The Dark Night in Denver: Groping for Answers

Albert Mohler , 20 July 2012

The news hit the airwaves like a sudden onslaught, and the truth began to sink in. It has happened again. This time, 50 people shot while attending the midnight premier of the last in the Batman sequence, The Dark Knight Rises. According to press reports, a 24-year-old man burst into the crowded theater, wearing a gas mask and carrying an arsenal. After deploying what is believed to be tear gas, he opened fire with a shotgun, a rifle, and two hand guns. At least 12 people are dead, and dozens are injured, many critically.

Over 100 police officers responded to the scene in Aurora, just a few miles from Columbine High School, where in 1999 two high school students killed 12 fellow students and one teacher in a rampage that also injured 21 other students. That school massacre became a milestone in the nation’s legacy of violence. Now, yet another Denver suburb joins that tragic list.

The inevitable media swarm focuses on the data first — the who, what, when, and where questions. Then they, along with the public at large, begin to ask the why question. That is always the hard one.

The same vexing but inescapable question comes every time a Columbine happens or an Anders Behring Breivik attempts to justify his mass homicide. How could such a thing happen? How could a human being do such a thing?

There is no easy answer to this question. The easy answers are never satisfying, and they are often based in the confused moral calculus of popular culture. We assume there must have been a political motivation, a psychiatric disturbance, a sociological pressure … anything that will offer a satisfying explanation that will assure us. Wave after wave of analysis is offered, and sometimes some horrifying clues emerge. But the moral madness of mass homicide can never be truly explained.

Christians are driven by instinct to think in biblical and theological terms. But, how should that instinct be guided?

The Reality of Human Evil

First, Christians know that the human heart is capable of great evil. Human history includes a catalog of human horrors. The 20th century, described by historian Eric Hobsbawm as the century of “megadeath,” included a list of names such as Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Pol Pot, and Charles Manson. But those murderers did their killing from a distance, at least usually. Those who carry out the murders themselves are even more haunting to us. The young man arrested in this case, 24-year-old James Holmes, looks disarmingly normal.

The Fall released human moral evil into the cosmos, and every single human being is a sinner, tempted by a full range of sinfulness. When someone does something as seemingly unthinkable as this, we often question how anyone could do such a thing. The prophet Jeremiah spoke to this when he lamented, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick, who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)

Human beings are capable of unspeakable moral evil. We are shocked by such atrocities, but only because we have some distance from the last one. We cannot afford to be shocked when humans commit grotesque moral evil. It tells us the truth about unbridled human sin.

The Grace of Moral Restraint

Second, we must be thankful for restraints on moral evil. Christians must not underestimate the potential of any human being — ourselves included — to commit moral horror. We know ourselves to be sinners, and we know ourselves to be capable of sins we do not actually commit. Why do we not commit them?

God restrains human sinfulness. If the fullness of human sin was set loose, humanity would destroy itself. God restrains human evil by several means. First, he has created us in his image, and at least part of this image is what we call conscience. The moral conscience is a powerful restraint on human evil, and for this we must be exceedingly thankful. At the same time, the human conscience is also warped by the Fall and no longer fully trustworthy. We have developed the capacity to ignore the conscience, torture the conscience, and even misdirect the conscience by moral rationalization. Nevertheless, the restraint of the conscience is fundamental, and for that we must be very thankful.

God has also established institutions and orders that restrain human evil. As the Apostle Paul reminds us in Romans 13, God gave us the institution of government in order to restrain evil and to punish the evildoer. He has also given us the institution of marriage and the family and the larger order of society in order to restrain evil. We are surrounded by a complex of laws and statutes and social expectations and civic associations. All these function to restrain evil.

At the foundation of these restraints is the fear of God, which, even in an increasingly secular society, still retains a more powerful force than is often acknowledged.

Evil Answered at the Cross

Third, we must admit that there will be no fully satisfying answer to these questions in this life. Christians know that God is sovereign, and that nothing is outside of his control. We also now that he allows evil to exist, and human beings to commit moral atrocities. We cannot deny the sovereignty of God to be denied and evil allowed its independent existence, and yet we cannot deny the reality of evil and the horror of its threat to be lessened. We are reminded that evil can be answered only by a cross.

Theologian Henri Blocher explains this truth vividly in these words:

“Evil is conquered as evil because God turns it back upon itself. He makes the supreme crime, the murder of the only righteous person, the very operation that abolishes sin. The maneuver is utterly unprecedented. No more complete victory could be imagined. God responds in the indirect way that is perfectly suited to the ambiguity of evil. He entraps the deceiver in his own wiles. Evil, like a judoist, takes advantage of the power of good, which it perverts; the Lord, like a supreme champion, replies by using the very grip of the opponent.”

