Nikolas Cruz and the Unmasking of Sin and Evil

At 2:23PM on February 14, 2018, the first 911 call reported an active shooter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The suspect was quickly identified as 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz and a little over an hour later law enforcement officers had him detained. His bloody massacre left 17 students and staff dead and fifteen wounded, receiving treatment in area hospitals. It is now the deadliest shooting in an American high school.

Once again our nation is mourning senseless deaths at the hands of someone who intentionally and methodically murdered innocent fellow citizens. Predictably, politicians are trying to gain political capital from it, law enforcement officials are trying to learn from it and all types of pundits are trying to explain it, or, more accurately, explain it away. By that I mean that some would like to explain Nikolas Cruz’s actions in a way that separates “him” (and those “like him”) from “us.”

For so long our society has been squeamish even to admit the existence of evil. What happened in that Miami suburb high school forces us to confront it. When evil is so blatantly unmasked that it can no longer be denied, our deep desire is to distance ourselves from it by looking for explanations that allow us to stay willfully blind to the evil in our own hearts.

  • “He had a troubled childhood.”
  • “He is mentally ill.”
  • “He was taking psychotropic medications.”
  • “He was a gun nut.”
  • “He played violent video games.’

The list of potential explanations is almost endless and some of those factors may be significant, indeed, very significant. But none of them gets to the real heart of the matter the way that the Bible does. If you want to make sense of Nikolas Cruz, Adolph Hitler, Josef Stalin or Osama bin Laden, or even your own two-year-old and your own life, you must consider what the Bible says about sin and evil. There is a connection between the two and it is so deep that you cannot understand the latter without coming to terms with the pervasiveness and wickedness of the former.

It is impossible to make sense of the reality of moral evil in the world apart from the Bible’s teaching on sin. This is not to suggest that all of our questions are easily answered in what the Bible says. Some things God has chosen not to reveal (Deuteronomy 29:29), such as why He allows evil to exist in the first place. But what the Bible does teach makes sense of the world. It fits the facts.

So then, what exactly does the Scripture say? How can it help us gain a proper perspective on something as insidious as this recent Valentine’s Day massacre?

Scripture begins with the reality of man’s falleness. What happened in the garden of Eden was a genuine tragedy. Sin wreaked havoc on man’s previously righteous and innocent nature. Adam’s one act of rebellion plunged the whole human race into a state of moral and spiritual depravity. As one Christian confession puts it, all people are now “completely defiled, in all the capabilities and parts of soul and body.” The Bible is clear–sin has turned every member of the human race into a rebel against the Creator.

Even in the days of Noah “the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). The Prophet Jeremiah confirms this judgment: “The heart is deceitful above all things, And desperately wicked; Who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9).

The Apostle Paul draws on Old Testament teaching to make the same point about the whole human race in startlingly graphic terms he argues, “There is none righteous, no, not one; There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God. They have all turned aside; They have together become unprofitable; There is none who does good, no, not one.” “Their throat is an open tomb; With their tongues they have practiced deceit;” “The poison of asps is under their lips;” “Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness.” “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 3:10-18).

Though these kinds of verses could easily be multiplied here, this sampling makes obvious that the Bible teaches that, because of sin, all people are naturally opposed to God and God’s law. Lawlessness is the standard conduct of this fallen world.

When this native lawlessness breaks out in a particularly heinous expression of vileness and brutality, it cannot be written off as some odd quirk of nature. It cannot be explained away by pointing to some external force. The source of the problem lies much deeper than that. Once due consideration has been given to the various influences on human behavior, this central truth stubbornly remains–simply stated in Scripture and amply illustrated in human history: the heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart. And the problem of the human heart is that it has been ravaged by sin. And the only answer to sin is Jesus Christ. God sent Him into the world to save us from our sin. It is by His life of complete obedience to God’s law and His death on the cross under the curse of that law that all that God requires of us has been provided.

The reason that people carry out murderous rampages is not because of poverty, mental illness, guns, lack of education or any other social ill. At the root of such actions is the consistent outworking of sin—blatant rebellion against God.

Why, then, is not everyone a Nikolas Cruz? Because God, in His sovereign mercy, usually restrains most of His rebellious image bearers from going that far in expressing their sin. Like a rider who “gives the horse his head,” God does on some occasions loosen the reins with which He holds back the degenerating pull of human depravity (Romans 1:18-32). The consequences are always disastrous. That is the nature of human sin.

