Tragedy seems to be the flavor of the month! Orlando, Las Vegas, New York City, and now Southerland Springs, Texas! We all know that sadly, this list is only a small sampling of the horrors and pain we have been experiencing as a nation in recent times due to horrendous acts of violence. Each tragedy seems to have a particularly disturbing characteristic. The Orlando massacre seemed to be fueled by hatred of homosexuals. The New York City incident last week seemed to be a terrorist attack fueled by hatred of the United States as was the San Bernardino mass shooting. Then you have the horror of school shootings such as Columbine, Sandy Hook Elementary, and others where the motives seem beyond comprehension because children are the target. However, church shootings are particularly disturbing because they seem to defy God and the power of prayer.
As believers, we expect God to be there for us in times of need and when these events go down, it leaves us wondering why God did not show up. On June 17, 2015 tragedy struck Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina when 21-year-old Dylann Storm Roof came into a prayer meeting with the express purpose of shooting and killing those who were in attendance. He killed 9 people that evening. This past weekend, tragedy struck First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas when 26-year-old Devin Patrick Kelley opened fire during Sunday morning services, killing at least 26 people and wounding and injuring 20 others. We are left to wonder just how reliable is our God. It doesn’t seem to make sense to us.
It makes even less sense to unbelievers. These types of events always attract the skeptics and the scoffers that are all too happy to point out that if prayers did anything, the victims would still be alive. The argument seems to be that if prayer worked, God would have protected his people from these evil attacks. But the believers died, many while praying, so prayer must not work (since God probably doesn’t exist). In a time of crisis, this argument seems very persuasive.
In the midst of so much pain and heartache, there is a desperate need for answers. However, we must keep three important principles in mind as we engage with this problem and the search for answers. First, critical thinking should not be abandoned in times of crisis. Second, we must be sure to have realistic (biblical) expectations when it comes to God’s protection. Finally, no argument can ever take away the pain or minimize the horror.
CRITICAL THINKING EVEN IN TIMES OF CRISIS
It is a well-established fact that emotions tend to cloud our judgment. As difficult as it may be, we must be careful to keep a clear head when engaging with those who would challenge our beliefs, particularly during times of unspeakable tragedy. Thinking with our minds, instead of our hearts, is essential when we are under fire.
Let us critically evaluate the reasonableness of the argument mentioned above. In order to make the evaluation easier, let’s put the argument in standard form. The argument can be made in very general terms as an attack on prayer (Form 1) or in more specific terms as an attack on God (Form 2).
As a point of clarification, the evaluation of these arguments addresses the arguments and not the specific case in point—church shootings. In this section, our task is to consider the soundness of the arguments by evaluating the truthfulness of the premises. The particular cases are dealt with in subsequent sections of this essay.
Premise 1 If prayers are effective, then prayers must be answered.
Premise 2 Prayers are not answered.
Therefore, Prayers are ineffective.
Is this a good argument?
I don’t think anyone would disagree with the first premise. For prayer to be effective, it must be answered. Unanswered prayers are ineffective by definition. The problem with this argument lies in the second premise. When an argument like this is made, the implication is that prayers must be answered in the way we want them to be answered. If I pray for my favorite team to win the game, then I would consider the prayer answered only if the team wins. That is simply not true. The erroneous assumption is that anything other than “yes” is not an answer. The negation of the request is an answer, “no.” The delay of the response is also a response, “not yet.”
To say that the prayers of Christians are not answered because God does not save them from the shooter assumes that God’s only possible response is to keep them from dying in the attack. That is an assumption we cannot make, particularly in light of the biblical emphasis on the brokenness of this world and God’s plan for redemption. Furthermore, skeptics argue that the death of these Christians is further proof that nobody is listening or responding to prayer. Premise 2 is universal in nature, not limited to some prayers but to all prayers going unanswered. This premise can also be dismissed by positing just one counterexample. There are millions of testimonies of answered prayers. Each one is a counterexample that proves premise 2 wrong. Thus, the conclusion that prayer is ineffective does not follow.
But what about the existence of God or his ability to answer prayers. To address the deeper issues, we must engage with the second form of the argument.
Premise 1 If a good god exists, then he will protect his children from violence and death.
Premise 2 His children are not protected from violence and death.
Therefore, A good god does not exist.
