Stephen Paddock’s murder spree was the latest in the growing list of American encounters with evil in its purest form. But I’m not sure we’re ready to admit it.
Last Sunday night at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival near Las Vegas, Nevada, the 64-year-old Paddock took aim from his suite in the upper stories of the hotel across the street and began pouring automatic weapons fire into the 22,000 people gathered at the concert. When the 11-minute barrage ended 58 people lay dead on the ground and over 500 were wounded. Even for a nation grown numb with murder Paddock’s act stands alone. He killed more people than anyone before him.
Paddock was a retired accountant who spent his time gambling. He had no criminal record. He didn’t seem to be associated with any violent group. His name hadn’t showed up on any law enforcement watch list. Nothing in his past would suggest that he was capable of doing what he did, a fact confirmed by Paddock’s brother’s response following news of the shootings.
“It makes no sense. He’s never hit anybody. He’s never… he had a couple of hand guns, I think…he had a safe with a couple of hand guns. He might have had one long rifle, but he didn’t have any automatic weapons, that I knew of at any time. It just makes no sense.
It makes no sense, his brother said. And the nation as a whole seems to have come to the same conclusion. We’re told that the mass shootings, school shootings and random murders occurring with increasing frequency may be influenced by psychological imbalance, ideological passion, lax gun laws and a culture of violence, but are so random and pointless that they make no sense at all. We just have to accept them as the price we pay for living in the modern world.
The Bible has a different explanation. It says what Stephen Paddock did was evil.
I don’t mean evil like we see in the cute little devils we display at Halloween. Or evil as the way we describe the unkind acts of hateful people. Or evil as a way of understanding the painful experiences in life. Or even evil as how we comprehending the thoughts that sometimes bubble up from the dark corners of our own minds.
No, Stephen Paddock’s evil is of a wholly different order. The evil that drove this anonymous accountant to do what he did is dark and ravenous and exists solely to inflict death and suffering and loss. It isn’t a psychological condition, although there may be psychological illness connected with it. It isn’t ideological, although ideology may play a role in how it’s expressed. This kind of evil isn’t the result of a culture of violence, although it may well be an unrecognized cause of that culture.
We glimpse evil in acts like that of Stephen Paddock, but behind the curtain there’s another figure at work, one the Bible calls Satan or the devil. Jesus says this figure is a liar and a murderer whose purpose is to steal, kill and destroy. This is why the Bible warns us to “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8)
We don’t want to admit this kind of evil exists because on the one hand it exposes the narrowness of the modern world-view that believes the physical universe is all there is. That’s why we see all the media people searching so desperately for a rational explanation. Ralph Peters writing for the New York Post has one of the more creative ones:
What do the Las Vegas massacre, the Charleston church shooting and last weekend’s Islamist staging of two Frenchwomen have in common? The murderers’ sense of inadequate recognition, and the primal lure of the ecstasy of killing. Acts of deadly terror are in fashion, the default position for a wide range of frustrated egotists. From lone-wolf Islamists enabled by faith, through punk racists, to a high-stakes gambler who craved casino perks — slum-dweller, misfit or property owner — these terrorists shared a sense that their societies wouldn’t give them their due.
On the other hand, if we acknowledge that an evil is at work beyond our capacity to address then we’re driven to seek the help of the only One who is able. The Bible tells us his name is Jesus.
Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. (1 John 3:8)
Here in South Carolina we saw first hand the power of Jesus to overcome evil in the days following 2015’s Charleston church shootings. You can read more about that here.
The reason we can’t explain why Stephen Paddock shot hundreds of innocent people is that his act doesn’t fit within our secular frame of reference. And for a culture that seems determined to erase all reminders of biblical truth, it’s easier to live with evil than to turn to the only One who can resolve it.