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In light of the tragedy in Boulder this week, we decided to republish this blog post. Pete wrote this the day after Sandy Hook in 2012, and sadly it is still relevant today. We still have no answers and haven’t gotten remotely closer to wrapping our heads around it, so we are reposting what Pete wrote that next day. 

Who cares what I think about all this? I’m not really sure if I care what I think about all this.

I didn’t sleep well last night and I woke up sad and unsettled. For some reason, killing these 20 children and 6 adults in Connecticut yesterday burrowed deep into my heart and has decided to stay put for a while.

What kind of God would let…..

This sort of thing happens all the time. We all know that. In recent months the news has been full of these “stories.”

But it’s actually far worse. Violence against innocents—whether at the hand of individuals, groups, tribes, or nations—is as old as recorded time. Violence and the drama of human history go hand in hand.

And people have been asking, in one way or another, “Uh, excuse me, God?” ever since learned scribes began writing about God/the gods on rock, clay, animal skin, and papyrus.

What kind of God would … indeed. In my opinion, this is the grand struggle of any faith in God, a higher power, whatever.

It’s an age-old question that no one can solve, but that every college philosophy student and seminarian has to take a deep look at:

If God is all-loving and all-powerful, why do things like this happen? Why does God let them happen? Why doesn’t God do something—now, right here?

Good questions.

Well, like I said – who cares what I think – but these moments test one’s faith more than most. And it makes other “challenges to our faith”—like whether there was a historical Adam or whether the Bible was written after the return from Babylonian exile—look like a splash in a shallow puddle compared to the deep, black, ocean storm of 5 year olds getting shot because they went to school one day.

I can easily get my arms around a God whose book begins with a mythic story of a naked first couple holding a conversation with a serpent, or a Bible that wasn’t written until the 5th century BC. But yesterday? There is nothing “easy” about it.

This is going to sound like advice, but it’s not. Neither is it an answer. But, at times like this, three disconnected thoughts come to my mind.

(1) There are many wonderful and beautiful things about the world we live in, but things are also seriously and undeniably [feel free to use the predicate adjective of your choice].

(2) If you believe in God, there will always come a point—and sooner than we tend to think—where our understanding hits a wall at 80 mph.

(3) The way of sorrow and pain is built into the Christian story, particularly the suffering of innocents: the Gospel claims that God himself took part in suffering and death.

Anyway, I’m still unsettled, and sad, and I don’t really feel like editing the next chapter in a book where I have to act like I understand God better than I really do.


About 2 years after the tragedy, Jimmy Greene, father of Ana Marquez-Greene (jazz composer and musician) released a CD as a tribute to his daughter.

Great music. Great dad. And a very moving story.

O God, whose beloved Son did take little children into his
arms and bless them: Give us grace, we beseech thee, to
entrust this child Ana, all of children, and the adults who lost their lives,
to thy never-failing care and love, and
bring us all to thy heavenly kingdom; through the same thy
Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee
and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. 

Almighty God, Father of mercies and giver of comfort:
Deal graciously, we pray thee, with all those who mourn, that
casting every care on thee, they may know the consolation of
thy love; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen. [Book of Common Prayer] [For those seeking more information on preventing gun violence, Sandy Hook Promise is a national 3 million plus member non-profit organization founded and led by several family members whose loved ones were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012. Visit the website and consider supporting their cause.]

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.


  • dangjin1 says:

    Children are NOT innocent or Paul would not have been led to write: for ALL have sinned…

    Children sin all of the time get used to the idea. Children can be victims, get used to the idea and stop being a drama queen

    • peteenns says:

      So….Dang, Jin, you’re not a parent are you?

      Just a heads up: keep it respectful this time. I am watching closely to see if you’re naughty or nice…

      Also, a careful study of Romans might suggest that what Paul means by “all” in ch. 3 may not be what you assume it means

      • Myron Williams says:

        Thanks for your reply to the reply. Violence against others is horrid, no matter where in the world it takes place. But violence against children because they are not innocent somehow excuses Herod’s death of the babies in Bethlehem, or children in Syria today. May the prince of peace somehow help humanity to find his peace.

