God is on trial today.
The self-professed Creator of the universe claims to be all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving. For millions of people, it is harder to believe such assertions after the Newtown massacre. Atheist Sam Harris declares that "the murder of a single little girl – even once in a million years – casts doubt upon the idea of a benevolent God." Now we're facing the killing of 20 children in one of the deadliest school shootings in American history.
If God is all-knowing, he knew the morning of December 14 that a mass murderer was going to kill 20 children and seven adults before shooting himself. If God is all-powerful, he could have stopped this tragedy. If God is all-loving, he would want to. And yet 28 people were killed on that horrific day.
Every day in America 40 people are murdered. Each death is unspeakably tragic. But when 20 first-graders are killed at their elementary school, something in us rages at such senseless violence. Each child who died left a parent who treasured them above everything else in this world. Each child who survived will be scarred forever by the terror of the morning.
The Newtown massacre ripped away the veneer of a joyful holiday season, exposing the ugly cruelty that lies at the heart of this fallen world – a world made by an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving God. You don't have to be an atheist like Sam Harris to ask how this can be.
Four accusations against God
The Newtown tragedy is not an isolated event. In July 2012, suspect James Holmes killed 12 in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater. In January 2011, Jared Lee Loughner killed six and injured more than a dozen in Tucson, Arizona. In 2009, suspect Nidal Malik Hasan killed 13 soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas. In 2007, Seung-Hui Cho murdered 32 people at Virginia Tech before killing himself. Many of us still remember the April 1999 Columbine High School massacre, where Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 12 classmates and then themselves in Littleton, Colorado.
Nothing has changed as a result of Newtown. There is no reason that today could not be another day of senseless death. In a nation similarly fraught with violence and facing an uncertain future, the Hebrew prophet Habakkuk expressed to God our confusion and anger:
Your eyes are too pure to look on evil;
you cannot tolerate wrong.
Why then do you tolerate the treacherous?
Why are you silent while the wicked
swallow up those more righteous than themselves? (Habakkuk 1:13).
Has his last question ever been more appropriate than today?
I am writing this essay on the anniversary of my father's death. He died of a heart attack at the age of 55, when I was in college. Dad left an empty place in our wedding photos, our children's lives, and every Christmas table since. The great tragedy of my life is that my father never met my sons.
Soon it will be the one-year anniversary of the horrible day we learned our oldest son had cancer. 2012 will always be remembered by our family as the year of Ryan's diagnosis, surgery, and radiation. Even as I write these words, tears come to my eyes as my stomach knots in pain.
Where was God in Newtown? Where was he when my father died? Where was he when my son's malignancy began growing inside his body? Only four options are possible. Each constitutes an accusation against the God of the Bible.
One: he is not omniscient. Perhaps he does not see our problems in time to prevent them. If he is trapped in time as we are, he does not see tragedy until it unfolds. But this is no defense of an all-knowing God. Even if he did not see the Newtown massacre before it happened, he watched Adam Lanza prepare to kill his mother. He then watched Lanza drive to Sandy Hook Elementary, break into the school, and take aim at those inside. He watched my father's heart disease build to the point where it took his life; he watched Ryan's cancer cells begin to multiply inside his body.
We can defend God's power and love at the expense of his omniscience, but we must then wonder how relevant they are. If he doesn't know about our problems, how can help with them?
Two: he is not omnipotent. Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his bestselling When Bad Things Happen to Good People, claimed that God cannot intervene miraculously in our world. He can help us as we grieve, but he cannot prevent our grief. In our scientific age, it is common to ascribe the miracles of the Bible to myth and superstition. Perhaps God saw and wanted to stop Adam Lanza's violence or my son's cancer, but could not.
We can defend God's knowledge and love at the expense of his power. But once again, we must wonder how relevant they are. If he knows about our problems and wants to solve them but cannot, how much help is he?
Three: he is not all-loving. The Greeks pictured their gods atop Mt. Olympus, capricious and uncaring. The fatalistic Stoics described us as dogs tied to carts – we can trot along or be dragged behind, but we're going with the cart.
We can defend God's knowledge and power at the expense of his love. But yet again, we must wonder if they are then relevant to us. If he knows about our pain and has the power to prevent it, but he doesn't care about our suffering, why would he help us?
Four: God does not exist. David Hume, the 18th-century skeptic, proposed this syllogism:
• If God exists, he must be loving and powerful and thus eradicate evil.
• Evil exists.
• Therefore, God does not exist.
For millions of atheists, including Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris in our day, his argument is theirs. Is there a way to defend God's omniscience, omnipotence, love, and existence in the aftermath of Newtown?
My case for God
One of the most famous Christmas texts in Scripture was first delivered to a world filled with "distress and darkness and fearful gloom" (Isaiah 8:22). In the midst of such suffering, the prophet heard an amazing promise: "There will be no more gloom for those who were in distress" (Isaiah 9:1). Why? Because:
Unto us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David's throne
and over his kingdom,
Establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
will accomplish this (vs. 6-7).
