Yesterday we woke to the news that a terror attack had been committed at the Manchester Arena. An Ariana Grande concert – which attracted many children and teenagers – was targeted by a suicide bomber. The explosion has killed at least 22 people and injured a further 59 (at the point of writing). Those present report that the aftermath of the bomb blast had littered the floor with nuts and bolts and many of the wounds inflicted were consistent with shrapnel injury.
There is something particularly wicked about somebody sitting there creating an explosive device – packing it with metal to inflict as much damage as possible – knowing that they were going to use it primarily against children and teenagers. It is very difficult to think of this without feeling a rage against such heinous sin. The perpetrator has died in the blast, no doubt convinced of his own entrance to paradise for such evil, and many would believe he has, in fact, escaped justice.
Though Oldham lies 15 miles outside of Manchester city centre we are nonetheless one of the 10 boroughs that make up the Greater Manchester region. Oldham may well be distinctly its own place but it is still part of the city region. Two mothers from Royton, the town in the borough of Oldham in which I live, have been identified among the victims. As a church leader, not only serving in an area within the Manchester city region but one which is replete with Muslim people, how on earth are we supposed to respond to these events?
Carry on as before
Yesterday morning, the doors of our church were wide open. Our regular English Class, that serves many local Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslims, welcomed our students in again as usual. The church was able to welcome Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Iraqi, Afghan and Albanian Muslims to learn English with Portuguese Catholics as well as Iranian and Romanian Protestants. This was not so much a response to the previous night’s events, it was a continuation of what we already do. Teaching English to an eclectic mix of people from different religious and ethnic backgrounds, though it may appear a defiant show of unity in the face of violent hatred, is simply what we have been doing for some time.
Yet, that is entirely the point. The Muslims in our midst were as welcome this Tuesday as they were the Tuesday before that and every other one before it too. There was no change to what we did and no difference in our welcome. We simply carried on as before because to do otherwise is to say the terror attack achieved its sole purpose; to spread terror.
Remember God’s justice
Our Muslim friends were quick to point out the following Qur’anic verse:
“…if any one killed a person, it would be as if he killed the whole of mankind; and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole of mankind…” – The Holy Quran (Chapter Five, Verse 32)
They wanted tell us that those who kill innocent people, as happened in Manchester, are acting outside the bounds of Islam and are – according to their belief – condemned to Hellfire.
In the Western Christian church, we have spent so long trying to play down God’s justice – instead preferring to emphasise his mercy and grace – that we often have no category in which to place this sort of behaviour. Our sanitised view of the gospel airbrushes the fact that our God is a God of justice. But in such moments as this, where is the comfort in that? This is precisely when we want to see a just God.
It is easy to fall into the trap of believing the perpetrator has escaped justice. But scripture is clear:
It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment (Heb 9:27)
‘The Almighty will not pervert justice’ (Job 34:12)
‘The wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality’ (Col 3:25)
He may have escaped the British legal system. He may have escaped a period of time in prison. But he has not escaped the justice of God.
Remember our mortality
It is unlikely anybody going to the Manchester Arena expected events to unfold as they did. Few of us live our lives troubled by the impending reality of our own mortality. Yet, as sure as night follows day, all of us will one day stand before Almighty God. Such acts of evil and wickedness ought to remind us that we are not immortal. The span of our life is ultimately very short. The question of what happens when we die is ever pertinent.
Paul makes it abundantly clear in 2 Corinthians 5:10: ‘we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil’. It is easy for us to look at the heinous sin of a wicked man in Manchester and forget the fact that, just as he must give an account for what he has done, we too will come face to face with God’s perfect justice.
The danger we face at moments like this is to relax into a moral relativism that says, ‘isn’t it great I’m not as bad as him’. Whilst most of us will not have done anything like the evil of mass murder, the standard is not set by such heinous people. We must contend with the perfect righteousness of God. Though we are morally far better than an odious and cowardly suicide bomber, we must face the reality that ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Rom 3:23). We can comfort ourselves all the way to Hell with moral relativism, or we can use this poignant reminder that we are not immortal, we will face our maker and we know – often even by our own reckoning – we have not met his righteous standards.
Remember God’s mercy
Though we have a God of justice, we have a God of great mercy. Though God’s justice is welcome when faced with the iniquitous actions of a wicked and unrepentant child killer, it is terrifying when we recognise that we have not attained to the righteous standard of his glory. It is only when we recognise this that we may delight ourselves in our merciful God.
For God tells us in no uncertain terms ‘none is righteous, no, not one’ (Rom 3:10) and that ‘no one is good except God alone’ (Mark 10:18). But the record of the Old Testament, and the history of Israel (in fact, the history of humankind), testifies to the fact that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and rich in love (Ps 145:8).
The suicide bomber insists, despite a life lived badly and a failure to maintain the strictures of Islam, killing the kuffir in the name of jihad leads to immediate entrance to paradise. Such pernicious forms of Islam believe Allah says die for me, and kill as many others as you can, for my honour. The Christian God, Yahweh, not only says ‘do not kill’, but I will die instead of you and, in so doing, will share my honour with you.
This is the very definition of love:
For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Rom 5:7f)
Jesus Christ died for us while we were in rebellion against him. He died so that we might be brought back into loving and lasting relationship with God. He died so that we might receive his righteousness and share in his glory.
We will all face God’s righteous judgement. The question of whether we enter paradise rests on one question: did you trust in Jesus Christ, in his death and resurrection, and submit to his Lordship? His death is a gift that he offers to you. It is an act of free grace on his part. It satisfies God’s justice in that Jesus takes our sin upon himself and it is all forgiven at the cross when we turn in repentance and faith to him.
At times like this we may content ourselves with ‘at least I’m not as bad as him’. Better by far to comfort ourselves with the knowledge that though we are as bad as we are (even if we are better than some), Jesus died so that all of our sin might be forgiven. The best response to any sin – even the most heinous – is to be reminded of our own and driven into the merciful and forgiving arms of Jesus. If there is anything good to come out of such a grossly wicked act of sin, let it be that it reminded us of our own mortality, it caused us to consider our own standing before God and it led us – not to superiority and moral relativism but – to repentance and faith in Christ.
God, have mercy on me, a sinner.