      • Jim says:

        I guess I should have just quietly hit the down vote button on the dangjin1 comment, but hey that’s way too professional for me. I kind of look at it like this; the good Lord blessed some people with shit for brains.

    • Ann Gingrow Corbett says:

      I don’t think anyone should ever get used to the idea of five and six year-old children–yes, innocents–getting shot at school. A year later, I still don’t understand what propelled the shooter into that school, and I’m sure I never will.

    • Matt Parkins says:

      Name one court that would convict a 5 or 6 year old of anything? Whatever a child did it’s not that 5 or 6 year old that would end up in jail, but the responsible adult.

      Children push, test and learn where boundaries are – they don’t sin – they’re doing exactly what God designed their curious minds to do.

    • CB says:

      I suspect your God isn’t the Christian God represented in the face of Christ, but some cosmic Caesar or Greek Zeus, just waiting for the humans to do something wrong so they can be punished because they haven’t lived up to the standards required of them. No doubt you must go around waiting for something bad to happen to you, because as you believe, everyone, including children deserves punishment.

    • Andrew Dowling says:

      What has happened in your life to make you so bitter and unhappy? Honestly I pity you.

    • David Schoen says:

      Really? Drama queen for lamenting over the needless death of 20 children? Did a 6 year old ride his bike through your favorite flower bed? Hit your car with a snowball? What bitterness could possibly produce such a statement? You have my pity.

    • Leanne Luo says:

      “Children can be victims”–a truly thought-provoking statement. But chrildren can also be targeted at especially because they are children! And this makes them a special type of victims.

  • Beau Quilter says:

    The too-easy answer to the problem of evil is free will … that somehow free will is so important to the human condition, that God has no choice but to allow the Adam Lanza’s of the world the free will to commit the most atrocious murders. But even if this twisted logic were true, it doesn’t explain the thousands who died in the Phillippines this year at the hand of Typhoon Haiyan.

    • Ryan says:

      Let’s be clear – ALL die, and it’s pretty much guaranteed that most experiences of death are going to be anything but pleasant. Singling out one large scale event doesn’t necessarily clarify the situation.

      For me, the flip side of allowing creaturely rebellion is the limitation of lifespan as a grace, i.e. eternally evil creatures would be a more monstrous proposition.

      • Beau Quilter says:

        It’s true that all die, but the evidence suggests that death is neither a grace nor “the wages of sin”, but rather a naturally evolved system for getting rid of the older generations to make way for the younger, recycling our bodies in the process.

        • Ryan says:

          Death is not an evolved system in any sense, speaking either casually or scientifically. It may be that particular lifespans are selected for some species. Indefinite aggregation or ordered existence doesn’t seem to be built into the fabric of the universe. This has been the case even before the very first primitive cell membranes.

          Whether death is a grace cannot be assessed by evidence unless we drag certain axioms into the conversation that come from outside the scientific method.

          • Beau Quilter says:

            Of course death is a result of evolutionary processes, and there is a host of scientific studies that demonstrate this. Here is a good source from Nature for understanding death from an evolutionary perspective:


          • Ryan says:

            This is exactly selection of lifespan (a.k.a. ageing), as I alluded to. I think it’s quite clear from the lack of immortal beings in common experience that death at no point became a feature that wasn’t there before.

          • Beau Quilter says:

            That depends entirely upon what you mean by “immortal”. Not all life forms experience senescence:


          • Ryan says:

            I would mean the customary definition of immortal, as in “living forever”, not merely long-lived. It’s about the difference between “big” and “infinite”, or roughly the difference between micro- and macro-evolution if we want to play YEC-style semantic games.

          • Beau Quilter says:

            It’s not just a semantic game; it’s about the way we perceive of a life form and biological death. The vast majority of life on earth is single celled life. Many single celled life forms reproduce by cell division. When a cell divides into two, does the cell that existed previously cease to exist? Or does it’s life continue as two beings, then four, then eight, …?

            Now, it’s true that such cells can be eaten or killed by other organisms; but many such cells never experience senescence, the sort of aging that we find in mammals, for instance. And trillions of cells do survive asexual cell division to go on dividing into the future. Does each division “kill” the cell that divided, or is each new cell, simply a continuation of the original cell that divided billions of years ago?

