On the morning of April 15, 2013—Patriots’ Day—I stood near the finish line of the Boston Marathon and snapped this picture to send to my daughter. It shows the place the 27,000 marathon runners set their sights on, the goal of their years of training and discipline. In the background is another special place, the hotel where my daughter’s upcoming wedding reception is to take place.
Unlike last year, when it was brutally hot, it was a perfect day for a marathon—sunny and brisk. The whole city was festive, anticipating a great day of competition and camaraderie with runners from around the world and half a million spectators coming to the world’s oldest annual marathon. Spirits on our volunteer team were high; we had what we felt was the very best volunteer job—placing well-deserved medals around the necks of the finishers.
Not long after the picture was taken, the runners started arriving, at first just a few of the elite runners, but then the trickle swelled to a flood as thousands of exhausted but happy runners streamed across the finish line to the sound of enthusiastic cheers and whistles and applause. They bowed their heads to receive their medal and a smile and words of congratulations and sometimes a hug, and then they gathered with family and friends to celebrate.
The tide of runners continued for two hours, and then came the moment when everything changed. At about 2:50 p.m. a blast rocked the area around the finish line, followed quickly by another one nearby. As the runners who had already crossed the finish line reached the medals area, they looked first confused, and then shocked, and then terrified and frantic. Then there were no more incoming runners, and as the gravity of the situation set in, we were told to run in the opposite direction. My friend and I reached Boston Common, where we tried to get information, which became increasingly gruesome.
Eventually we found a subway station that was open and we made our way home. But the horrible news continued, as through the night and into the next day the toll increased: 2 dead…several injured…shrapnel flying…limbs severed…23 wounded…3 dead, including an eight-year-old boy…40+ wounded, many critical…50+…70+…100+…140+…170+. Each new report of injuries felt like another blow.
Normal people can’t begin to fathom what goes on in the mind of someone who could commit such a barbaric and abominable crime. It defies all reason that any human being could think it’s justified or even noble to murder innocent people, even children, who are simply enjoying a community event with their family and friends. Many will say that such an evil person deserves nothing less than to be tortured in the pit of hell forever. They will say that the existence of such people takes my belief that God will save everyone and blows it right out of the water. How could He ever save such wretched individuals? It would be a complete miscarriage of justice and an affront to those they have hurt so grievously. When they die there will be absolutely no hope for them; they will perish and be tormented in the lake of fire for all eternity, as they deserve.
And yet, I find that such tragic events reinforce my conviction that God will make all things right, including restoring every human being to fellowship with Him. We human beings have made an irreparable mess of our world. Good people try, with some success, to make things right. The courage and compassion of the good people on Marathon Monday far outweighed the cowardice and cruelty of the evil ones. And yet, we can never bring about complete justice or restore all that has been lost. We cannot make amputees grow new limbs or heal a person’s shattered sense of well-being or bring the dead back to life. But God can and will! Clearly this full restoration is not accomplished in this life, but God is not limited to this life to fulfill His purposes. I am confident that He will continue His work in the age to come until everything is restored under Christ.
As Peter proclaimed, God has promised to restore everything:
Heaven must receive him [Christ] until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets (Acts 3:21).
Paul also declared God’s wise purpose to bring unity to all:
With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ (Eph. 1:8-10).
But what of those who are incorrigibly opposed to God’s will? I have written about God’s sovereignty and justice and judgment in other essays, but let me make a few observations. For those who want evil people like the marathon bomber(s) to pay dearly for their crimes, rest assured that God “will by no means leave the guilty unpunished” (Ex. 34:7; Nah. 1:3). Proverbs also declares, “Assuredly, the evil man will not go unpunished” (11:21).