Let us take a closer look at this argument. The first premise seems reasonable. We could push for a clarification of what is meant by the word “good,” especially in the absolute sense in which it is used, but let’s disregard that for the moment. The one major problem with this premise is the assumption that God only has one course of action that would keep him in the category of a “good god”: protecting his children from violence and death. There is no doubt, from our perspective, this would be the best course of action for a “good god” to take. But is that true from God’s perspective? Can we imagine a scenario where not saving his children from violence and death is a better choice? I can think of a few, but the most powerful to me is Calvary. Wouldn’t a “good god” or a “good father” save his innocent son from violence and death? Would protecting Jesus from the violence he endured at the hands of Roman soldiers and the horrible death by crucifixion be the only option for a good God? No, that was not God’s only option, nor was it the best option. By allowing Jesus to suffer and die, God provided redemption for all of mankind. His love for mankind was the motivation for allowing Jesus to endure what he did.
Some may object that this is not the same, since Jesus volunteered for the job. He was conscious of what it would take to save mankind and he was willing to endure it. The victims in these horrible events did not sign up for it. Given a choice they would likely have chosen not to suffer and die. I agree that the scenarios are not the same, but the point stands. The first premise focuses exclusively on the choices God has to make in order to be a “good god,” and not on the desires of his children. Regardless of Jesus’ volunteering for the job, the choice God makes of not protecting Jesus from suffering and death is the better choice. In light of the millions of people that will enjoy the benefits of that sacrifice for all of eternity, God is still a “good god,” even though his course of action differs from the proposition of the first premise. Calvary is a powerful counterexample against the first premise.
Calvary is not the only scenario we can think of where allowing the suffering of some for the greater good of all is the best choice. These are very difficult choices presidents, CEO’s, and leaders in general have to make regularly. If we as humans can understand that tough choices have to be made in order to save a country or to save a company, surely a sovereign God knows when to make such choices.
What about the second premise? Obviously, in this recent shooting as in the Charleston shooting, many believers were killed. However, is it the case that no believer is ever protected from violence and death? No, and therein lies a problem with this premise, it is presented as a universal truth, meaning none of God’s children are ever protected by God. That is simply not true. Considering that both of these attacks had survivors, the most we can affirm from these events is that some believers are not protected from suffering and death. What about the many who survive? How many attacks has God thwarted? Did God keep certain people from attending these services on the day of the attack? Nobody can answer these questions because we simply do not know. Thus, the second premise is argued from a position of ignorance. The survivors of these attacks are counterexamples that challenge the truthfulness of the second premise.
Because of the problems we have found with both premises, it is reasonable to say that the conclusion does not necessarily follow. That being said, all that we have accomplished so far is show these arguments to be faulty, but that falls short of understanding why God allows these horrible tragedies to occur. Do these events constitute a failure on God’s behalf? From our perspective, God may fail our expectations. However, the real question is, what can we expect from God? Are our expectations realistic?
REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS OF GOD
At the heart of these arguments is the idea that God fails to show up when we need him most. Is that the case? Is God really unreliable? What can we expect from God?
Expectations are a funny thing. If I promise my wife that I will take her out to dinner on Friday, she has every right to expect that from me. Furthermore, she can determine if I am reliable based on whether I fulfill those expectations. However, if I never offered to take her to dinner on Friday and she simply expects that from me (for any number of other reasons), I may not show up. Did I fail to meet her expectations? Yes. Did I fail her? No. You cannot expect what is not offered. Furthermore, she cannot judge me unreliable, since I never committed to being there. The same happens with our expectations of God. People tend to have certain expectations of God that are unrealistic. We see it inside and outside the church. Many believers expect God to make them rich or solve all their problems, neither of which He promised to do. Non-believers often expect God to be accepting of all types of immorality because He is a loving God, yet that is something he has never offered to do. The key to having realistic expectations is to limit them to what God has said He will do.
What about the expectations of protection from suffering and death? Are these realistic? What does the Bible say we can expect from God in this regard? First, the Bible is clear that we live in a fallen world full of pain and suffering caused by the sins of man. Consider Jesus’ words to the disciples, “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33 NKJV, emphasis added). Second, the Bible never issues a blanket offer to keep us out of all trouble, suffering, pain or even physical death. There are occasions where God allows suffering and pain for our benefit. Consider the words of Peter,
 Many more passages can be used to support each of these points, but the selected passages are well known and represent the principles discussed.
6 In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ, (1 Peter 1:6-7 NKJV, emphasis added).
It could be that Peter was remembering the time when he was sifted as wheat by the enemy, and God allowed it to happen so that Peter’s faith would be strengthened enough that he would be useful in strengthening his brothers. (Luke 22:31-32). He was speaking from experience.
Third, God has offered to be with his children in the midst of the affliction, as opposed to sparing us from it. Consider the words of David, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for You are with me;…” (Psalm 23:4 NKJV, emphasis added). Sometimes that means that no harm will come to us. Speaking to the nation of Israel, God promises a future time where His presence with them in the midst of trouble will spare them,
2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
And through the rivers, they shall not overflow you.
