23 June 2015

How the Charleston tragedy cries out for God

by Dan Phillips

The facts, as reported and as related in sterile prose, are simple enough.

Last Wednesday, June 17, a young man walked into the church congregation of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and sat through a prayer meeting. At about 9pm, he stood and opened fire on his unarmed, helpless victims. Nine people, ranging in age from 26 to 87, were shot and killed. Eight died on the scene, one died later in a hospital. Among the dead was the pastor, Clementa Pinckney. The murderer, now identified by the police as 21 year-old Dylann Roof, was able to reload five times during the massacre, which his reported words reveal as racially motivated. He has since been arrested.

What to make of it? How to make anything of it?

The incident can be approached from many important angles; I'll select the one I think least likely to receive much consideration. It is this: we cannot even begin to make sense of this, on any remotely satisfying level, apart from the God of the Bible, and the theology that His Word teaches us.

I'll do my best not to insult you with nuance and carefulness; I'll just be direct. As you'd expect.

How can we even describe this situation, how can we even begin to measure its shape and immensity, apart from God? What do we say of it? That it is a "tragedy"? Of course, to Christians, it is every bit of that. But to an evolutionist? To a materialist? To an environmental extremist? To a postmodern sofa-sitter? How can any of them, with any credibility, call it a "tragedy"?
  • How could an evolutionist? What is the very engine that drives forward the development of species, if not the crushing of weaker members by the stronger? Is it a tragedy when a coyote "culls" a slow rabbit? Other than by emotional special-pleading, how could such a worldview even categorize this event as anything other than another step forward in the grand march of progress?
  • How could a materialist? One bag of atoms interacted with nine bags of atoms. The atoms aren't even destroyed, just altered. Where's the tragedy? Where's the wrong that makes it a tragedy? What does wrong weigh? What's the atomic number of tragedy? What instrument measures moral outrage? Is it measured in feet, or in pounds?
  • How could an environmental extremistAren't we constantly told that human beings are destroying our planet? People are the enemy, right? What is nine fewer, if not a step in the right direction? Perhaps the murderer is an enviro-hero, for reducing the "carbon footprint" in Charleston by many thousands of tons per year, going forward?
  • And how could a postmodernistOh sure, to you and me, this is a tragedy. But that's only our perspective. The consistent PoMo — though such a creature is a cryptid — is in a conundrum. He may feel bad about the slaughter. But for him to describe the act as a crime or as a moral outrage – that means he has to judge the shooter by a standard the shooter plainly does not share. Should the PoMo have coffee with the shooter? Or propose a 5-year moratorium on discussing it, until he has had time to think it through?
  • How could a pro-abortionist? It is reported Margaret Sanger's belief that black people were weeds to be eliminated, and abortion was one great way to weed the garden, so to speak. Abortion kills more black people yearly than any other single sort of event. Well (I speak as a fool) nine "weeds" were just plucked, to this mindset. Where's the minus?
Do you see? The worldling has an insoluble problem when faced with such tragedy as this horrendous slaughter. Taken seriously, the reigning worldviews of our day leave us helpless to describe murderer, victims, or incident, in any terms other than either "...and then that happened," or even (God help us all) positive terms. Then after describing them, they have no way to categorize them, or have any relief to the emotional response they quite properly have. They are forced to steal categories from Christianity — categories they don't really mean, and just as surely do not think through — to do any better than "this event makes me feel bad!"

Of course all my observations would be as horrifying and insulting to adherents and proponents as they are inescapable. They would deny them, with outrage and conviction. You see, we don't want to think through our billowy proclamations. We want just enough "freedom" to avoid Jesus, Bible, and church; to sleep with whoever we want, do (or not do) whatever we want, and escape all guilt, reproach, or consequences.

But we don't want anyone continuing the lines of logical development one inch further than we draw them.

