This morning, you and I awoke to the same heartbreaking news: The worst mass shooting in modern US history. At the time of this writing, news reports indicate that Stephen Paddock, acting alone, shot and killed more than 50 people in Las Vegas, wounding some 200 others. Paddock then killed himself as the SWAT teams were arriving to arrest him. Killing sprees have become an all too common part of modern life. And so often they end in the same way — with the killer taking his own life. There appears to be a common thread—a theological one.
Consider three events that occurred in December 2012. On Dec. 12 in an Oregon mall, Jacob Tyler Roberts killed two people. Roberts then committed suicide. Two days later, Adam Lanza killed 26 in Newtown, CT, including 20 six- and seven-year-old children. Lanza then committed suicide. And on Christmas Eve, William Spengler set fire to his house. When firemen responded to the call, he ambushed them, killing two and wounding two others. Spengler then committed suicide. In like manner, in 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 13 and wounded 24 at Columbine High School. They, too, committed suicide. In light of these horrific tragedies, I began to wonder how many “killing spree” killers ended their rampage similarly — by taking their own lives. I was surprised at what I found.
A Wikipedia article provides a list of what it calls “rampage killers”—those who have committed mass murder at schools, work and other places. Of those who perpetrate school massacres, the article gives a list of 15 murderers. It turns out that of those 15, 13 committed suicide — and one was killed by police. Only one out of the 15 allowed himself to be taken alive. I’m no psychiatrist, and I don’t pretend to have a clue about these killers’ motivations for killing others and killing themselves. No doubt each one committed suicide for a number of reasons. Maybe some were mentally ill or even insane. Perhaps others killed themselves as a last demonstration of hatred towards everyone and everything, including themselves. But their respective decisions to kill themselves were not made in a theological vacuum. In fact, they seem to be making a very strong collective statement about a shared belief system. They were avoiding accountability. They didn’t expect to face God.
Perhaps they believed that by killing themselves they would not have to answer for their crimes. Maybe they didn’t think there was any type of judgment to come after death. They were theological nihilists. To put it in biblical terms, none of them feared God. Or as the Apostle Paul puts it:
Their feet are swift to shed blood;
Destruction and misery are in their ways;
And the way of peace they have not known.
There is no fear of God before their eyes. (Romans 3:15-18)
The portrayal of God as Judge and the theme of a coming Judgment Day run literally throughout the Bible. And Christians of earlier generations spoke regularly of an eventual divine reckoning. But today the notion has evaporated—and not just from the culture at large but from within the church. Think about it. When was the last time you heard a sermon devoted to the topic of divine judgment?
Yes, there are Islamic jihadists, suicide bombers, who kill people because they believe they are doing Allah a favor. But that fact illustrates my point: One’s beliefs about ultimate truth really do guide one’s behavior. And there seems to be a common theological thread among killing spree killers. They’re not worried about God, judgment or a place called hell.
Spengler, who had also served 18 years for murdering his grandmother with a hammer in 1980, left a suicide note. He made it clear why he set his house on fire: “I still have to get ready to see how much of the neighborhood I can burn down, and do what I like doing best, killing people.”
I can’t begin to imagine the pathologies that are going on in the heads of people like Spengler or Paddock. But the theological underpinnings of their madness seem clear enough. There is no fear of God before their eyes.
As we grieve the tragedy in Las Vegas, let’s pray for the victims’ families and everyone who is experiencing such great suffering. But let us also remember what these shooters so often forget: There is a Judge. We will answer for our actions. And our only hope isn’t to take our life, but to look to the One who gave his life for ours.
[A version of this article originally published at Between the Times. Also posted on intersectproject on October 2, 2017.]