Is There an Answer?Tom Ascol
In the last two years the United States has witnessed an epidemic of deadly school shootings across our land. Each one has shaken us. Images of blood-splattered classrooms and tear-stained faces are etched into our nation's collective memory. Unfortunately, such scenes have become tragically familiar to us.
The methodical savagery of the Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colorado marked a new low in American mass murder. The events which took place on that fateful day of April 20, 1999, made us wonder how much worse things could get. The law of diminishing returns seems to be at work in these senseless killings: if the shock-effect of single shots in a school has been diminished, let's up the ante by laying siege to a campus with an array of weapons which includes booby-trapped explosives. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold took pop wickedness to a new level.
After Columbine, the nation seemed almost afraid to exhale, wondering where the next outbreak of mass violence would occur. It only took a month for news to come of another school shooting, this time at Heritage High School in Conyers, Georgia. The close of the school year allowed for a sigh of relief. Unfortunately, it was short-lived. On August 10 Buford Furrow entered the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles and began shooting randomly, wounding three young boys, a teenage girl and a 68-year-old grandmother working as a receptionist.
Then, the late night news on September 15 reported yet another shooting, this time in a Southern Baptist Church in Ft. Worth, Texas. Larry Ashbrook interrupted a youth rally at Wedgewood Baptist Church with a barrage of gunfire and homemade bombs. This latest devastation, which left seven dead, brings another fresh reminder that the culture of death which we have created in our land over the last thirty years has incubated a relentless army of conscienceless killers.
We are being forced to face once again the age-old question of why. Why Littleton? or Springfield, or Jonesboro, or Paducah, or Los Angeles, or Ft. Worth? Why not here? Why these kids? Why not my kids? Why not me?
When such brutal displays of violence were anomalies in our society, they were easier to cope with. It was easy, and quite comforting, to believe that something unique to the setting or to the one pulling the trigger could explain the tragedy. "Rural communities are inherently more violent." "The killer had a history of violence." We would love to believe that these kinds of explanations could account for the increasingly frequent outbreaks of brutality which we are witnessing.
The human psyche desperately wants to explain away evil in ways that leave us convinced that we are not at risk. But after nearly a dozen such shootings in two years, one thing that is no longer being said is, "It could never happen here."
So is there an answer? Can we ever hope to get a satisfactory response to our haunting questions of why? Since Columbine we have heard much about the accessibility of guns, parental involvement, discipline in schools and the culture of violence as experts try to help us sort out the many issues involved.
But as helpful as the insights from sociology, psychology and biology might be, none of them can probe the real depths of the problem. The whole history of man's inhumanity to man forces us finally to admit that there is a fundamental flaw in human nature. And that flaw is so deeply rooted in humanity that neither the social sciences nor the physical sciences can sufficiently account for it.
The Bible calls this flaw, sin, which is rebellion against our Creator. One of the great problems of our day is that we have greatly depreciated sin. We do not take it as seriously as we should. We have lost sight of the sinfulness of sin. Consequently, when we are confronted with unusually wicked crimes, as we are in Ft. Worth and Littleton, we have difficulty thinking clearly about them. In addition, failure to appreciate the root problem of human nature prevents people from recognizing the only solution which is available.
Is there an answer? That question moves our thoughts in two directions: First, is there an answer that explains what happened in Ft. Worth, Los Angeles, and Littleton? Secondly, is there an answer which provides a solution to the problem of senseless violence in our society?
On both points, the Bible says, "Yes!" There is an answer. Everyone who is even remotely interested in the state of our world today should be willing to consider what the Bible has to say about the source of violent outbreaks and, more importantly, what can be done to prevent them. Romans 3:9-26 describes both the source of and the solution to human wickedness.
Why do people do wicked things?
Sin has left us in a desperate condition
People do wicked things because they are under the dominion of sin. Paul asserts in verse 9 that "all are under sin." By nature, sin dominates humanity. Since the introduction of sin into the race, people are born under the power of sin. Jesus said, "whoever commits sin is a slave of sin" (John 8:34). Sin makes slaves of us all. This is true not only of blatantly irreligious people, but of religious folks, as well ("both Jews and Greeks," v. 9).
To be under sin is to be separated from God. And the further an individual or a society goes in sin, the more marginalized God becomes until finally it is as if he does not exist at all.
As Dostoyevsky wrote, anything is permissible if there is no God. What we are witnessing in our society is life without God. The two boys who murdered their classmates in Littleton were acting out the logical consequences of such a life. The gunman at Wedgewood Baptist Church was not a demon (though he and others who commit such atrocities are, no doubt, demonically influenced). He was a man--a fallen, sinful man. They were sinners. Just like all of us are. The very same sinful nature which led them to commit their heinous crimes exists within every man, woman and child. It is a frightening but undeniable truth.
