Where was God on September 11, 2001?
God was on the throne of the universe, controlling all things by His meticulous providence during the Holocaust, 9/11 and every other event in human history.
In the days following the tragedy now simply labeled 9/11, the inevitable question came from the pundits; it came often and it more times than not, the tone was shrill: Where was God when those jets were hurtling into two skyscrapers, the Pentagon and a field in rural Pennsylvania?
The events of Sept. 11, 2001—which unfolded on a beautiful Tuesday morning 19 years ago today—have drawn comparisons to other instances of a heightened manifestation of evil in history with the Holocaust that led to the extermination of six million Jews in Europe during World War II chief among them.
And the comparison usually implied the same theological question: Where was God?
Men have offered various answers to that question because unredeemed human clay always puts the Potter on trial. Shorn from God’s revelation of himself, fallen men fashion God in their own image. Case in point: Edward Tabash, American lawyer and a Jew turned violently against God when the Holocaust claimed as victims two of his family members. In a debate in California, Tabash provided an answer: “If the God of the Bible actually exists, I want to sue him for negligence, for being asleep at the wheel of the universe when my grandfather and uncle were gassed to death in Auschwitz.”
The Bible and historic Christian theology have always provided the only compelling answer to the existential question of evil and suffering: God was on the throne of the universe, controlling all things by His meticulous providence during the Holocaust, 9/11 and every other event in human history.
Job, the paradigmatic sufferer
Job, who suffered terrorism at the hands of the Sabeans and Chaldeans, certainly knew that a righteous and holy God, and not the devil, was at the heart of his suffering. When his wife opted for something akin to open theism (God is limited in his knowledge of future actions and events) amid the furnace of adversity, Job knew better: “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10) Later, he uttered, “Though he (the Lord) slay me, I will hope in him.” (Job 13:15) Job’s utter confidence in the sovereignty and goodness of God did not waver in spite of a fact we seldom consider: Job did not have the book of Job as we do. We know that Job was being tested. He did not.
Our Lord fielded this very same question in Luke 13 when some following Jesus told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. They also told him about a massive tower that collapsed at Siloam, claiming 18 unwitting victims. Sound familiar? Our Lord neither stuttered nor hesitated when the analysts of his day, like some misguided evangelicals in the wake of 9/11, presumed the tragedy to represent irrefutable proof of God’s temporal judgment on sinners. “Do you think that those whom the towers fell on were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem?” they asked. The Lord’s answer: “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” What is the message for us in the collapsing towers in New York? In Hurricane Katrina? In the tornado outbreak in 2011? In the Holocaust? When the so-called “good times” are rolling? Repent of your sins. And let the Potter be the Potter.
God is not the problem
In his best-selling book, Why Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner considered the so-called “problem of evil” in light of suffering in his own family. Kushner decided that God could not be simultaneously sovereign and loving and therefore, he chose to believe in a god of absolute love (as defined according to 20th century Western sentimentalist notions) and deny a god of absolute providence. But the so-called problem of evil is only a problem for fallen human beings.
It’s not a God problem.
In his final psalm, David asserted this clearly: “The Lord is righteous in all his ways and kind in all his works.” (Ps. 145: 17) All his ways, all his works, collapsing towers and victims of evil fascism not excluded. David knew, as must we, that God is not a lot like us—weak, vacillating, indecisive and limited in knowledge. God knows the end from the beginning, for he has decreed it as such.
Then why does suffering and evil exist? It exists because of Genesis 3 and the first Adam. It exists because the nuclear fallout of that first instance of terrorism has hijacked our world and left us living in what Paul Tripp calls a broken down house. Indeed, Adam’s act of treason and our participation in it rendered us broken actors on a broken down stage.
An article in the London Times once asked readers to respond with letters to the question, “What’s wrong with the world?” British journalist, author and Christian thinker G. K. Chesterton had by far the most concise, most accurate answer: “I am.” The only wonder is that God does not crush us all. He does not crush us because he crushed his Son in our place.
Where was God on that gorgeous, sun-splashed morning of September 11, 2001, a glorious morning that became one of America’s darkest nights? He was being God: holy, just, loving, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, and yes, meticulously sovereign. And how are we to respond to 9/11 nearly two decades removed from its carnage? Paul tells us:
“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.” (Rom. 11:33-36)
An Auschwitz survivor quoted in the London Times on one anniversary of those horrible events put it well in non-inspired terms:
“It never occurred to me to associate the calamity we were experiencing with God—to blame him or believe in him less, or cease believing in him at all because he didn’t come to our aid. God doesn’t owe us that, or anything. We owe our lives to him. If someone believes that God is responsible for the death of six million because he doesn’t somehow do something to save them, he’s got his thinking reversed.”
Let us remember the victims and events of 9/11. Let us recall where we were that day. Let us hear the inevitable question. And let us respond with worship.
Editors’ note: Two days after 9/11, on Thursday, September 13, 2001, SBTS President Albert Mohler preached a powerful sermon “Truth-Telling in a Time of Tragedy.” I was in attendance at that service as a master of divinity student and remember it well. The manuscript from that sermon is available at albertmohler.com.