One warm summer night in 1985, a group of teenagers in a suburb of Chicago were looking for mischief to get into. Wandering around their neighborhood, they spotted a post and mailbox which, instead of being firmly planted in the ground, was stuck in an old milk can filled with cement. For reasons that were never clear, they decided to move it from its place on the curb to the middle of the road. There it lay on its side and cars had to swerve around it.
Until one didn’t. The driver didn’t see it and struck it at full speed. The impact launched the car into the air and it came down just in time to land on a van coming from the opposite direction. That van contained a man, a woman, and their two children—a teenaged boy and a preteen girl. The car that struck the milk can landed on the driver’s side of the van, crushing and instantly killing the husband and daughter, while leaving the mother and son with just scratches and horrific emotional trauma.
The teenaged boy was a member of my youth group at the time. I was working part-time at a church while going to seminary, and this was my first exposure as a pastor to sudden, senseless tragedy. I have had other exposures since, and while each incident is different in several ways, there is a common thread: the question, “Why?”
When death comes suddenly and out of season, we find ourselves in a land of shadows, a land of abrupt and unexpected darkness. Pain and anguish are our portion, and it seems so unfair. If we lift our voices in protest, it is understandable and acceptable. What has happened is unfair, and a life (or lives) ended far too soon. There is no getting around that.
By lifting our voices in protest, we join a long tradition, going back into the scriptures themselves. Job, who protested, was judged more righteous than his friends who offered excuses and explanations. In the psalms we hear, “Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” and “O Lord, why do you cast me off? Why do you hide your face from me?”
Asking “Why?” as a means of protest—as a way of expressing the pain we feel—is important. It is part of the process that will allow us to heal. But we must be careful about expecting a satisfactory answer. “Why?” is a question both theologians and ordinary folks have pondered for a long time and, to my knowledge, none have come up with a good enough answer. The question, “Why?” is an anvil that has worn out many hammers. People have pounded away at it for centuries without making much of a dent. Even as we ask the question, we know deep down that an answer is not what we really want. What we really want is to have back the ones we have lost. Every one of us would likely accept a lifetime without an answer to the question in exchange for a few more years, or months, or weeks, or even a single day with those who are gone.
That is why the gospel does not promise an explanation; it promises resurrection. It promises that death only interrupts a life; it does not end a life forever. The gospel does not give good reasons; it gives good hope. It does not try to justify evil; it proclaims God’s ultimate triumph over evil in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Christians in the city of Thessalonika, to whom the Apostle Paul wrote, were concerned about some whom they had loved who had died. The absence of those who had died was almost too much to take, and the prospect of never seeing them again was breaking the hearts of those who remained. So Paul wrote to remind them of the greater plan of God:
For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.
It is important to notice in this description that the resurrection is not an individual event, in which each of us are raised one at a time and taken to some private paradise. Resurrection, as Paul describes it, is a coming together, a kind of reunion. Resurrection as a reunion is what is promised in the gospel, and it is the gospel that we are called to proclaim in the face of tragedy. The world as we know it is broken, but God who created the world is more than able to recreate it, setting right what is wrong, making whole what is incomplete. In the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has conquered death, and through faith in him we receive a share in that resurrection.
There is a new world coming, where all God’s people will be together, fully alive, full of love, full of joy. It will be a great reunion, and those who have died in faith will be there. This is God’s promise. This is our comfort and our hope.
James Benedict is an interim minister at Frederick Church of the Brethren, following his retirement last year after 20 years of pastoring Union Bridge Church of the Brethren. Both congregations are in Maryland.