When President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, a Fresno pastor climbed the bell tower of the church and began pulling the rope. When he descended much later exhausted from sounding the alarm, he found the sanctuary filled with mourners, looking up to him for a hopeful word. That was on a Friday afternoon. The following Sunday churches everywhere were packed with people who needed help understanding the tragedy. It was called “the Sunday with God.”
On October 8, 2017, we had another Sunday with God.
We’ve had a lot of them, especially in the past two decades. Their names become shorthand for inexplicable tragedy: Columbine, New Town, Wedgwood, Emanuel AME, Boston Marathon, Pulse Nightclub. And the signal event in this category is clearly the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Churches were full the next Sunday and for several months afterward with people asking “Why?” and wondering how God could let this happen. And all these years later we might add—again.
In Las Vegas on Sunday night, October 1, it happened again. A gunman high above an open-air concert killed 58 people with high-powered assault weapons and injured more than 500 others before turning the gun on himself. He left victim’s families, the survivors, and a nation to try to make sense of the utterly senseless.
How can we respond to what we struggle to explain—or even understand?
A retired carpenter from Aurora expressed his grief in the same way he has since his father-in-law was murdered in 1996: he built crosses. His truck loaded with 58 crosses, each with a red heart and the name of one of the 58 victims, Greg Zanis drove from Illinois to Nevada to install a memorial under the iconic “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign. He has built such a memorial at every mass shooting since Columbine High School. His crosses are indeed welcome in places where people need to be pointed Christ-ward.
A young man who escaped the shooting told a network interviewer, “I was an agnostic going into that concert, but after what happened there, I believe in God. It’s a miracle that any of us survived.” His comment exemplifies the baseline responses to crisis: you either blame God or you embrace him; run from God or run to him.
Las Vegas pastor Vance Pittman was honest with his congregation on the Sunday morning after the killings. “The temptation of our humanness is to run from God in moments of tragedy, but the psalmist reminds us that those are the moments we should run to God.”
Pittman, who founded Hope Church in the city 17 years ago, admitted his own wrestling with the massacre. “Anyone who didn’t simply isn’t human,” he told the crowd in the packed sanctuary. “It’s OK to ask God some hard questions…He can handle it.”
He then pointed to Psalm 62. “Where is God in the midst of tragedy?” Pittman asked. “He’s right there in the midst with us… ‘God is my refuge.’” He cited the experience of two police officers. One said to the pastor, “It’s nothing short of a miracle that more people were not killed. It’s almost like someone spread their wings over that crowd and protected them.”
A thoroughly biblical response to events such as this must address the role of evil, “an act of pure evil,” as President Trump described it two days later in Las Vegas. God created a perfect world, but willful humans introduced sin. Taken to its natural ends, man inflicts that sin on others. Such monstrous evil may seem beyond us, but in all honesty it’s not. Only God restrains lawlessness in any of us. While at times he may not intervene in the ways we wish, God is still on the scene, in the business of saving humanity. In this world where evil is rampant—be it war, massacre, or the aftermath of disaster—God is still working his purpose out.
“Nowhere is this seen more clearly than looking at the cross,” Pittman said to his searching crowd. “The cross of Jesus is the single greatest act of evil and injustice in this world, and yet God—in his sovereignty—has caused it to be now seen as the greatest demonstration of love and goodness the world has ever experienced.”
– Eric Reed (with thanks for quotes from The Las Vegas Journal-Review, CNN, and Baptist Press)