The Slaughtering of the Innocents—- Again

We are all familiar with the story of nasty old King Herod and the slaughtering of the innocents. Herod was indeed a paranoid Idumean who just happened to be king in Judaea. There would always be questions about his legitimacy as a ruler in that land. And in order to maintain his throne he was prepared to kill some of his wives and offspring as well. ‘Paranoia strikes deep/ into your life it will creep/ it starts when you’re always afraid….step out of line ‘the man’ comes and take you away…’

There are many things ironic about King Herod, not the least of which is that his fortress built on an artificial hill on the back side of Bethlehem (called the Herodium of course) where he thought he would be safe is also where his tomb was found in the last decade. The story in Matthew’s Gospel is totally believable knowing Herod’s character as displayed at length by Josephus, but we need to not over-imagine the size of the story. Bethlehem was a one horse town at best in Herod’s day, and the number of infants under two would have been exceedingly few— maybe 10-12. So don’t let the gory Renaissance paintings fool you—- what happened in Newtown Conn. this week was likely far worse than what happened in Bethlehem so long ago.

I was watching an interview this week after the massacre in Newtown and the inevitable question was asked—= ‘What could we do to prevent this from happening again?’ The candid answer given by a former head of various FBI operations was as follows— ‘absolutely nothing unless we are prepared to significantly change our gun laws and also change what we do with the mentally ill’. But even that would not be enough because some mass murderers are not technically deranged, they are simply wicked. There is a difference.

In the case of the Newtown killing it seems clear we are dealing with a mentally unbalanced person. Psychologists have already been weighing in with the theory that: 1) Adam was disturbed about his mother’s warm relationships with the school children she taught at Sandy Hook. He felt he was losing his mother, or most of her affections were directed elsewhere. 2) in a rage he decided to stop that positive thing from ever happening again— killing his mother, and then numerous children. It remains to be seen whether he also killed himself, but perhaps he did.

I want to return to a few points. Sometimes in the wake of such a massive tragedy as happened this week, people have a sense of helplessness, a feeling that nothing at all could have been done to prevent it. This however is not quite true, as I will speak to in a minute. But one of the reasons so many people are bewildered about this is that they simply do not understand either human fallenness or mental illness.

Sin, in itself, is inherently illogical and self-destructive as well as destroying others. You can’t rationally explain the irrational acts of fallen persons. They fall into the category of ‘senseless and inexplicable’ acts. Sometimes, as with the psychological theory mentioned above, we can come up with an explanation for why the mentally ill act as they do, but it provides no solace or comfort to those who lost their children this week. And of course the shock in part comes from where this tragedy occurred— in small town USA where most of the people knew each other, and many of them actually cared about each other. It is easy to be lulled into a false sense of security in such places. But if it can happen in small town Newtown, it can happen anywhere in America.

Sometimes to cure a pernicious condition it takes strong medicine. Here are some of the things that could be done to help inhibit if not prevent such tragedies in the future: 1) we do indeed need stricter gun laws, especially in regard to the availability of clips that fire multiple rounds of bullets and the guns that are used to do the deed. There is a bill now stalled in Congress that needs to be enacted. It deals with the availability of such bullet clips to almost anyone; 2) parents who have mentally ill children should never ever have guns in their homes. Never. The mother of Adam was a gun enthusiast. Indeed, she took her mentally imbalanced son to target practice! This was akin to offering matches to a pyromaniac.

Furthermore, we need to rethink entirely how we deal with the mentally imbalanced who have already shown signs of being dangerous to others and themselves. In my childhood, most such persons were already institutionalized for the good of everyone. I don’t know whether this is the best solution, but in a very sick, sadistic, violence prone society we need to think hard about these very matters; 3) like it or not, we need to install full time police officers in our schools, complete with flack jackets and weapons. Had there really been such a person at Sandy Hook who was on the job and patrolling the halls, some of this tragedy might have been prevented.

But we are also going to need such persons in places like malls, movie theaters etc. places where large numbers of unarmed persons congregate. This is no time for the cry of more vigilantism, more ‘let the private citizens bear arms in public and do their own Rambo thing’ stuff. In the past, and in the present, this usually leads to more innocent people being killed and lots of self-inflicted wounds. The facts don’t lie about this. Private citizens are not usually trained professionals when it comes to the safe use of fire arms. Perhaps there could come a day if we could get enough AK 47s and multiple round clips off the public market that we wouldn’t need more police presence in public places, but sadly that day is not now.