We must grieve with those who grieve. We must pray for Gospel churches in the Denver area who will be called upon for urgent ministry. We must pray for our nation and communities. And we must pray that God will guard ourselves from evil — especially our own evil. And we must point to the cross. What other answer can we give?

Reference: Henri Blocher, Evil and the Cross (Kregel, 2005).

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6 responses to “The Dark Night in Denver: Groping for Answers

  1. “The 20th century, described by historian Eric Hobsbawm as the century of “megadeath,” included a list of names such as Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Pol Pot, and Charles Manson”

    I find it intriguing how Harry Truman never makes the list despite the fact that he wiped out two cities killing hundreds of thousands of civilians.


    • Ronald,

      Interesting question. Why doesn’t America make the list for killing millions of babies?

      I think the issue is bigger than a list, and it goes back to the Fall of Adam that plunged the world into sin. Were it not for the retraining hand of God we could all be on the list.

      I’ll leave it to you to consider the difference between the acts of Truman to stop a war and the acts of the others in the list.

      Yes we have seen terrible things in the 20th century, but it might be better to get to the ‘bottom line’, which is the problem of sin.

      Rom 3:23 “…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…”

      The answer begins with individuals realizing their condition and trusting in God’s answer to the problem:

      Rom 6:23 “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

      That applies to individuals primarily, but it affects nations as well. A true and lasting difference in nations and their leaders begins at the personal level, with me and you, does it not?


          • I am much helped by your insight on this blog and it’s a great blessing that we can discuss these matters.
            I certainly agree with you about sin being at the root of the problem.
            I must say I didn’t expect a reply of the kind you gave, and I must commend you for sticking to the gospel. I also apologise for my focus on the political aspect of your message when I ought to have identified Al Mohler’s (and your) desire to focus on the gospel itself. I am not a very political person, but I tend to pay much attention to the things that go on in our world. I am normally frustrated by most everything I see and, though I would always want to remember that I am but a passerby in this world, I sometimes let out the frustration. I really pray God takes that from me.
            I desire nothing in this place than Christ alone. Nothing more or less or else.
            I agree with you at the root problem of sin, but I only mentioned Truman because no one ever lists him as a monster with others who have killed as many people. I can’t see much of a difference between his actions, from the other men named, and I think you would not look at anyone favorably who killed 400,000 Americans;-civilians of all ages and walks of life in their homes with atomic bombs, but if that is justifiable under “stopping war”, I will leave to you.

            Abortion is certainly the modern holocaust, and if God should enlighten the coming generations, they will wonder why anyone could be so indifferent to the slaughter of a human life at its most vulnerable stage by those responsible for protecting it. The mere fact that abortion is called a controversial “political” topic should convince the most skeptic of man’s potential for sin.
            When I read the book of Habakkuk, I always am amazed at how the nature of man has really always been evil and like the grave that never says “enough”, mankind is hungry for ever increasing evil. I know this first hand, because I find that my own heart imagines tremendous evil.Yet I desire none of the evil. Like Spurgeon once said, given Solomon’s choice, I would not ask for wisdom but perfect conformity to the will of Christ.
            He has promised in Matthew.5:6 and Philippians.2:13 that He will give us both to desire his holiness and to do it. As Christians, we can only look up to Him in earnest desire and expectation for this to be our own condition;- that we would be ” a peculiar people zealous for good works” (Titus.2:14)


            • Hello Ronald!

              I am so glad you returned, and no apologies are necessary. All war is ugly and the spawn of man’s sin. While I do believe there is such a thing as ‘just war’, I have also questioned the magnitude of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I an reading a nonfiction book called “December 1941” that chronicles day by day, what was happening not only in America during that month, but also around the world concerning the activities and intent of Both Nazi Germany and The Empire of Japan. There are reasons I would not put Truman in the same class as Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Saddam Hussein, etc. but as you say he did make a decision that killed many thousands. Japan is a staunch ally in missile defense these days. When does just war cross the line, I really don’t know so I won’t be an arm chair quarterback.

              I am an delighted we can discuss these issues like gentlemen, and indeed we are but pilgrims on this earth from the moment we believed.

              Phil 2:13 is a favorite passage!

              We are off to a wedding reception and I look forward to talking to you again!

              Your Brother,



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