Comfort Within the
Finding Oneís Voice Regarding
The terrorist attacks in New York City and
in Washington, D.C. this week have left many of us with more
questions than answers. Pastors, teachers, and counselors may have
an especially difficult time as they attempt to help others while
still processing the news themselves. For this reason, I have
prepared the following comments as a service to the shepherds.
I have developed some of this material elsewhere in published
form (especially in Humanity and Sin [Word, 1999]). With the
exception of acknowledged quotations, the words are all mine, but
the thoughts are not. I have gleaned the most from Nicholas
Wolterstorffís Lament for a Son (Eerdmans, 1987), Douglas
Farrowís Ascension and Ecclesia (Eerdmans, 1999), and a
number of works regarding Martin Lutherís theology of the
Robert A. Pyne, Th.D.
Professor of Systematic Theology
Dallas Theological Seminary
Individual believers have been responding to the terrorist
attacks in a number of different ways. Like most everyone else, we
are shocked, stricken with grief, angry, and confused. However,
Christians are particularly prone to offer explanations, and most
of those explanations do more harm than good. In responding to them
here I will begin with observations about what believers may be
thinking, and will then make some suggestions about what we
should and should not say.
- "Apocalypse Now"óSome may see the horrific
evil at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and regard it as a
sign of the imminent return of Christ.
- Rather than seeing this event as a sign of Christís return,
it is better to regard it as a reminder of His absence. We await
the return of the ascended, glorified Christ, who will establish
justice on that day (2 Thess. 1:6-10). But this is not the day of
justice. This is the day injustice reminds us that justice is yet
future. In His absence we are called to persevere, by the Spirit,
in a world filled with tribulation (John 16:33).
problem of evil is essentially a problem of failed expectations and
the apparent absence of God. As Martha said to Jesus, "Lord,
if You had been here, my brother would not have died" (John
11:21). In the same way, the psalmist slaved each day under the
taunt of his captorsó"Where is your God now?" (Psalm
42:3, 10; 115:2).
- It is rather ethnocentric of American
believers to view these terrorist attacks as apocalyptic signs, for
they likely said nothing of the sort when tragedies struck
elsewhere (massive earthquakes in India, for example).
- Severe trials have always (rightly) caused believers to cry out
for the return of Christ. However, it would be a mistake to regard
such trials as meaningful signs of a day we simply cannot predict
(Acts 1:7). Instead, we are reminded of what we do not know
(Eccl. 9:1, 12; 10:14; 11:5, 6; James 4:13-15).
"Judgment Day"óSome will regard national
tragedies as signs of God's judgment upon America. (For
example, I had a student who suggested that this might be Godís
judgment upon America for the sin of abortion.)
- It is true that God exercises judgment upon nations and uses
both righteous and unrighteous agents to do so. However, it is
always a mistake to presume we know His intentions in
allowing or ordaining particular events apart from special
revelation concerning them. That was the mistake made by Jobís
friends, who assumed his suffering to be an expression of judgment.
It was also the mistake made by Saul (later Paul) and many of his
peers, who saw the cross as a sign of divine judgment upon one who
must have been a criminal (2 Cor. 5:16; Gal. 3:13).
- A post-Easter consideration of the cross, compared to the way
it was seen on Good Friday, reinforced Martin Lutherís rejection of
Aristotelian logic and natural theology as means by which God and
His will may be known. He wrote, "He does not deserve to be
called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as
though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have
actually happened." By contrast, he said a theologian of the
cross "comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen
through suffering and the cross."
- Alister McGrath
summarized Lutherís theology of the cross this way:
"Experience cannot be allowed to
have the final wordóit must be judged and shown up as deceptive and
misleading. The theology of the cross draws our attention to the
sheer unreliability of experience as a guide to the presence and
activity of God. God is active and present in his world, quite
independently of whether we experience him as being so. Experience
declared that God was absent from Calvary, only to have its verdict
humiliatingly overturned on the third day."
