The scene was horrifying. Explosions, smoke, screaming, and bodies thrown about like broken toys. Emergency workers rushed about, the strobes of their ambulances and fire trucks splashed the world with hot red. Wailing voices and sirens. Blood splattered on walls and streets. Bodies, dead or wounded, placed on stretchers.
The bombs at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon did what they were designed to do: they terrified us. Yet while shocked, we weren’t entirely surprised. We’d seen it before, streamed at us from Beirut, Tehran, Madrid, New York City, London, Mumbai, Oklahoma City. Acts of hatred targeting everyone and no one in particular. Behind them were angry people who believed they could correct perceived wrongs by making others suffer. We’d prayed it wouldn’t happen again; but in our hearts we knew it would, because that’s the kind of world we live in.
A violent world
I sometimes hear people say that never has there been so much violence as there is now. But violence is nothing new. The very first family on earth—the father and mother of that family shaped by the very hand of God— gave birth to the first murderer (Genesis 4:8). Cain’s fratricide of Abel showed that people could die. But it showed something even more sinister: sin had so degraded the creatures God created in His own image that we became capable of robbing another human being of life.
Indeed, violence had so increased in the early history of our world that God finally had to bring that world to an end. Twice in Genesis 6 the reason God gave for destroying the world with a Flood was that “the earth . . . was full of violence” (Genesis 6:11; see also verse 13).
And so it continued. Read through the Bible, and you’ll find a narrative of several thousand years of violence interwoven with its godly truths. It need not surprise us to see violence so prominent in today’s world, because Jesus said that the world at the end of time would be much like the one before the Flood (Matthew 24:38, 39).
Today when we hear of a violent act, it’s easy to think of radical Muslims. But that’s an illusion of our myopic view of history. Page back a few decades and you’ll see that brutality isn’t confined to one religion or culture. Christians have done it, and so have Jews. Americans, Europeans, Africans, Asians—we’re all guilty. Violence has been done criminally and randomly; but at other times with the full assent of presidents, kings, prime ministers, and legislators. Sometimes it’s done impulsively; in other situations (such as the Manhattan Project that resulted in atomic weaponry) with long and deliberate preparation by scientists, engineers, and military leaders.
Nature is capable of horrible things. Earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, and hurricanes all take life. Animals attack and kill. But human violence is different. We do it with intent. Carnivorous beasts kill for food. Natural disasters are but earth’s forces gone awry. But the kind of violence that we do “with malice aforethought” happens for personal reasons such as hatred, jealousy, lust, and greed.
In short, we know what we’re doing—but we do it anyway. And, most surprisingly, we sometimes feel justified in doing it.
That’s the insanity of violence.
Every human heart
What could make a person do such a thing? I wondered as I learned more about the young Boston Marathon bombers. Something led these young men down this path.
It begins with the selfishness that sin plants in every human heart. Satan’s essential lie—told first to Eve as she lusted after something that was forbidden her (Genesis 3:6)—is that “my satisfaction is the most important thing.” That puts you and me in competition, for whatever you want might take something away from me. We’ve all seen it in small children, who’ll snatch toys from playmates. In adults it may be more subtle, such as competing for beauty, love, position, or wealth. But the impulse is the same: my need takes precedence over yours.
Several hundred years after the introduction of sin, God saw that “every inclination of the thoughts of [the human] heart was only evil all the time” (Genesis 6:5). Evil progressed so rapidly because Satan augmented selfishness by corrupting the human mind and character. All of us are hardwired with some weaknesses of character, and the more weaknesses we have, the easier we are to tempt.
Knowing the infirmities of the human soul, healthy societies make laws that hold harmful behavior in check. Yet the cancer of selfishness can strike at the very heart of the best civilizations, corrupting our social units so thoroughly that from the family to the highest reaches of government, hate and violence are confused with truth and goodness. Human degeneration has led to the decline of morality in our societies.
So we are not only weakened in mind and character but raised with prejudices and twisted beliefs. Some cultures begin when their children are in the cradle to nurture in them a hatred for a perceived enemy. Revenge thus ensures the continuation of violence over generations. Some political systems teach that it’s acceptable to get rich by any means, that we have no responsibility except to look out for number one. The resulting injustices and inequalities leave the downtrodden seething with animosity. Governments sanction bombs and drones that kill indiscriminately and make it seem not only necessary but the right and patriotic thing to do, while leaving behind not just death, but unquenchable hatred.
Satan is an expert on both human psychology and religion. As the story of Jesus’ 40 days in the desert shows (Matthew 4:1–11), Satan knows the Bible well, and he believes it too (James 2:19). His most ironic achievement has been to use religious faith to twist our thoughts toward violence.
Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Hindus, and Muslims have all killed, supposedly to protect their respective faiths. Our American forebears killed Native Americans who got in the way of their greed for territory. Conveniently forgotten was Jesus’ teaching, “I tell you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). Also forgotten was Jesus’ own example of submission to His accusers “as a sheep before his shearers” (Isaiah 53:7). Instead, theologians misinterpreted Jesus’ saying that “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34) to justify their murderous acts, in the process making the Prince of Peace look like a genocidal maniac.
Knowing Satan’s mastery of religion, is it any surprise that some religious people teach wanton destruction as a spiritual duty, cheering others for unjust wars just because they’re waged by “our side”?
We can’t address the insanity of violence in the world until we realize that there are seeds of it in all of us. Though very few of us will manufacture bombs or hijack airplanes, hatred—the precursor to violence—is within all of us. You feel twinges of it when a rude driver cuts you off, when someone is cruel to a person you love, or when you are cheated by an unscrupulous businessperson. We may try to distance ourselves from that dark part of our human psychology, but “the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9).
So the answer to the question “How can anyone do such a thing?” is pretty simple: because they’re a lot like us— just further along the path of hate. God’s desire is that we not only resist violence in ourselves, our families, and our communities; He also wants us to be active peacemakers. But there’s only one way this can happen. There’s only one solution to the violence that pervades our world. Each of us must let the Prince of Peace transform our minds and hearts so that the love He taught becomes more than words on paper. It becomes the primary motivation of our minds and hearts. And it isn’t just the Boston Marathon bombers who need this transformation. We all need it.
So how do we live in a society in which the insanity of violence can break out anytime, anywhere?
Our faith in God helps us to live with courage. We must be careful but not afraid. “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear” (Psalm 46:1, 2). For even in the face of real danger, Christians know that death isn’t what we should fear the most. Jesus said, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (Matthew 10:28). If you’ve given your life to Jesus, then even if you are a casualty of violence, you will see Him in the resurrection. For God is more powerful than evil, and He will be with you even through death! The great Protestant Reformer Martin Luther, himself a frequent target of violence, said it best: “Though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us!”