This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 42, number 2 (2019). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
To give a Christian apologetic response to school shootings, it is important to address the problem of evil. How is it possible that a perfectly good God who is in control over all things would allow such heinous acts of violence carried out against innocent children? Of first importance is the philosophical answer to this question. By focusing on the well-received argument put forth by Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga concerning mankind’s free will to do both good and evil, it becomes evident that God can be good even though evil exists. This response, however, does not always reach people who are hurting. Christian philosopher Angus Menuge offers an existential response to the problem of evil. He uses Jesus’ death on the Cross as a starting point, showing that God knows what it means to have a child die, and Jesus, having died for us, has suffered every pain we as humans could suffer in this life. Further, a biblical approach to suffering reveals that, in the midst of all of this pain, God works all things together for the good of those who love Him (Rom. 8:28), even when we receive no direct answer about how this happens. It is true that our suffering conforms us to the image of Christ. While we live this side of heaven, we identify with Jesus in His suffering. When He comes again, we will identify with His resurrected and glorified self — perfect and sinless, without sadness or suffering, and forevermore participating in the Son’s holy and loving relationship with the Father.
Therefore, in ministering to those affected by gun violence, we are called to a ministry of patient listening and faithful presence. We simply should not try to present fully formed analytical answers to those who are lamenting the loss of a child. What we can do is be present in the day-to-day wrestling, listening to them in their distress, and pointing them to how Jesus has already-but-not-yet accomplished the end of suffering.
When the news of the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, was posted on my Facebook account, I was eight months pregnant with my first son. Having grown up in the town next to Newtown, I knew those streets; I knew that parking lot; I knew some of the people in that community. I sat at my laptop, aghast at the live feed. Aerial views of the school, panicked parents searching the crowds for their kids, kids’ faces flushed red from crying; it was all too much to take in. I kept reminding myself to breathe. All the while, a phrase repeated in my mind: “How can I bring a child into this world?”
People can be so utterly evil. How can I allow this child to exist in a world where sin has so infected people that a twenty-year-old man could think it was a good idea to murder first his own mother and then as many children as he could before turning the gun on himself?
In the news since that horrific day, December 14, 2012, we see murder after murder, school shooting after school shooting. Educators are heard relaying hiding tactics to news reporters, while others have died protecting students, having used their bodies as human shields.1 According to the K–12 School Shooting Database, since January of 2013, the month following the Sandy Hook shootings, there have been 328 incidents of gun violence on school premises.2 Not all of these incidents involved an active shooter, but in the active shooter incidents, there have been 132 injuries and fatalities including the shooter, with a whopping 92 of those taking place from 2018 to now.3
And yet I, along with the historic Christian church, have the audacity to believe in a sovereign God who rules over all of this? Even more outrageous, I call this sovereign God good!
First, the philosophical question must be addressed: how can God be good if evil like this exists? Next, the practical issue: how can Christians bring the gospel to those who have been affected by school shootings? The problem of evil consistently has been an issue for apologetics and evangelism. In America, however, due to the rise in school shootings in recent years, it has become a politically charged national conversation. As time goes on, with each incident, more people have connections to these shootings, and so these attacks have started reaching us on a personal level. In the years since the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting, I have known two people directly who have been the targets of random gun violence, and four more indirectly (relatives or friends of friends). For me, as for many, unjustified evil has become a serious philosophical prohibition to the spreading of the gospel in our culture. Nonbelievers, rather than merely considering whether or not God exists, are now asking whether or not God is simply absent, woefully neglectful, or even overtly evil. And now, due to the prevalence of these shootings, even people who have not been tied personally to an injury or death caused by a school shooting are asking these questions. Christians must be prepared to engage both abstract questions about the nature of God and to practice practical evangelism with tact, proper listening, and continued care.
