Article Nov 14, 2018

How should Christians respond to the recent tragedies in California?

If you’ve grown up in California as I have or lived here any number of years, then seeing, hearing about, and smelling fires becomes a fairly regular thing. I’ve woken up multiple times to find soot on my car from a nearby fire, to find myself outside when ash is falling from the sky, or to see the sunlight turn red from the smoke.

Then, there are fires like the ones we are seeing right now. As of the writing of this article, the death toll for the Camp Fire in northern California has risen to 42, making it the deadliest wildfire in the state’s history. Currently, more than 52,000 people have been evacuated while the fire has destroyed over 6,400 homes and 260 other structures. Around 228 people remain missing.

Multiple fires are also blazing in southern California. The biggest one, the Woolsey Fire, has burned over 91,000 acres, destroyed 370 structures, and killed two people. This brings the statewide death count from these fires to 44. And both fires are still only about 30 percent contained.

On top of the fires, California is also reeling from a deadly mass shooting last Wednesday at the Country Music Bar in Thousand Oaks during the bar’s “College Country Night!”. Many in attendance were between the ages of 18-24. A 28-year-old gunman entered the bar, set off a smoke bomb, then shot and killed 12 while wounding several others before killing himself. His motive is still unknown. Several of those who were there that night, including one victim, had also survived the deadly shooting in Las Vegas last October.

In response to such horrendous tragedies, what are we as Christians supposed to do? What can we even say?

The problem of evil

Albert Mohler, in his Briefing podcast Monday morning, astutely pointed out that both of these headlines demonstrate the two major kinds of evil: moral evil (evil perpetrated by a moral agent like a person, such as with the mass shooting) and natural evil (evil that results from natural events, like fires or earthquakes). Try as we might with our limited vocabulary, ‘evil’ seems to be the only word which captures enough gravitas to communicate the moral weight of what has taken place. Even then, we have to qualify ‘evil’ with words like ‘heinous’ or ‘egregious.’

In the wake of such events, morality is inescapable. Even in our modern, secular culture, no person would be able to maintain a relativistic morality in the face of such tragedies without immediately losing credibility. This goes back to the image of God in each person. We are all created moral beings with moral responsibilities. We all maintain and act according to a system of morality whether we will admit it or not.

As Christians, we understand that both kinds of evil have a common root—sin. Genesis 3 tells us that when sin entered the world, it led to the corruption of both human nature and creation itself. It separated us from God and distorted our relationships with one another. Genesis 4 paints no clearer picture of this than when Cain murdered Abel.

Yet, we must also remember not just the origins of evil but also the solution which God has provided through the gospel. Because of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, God opened a way for the root of moral evil to be dealt with—our redemption through the forgiveness of sins (2 Cor. 5:17, Rom. 6:6).

The gospel also brings with it hope for the future. We still live in a world where the effects of sin are palpably present in the actions of others, in the created order, and in our own lives. We await a future in which true justice reigns under the authority of Christ, and everything is made right in the new heavens and new earth, when God will, “wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away" (Rev. 21:4). We are told in the next verse that these words are trustworthy and true. Ultimately, our hope rests in the perfect God who has promised this will come to pass.

Until then, we groan, and creation along with us (Rom. 8:18-23), because we know that things aren’t the way they are supposed to be.

What can we do?

In the midst of these tragedies, we should never cease to do several things:

  1. Pray. Even as our culture grows more hostile toward prayer after tragedies, let’s not waver in our commitment to pray without ceasing (1 Thess. 5:17, Rom. 12:12). We should pray that God would comfort the victims and for guidance in how we might respond to this situation.
  2. Be hospitable and generous (Rom. 12:13). If you live near one of the affected areas, open your home to a family who needs a temporary place to stay, or have a family over for a home-cooked meal. If you are able, give financially to a trusted organization to help provide relief to those suffering because of these tragedies.
  3. Mourn with those who mourn (Rom. 12:15). Even if we struggle with answering the big questions in the face of evil, we should always be physically and emotionally present to comfort those who need comfort (2 Cor. 1:3-4).
  4. Love. All of the above suggestions (and many more which I failed to mention) can be summed up in the command to love our neighbor as ourselves (Mark 12:31). However the Spirit is moving in your heart to respond to these tragedies, be obedient to his voice, trusting that he will give you the ability to accomplish what he has given you to do.
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