Tragedy has struck an American college campus again. And religion seems to be a significant part of the story.
Shots rang out at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon on October 1 at 10:38 AM local time. A gunman has killed 10 and wounded seven others, three of whom are in critical condition.
(Note: the Oregon sheriff later told reporters, “I will not name the shooter. I will not give him the credit he probably sought prior to this horrific and cowardly act.” I agree, and will not name the shooter in this article.)
What motivated him?
It is likely that we will never know fully the motives behind the tragedy, since the shooter died and has apparently not left an explanation for his actions. However, eyewitnesses report that his opposition to Christianity played a significant role.
Anastasia Boylan was shot in the back. She told her father before going into surgery what she saw. He then relayed her account: the gunman ordered students to stand up and asked if they were Christians. “And they would stand up and he said, ‘Good, because you’re a Christian, you’re going to see God in just about one second. And then he shot them.”
Kortney More, 18, recounted: “The shooter was asking people to stand up and state their religion and then started firing.” Bodhi Looney, the grandson of a woman who was an eyewitness to the shooting, posted her account on Twitter: “The shooter was lining up people and asking if they were Christian. If they said yes, then they were shot in the head. If they said no, or didn’t answer, they were shot in the legs.”
According to Yahoo News, the shooter’s “disdain for organized religion was evident in his social media posts and profiles.” On a dating site, he joined a “doesn’t like organized religion” group and described himself as “Not Religious, Not Religious, but Spiritual.” For a partner, he said “Pagan, Wiccan, Not Religious, but Spiritual” were qualities he sought.
Are Christians under persecution?
Christians are routinely killed for their faith around the world. According to respected journalist John Allen, “Christians today indisputably are the most persecuted religious body on the planet.” According to the evangelical group Open Doors, 100 million Christians worldwide face interrogation, arrest, torture, and/or death because of their commitment to Christ. The Catholic humanitarian group Aid to the Church in Need describes this global assault on believers as “a human rights disaster of epic proportions.”
While 30 percent of the world’s population identifies as Christian, 80 percent of all acts of religious discrimination around the world target Christians. One scholar estimates that 90 percent of all people killed because of their religious beliefs are Christians.
There have been 70 million martyrs since the time of Christ; 45 million of them died in the twentieth century. In other words, more Christians died for their faith in the last century than in the previous nineteen combined. (For more, see my Respected to Irrelevant to Dangerous Does Religion Poison Everything?).
The Islamic State has slaughtered so many Christians that The New York Times Magazine recently asked, “Is this the end of Christianity in the Middle East?” CNN reported, “Faith turns Christians into terrorist targets.” Newsweek carried a cover story, “Targeting Christians: In the Middle East, Believers Are Fleeing or Being Killed.”
How should we respond?
The Oregon shooting shows that Christians can die for their faith anywhere, even in America. How should believers respond to this tragic fact?
First, expect persecution.
Nothing that happened in Oregon would surprise the first Christians. Jesus warned them, “In the world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33). He explained why: “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:19).
Paul added, “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). John agreed: “Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you” (1 John 3:13).
Why would Christians face such opposition? Jesus explained: “the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light” (John 3:19-20). Those who hate God will hate all who love God.
In addition, Satan attacks our Father by attacking his children. He “was a murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44), and “comes only to steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10). He knows that our Father loves his children, so he inspires hatred and violence against us.
From Stephen to today, those who follow our crucified Lord can expect to face persecution.
Second, prepare now.
No one is promised tomorrow. Two years ago, the Islamic State was not a reality. Before the shooting, Umpqua Community College was a tranquil campus. No one knows what today’s news will bring.
The only way to face an uncertain future is to be certain of our relationship with Jesus now. The world is too dangerous to go another day without being sure you have asked Christ to forgive your sins and become your Savior and Lord. (For more, see my Why Jesus?)
If you are certain of your salvation, be certain that you are right with your Father. Ask his Spirit to show you anything in your life that displeases God, confess all that comes to your thoughts, and claim his forgiving grace (1 John 1:9). Spend time in prayer, Bible study, and worship each morning. Stay surrendered to the power and leading of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 5:18).
Practice the presence of Christ now, and you be will be ready for whatever comes next.
Third, trust the love of God.
Paul asked, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” Then he answered his question, “Shall tribulation, or distress, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things were are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”
Then the apostle added, “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:35-39).
Our Lord created us with free will so we could choose to worship him. When we misuse this freedom, the consequences are our fault, not his. The Oregon shooter horrifically misused his God-given freedom. His violence grieved the heart of the Father who loves each of his children.
When such suffering comes, we can know that our Father suffers with us. We can turn to the One who wept at the grave of Lazarus (John 11:35) and weeps with every grieving family today. We can know that his strength is sufficient for the day (Philippians 4:13), and that we are in his hands always (John 10:29).
Fourth, expect eternal reward.
Peter wrote: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you” (1 Peter 4:12-14).
Paul noted that “this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17). As a result, “We look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (v. 18). He testified, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18).
God never wastes a hurt. He redeems all he allows, on earth and in heaven. Those who suffer for Jesus will be rewarded by Jesus. And our heavenly reward is eternal.
Let us pray for those affected by the Oregon shooting tragedy, asking God to comfort the victims’ families, heal the survivors, and guide the authorities. Let us pray for area ministers and counselors as they seek to provide comfort and encouragement during this horrible time. And let us remember that our Father is grieving with all who grieve, and working to redeem our loss for his glory and our good.
St. Augustine was right: God loves each of us as if there were only one of us.