The Movie Theater Massacre and the Limits of Our Understanding

As human beings, we yearn to understand.  We crave meaning, because the horror of genuinely random meaninglessness may be too much to contemplate.  And so, as has long been our practice when faced with an unthinkable event, such as the massacre in Aurora, Colorado, our natural instinct in public discourse is to seek answers.

The search for answers takes place on different levels.  Theologically, an event like this one raises afresh for us the problem of evil.  Why would a good God allow such a thing to happen?  Some of us are prone to justify God by limiting him, which is essentially to place him on a human level and assert that he, like us, did not want this to occur, but he was unable to stop it.  This inability may be due either to a real limitation on his power or because of a self-imposed limitation he has enacted as a way of creating space for our free decisions.

Others may be prone to justify God by seeking to explain the divine will in such an event.  God permitted this atrocity because he wanted to accomplish X.  The assumption behind this view is not just that God is comprehensively sovereign, but that his ways are comprehensively understandable to a finite mind.

For me, neither answer works, primarily because neither answer is biblical.  I am content to leave this question without an answer, simply because God has not given me one, and God does not owe me one.  I continue to believe that God is supremely good and completely sovereign over all that occurs and that, in spite of my inability to see how, he is working together all things for good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).  I cannot assign divine meaning to this event, simply because I am not God.  I must acknowledge my limitations and recognize that, where God has not spoken, no answers will be forthcoming.

Politically and sociologically, the budding conversation in the aftermath of this tragedy shows signs of conforming to the established template: What social factors led to this tragedy?  What political policies should we now pursue to make sure nothing like this ever happens again?  Do we need to regulate violence in the entertainment industry?  Do we need tighter gun control laws?  Do we need to mandate airport-level security at movie theaters, baseball parks, churches, and other public gathering places?  Do we need to start monitoring closely the activities of isolated individuals like James Holmes when they begin to exhibit disturbing behavior?

The assumption behind these questions is that we can find an explanation for this tragedy in the structure of our society and thereby enact policies that will rectify whatever structural defect led to this event.  Sin, on this view, does not reside in the human heart.  It resides in the structures of society.  Our benevolent central planners, in their infinite wisdom, will now come along, isolate whatever structural defect led to James Holmes’s murderous rampage, and address it through legislation that scrapes away another layer of freedom for us all.

I think we instinctively leap into these kinds of discussions because we fear the alternative: what if we really are limited in our ability to eradicate evil?  What if James Holmes is a severely deranged man who would have perpetrated a massacre no matter what kind of gun control laws or security measures had been in place?  What if there are no sociological answers to be found, and what if a lethal injection forever puts to rest any hope we had of receiving a rational account of this deranged man’s motive?  What if, years from now, we are no closer to an explanation than we are today?  If we admit that, we are admitting that we, and in particular our central planners, are not in control of everything.  We are acknowledging that our god has a chink in his armor.  We are blaspheming the all-powerful, all-benevolent State.

I believe in limited government, not only as a prescriptive political philosophy, but also as a descriptive statement about the way things are.  Government is not, and can never be, our god.  It cannot protect us from everything.  It cannot plan and legislate a utopian society.  It cannot exterminate the sin that resides within the heart of every individual under its authority.  In a way, the search for answers is an attempt to prop up a cardboard deity that has failed us once again, only because it is not, and never was, the real thing.  Instead of the usual political posturing, why don’t we take this opportunity to recognize how limited we are, not only in our understanding, but also in our ability to prevent this kind of senseless evil?

But if we entrust ourselves to the God who has promised that nothing unclean will pass through the gates of his city in the world to come (Revelation 21:27), we can rest in the assurance that evil will not have the last word.  And that takes the sting out of the realization that sometimes there are no answers to be found.

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