            Consider plant life. Many plants reproduce asexually by continually producing new sprouts among the roots. Individual shoots or trunks might age or die in other ways, but each new sprout is genetically identical, and they are all connected by single root system. Scientists have given the name “Pando” to a grove of quaking aspen in Utah that covers over a hundred acres, all with one giant root system and identical genetic markers. What used to be regarded as a forest of single trees is now regarded as a single organism, estimated to be 80,000 years old.

            For billions of years asexual reproduction, such as cell division, was the only form of reproduction, and though death in the form of getting eaten or burning in a steam vent certainly existed, death as a natural aging process had not yet evolved.

            So, as any biologist could tell you, your statement that “death is not an evolved system in any sense” is simply false.

          • Ryan says:

            Those are fascinating examples.

            However, an actual biologist would use words like apoptosis, necrosis or autolysis (or senescence for a more complex organism), especially when referring to the evolution of these mechanisms. And, even when discounting all known methods of senescence (telomere shortening, DNA damage, gene regulation, etc.) – evolved or not – no sane person would deny that death would still be universal.

            And I think it is patently obvious that this “lack of immortality” is what is being referred to in the context of the discussion, but feel free to conflate it with something else.

          • Beau Quilter says:

            Of course, I’m not a biologist, and neither are you, but whatever you think a “sane” person would deny, there is no denying that biologists discuss death in terms of evolved processes. And these processes have a profound effect on the way that we perceive death.
            It is not “patently obvious” that “lack of immortality” is all that death means in the context of this discussion. Death entails so much more: pain, the loss of youth, aging, accident, intent to harm. I’m no longer sure what you are trying to argue, but the argument has lost all nuance.

          • Ryan says:

            Well then, let me refresh your memory:
            I submitted (paraphrasing for clarity) that the possibility of immortal beings seems to be ruled out in this universe. I speculated that there was a grander purpose to this, allied to the problem of evil.

            You then countered that some very specific scientific understandings of the evolution of certain senescence mechanisms was an alternative (and presumably incompatible) explanation. As far as I can see, this is colliding two problem domains and I would struggle to reconcile even the terminologies, let alone prove that one submission rules out the other. If nuance was lost, it was at this point.

            But this is a symptom of a more widespread popular scientistic trend:

            e.g. Morality is explained as the product of mirror neurons (no doubt that they play a role in human behaviour, but playing the “let’s forget everything that has ever been said in philosophy” game wears thin)

            We redefine consciousness as “self awareness” (as it’s far more conducive to analysis), run a couple of experiments and then project back to claim breakthroughs in the “science of consciousness”. (There is no shortage of entirely agnostic philosophers who have huge problems with this methodology, never mind the hijacking of terminology)

            We put several people in an MRI machine, instruct them to have “religious experiences” and then make claims about which areas of the brain cause religion. Please?! Have we really become this egregiously idiotic?

            The experiments and results are fascinating, but the interpretation and meaning (mainly as treated in the popular science section of the bookstore) beggars belief – relying on fantastic ignorance of elementary philosophical considerations that have been pondered since antiquity.

            I love science, but there is a philosophy of science that deeply determines both the scope and interpretation of science. Pretending that we can toss philosophical concepts into the scientific method, grind them up willy nilly and then retrieve meaningful insights is one of the stupidest ideas ever.

          • Beau Quilter says:

            Actually i was the one who started this comment thread about the problem of evil, with a statement that really simply pointed out that the problem of evil doesn’t only entail human evil of intent, but pain and suffering throughout the history of life on earth.

            That fact that I reject Christian concepts such as “grace” and the “wages of sin” as answers to the problem of evil, certainly doesn’t entail that I reject all philosophical approaches to science or ethics.

            So the strawman you are addressing in your last six paragraphs bears no resemblance to me.

  • Lise says:

    I am very glad you re-posted this entry.

