Fundamental Questions of Life

By Rod Hemphill
October 27, 2006

Although the following article was written just after the senseless killing of Amish children in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in October of 2006, the basic questions Rod addresses in this article are timeless.

That which follows is part of an email my wife received from a lady named Carolyn when she learned that I am a clergyman, and my response to her concerns.


I hope I am not being too personal, but has your husband expressed thoughts about the horrible killings of the Amish children? This thing has touched me like nothing else in a very long time. I am trying to understand and my brain goes on in an endless circle . . . of why? Has the world finally come to such an evil state that this was a dire warning? I believe that if something such as these murders could happen to such beautiful, innocent, Christian people . . . the world can't last too much longer as it is. I read the Bible and the signs of the end seem to be very near . . . especially with the troubles and upheaval in The Middle East. I just don't understand man's inhumanity to man and the hate and evil. I long for the days back in the 50's when as a child, the world, was a safer and happier place to be.

Through everything I keep my faith. It is simple enough--I believe in God and do not ever ask . . . "Why, does God LET these things happen? My heart aches for the innocent and the good people, and even the bad ones, although that is not as easy. I am finding it very difficult to forgive this man who did such a monstrous thing. Is it human nature to look for reasons, ways to understand something so horrendous and so alien to your own heart and mind? If I am a Christian and have the faith I believe I do . . . why is this so difficult for me? I hope I am not imposing on you . . . I just thought maybe you could share some of your thoughts with me.

Hi Carolyn.
Your concerns are well put. Basically they ask four questions:

• How can we explain the prevalence of monstrous evil in the world?
• How can we forgive such monstrous acts?
• What is the future of such a world?
• Why does God allow such things to happen?

Actually you're not alone in asking these questions. People have been asking these same questions for centuries, even millennia, and religious leaders and theologians have been offering different suggestions all that time. But there is no single set of answers that satisfies all such situations, so I'm not going to be so presumptuous as to suggest I have the definitive answers.

However, I too have thought about these things, and I'll share with you what I believe to be basic points of view which may help us make some sense of it all. So here we go:

How can we explain the prevalence of monstrous evil in the world?

You ask about the Amish children because it doesn't make any sense. We tend to deal with tragedies by choosing to believe that there is a purpose behind them. As tragic as a situation may be, it is easier for us to accept it if we know that the loss is not void of value, of purpose. And we are able to find some comfort or feel that life isn't out of control if we believe there is some redeeming value to the loss, or that God will save our loved ones in heaven and bring evil doers to justice at last.

And while this is true in many cases, we cannot apply that expectation to every tragedy, except for the belief that God is still in control and we'll see our loved ones again in heaven. The expectation assumes that everything in life has a purpose, and that there is a certain fairness built into this world. Unfortunately, fairness is a human value, and the physical world doesn't have a mind to create or conform to values. And the world of very wicked people is a world in which any sense of common decency or fairness has been suppressed to the point of being completely calloused over and the conscience is effectively dead. The Biblical term for this condition is depravity.

This is what we saw in the Jewish Holocaust, and in the various ethnic cleansings that have killed millions and millions of people. It's depraved self-centeredness that is killing innocents in Dafur, in school shootings such as Columbine, and it is what we saw with the Amish children.

Man's inhumanity to man is the result of having no values, or more accurately, of having self-centered values coupled with no sense of purpose beyond one's own desires, and no hope that things can ever be any better or different.

We see more of this over the last half century because until that time, society had moral standards. Of course there were people in every generation that committed sins, or if they were not religious, they violated society's standard of decency. But even so, at least there was a standard which defined what society regarded as common decency and acceptable behavior, a standard which guided legislatures in the laws they wrote, and which tended to inhibit otherwise unrestrained wicked behavior. Some people chose to violate this standard, but at least they were aware of the standard.

During the period of the last century, philosophical naturalism(*) gained great impetus from Darwin's theory of evolution. Then the idea of naturalistic evolution became applied to many intellectual disciplines, especially those which favored atheism, such as the dialectical materialism and economic theory of Karl Marx, and to the study of mankind and his origins (anthropology), and to virtually all of the physical and social sciences.

