God & Southerland Springs
God & Southerland Springs
On Nov. 5 of this year, 26 year old Devin Patrick Kelley walked into the First Baptist Church of Southerland Springs, Tx armed with an AR-15 and methodically executed 26 people, leaving another 20 wounded. The victims’ ages ranged from 77 years old down to the visiting speaker’s own unborn grandchild. Nine of the victims are reported to have been from the same family. One was the pastor’s 14 year old daughter.
As a Christian and as a pastor, I cannot begin to imagine the horror that unfolded on that fateful morning. My heart grieves the loss of life and for the shattered lives of the survivors that will never be fully put back together. I also grieve for the corrupted heart of a young man who, for reasons we will never fully understand, would burn with such hatred as to motivate evil actions of such colossal wickedness.
In subsequent hours and days the predictable recriminations began in the media between supporters and opponents of gun control. Celebrities rapidly took to social media to condemn the NRA, and gun-rights activists were quick to respond. In the midst of the rancor, some critics even mocked religious believers, their faith, and their prayers. The central question that these people ask in such times is, “Where was your God in the midst of this evil?” This, of course, is not the first time questions about the existence of God and the reality of evil have been pressed. The so-called Problem of Evil reaches back to at least the Greek philosopher Epicurus: Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence, then, is evil?
Others have pressed various versions of this historic problem through the ages since. The famous Scottish skeptic, David Hume, philosophical luminaries like J.L. Mackie, and the more recent New Atheists have all inveighed against religious belief due, in part, to worries about God’s alleged perfections and the very plain reality of evil and suffering in our world. As a philosopher, I find their arguments, though rhetorically impressive, to be rationally tenuous. They have been ably answered by Christian thinkers such as C.S. Lewis, Peter van Inwagen, and Alvin Plantinga, just to name a few.
So rather than retread well-worn philosophical ground, I would like to offer a few words to believers whose faith is understandably shaken in the wake of gratuitous and horrendous evil such as occurred in Texas earlier this month. I’ve recently had occasion to think about this issue in light of Naomi’s experience of loss and heartache in the book of Ruth.
The book of Ruth is a beautiful story of steadfast covenant faithfulness during a time of cultural collapse and national rebellion in Israel during the time of the Judges. Fleeing famine, Naomi follows her faithless husband to the pagan land of Moab where he then dies. Her sons take wives from Moab. But Naomi’s sons die there as well. She hears that there is bread, once again, in Bethlehem, and sets out with Ruth and Orpah, her widowed daughters-in-law, to return to the Promised Land of Israel. Along the way, Naomi tries to persuade Orpah and Ruth to return to their clans in Moab, for she has no future to offer them. Orpah kisses Naomi with a tearful goodbye, but Ruth “clings” to Naomi.
When Naomi and Ruth arrive in Bethlehem, they create quite a stir. The women there said, “Is this Naomi?” which means “pleasant.” But Naomi said to them, “Do not call me Naomi”…I’m not pleasant anymore. “The Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why do you call me Naomi? Why do you call me Pleasant, since the Lord has witnessed against me and the Almighty has afflicted me?”
There is important truth in what Naomi says here. It is true that God brings affliction into the lives of His people. Sometimes it is for discipline, sometimes it is the natural consequence of a disobedient life, but sometimes it is simply the dark and mysterious providence of an infinitely wise and supremely gracious God. At this moment, Naomi could not see that God was using her affliction to set in motion events that would ultimately fill her emptiness, but more importantly, bring about the advent of David, Israel’s most beloved king, and ultimately, the advent of David’s greater Son, Jesus, the Messiah. Sometimes dark and senseless tragedy leaves us staggered. But those are the moments when God’s people are called to confess, with Naomi, His sovereignty over both life and death. However confused and broken Naomi was—however shaken her faith may have been—still Naomi saw that God was sovereign over her suffering. He was majestic in her misery. He was supreme in the midst of sorrow.
“Where is your God when life leaves you broken? Where is your God when darkness sucks the air out of your lungs? Where is your God when senseless violence leaves a trail of blood and brokenness and heartache that will never fully heal?” To this rhetorical triumphalism, I reply that my God is, at this moment, sitting on the throne of heaven, and at God’s right hand is His risen and reigning and soon returning Son. Jesus Himself is Lord over all the earth, and every tragedy that engulfs it. He is the One who holds the keys of death and Hades. And as His New Covenant people, we now stand on the unshakeable promise of His resurrected life.
When that monstrous maniac walked into FBC Southerland Springs and killed half the people in there—men, women, and children, and of those who survived, most were wounded—where was God when that happened? He was right there with them. He was sovereign over them. And the moment they died, they were present with Him.
Revelation 6 depicts them now as crying out to Him saying “How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” And these martyred brothers and sisters, the Bible says, were each given a white robe; and they were told that they should rest a while longer—until their fellow servants and their brethren who were to be killed, even as they had been, would be completed also.
Southerland Springs wasn’t the first. Southerland Springs won’t be the last. But death will not have the final word, because Jesus has overcome. The stone, that great monument of death, is rolled away. He is the resurrection and He is the Life. He is the Alpha and Omega, First and Last, Beginning and End. Jesus is the living One who was dead, and behold, He is alive forevermore. One day Jesus will return in divine splendor, and the people of Southerland Springs, Tx will be raised imperishable.
Then the enemies of God will be judged by Christ. The people of God will eternally reign with Christ. Forever they will sing glad and untainted praises to Christ. And their tears will be forever wiped away by Christ.
Grace and peace,
Ben Kimmell, Ph.D.
Calvary Baptist Church