Why did God allow the Las Vegas massacre to occur?
It was the evil nature of the shooter, some say. Or he was mentally disturbed. But why did God let him shoot all of those innocent people?
If God is all-good and all-powerful, then why does God allow evil and suffering to exist? Why not just put a stop to it?
Since evil and suffering exist, does that mean that God is not all-good? Or that God is not all-powerful? Or that God does not exist at all?
Humans have asked such questions for thousands of years.
The Prophet Habakkuk cried out to God over 2600 years ago:
O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not listen?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
and you will not save?
A Dozen Answers From Theologians
An array of answers have been offered by theologians over the centuries. Most of them make one or more of the following dozen assertions. They say that God:
- Chose to give free will to humans, and elimination of evil and suffering would require the elimination of free will;
- Reminds us, via the presence of evil and suffering, of the precarious and short nature of life and the need to think both about our present existence and our eternal existence;
- Teaches us, via the presence of evil and suffering, to be humble, to give thanks when we prosper, and to recognize that it is all in God’s hands;
- Cannot be comprehended by us, given the vast gulf between our cognitive abilities and God’s ways, and, while attempts to better understand should be made, we cannot expect to understand the reason for evil and suffering;
- Is not all-good (at least in the way us humans define good—look at God’s actions in the Old Testament);
- Is not all-powerful (extremely powerful, yes, but not all-powerful in the way us humans define it, and the power of evil is formidable);
- Is all-powerful, but God chooses not to exercise that power for God’s reasons, possibly to allow us free will;
- Exerts power over evil by bringing good out of what evil does;
- Allows evil and suffering to be present to encourage us to recognize the value of eternal life in heaven and to have hope for it;
- Exerts God’s will and control of all things for God’s divine purposes, which we cannot know;
- Is engaged in eliminating evil and suffering now, and has taken a major step in doing so by sending his son, Jesus Christ, to serve as an example to and savior of us all; or
- Is preparing to destroy evil and suffering, and will do so, but simply has not done so yet. It is coming.
Which of these bear some truth?
Probably Isn’t the Answer: Direct Punishment
Some people claim God is punishing humans—either those who experience evil or suffering or humans as a whole—by allowing evil and suffering. They usually point to the Old Testament for a “God sometimes curses and punishes” approach.
As one theologian puts it, though, “Jesus explicitly calls it into question. He teaches that the blind man was not born blind on account of his own or his parents’ sins (John 9:1-3), and he claims that it was not because of their special wickedness that people in Siloam were killed when a tower fell upon them (Luke 13:4).”
Jesus also calls into question such a punishment theory by explaining that, “[i]f anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day.” (John 12:47-48).
This “blessings and curses” approach is also unsatisfactory because the innocent often suffer the brunt of evil, not those who might deserve the “curses.”
Is Evil and Suffering Evidence of God?
Some theologians go further, asserting that the presence of evil and suffering is evidence of God’s existence, asking if God does not exist, then what defines what is evil and what is good in the first place? “If there is an ultimate moral standard or law of justice, then there must be an ultimate moral Law Giver. Without His moral law we would not even know what evil really is.”
A New (to Me) View on Evil and Suffering: Liberation Theology
In this semester’s theology class at Wake Forest Divinity School, we read about the response of “liberation theology” to the issue of evil and suffering in this world.
Liberation theology reminds us of Christ’s emphasis on poor, marginalized, and oppressed people. It asserts that one should keep Christ’s emphasis in mind when taking action, when trying to understand God, and when reading and interpreting scripture.
As a result, liberation theology encourages social justice and taking action to reduce and eliminate poverty, discrimination, and oppression and similar forms of evil and suffering.
Redemptive Suffering Brings Us Closer to Christ?
Many of liberation theology’s leading thinkers come from Latin America and African-American churches.
One of the originators of black liberation theology, James Cone, emphasizes, as summarized by another theologian, the “theme of redemptive suffering” in scripture “that comes to its fullest expression in the history of Jesus Christ.” He sees scripture as a “call to courageous human participation in God’s struggle against suffering rather than a pious acquiescence in suffering.”
He explains that “the African American religious tradition does not focus on the question of the origin of evil or on the submission of the victims of injustice to their masters.” Instead, it sees in Jesus’s struggle and death on the cross “God’s struggle against evil” and in Jesus’s resurrection “God’s promise of the final victory of God over evil.” (See John 19 and 20 (NRSV)). “God grants ‘power to the powerless to fight here and now for the freedom they know to be theirs in Jesus’s cross and resurrection.’”
In Other Words …
Liberation theology tells us God wants us to take action against evil and suffering.
Essentially, regardless of the reason for the existence of evil and suffering, God is fighting against them and has given many of us, including the powerless, the ability to fight against them alongside God.
Our individual experience of evil and suffering while fighting against them makes us part of God’s theme of redemptive suffering. We should not acquiesce to our own suffering or to the suffering of others, nor to evil, but should actively participate in seeking its elimination, just as Christ’s teachings and example shows us.
That is, evil and suffering are here. God is fighting them. Your prayers and my prayers to God are fine, but you and I are called to courageous action alongside God to act against evil and suffering—that which you, I, and others are experiencing and, in particular, those that poor, marginalized, and oppressed people are experiencing.
In so acting, you and I might better sense and understand the redemptive suffering of Christ.
Sources and Notes
Las Vegas shooting article.
Habakkuk 1:2 (NRSV).
A Dozen Responses: Mostly from (1) Daniel L. Migilore. Faith Seeking Understanding (3d ed.). Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 2014. 121-139. and (2) Benjamin Wirt Farley. The Providence of God. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House Co. 1988.
Quotes in paragraphs regarding “Jesus explicitly calls …” and “also calls …” are from Migilore at 128.
“If there is an ultimate …”: https://billygraham.org/story/if-god-exists-why-is-there-evil/. Also see http://www.reasonablefaith.org/the-problem-of-evil.
Liberation theology description and quotes are from Migilore at 135 (describing liberation theology and James Cone’s views). Description of liberation theology generally is here.