The Briefing 11-06-17
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Monday, November 6, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Tragedy strikes First Baptist Church Sutherland Springs as gunman kills 26
All hearts were directed to Texas yesterday as the Los Angeles Times reported the story this morning at least 26 people were shot and killed Sunday when a 26-year-old gunman dressed in black opened fire at a Baptist church in a small town near San Antonio, Texas. The paper went on to say an additional 20 people were injured in the attack, which happened as a church service was underway at First Baptist Church in the town of Sutherland Springs. The New York Times reported it this way,
“A gunman clad in all black, with a ballistic vest strapped to his chest and a military-style rifle in his hands, opened fire on parishioners at a Sunday service at a small Baptist church in rural Texas, killing at least 26 people and turning this tiny town east of San Antonio into the scene of the country’s newest mass horror.”
The New York Times report went on to identify the gunman as Devin Patrick Kelly, again he was age 26, and this according to confirmations in Texas law enforcement officials. At this point the investigation is in the earliest stages, but at this point we already know this is an absolutely horrifying story. It is a tragedy that is only going to unfold in greater tragedy, and the context of this attack taking place as a small Baptist church in rural Texas was just beginning its worship service, it is a sign of something far deeper that has gone wrong in our society. And the fact that many of the victims already have been identified as children, including the 14-year-old daughter of the church's pastor, this just underlines, once again, horrifically enough, the fact that so much of the evil in the world is simply beyond our understanding, our moral understanding, even our theological understanding, not to mention the attempts of those who are trying to understand this simply in terms of criminology or psychology or sociology. As is so often the case in our experience when headlines like this come at us, the facts themselves seem perplexing and overwhelming. Could we really be talking about an attack upon a very small First Baptist Church in a tiny little town outside of San Antonio, Texas? Of all the places in the world, of all the congregations meeting in worship, why this church, and why the killing of people and the killing of so many people? Why was a man who dressed himself in black, armed himself with a modern weapon, and clad himself with a ballistic vest, why did he dress himself in black and show up at 11:30 on a Sunday morning during a worship service at this church and then unleash so much murder?
Murder is hard enough for us to understand, mass murder just makes it all the more difficult to understand, but the intentional killing of a pregnant woman and of little children and a 14-year-old and of Christians gathered together in worship, and the intentional targeting of this kind of church, a specific rural church in a very small community, what could possibly even contribute to our understanding of irrationality or a motive behind this crime? As of this morning, Texas law enforcement officials are saying that there is not yet a clear motive, and one of the most perplexing realities is that we may never know a clear motive, and, yet, at the same time we’re trying to find some kind of linkage, our mind wants to connect dots and make some kind of sense.
Yesterday afternoon the local US Congressman representative Henry Cuellar said that he believed there was some evidence that the assailant, the murderer in this case, Devin Patrick Kelly, had at least some identified relatives in the community of Sutherland Springs. Furthermore, it was revealed last night that activity on social media that had been initiated by Devin Patrick Kelly also had targeted persons within a 20 mile radius, or a 20 minute radius, of the town of Sutherland Springs. He then was known to become very antagonistic on social media, and this came to the attention of at least some of the residents there in Sutherland Springs. Whether or not these facts prove to be actual facts and whether they help our understanding, none of that is yet clear, but it points to the fact that we are groping for understanding and information. Also, as of last night, the United States Air Force indicated that Devin Patrick Kelly had indeed served in the Air Force, but he had been basically dishonorably discharged. He received a bad conduct discharge after he was criminally prosecuted by the Air Force for assault and battery upon his wife and child. He was sentenced to 12 months of confinement and then again received that bad conduct discharge. According to media reports and comments from law enforcement, that criminal activity would've taken place back in 2012. Kelly's identification on social media stated that he is a management consulting professional; although, there is actually no record of his professional activity. Over the next several days and weeks, perhaps even over the next several hours, we’re going to learn a great deal more. We will learn more about the murderer, we will learn more about the crime, we will learn more about the many victims, we will learn more of their stories, but none of this will help us to understand in moral terms how any single human being, or a group of human beings together, could ever have plotted and then undertaken this kind of murderous attack on a Christian congregation gathered for worship and on people of many ages, including a woman expecting a child and at least several children.
Heartbreak and mourning reveal uniqueness of Christian worldview
But from a Christian worldview perspective, we have to understand that the facts are important. Again, it is not wrong to want to know what the dots are and then to try to connect the dots. God made us as rational creatures and as moral creatures, and our moral sense and impulse, it reaches out and demands some kind of rationality, some kind of understanding that will make a nonsensical world of horrifying evil at least make a bit more sense to us. But we also, from a Christian worldview understanding, need to step back and affirm the fact that our first response should not be to try to understand the crime, but rather, quite rightly, to identify with the community in grief and experiencing heartbreak. The Christian worldview actually dignifies, the Scripture itself dignifies the heartbroken. Heartbrokenness is a part of human existence, it will come to every single human being at some time. This particular attack in Texas, this horrifying mass killing, affirms the fact that Christians are not immune from this kind of heartbreak nor Christian congregations or Christian families. We cannot understand exactly what that congregation in that community is experiencing, but we do understand heartbreak, and we know that heartbreak is at the very center of their experience at this moment.
