October 5, 2017
(Update: this post was edited on October 6 to clean up a few details.)
Warning: some of the content below may be disturbing.
When tragic events strike, we all ask questions that are hard to ask and even harder to answer. I won’t pretend to have answers, but I want to share with you my reflections based on an account of the tragedy that’s very close to home.
By now you know the story. On Sunday night, a gunman opened fire on a concert in Las Vegas using high-powered assault rifles fired from the 32nd floor of a casino. As of this writing, 59 are confirmed dead, including the shooter—four of them Canadians (and one from Maple Ridge, my stomping grounds)—and over 500 have been injured. The death toll is likely to rise before it’s all said and done.
For me, it’s even more personal. My cousin was there, and I have her permission to share these stories with you. Miraculously (and I do mean that), she wasn’t injured, but she saw five people get shot, three of whom died.
The story is horrific. No words can describe the depth of what she saw. She looked into the very pit of hell itself and saw the very worst of human depravity. But she also saw something else. She saw the very best of humanity.
When the shooting started, the woman standing right beside her took a bullet in the neck, and my cousin hit the ground. Instantly, a stranger threw himself on top of her, placing himself between her and the shooter. As she glanced up, she saw a man take three bullets square to the chest. She didn't feel safe just staying put, so she got up and started running.
A bartender grabbed her and pulled her behind the bar for cover, but bullets started coming through the table, so she had to keep going. Leaping over the bar and over the body of a young woman lying dead on the ground, she ran. As she was running, a bullet came within millimeters of her head and hit the guy in front of her. Now separated from her friends, she scaled a concrete wall and found a group of people huddling for cover.
They thought they were safe. But as they were standing there, a bullet pierced the leg of one of the young women, sending blood pouring over the American flag that emblazoned her cowboy boots. And so she kept running.
Finally she got to a chain link fence, and someone was cutting it open. She dove underneath and found herself in a group of strangers. She told them that she was alone and didn’t know what to do, and they grabbed her by the hand and said, “It’s okay: you’re with us now.”
These strangers, who were from California and had driven to the festival, ran to their car, pulled her in, and just started driving. When they finally stopped in a Taco Bell parking lot about an hour away, all they could do was say, “Thank you, Jesus.” Through their shock and pain, they could clearly see the hand of God’s grace on them.
There are more stories just like that, both from my cousin and from others. Stories of tragedy and heroism. Stories of depravity and grace. Stories of death and life.
Like so many others, my cousin is asking why. Why would someone do something like this? Why did those bullets miss her? Why did they hit others? How could one person have purchased more than 40 high-powered assault rifles, even if such purchases are legal?
Those questions unnerve us. They certainly unnerve me. And the reason is simple: we’re trying to make sense of something that is, at its core, completely senseless. There is no category that would explain this. There is no box into which the narrative tightly fits. Even now, three days after the shooting as I write this, police still haven’t determined a motive, nor have they found any note or rambling manifesto so common in situations like this one.
But even if they do (or if they have by the time you’re reading this), it won’t be enough. Do we honestly expect anything to make sense? How can it?
The only explanation that we can offer is the depravity of the human soul. Each time something like this happens—and something like this will happen again—we’re reminded of exactly how wicked we are.
But it’s also a reminder of how much God’s grace infuses our world despite our wickedness. The fact that 58 people out of 22,000 were killed despite the fact that the shooting lasted an incredible 11 minutes is nothing short of a miracle. Clearly, 58 is still too many. But it could have—and should have—been worse.
The question to ask isn’t why God would allow this to happen. The question is why God would choose to intervene at all. Why would anyone be spared?
That’s the difficult paradox in which we live. God has honoured our desire to reject his rule, and he won’t impose his will on us. But at the same time, God hasn’t left us to feel the full consequences of that decision. He loves us too much for that. If not for his intervention, our world would be even more depraved and lost.
The fact that regular human beings were willing to sacrifice their lives for strangers shows that God’s hand is active and present on earth. Tales of sacrifice and heroism aren’t explained by a purely evolutionary perspective because they run counter to the very principles on which that perspective is based.
The only explanation is the common grace of God—the grace that he shows us in every sunrise, in the changing colours of the fall leaves, in the spectacular beauty of the world around us, and even in the deep love for a stranger that compels a person to throw their body in front of a bullet meant for someone else.
There’s one more angle to consider here. The question of why God would allow something like this to happen sounds different when your perspective on reality changes. If all we have is the life we live now, then God would be a cruel, capricious, and wicked being himself for doing anything to interfere with our enjoyment of it.
That’s where the hope of the gospel needs to be heard loudly and clearly. If the Bible’s description of reality is true—that there is more to our universe than what we can see and experience, and that our present lives are but shadows of the eternal glory that awaits those who are declared righteous by the imputed righteousness of Jesus—then there is hope, even in the midst of despair.
“I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’
“The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
That’s the hope of the gospel. There’s more to it than this. It doesn’t have to be this way. And it won’t be this way forever.
And listen to what the apostle Paul says next: “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labour is not in vain.”
That’s what we cling to. That’s how we move on. We can never grow weary or numb to the tragedy that exists all around us, no matter how much we hear of it or how much compassion fatigue we experience. Church, we have the message of eternal hope in Jesus. And tragic experiences like this can and must compel us forward into that work with greater fervour and passion.
We can’t fix the problem of human sin. But Jesus did. May we be people who rest in the assurance of his victory, who trust in him in the face of the worst of human depravity, and who abound in good works for his glory and for the fame of the name of Jesus.