(*) Naturalism: The belief that nature and the laws of nature is all that there is, and explains everything without reference to God, and that matter is therefore eternal and not created.

The result of all this was to create the idea that man, not God (regarded as a superstition) is supreme, that life on this planet is the result of an unguided, purposeless accident of the remarkable coincidence of laws of nature and evolution, and therefore human life has no purpose, no destiny, no transcendent standards, and no hope of any afterlife.

It took half a century or so for the implications of this depressing worldview to pervade our society as a whole, but as it became the established point of view in the educational system and accepted throughout all elements of society, even religious people began to think in these terms outside their worship services.

With the demise (in the minds of people) of a transcendent authority (God) to give value and purpose to our lives or to provide standards of right behavior, society began to unravel. Apart from our laws, people became encouraged to decide for themselves what they would regard as right and wrong, and then even the idea of there being such a thing as right and wrong was lost and the politically correct version of tolerance regarded all things as equal. Any value system was deemed to be equal to any other value system.

This attitude, coupled with the devaluation of human worth, gave rise to the abortion industry and new laws to make it legal and a person's "right," to the rise in crime and disappearance of personal responsibility, and to the depressing realization that a person is an accident, without purpose or meaning in this universe. Each of us is a "nobody." And the result of this despondent way of looking at life produces dysfunction in individuals and families, and in the functioning of society as our social institutions and their functioning are impacted by this perverted reasoning. Taken to its extreme, we see all kinds of weird reasoning, dress and behavior as the most affected persons cry out for attention and affirmation in an environment that offers them no hope, and in which their attitudes, points of view and behavior mark them as weird by their peers. People haunted by such "demons" are ripe for becoming social misfits, abusers of others, and suicidal killers.

The deterioration of the American culture with the loss of its standards of decency, fairness and right behavior, the removal of individuals' sense of personal responsibility, the devaluation of human worth, all conspire to evolve more and more dysfunctional individuals and families, increase instances of crime and corruption, and create homicidal monsters.

If we who still cling to the old values (which originated from the Biblical values) regard these people as people like us, we are left mystified and unable to make sense out of their "irrational" acts of weirdness or violence. But they are not like us. They live in a different world, a world of their making, a dysfunctional world, a world of despair with no hope of fulfillment or satisfaction beyond their own pitifully empty self-centeredness without regard for others. Their seemingly irrational reasoning makes no sense to us unless we gain an understanding of where they are coming from. Seen from their point of view, these irrational acts do make sense, and this is the basis for interdicting tragedies-in-the-making like school shootings and for negotiating with homicidal persons who have taken hostages.

How can we forgive such monstrous acts?

The most remarkable thing that happened in the incident of the Amish schoolhouse massacre was not the scope of the violence. The most remarkable thing that happened was the forgiveness demonstrated by the Amish people as they reached out from within their own grief to console the family of the one who had killed their children. These Amish people, generally dismissed as social oddities by effete snobs who regard themselves as society's intelligentsia, and probably as curiosities by most of the rest of society, may have their quaint ways, but their value system enabled them to demonstrate a genuine forgiveness that amazed even the cynical media reporters.

It happened that we have also just heard news reports of some families and friends of people who were victims of violence, and when asked what they felt toward those responsible, or toward the criminal at the moment of his execution, their response was that they felt "pure hatred." Some say they'll never forgive him. Others say that now that justice has been served, they'll put it behind them and get on with life.

No they won't. One doesn't turn hatred or a refusal to forgive off and on like a light switch. And forgiveness is not an act of magnanimity. As the Amish community amply demonstrated, forgiveness is based on the belief that all things, including ourselves, belong to God, and that all wrongs will find their recompense in Him. It isn't a matter of our loss, or the wickedness of the violent. Forgiveness is a matter of refusing to hold a grudge or bitter hatred because one looks to God as both the One who will dispense justice and who is our consolation. It remembers that nothing in this world belongs to us, and all that we have can be taken from us. It looks to God as we know him in Jesus Christ, who thought only of others rather than himself, even to the point of forgiving those who had just nailed him to the cross and hung him there to die an agonizing death. We may grieve, but we will not hate.