The Christian worldview not only dignifies the reality of heartbreak, it explains why our hearts are so easily wounded and broken. The Christian worldview affirms the dignity of human life, the dignity of every single human life, the fact that every single human life is of eternal value and inestimable worth. So in other words, when we're thinking about murder, we’re not just thinking about something that is, according to every civilization, a crime, we are understanding murder as an intentional assault, an attack upon, the dignity of the human being, which is an attack upon the image of God. In Genesis chapter 9, we find what is known as the Noahic covenant, it is the covenant that God made with Noah after the flood. It was a covenant in which God himself underlined the value and dignity of human life and identified capital punishment as the appropriate crime for the intentional taking of a human life by another human, and the argument that God set forth is that God made human beings, every single human being, in his image, and, thus, it's different than an assault upon any other aspect or creature of creation. The biblical worldview affirms the reality and the dignity of what it means to mourn. So, as our hearts are directed towards the heartbroken and also towards the mourning there in Texas, especially in this small town of Sutherland Springs, we are also aware of the fact that heartbreak and mourning are a part, as the Puritan said, of the Christians portion; we, too, carry our own portion of heartbreak and mourning, if not now, then at some point in this earthly pilgrimage.
Confronting the realities of death and evil in the aftermath of tragedy
In one very important dimension, this demonstrates why the Christian worldview is so utterly different than every other worldview. Just consider the worldview of atheism that at its base has to believe that every human life and all of human existence is basically a series of accidents. There is no Creator, so there is no human being made in the Creator’s image, and even though we should understand that atheists would clearly classify this murderous attack in Sutherland Springs, Texas, as evil, they have no real ability to understand or to embrace the notion of evil with any coherence. As we so often find ourselves repeating on The Briefing, evil is essentially a theological category. Without theism, without belief in God, without theology, evil becomes simply the strongest word we have to describe something we wish hadn't happened, but Christians also have to acknowledge that our affirmation of a great and good God, an infinitely great and an infinitely good God, requires us to answer some questions that atheists don't have to answer. The most urgent of these questions: How could a great and good God, how could an all-powerful and all-loving God, allow such evil to take place? There are those who have suggested perhaps it's an indication that God really isn't in control of the universe, but here we have to understand that's not just a subversion of the biblical teaching concerning God, it's a repudiation of the God of the Bible. The Bible is explicitly clear: God is in control of the entire universe, there isn't an atom or a molecule outside of his control. If there is, then we are doomed.
Other arguments have been made, suggesting that perhaps we are to understand evil, including moral evil, as having an instrumental value; perhaps God allows this because there is some kind of experience he wants us to have in order to learn some kind of lesson we otherwise would not learn, but here we have to be exceedingly careful because even as the Bible does indicate that pain is a teacher, even suffering and mourning and heartbrokenness are teachers, we have to be very careful about telling others what God is supposedly teaching them in the midst of mourning and heartbreak and suffering. In the book of Job, God is quite candidly ruthless on the so-called friends of Job who attempt to tell Job what his suffering means. In the Christian worldview, as we are instructed by Scripture, we often come to understand that only in retrospect do we have an understanding of why God allowed this particular suffering to come in our lives, and, yet, as even as evidenced by the lifetime and the testimony of the apostle Paul, speaking of the thorn in his flesh, sometimes we do not in this lifetime, even by the end of this earthly trail, we sometimes do not know, we are not given to know, why we have experienced certain sorrows.
Someone else operating from a very different worldview might enter the conversation and tell us that pain and suffering and death and evil actually don't even exist; they are abstractions or illusions. That's the official teaching of the religion known as Christian Science, but in direct contradiction to so-called Christian Science, which as some observers have noted is neither Christian nor Science, biblical Christianity points to the fact that suffering and pain are real, that sorrow and heartbreak are real, and that, most importantly in terms of the biblical affirmation, death is all too real. It is an absolute insult, morally speaking, and it is a tremendous error, theologically speaking, to imagine addressing ourselves to this community in Sutherland Springs, Texas, and telling them that death and evil are illusions and that their pain-and-suffering are not real. Some others might enter into the conversation and say there must be some particular sin in that community of Sutherland Springs, perhaps in that congregation that would explain why this has happened to them.
But this is exactly behind the question that the disciples asked Jesus in John chapter 9, when they ask him about the man blind from birth and they said, whose sin is behind this? Is it the man's or his parents? Jesus told them that neither the sin of this man nor his parents explained his blindness, and he rebuked the disciples for asking the question in that way. They saw this man, this blind man, as a theological question rather than as an individual made in the image of God in whom the glory of God was about to be displayed.