    I whole-heartedly agree that horrific tragedy and man’s inhumanity to man cause us to pause and question where God is in our lives. Likewise, violence has been on-going since the beginning of time. But when it comes to what we’re seeing in America, we as a nation are becoming too complacent. So many factors go into the rise of gun violence and mass shootings that I’m not going to reduce it to idolatry of guns. A myriad of social issues are creating the dynamic. But to shake our hands as a culture and say, “There is nothing that can be done…. Shootings are going to happen in schools, airports and McDonald’s and it just is what it is….We should get used to it,” represents gross negligence, cowardice and laziness. If we’re a civilized people with a vested interest in social justice and LIFE, we would be looking at this issue from every angle possible and trying to find at least some solutions.

  • I remember when you wrote this. I found it just as relevant today as I did then; possibly because of the happenings in Yemen over the week. Over the course of the past few days, I have seen little to no voicing about the matter; rather, the attention is focused on Fox News and other public figures. Anyways, when I read about that, my heart broke because these people were getting ready to celebrate the union of life, but now, the focus is on the tragic loss. Sometimes, I wonder why God lets stuff like this happen; why people die from starvation every day, stuff like that. I’m just glad God is bigger than my inability to fathom all of it; bigger than my inability to perfectly help and provide for and console those in need.

    Thanks for this, Peter. Hope you’re having a good weekend.

  • RustbeltRick says:

    I don’t know, I think there are plenty of answers. The same answers that many other countries have discovered. Countries where people don’t get shot every day.

    To see gun violence and conclude “nothing can be done” would be like seeing car wrecks every day and concluding the same thing. Ridiculous. With cars, we can do any number of things — more stop signs, slower speed limits, stricter controls on young drivers, more cops at key intersections, better engineered roads, better airbags, and on and on. Funny how with guns, we’re convinced it’s just too hard to try.

  • Unlike other problems of philosophical theology such as the ontological argument, the problem of evil includes both a rational and an emotional aspect which are deeply intertwined.

    This is all too obvious when one ponders on such horrible stories.

    I became particularly aware of this as I wrote a response to an atheistic video about the evidential problem of evil.

    There are interesting reasons for why God allows evil, but in the end the position known as skeptikal theism (we cannot know all the reasons for why God allowing evil) seems to be required.

    It stands to reason that reasoning is something which is to be avoided when you try to comfort someone in pain.

    For those interested in the intellectual aspects, I can only recommend an excellent article of professor Randal Rauser who represents the very best of Evangelicalism in terms of the intellectual defense of Christianity.His intellectual honesty and openness is truly astounding when compared with that of William Lane Craig or Paul Copan.

  • Censored says:

    Violence…is as old as recorded time.

    It’s comforting to our culture to think that, but actually organized violence started just a few thousand years ago, with the “Neolithic Revolution” (the beginnings of agricultural civilization.) Before that:

    Is it natural for humans to make war? New study of tribal societies reveals conflict is an alien concept | The Independent (UK) | 18 July 2013

    This latest study is just a clincher to what anthropology has been discovering, as summarized by these two excerpts:

    “Civilization originates in conquest abroad and repression at home.” ~Stanley Diamond, In Search of the Primitive: A Critique of Civilization, p. 1

    “The emergence of systematic warfare, fortifications, and weapons of destruction follows the path of agriculture.” ~Violent Origins (Stanford University Press, 1987)

    Is the recent increase in organized violence the foundation of the concept of “original sin?”

    Mennonite theologian Ched Myers interprets the Genesis narrative through the eyes of the last 70 years of anthropological discovery, and has written this about “Man’s Fall:”

    Ched Myers (2005) The Fall. Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature. Edited by Bron Taylor. NY: Continuum.

    This lecture parallels Myer’s thought:

    Our Religions: Are they the Religions of Humanity Itself?
    Daniel Quinn, Fleming Lecture in Religion, Southwestern University, Georgetown, Texas, October 18, 2000

  • Susan_G1 says:

    The suffering of innocents – problem as old as time itself. How many of us tell ourselves we wold have stopped a bullet for those kids? I know I feel this way.

    I don’t want to downplay either the tragedy of the Newtown shooting or the problem of evil. But I do want to point out a tension we allow ourselves to live with every day.

    There are now 22,000 homeless children ( living in NYC, the highest number since the Great Depression. One in five children now live at or below the poverty level. Their lives aren’t tragically cut short; they live long and incredibly painful lies of despair. I wonder why we do not hear of these who are still live and with us, whom we can still help? Does the poor we will always have with us mollify our response?