Christians believe this promise to be fulfilled with the Christmas miracle of Jesus' birth. We look to him as our all-knowing "Wonderful Counselor," our all-powerful "Mighty God," and our all-loving "Everlasting Father." In a violent, destructive world, we believe that he is our only "Prince of Peace." As he stands trial today, I imagine you as the jury and myself as his attorney. Here's my defense.
Consider other suspects
First, the Defendant is not the only being capable of committing this crime. If God were the only Person able to instigate the violence at Newtown, it would be difficult to defend his character today. But this is not the case.
Consider the criminal record of another suspect, one who is "a murderer from the beginning" of time (John 8:44). Satan instigated the betrayal of Jesus which led to his execution (Luke 22:3). He has power over unbelievers (Acts 26:18) and blinds their minds (2 Corinthians 4:4). He "prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour" (1 Peter 5:8). He is alive and working in our fallen world. Everything about the Newtown massacre is consistent with his character and actions.
Another suspect is the Newtown shooter. Adam Lanza was created by God to know and love his Maker (Matthew 22:37). But love requires the ability to choose, so God gave him free will (Genesis 3:15-17; Exodus 32:26; Deuteronomy 30:19; Joshua 24:15; 1 Kings 18:21).
Lanza's freedom was intended by God to be used for good and not evil (Matt. 4:10; Proverbs 1:10; 4:14; Romans 6:13; Ephesians 6:13; 2 Peter 3:17). Tragically, he used his free will to choose sin and death (James 1:13-15; 4:1). In a moment we will ask why God did not prevent his crime or its consequences. For now, it is my intent to show you that Lanza should be considered the perpetrator of Newtown, not my Client.
Now examine the character of the Person on trial. He touched leprous bodies and healed them (Matthew 8:3), fed hungry crowds (John 6:1-13), and raised a father's dead daughter (Mark 5:35-43) and a widow's only son (Luke 7:11-15). He forgave the disciples who abandoned him (John 21:15-19) and even the soldiers who crucified him (Luke 23:34).
How did he feel about the children who were killed at Newtown? He rebuked disciples who kept children from him and declared, "Let the children come to me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these." Then he "placed his hands on them" and blessed them (Matt. 19:14-15).
Jesus did not cause even a single death during his life and ministry, but grieved for those who died (John 11:35). Nothing about the Newtown tragedy is consistent with his character or actions.
How can he be omniscient and allow evil?
Now let's move to the specific charges against my Client. The first is that if he is omnipotent and all-loving, he cannot be omniscient. He could not know about the Newtown tragedy in time to prevent it, or he would have.
In response, I'd like you to consider this question: Are knowing and choosing always the same? Does the fact that God knows what we are going to do mean that he makes that decision for us?
God is not bound by time. He is the eternal "I Am" (Exodus 3:14). As he is not constrained by the space he created, neither is he confined to the time by which he regulates his creation. As a result, God can "see" my activities in what we call "tomorrow" as though they were "today." But seeing and choosing may not be the same.
I have spoken in churches and classes around the world. In each setting I have watched people take their seats in the sanctuary or classroom. Never have I chosen their seats for them. In the same way, God sees today what I'll eat for breakfast tomorrow, but such knowledge does not mean that he will choose my food for me.
The fact that God knew Adam Lanza would kill so many children and adults in Newtown does not mean that he made this murderous choice for him.
Can he be omnipotent and allow suffering?
The second charge against my Client is that he must not be omnipotent, or he would have prevented the Newtown massacre. His omniscience would have alerted him to the tragedy before it happened or at least as it began. His omnipotence would then prevent this calamity from occurring.
If God could create the universe with just his spoken word (Genesis 1:3), he could have kept Lanza's guns from firing. If he could make the Red Sea part (Exodus 14:21-22), he could have stopped the bullets before they reached their targets. If he could raise Lazarus from the dead (John 11:43-44), he could have brought the Newtown victims back to life.
In response, consider this question: once God begins preventing the consequences of misused freedom, where does he stop? We'd all like a world where God prevents every Holocaust or 9/11 or Newtown tragedy. But once he intervenes to prevent the results of free will, where does he draw the line?
I want God to prevent a drunk driver from killing my sons. But I also want him to prevent someone from injuring them. I want him to intervene whenever someone is going to lie to them or manipulate them in some way. I have no doubt that he is powerful enough to do all of this and more. But if he uses his omnipotence in this way, is he not violating our freedom?
Imagine that I am keeping a low-carb diet but order a pizza to be delivered. My wife discovers my subterfuge and persuades the delivery service to substitute yogurt for the pizza. When my food arrives, it will be clear that my choice was only apparent, not real.
God is powerful enough to have prevented the Newtown massacre. But he would have also prevented Adam Lanza from using his God-given free will, violating his created purpose.
Can he be all-loving and allow innocent suffering?
The third charge against my Client is that he must not be all-loving, or he would not have allowed these innocent children and adults to die. His omniscience would alert him to the pending tragedy; his omnipotence would enable him to intervene. The fact that he did not must mean that he lacks the compassion to do so.
In response, consider the biblical claims that God hurts as we hurt:
• "When you go to war against your enemies and see horses and chariots and an army greater than yours, do not be afraid of them, because the Lord your God, who brought you up out of Egypt, will be with you" (Deut. 20:1).