Only the Biblically-faithful Christian, studying his Bible and applying the resultant theology faithfully and not emotionalistically, can make full and fully-satisfying sense of this horrific event.
  • Only the Biblically-faithful Christian can say that the lives of every person in that meeting were infinitely valuable, infinitely precious, because they were the lives of eternal beings created in the image of the infinitely valuable God (Genesis 1:26; 9:6). 
  • Only the Biblically-faithful Christian can say that the murderer had no right to take those lives as he did, and only the Christian can give a grounded solution as to what the law must do to do justice to the murderer, and why (Genesis 9:6; Romans 13:1ff.). 
  • Only the Biblically-faithful Christian can say that what the murderer did was — not unfortunate, not sad, not objectionable, not regrettable, not ill-advised, but — evil, wicked, sinful.
  • Only a Biblically-faithful Christian can point the grieving to comfort, eternal comfort, by pointing them to Christ and His Gospel. 
  • Only a Biblically-faithful Christian can urge mourners to see and trust that God will completely avenge every drop of blood spilled in that church, either eschatologically on the person of the unrepentant murderer (Ps. 94:1; Rev. 21:8; 22:15), or retroactively on the person of His dear Son for repentant offenders (Isa. 53:6; Rom. 3:25). 
  • Only a Biblically-faithful Christian can expose the evil, indeed the absurdity, of racism, and can point to the one and only solution for it: a Biblical anthropology (Gen. 1:26-28; Acts 17:26) married to the Biblical Gospel (Col. 3:11; cf. Eph. 2:13-22).
  • Only a Biblically-faithful Christian can speak truth to the murderer, facing him with the full evil of his crime, the full weight of eternal wrath and judgment he deserves from God, and the full offer of reconciliation and forgiveness that he can know through (and only through) repentant faith in Christ (cf. Acts 9:1, 13; 26:10; 1 Tim. 1:12-16). 
  • Only a Biblically-faithful Christian knows when and how to think and speak of forgiveness.
  • Only a Biblically-faithful Christian can look with assurance to a day when we will dwell in a "new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells" (2 Peter 3:13) — which will be brought in, not on a tide of social or biological evolution, or scientific advance, or abortive weeding, or endless legislation, but with the return, rule, and reign of Jesus Christ.
This tragic and immoral event, in short, is too massive and too immense not to speak and think of Biblically, which is to say, theologically. It mustn't be cheapened by mere emotionalism or bandwagoning.

For the Biblically-faithful Christian knows there is no other way to do this atrocity the justice for which it cries out, and that there is no purer and better display of theological truth than that found in God's Word, the Bible. The Bible is the best theology I've heard in my life, or ever will hear. All thoughts and words — yours, mine, commentators', politicians', mourners' — can only be assessed truly by that standard.

This is the full implications of Sola Scriptura applied to the very depths of life. As it was meant to be.

[This post ricocheted into my mind from Todd Pruitt's fine post, Charleston and the Age to Come, and his observation that "the actions of the murderer cannot be adequately described in anything less that theological language."]

Dan Phillips's signature


Sheldon Clowdus said...

Excellent, Dan. As it always, always, always is...the problem is sin and the solution is the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Of course, too many worldly "evangelicals" will tell us it is much more complicated and nuanced than all that because feelings.

Joey Phillips said...

Thank you, Dan, for this reminder of the many ways the Word of God can minister in the midst of tragedy. And thank you for referencing Scriptures specifically and in great number, not only justify your points, but so that folks like me can easily find them and be edified.

Terry Rayburn said...

Wow, Dan. A whole row of nails hit on the head, to the glory of the Lord, without Whom nothing makes sense, but with Whom we have truth and light that illuminate even the darkest events.

Well done!

I was so happy to see that church's new interim Pastor (Norvel Goff) speak Sunday on the hope and joy of knowing Jesus and the Gospel, and not on some divisive secular rhetoric. He has been active in civil rights, but seems to really know and love the Lord. I really appreciated his message, as did his audience.

St. Lee said...

I'd really like to add something profound, but I think I'll just have to settle for "Great post, Dan!"

Randy Talley said...