Paul strings together various Old Testament passages to describe the universality and deadliness of sin's impact. In verses 10-12 he shows how sin has left us in a desperate condition.
Because of sin, everyone lives in a state of unrighteousness. "There is none righteous, no not one" (10). To be righteous is to be upright in thought and conduct. It is to be blameless before God, perfectly obedient to God's law at every point. Righteousness is more than morality. A man may be judged to be a good, dependable fellow because he is outwardly moral. But to be righteous, a man must be Godly in heart and conduct. Since sin entered the world, there is no one who is naturally like that.
Consequently, the whole human race has "become unprofitable" (12). Paul employs a word which frequently was used to refer to sour milk in his day. The idea is that people have been spoiled; ruined from their original purpose. Sinners are not the way they are supposed to be. We were, in Adam, originally created upright. We possessed original righteousness. Sin ruined that and radically transferred the whole race into a condition of unrighteousness.
Further, sin has darkened our understanding. "None understands" (11). This thought is a deep insult to the intellectual pride of moderns. Advances in so many fields of study have convinced many that not only is modern man wise, he has finally "come of age." Science and technology are hailed as our new saviors.
No one can deny that we are witnessing an amazing increase of knowledge and understanding in these two fields of study, and with this increase have come many blessings. But when it comes to spiritual issues we have no more natural understanding today than we had five thousand years ago.
By nature, people still do understand spiritual truth. They are spiritually blind--ignorant. They do not understand the truth God. As in Athens of old, so in America and the rest of the world today: He is an "unknown God." As Calvin points out in the beginning of his Institutes, without a knowledge of God, there can be no significant knowledge of man.
There is no real apprehension of the dignity of mankind--that we are creatures made in the image of God. On the contrary, today we have highly acclaimed ethicist, Peter Singer, of Princeton University, arguing that parents should have one month after the birth of their deformed child to decide whether or not to have the child put to death, since a baby has "no human consciousness" for its first thirty days outside the womb.
How can such a view be enthusiastically advocated from such a prestigious university? Because they have no understanding of the innate dignity of humans! are different from every other creature because we have not only been made by God and for God, but have been made in some profound sense, like God. It is this revealed truth which renders heinous the murder of any person, regardless of age, and regardless of whether she is newly delivered from the womb, or still growing in the womb.
Along with mankind's dignity there is also tremendous misunderstanding about depravity. Sin has spiritually polluted the human race and place all of us naturally under God's impending wrath.
No one understands mankind's true delight. Modern man thinks that he is an expert at happiness. Just consider all of the instruments of pleasure which have been placed at his disposal! Yet, man without God does not know what real pleasure is. The Lord has a "river of pleasures" from which He satisfies the desires of all those who trust in Him (Psalm 36:7,8). True joy is found in knowing God through His Son, Jesus Christ. But people do not naturally understand that.
Neither do they understand the destiny of mankind. Every human being will spend eternity somewhere. The grave is not the end. Rather, it is the threshold for an eternal future. The Bible is painfully clear, that those without Jesus Christ face eternal damnation under the wrath of God. Only those trust Christ as Lord will escape this wrath and will experience the eternal bliss of heaven. The modern obsession with youth and fear of death discourage serious thinking about eternity. "There is none who understands."
Along with our understanding, our affections have also been ravaged by sin. "There is none who seeks after God" (11b). The natural devotion to and longing for God which Adam and Eve had was destroyed by their disobedience to Him. This does not mean that people do not desires for a god. The human heart, as Calvin said, is an incurable idol factory. This partially explains the faddish spiritualities which propose to guide people in their quest for spiritual connectedness.
There will always be a hot market for "god-as-you-want-him-to-be" (personalized in testimonies as "god-to-me"), but it is the God who actually is with whom we have to do in the Bible. Sin has rendered that God unattractive to fallen men and women. No one desires that God. No one naturally wants to be in His presence or to render Him worship. Not that He is not innately beautiful and worthy of worship! But like a blind man facing a masterpiece work of art, a sinner has no spiritual eyes to see, no spiritual life to respond to the great and glorious God.
"They have all gone out of the way" (12a). Sin has led us on a detour from the path which God has marked for us in His law. Isaiah compares sinful mankind to sheep, and says all of us have gone astray. "We have turned, everyone, to his own way" (Isaiah 53:6). As our Creator, God has prescribed a good way, the best way, for us to be and live. But sin has turned us all into rebels. "The carnal mind is enmity against God; it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be" (Romans 8:7). People by nature run away from God.
