CARL: Hi friend, I’m Carl Miller, as you’ve tuned into a special edition of Grace to You with John MacArthur, our Bible teacher you hear each day at this broadcast. Remember that John is also president of The Master’s College and Seminary. Let me start by saying how saddened everyone at Grace to You is by the shocking and heartbreaking events at Virginia Tech. If you’ve been personally affected by those events, know that the folks on our staff here are asking God to extend His grace and comfort to you.
Now as we prayed about that tragedy, our thoughts have turned to a number of questions, questions and concerns that you probably have that aren’t being talked about, at least in the mainstream media. So you’re invited now to join John MacArthur for a timely, informal - and we hope helpful - discussion as he considers some soul-searching questions from the Virginia Tech tragedy. Joining John in the studio is the executive director of Grace to You, Phil Johnson. And here is Phil to get things started.
PHIL: John, whenever there’s a national tragedy that arrests the attention of the nation, we’ve tried to address it on Grace to You. We often stop and do a special broadcast on it. This week, Monday began with the worst single shooting massacre in U.S. history in Blacksburg, Virginia at Virginia Tech University. We have a radio presence there. We’re actually on the radio in Blacksburg and in several cities surrounding there. So many of the people who are directly affected by this tragedy are people who are, in a sense, under your pastoral care, and we want to have you talk to them today.
JOHN: Well, I’d be happy to do that and I think because of the media everybody in the country becomes affected in some way because we all enter into the sadness and the tragedy, and everybody poses the same questions. And so far, from what you get on the media side, there really haven’t been any sensible reasonable answers.
PHIL: John, you wear several hats, actually. You’re a pastor. You teach on the radio. But you’re also a college president. And I’m just curious what were your thoughts as a pastor when you first heard about this?
JOHN: Well, I can’t divorce myself as a pastor from being a college president. So I’m really a college pastor president. And my first thought was it’s incomprehensible. It’s devastating. It’s shocking and you know the ache in the heart of the family and the pointlessness of it all. My sympathies run very, very deep because I’m associated with students. I’m on campus. I just came here from our campus, just interacting with students.
And I understand all the hope and the joy and the anticipation and the future that they look forward to, and just to have that obliterated so senselessly is an agonizing thing. And as a pastor, immediately you just want to embrace the moms, and the dads, and the brothers, and the sisters, and the boyfriends, and girlfriends. And so what I want to do is find a point of comfort to shepherd people, but I want to shepherd them in the direction of being aware that this is the inevitable reality.
Look, I’m also a parent. It’s not a stretch for me. I had to defend my youngest daughter from a guy who came after her with a knife and threatened her life. I had to grab a baseball bat in my hand and I can just tell you what wells up in you when somebody threatens to take the life of a child – your child. I understand that horror of that. And I just encourage people turn to Christ. God is your only comfort. Christ is your only hope.
PHIL: Now when you see an act like this, where someone goes on a rampage and for no rational reason whatsoever, just murders people, massacres people, does the Bible speak to that depth of evil?
JOHN: Well, of course. It speaks to the fact that all the imaginations of man’s heart is only evil continually.
PHIL: Is that just some evil people? Or everybody?
JOHN: No. Everybody. There’s none righteous. No, not one. “The poison of asps is under their lip,” says Paul in Romans, borrowing from the Old Testament. We all have the potential poison in us to kill. Jesus even went so far as to say this, that if you hate, you’re a murderer. If you hate, you’re a murderer in your heart. We don’t all carry the act out, but the thought is there, and it’s in the hate, and the anger, and the bitterness that comes from the heart.
PHIL: So the idea that a lot of people have that humanity is basically good and these evil acts are anomalies, that’s just backwards?
JOHN: It is backwards. We are all evil. There’s none righteous. No, not one. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.” And it has to be contained and restrained, or I think we would all break out and do that. And there are restraints.
Family is a restraint. When God ordained families – and I’m talking about Christian families – but when God ordained families, He ordained a structure within those families in which parents would protect children, in which parents even with the natural law of God written in their heart, would lead their children in the direction of good and things that are not harmful to others. So the family is a protection.
Society is a protection because you have social mores and social expectations. Government is a protection. In all societies, there are always going to be expectations and norms that the government upholds and punishes the evildoer. That’s why God ordained government, to punish the evildoer and to bring benefits upon those that do good. So I think there are restraints that God has built in because the heart of man tends toward evil to such a fierce degree, it needs to be restrained.
