We have truly suffered a major tragedy in New Zealand. I say, “we” because although I am an American by birth, I lived in New Zealand for ten years and in fact raised my two children in this great country. So, I mourn as you mourn and question as you question. The first hours and days after a tragedy of this magnitude warrants a compassionate response to those who have lost family members. In their eyes, abstract arguments and platitudes are of little value.
New Zealand prides itself on inclusivity and tolerance. But “inclusivity” and “tolerance” will not heal the broken hearted. Broken hearts need mending and mere sentiment and ideologies will not suffice. Hurting people need an embracing compassion that puts hands, feet and arms to our words and demonstrates a love and empathy that is existentially felt. In other words, they need both truth and tears. I hope and pray that Christ-followers from all over New Zealand will make the journey to Christchurch and surround our Muslim friends with love and support.
In the days ahead tough questions will emerge. Even now New Zealand TV host John Campbell continually repeats the question, “What will save us?” With shock and dismay he searched for an answer to the kind of reckless disrespect for the sacredness of life on full display. While I applaud our search I wonder how many of us recognise the strange dichotomy present in New Zealand social culture.
We are a society apathetic to the existence of God and often aggressive in our denouncement of faith and religion. Although we tolerate it, we belittle it as non-sensical and categorise Christ-followers and God-Fearers as uneducated and weak-willed. In the late nineties I coached basketball at Rangitoto High School on Auckland’s North Shore. The culture on campus was extremely anti-god and anti-religion. Young men and women were taught that religion is for the weak-willed and for those who bury their heads in the sand.
Yet, here we are in the midst of New Zealand’s “darkest days,” and we are asking questions that assume a Christian World View, or at least a Theistic one. As soon as we ask the question, “Why?” to any human event, we assume there is reason attached to the universe, something that time+matter+chance can not give us. Ultimate reason and meaning are mutually exclusive to an Atheistic universe. In fact, if we truly believe that “nature is red in tooth and claw,” we should mark this event down to the “survival of the fittest,” natures way of eliminating the weak so that the strong will survive, the strengthening of the gene pool.
Yet, the very writing of those words seems heartless and extremely radical. But atheistic evolution is radical and respects no persons. I have yet to meet anyone who lives consistently under the “no God” view of life. We are hurting as a nation because we believe that every human being is sacred, meaningful, and possesses ultimate worth and therefore should be loved, valued and respected. But this is a tenable position only if we are created in the image of God and believe that ultimate meaning, morality and destiny originate from Him.
If each of us is the result of random processes then we are in this world by sheer accident and thus void of ultimate meaning or value. Life can not be sacred when it is accidental. In other words, we New Zealanders want to glean values from a world view that will not and can not lend a hand. We have no ultimate point of reference for the things we value most. What does all this mean?
In times like these, we are very well aware that evil exists. But again, without God, there is no such thing as categoric evil. These events are just bad luck, wrong place, wrong time. Each of us knows better than that; we are just not sure why. We are hurting for those who have suffered great loss because we know with certainty that every single life matters and is sacred and should never be treated with the kind of apathy and disdain we have witnessed in these last days.
But there is a second issue here. How do those of us who are Christ-followers and God-fearers respond to the accusation, “This is why we don’t believe in God. How could He allow such an horrific event.” Notice again, you are assuming that this is an horrific event because you value life and view it as sacred, something you can not hinge to a universe that possesses no ultimate moorings.
Every person gets to choose. In fact, you can force a woman to do a lot of things but you cannot force her to love you. Such love must be given freely without absolute coercion. Otherwise love can not maintain its integrity. The only way in which God could remove all potential evil in this world is to remove our freedom to the point of a robotic existence. This would however defeat the very purpose for our existence, to love God and to worship Him with all our hearts, souls, and minds, and to love our neighbours as ourselves.
Still, this does not answer the question of why God often seems to sit on His hands while atrocities run rampant in His world. Yes, freewill and love play huge roles in what theologians refer to as God’s permissive will, but that does not explain why God allows some events while deterring and preventing others. There is much in human history to suggest that there have been times God has literally intervened and said, “This far no further.”
Regimes of the past which seemed invincible suffered traumatic ends just as they were on the verge of total domination. Hitler and the Third Reich come to mind. Perhaps the fact that New Zealand is not a German Territory or a Japanese Colony attests to Divine Intervention more than we care to admit. We could list example after example of great leaders who firmly believed that God had intervened in a way as to prevent evil from ultimately having its way.
The truth however, is that we will never know for certain what God allows, causes, or prevents. We are finite creatures and are limited in our knowledge of this universe and what is beyond. Our constant temptation however, is to create God in our own image. The god we often worship just happens to like all the same things we like and detest all the same things we detest. How convenient.
We have become the god of God. Should we not expect the real God to contradict us at some point? After all, “A God who can be fully comprehended or understood is not worthy of our worship,” said Evelyn Underhill. And just because we can not see any good reason why God would allow something that we, if we were God, would most definitely prevent, does not mean that no good reason exists. Again, we are limited in our knowledge and understanding of this universe and do not possess the ability to connect all the dots of humanity to bring about an intended purpose or good.
