ever happened in the history of the world (the salvation of sinners). Evil is tragically real, God is supremely great, God is absolutely good, and the gospel is shockingly glorious.
Such truths are not intended to rest in the theological realm; they are intended to transform our everyday lives, particularly in the midst of tragedy like we have seen in Newtown. In our contemplations and conversations in the coming days, let’s be careful at every point not to minimize the tragic nature of evil, and let’s be faithful in every opportunity to magnify the glorious character of God—both His greatness and His goodness. And in it all, let’s be intentional to affirm the central tenets of the gospel: that God, in His sovereign grace, has sent His Son into a world of sin to save us from ourselves, and through faith in His life, death, and resurrection, we can know that one day soon, God is going to wipe away every tear from our eyes, and sin and suffering will be no more (Revelation 21). No matter what happens in this world, we are confident that there is coming a day when we will forever worship God in His greatness, we will forever enjoy God in His goodness, and we will never experience evil again.
One other question many may ask in the aftermath of this tragedy pertains to whether young children who die go to heaven. A few years ago, right around Christmas time, I preached a funeral for a young child who died in our church in which I addressed this question. If you are interested in a transcript of this sermon, click HERE.