And we look at the effects of hatred and forgiveness. Hatred looks inward, but forgiveness looks outward. While looking inward, all we see is our loss and the offense that has been done to our loved ones, and through them, to us. We may know that we should forgive, but the ability to do so is not there. We cannot forget, and the forgiveness is but words we do not feel. If we do not find a way to dismiss or ignore that which would breed hatred in our hearts, the hatred will become a cancer that will preoccupy our lives and destroy us.

Forgiveness acknowledges that we ourselves need God's forgiveness, and probably the forgiveness of certain people now and then. Forgiveness acknowledges that we ourselves are infected by the same spiritual germ as controls the criminal. This condition has not progressed as far in us as in the social monster, but we sense that if our situation were different, if our attitudes more desperate, we ourselves could have become that person. Residing relatively comfortably in the goodness that does characterize us, we are shocked to discover that we are not different from him in kind, only in degree. As the saying goes, "There, but for the grace of God, go I."

So we all need a Savior to heal (redeem) us, to save us from ourselves, for when we get serious about pleasing God and living lives of righteousness, we discover that we are our own worst enemy. So we look to Jesus to create a new heart within us, looking to Him to enable us to forgive our enemies, and do good to those who persecute us, and relate to people as Jesus Christ did, overcoming evil with good, and striving to win that troubled, even that wicked person back to the Lord. Forgiveness looks outward. Forgiveness is one of the ways we imitate the Lord, and consciously living in his presence and his righteousness frees us of hatred and an unforgiving spirit, and actually saves our lives.

What is the future of such a world?

The Godless and unrighteous state of affairs presently taking over our society should be considered as a "dire warning" of our descent into becoming a society in which unrighteousness reigns and people must be controlled, rather than being given the freedom afforded to a mature and righteous people. Of course the Bible has vivid examples of what happens to a society or nation that abandons God and righteousness, but all God has done is to point out to us the things that build a society up and the attitudes and behaviors that bring a society down. We can trace this cause and effect through history even in nations that did not know God. Righteousness is such because it is the "right" way. It is the way that works. The right way produces results. All other ways produce consequences, sometimes in the short term, but always in the long term.

There is no intelligent reason to think that if our nation abandons the right ways, the ways that God has written into the laws that govern this universe . . . as we seek to reject this reality and have the audacity to think we can impose our preferences instead . . . that what happened to every other nation, society or people group in recorded history that did the same ―there is no reason for us to think that we will escape their fate.

Liberal thinking has held that people do not sin, but rather make mistakes by reason of their ignorance. Therefore the solution to reducing crime and horrendous atrocities is to educate them in the better ways. But Germany was one of the most educated and cultured nations, and it produced Hitler. Educating a person devoid of morals doesn't make him a better person. It enhances his ability to do wrong and turns him into a monster.

Now that the rebellion against God and His morality of common decency and righteousness has become married to the physical and social sciences (as though there is a general unawareness of the logical and factual incompatibility of these partners), the danger is becoming frightening, especially now that this sophistry has gone global and involves weapons of mass destruction, terrorists who hide in the shadows, and technology that gives the rulers of nations incredible tools which can enable them to know and keep track of every person on earth.

The Bible amply describes this situation and predicts a time when it will take control of our lives and threaten the destruction of earth. We should note in this regard that the Bible has been correct on all of its other predictions, so we should pay attention to this. Also, the Bible's predictions of these things originated across several centuries by people living in different nations and cultures, and speaking different languages, and even so, they are all in complete agreement. Furthermore, some of these predictions made no sense to them, or to anybody else until the present time, because we can see in 21st century technology how such prophetic fulfillment might be possible, an advantage those Biblical writers did not have. But they were faithful to write down what they were receiving from the Lord, whether they understood it or not.