And lastly here is where I say we all have a responsibility to do something about this tragedy. This event hopefully will be a tipping point for legislative change and more sensible dealings with the deranged and the wicked. And more protection for our children. Sadly, unlike the Holy family in Matthew, none of the parents in Newtown were warned in a dream to get the heck out Newtown the night before this all happened. One of the surest ways for us to continue to have Columbines and Auroras and Newtowns is for good people to sit around and do nothing to change the gun culture, the culture of violence and illness in which we marinate every day. Most of all, we need to pray hard for a revival in this country that changes the sick moral character of so many of our citizens, because as Jesus said— the ultimate source of the problem when it comes to murder, adultery, drug culture and you name it is the human heart. Think on these things.

  • Patrick

    Here’s a story from an existing, still alive mother who fears facing this exact thing.

  • Ben Witherington

    Thanks so much for this link. It simply underscores the depths of the problem we are dealing with.


  • Greg M.

    Dr. Witherington,

    I remember you writing a very different post a few years back when a shooting occurred in a church.

    Has your perspective changed, or is it different because the setting is different?

  • Ben Witherington

    Nope. Not a different perspective at all. I’m a pacifist. I do think that Romans 13 is true, namely that the State has the right to bear arms. I didn’t say anything about Christians being the people carrying weapons. BW3

  • Luken

    Mr. Witherington

    “the ultimate source of the problem… is the human heart.”

    You are so close to getting it… It can be frustrating watching you be almost logical. Yet still, your anti-civil right, anti-self defense argument still amounts to saying all pneumatic nailers should be banned because some contractors have built houses that have collapsed and killed people. Further more, the plain fact of the matter is that Connecticut is the 4th most restrictive state in the US for gun rights and School zones are even more restrictive. How about allowing people the option to defend themselves instead of legislatively creating Un-armed Victim Zones (Gun Free Zones) that obviously DO NOT WORK. At the very least give teachers the option to receive extensive firearms training so that if they so desire they can effectively protect the defenseless children who are under their care.
    The truth is that if we seek to place blame on something other than the person directly responsible for the evil, sadistic, and epically tragic events, like what transpired in Newtown, then we must view these events as the logical but unintended consequence of the well meaning but naive policies of people like you Mr. Witherington. We should increase peoples ability to defend themselves and our children, not further hamper that ability. Think on these things.


  • Ben Witherington

    Well Luken let me ask you a question— have you ever lived ANYWHERE outside the U.S. where they actually have both: 1) stricter gun control, and 2) precious little gun violence? If you haven’t then you have no right to make arguments about policies that in your limited perspective don’t work. In fact they do in many places. I have lived in some of these places, and frankly they are much safer than America.

    One source of our American problem is deeply rooted in the wild west attitude of the American heart.

    So let’s talk logic for a minute. In your view the way to DECREASE violence is by giving further arms to private citizens? Really? Really? I’m sorry but this is indeed like arguing that the best way to solve the drug problem is by legalizing more drugs. If guns are indeed the means of most killings in America, increasing the number of private citizens with guns is hardly going to decrease the violence. It’s just going to make more private citizens armed and dangerous.

    Have you bothered to talk with police? They are all for assault weapon bans. All for limiting multiple bullet clips. Why do you suppose that is?

    I’m sorry Luken but your statement calling what happened in Newtown a tragedy rings hollow considering you want to pour gasoline on an already raging fire of desire for vengeance by many private citizens, which is all too prevalent in our culture. Let’s imagine the scenario you suggested. So teachers are taught to pack and use weapons. And where exactly are they going to store these weapons at schools, or are they supposed to be wearing them all the time? And how exactly are they to appear to be caring and compassionate and understanding mentors of our children when they look like they belong in the military police and will appear intimidating to one and all? I do pray that someday you will do a rethink. Blessings anyway, BW3

  • Matt Viney

    As an outsider who all too frequently hears of mass shootings in the USA, I wanted to say that living in a country with very strict gun control is wonderful. After the Port Arthur massacre in 1996 (in which 35 Aussies were murdered by one deranged individual), Australia implemented some of the strictest gun laws in the world. The government also ‘bought back’ 643 000 firearms. With these restrictions in place Australians enjoy a society that is relatively free from the gun violence. Of course, no approach to gun control is perfect, but the outcomes in Australia have been very good.

    Condolences to the families of the Newtown victims. Australians are heartbroken for your loss.

  • Ben Witherington

    Thanks Matt for the testimony. I’m right there with you. Aussie rules! BW3

  • Patrick

    Thing is, we Americans are a uniquely violent people. Our incarceration rates are so far ahead of all other’s it’s mindboggling.

