Why did 26 people have to die after the deadly attack on the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas last Sunday with 20 seriously wounded? Devin Kelley turned his gun sights on church goers between the ages of five and seventy-two, nine member of the Holcombe family spanning three generations, including a pregnant mother and her child in the womb, cold-bloodedly, mercilessly slaughtered. One five year old in critical condition was shot four times.
Less than two months ago a gunman opened fire on at the Burnett Chapel Church in Antioch, Tennessee killing one and injuring seven; nine killed and one wounded in June, 2015, at the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.; five people killed at the New Life Church in Colorado Springs at the New Life Church. Why all these seemingly senseless cold blooded attacks on peaceful church-goers during the Lord’s Day, the day when communities all over America come together to pray, worship, and give thanks?
To say 2017 has been a bad year for Texas would be a gross understatement.
As those of us in Texas barely caught our breaths after the recent devastating storms in August with flooding and destruction of life and property in the coastal cities and towns of South Texas after Hurricane Harvey took 77 lives, a lone gunman, Stephen Paddock, on October 1st, opened fire from his hotel room on a crowd of concertgoers in Las Vegas, Nevada, murdering 58 and wounding 546 others.
Also in October on the West Coast in Northern California, 13 major wind-whipped fires raged through Santa Rosa, Wine Country towns, and other areas killing over 40 people, some burned to ashes, leveling neighborhoods with over 6,700 buildings, destruction spread over 220,000 acres.
Again another disaster made the headlines on Halloween Eve from lower Manhattan, New York, when Uzbek immigrant, Sayfullo Saipov, an Islamic terrorist, drove a rented pickup truck down a bike lane, mowed down and killed eight and injured eleven innocent people. Two were children and one victim required the amputation of two limbs.
Why has all this evil from man-made and natural disasters engulfed our country? Has the Almighty withdrawn His mercy and Divine providence over our land? Have we failed to heed His call in 2 Chronicles 7:14? Have we humbled ourselves, sought His face, and turned from our wicked ways?
Saintly Franciscan Friar, Fr. Benedict Groeschel (r.i.p.) wrote in Arise from Darkness about the mystery of evil: “Why does evil exist? Why did the God who made the world so beautiful permit it to be scarred with such terrible wounds? Why does God, who is light, permit such darkness?
It is a mystery, difficult to comprehend, why little innocent ones are slaughtered senselessly, even targeted for destruction as they were in Sutherland Springs; why a sacred place of worship is chosen to do the infernal work of Satan. But we know from scripture that in everything God works for good with those who love Him (Romans 8:28) and nothing will separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. (Rm. 8:38-39) Certainly Job was tested to his core, bearing the heaviest tribulations with the loss of family, health, and wealth only to be rewarded in the end by God for his undying fidelity. (Job 42)
We also know that our battle with evil in this life “is not against human forces but against the principalities and powers, the rulers of this world of darkness, the evil spirits in the heavens” (Ephesians 6: 10-12)
I was listening to an interview today featuring an American exorcist, Fr. Vincent Lampert of the Indianapolis archdiocese, who claims there is an alarming increase in demonic activity being reported in the U.S. He said it’s not only about participating in Satanic rituals but also unwittingly opening channels of evil through rampant pornography, habitual drug use, and occultic practices. Other portals include broken family relationships and marriages and habitual sin. (I’m sure readers can think of many other channels.)
While actual demonic possessions are rare, Fr. Lampert explained, more common demonic influences are manifested in infestations, vexations, and obsessions. Infestations happen in places and material things; vexations are actually physical attacks, while demonic obsession involves mental attacks such as persistent thoughts of evil racing through one’s mind.
I read a news article this morning about Devin Kelley who complained to a friend before his deadly rampage that his head was hurting for days. He did have a record of domestic violence committed against his wife and child, fracturing his baby stepson’s skull. Did he succumb to demonic temptations to kill as many people as he could last Sunday? What possessed Stephen Paddock to attempt the massacre of 604 innocent people in Las Vegas?
Paddock at the time of this writing wasn’t known to have a history of mental illness.
The secular Press would never look for answers to these horrific events within the spiritual realm. Fr. Lampert stressed that the upswing of extraordinary demonic activity comes at a time of the decline of faith in our western societies whose people were converted to the Christian faith many centuries ago. A recent report, he commented, showed that 70% of millennials no longer profess any religious affiliation.