Prophecies of the end-times have always been misapplied to the times of people who wondered if they might be living in the "last days." But to apply these predictions to their days required that they ignore certain prophecies that didn't fit their times. The difference today is that we can see all these predictions coming together, we see the political events and technologies to make them possible falling into line, and we remember that these predictions were given for the purpose of informing those who would be living in the times and places where these things would occur. Jesus warned us against applying these prophecies prematurely to the wrong times, but he also said that when we see certain specific things happening, to know that this marks the beginning of the countdown.

The thing to remember is that although the worst of man's inhumanity and the awesome upheavals in the natural world that man causes are still in the future, God will use them to bring his judgment upon man's evil in this world, and that in this God is still in control and will replace the evil and rebelliousness of the world with His reign of righteousness. And there is strong evidence in the Bible that those who live with Him as their Lord and trust Him to be their Savior in conforming them to the image of Christ and accomplishment of His will through their lives . . . there is strong evidence that God intends to rescue them out of the world (literally) before the worst of these judgments take place.

Why does God allow such things to happen?

There are several things we must keep in mind:

First, God is controlling this world according to His purposes and plan.

Secondly, we see only part of the big picture regarding what God is doing.

Thirdly, we answer to God, and not God to us.

Fourthly, from our limited perspective, we may not agree with God, we may even reject God on this account, but we are nonetheless accountable to Him.

Fifthly, we may not understand everything about God, but our relationship with Him should be borne out of what we do understand, rather than upon our assumptions and what we don't understand. And this evidence to accept Him as Lord and Savior is given in abundance, easily discoverable by all who seek Him instead of seeking justification for rejecting Him. (But this is another whole discourse which I won't go into here.)

Sixthly, God has created us in His image, which means among other things, that He has given us intelligence, the ability to reason, understand and create using the materials he created, and we are expected to question, investigate and strive to understand more about who He is, what he is doing, how the universe He has created operates, and how we can better relate to Him.

Seventh, and perhaps most importantly, he created us to be creatures having free-will, which means he gives us the ability to choose our own way, even if that way is to reject Him.

This free-will seems to be a characteristic that God is loathe to violate. He has not been caught by surprise that mankind inclines to assert independency from Him, and to rebel at the strictures He has placed upon us, even though to do either produces dysfunction, hatreds and evil, and although people vary in the degree of their rebellion, the assertion of self-centeredness seems to be an incorrigible trait of humanity.

For this reason God provided a Savior to save us from ourselves and reconcile us back into His love and fellowship. But He does not force us to accept Him or His love and benevolence. He honors the freedom of will He has given us, even though some in their perverted point of view and incredible arrogance will hate Him. There are instances where God intervenes to cause something to happen that needs to happen according to His plan, or to prevent mankind from preventing the accomplishment of His will, but these are exceptions. He clearly honors the free will He has given us.

Since mankind in general is determined to live in this world as he chooses, God respects that free will and allows us to suffer the consequences. It's almost as though God is saying, "This is your world. If you follow the laws of reality which I will teach you, you will do well. But if you follow your own short-sighted desires, the consequences too are natural and part of reality. I encourage you to choose life, but what you do is up to you."

And then as I imagine it, at the end of times, when mankind has finally reached the point where he and his technology are about to destroy the earth, God will say "Enough is enough. There is no future in allowing mankind and this world to self-destruct. You've had ample time to convince yourselves that you cannot succeed apart from Me and doing things My way. Mankind no longer can find any excuse for continuing apart from Me. So I will save those who want Me and My way, bring humanity's experiment in self-rule to an end, and establish a realm of righteousness where those who are My children can live in peace and righteousness."

Well, Carolyn, I know I haven't answered every possible question or objection others might raise, but this is how I understand the questions you raised, and this understanding forms the basis for my consideration every time I encounter a new question or objection.

I hope these comments serve you well, and I appreciate your inquiry.

Rod Hemphill

Other articles by Rod:
Being an American Means More Than Just Living Here.
The Cost On Our Society of Substituting Other Values for the Right Values.
Critique of the Da Vinci Code.
How to Take Over a Country without Firing a Shot.