- Those who regard this as a sign of Godís judgment upon American
wickedness are essentially agreeing with the terrorist
perpetrators. To the contrary, this massive injustice, which came
upon victims indiscriminately, must not be seen as just (declared
to be righteous). More will be said about this below.
- Those who regard this as a sign of Godís judgment typically
have particular sins in mind (e.g., abortion), but those sins are
rarely their own. This attitude reflects a "Christ against
culture" approach to the world that wrongly assumes the
possibility of genuine separation from the world and does not take
seriously the inevitability of sin and injustice even within the
"Onward Christian Soldiers"óMost Americans
are responding to these events with a tremendous sense of community
resolve. They are working together with great passion to help the
victims, restore the nationís sense of well-being, and protect our
freedoms. Collectively, we are also angry. As many recognize, there
is great danger that our anger would result in vengeance (rather
than justice), in ethnic violence, and (for the church) in an
abandonment of our mission. If we are to have a distinctively
Christian voice in the world, we must lead the way in calls for
justice, not vengeance, and we must resist the nationalism or
ethnocentrism that could so easily be expressed in violence against
Muslims or Middle Easterners. The church is by definition multi-national (Acts 2) and
multi-ethnic (Acts 8, 10; Eph. 2-3). When the gathered church
celebrates the Lordís Supper, we affirm our faith in Christ and our
hope in His return through a ceremonial meal that underscores our
communion with other believers throughout the world and throughout
history. We must beware of aligning a church body with any
political entity (e.g., having the gathered church recite the
Pledge of Allegiance), for that inevitably minimizes that church
body as it identifies itself in distinction from (rather than in
communion with) the universal church. Christ is enthroned
above every principality and power, and in Him we are committed to
a higher citizenship (Col. 1:15-20). His supreme authority sets
limits on every other power, including government. To identify Him
with any nation is to limit Him. If those who see
terrorist attacks as signs of Godís judgment demonstrate a
"Christ against culture" orientation to the world, those
who respond with patriotic fervor demonstrate a "Christ of
culture" approach. (The categories come from H. Richard
Niebuhrís Christ and Culture.) This approach risks
identifying His cause too closely with our own, reducing the
mission of the church to some nationalistic agenda. This was the
mistake of the church in the time of Constantine and it was
repeated by both American and German Liberals in the early
20th century. The lesson to be learned is that a church
identifying too closely with any political agenda risks losing the
Injustice and tragedy reminds us that Christ is
absent, yet returning. As a consequence of His resurrection and
ascension, the church exists in tension. We are still in the world
yet experiencing a down-payment on the day of redemption through
the presence of the Spirit (Eph. 4:30). We remain in the world in
which Christ was crucified, yet we have a sure promise for the
world in which He prepares a place for us.
- If we reduce that tension by associating ourselves too closely
with the world to come, we adopt a "Christ against
culture" model and separate too much from our existing
- If we reduce the tension by associating the
ascended Christ too closely with this present world and our agenda
in it, we adopt a "Christ of culture" model and lose the
hope of His return.
- We are in the world, as the events of
this week surely remind us, yet not of it (Heb. 11:13).
"It makes sense if you think about it."
Tragedy confronts us with a troubling inconsistency. We want
to affirm that God is good, just, and sovereign, yet we see events
take place that obviously violate His ideals. Almost instinctively,
we usually try to resolve that inconsistency in one of two ways. We
either redefine God to accommodate our experience or we redefine
our experience to accommodate our understanding of God. Redefining God to Accommodate Our Experience
- We must not deny Godís existence (the atheistís response to the
problem of evil). Faith affirms that He is and that He
rewards those who seek Him (Heb. 11:6).
- As noted above, the problem of evil is a problem of failed
expectations and the apparent absence of God. To ask "Where is
your God now?" is simply to say that He has not acted in
accordance with oneís expectations.