THE PHILOSOPHICAL PROBLEM OF EVIL
If God were truly all-knowing (omniscient), truly everywhere (omnipresent), truly powerful (omnipotent), and truly good (omnibenevolent), why would He not intervene and stop these shootings from happening? He could part the clouds and strike the gunman dead. He could have caused the gunman never to have been born. He could have created a universe in which this shooting did not occur. But He didn’t. He gave us these children, and then He let these precious children die.
The Logical Problem of Evil
In response to the question of evil and suffering in this world, the Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga demonstrates in his book God, Freedom, and Evil that there is no logical contradiction in saying that God is good while evil persists.4 The set of three propositions, “(1) God is omnipotent; (2) God is wholly good; and (3) Evil exists,”5 is neither explicitly nor implicitly contradictory. What’s more, Plantinga sets forth a Free Will Defense, which negates any supposed inconsistency between the aforementioned set of propositions, and shows that any world with significantly free creatures necessarily has potential for those creatures to choose evil. He contends, “A world containing creatures who are significantly free (and freely perform more good than evil actions) is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world containing no free creatures at all.”6 Through his Free Will Defense, Plantinga does not seek to give an explanation of God’s motives behind allowing the suffering or evil that He allows. Rather, Plantinga works to find a logical ground for why God does not necessitate only morally upright actions from the people He created. In addition to this, he shows that it is logically consistent that those evil actions chosen by significantly free creatures do not reflect the will of God who created them, for, “He could have forestalled the occurrence of moral evil only by removing the possibility of moral good.”7
Surely in some Christian circles, Plantinga’s emphasis on significantly free moral action would be considered problematic. Luther, for example would say that in matters of faith, no moral action that merits salvation can be done outside of faith in Christ; however, he would affirm that moral action can be done spontaneously in terms of civil action.8 Plantinga makes no such distinction. The theological concerns here do not undermine the significance of the logical argument that Plantinga puts forth. In showing that God, being good, can exist and rule over a creation in which evil exists, he is not making a systematic theological argument but rather a logical one. Indeed, even atheist philosophers concede that Plantinga solved the logical problem of evil, showing that there just is no logical inconsistency between orthodox theism and the facts of evil and suffering we experience in the world.9
However, Plantinga acknowledges that his Free Will Defense is not the appropriate response to offer people in the midst of suffering. In the case of real-life evil, misery, and hardship, he calls one to seek pastoral care, not philosophical explanations.
GOD’S SON WAS MURDERED
The existential approach put forth by Christian philosopher Angus Menuge in his article “Gratuitous Evil and a God of Love” is centered on the coming of Jesus Christ in history to suffer for us. Menuge argues that discussion of the problem of suffering begins and ends with the person and work of Jesus Christ on the Cross, for “Christ is God’s answer to the problem of evil” (emphasis added).11 He explains that the problem of evil affects all of our hearts and minds, and “since evil is an immersive, existential condition, God answers by actions of love” (emphasis in original).12 The answer is therefore not abstract but utterly real, historical, and is revealed in the bloody God-man, Jesus Christ, suffering and dying for us on the Cross.
God knows what it is like to have His Son die unjustly. Jesus suffered the pain of a brutal death on the Cross. This is the difference between the Christian God and other gods: God came down from heaven and endured the pain of this world in order to save His creatures from eternal death — the very creatures at whose hands He would die. This can offer profound comfort for those who have suffered the loss of a child to gun violence, or for those of us who suffer from the anguish of seeing another suffer. The kind of anguish we face in this life is not foreign to God, and suffering is precisely the means by which God accomplished salvation for us.
THE NOW AND THE NOT YET
Scripture speaks to the problems of suffering, pain, and premature death, but it even more robustly offers eschatological hope. When discussing the nature of our lives here on Earth, this side of heaven, the distinction between the now and the not yet is imperative. It is true that Jesus died on the Cross to reconcile us, to rescue us, to forgive us, and bring us into union with God; and it is true that those who believe enjoy some of these benefits now, but not to their full extent. The faithful must wait for Jesus’ return to receive them in full.