We don’t know exactly what the punishment will look like for each person, but because of God’s holy and just character, we can be certain that it will be both severe and fair. I believe that at least part of the judgment that evil people will face will be to experience personally the pain they have inflicted on others—that somehow they will become fully aware, in an excruciatingly personal sense, of the suffering they have caused to others. Though now their consciences may be seared to such an extent that they cannot feel the pain of others, I believe that one day God will open their eyes so that they know fully what it is like to be the victim of senseless suffering or to lose their own children to violence. Perhaps it will be similar to what happens to us when He brings us under conviction for sin. The wicked will see God in all His holiness, and they will see themselves for who they really are. Imagine if you can the horror of such a judgment.
And yet, I don’t believe this judgment will be endless or purposeless. God’s will is that none should perish but all should come to repentance (2 Pe. 3:9), and He will do whatever it takes to achieve that purpose. By His kindness and His severity He deals with us to bring us to repentance, though for some it will take a great deal of severity. He wants all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Tim. 2:4), and He will reveal truth to them. Jesus gave Himself as the ransom for all men (1 Tim. 2:6). He is the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the whole world (1 Jn. 2:2). He promised that through His death and resurrection, He would draw all people to Himself (Jn. 12:32), and He will not fail.
So how can we make any sense of unfathomable evil and suffering juxtaposed with promises of complete restoration and joy? I am not a person who gets visions from the Lord, but years ago He gave me a picture that sustained me then and has come to mind frequently since then. I applied it to myself at the time, but more recently I have seen that it really has a broader application. In this vision, I saw myself in a deep, dark pit, with steep, slimy sides. It was impossible to climb out; if you tried, you only slipped back down into the mud. But then the Lord reached down and lifted me out of the pit and set me beside it. I felt like the Psalmist who said, “He brought me up out of the pit of destruction, out of the miry clay, and He set my feet upon a rock making my footsteps firm” (40:2). And then God filled in the pit, leaving no trace of the ugly, inescapable prison.
But it was what He did next that really gripped my heart. On the spot where the pit had been, He built a mountain that was as high as the pit had been deep. I thought of Psalm 103, which says that God not only redeems my life from the pit, but also crowns me with lovingkindness and compassion (v. 4). This image spoke to me of the fact that God will not only take away the pain and even the memory of our trials, but He will redeem our trials to the extent that the coming glory will be as great as and even far greater than the past hardship and anguish. It brought to life verse 18 of Romans 8: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”
This image applies not just to me, but to the whole creation. As Romans 8 says, we ourselves groan now (v. 23), and indeed the whole creation is groaning now (v. 22). But we have hope that “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption” (v. 21) in order to experience freedom and joy. As we walk through this broken world, by faith we need to live into the reality of the coming restoration—not only to believe that it will happen, but to actively work toward it by striving in our own small way, in our own little corner of the world, to bring about the restoration and reconciliation that one day God will fully bring to pass. (See “Called for a Purpose.”)
At a prayer service for the victims of the bombing the following night, our pastor noted that events like the marathon point to a universal desire for goodwill and harmony. There is a longing inside us to be part of a community of love and kindness. God made us with that longing, and He will not allow it to go forever unfulfilled. The spirit of unity and goodwill at the marathon gives us a small foretaste of the perfect harmony that God will create when He “brings unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (Eph. 1:10).
The Bible makes it very clear that evil is an ever-present reality in this fallen world. But evil will not have the last word. As 1 Corinthians 15 shows, God will have the final victory, and He will become all in all (v. 28). Life will overcome death: “As in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (v. 22). “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (v. 26). “Death is swallowed up in victory!” (v. 55).
This theme is also echoed in many hymns.
And in despair I bowed my head
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.”
(“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” Henry W. Longfellow, 1864)
This is my Father’s world. O let me ne’er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world: the battle is not done:
Jesus Who died shall be satisfied,
And earth and Heav’n be one.
(“This Is My Father’s World,” Maltbie D. Babcock, 1901)
As the writer of Proverbs said of the wicked, “their feet run to evil, and they make haste to shed blood” (1:16). But in the words of a nineteenth-century writer,
We do not think man’s evil can, in the long run of the ages, finally outspeed God’s ever-pursuing mercy.
A follow-up to this essay is "United We Stand."