A Christian Perspective on The Newtown Shooting
December 17, 2012
This past Friday, a twenty-year-old man entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut with loaded weapons and brutally murdered twenty-six people. A majority of the victims were kindergarteners. Wickedness to this degree takes one's breath away. The otherwise peaceful rural town in southwestern Connecticut has become a place of inexpressible grief, confusion, and sadness. So how are we, as Christians, to think about this atrocity? How are we to make sense of this diabolical act of unspeakable violence and terror? How do we think Christianly about these horrific events?
My prayer is that the three truths discussed below will enlighten our minds, strengthen our faith, and deepen our hope in the wake of the recent shootings in Connecticut.
Mankind is depraved and fallen in sin: The Apostle Paul tells us that all people are born into this world "dead in trespasses and sins ... following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air [read: the Devil], the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience" (the sons of disobedience being all of humanity in their natural state). The Apostle adds that fallen humanity lives "in the passions of [the] flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and [are] by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind" (Ephesians 2:1-3).
In light of mankind's corrupt and exceedingly wicked condition, what should surprise us even more than massacres such as those that have occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary, Virginia Tech and the Twin Towers (9/11), is the fact that these kinds of horrific events do not take place more frequently. Indeed, it is only by God's common (or restraining) grace that atrocities on such a scale do not happen more often. Furthermore, let us remember that apart from God's common grace, everyone is capable of the most heinous sorts of wickedness (Romans 1:18-32). The Bible clearly reveals mankind's fallen condition, and history testifies to this reality.
God is sovereign over all things: Yes, God is sovereign even over what may look to us like a random and senseless act of violence. In his letter to the Ephesian Christians, Paul writes that God "works all things according to the counsel of His will" (Ephesians 1:11). God is sovereign not only over the pleasantries of life, but also over that which is terrible (Cf. Job 1-2; Habakkuk 1:5). Isn't this what we see in the life of Joseph? After his brothers had returned to Egypt and their father Jacob had died, they were afraid of what Joseph might do to them for their past sins against him. Joseph responded to his brothers and "spoke kindly to them" saying, "Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today" (Genesis 50:19-20).
In other words, the wicked intentions of the brothers were meant by God to fulfill His sovereign purpose and to bring about much good for His people. What's the point? While never tempting or causing mankind to sin, God is nevertheless providentially orchestrating all the events of history (even the bad ones) to fulfill His sovereign purpose. Augustine once commented that "God uses sin sinlessly" to fulfill His ultimate plan. This, of course, is impossible for our finite minds to fully grasp. Even so, God is, and always shall be, the all-powerful, sovereign God of the universe. The only logical alternative to a biblical view of God's sovereignty is a view of the world as in a state of complete and utter chaos.
Furthermore, thinking biblically about death, as it relates to God's sovereignty, imparts profound comfort. While not wanting to minimize the heinous and monstrous nature of the murders committed by Adam Lanza, we must recognize that he was not the final or ultimate determining factor regarding the death of those children and teachers. Indeed, no finite creature is the primary cause of death. It is God, by His sovereign hand, who gives life, and it is God who takes it away (Job 1:21-22). The Psalmist states: "your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be" (Psalm 139:16).
In other words, our days are numbered by God Himself. Therefore, whether a person is four, twenty-four, or ninety-four, God has numbered his or her days according to His sovereign decree. This is as true for these children as it was for my seventy-two year old father who very recently died of throat cancer. To be sure, this truth is harder for us to stomach when it pertains to awful crimes such as mass murder or genocide, but it is true nevertheless. When believed, this truth can provide significant comfort, knowing that our lives, from heaven's perspective, are in God's hands, not in that of a wicked killer. Therefore, beloved, we have no reason to live in fear. Our God reigns. Let us fear (love) Him, and not those who can kill the body.
God uses suffering to sanctify His people: Dear Christian, this is a glorious promise. Suffering does not diminish hope or ruin faith for the Christian. On the contrary, suffering (even the worst kinds of suffering), deepens hope and strengthens faith. As Christians, we are called not only to endure suffering, but to "rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us" (Romans 5:3-5).
To put it another way, our suffering transforms us more and more into the image of Christ, causing us to ever increasingly hate sin and love righteousness. Alongside the means of grace (Word, sacraments, and prayer), suffering leads to greater measures of sanctification in Christ. Suffering extreme persecution under the tyrannical rule of Emperor Nero, Paul writes to the Christians in Rome, "And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good for those who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son" (Romans 8:28-29).
Though suffering may further harden the unbelieving against God, for the Christian it is a means to a stronger, more faithful walk with God. Through suffering, we become more dependent upon God, and less reliant upon the things of this world. The elementary school murders in Newtown, Connecticut will go down in American history as one of the worst crimes ever committed. Even so, through the tears, let us trust our sovereign God, and earnestly pray for those who lost loved ones. May they look to Christ, the suffering Savior, and experience true hope in the midst of unspeakable sorrow.
Dr. Jon Payne is the senior minister of Grace Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Douglasville, Georgia.