Life in the now is characterized by suffering. We have been united to Christ in His suffering, not only in that He has suffered on our behalf but that we also, like Christ, cannot escape suffering in this world. Through suffering, furthermore, we are being molded and shaped to be more like Jesus. However, we must be careful not to assure people of some assumed moral improvement as a result of suffering. In speaking to a parent of a child who had been murdered, we cannot approach them with, “Take heart! God is making you better,” or some such platitude. Menuge condemns this, saying, “When God allows his creatures to suffer, it is not primarily because he has calculated some moral improvement that he can achieve for this life (although that may happen), but because he ‘desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth’ (1 Tim. 2:4).”13
Jesus says, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Matt. 16:24).14 The Christian cannot choose his or her cross. “He must leave that to God (1 Pet. 3:17; 1:6), for God alone knows which cross is beneficial and only God gives the strength needed to bear the cross (1 Cor. 10:13).”15 Our understanding is limited (Isa. 55:8–9). We cannot fathom why God has allowed us to endure the specific suffering that we must face. We are not called to know the intricacies of what God is doing, but we are called to trust Him. And, in that vein, we can trust that God is working all things together for the good of those who love Him (Rom. 8:28).
However, Scripture shows us that the sufferings we endure are for us a promise of the eternal glory awaiting us, and assurance of our union with Christ (Rom. 8:17). Jesus, in His Revelation to John, explains that God Himself will dwell with His people in glory, and that “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:3–4). In glory, we too will be glorified. In glory, there will be no more fear of premature death, no more concern to protect our children from violence, and no more mourning.
EVANGELISM IN A TIME OF DESPAIR
Various philosophical approaches to the problem of evil can and will be entertained by our minds as we consider the impact of school shootings and whether or not God, being infinite in love and knowledge and power, could allow them to happen. But, there is a point where these approaches wax silent, and ministry begins. There is a moment you find yourself in a conversation about how gun violence in schools has affected a person’s own mind, soul, and spirit.
Invitation into a Community
All evangelism must be done in the context of personal relationships. It does no good to anyone to offer only philosophical proofs, devoid of personal connection, but it can change hearts and minds when you offer a reasonable answer to a question from someone that knows and trusts you. When ministering to those personally affected by school shootings, the community of the church should be a safe place for them to wrestle with these questions while having their emotional and physical needs met.
Listening from the Heart
Listening is the foundation of all evangelism. Without listening from the heart, the good of the other person will necessarily be poorly addressed. In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes the kind of problematic listening that is a detriment to these conversations: “There is a kind of listening with half an ear that presumes already to know what the other person has to say. It is an impatient, inattentive listening, that despises the brother and is only waiting for a chance to speak and thus get rid of the other person.”16 How often do we find ourselves in ministry situations scrambling in our minds to think of what to say next without truly listening to the person? The motive behind this can be dismissive, as Bonhoeffer alludes to, but in some cases, the motive can be good. Perhaps we’re trying to find a connection to relate, or empathize with an anecdote. Even in so doing, we may miss what the harmed person is trying to communicate. In identifying the root problem, be it pain, anger, hatred toward God, confusion, or any number of these things or others, by knowing the burden they face, we can start to bear that burden with them. But to do this, we must first deny ourselves the desire to speak, and open our ears to hear them. This is the call of the Christian life, that we bear the burdens of others. Bonhoeffer goes so far as to say that if we forego the burdens of our brothers and sisters in Christ, we deny the law of Christ.17
Let’s explore one of the most common ways that Christians fail to listen with the heart when talking about gun violence in schools. Every tragic loss of life seems to be used among some Christians as a way to shift the conversation to say that more lives are lost due to abortion. Yes, abortion is an extremely important issue to discuss. Yet, to commingle conversations about school shootings with statistics about abortion can become a fundamental barrier to proclaiming comfort to those who are mourning. It similarly can destroy relationships with those people who desperately need to hear the gospel, because you deny them the right to mourn their loss. Any beneficial dialogue about either topic deserves its own time and space. This kind of Christian gotcha! serves only to undermine the task of evangelism. Therefore, by listening attentively to the people around us, we open ourselves up to the ministry opportunity to engage their concerns sincerely and to offer comfort where needed.