PHIL: So how do we understand this act? This would be like a small instance of what evil looks like when the restraint is temporarily lifted?
JOHN: It is. And that’s exactly right. That’s really a potential for all of us. The apostle Paul said, “I am what I am by the grace of God.” If it were not for the grace of God, the restraint of God in the world, and certainly the grace of God in the life of a believer, we all have the potential to do that. As to what went on in that guy’s mind specifically, no one probably will ever know. So in terms of an individual situation, we can’t know that. But it is a classic illustration of what is potentially in the heart of everyone if it’s not restrained.
PHIL: What you just said there is probably the most disturbing aspect of this whole truth to me. You’re saying everybody has the potential for evil that dark in their hearts?
JOHN: Yeah. I think the seeds of evil are in every heart. If there’s none righteous. No, not one. If the poison of asps - that’s deadly force - is under their tongues, that’s all of us. We all have the potential to hurt, to harm, to kill, to hate.
PHIL: Yeah. It’s a frightening thought and you hear some of the fear of that being discussed even on secular news programs and all. You mentioned that government is one of the restraints God has put in place. It seems to me that the instinct of most people who talk about this is to say, “Well, let’s pass some laws that would keep this from happening.” You would say that’s not the ultimate answer.
JOHN: It isn’t the ultimate answer. Those laws are in place. And if you listen to the people in the media talking about what happened at Virginia Tech and they talk to the psychologists, they say, “We have everything in place. We have mental health tests. We have counselors. We have all these things in place. We work closely with the police. If we see a student that we think has some bizarre kind of behaviors, we do what we can.”
And what our country wants to do - what people want to do - is blame the police, and blame the counselors, and blame the psychologists, and blame the mental health professionals who should have caught this guy somewhere in the various traps that they set to find people like that. But at the end of the day, it could come from the most unsuspecting person that you never necessarily could predict because this potential could be unleashed in the heart.
And when you realize that it’s aided and abetted by the archmurderer of all murderers, who is Satan himself, he is a murderer from the beginning. He’s the one who basically murdered the human race. And you add that, and you’ve got a potential for this kind of thing. And I think as we think - and this is the question you’re asking – deeply about this, there is no psychological answer to that. Psychology can’t overpower the force of the human heart toward evil. Psychology cannot restrain Satan. The only answer to this is a transformation of the heart. That’s the only answer.
PHIL: One of the things we’ve remarked on before as we’ve looked at various tragedies - September 11th, Katrina, and other disasters that we’ve addressed on Grace to You - is that always after a disaster that just sort of grabs our attention like this it seems like American society, and particularly people the closest to the tragedy, are for a time open to hearing about spiritual things and thinking about spiritual things in a way they’re not usually.
JOHN: Yeah. And you remember, Phil, when 9/11 happened and I got a call from the Larry King program to go on Larry King, and the first question Larry asked me is, “Why did this happen? What does this mean? What’s the significance of this religiously?” And I said, The significance is this. Everybody dies and not everybody is in charge of when. In fact, rarely is anybody in charge of when they die. You’re going to die. That’s the message. You’re going to die. You’re going to die at the bottom of a tower. You’re going to die in a freeway crash. You’re going to die tragically on the Virginia Tech campus while you’re sitting in class in the most safe environment you could probably imagine with the most joy and the most potential. You could die there. You’re going to die. Nobody died there that wasn’t going to die. Nobody died in Blacksburg that wasn’t going to die.
It’s appointed unto man once to die. You remember the story in Luke 13 where Jesus talked about the tower that fell on those people in Siloam and killed I think it was 17 people? And the question was, “Why did that happen?” And Jesus’ answer was, “You better repent because it could happen to you.” That’s the point. The point of all of this is there’s no way that the school with all their good efforts, the psychological community, the police could really stop this because you don’t know where it’s coming from. And the message is that it happened, things like this do happen. The issue is are you ready when it does happen? So that becomes the opportunity for the gospel.
PHIL: Let’s talk about what needs to happen for someone to be ready. You’ve said the only solution to the evil that corrupts all of us is a complete transformation. We’ve talked about God’s relationship to evil, and His sovereignty over it, and all of that. It’s not as if God has left the problem of evil unaddressed, right? Let’s talk about what has He done to deal with the problem of evil and then specifically what does that mean for me as a sinner?