    I think our main problem is we US believers as a church just don’t care for God that much and it shows. I could be wrong on theology, but, reading Judges, it seems to me that God allows more chaos and evil in a society as His people think less and less of Him.

  • Ben Witherington

    The statistics do not lie. There are more gun dealers in America than there are McDonalds. Just within 10 square miles of Newtown there were some 400 different licensed places where you could buy guns. Every single day in America 85 persons die from a gunshot wound. Every single day in America, hundreds of guns are sold, almost all perfectly legally. What’s wrong with this picture? BW3


    You have spoken articulately and thoughtfully about what has become more than a bad nightmare, but a bad reality. In fact, I have reposted your observations on my own blog. The response you have received from the pro-gun advocates are typical of the responses that I have received, perhaps with a little less vitriol. The fact that we have become a violent society should be of paramount concern to us regardless of how it compares to other societies. We need to become honest about a dangerous idolatry in our nation – which is the worship of guns and our love of violence,

  • http://!! Oscar

    Only gun confiscation and severe penalties for gun ownership, PLUS increased taxes on EVERY person, not just the rich, to finance heavily armed law enforcement in every school MIGHT work. On the taxation issue ALL workers should pay something. Doesn’t the bible state that we not favor the rich because he is rich, or the poor because he is poor? If everyone understood what the tax was going for then they might not resent it as much.

    You don’t think I’m being serious? Well then, you are right! These things will NEVER happen, neither would they guarantee that another such incident would never happen again.

    I’ve a question, though, about the perp (may his name be expunged from human memory). Do we know if he exhibited violent tendencies in the past? Was he ever flagged by authorities as being potentially violent? Was he ever treated for mental illness? If not then no amount of funding for public mental health facilities would have prevented this horrible deed. He reportedly stole the gun (a premeditated illegal act) and then broke into the school (another possibly premeditated illegal act) and then began his rampage. There is no law that could have prevented this scenario. We can navel gaze and wring our hands over ineffective controls, but if evil is determined to express itself then no law can stop it.

    Ben, I know you have a good heart and have empathy for the parents, but after so many of these incidents it is becoming increasingly clear that our society is unable to deal with the root cause of these acts. And you know what THAT is…

  • Ben Witherington

    Oscar, see the comment by Matt Vinney above. Clearly such a process can and does work, but whether we will ever have the guts to do it is another matter. Secondly Adam Lanza was indeed on medication for mental illness, was home schooled and well and the guns were his mother’s. This is why I made the comment I did about parents of such children not having guns in the home. And Oscar I don’t agree that nothing can stop evil. As the Bible says evil can be overcome with good. It is to that end and with that belief that I have made these comments. BW3

  • Drane


    Your “WP-SpamFree” filter has determined that my post is “Spammy”. I’ve posted it on my FB page. See the article, “Not mostly true that ‘Guns Don’t Kill People, People Kill People.’”

    Is this because I have included links to several academic publications? You check it out and let me know if I am being “spammy”. Is that even a word!!! Sorry, but everyone hates being censored, especially when it is unwarranted.

  • Drane

    Of course, you will have to be friended to see my FB content.

    Sorry, the FB page is at And I guess you will have to be friended to see it. At this point, I am not friending the general public.

  • Luken

    Mr. Witherington

    Let me ask you a question. Have you ever lived in 1st century Palestine? If you haven’t then you have no right to make arguments about ANE history or theology… Yeah, not a very sound argument huh? I didn’t think so either. Why is it that you always make assumptions about me personally when we argue over this topic? Does where I live or have lived have any correlation to the topic at hand and the facts pertaining to it? At least you display your irrationality for everyone who views this comment section. You really can’t set aside your bias for one moment and think clearly can you Mr. Witherington? Examine your presuppositions post-haste.

    And yes, increased means of protection will decrease violence. Period! Ask yourself why a large majority of these shootings don’t occur on a Marine base or a swat team barracks? why are there no massacres at a gun club or gun show? Why is that do you think? Maybe it’s because there is a much greater level of protection at these places. Maybe they are capable of putting up a defense whereas a school is full of defenseless children and easy pickings for an evil sociopath.

    You go on to say:
    “Have you bothered to talk with police? They are all for assault weapon bans. All for limiting multiple bullet clips. Why do you suppose that is?”

    Wow… Okay, all of them? Really??? You have spoken to every one? well done! One, you do realize that statement of yours is a logical fallacy called a fallacious appeal to authority right?? You’re a professor???? Two, If we are really degrading this argument to the level of anecdotal evidence then I will say that in my conversations with cops, border patrol agents, sheriffs deputies, DNR officers etc. (some of whom are in my family) to a man they are opposed to a ban on semi auto rifles, magazine ( They are not CLIPS, learn to use the correct terminology at least) capacity limits etc. Did you really think that was a legitimate argument? Seriously, I’m curious.