INTERCESSORY PRAYER: A CALL TO ACTION
One of the most neglected avenues for ministry is intercessory prayer. Throughout Scripture, God calls us to pray, to intercede for those around us, and He assures us that He hears those prayers. In Matthew 7, Jesus charges His audience to “ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For anyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened” (Matt. 7:7–8). Jesus is not telling His audience to ask once, but by using imperative verbs, He implores them to “keep asking,” to “keep seeking,” to “keep knocking.” So, it stands to reason that we should be going boldly before the good, Almighty God of the Universe in prayer, beseeching Him for an end to school shootings. Though we may not see an answer to that prayer until Jesus returns again, that should not prohibit us from praying.
In the meantime, while school shootings continue to rob children of their lives prematurely, we should be praying that God would equip us with His heart, His mind, and His strength to do the ministry that is necessary for these people. And where we cannot find the words to pray, God has assured us in Romans 8:26–27, “We do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. Now He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God.” God cares so much about us that He intercedes for us even when we cannot find the right words to pray.
So how does this reconcile with the oft-parodied hashtag #thoughtsandprayers that has been so popularized in the wake of these attacks? Surely God has called us to pray, but He has also exhorted us to love our neighbor. We live in this depraved world, but we have not been called to ignorance and inaction. Prayer is not justification for being unsafe or willfully ignorant. Rather, it equips us to do the necessary work of protecting our children as best as we can (and in the case of educators, protecting other peoples’ children).
And so I charge you to pray robustly while loving your neighbor in seeking their good. Be active in assuring those around you that God is good. Indeed, He is so good that He sent His one and only Son into the world, not only to live a perfect life but also to bear the weight of the sins and punishment of the whole world for you. And in His resurrection, Jesus won for us eternal life of participation in His holy and loving relationship with the Father — a life with Him in perfect glory with no more pain, no more suffering, no more sadness, and no more death.
Lisa Cooper has her master of arts in religion from the American Lutheran Theological Seminary. She works as a preschool teacher, a freelance writer, and an editor for The Evangel and at Just and Sinner Publications.
- Robert Mendick and Philip Sherwell, “The Heroic Stories of Teachers Who Gave Their Lives to Protect the Students of Sandy Hook,” Business Insider, The Daily Telegraph, December 15, 2012, https://www.businessinsider.com/victoria-soto-sandy-hook-2012-12.
- David Riedman, Desmond O’Neill et al., “The K–12 School Shooting Database: Incidents by Year,” Advanced Thinking in Homeland Security Program at the Naval Postgraduate School, May 21, 2019, https://www.chds.us/ssdb/incidents-by-year.
- David Riedman, Desmond O’Neill et al., “The K–12 School Shooting Database: Active Shooter: Incidents by Injuries and Fatalities Annually,” Advanced Thinking in Homeland Security Program at the Naval Postgraduate School, May 12, 2019, https://www.chds.us/ssdb/active-shooter-incidents-by-injuries-and-fatalities-annually.
- Alvin C. Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977; repr. 2001) chap. 1, Kindle.
- Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil, loc.125.
- Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil, loc. 339.
- Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil, loc. 345.
- Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will, trans. J. I. Packer and O. R. Johnson (Grand Rapids: Fleming H. Revell, 1957), 310.
- James R. Beebe, “Logical Problem of Evil,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://www.iep.utm.edu/evil-log/.
- Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil, loc. 747.
- Angus Menuge, “Gratuitous Evil and a God of Love,” in Making the Case For Christianity: Responding to Modern Objections, ed. Korey D. Maas and Adam S. Francisco (Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2014), 163.
- Menuge, “Gratuitous Evil,” 163.
- Menuge, “Gratuitous Evil,” 160.
- All Bible quotations are from the New King James Version.
- Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, vol. 3 (Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House,1953), 71.
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community, trans. John W. Doberstein (New York: HarperCollins, 1954), 98.
- Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 101.