Not much (or anything?) left to say, if you ask me.

Sheldon Clowdus said...

So, serious question. It seems pretty simple on its face to look at a tragedy like this or any other event in the news cycle and go to scripture to see what God has to say about why these things happen and what our response should be.

Why does the evangelical world struggle so much to do just that? Do you think it is a desire to please the powers that be in the world or ignorance or what?

Because it should not be nearly as hard as it seems to be based on the comments and responses from the evangelical talking heads out there.

DJP said...

Of course I'm not a prophet nor the son of such, but I daresay one real restrainer is approbation-lust. Nor is that altogether so difficult to understand. It's very painful for anyone to say what you honestly think, and then have well-regarded folks sort of scorn and shame you, and throw you under the bus, and position themselves as taking the high road, leaving you looking like a slope-headed, bare knuckled, brawling ijit.

And others desperately want to be seen as dainty and nuanced and "in," so it takes time to figure out what the raised-pinkie position is going to be. There are folks who do themselves hold to many good doctrines, and yet who really, really, really want the world to think well of them. They think both can be done. But not if they come off as fundies. So... in calculated and with very self-conscious nuance and carefulness.

My best educated guess.

Sheldon Clowdus said...

Before I continue, let me affirm my understanding that I undoubtedly commit these same sins in my own life on a daily basis in some form. The sin of people pleasing and the desire for acceptance are something I battle with as well. Having said that....

What I don't understand about the approbation-lust and the dainty, nuanced answers (while whole heartedly affirming its existence) is the following: If you really, really, believe the bible then you believe that the gospel is the only real solution to the problem (insert your problem of choice here). To offer any other solution short of the gospel is to offer false hope and is to, in essence, hate those you are speaking to.

We don't have anything to offer except the gospel. Nothing.

If you are going to go out in public as a leader of the evangelical church, you have to give people the gospel. (Side note: How have we gotten to the point in the church where the public faces of the church cannot/will not simply proclaim the gospel where it is needed most?)

Robert said...

I think the real problem with how people approach this and other social issues is that they don't love the personal God of the Bible. They have a personal connection with people and love them the best that they can, but don't really know God and love Him. Love for God makes you want to know Him better and devote your life to Him, while living and approaching life through a biblical worldview. And that affects how you deal with every issue.

I think that the moralistic driven culture (as opposed to a gospel-drive culture) of the church in the 1950's made people cold towards God...instead of following Him out of love, it was just follow these rules and you're a good person. It isn't that I think we don't need morals and to follow the truth, but the focus of that has to be driven out of love for God. So from the coldness towards God, it made people have real relationships with people without a real relationship with the personal God of the Bible.

God doesn't just throw out a set of rules and leave us to follow them. He came to earth and lived them out...took our penalty for not obeying them...and gives us His Spirit to cleanse us from unrighteousness and free us from the bondage of sin. Now, that is love...and that is the God Whom I can love and dedicate my life to. And that will affect how I view others and what type of message I bring to them for comfort and relief. And that is the true God Whom we need to present to lost sinners in the world dealing with tragedy...otherwise we're not showing love and we are the clanging gong Paul describes in his letter to the Corinthian church. That applies to those who say loving people is to accept and affirm their sinful choices instead of calling them sins and calling them to repentance out of love for Jesus.

Terry Rayburn said...

Robert, I agree with most of what you said, but something else is important. I'll try to articulate it, probably not as well as I wish.

1. "Moralistic" has a bad ring to it, but it clouds the relative goodness of "morality". Morality of course won't earn salvation, of course, but basic biblical morality is still actually better than biblical immorality, even when practiced only outwardly by unregenerate people -- even under duress from the law or social pressure.

2. It was Jay Adams who, many years ago, convinced me that essential biblical moral standards are best for all, even apart from salvation! (I fought that idea for awhile, using mostly Rom. 3, which makes it clear that there is none that does "good", at least until they are born again).

