Where Was God in the Virginia Tech Shooting?



There was an eery recognition when the first reports came out of Blacksburg. “Not again,” we prayed. The familiar pit in our stomachs grew as our hopes that it was all a mistake dwindled. “Why?” “How could this happen?” “Why that campus?” “Why those students and faculty?” “How long?” Questions with no perceivable answer became a lament from the depth of our souls.

It is only a bit later that we can reflect on the uselessness of such carnage. It is then that our laments turn back into questions and we want answers. We want answers that will make a bit of sense out of what seems senseless. Questions about evil and about how God fits into a world with so much suffering have been around as long as there have been questions about anything. Such questions have spun into academic research projects, therapeutic schools, talk show fodder and the stuff of poetry. No one line of thought will come close to touching every angle on suffering and evil. Perhaps, however, we can sort out some of our most pressing questions in a way that will be fruitful for future reflection and for engaging responsibly with our fractured world.

When a person asks, “What about God and evil?” I usually ask, “What kind of evil do you have in mind?” I ask this question, because I want to know what kind of question the person is asking. I want to know, especially, if he is thinking of evil in general or if he is dealing with and struggling to understand some particular experience with evil. So I ask, “What kind of evil do you have in mind?” One kind of answer is abstract, such as “You know, war, disease and things like that.” Another kind of answer is concrete. “Virginia Tech: April 16, 2007.” These two answers indicate two very different questions about God and evil.

In the first case, the question about God and evil is usually a philosophical question. Something about evil makes it seem odd to claim that God exists. If God is good, he ought to fix it. Since it is obviously broken, maybe there is no God. In the second case, the question is usually less philosophical and more, for lack of a better word, existential. A person who is asking the more existential question is not raising a theoretical objection to belief in God. Rather, that person is experiencing a difficulty in believing in God. And it is not a challenge to belief in God in general but a challenge to her believing in God in her situation.

Sometimes, of course, these questions overlap. A person who is struggling with evil and suffering may find herself asking the philosophical questions in response. Sometimes, I think, a person begins to lose or to question faith because of her experience of some particular suffering rather than because of a line of reasoning. It may be the case that, next to the grip of disillusionment, whatever reasons we had to believe that God exists or that God cares will appear weak. So we can stop believing not because of intellectual challenges to our faith but because the strength of our disillusionment cannot be matched by things that seem to be only abstract and theoretical.

There are, then, two different kinds of challenges. First there is the philosophical problem of evil and second there is the existential challenge of suffering. In this brief article, I will discuss only the existential challenge. I have discussed the philosophical problem in another article. (You can find it here: www.gradresources.org/worldview_articles/problem_evil.shtml.

When I am wrestling with deep suffering, I do not ask abstract questions such as whether God’s goodness is logically compatible with evil. I ask, “How can I make sense of my life here…now… in this situation?? Sometimes this question is phrased as a “Why?” question. Why is life so hard? Why did my parents split up? Why did those students die? A question beginning with the word “why” usually is a question that seeks information. I want to know the reason why each evil thing happened. But what I need is not information. I need to know how to take the next step and to begin to make sense out of my life. Even if I got an answer to my “why” question, I would still need to figure out how to make sense of my life.

Trying to make sense of our lives in the context of deep suffering often brings about a recognition and a reevaluation. We experience a recognition, in that we see more clearly than normal what it is that we really believe about the world and about good and evil. Seeing our deeply held beliefs may bring about a reevaluation. We measure these beliefs against the reality of our experience. They may be seen to fall short.

How exactly is belief in God challenged by the experience of suffering? For one who began with a belief in God, two fundamental characteristics of God are called into question. First, I question God’s ability to help. Perhaps our lives are outside his control after all. He cannot, it seems, protect us or help. Second, and most profoundly, I question God’s care to help me. Perhaps even if he can protect me, he just does not care too much about me. For one who does not begin with a belief in God, thoughts about God seem even less relevant in the face of suffering than at other times. If he is there at all, he seems awfully remote.

A Christian Response to the Existential Challenge of Suffering

What sort of thinking might a Christian do about the existential problem of suffering? First let me tell you why I want to discuss a specifically Christian response rather than a more generic theistic response. The existential challenge is one that hits not only our intellect but our whole being. To discuss it in the context of some generic kind of God-belief is to attempt to address a concrete challenge with an abstract answer. Concrete challenges require concrete answers. Christianity provide the resources for such a concrete answer. Let me explain.