Viewed in this light—the light of Scripture—it is amazing that there are not more mass murders in our society and that this world is not a field of blood. The seeds which blossomed into brutal violence and murder in Nikolas Cruz are planted in every human heart. What makes you or me any different? The mercy and grace of God. Nothing more. Not one thing.

Granted, this is a hard truth to swallow. But it is the truth. It is much more psychologically satisfying to explain away the notoriously wicked among us in terms which are far removed from our own circumstances. If we can distance ourselves from them and convince ourselves that “they” really are not in any way like “us,” then we can sleep easier at night. It is the sleep, however, of the drunkard, who so dulls his senses that he falls into a stupor. Alexandr Solzhenitsyn learned this during his years of imprisonment in a Soviet gulag:

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.

This is a truth which, ultimately, cannot be denied. The very same sin nature which moves some to commit the most atrocious of crimes resides within every man, woman and child.

To admit this is to come to a shattering realization.

During WW II Adolf Eichmann was Hitler’s top angel of death. From 1939-1945 he was in charge of exterminating Jews in Germany. Over six million Jewish people were murdered under his efficient administration. After the war he escaped to South America, where he lived until he was found and arrested by the Israeli secret police in 1960. Eichmann was extradited to Israel where he was put on trial for the atrocious crimes he committed against the Jews.

One of the survivors of the Holocaust was Yehiel Dinur. He was called on to testify against Eichmann at the trial. When Dinur confronted Eichmann in the Israeli courtroom, he began to shout and sob uncontrollably, finally collapsing to the floor. Everyone assumed that his reaction was caused by the memory of the horrible atrocities of the death camps in Nazi Germany. However, in a later interview Dinur explained that that was not the reason at all. Rather, he said, when he saw Eichmann he expected to see him as the personification of evil itself, some kind of moral monster. But, as he gazed into Echmann’s eyes, he realized for the first time that sin and evil are the natural human condition. Dinur said, “I saw that I am capable to do this…exactly like he.”

Eichmann was not a madman. Hitler and bin Laden were not sociological mutations. Nikolas Cruz is not a monster. That 19-year-old is an enslaved sinner. And the same sinful nature which erupted so murderously in his life resides in every child of Adam. To see this and to believe it is to be brought to your knees just like Yehiel Dinur.

Against this black velvet backdrop the grace of God in Jesus Christ shines as a brilliant diamond radiating hope to our utterly depraved world. Through His life, death and resurrection, He has conquered sin and all the powers of evil. By the work of His Spirit, He changes human hearts and gives people new life. As Lord of lords He forgives the sin of all who trust Him and soon He will appear to eradicate evil forever.

So admit the truth about yourself. Confess your sin against God, turn away from it and commit yourself to Jesus as Lord. In the face of moral evil and in the midst of deep suffering and sorrow that are left in its wake, let us who have been taught by God help others to learn the truth as well. And in faith, let us look up and lift up our heads, because our redemption draws near.

Tom Ascol has served as a Pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, FL since 1986. Prior to moving to Florida he served as pastor and associate pastor of churches in Texas. He has a BS degree in sociology from Texas A&M University (1979) and has also earned the MDiv and PhD degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas. He has served as an adjunct professor of theology for various colleges and seminaries, including Reformed Theological Seminary, the Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary, African Christian University, Copperbelt Ministerial College, and Reformed Baptist Seminary. He has also served as Visiting Professor at the Nicole Institute for Baptist Studies at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. Tom serves as the President of Founders Ministries and The Institute of Public Theology. He has edited the Founders Journal, a quarterly theological publication of Founders Ministries, and has written hundreds of articles for various journals and magazines. He has been a regular contributor to TableTalk, the monthly magazine of Ligonier Ministries. He has also edited and contributed to several books, including Dear Timothy: Letters on Pastoral Ministry, The Truth and Grace Memory Books for children and  Recovering the Gospel and Reformation of Churches. He is also the author of From the Protestant Reformation to the Southern Baptist ConventionTraditional Theology and the SBC and Strong and Courageous. Tom regularly preaches and lectures at various conferences throughout the United States and other countries. In addition he regularly contributes articles to the Founders website and hosts a weekly podcast called The Sword & The Trowel. He and his wife Donna have six children along with four sons-in-law and a daughter-in-law. They have sixteen grandchildren.
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