Of course salvation is the ideal, but we know that most folks will not be born again. Yet is it not still better in general if people don't steal, if married couples stay married, if folks get married before living together, if folks act kindly toward one another, etc.?

3. But those biblical moral standards are not generally taught today, outside of the Bible-believing church (and sometimes not much there).

What used to be called "shacking up" is now virtually shameless. Profanity toward the Creator is now every other sentence on many TV broadcasts. Fatherless homes are rampant. Political conventions cheer the murder of the unborn.

4. So even while we preach the Gospel for salvation, making it clear that morality can't save (that in that respect our righteousnesses are as filthy rags), yet we can uphold the character of the Lord we serve by making it clear that there is right and wrong, and that He, not man, is the arbiter of that, and that right is better.

And perhaps God may use that upholding of His [beautiful, just, loving] character to open someone to listening to the Good News of Jesus Christ as Savior.

AJM said...

You said it.
John Adams stated that our republic was established on and was to be animated by "the basic principles of Christianity" ie biblical morality.
The church was to preach salvation and holy living.

jmb said...

Superb article.

I wonder if you'd consider writing a post on the apparently universal praise given to the quickness of friends and relatives of the victims to forgive the perpetrator.

Robert said...


I think that Schaeffer does a good job of unpacking the problems of trying to live off of the benefits of Christian morals without a moral basis. It is unsustainable. In today's culture, the idols are personal peace and affluence. Parents tell their children to live by good morals and work hard so that they can have a good life and live in a nice house in peace, but that still leaves the children without a sense of meaning. Then you wind up with people trying to find release through drug use, hedonism, and other means of excess. And that is pretty much where we are today...it is why we are seeing legalization of drugs and "same-sex marriage".

While good morals provide good benefits, those morals won't be sustained in a culture where there is no understanding and acceptance of the basis for those morals. It is why many here call out self-proclaimed atheists and secular humanist materialists for not living consistently with what they say they believe. If there is no objective standard, then there isn't really a true right or wrong...people can make it up as they go along.

And this is why the Church shouldn't rest on good morals, we must present the truth of the Gospel as the only way to bring about real lasting change within the hearts of individuals. We won't change the world...it is passing away (1 John 2:15-17). But the Gospel will change individual lives and make parts of the world better as a result.

T. A. Lewis said...

"How could an evolutionist?"

Most "evolutionists" are also intelligent and humane enough to not commit the fallacy of deriving ought from is.

"How could a materialist?"

In your reductio ad absurdum description, neither can the non-materialist:

How could a non-materialist? One bag of atoms animated by a magic ghost interacted with nine other bags of atoms animated by magic ghosts. The magic ghosts weren't even destroyed, just sent to another place. Where's the tragedy? Where's the wrong that makes it a tragedy? What does wrong weigh in magic ghost pounds? What's the magic ghost number of tragedy? What magic ghost measures moral outrage? Is it measured in magic ghost feet, or in magic ghost pounds?

DJP said...

Most don't? Do you have a study? Many surely have.

Regardless, it is — no pun intended — immaterial. If he doesn't go there, wherever else he goes is random. The point stands.

I appreciate your try at including the non-materialist. It could apply well to the pantheist, and I could have included that. Thanks.

But, as I showed, it does not apply to the Christian, who believes both in matter and in Him who created it.

T. A. Lewis said...

DJP, it doesn't take a study - it merely takes accuracy in language. For instance, all Christians would include Westboro Baptist Church. That's why I said most. There is a lunatic fringe under any umbrella.

As for your other point, are you not a dualist? Do you not believe that you have a magic ghost soul animating your "bag of atoms"?

DJP said...

So you withdraw your first remark. Good. Next:

I'm going to have to insist you stick with the post. Are you able to focus on and discuss the actual post? In the post I show why Christians and Christians alone can characterize this event. Would you like to discuss the post?

