When I heard of the Aurora, Colorado shootings on July 20, one of my first reactions was to read the news stories for any information on the shooter's motives. From a purely practical perspective, there's little reason for this: the shooter's motive has no impact on the reality of the tragedy for the victims' families, the sense of closure that I'd get from knowing more about the story wouldn't remove my obligation to pray for those involved, and I'll never meet shooting suspect James Holmes, so whether or not I understand him will have no bearing on my life. It's just that I wanted to know why this terrible event happened.
I'm apparently not the only one to wonder why this happened; the web and news are full of stories delving into suspect James Holmes' personal history, discussions of his motives—or lack thereof—and speculations of his mental health or illness. As I'm writing this, one of links at the headline of CNN's home page is “Opinion: Why Kill?,” discussing possible motives. Almost as soon as I'd heard about the shootings, I got an email in my inbox talking about “making sense of” events such as this. Clearly, I'm not the only one wanting to know why this happened.
Wanting to understand why things happen—and why bad things happen in particular—is a powerful human desire. It's been suggested that one of the reasons journaling is therapeutic is because it helps us turn our jumbles of experiences into stories—organized series of cause-and-effect events, complete with implied whys for what happened—so that we can better understand them. Psychologists talk about the just-world hypothesis, the belief that the world is fundamentally just and that, therefore, if something good or bad happens to someone, it's because they deserved it. The just-world hypothesis is surprisingly widespread and strong. In numerous experiments, when subjects were presented with someone who received an electrical shock or had suffered illness, violence, or poverty, the subjects thought less of the victim. In other words, their hypothesis that this is a just world—their belief that there must be a why for everything that happens—caused them to think that the victim in some way deserved what happened. The just-world hypothesis can apply to good events too: if something good happens to someone (even if it's just luck), observes may assume that that person is skilled or virtuous.
As people who believe that the world is fundamentally under the control of a just God, we Christians are more prone to just-world thinking than others. I've heard countless variations of this sort of thinking from Christians over the years. This person died in a car crash because they were born out of wedlock. That person got sick because they didn't take care of themselves. The United States' historical rise was proof of God's blessing. The United States' more recent problems are proof of God's judgment. Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans because of the immorality there. The 2010 Haiti earthquake occurred because Haitians made a deal with the devil. Any and all of these whys are, technically, possible—after all, God is more than capable of using any means he wants to get people's attention, and God certainly does act in history—but unless the Christians who are voicing these whys have direct revelation from God, they should not be so presumptuous as to assume that they understand when and why the Almighty intervenes.
This thinking is hardly new. Much of the book of Job consists of Job's friends trying to convince Job that they know why he's suffering and that his suffering is his own fault, but in doing so, God replied, they “had not spoken the truth about me” (Job 42:7). Jesus' disciples assumed that a man's congenital blindness was due either to his sin or his parents' (John 9:2); Jesus replied that it was neither. And although there are plenty of stories in the Bible where the why is spelled out in immediate, just-world terms—this good thing happened because of this person's faithfulness, that bad thing happened because of that person's sin—Jesus is quick to warn his listeners not to be too quick to draw conclusions about why bad things happen:
Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13:1-5)
My grandfather suggests, based on 2 Thessalonians 2's description of the power that opposes God in this world as “lawlessness,” that it may not even be possible to find a reason why bad things happen. If God is a God of order and peace (1 Corinthians 14:33), and if God is the source of our reason, and if the evil in this world is described as lawlessness—chaos—then it may fundamentally have no reason. (In The Dark Knight, Alfred perhaps gets at this aspect of evil with his description of the Joker: “Some men aren't looking for anything logical... Some men just want to watch the world burn.” However, I sometimes wonder if pop culture treatments such as this serve to trivialize rather than illuminate reality.)
It seems to me, then, that there are several guidelines in this area that we as Christians need to follow:
- We need to be aware of our innate tendency to look for whys and the limitations of those whys. (Rational explanations may not address someone's suffering, and even though they may provide closure, they do not relieve us of the need to wrestle with issues, offer support, empathize, or pray.)
- We need to reject naive just-world thinking that automatically attributes good events to good actions and blames people for bad events.
- Although we should not dwell on the evil in this world, we should not trivialize or ignore its lawlessness, chaos, and unreason.
- In spite of the unreason of evil, and in spite of our own inability to always offer just-world explanations, we should hold fast to our belief that the world is ultimately ruled by a just God. We have the Christian hope that, ultimately, justice will prevail.
(I'm trying to focus specifically on how we think about why things happen instead of the much broader question of why bad things happen. For a discussion of that question, Philip Yancey is a good place to start.)