JOHN: Yeah. And what God did was make the ultimate sacrifice, sent His Son, God, the second member of the Trinity, God the Son into the world to feel the full force of evil. And He felt the full force of evil against Himself while He was alive. He was in all points tempted like as we are, felt the full blast of temptation. He, in fact, was not only tempted in every way that we are tempted, but He was tempted in a very, very powerful way by Satan himself, who took Him away into the wilderness and tempted Him directly.
He felt the full force of evil in that sense. He felt the full force of evil and hatred, animosity, rejection, persecution, and even execution. He felt the full force of evil that man could give at its maximum level. But more importantly than that, he felt the full force of evil from the wrath of God. Because on the cross, His words, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?” Was as if You, too – everybody else and You, too. And God had forsaken Him in the sense that God had a abandoned Him to His own wrath to feel the full punishment for all the sins of all the people in the history of the world who would ever believe and be saved. He paid in full the penalty for their sins by being punished in their place.
PHIL: That’s a disturbing thought really, isn’t it? That God would punish His own Son for something He didn’t even do.
JOHN: You know, when you talk about that to your children or your grandchildren, as I do, how would you feel if you were punished for something you didn’t do? That’s not right. That’s not fair. Well, that’s exactly what God did. He punished His Son for what He didn’t do. Well, why would He do that? So He wouldn’t have to punish you for what you did. Now all of a sudden that takes on a different meaning. You’re glad that God did that. So our Lord Himself feels the full weight of sin and the punishment that comes against that sin in an infinite way.
I like to think of it this way. A person who dies and goes to hell without Christ, without salvation, will be punished forever in hell, an unending remorse, unending punishment. That’s an unbelievable concept. If a person in hell forever can’t finally pay for their sins, if all the people in hell forever can’t finally pay for their sins, if it never ends, how in the world could Jesus pay for all the sins of all who would believe? And the answer is that He suffered infinitely. He suffered an eternity of punishment for all those who are His.
PHIL: That’s an amazing thing. What you’re saying is that of all the pains that were inflicted on Christ at the cross by the men who put Him to death: the nails, and the thorns, and the lashings, and all of that –
PHIL: He actually suffered a greater penalty than that at the hands of His own Father?
JOHN: Right. Because He is an infinite person, because He is without limit, He can suffer infinitely and He suffered an eternity of hell for all the people He saved. And so yes, God understands the power of evil and God suffered for evil, even though it wasn’t His own.
That leads to the next obvious thing. How do I get in on that provision? Because it’s only the people who put their trust in Christ who will escape hell. It’s only those whose sins are paid for that won’t have to be punished. So that’s why we say, “The message is look, you don’t want to die without having come to Christ, because then you die and go to hell where you pay forever and never satisfy God. What you want is when you do die – and it could be tomorrow. And it most likely will not be convenient or when you expect it. You want to just make sure that when that happens you go into the presence of God, into the joys of heaven, into the bliss of an eternity that God has prepared for you.”
PHIL: That puts into perspective the question about God’s attitude towards evil. We sometimes – in fact, all of us know what it’s like to feel like, “Well, that wasn’t fair for that person to suffer or for me to suffer,” and yet the only one who is truly innocent and suffered all of that was Christ.
JOHN: And the point is that God allowed evil in the world in order that He might demonstrate His grace, in order that He might redeem a community of people to take to heaven to worship and love Him forever and ever. So that what heaven is is going to be the place where we will praise God for, in a sense, allowing evil so that He could overcome it and save us by grace and take us to the glories of His heaven. So this is what Paul meant when he says, “What if God, what if He planned evil into the world so that He could demonstrate His wrath and so that He could demonstrate His grace on the vessels of mercy?”
So the ultimate answer to evil is God allowed it. He had to allow it. He’s God. Why did He allow it? He allowed it in order to display His grace and His mercy, as well as His justice. And the message of God to the sinner is why will you die? Why will you perish? Come to Me and I will give you life. “And whoever comes to me,” Jesus said, “I will not turn away.” And He wants to grant eternal life to all who will come to Him.
PHIL: So the answer to the question is why does God allow this? Why doesn’t God just destroy evil? The answer to that question is He will.
JOHN: He will. He will.