T. A. Lewis said...

DJP, no I most surely do not withdraw. You are trying to sidestep. Your original post makes the argument that "evolutionists" must necessarily think killing is good. I rebutted in saying that in order to do that you must put "evolutionists" in a box where they fallaciously derive ought from is. I pointed out that this is erroneous since most do not. You tried to derail this bullseye point with semantics about the word "most". Quite pathetic.

Also, your original post makes the reductio ad absurdum argument that "materialists" can't identify moral evil. I showed that within the framework of your own argument such as it were, you, as a dualist, cannot as well. So, to recap: I have been discussing the post. You have not.

DJP said...

I'll try to track your shifting argument, but will insist we stay on topic.

As to evolution and what they all in fact believe, and as to what my position entails, it seems you didn't actually read the post. Or else I assume you wouldn't be disagreeing with something I didn't say, with an argument I specifically preempted. Please do re-read more slowly, thoroughly, and thoughtfully, and respond to arguments I actually made.

Or if you have no idea what Christians believe, then simply say so, and I'll try to help. There's a lot of that going around.

T. A. Lewis said...

I'm sorry Dan. You didn't make the argument that "evolutionists" must necessarily think killing is good. You just implied it.

Since you think we have to read more carefully let us go back and re-read:

OP: "How could an evolutionist? What is the very engine that drives forward the development of species, if not the crushing of weaker members by the stronger? Is it a tragedy when a coyote "culls" a slow rabbit? Other than by emotional special-pleading, how could such a worldview even categorize this event as anything other than another step forward in the grand march of progress?"

Do I have to give you a lesson in rhetoric? I guess I do. Evolutionist: crushing of weaker members -->not a tragedy--> progress Hence, my kernel characterization of your argument: "Evolutionists must necessarily think killing is good." Unless you try to say that "crushing weaker members" doesn't mean killing and that progress isn't synonymous with "good" in this context, you can't say I am am unfairly characterizing your argument. Therefore, my original point stands: your argument pivots on painting all "evolutionists" as deriving ought from is which is obviously false. Hence, your argument fails.

Also, since you seem to want me to deal with your overall argument of "only Christians can make sense of tragedy": I did. I showed you are wrong on two counts. "Evolutionists" can make sense of tragedy. And materialists. Therefore your overall argument is refuted.

DJP said...

Thank you, that's a good start.

Now, next you need to notice that the article is longer than the snip that interests you at the moment. Read further, and you will see that I anticipated and preempted your attempt to counter the snip. (I'm changing nothing; it was there from the first time you encountered it.)

T. A. Lewis said...

You mean the "categories that belong to Christianity" hogwash? I skipped over that because it is such utter tripe that I felt I didn't need to deal with it.

You can't declare by fiat that human values and hence how events are categorized and framed by them belong exclusively to Christianity.

To show those things belong exclusively to Christianity you will have to show that neither did they exist in history pre-Christianity, nor do they exist currently in non-Christian cultures.

Have fun with that.

DJP said...

Then you never had anything to offer other than that you really don't like the point of the article, though you have no response beyond that.

St. Lee said...

Okay, maybe at this point I can add something of value. Dan, if you were to add the adjective "consistent" in front of Evolutionist, Materialist, etc., then I think Mr. Lewis may understand your point a little better. I realize that you made exactly that case in the rest of the post, but you didn't use the word consistent, so maybe it was missed.

And, as Dr. White so often points out, inconsistency is a sign of a failed argument.

T. A. Lewis said...

St. Lee, this "consistent" notion is contrived nonsense. A "consistent" "evolutionist" would be one that accepts the fact of the theory that explains the biosphere. Nothing more. Scientific theories are not life philosophies.

According to your reasoning, a "consistent" person who accepts the theory of relativity or any other scientific theory would need to then derive some life philosophy from it. Non-sequitur.

DJP said...

Tell Hitler that. He certainly did derive a philosophy and a plan from Darwinism. No, ideas have consequences.

We get that you don't want to face these realities. We do. You are unwilling to draw out the lines, or offer alternatives. If you won't actually begin seriously engaging this actual post, you need to move along.