    Oh, and legalizing drugs would not eliminate the drug problem but it would put the Mexican drug cartels out of business and save millions or billions of tax payer dollars on the incarceration of non violent drug offenders.

    You finish by saying:
    “I’m sorry Luken but your statement calling what happened in Newtown a tragedy rings hollow considering you want to pour gasoline on an already raging fire…”

    As the evidence shows and logic dictates it is you and your naivete that rings hollow Mr. Witherington. Just listen to your self. Gasoline on a fire? Lets boil this down. We have a killer who used guns not his own, on property that banned guns, used them against state mandated unarmed victims and their charges and finally, met zero resistance in enacting his goals and you want to make the entire country like this school????? Please… Your enormous ignorance on this subject is deafening, not in a ring but in its cavernous roar.

    Even your argument against teachers learning to defend themselves and their students is predicated on how inconvenient or uncomfortable they may be while carrying the tool that allows them to defend themselves and the students. Do you listen to yourself? who rings hollow now?

    It seems that you refuse to think at all about this issue beyond your base level gut instinct. Think Mr. Witherington, think. I pray that your irrational mentality and disregard for the lives of others is changed by a holy God who will mercifully clear your mind and allow you to see clearly.

    Truly, I am shocked at your display.
    I am embarrassed for you with such a juvenile, jejune and irrational response to my initial post. Lord save us from the arrogance of the “learned” elites

  • Ben Witherington

    Hi Drane: I don’t decide what is spammy, the spam filter at Patheos does, so, sorry about that. BW3

  • Ben Witherington

    Well Luken you’re at it again. Your arguments are so illogical that I despair of having a conversation with you. I’m afraid you’ve forgotten for example what happened at Fort Hood Texas a couple of years ago. I’m sorry but the facile more guns more protection mantra doesn’t work as some sort of universal rule. I have no problems with teachers getting themselves trained to use small fire arms. I have a problem with them packing in school of course! And you didn’t bother to answer my question. See for example the comment in this string from Murray from Australia. Seems that what I am saying does work in some places. But you don’t want to hear that. BW3

  • Ben Witherington

    P.S. Last I checked at the Kentucky gun show here in Lexington Luken, none of those guns at the show are allowed to be loaded! And an unloaded gun is hardly much protection or deterrent now is it?

  • Robert Rogers

    “I am embarrassed for you with such a juvenile, jejune and irrational response to my initial post. Lord save us from the arrogance of the “learned” elites.”
    Luken, your lack of logical sagacity is clearly displayed in your frequent ad hominems and caricature of Witherington. Your “walking rebuke” of one who might disagree with you drowns out any argument you might bring to the discussion. I wouldn’t blame Witherington to disregard any more comments that you post here. I, too, disagree with Witherington on some minor points, but geesh, he is not the enemy. Violence is the enemy. We may have differing opinions on how to stop violence, but that doesn’t mean we divide and attack one another. Discussion and even robust debate is always done in a manner of respect and high regard for your “opponent.”
    Lord save us from the arrogance of the willfully ignorant.

  • Susan Burns

    It is time for fundamentalist Christians to STOP scaring our children. The world will not end soon. There will not be tribulation until Jesus raptures the chosen few. Some children cannot overcome the anxiety this fear produces. They grow up and think they need to hoard weapons for the coming apocalypse. The more anxiety they feel the more weapons they hoard. It will take a generation to alleviate the anxiety caused by this neurosis even if you stop it today. STOP SCARING OUR KIDS!!!!!

  • Ben Witherington

    Hi Susan: I’m with you on that. Most Evangelical Christians however are gun-totting apocalyptic sorts though, nor are conservative Catholics or Orthodox folks.


  • Ben Witherington

    Hi Susan: I’m with you on that. Most Evangelical Christians however are gu

  • Ben Witherington

    This is what happens when a site times out…. so let me start over.

    Hi Susan: I’m with you on that. Most Evangelical Christians however are NOT gun-toting apocalyptic sorts, nor are conservative Catholics or Orthodox folk.


  • theologyarchaeology

    The question is–How do you know God did not send any warnings and that the people simply did not listen? Why would it have to be in a dream the night before? Why wouldn’t the warnings come earlier and directed at helping the shooter before he decided to kill?

    How do you know that the parents even asked God to protect their children? Then why would God, without being asked, intervene to stop a potential tragedy simply because american children are involved yet NOT do that same act for Africans, who are slaughtered and raped on a daily basis because someone thought annihilation was the way to purify their country?