  • Luke Breuer says:

    To what extent does this issue boil down to:

         (1) What kind of God would let Cain kill Abel?

    I think we’re pretty sure that Abel did nothing deserving of death. Cain got a warning from God that his anger would lead to sin if he didn’t properly deal with it. So why did God let Cain go through with it? By not intervening further, God disagreed with the following premise:

         (2) Innocents ought never be harmed.

    The Fall is often used as an excuse that there are no innocents (see dangjin1’s comment, below), but even the Bible puts this in question; see Isa 7:14-16, where Immanuel himself did not “know how to refuse the evil and choose the good” until a certain age. And yet God lets such innocents die. God will warn us, but often he will not stay our hands once we’ve made our choice.

    The problem of evil has increasingly caused me to wonder: to what extent is it passing the buck to God, saying that it costs too much for us to stem evil, and therefore God ought to do that job for us? Nehemiah was willing to confess the sins of his ancestors, but we blame those sins on God.

    I don’t mean to come off as cold-hearted, but I am well-acquainted with the tendency of society to lay all its sins on scapegoats, as if various shooters did what they did entirely on their own accord, instead of being supported by their communities by action (e.g. shunning) or inaction (letting them hurt without reaching out in effective ways). If we admit that we had responsibility, we could not longer merely ask, “How could God let this happen?”—we have to start asking “How could we let this happen?” That is a very hard question; few wish to ask it.

  • Tim says:

    When people discuss “How could God allow …” they often seem to be saying that if God doesn’t square up to their idea of what he should be like, then it’s an indication that God doesn’t really exist. That thinking doesn’t make sense, of course. A lot of people do things I can’t understand, but they still exist.

    Horrific tragedies like that in Newtown should lead people to question lots of things about themselves and the world God has put us in. That’s why I joined Ellen Painter Dollar this year in her #itisenough campaign and wrote about my resolve not to use deadly force in self-defense.

    It’s not a post against protecting others with deadly force if necessary, but merely in my own self-preservation. But these tragedies get me thinking about stuff like this.


  • Don Bryant says:

    I like your phrase, “I don’t really feel like editing the next chapter in a book where I have to act like I understand God better than I really do.” Ain’t it so. Knowing a bit about what I don’t know, not living up to what I do know, and sometimes not so “into” what I do know, all haunt me when it’s time for the “expert” to write or speak. I think I mostly do my best but feel sorry for people who think they are getting from me a more real deal than they could ever get from a man.

  • PastorM says:

    Then, there are some unbelievably sadistic conspiracy theory folks who say that this never happened.

  • Michael Roberts says:

    The only way is to restrict gun ownership as every other country does. I live in Britain and don’t know where my nearest gunshop is

  • Sheila Warner says:

    5 years on & you still have nothing new? 5 years on I have walked away from the Biblical myths, including the Gospels. Only the terrible shooting at the TX church comes close to my feelings after Sandy Hook.

  • Sheila Warner says:

    How do you explain natural disasters & disease? Does “the Fall” explain these? Eating a piece of fruit caused the planet to drastically change? I don’t believe that for a second.

  • Al Cruise says:

    Interesting thing is that a vast amount of people, despite all the doubt , don’t want to throw in the towel on decency and hope. I would argue that amount is increasing daily in spite of Religions.

  • //How could God let this happen?”—we have to start asking “How could we let this happen?” That is a very hard question; few wish to ask it.//

    I think One may ask and build one’s life on wisdom as it is revealed by research, by contemplation, by prayer, by getting close to ppl in a community that is learning to be courageous, humbled, stripped of illusions of privilege, prejudice, exceptionalism.

  • James Voth says:

    After this happened, a friend of mine wrote a song that mirrors your thought, Pete.
    Don’t now if this is allowed, but….

  • Ryan says:

    This is why the Incarnation matters.It’s one thing to agree that we live in a pretty sh*##y world – but it totally changes everything to suggest that God voluntarily subjected himself to this sh*##y world, to its fullest extent. What you have is a murder of a *true* innocent premised on false charges enacted by corrupt religious leaders colluding with a capricious empire. When I know that, it totally alters my ability to level charges at God.

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