Facing the Absurdity of Evil and the Fear of Death

As most of you know, last Sunday a missionary family from Bethlehem Baptist Church was killed in a tragic car accident. Jamison and Katherine Pals, along with their children Ezra (3), Violet (2), and Calvin (3 mo.), were driving to their final training with World Venture before they headed to Japan, when their car was struck by a semi, ending their lives and their plans to bring the gospel to the Japanese people. 

    Some of you knew the Pals personally, but stories like theirs leave an impact on all of us, and I’d like to think about why. We all know that people die. People die every day. We all know that all of us are going to die. So why do deaths like these shock us so? Why are we so unnerved by their deaths, even if we didn’t know them personally? I think there are at least two reasons. First, their deaths surprise us. No one saw these deaths coming. A young couple, with young children, on their way to fulfill God’s call on their lives. And then gone! Just like that. The surprise of their death gets to us in a way that the death of a soldier in battle, or a grandfather in his 80’s does not. We certainly grieve the death of a soldier and a grandfather, but they don’t shock and surprise us in the same way.

And this is the second reason their deaths shock us: we feel that these deaths don’t make sense. We can make sense of death in battle and death in old age. But these deaths—cut down in the prime of life, as babies, just before they set out on their holy ambition—these deaths feel absurd, purposeless. Our grief is mixed with a deep and haunting fear. If they can die like that, I can die like that. If their whole family can be ripped from the world on a Nebraska highway, then my family can be ripped from the world on I-35 on the way back from Texas, or driving in Roseville, or walking down the street in South Minneapolis. These deaths terrify us because they remind us of how little control we have over our lives. They shatter our sense of security, and the illusion that we’re ever truly safe from death. The absurdity of evil and death is a terrifying thing. 

And so, if we knew them, we groan because we miss them. And if we didn’t know them, we groan because we’re shocked and we fear because of the seeming vanity and absurdity of it all. 

So what do we do in the face of such grief and such absurdity and such fear? Christianity offers two answers to the shocking and absurd evil that befell our community this last week. It offers us story, and it offers us song. We need the story, because stories are how we make sense of reality. When we place the Pals’ death in the larger story of God’s purposes in the world, we’re comforted because we know that their death was not in vain. God has purposes, even if we can’t see what they are. Second, Christianity offers us song. We need some place for the chaos of our emotions to go. The fear, the grief, the terror, the sadness, the sorrow, the surprise—all of them are churning inside of us, and we need something to bring order to the chaos. That’s one of the reasons we sing—music cuts channels in our souls so we can pour out our grief and fear and sorrow to God. 

    But of course, stories and song are only helps to us, if they are rooted in reality. We don’t want help from illusions. But the story we tell here and the songs that we sing here are rooted in reality. The ultimate answer to every tragedy, to every absurd evil, to every anguish and fear of the soul is the gospel of Jesus. His death is the answer to the absurdity of our sin; his resurrection is the answer to death itself. And so we tell the old story and we sing the old songs.

This reminds us of our need to confess our sins, so let’s seek his presence together now. 

Prayer of Confession

Our Father and God, we live in a world of sin and death, and therefore, a world filled with unimaginable absurdities. And these terrify us. We fear tragedy, we fear human cruelty, we fear that death will surprise and wreck us. And our two responses are either to suppress the reality of death and try to hide from it, or to build castles of security to protect ourselves. We try to deliver ourselves from the fear of death by trusting in our technology or our doctors or our wealth. We believe the lie that we can make ourselves perfectly safe. And this attempt at self-reliance is a great evil. 

    What’s more, Father, as your covenant people, we too live in fear of death. Though we trust in Jesus, we too fear what the Pals’ story means for us. “That could have been us” haunts our nights, and it haunts them because it’s true. We are not safe from death. Forgive us, O God, for seeking security in other places, for allowing our anxiety to paralyze us. Forgive us for running from you because we’re afraid of what you might do to us. Help us to believe that while we are not safe from death, because of Jesus you will not abandon us to death. Death has no sting, and we need not fear.

    We know that if we in the church regard sin in our own midst or in our own hearts, our prayers will be ineffectual. So we confess our individual sins to you now. 

Assurance of Pardon

    God has put everything in subjection to Jesus. At present, we do not see everything in subjection to him. But, in our worship and in our songs, we see Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death. He partook of flesh and blood so that through death, he might destroy the one who has the power of death and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. You don’t need to be enslaved to the fear of death anymore. You have confessed your sins. You have acknowledged your iniquity. Therefore, by the authority of Jesus Christ and as a minister of his gospel, I declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Thanks be to God!

Much of this exhortation was inspired by an article by Martin Cothran, “How Literature Solves the Problem of Evil.”