Despite the holiday season, the Newtown school killings brought a nation to its knees in shock and sadness. Dear little ones lost their lives in a senseless act of mass homicide. Only the most callous individual would not grieve over the loss of life, the heartbreak the parents feel, and the stolen potential of those children who were murdered.
Over time, however, we may be able to see through our collective grief and realize that events like Columbine, Aurora, and Newtown really should not surprise us at all. In fact, given the reality of the human condition, we should be shocked that there is not more violence than there is.
The biblical story teaches us and our experience confirms that human beings are tragically flawed creatures who are capable of the most horrendous evil. As the weeping prophet, Jeremiah said long ago, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9 ESV). A cursory tour of recent history—Dachau, the Killing Fields of Cambodia, the Gulags, and Rwanda—is a breathtaking tale of the misery that can be inflicted at the hands of wicked men. Yet we stubbornly persist in the illusion that human beings are essentially good on the inside.
Our 21st century anthropology—our doctrine of human nature—has gone maudlin and romantic. The notion that human beings are essentially well-meaning and altruistic is a pipe dream I hope we will soon get over. The reality is that there is enough sin in each human heart to start another hell every day. We resemble more and more the Greek culture about whom the apostle Paul wrote: “since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless” (Romans 1:28-31).
So the perennial question isn’t really, “why do bad things happen to good people?” but “why do good things happen to bad people?” Given the nature of human depravity, the state of contemporary culture, and our moral amnesia, it’s a wonder that we enjoy any beauty, goodness, and truth at all.
What ought to surprise us, therefore, is not human evil, but that human kindness, generosity, and love are so lasting, durable, and ubiquitous in a world fixed on an increasingly tilted moral axis. After all, in an age of self-indulgent narcissism what meaningful impediments are left to keep someone from inflicting unspeakable pain on another person if it makes him or her feel better? And, if just a little bit of genuine mental disorder is added to our culture’s collective insanity, the results are destined to be catastrophic.
And not only are we flawed creatures, but we live in a tragically broken world. In addition to the human-induced suffering, there are natural calamities and unpredictable disasters. After all, we are only one short year away from a tsunami that killed nearly 16,000 Japanese and just eight years after the Aceh tsunami killed almost 250,000! No wonder the whole creation “groans” until the day of Christ’s return (Romans 8:18-25).
The frailty of both man and nature does not ultimately cause me to doubt the existence of a loving Creator. In fact, against the backdrop of life as it really is, I am daily gripped by the preciousness of love, the gift of family, and the grace of friendship. I am amazed that any good things happen, that people from time-to-time express generosity and love, and that the sun rises every morning despite our depravity. Only a loving God could be accountable for wonder and beauty in such a deeply flawed universe. It was Jesus himself who said that God the Father was the one who “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45).
Atheist Richard Dawkins and I agree on this one thing: without God the universe is vicious and unfeeling. But the world is not completely bereft of beauty, goodness, and truth. Amidst the darkness of the age, there are glimmers of light. Hope remains for redemption and renewal. This isn’t the way it was meant to be and, thanks be to God, it’s not the way it is going to be. When this “old order” passes away, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore . . .” (Revelation 21:4).