My questioning God’s abilities to help and his desire to do so is a questioning of his involvement. Is he involved or is he distant? Christianity more than any other theistic tradition emphasizes the involvement of God himself in human suffering. This involvement can be seen in two ways. First the way Jesus interacted with the people who suffered in his day is a demonstration of God’s concern and involvement. Second, the central claim of Christianity and the central purpose of Christ’s coming is to redeem us from the root causes of evil.

There are many stories from the life of Jesus that illustrate how he takes up our deepest concerns in the face of suffering. I want to tell one of those stories. It is the story of an untouchable leper and it can be found in the gospel of Luke, chapter five.

One day, as Jesus was walking through the area, he was approached by a leper. The man fell at his feet and said, “Lord, If you are willing, You can make me clean.” The man was taking quite a risk because a leper was an outcast. This disease was so repellant to the community that those who caught it were shunned by the company of the healthy. They had to wander from town to town and cry out “Unclean!” if anyone approached. Any healthy person who touched a leper or even touched something the leper had touched was himself considered unclean. He must go through the ceremonial washings in order to take part in the life of the community. So when this man fell at Jesus’ feet, he was taking a bold risk. He was violating the strict cultural norms.

Note what he said to Jesus. “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” He knew Jesus had the power to heal him. He had probably heard of some of the other healings Jesus performed and he knew that Jesus could heal him. He was unsure whether Jesus would heal him, though. After all, he was an untouchable. In his suffering he was not convinced that God cared to help him. Perhaps not even God would touch an untouchable.

Luke records the incident as follows: “And Jesus reached out and touched him, saying, ‘I am willing; be cleansed.'” Jesus did two things. First he reached out and touched him. He willingly and without shuddering, crossed all of the cultural barriers in order to treat this broken isolated man as a human being with value and dignity. He said, “I am willing.” Next, he healed the man of his leprosy. It is important to see that he did not heal him first and then touch him. Jesus touched him first. He touched him while he was still untouchable, and then he healed him.

The picture of Jesus touching the untouchable is a picture of God entering our sufferings. God as revealed in the person of Jesus of Nazareth is not remote. He reaches across barriers, and he touches those who are untouchable. He entered our world with all its joys and sorrows and he showed us that God is real and his presence is available to all who call upon him.

Not only did Jesus demonstrate, in his interaction with others, the concern and involvement of God in our sufferings, but the central truth claim of Christianity is that God entered human history to solve the problem of suffering. This is where the primary and central theme of Christianity relates to the problem of evil. God has gotten involved. He has defeated evil and not violated our freedom or our dignity. The claim is that God himself, in the person of Jesus Christ, took upon himself all of the eternal results and penalty of our moral evil. As a result, we can be freed from our guilt and we can have forgiveness. In addition, by accepting his offer of this forgiveness we are adopted into a relationship with the all loving, all powerful God and he gives us his abiding presence. So the claim is that God has entered human history in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The picture of God that the Christian story puts forward is of a God who is involved.

Christianity, then, holds that God enters our sufferings with us and has provided the means to overcome the evil within and around us. Rather than being distant in our need, God has been and continues to be involved indeed.

Our hearts are still broken and we still ask the question, “Why?” The Christian response is not an answer to that question, so much as an encounter with the one who enters our suffering and bears it for us and through us.

Greg Ganssle has been thinking about the intersection of Christian faith and contemporary scholarship for over thirty years. He began as an undergraduate by skipping his classes and reading C.S. Lewis. After graduating from the University of Maryland in 1978, he worked in campus ministry on a variety of campuses. Hundreds of conversations with students from a wide variety of religious and philosophical perspectives drove him to a sustained self-study program. Eventually it occurred to him that he was reading philosophy. Since he had escaped college without taking a philosophy course, he decided to begin with Philosophy 101 at the age of 25. Within weeks he was hooked. Continuing to juggle his full time campus ministry responsibilities, he earned a Masters of Arts in philosophy from the University of Rhode Island (1990). He then went full time and earned his Ph.D. from Syracuse University (1995), where his dissertation on God’s relation to time won a Syracuse University Dissertation Award. In addition to publishing nearly three dozen articles, chapters and reviews, Greg has edited two books, and is the author of Thinking about God: First Steps in Philosophy (Inter Varsity Press, 2004) and A Reasonable God: Engaging the New Face of Atheism (Baylor University Press, fall of 2009). Greg was part-time lecturer in the philosophy department at Yale for nine years, and has been married to Jeanie since 1985. They have three children, none of whom are philosophers. Although happily married, Greg has a secret crush on Jane Austen.