When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned,
Nor shall the flame scorch you.
3 For I am the Lord your God,
The Holy One of Israel, your Savior; (Isaiah 43:2-3a NKJV)
Other times that means that God will be with us to the very end, allowing us to experience physical death and usher us into eternity, as was the case with the martyrdom of Stephen (see Acts 7). Furthermore, some of the greatest heroes of the faith were martyred under the most dreadful circumstances (see Hebrews 11:36-40).
Fourth, nowhere in the Bible do we find a promise from God to spare us from physical death. Quite the contrary, the Bible teaches that sin introduced physical death into God’s creation and physical death is inevitable (Romans 5). What God does promise is eternal life after death. Jesus was clear about this, “Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live” (John 11:25 NKJV; see also John 3:16; 10:28; Romans 6:23; Titus 1:2; etc.).
Fifth, for the believer, death is not the worst thing that can happen to us. On the contrary, it is the end of suffering and affliction and the beginning of eternal life. Paul’s words in this respect are powerful,
21 For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 But if I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labor; yet what I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 For I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better. (Philippians 1:21-23 NKJV).
At this point, two clarifications are in order; one regarding hermeneutics and the other regarding death. Regarding hermeneutics, one must be careful not to read descriptive passages as blanket promises. Many passages, particularly in the Psalms but not limited to them, are euphoric outbursts of joy at God’s incredible ability to deliver us from evil. These passages are the joyous expressions of people who experienced firsthand God’s salvation in times of trouble. Many of David’s Psalms address specific instances where God delivered him from trouble. Do these constitute blanket promises of protection for all? Of course not. These passages are descriptive, not prescriptive. That does not mean we cannot learn from the passages. What becomes abundantly clear is that God’s purposes cannot be thwarted by anyone or anything. When we are doing what God has command us to do, God provides the necessary provisions as well as the protection we need. These passages teach us that nothing can harm us, unless God allows it. In this we can rejoice.
Regarding death, it is fallacious to argue that death in church is worse than outside of church. Christians die in church and out of church. From a human perspective, physical death is very unpleasant regardless of where or how it comes. I would argue that it would be no less painful if the victims of this weekend’s tragedy would have died of illnesses, natural disasters, or automobile accidents. If the expectation is that God should protect us from physical death, then our expectations are not realistic. God’s promise is to provide us with eternal life, once we have abandoned our earthy abode. Paul’s words are profound in this regard,
1 For we know that if our earthly house, this tent, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2 For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed with our habitation which is from heaven,…6 So we are always confident, knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord. 7 For we walk by faith, not by sight. 8 We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord. (1 Corinthians 5:1-2,6-8 NKJV)
God is absolutely reliable. What He says He will do, He will do. The key is understanding what He says He will do. Unrealistic expectations often leave us unjustifiably disappointed in God.
UNDERSTANDING THE LIMITATIONS OF ARGUMENTS
“Go tell that to a husband who just lost his pregnant wife and three toddlers!” This is a typical response to this type of essay. It is all intellectual, but fails to satisfy emotionally.
I’m the first to admit that the arguments above bring no consolation to the victims and their families. These arguments cannot soften the blow. They are powerless to sooth broken hearts. Only the sweet Spirit of God can comfort and console the broken hearted. Nevertheless, the arguments presented in this paper are necessary. As hard as it may be to do, we must engage the attacks on our faith on an intellectual level, not on an emotional level. Our faith and salvation are based on what we know, not how we feel. Knowing that God is perfectly reliable is critical if we are to survive the pain of a broken heart. Knowing that God answers prayers is fundamental to our surviving the horrors of such a tragedy.
Why did God allow this tragedy to take place at a church in Texas? Why does God allow any tragedy to take place? We do not know. What we do know is that God is 100% reliable. God has promised us that NOTHING can separate us from his love, not even death (Romans 8:38-39). What we do know is that God has revealed himself to us in the Bible, letting us know exactly what we can expect from him. This should be the foundation of our expectations. What we do know is that those who were in Christ and lost their lives in Texas (or anywhere else) are now enjoying eternity in the presence of their Lord and Savior—they would not want to be back here—they have finished the race. What we do know is that eternal life is available to anyone who will call out to Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins.
 This is a valid Modus Tollens syllogism, which means it is structured correctly. However, arguments can be structured correctly but still be faulty. What makes an argument “good” is the truthfulness of the premises and whether the conclusion follows. For a complete course on logic and argumentation consider our course on Critical Thinking at www.AcademyofHopeOnline.org
 Many more passages can be used to support each of these points, but the selected passages are well known and represent the principles discussed.