For some pastors, especially those close to scene of the tragic shooting inside a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., during the early hours of last Friday, their sermon notes for this past Sunday's services had to be rewritten. Author and evangelist Lee Strobel was scheduled to speak at Cherry Hills Community Church about marriage, but changed the theme of his message to answer the question, "Why does God allow tragedy and suffering?"
Strobel, who is the co-director of the church's evangelism and apologetics ministry, began the service on Sunday at the church located in the city of Highlands Ranch this way:
"It was the worst mass shooting in American history – 70 people shot by a gunman, 12 of them killed, while they were watching the midnight showing of a new movie just 21 miles from where we're sitting. There are no words to describe the anguish being felt by those who are suffering today; our heart and prayers have – and will – go out to them. There are so many tragic stories, so much pain. And many people are asking the question, 'Why? Why did God allow this?'"
This has been "a heart-rending summer for Colorado," Strobel said during his sermon. The state was first plagued with wildfires, which ravaged the houses of "hundreds of our neighbors. And those two tragic events are on top of the everyday pain and suffering being experienced in individual lives – maybe including yours," he continued. "There's illness, abuse, broken relationships, betrayal, sorrow, injuries, disappointment, heartache, crime and death. And perhaps you've been asking the question, 'Why? Why me? Why now?'"
The "why" question goes back thousands of years, Strobel explained.
"It was asked in the Old Testament by Job and the writers of the Psalms, and it was especially relevant during the 20th century, where we witnessed two World Wars, the Holocaust, genocides in the Soviet Union and China, devastating famines in Africa, the killing fields of Cambodia, the emergence of AIDS, the genocide in Rwanda and the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo," he said. "And the 21st Century didn't start any better. There was 9/11 and now the Syrian slaughters, and on and on. Why all of this if there's a loving and powerful God? Why do bad things happen to good people?"
Strobel, a former atheist, said he was commissioned to do a national survey several years ago in which he asked people what question they'd ask God if they could only ask one thing.
He said the number one response was: "Why is there suffering in the world?"
Turning his focus back to last week's mass murder, he said, "If you ask me point-blank, 'Why did God allow the gunman to spray the Aurora movie theater with gunfire just two days ago?' the only answer I can honestly give consists of four words – 'I do not know.'
"I cannot stand in the shoes of God and give a complete answer to that question. I don't have God's mind. I don't see with God's eyes. First Corinthians 13:12 says, 'Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely,'" Strobel preached.
It is important to remember that even though we can't understand everything about human suffering, "we can understand some things," he said.
Strobel described how God bestowed on us free will, then added, "But unfortunately, we humans have abused our free will by rejecting God and walking away from Him. And that has resulted in the introduction of two kinds of evil into the world: moral evil and natural evil.
"Moral evil is the immorality and pain and suffering and tragedy that come because we choose to be selfish, arrogant, uncaring, hateful and abusive. Romans 3:23 says 'All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,'" he said.
"So much of the world's suffering results from the sinful action or inaction of ourselves and others. For example, people look at a famine and wonder where God is, but the world produces enough food for each person to have 3,000 calories a day. It's our own irresponsibility and self-centeredness that prevents people from getting fed."
Explaining it in another way he said, a person can choose to use your hand to hold a gun and shoot someone or to feed hungry people. "It's your choice. But it's unfair to shoot someone and then blame God for the existence of evil and suffering. Like that old cartoon said, 'We have seen the enemy, and he is us.'"
Strobel described the second kind of evil as "natural evil."
"These are things like wildfires, earthquakes, tornadoes and hurricanes that cause suffering. But these, too, are the indirect result of sin being allowed into the world," he said. "As one author explained: 'When we humans told God to shove off, He partially honored our request. Nature began to revolt. The earth was cursed. Genetic breakdown and disease began. Pain and death became part of the human experience.'"
Before leading those in attendance in prayer, including prayer to accept Jesus into their lives for those who hadn't yet, Strobel again focused on the recent tragedy in Aurora.
"For all the things it leaves us confused about, one of the truths it clearly illustrates is that life is so fragile and short," he said. "These people were going to a movie. They had no clue that this might be their last moments in this world. Friends, in this sin-scarred world, we never know when death will come knocking. Often, we don't get any warning when a heart attack strikes, or when a drunk driver crosses the centerline, or when a wildfire sweeps through a canyon, or when an airplane loses power. And so the question I'm compelled to ask you is this – 'Are you ready?'"