Reflections on the School Shooting and the Emotional Problem of Evil

I was at a graduation on Friday when I saw the news on my phone:  An elementary school in Connecticut was attacked by a gunman, Adam Lanza, who murdered 26 people, 20 of them young children.  I admit that what I experienced first was not grief, but more like angry cynicism:  Again?  I am afraid I am becoming numb to bad news that’s reported from far away places; not because I don’t care, but because there is so much crap going on in the world.

After a few days of processing it, it’s still mindboggling that someone would even think to do such a thing.  The details are both confusing and disturbing:  A quiet, loner of a young man stole his mother’s guns, shot her, and then for unfathomable reasons went to the local elementary school and mowed down both children and teachers before shooting himself.  Questions have circulated in everyone’s minds: Why would this guy do this?  Was he angry?  Was he crazy?  Was he seeking attention?  All of the above?  Why did nobody see this coming?  Why aren’t there stricter gun control laws?

Of course, the most common question, asked with genuine confusion and sadness but also with angry accusation, is quite simply, “Where was God?” 

The problem of evil is such a common question posed to Christians, and I hinted in my last post that the logical problem of evil–the argument that the existence of evil is logically contradictory to the existence of God–was dismantled by Alvin Plantinga to the point that almost all philosophers agree that it’s a dead end (quite a rare feat in philosophical circles).  Essentially, Plantinga showed that since it is conceivable God allows evil in order to produce a greater good or prevent a greater evil (so he therefore cannot “properly” eliminate such evil), one cannot argue for a flat logical contradiction.  One good reason, possibly, is free will, which Plantinga fleshes out in his Free Will Defense.

Still, the argument from evil lives on among lay people and also in a different form in the so-called “evidential” problem of evil.  Evidential arguments from evil do not try to argue for a logical contradiction between God and evil; instead, they argue that, given the amount of evil, the horrifying nature of some evil, and/or the gratuitousness of some evil, belief in an all-good, all-powerful, and all-knowing God is somehow epistemically irresponsible.  Perhaps it is logically possible that God exists alongside evil, but it is also logically possible that Lebron James is a robot built by Smurfs.  That doesn’t make it rational to believe.  The incident in Newtown would fall in the category of a gratuitious and horrifying evil for which it is unthinkable that God would have a good reason to allow.

I think Christian philosophers have good answers to this as well:  There is more evidence to consider than just evil, we cannot presume to know so much about God or even the complexity of our reality to assert that God does not have good reasons, there is free will and sin, etc.  And I think Christians should use such answers in such intellectual debates.  The issue, however, is that this problem, though often clothed in argument, is often not a matter of philosophical inquiry.  People are not asking for intellectual arguments to satisfy some level of intellectual coherence.

People are angry.  People are hurting.  People are bewildered.

Plantinga pointed out that the strongest form of the argument from evil is actually not an argument:  These “non-argumentative” arguments from evil come straight from the gut.  Some people see great evil, they do not understand it, and then they conclude based upon their perception:  “There cannot be a good God who gives a crap about us.”  On some level, that is understandable.  This is what one may call the “emotional” problem of evil, and I do not wish that to sound condescending.  It is a real part of human experience, and both Christians and non-Christians have experienced loss and grief to the point where they wonder where God is.

I’ve read two books recently:  C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed and Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Lament for a Son.  The former records Lewis’ personal struggles with the loss of his wife, and the latter concerns Wolterstorff’s thoughts on the loss of his son.  These two are known to be intellectual giants, but their personal tragedies put them in the same boat as all the so-called lay people:  Lewis experienced anger at God, seemingly shaking his fist at him, and Wolterstorff was just sad and confused.  These men knew all the religious platitudes a Christian could possibly say and talked wryly about receiving them from others who did not know what else to do.  Those platitudes didn’t help and sometimes made them feel worse.

What brought them through?  Truth.  And not mere intellectual truth, but a personal knowledge of who God is through their relationship through Jesus.  Christians can sometimes be unintentionally insensitive with their platitudes such as “God writes straight with crooked lines” and the like, but there is a kernel of truth in those things that is important, and those who know God through Jesus know that, even though the world seems terrible, God is still there and working.  More than that, God did not just leave the world to rot on its own, even though he would have been perfectly just to do so.  He entered into the sinful world and paid the price for the evil that his creatures created so that he may bring life to those who are lost.  Paul writes that Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross! (Phil. 2:6-8)

And the writer of Hebrews declares

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Heb. 4:14-16)

Do I know all the reasons that go through the mind of God regarding evil?  Do I know all the schemes of the devil?  Do I know the minds of all sinful men who do horrible things?  No to all of those.  And nobody else does.  I may have some thoughts on the topic of evil generally, but if you’re going to ask me, specifically, why a young man would shoot little children at school and why God did not strike him with lightning before he did it, I have no clue.  What I do know is this:  That God is not so far removed that he does not care, and that he is not lost such that he cannot work good even despite the greatest evil human beings and angels can muster.  Jesus proved all of that on the cross.  He felt pain, rejection, senseless violence, and more, for the purpose of defeating all that evil and sin.  Because he resurrected, we know evil and death do not have the final say on things.  And I know, because he went through it all, he can sympathize with and comfort those who go through great tragedy.

The answer to the “emotional” problem of evil, then, is not really an answer:  It’s a person.  And close, loving relationships are what people really need in times like this, not academic answers, and what better relationship is there than one with the all-good Creator who humbled himself and died for sinful men?  This is not to lessen any evil out there or pretend it makes coping with emotions any easier; in fact, it highlights how evil many things because it was bad enough that Jesus died for it.  However, it also highlights the goodness of God, and for those who have a relationship with Jesus, it is something we have hope in despite the troubles of the world.  Ultimately, it is this hope we should share with others, not just philosophical answers on the problem of evil.

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