How Should We Respond to Mass-Death Events?

It’s been nearly 20 years since 9/11/01, when almost 3000 people died in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and United Airlines Flight 93. Before that, there were terrorist attacks around the world as well, but since then, the pace of such attacks has dramatically accelerated.

Another type of mass killing that had been accelerating pre-COVID, at least in the United States, is mass shootings. The most infamous one prior to the new millennium was at Columbine High School in April of 1999, in which 15 people died. In April of 2007, 33 students and teachers were shot dead at Virginia Tech. In June of 2016, 50 were killed in Orlando, and in what seems like a deadly “game” of one-upmanship, 61 were killed in Las Vegas in October, 2017.

I should also mention other mass-death events that are natural catastrophes, such as earthquakes, tsunamis, and of course plagues like COVID-19. There are a number of ways that one could analyze these mass-death events, but for the purposes of this post, my question is: how should we respond to them?

On the morning of 9/11, when the horrifying events were unfolding in real time, I found myself thinking about Scripture and what might give me the best perspective. What came to mind was a passage that I didn’t remember very well, but I knew it was somewhere in the Gospels. That passage is Luke 13: 1-5, which I’m writing here, in its entirety:

“Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them–do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.'”

The first event was a mass killing of (likely) Galilean rebels ordered by Pilate while they were offering sacrifices; the second was a “natural” event, in this case the collapse of a building. Notice that Jesus did not say that the people who died in these two events were “innocent;” He said that they were not “worse sinners” (verse 2) or “more guilty” (verse 4) than the survivors. This was to counter the widespread belief that those people who suffered, or even died, were somehow worse sinners than those who didn’t die or who didn’t suffer in a similar way. Even Jesus’s disciples were not immune to this belief, as we can see in the first three verses of John 9: “As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned,’ said Jesus, ‘but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.'” Jesus then goes on to heal this man of his blindness.

However, notice that in Luke 13, Jesus warns us, twice, that even though the people who died in the two events were not worse sinners than the survivors, “unless you repent, you too will all perish.” In other words, if you are not already a believer, repent and trust Jesus; if you don’t, you will go to hell when you die. That does not mean all of the Galileans or the 18 people who died when the tower fell on them were unbelievers; however, it is a warning to the survivors because they still have a chance to repent, unlike those who died in their unbelief.

Several months after 9/11, my wife and I were talking with a close friend who was not a believer but who was seeking. She was in anguish because her close friend had died. Among other things, our understandably upset friend mentioned the events of 9/11 and how horrible it must have been for the passengers when they realized that they were about to die. She said that she would rather die instantly, without knowing death was coming. We told her that at least those passengers who didn’t know Jesus had a chance to trust Him in their final moments, whereas those who die “instantly” don’t have that opportunity at the end.

We have since lost touch with that friend, who moved to another city; whenever I think of her, like now, I pray that she will turn to Jesus in saving faith before it’s too late. For everyone who has not died from COVID or some other mass-death event–or from anything else!–and has not put their faith in Jesus, His message is still the same: Repent while you still can. If you are reading this and have not trusted in Jesus for your salvation, I pray that this will be the day for you.

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