As investigators try to figure out why a 64-year-old man opened fire onto an outdoor concert crowd in Las Vegas Sunday night, killing at least 58 people and wounding hundreds more, some people of faith pondered a more eternal question: Why do terrible things to happen to innocent people?
“The suffering of very good people is a theme that just comes up time and again,” said Cameron H. Jorgenson, associate professor of Christian Theology and Ethics at Campbell University’s Divinity School in Buies Creek.
“It’s a necessary question because of the universality of suffering,” he said. “Great people, beloved of God, experience great suffering, and people want to know what to make of that.”
He spoke before the shooting in Las Vegas but after a series of natural disasters caused death and devastation in the United States and Latin America.
In the past six weeks, Americans have grieved for the suffering of residents of Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico as a series of hurricanes killed dozens of people and left countless homes in ruins. An earthquake in central Mexico killed at least 360 people and injured at least 6,000 more on Sept. 19.
Though Sunday’s mass shooting was a man-made disaster, it brought about more wailing as people took to Twitter to ask the question David asked in Psalm 13: “How long, O Lord?”
Others used the internet to complain that a common response of the faithful to the suffering of others — the offering of thoughts and prayers — is hollow.
“Our grief isn’t enough,” Hillary Clinton posted in a reference to gun-control legislation. “We can and must put politics aside, stand up to the NRA and work together to try to stop this from happening again.”
Last semester, Jorgenson led a divinity school alumni retreat focused on the theme of human suffering. Jorgenson and his wife had recently suffered a family loss, he said, “So my mind has certainly wrestled with these questions.”
The group looked at examples of historical figures who endured great suffering, including Job, the Old Testament figure beset by one personal tragedy after another, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian and anti-Nazi dissident who was arrested, imprisoned, held in concentration camps and finally hanged in 1945 by the Hitler regime.
“One of the things we reflected on is the fact that the mystery of human suffering is just that – a mystery,” Jorgenson said. “At the end of the book, Job is reduced to silence and given this vision of the immensity of God and the complexity of the world, and that’s where the book leaves it. His suffering is never dismissed with platitudes.”
In a short speech at the White House on Monday, President Donald Trump took a religious tone without specifically addressing the mystery of suffering.
“Hundreds of our fellow citizens are now mourning the sudden loss of a loved one, a parent, a child, a brother or sister. We cannot fathom their pain, we cannot imagine their loss. To the families of the victims, we are praying for you and we are here for you. And we ask God to help see you through this very dark period,” he said.
“Scripture teaches us the Lord is close to the broken-hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit,” Trump continued. “We seek comfort in those words, for we know that God lives in the hearts of those who grieve. To the wounded who are now recovering in hospitals, we are praying for your full and speedy recovery, and pledge to you our support from this day forward.”
Jorgenson, the theology professor, says comfort won’t come from trying to understand why God allows suffering, a notion that presents a stumbling block for many believers.
“I encounter people who cannot believe in God, who refuse to believe in God, saying they simply cannot believe in a god that allows these things to happen,” Jorgenson said.
But in the Christian tradition, God didn’t just allow humans to suffer. He suffered, too, through the death of his son, Jesus, on the cross.
“That changes everything,” Jorgenson said. “God does not stand back, aloof, from human suffering. We never suffer alone. God is with us, not only in sympathy but in solidarity, as one who has suffered as well.
“That’s not an answer to the mystery of why God allows bad things to happen to good people,” he said. “It doesn’t take away suffering, but it re-signifies it. And that is enough to give hope.”