God's Response to Evil: Remembering 9/11
When sin comes out of the shadows and makes itself known, Christians can rest in and declare Christ's resurrection.
Often for young children, sin, death, and evil lack the concrete reality of experience. The stories we tell our children about good and evil can provide instructional warnings about the possibility of harm. Still, instructions about avoiding evil both in yourself and in the world don't make the sin of the world itself real. Instead, the reality of sin, death, and evil hits when you can no longer avoid them, and they happen to you or around you as forces beyond your control.
I was only six years old on September 11, 2001. I had no family or friends living in New York, and I, therefore, cannot claim to have been directly impacted by the terrorist attack that killed and maimed thousands. And while I did not directly suffer, the scale, coverage, and public reaction to the attack constitute 9/11 as one of the events in my life that concretely established the reality of evil in the world I occupy. I remember the world grinding to a halt on that day: the school day ended prematurely, and everyone went home. 9/11 was also my great-grandmother's birthday, and my family still gathered to celebrate with a large tea party at her house. Our extended family had driven or flown in for the event. Typically, there would have been lots of talking and catching up with the living room T.V. turned off. But that year, the T.V. was turned on to the news as the recorded events from the morning were played on repeat and the whole world tried to figure out what had happened and how to respond.
Sometimes my generation is described as growing up in a "Post 9/11 World." I find that accurate in the sense that the broader political world around me was regularly reacting to and remembering the events of 9/11. But for me, the lesson that ultimately sunk in was that evil and death are not something I or anyone else around me can control. The childhood stories are not wrong; you can identify evil and evil people, and sometimes that identification allows you to avoid or stop it. What such accounts fail to communicate is just how prevalent death and evil are. The bad guy isn't always a wolf in the woods that can be easily seen and avoided. And sometimes, the wolf stalks you and attacks before you have a chance to see him coming.
Unlike fables, when Scripture talks about sin, death, and evil, it is not merely giving instructions. Instead, Scripture accounts for the fallen state of the whole world, not just of a few of the people in it. Scripture tells us that evil is not fair, that despite your moral character, sin has a grip on your life. Events like 9/11 harden the truth that death can rob us at a moment's notice, and evil can strike and change the course of the world in just one tragic morning. The total condemnation and identification of evil in the Scripture is the plain work of God's law. Events like 9/11 are not a project in human resilience or a lesson like "whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger." Instead, they are a pointed revelation of sin. The scope of such irreversible suffering, death, and trauma clarifies that no human power can prevent, reverse, or overcome the full consequences of sin.
However, God does not leave us in the despair of these natural and specific revelations of sin. God goes on the offensive against sin and death; he does not let its havoc go unanswered but assails sin with the promise of resurrection and life. This promise is founded in Christ's death on the cross and resurrection from the grave. At the cross, God demonstrates his power to take on death and defeat it along with all evil. That victory and resurrection are then handed over to us by God's Word in faith.
With God's two Words of law and gospel, which both reveal sin and conquer it, Christians are given everything necessary to deal with tragedy and a fallen world. We can first approach tragedy with the truth of the law, calling evil what it is. This proper identification means we do not have to comfort ourselves with the false notion that death occurs as an accident or as a failing of human potential. But rather that sin and death are vicious attacks that we all propagate and to which we all succumb. As an answer to this word of truth in the law, we have a final word of comfort in God's attack against sin. In this word of gospel, Christ's victory becomes our victory. The Apostle Paul declares this reality in 1 Corinthians 15:20-27:
But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For he 'has put everything under his feet'.
When sin comes out of the shadows and makes itself known, Christians can rest in and declare Christ's resurrection. When the world reveals that sin might strike at any moment, Christ reveals that its attacks will always fail to claim you because you already have the victory. "When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: "Death has been swallowed up in victory" (1 Cor. 15:54-55).
Death may assail us in this life, but God has sealed us in an unyielding promise that death will not have the last word, "I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world" (John 16:33). With this promise, God undoes the sting of sin and death so that when sin and unspeakable tragedy proclaim uncertainty into our lives, we can cling to the hope and certainty of Jesus Christ.