On December 14, 2012, Adam Lanza entered the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where he shot and killed 20 children and 6 adults. It was the second deadliest mass shooting by one person in American history, surpassed only by the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre. Before going to the school, Lanza took the life of his mother. When police arrived at the school, Adam shot himself in the head, committing suicide.
A tornado, described as a “giant black wall of destruction” struck Moore, Oklahoma, on May 20, 2013. Rated as an EF5 tornado, its winds reached 210 miles per hour. It touched down and stayed on the ground for 39 minutes and traveled 17 miles, cutting into a heavily populated section of the town. The 1.3-mile-wide twister killed 23 people. Two schools were hit, and in one of them seven children lost their lives. One parent at the school said, “It sounded like a freight train coming out of a lion’s mouth.”
It seems that the number of senseless tragedies increases each day in our world. Many incidents involve bombs and bullets. People are physically abused, ravaged by disease, or devastated by natural calamities that destroy their homes. Millions of refugees try to run from wars that level villages and leave thousands without shelter. School shootings continue to make headlines, and parents and students fear that another murderous rampage will leave the children dead.
Try for just a moment to wrap your mind around all the trouble on our planet. Like a tsunami wave, it will overwhelm you. At some point most people will ask, “Why is there so much tragedy? If we evolved from a pit of slime, are we sliding backwards? Or, if there is a God who is all powerful, how then do we explain needless misfortunes?” Many conclude that there is no Creator, or if there is, He appears to be hard-hearted and indifferent to the cries of pain rising from the ruins that emerge across the landscape of humankind.
Is it even possible to make sense of tragedy? Most people will be quick to answer, “No. Just shut off the news and go do something else.” Yet, the closer it hits home, the more persistently the question rings in our ears.
For the Christian who believes that the Bible gives us a clear picture of truth, there are answers. A compassionate Father in heaven is sympathetic to the heart-rending misery that streams across our news sources. Like an immovable rock, the Word of God is a foundation on which we may find solid hope in the face of confusing adversity. Consider with me three Bible truths that help us to understand the senseless tragedies that we hear about every day.
First truth: the resurrection
The Bible teaches that there’s hope beyond death. There’s a resurrection coming, and with it the promise of a never-ending, immortal life. Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies” (John 11:25). Jesus also promised His disciples, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you” (John 14:1, 2). When tragedy troubles our hearts, Jesus gives us hope that carries our thoughts to a bright future.
Jesus showed the truth of the resurrection when he raised several people from the dead: the son of the widow from Nain (Luke 7:11–15), Jairus’s daughter (Mark 5:21–42), and Lazarus (John 11:38–44). Even when Christ rose from the dead, others were also resurrected as firstfruits of what will come someday (Matthew 27:51–53).
We get a glimpse of this teaching from the Bible when we look at the beautiful crocus flower, one of the first plants to pop out of the ground in the springtime as the snow melts. Tragedy leaves us feeling cold and alone. Like a long, dark winter, we wish for the warmth of spring and summer. Even before spring arrives, the little crocus announces that change is coming. The thriving ability of this reminder of a new season pushes us to see beyond frigid days. So it is with the promise of the resurrection.
Second truth: we’re engaged in a war
The Bible also tells us that we are, for the moment, living in a world filled with sin and ruled by an enemy. There is an unseen war taking place all around us. The Bible says, “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12).
Though Satan spreads death and destruction all around, God places limits on him (Job 1). Wickedness will not rule forever. Because this fallen angel accuses God of being unjust, God permits him to show his true colors for a time. But the hour of his destruction is near. The evil one works with more intensity because “he knows that his time is short” (Revelation 12:12).
The Bible fills in the missing pieces of the mixed-up picture of evil and suffering in our world. Because we see only a part of this cosmic war between good and evil, it’s easy to jump to conclusions based on our narrow vision of the whole. We cling to a few facts but still don’t see what’s really happening. Let me illustrate by giving you only part of a little story.
Sam is hard at work in his office one day. Tom and Jill are also there. At noon, Sam leaves Tom and Jill in the office and goes out for a quick lunch. When he returns, he finds Jill lying in a puddle of water, unconscious and surrounded by broken glass. Then he notices Tom, lounging in a chair, completely unconcerned. How could this be?
You might assume that I’m giving you a snippet of the next soap opera or a glimpse of the latest serial drama. But what if I showed you a picture of Sam (a man) who was standing in the doorway to his office, looking down on the floor at a goldfish (Jill) next to a shattered fishbowl? Tom (his pet cat), is sitting on a chair in the sunshine, licking his paws. You might say, “Oh, that changes everything. I thought . . .”
The Bible changes everything. It enlightens us on the battle between good and evil. It helps us to understand that the devil, not God, is the author of evil, pain, and death in our world. Because God values our freedom to choose whom we will serve, Satan has been given a limited amount of time and freedom to win the world to his side. Fortunately, time is running out, and God will soon put an end to all sin and heartbreak forever. This leads us to one more Bible teaching that helps us make sense of tragedy.
Third truth: Jesus’ second coming
We can begin to unravel the existence of evil by looking to the soon coming of Jesus. God warns us that before Jesus’ second coming, “you will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come” (Matthew 24:6). Other signs of the times are then laid out for us to reflect on. There will be natural disasters (verse 7), false teachers (verse 11), rising crime and violence (verse 12), and an increase in moral corruption (verse 37).
Because of sin, our world is dark with calamities and trials. The Bible is a light that shines beyond the shadows. “But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all sons of the light and sons of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness” (1 Thessalonians 5:4, 5). Paul says that whether we live or die before Christ returns, we have hope that will guide us through to the end (verses 9, 10).
One sunny day a man was taking his boat through a quiet river full of large rocks. Unfortunately, he couldn’t see the boulders below the surface that could easily damage his boat. Fortunately, a friend who was familiar with the river was riding along and telling him, “Steer left; . . . keep going straight; . . . turn more to the right.” The owner of the boat laughed and said, “Did you memorize every rock in this river? I haven’t seen one yet!”
His friend replied, “Here, put these on.” He handed the owner of the boat a pair of polarized sunglasses. Suddenly everything changed. The boat owner could actually see through the water. Instead of the reflection on the surface, he could now see more deeply into the river.
God has given us the Bible to see more clearly as we pass through troubled waters. We are not alone. We have a Guide who will help us make sense of tragedy.