"There is none that does good" (12c). Certainly people can do relatively good things. There are still philanthropists in the world and Boy Scouts continue to put a premium on doing good deeds. But the text here is speaking of absolutely good deeds. Even our best works are stained with sin, so that "all of our righteousnesses are as filthy rags in God's sight" (Isaiah 64:6). A sinner cannot do anything which perfectly conforms to God's law. Not anything which we do is free from sin. The only good works which are acceptable to God are those which are offered to Him in Christ--those which come to God from a heart filled with faith. Even then, the works in and of themselves are not good in an absolute sense. But, because of Christ's absolute goodness and righteousness, they are rendered acceptable in God's sight.
Sin leads us into despicable conduct
Not only has sin left us in a desperate condition, it also leads us into despicable conduct. Verses 13-17 read like a report of the character and lifestyles medieval barbarians. But he is speaking of no one special group, but of the whole human race as it has been infected with sin.
"Their throat is an open tomb; with their tongues they have practiced deceit, the poison of asps is under their lips, whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness" (13-14). This language tends to offend our modern sensibilities, not because we have never heard such graphic descriptions, but because Paul applies it to "us" and not to some safely distant "them."
Yet, honesty demands that we own our guilt as charged. The wonderful gift of human speech is regularly perverted to communicate wicked and perverse ideas. Choose any area you like--politics, education, religion, sexuality, ethics, etc.--and you can immediately find examples destructive speech in each. In some cases, whole industries have been constructed on such sinful communication. An old proverb says that the tongue is an instrument only six inches long, yet it can kill a man six feet tall. Sinful speech has a long, sad history of spiritual, moral, intellectual and physical murder.
Verses 15 and 16 continue the theme turning from speech to actions. "Their feet are swift to shed blood" (15). Human history is one long story of bloodshed: war, insurrection, murder, abortion. Man's inhumanity to man has become so routine that unless a killing is peculiarly macabre it stands no chance of making the front page of the local newspaper. "Destruction and misery" (16) could well be the motto for the history of humanity.
"The way of peace they have not known" (17). Despite peace talks, peace summits, peace treaties, etc. our world is no closer to peace today than ever before. People cannot know true peace because they have turned away from the God of peace. Though cease-fires may come for a season, they are only temporary.
Sinful conditions and actions have an underlying cause
Why do people go on living in sin? Why do they violate even their own sense of right and wrong and continue to live in the despicable and deadly ways that the Apostle Paul describes? The answer is given in verse 18: "There is no fear of God before their eyes." This is the explanation for every sinful action, no matter how great or small it may be.
People do not fear God. They do not believe that He is worth fearing. "After all, if God exists, isn't He a kindly, gentle sort of fellow? He is not hard to get along with, is He? Doesn't God love everybody just the same, no matter what? Isn't that His job?" They do no believe that they are accountable to Him. The biblical vision of God as a "consuming fire" (Hebrews 12:29) is completely foreign to modern American conceptions of deity and in fact has never been properly appreciated apart from the revelation of His character in Scripture.
Someone has said that God created man in His own image and man has been returning the favor ever since. Consequently, if god has been domesticated into an indulgent, old gentleman, there is certainly no need to live in such a way that anticipates a coming day of justice and wrath which will be meted out from the divine throne.
Implications for Ft. Worth, Columbine, etc.
Romans 3:9-18 presents a rather despairing view of humanity, does it not? These verse provide a collage of human life "under sin" (v. 9). Sin is universal and pervasive. It affects every person and permeates every aspect of human personality. Sin degrades character, speech and conduct. And this is true of every single person in the world!
If you believe this then you will be able to assess the heinous crimes which were committed at Wedgewood Baptist Church, Columbine High School, and everywhere else in a very revealing light. The actions of Larry Ashbrook, Buford Furrow, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, as horrific as they are, all fit a pattern. They all vividly illustrate that life under sin which Paul describes in this passage. The restraints were taken off, and they gave vent to their sinful natures.
The really scary part is that the same sin that erupted in murder and mayhem in them lives within the heart of every man, woman and child. By nature, everyone is a sinner--the kind of sinner who is described in Romans 3:9-18. This is a hard truth and many people do not want to face it.
At the trial of Adolf Eichmann, Hitler's top angel of death, Yehiel Dinur, a survivor of the Holocaust was called to testify. When Dinur confronted Eichmann he began to shout and sob uncontrollably, finally collapsing on the Israeli courtroom floor. Everyone assumed that his reaction was caused by the memory of the horrible atrocities of the death camps of Nazi Germany.
As Dinur later explained, that was not the reason for his emotional display. Rather, he had expected to find in Eichmann the personification of evil itself, as some kind of moral monster. Instead, as he gazed into Eichmann's eyes, he realized for the first time that sin and evil are the natural human condition. Dinur said, "I saw that I am capable to do this…exactly like he."