Jesus similarly answered the disciples when news reports came of persons who were killed when a tower fell, and he told his disciples, they ought not to think that the people on whom the tower fell are more sinful than those who were not affected by the accident. But still when we ask the question, is sin the explanation, the big answer is yes, but it’s traced back to Genesis 3 in the fall, it’s traced back to human sinfulness in the very beginning. It is not rightly traced, certainly in each and every case, to any specific sin. We can speak here of the sin of the murderer, but we have no theological right to speak of any pattern of sin amongst the victims.
Another might enter the conversation and say, well, God is only partly in control of the present and the future. Back during the 1990s there were several theologians who were suggesting an understanding of a limited God. Some of them packaged it as the openness of God, suggesting that God knew most things and was in control of most of creation, but that control was limited by the future free decisions of human beings. That, again, is directly contradicted by Scripture that holds that God knows all things past, present, and future, and that God knows all things under all conditions. Back in 1981, a rather liberal rabbi by the name of Harold Kushner wrote what became a best-selling book entitled Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People. In that book, he made the argument that reached the bestseller list in the United States that God should be understood as doing the best that he can under the circumstances. Is that supposed to comfort us to believe that the God of the universe, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, is actually just doing the best he can under the circumstances? What if the circumstances are bigger than God is? That's a huge question. It's a devastating question. It's a question the Bible doesn't even allow. Biblical Christianity affirms, and always consistently affirms, the fact that God is absolutely sovereign, he is omnipotent, he is all-powerful, he is omniscient, and biblical Christianity also affirms that he is good, that there is no evil in him at all. As one of our most important and historic confessions of faith states, and I quote,
“God from eternity, decrees or permits all things that come to pass, and perpetually upholds, directs and governs all creatures and all events; yet so as not in any wise to be the author or approver of sin nor to destroy the free will and responsibility of intelligent creatures.”
Biblical Christianity and the gospel of Christ also affirm what Paul writes in Romans chapter 8 verse 28 to believers where Paul reminds us that
“we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.”
Christians through the 2000 years of Christian experience have learned that sometimes we have to wait for an answer, and sometimes that wait goes even beyond any answer we can get in this life. Charles Spurgeon, the great Baptist preacher of the 19th century in London stated this beautifully when he said that when we cannot trace God's hand, we are simply to trust his heart.
As we’re thinking about the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, and as we are thinking about Christians, especially in that community, we are reminded of the testimony of the apostle Paul, as he wrote in 2 Corinthians chapter 4 verse 9, that he and other Christians are
“persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.”
We also understand the dignity of Christian mourning when we hear the words of Jesus in the Beatitudes. Consider Matthew chapter 5 verse 4, where Jesus said,
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
This throws us back on the deepest resources of biblical Christianity. This pushes us back to understanding the attributes of God as revealed in Scripture, the attributes of his power and the attributes of his morality, his greatness and his goodness, his justice, his righteousness, his mercy, and we are also reminded of the biblical promise that the saints, those who are God's own, those who are in Christ, will be vindicated, but we cannot expect that vindication to always come in this lifetime. As a matter fact, it seems that more generally that vindication will come only when the kingdom of Christ is announced on that day of judgment. But as we think about that vindication, we also remember in the Old Testament that Job articulated, for all of God's people, what it means to be confident of the fact that God will vindicate, that a kinsman redeemer will stand upon the earth, and that's where we understand that that vindication has already been accomplished, in the truest sense, in the cross and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. There, Christ, the incarnate Son of God, stood and died and was raised from the dead as our kinsman redeemer and our vindication, and for Christians, as our hearts are rightly directed and our prayers are likewise directed to the state of Texas, and in particular to the small town of Sutherland Springs, a town now known to us by the most horrifying of tragedies, as our hearts and our prayers are directed with attention to this town, we are also reminded of the fact that the only answer Christians have is the answer of the gospel of Jesus Christ. That is the only promise of making sense out of nonsense. The gospel of Christ is the only assurance of the victory of good over evil. The gospel of Christ is the only promise of meaning and significance and satisfaction, not only in this life, but in the life to come.
Finally, as we think about the Bible's testimony and teaching, the Bible's instruction and encouragement to us in the face of this kind of horrific tragedy, we are reminded of what the prophet Isaiah said about Christ as he looked from the past to the future and as we now understand the Christian present, Isaiah chapter 53 verse 4,
“surely he has borne our grief's and carried our sorrows.”
For Christians facing the honest immensity of this challenge of evil, this is really all we have to say. And here's our confidence. It is enough.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing. For more information, go to my website at AlbertMohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to BoyceCollege.com.
I’m speaking to you from Washington D.C., and I’ll meet you again on tomorrow for The Briefing.