Although this is difficult to accept in the human experience, it is the core of the Christian faith. After all, when was Jesus most centred in the will of His father? The answer? When he was hanging on the cross. Amazing. Jesus reminds us that it is possible to be in the worst season of your life and be in the very centre of the will of God at the same time. The cross continues to be the most recognised symbol in humanity. Perhaps it is because the cross, more than any other symbol, represents God’s intention to take the worst of human atrocities and use it for His good. “Yes, Jeff, but what I want is prevention!” I know that’s what you want but to prevent the possibility of every potential evil would be to create a robotic type of existence void of love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness, the highest values of this universe.
Finally, the value of propositional truth combined with sympathy and tears cannot be overstated. We weep with our brothers and sisters who have lost so much in these last few days. But it must be remembered that while we mourn, we do not mourn as those who have no hope. After-all, death is not the end. There is one who suffered the worst of human atrocities so that we could be spared the worst form of human suffering, separation from the Father. On the cross, the Father turned His back on His own son so that He would never have to turn His back on us.
God is the only being who has the right to allow the deaths of innocent people because only He can restore life to the one who has lost it. Because of Jesus, death is not the end. Death is the beginning. In the words of C.S. Lewis, on the last page of The Chronicles of Narnia, ”For us this is the end of all stories . . . . But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world . . .had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read, which goes on forever and in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
Only a God who has defeated death can restore a life that was lost, and, according to the Bible, He restores life to an infinitely greater degree. The latter is far more glorious than the former.
And so let us remember three timeless truths during these dark days. One, let us bear the burdens of our Muslim friends. Let us show the love of Christ to a world that needs Him so desperately, and, let us show such love in tangible ways. Second, let us never forget that each of us has the capacity to bless one another or to cause pain in one another’s lives. Let us put aside our differences and allow love to be our highest value. Third, let us allow this tragedy to remind us of the truth that although God would never cause such an event, He is indeed able to do immeasurably more than we could ever ask or imagine with the tragedies of our lives. The cross stands above all things. For on the cross, God stood by and allowed a great atrocity to occur that those who are far from God might come near.
Whatever answers we come up with must be in the context of God, not apart from Him. Evil, pain, and suffering can never be ultimately solved, only resolved in the context of God. Without God as the ultimate point of reference, these events are merely the result of random processes void of meaning, morality, or purpose. Remember, we are not suggesting that only God-fearers can do morally good things. We are simply saying that an Atheistic world view possesses no ultimate point of reference or defensible reason for dong so.
Without an objective point of reference for right and wrong, right and wrong are left up to the individual’s particular persuasions. Therefore, who are we to tell someone who just murdered men, women and children during prayers in a sacred place of worship that they committed an immoral act? If God is locked out of a closed system, we have no justification for making any absolute moral or immoral claim.
“But wait.” The question remains, “If this atrocity is an immoral act, why did God create a world where these types of things can happen and furthermore, why does He, if He is all-powerful, not prevent such horrific acts?”
This is where the Christian offers something very unique to the world. First, although God does not prevent every act of evil, there are times when God says, “This far, no further!”
We fail to realise that if God were to remove every potential act of evil, you and I would be the first to go. As long as humanity exists with a freewill mechanism, evil will continue to be a clear and present danger. Ninety-nine percent of the world’s suffering comes as a result of what we do to each other.
Prior to living in New Zealand, my wife and I lived in Zimbabwe, Africa. Zimbabwe is a rich land with two growing seasons and more than enough food to feed the people ten times over. Yet, as we endure our tragedy, Zimbabweans are enduring theirs. Starvation, infant death, politically motivated genocide and euthanasia by an older generation who have lost hope, are all part and partial to the Zimbabwean experience. These have come as the result of an extreme level of corruption and narcissism among generations of political leaders and self-aggrandising legislation. God is no more to blame for starvation and corruption in Zimbabwe as He is to blame for some evil lunatic walking casually into a house of worship and killing every person inside.
In fact, the Bible clearly says, “God is not mocked, a man reaps what he sows.” There is a cause and effect to this universe. When we violate those causes, the effects have the capacity to destroy us. Each of us must choose to love God and therefore love each other, or, to reject God, and to heap pain and suffering on one another. Jesus taught us that the evidence of someone who genuinely loves God is that they genuinely love all people, despite race, religion, creed or culture.
When we cease loving people we show ourselves to have rejected God and the effect of such a cause can be devastating. After 9/11 Americans stood up in churches throughout the United States and cried out, “Why God?” I can see God in heaven looking down and saying, “Why man?” “How long must I tolerate your hate and vengeance on one another?” The problem is that if you want God to remove every potential evil in this world, you and I would be the first to go!
An important caveat to this scenario also involves a value that each of us intrinsically knows to be true. Love. Love is the highest value in this universe. The beautiful thing about the doctrine of the trinity is that “love” preceded “creation.” Before the God of the Bible created you and me, perfect love and diversity existed within the trinity. We are made for love and with love and to love. If this an accurate reflection of reality, then it must also be true that God allows each person to choose to love and pursue Him or to reject Him and pursue their own self-aggrandisement, even at the expense of others.
All images in this article are via Shutterstock.