PHIL: I want to go back to something you said earlier about Christ having suffered everything we’ve suffered. He’s been tempted in every way we can. It’s interesting that the incarnation and the cross sort of destroy that idea that God is just this great sovereign who sits aloof from His creation and watches and orchestrates all this. It’s an amazing thought that He actually got into it and suffered the effects of evil Himself more than any of us.
JOHN: Well, that’s what we were saying earlier. You can’t even comprehend the suffering of evil that came upon Christ. And I think there’s a residual impact on God. If, for example, God wept over the sin of Israel, then God felt, right? If Jesus wept over the sin of Jerusalem like Jeremiah 13 says, “God wept over the sin of Israel,” if Jesus wept over Jerusalem, then God felt the pain of that sin. The apostle Paul says in the Second letter to the Corinthians, he says, “Who is weak and I don’t feel the pain? Who sins and I don’t feel the agony?” You have to understand that God is sympathetic, that God is compassionate.
You see that in the ministry of Jesus. Why would He come into the world and demonstrate His deity by healing people? He could have done a lot of things to show His power. Why healing? Because He’s not just demonstrating His power. He’s demonstrating His compassion. He understands that. And if God wept over Israel’s sin and if God wept over the sin of the city of Jerusalem, could we not imagine that God was also brokenhearted when His Son was bearing sin? I don’t think God is unfeeling, distant. I think the agony that Christ experienced in His sin-bearing would have produced in the Father the same sadness or a more profound sadness that He sees when He sees sin in His creatures.
So God is very feeling. God is very sympathetic. You know that even from a human viewpoint. We’re created in His image. It’s heartbreaking. You see something like that, and you watch that, and tears come into your eyes, and your heart aches, and your heart breaks, and you feel sad for these families. You ache for the loss. You understand that. That’s part of the image of God in us. God is not at all aloof or indifferent. But, of course, the great demonstration is that He gave His own Son.
PHIL: And His Son, Christ, is the one whom we can turn to in a situation like this and really find grace to help in times of need.
JOHN: These are times when Christians, pastors, we need to speak the message to the moment. We need to capture these moments and if we’ll be faithful to do that, then God will use that in the hearts in which His Spirit is moving.
PHIL: Well, I’m going to ask you before we close to actually offer prayer for the people who have been directly affected by this. I did want to say that even though we’re really clear across the country, this affects us all in a personal way. We have friends. You have friends. A couple of graduates from The Master’s Seminary who minister right there in and around Virginia Tech. Mark Vaughan, has a father who is on the faculty there, pastors a church in Roanoke, just in the backyard. He’s an alumnus of Virginia Tech. Rich Ryan, another Master’s Seminary graduate who pastors in Richmond, Virginia is a grad.
JOHN: And then all those precious people that we don’t know, all those families torn and all the chaos in the family of asking, “Why? Why? Why my child? Why? How could this possibly happen?” This is how it is. Just need to be ready.
PHIL: So but our hearts definitely go out to the victims and their friends and family. And we want you, John, before we close today, to just say a prayer on their behalf.
JOHN: Sure. Father, I do pray. I pray particularly for the people most directly affected, losing sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, husbands, wives, friends, acquaintances, that you might cause them to experience the only true comfort, the only true peace, and that is the confidence that You are their comfort. May they turn to You and turn to Christ.
And in the midst of this horrible crisis, I pray, Lord, that many will turn in faith to Jesus Christ, believe in the gospel, recognize that He died to pay the penalty for their sins, confess Him as Lord, be forgiven and be on the way to heaven so that when that inevitable hour comes for them, they’ll be ushered into Your glorious presence. I just pray, Lord, that You’ll use this and that You’ll bring the only true comfort that can come, and that is the comfort that comes in knowing that your eternity is in the hands of a gracious and loving God.
And we know, Lord, that is the only comfort and we would believe that perhaps some of these kids were Christians, and they have entered into the glory of the Lord prepared for them from before the foundation of the world. May that be a comfort to their friends and family who know that they’re in Christ. For the rest, may it be a reminder of how important it is that we take the gospel and give it to every creature so that all might hear and believe.
So do a work, Lord, through the pastors, and through Christian students, and Christian faculty, and staff at the university, and in the community, and even across this country, and around the world. May there be a new openness to prepare for the reality of death by coming to Christ, the only hope, the One who said, “I am the resurrection and the life. He that believeth in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.” And we pray in His name. Amen.