    Americans are really self-absorbed and selfish.

  • Ben Witherington

    Interesting reflections Mr. kinship 29… (it would be nice if people who have the courage to critique others would also have the courage to use their real names when posting comments). In fact we do know that various of these parents prayed for the protection of their children regularly. They have said so. And how exactly is concern and compassion for this particular tragedy some how a snubbing or ignoring of other tragedies? That’s just an argument from silence, and a bad one at that. Are Americans often selfish and self-absorbed? Yes they are…. and so are other national groups as well, but frankly that point is irrelevant. And on one thing you are right— we don’t know if God tried to warn people and people simply had tuned God out. We don’t know this. What we do know is that apparently God has a hard time reaching normal hard-headed humans, never mind deranged ones. BW3

  • William

    Mr Witherington,
    Your initial post reminded me of why I keep visiting the blog. Thank you for it. I should have stopped reading there.

  • Tim Farrell

    Four Things:

    First, I’d like to say that I’m shocked at the condescending tone of Luken’s comments. There’s no reason to behave in such a prideful and demeaning manner. Even the “Mr. Witherington” address in your comments are childish and silly.

    Second, I do believe our media enflames the issue by stating the killer’s name and using the killer’s picture over and over again. In my own limited understanding, there is a certain element of insanity that leads people, like the gunman, to go out in a blaze of gunfire in order to have his name remembered. I believe there needs to be a greater degree of intentionality on the part of the news and media to actively minimize the usage of personal information about the killer in the aftermath of events like these. It would diminish the desire on the part of these kinds of disturbed individuals to act out in such horrific ways if they knew there would be no aggrandizement of their memory.

    Third: we’ve got to take a look at violence in video games and movies. Our children and adolescents are spending an inordinate amount of time being ‘entertained’ by mediums that are full of destruction and death. These games are often addictive in nature and in no way influence any kind of ethical posture in terms of the sanctity of life.

    Fourth: local churches need to emphasize the need for a healthy personal ownership in the lives of people. The role of blaming others and failing to take personal responsibility (which is rampant in our culture) leads to anger, hatred, depersonalization, and ultimately, violence.

  • Jeremy McLellan

    There’s something perverse at work in our political culture that keeps us from from addressing each other without reference to the legitimacy of coercion. Every single conversation I have with Christians about morality turns into a discussion about laws and civil rights, or whether certain moral imperatives can be effectively universalized. I want to say, “I wasn’t talking about Obama or the NRA. I was talking about you.”

    Jesus has abolished war. He has already banned guns. Many respond that Caesar shouldn’t be beating our swords into ploughshares for us. Fine. Let’s do it ourselves.

  • Ben Witherington

    And now Stephen Prothero weighs in with a list of things he doesn’t want to hear after the Newtown massacre. Here is no. 6—

    “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”

    “If ever there has been a more idiotic political slogan, I have yet to hear it. The logical fallacy here is imagining that people are killed either by people or by guns. Come again? Obviously, guns do not kill people on their own. But people do not shoot bullets into people without guns. At Sandy Hook and Aurora and Columbine, people with guns killed people. This is a fact. To pretend it away with slogans is illogical and revolting.

    The question now is: Are those of us who have not yet been killed by guns going to allow these massacres to continue unimpeded? Are Americans that callous? Is life here so cheap? I have read the Second Amendment, and I find no mention there of any right to possess any gun more advanced than an 18th-century musket? Do I really have the right to bear a nuclear weapon? Or a rocket-propelled grenade? Then why in God’s name would any U.S. civilian have the right (or the need) to bear a .223-caliber assault rifle made by Bushmaster?”

  • James Petticrew

    We had our school massacre at Dunblane, and then we banned hand guns. I don’t know if that can be done in the States or not. I think the key difference lies in our attitude to the state / society. Since at least the Reformation we have had a concept in Scotland of “the common weil” that is decisions should be based in what is best for the overall health / safety of society. It was on that basis we banned guns, a few people gave up their indvidual rights and pleasure in firing guns to ensure a greater freedom for society from the threat of more Dunblane type massacres.

    Seems to me that nearly all the American friends I know who support owning assault rifles etc do so from an individualistic position, it’s my right to own guns etc, etc.

    I was a police officer in Scotland and never ever carried a firearm, there are many reasons I like my homeland but that is near the top, the guns I saw on sale at so called gun fairs when I lived in Kentucky for a year frightened the living daylights out of me. Why do private citizens need weapons designed specifically to kill other humans quickly and effectively ?