- Asaphís response in
Psalm 73 was to change his expectations ("Apart from Thee, I
desire nothing on earth.") The response from Psalm 115 is that
God must not be confused with a vending machine: "Our God is
in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases."
theology of the cross would add that in suffering God may be found
precisely where He was on Good Friday: identifying with us in our
suffering, acting to resolve that suffering in ways we may not see
or imagine, and yet sovereign in the heavens, accomplishing his
- We must not say that God did not know this was going to happen
(the temptation of open theism). He "declares the end from the
beginning" (Isa. 46:10), and did not have to wait until He saw
the second plane coming to know what it was going to do.
- We must not say that God could not prevent it, or that He
always allows evil people to proceed with their free acts (another
temptation of open theism). To say this is to do away with the God
of the Exodus.
Note: It does not help to say that He
typically does not intervene with the free acts of persons.
If He ever intervenes, the question remains: Why did He not
intervene this time? And a problem remains: He does not usually
answer such questions.
- We must not deny Godís goodness or
His justice, for that is to deny His nature as He has revealed
Himself (Ex. 34:6-7; Psa. 25:7-8).
- We must not confuse
divine providence with "chance" or say that God acts
capriciously (James 1:17).
Redefining Our Experience to Accommodate God
- We must not treat evil as if it is good. We must not
justify evil, declaring it to be right. This is perhaps
the most prevalent evangelical response to evil events. We try
to "make sense" of these events by explaining why they
must have occurred even in a world governed by a sovereign and
- We must not make peace with death.
Nicholas Wolterstorff, the Yale philosopher who
lost an adult son in a mountain climbing accident, wrote that
someone said to his wife, "I hope you're learning to live at peace with Eric's
death." Wolterstorff responded, Peace, shalom, salaam. Shalom is the
fullness of life in all
dimensions. Shalom is dwelling in justice and delight with God,
with neighbor, with oneself, in nature. Death is shalom's mortal
enemy. Death is demonic. We cannot live at peace with death. When
the writer of Revelation spoke of the coming of the day of
shalom, he did not say that on that day we would live at peace with
death. He said that on that day "There will be no more death
or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has
passed away." I shall try to keep the wound from healing, in
recognition of our living still in the old order of things. I shall
try to keep it from healing, in solidarity with those who sit
beside me on humanity's mourning bench. (Lament for a Son
[Eerdmans, 1987], 63)
- We must not make sin and
evil seem reasonable by attempting to explain why they occurred.
Sin must always be inexplicable. It is never the sensible, the
rational, or the appropriate thing.
- Survivors will tell
remarkable stories of close calls, and their families will say,
"God heard our prayers." It is true that God should be
praised for their deliverance. For precisely that reason we must
resist the temptation to attribute the survivorís deliverance to
human piety (either the survivorís or someone elseís). Some of the
victims were nearly spared, yet perished, and even as I write many
of their family members continue to pray in futile hope for their
safety. We simply do not know why one survives and another does
not, and we should not attempt to explain what God has not revealed
- God does use evil for good, but that does not make
the evil itself good. Evil remains evil. There will be good things
that come from these tragic events. Some people will take the
gospel more seriously. Others will form closer relationships with
friends and family. Future tragedies may be averted because airport
security is tightened. But we must never focus so much on these
"good results" that through them the evil events begin to
look good. When anecdotes about happy outcomes make us think we
understand why it had to happen, we have crossed out of
- We must not rob our people of grief and hope. Our hope is for
a day in which there will be no mourning, crying, or pain. Our
grief is that this is not that day. When, by rationalizing or
justifying evil, we call this the day of justice, we render hope
irrelevant and grief unnecessary.
- We must not claim to
know more than we really know. Perhaps this is the most basic
conclusion, the only thing left to say after all the platitudes
have been stripped away. We believe that God exists and that He is
good, just, and sovereign. We believe that He oversees all things
by His providence and that His purposes are good. But we do not
pretend to know those purposes, and we dare not offer explanations
where God has chosen to remain silent.