An article in Psychology Today titled ‘The Devil? Seriously?“ derides the Christian and Moslem belief in the devil. The author writes:
“But there is no such thing as the devil, just as there is no such thing as fairies, imps, or goblins. The two largest religions in the world — Christianity and Islam — teach that there is a devil. And they are wrong. There is no evidence for such a thing. Not a shred. It is simply something that germinated from the unscientific, irrational minds of early humans who tried their best to explain why bad things happen to good people, why good people sometimes do bad things, and why there is so much needless suffering in the world.”
But for Christians the existence of the devil is irrefutable. Why? Because Christ said so. The Gospels place great emphasis on the direct battle between Christ and Satan. For example, 1 Jn. 3:8, Mk. 1:23-27, 1:32-34, 39, 3:11-12, 5:1-20, Mk. 9:14-29, Mt. 4:24, Lk. 13:11-17, Mk. 5:9, Acts 10:38.
Another troubling observation Fr. Lampert made was the suggestion that evil makes a greater claim on people in the apostate world than the pagan world. Apostates are those who were once believers or who may have been initiated in the faith but have then renounced their faith, “an act of refusing to continue to follow, obey, or recognize a religious faith”. Evil makes a greater claim on those who turn a deaf ear and abandon their faith.
A renowned exorcist and author who was the official exorcist of Rome, Fr. Gabriele Amorth (r.i.p.), was convinced that the work of ISIS (Islamic State) is the work of Satan.
A revealing indication of demonic influence is the state of mind of mass murderers who often take their own lives, including Jihadist suicides. In Dante’s classic Divine Comedy, the poet reserves the 7th circle of Hell for those who have committed violence against God, to self, or to one’s neighbor, that is those who curse God, despise nature, who commit suicide and homicide. The punishment of the souls of suicides, due to the violence they’ve committed against their bodies, a gift from God, is the denial of a body even after the resurrection at the final judgment.
What is Fr. Lampert’s response to evil? People must establish an authentic relationship with Christ. The Church must practice what it preaches and go out into the world to bring the love of Christ to all corners. In his book, Devil, Demons, and Spiritual Warfare, Tom Brown reminds his readers that the Church like Paul is commissioned by Christ to bind the power of the devil over those in bondage and in habitual sin, “sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness for sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:17-18).
UPDATE – November 17, 2017:
Kevin Neal’s rampage in Rancho Tehama, a small community in Northern California started on Monday, November 13th when he shot and killed his wife, hiding her body beneath the floor of their home. He then proceeded to shoot and kill four others and wound ten.
His sister, Sheridan Orr of Cary, North Carolina, was interviewed and she lamented tearfully that since October of last year, “I loved him as my brother but I didn’t recognize him … He seemed possessed or demonic. There was no inkling of that child we loved who could sing opera and crack jokes…”
It is fitting to end this reflection by sharing the heartrending message, Steve Branson, Pastor of Village Parkway Baptist Church in San Antonio, sent out on social media after hearing about the tragic events in Sutherland Springs:
My heart was broken to hear of the shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs. The number of people who were killed or wounded would have been almost the entire congregation worshiping at the First Baptist Church this morning. No matter the reason behind the shooter, it is again a senseless act of evil that proceeds from the heart of man.
What troubles me, is that there are acts of violence that are happening all over America. And just like we always do, everyone will be running now to their political view point to begin explaining the shootings or how to control the people to stop the shootings. I am tired of politicians and pundits trying to give answers to problems they do not fully understand.
I want to stop for a moment and remember the words of Hosea. He says, “There is no faithfulness or kindness or knowledge of God in the land. There is swearing, deception, murder, stealing and adultery. People employ violence, and bloodshed follows bloodshed. Therefore the land mourns!”
Here we are again, as we mourn the loss of 26 people in a worship service.
On this evil day in South Texas, I stand firm on the truth that Jesus Christ is the only answer to what is happening around us. In the midst of all the anger that is running throughout our nation, I asked you to join me and to stand firm on the truth that the only hope for our nation is Jesus Christ.
Join me in saying, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” (Romans 1:16)
And may the Lord’s grace be sufficient for every broken heart at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs.