Evil Has an Expiration Date: On Sutherland Springs and Christ

We know this from the Word of God: evil has an expiration date.

One of the most arresting images in Scripture is this: Jesus gathering the little children to himself. His disciples try to guard his energy and shoo away the little ones. But Jesus displays a vital aspect of the Christian ethic (which is to say his ethic): he loves boys and girls. He delights in them. He wants to hold them, look them in the eye, and express kindness to them (Matthew 19:14).

I was reminded of this episode when I heard of the church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas. A gunman entered a small, rural Southern Baptist church and opened fire, killing over 25 people according to reports. This horrific event has stirred up another round of cultural debate over gun laws, showing that our society is not only sharply divided but willfully politicized. Blood has not even cooled on the ground before pundits issue their pronouncements. Lost in much of the commentary was the fact that Devin Kelley was apparently denied a gun license by the state of Texas. Evil, it seems, will overcome most any barrier.

This last sentence is important. Some responded to this shooting, as with other shootings (they are now a commonplace), by labeling it as an example of “mental illness.” Assuredly, Kelley was a troubled individual. He apparently has a history of familial assault, having been discharged from the Air Force for attacking his wife and child. The Christian worldview comprehends and in fact fully accounts for mental illness, but not in the way a secular paradigm does. At the heart of the problem: the heart is the problem. We are not fine, or normal, or good in our natural state. We are “desperately wicked” according to the Bible (Jeremiah 17:9). This wickedness pours into all our being outside of Christ, corrupting our mind, warping our body, poisoning our soul.

In other words, you cannot account for mental illness outside of the doctrine of depravity. Mental illness is not an excuse; it may be a factor in these kind of cases (it surely is in many), but it does not explain evil. Evil, to the contrary, explains mental illness. People do terrible things because, in Adam, we are terrible. We have a capacity for monstrous wickedness. Most do not act on it as the Texas shooter did, praise God. But evil is not merely accessible to us as fallen sinners; we are by nature evil (Romans 3:10-18).

When a sinner does act in such a depraved manner, we mourn. We grieve. We weep as we scroll through the stories. Little children, four and five years old, gunned down where they sit. An eight-year-old boy diving under a pew for protection. The pastor’s daughter, slain in a place of worship. We clench our fists as we think of the shooter, sending precious ones into eternity. He may have thought he was a hero; from what one can see of his online persona, he had a fondness for extremism, with Antifa one of his favored causes. Perhaps he fashioned himself a hero by killing the innocent. If so, mark this: there are no heroes in hell. No one will rise to celebrate his deeds in the afterlife. Wickedness not only ruins the bystander; it ruins the individual, and without repentance sends him to the realm where there is no heroism, but only a shadow-realm of the hateful, stricken and afflicted.

We are not accustomed to thinking in these biblical terms. In a public square scrubbed of true conviction, we often hear only soft words in times like these. But it is not so for the Christian church. We have a vocabulary for tragedy. Behind our public theology is full-bore systematic theology. We know this from the Word of God: evil has an expiration date. Jesus is going to return. He is going to judge the quick and the dead. No one will escape his just wrath. He will tread the unrepentant like grapes in a winepress. This is not wrong. This is biblical justice.

Our secular age speaks much of justice, in truth. But secular justice has no Christ. Specifically, it has no Christological eschatology. It tells us that things are getting better, that we are making “progress,” that we can solve the world’s problems. Though we can surely make gains in basic ways in our society, we cannot heal our world. Only Christ can. Only Christ will. Many people struggle with the judgment of God, though. They wonder, “How can a good God exercise wrath against people?” This is a good and difficult question. Praise God, it is not without an answer. Outside of Christ, the reality is this: there is no justice. There is no rightness. The wicked do not pay for their sins. The guilty who slipped the full sentence for their earthly crimes escape into eternity. Outside of Christ, the child-killers, lynch-mobs, rapists, thieves, and brutalizers of this world reap only—at best—partial recompense for their crimes, their sadism.

But mark this: there is no “outside of Christ.” Yes, justice is veiled now. It seems like it will not dawn, like Christ will not return. But he will. He will by no means clear the guilty. The perfect Son of God will execute perfect justice. Now, we cry, “How long, O Lord?” Soon, we will not.

Until that day, we preach this Christ to sinners just like us. We explain the doctrines of depravity and damnation. But we glory much more in the doctrine of divine love. We unfold the multifaceted wonder of the ordo salutis, the order of salvation. The ruined can be remade. The alien can have a home, and a Father. The guilty can become innocent. The unrighteous can be righteous. The most vile can wash their robes white in the blood of the Lamb. This is what the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs stands for. This is what the Southern Baptist Convention, to which this church belongs, preaches. We plead with lost people to confess their sin, and die in Christ, and rise to new life with him.

It is Christ who captivates us as a people. We hear those stories of little ones shot up by a gunman, and we remember the Christ who gathered little children to himself, many centuries back. This is the same Jesus who even now receives slain ones into glory. The world and the devil would deny Jesus his saints. This is what is behind all the death, all the evil, all the horror inflicted upon Christ’s church, every member of which must become “as a little child” to enter the kingdom of heaven. At the deepest level, Satan seeks to deny Jesus his blood-bought bride (Ephesians 5:25).

But you cannot deny Jesus what is his. He died a terrible death to purchase a people for himself. His atonement was successful. His victory is undeniable. If Jesus suffers the little children to come to him, they will come. He will welcome them to his home. He will take their fragmented, torn-apart bodies, martyrs from over all the face of the globe, and he will make them whole. None will be disfigured in the age to come; none will limp, or suffer pain, or weep. All will be well; all will be whole; every tear will be dried.

Jesus will gather his saints around a throne in eternity, beyond all the ages of the earth, when sin is destroyed and death is no more. There, they—we—will all sing: Worthy is the Lamb who sits on the throne.

For you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God

from every tribe and language and people and nation,

and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,

and they shall reign on the earth.