Because of sin, that is true of everyone. By nature we come into the world as depraved rebels, opposed to God and bent on destruction. Given the truth of Romans 3, it is amazing that this world is not a field of blood every day!
The picture is rather bleak. It is dark. But it is not complete. The truth about human sinfulness is the backdrop against which the truth about God's grace in Jesus Christ is revealed. The explanation for what happened in Ft. Worth, Los Angeles, and Littleton, can be found in sin. But the solution for sin and its consequences is found in Christ.
Is there a solution to sin?
When a jeweler wants to display the brilliance of a diamond, he places it on the blackest of velvets in order to provide a stark contrast. In a similar way, all that the Apostle Paul writes in Romans 3:9-18 is designed to provide a contrast for the display of God's incredible salvation which has been provided in Christ Jesus.
God set forth His Son
In verses 21-26 Paul gives the most profound statement of the gospel to be found anywhere in the Bible. In a succinct argument he makes clear that the only hope for sinners in Jesus Christ. The following comments only touch on the outline of Paul's thought. For an excellent exposition of the passage, see Martyn Lloyd-Jones' comments from his Romans series (note especially his sermon entitled, "The Vindication of God" on verses 25 and 26).
Once he convincingly demonstrates that sinners have no righteousness in themselves, Paul goes on to describe the revelation of righteousness from God which comes to all who have faith in Jesus Christ (21-22).
What we as sinners could not do for ourselves, God has done for us. The righteousness which He requires, He provides. He has done this through the redemptive life and work of Jesus.
Through His death on the cross, Jesus became a propitiation in behalf of sinners (25). That is, He took the wrath of God upon Himself, thereby averting it from His people, that is, from all who would believe in Him. This act of propitiation vindicated God's justice for all time, demonstrating how He can be both "just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus" (26).
The justification which God provides for believers includes the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of righteousness. Sin no longer separates the Christian from God. All of his sins have been completely forgiven--they have been paid for by the once-and-for-all death of Jesus Christ. Also, the perfectly righteous life which Jesus accomplished is credited to the account of every believer, so that all who trust in Christ are accounted as righteous before God.
With this change in our standing before God, our justification, comes also a change in our nature. Christ not only works for us He works in us to make us into "new creations" (2 Corinthians 5:17). Though sin remains within a believer, its power has been broken so that it no longer reigns. Sin no longer sits enthroned over the Christian's mind, affections and will.
A Christian is able to love God, to pursue righteousness in life and to love other people. Romans 3:9-18 is an accurate portrait of what every person is by nature, It describes what a Christian once was, but not what he has now become by the power of God through faith in Jesus Christ.
The wonder of the gospel is that people can change! Rather, they can be changed by Jesus Christ. Adulterers can become pure in heart and body. Haters can become lovers. Murderers can become martyrs.
This is the hope for every individual sinner and for the sinful world collectively. "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners" (1 Timothy 1:15). And whenever that salvation is applied to individual believers, they are changed forever.
What can be done?
In the aftermath of each new public outbreak of violence and evil, many voices begin calling for action to "do something." Federal officials have promised to direct enormous amounts of money to "address the problem" of violence in our schools. Congress has declared its willingness to pass new legislation dealing with the issue. Psychologists have volunteered their services.
But none of these efforts, as noble as they might be, can really help. If the real problem is sin, and if the only solution to the sin problem is the gospel of Jesus Christ, and if the Christian church have been entrusted with this gospel, then local churches and individual Christians are the only ones who are equipped to respond to outbreak of violence in our society in a genuinely helpful way. Society will change when people change. And people will change by the power of the gospel. It is therefore incumbent on those of us who know this gospel, who have already been changed by its power, to declare it with boldness and compassion at every opportunity.
The actions of Larry Ashbrook in Ft. Worth and Eric Harris Dylan Klebold in Littleton are inexcusable. These were wicked, godless people. But they were not unreachable! They were not beyond the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. They were sinners in need of the Savior. Those of us who know it must declare it with conviction: Jesus came into the world to save sinners--great sinners.
Who knows how many more Larry Ashbrooks there are out there? What can be done for them? Will some government initiative save them? Who will tell them of God's great grace in Jesus Christ? We who know Christ must make Christ known with urgency.
At the heart of our culture of death, of senseless violence, and of human horror is sin. No metal detectors, gun control laws, government programs or on campus police force can keep kids from killing kids. And no brick wall or security guard can protect daycare centers or churches. The problem is far too serious. The only hope that we have is for human nature to be changed, one heart at a time.
The good news is that God genuinely does change people. Jesus Christ said that he came into the world to give life, and to give it more abundantly. When the reality of that new life is experienced by greater numbers of our society, then our society will change.