• "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me" (Psalm 23:4).
• "The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit" (Psalm 34:18).
• "When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior" (Isa. 43:2-3).
• "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" (Hebrews 4:15).
He allows us to misuse our free will, refusing to prevent the consequences of our wrong choices, but then he suffers as we suffer. The fact of evil does not disprove the fact of God's love. Rather, the former provides opportunity for the latter.
Can he exist and allow a world like this?
The final charge against my Client is that he does not exist: he must be omniscient, omnipotent, and all-loving to be the God of Scripture, yet he does not prevent the suffering we experience daily. If we will not abandon one of his biblical traits, their combination in the face of an evil world requires us to reject the existence of such a Being.
In response, consider this proposal: God redeems for greater good all he allows or causes. If he is sovereign, he must at least permit all that happens in this life. If he is holy (Isaiah 6:3; Revelation 4:8), he can never make a mistake (Matt. 5:48):
• "He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he" (Deut. 32:4).
• "Was it not I, the Lord? And there is no God apart from me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none but me" (Isa. 45:21).
• "For the word of the Lord is right and true; he is faithful in all he does. The Lord loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love" (Psalm 33:4-5).
• "The Lord reigns forever; he has established his throne for judgment. He will judge the world in righteousness; he will govern the peoples with justice" (Psalm 9:7-8).
• "For the Lord is righteous, he loves justice; upright men will see his face" (Psalm 11:7).
• "The Lord is righteous in all his ways and loving toward all he has made" (Psalm 145:17)..
• "Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight" (Jeremiah 9:23-24).
If this God allows any evil that he does not redeem for a greater good, he has erred in allowing it. Thus, his character requires him to redeem all that he permits or causes.
This assertion does not guarantee that you and I will experience or even understand God's greater good on this side of glory. As Paul said, "Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known" (1 Cor. 13:12). But I do not need to understand something to believe that it is true. I don't understand the physics of air travel, but I board airplanes regularly. I don't understand the techniques involved in knee surgery, but I've experienced them twice. I don't understand how my laptop computer converts my keystrokes into the digital data you are reading, but I use it daily.
In the same way, I believe that God is redeeming my father's death and my son's cancer for a greater good. I am convinced that he is already redeeming the Newtown tragedy for a greater good as well. Some of this good we may see in our lifetime, as when he uses suffering to refine us (Psalm 66:10; Isa. 48:10; Malachi 3:3), enabling us to share our faith (1 Peter 2:12, 15) and making us more like Jesus (Rom. 8:28-29).
Much of this greater good we will not see until we are in heaven. In the meantime, I choose to agree with Paul: "I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us" (Rom. 8:18).
I understand the frustration many feel in trying to reconcile an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving God with our broken world. But I would ask those who prosecute my Client this question: how would you do better? He created a perfect world in which no Newtown massacres would have occurred, but humans chose to sin against his will and corrupted his creation (Rom. 8:22). He gave us his commandments, principles that would prevent all such tragedies if they were followed (cf. Exodus 20:13, "You shall not murder"). He gave us his prophets to interpret and apply his principles to our lives.
Then he gave us his Son to teach us his word and to die for our sins. His miracles attested to his omniscience, omnipotence, and love; his resurrection demonstrated his uniqueness and divinity. Now he has given us his trustworthy, authoritative Scriptures by which to know his Son and follow his will.
The fact of suffering does not mean that this God is less knowing, powerful, loving, or real. Rather, it proves that he is relevant and essential to our lives and needs. When we are sick, we can blame medical science for our illness or we can turn to a doctor for our cure.
Elie Wiesel's books tell the story of the Holocaust through the prism of his personal suffering. No passage is more horrific than this account of a small boy hanged by the Nazis:
For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was still red, his eyes were not yet glazed. Behind me, I heard [a] man asking: "Where is God now?" And I heard a voice within me answer him: "Where is He? Here He is – He is hanging here on this gallows."
In the same way, the God who made us entered our fallen world. He chose to come not as a conquering general but as a helpless child. The only baby who determined the circumstances of his birth chose a feed trough in a cow stall, peasants for parents, and grimy field hands for attendants. He chose to walk our planet, breathe our air, face our temptations, feel our pain, and die on our cross. Then he chose to rise from our grave and to prepare our eternal dwelling (John 14:3).
In the aftermath of the Newtown tragedy, many are questioning the existence, character, and relevance of God. But nothing that happened in Connecticut on December 14 changed his nature. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8).
In fact, he is not on trial – we are. It is not his response to Newtown that is in question, but ours. It is not his knowledge of us, but our desire to know him; it is not his power, but our willingness to submit to that power in our lives; it is not his love for us, but our choice to receive his love and share it with all in need.
Max Lucado, with his usual sensitivity, offered this prayer after the Newtown shooting: "Oh, Lord Jesus, you entered the dark world of your day. Won't you enter ours? We are weary of bloodshed. We, like the wise men, are looking for a star. We, like the shepherds, are kneeling at a manger. This Christmas, we ask you, heal us, help us, be born anew in us."