My Take: CNN readers' 7 answers to 'Where was God in Aurora?'
A man pauses at a memorial of crosses near the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, the scene of last week's mass shooting.
July 26th, 2012
02:49 PM ET

My Take: CNN readers' 7 answers to 'Where was God in Aurora?'

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

Over the last few days, CNN’s Belief Blog has received more than 10,000 responses to its question, “Where was God in Aurora?”

The underlying concern here has vexed theologians for centuries: How can evil happen in a world that is lorded over by a good and all-powerful God? As CNN's readers struggled to make sense of God's presence (or absence) in the Aurora, Colorado, massacre, I counted seven different answers to this question:

1. There is no God.

Self-professed atheists may make up only 2% of the U.S. population, but they are extraordinarily active online, and on CNN's Belief Blog. A commenter who identified as Jason spoke for them when he wrote, “Where was God? He was where he has always been. Nowhere because God does not exist.” Bob Dobbs agreed: “God is imaginary. The question is moot.”

Many in this camp also quoted the ancient Greek philosopher (and skeptic) Epicurus:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?

2. Don’t blame God, blame Satan.

Many theists on the site described the world as a battleground between God, who is working for good, and Satan, who is working for evil. “As long as Satan is loose to promote evil, bad things will happen to good people,” wrote kat.

3. Don’t blame God, blame us.

Probably the most common response from Christian commenters was that evil is a result of free will. Do we really want to be “puppets” or “robots"? Of course not. So God has given us the will to choose either evil or good.

Watch: Survivor of massacre says he forgives gunman

Believer summed up this position well:

"It's been said that the only thing we can truly give God is our will because its the only thing we possess that is uniquely ours. Everything else was given to us by him, and is, in effect, not ours to give in the first place. As such, and despite his omnipotence, he cannot intervene. . . .  He only possesses power where power can be possessed - and controlling our actions is not within that realm."

Here Deborah also chimed in: “This act of violence was not God's will. I get so tried of people blaming God for evil acts. Humans of their own free will do evil things.”

4. God was behind the massacre, and it was just.

Some believers saw God’s righteous hand in the Aurora massacre, inflicting a just punishment on a wayward nation now run by secular liberals rather than conservative Christians.

Lenny wrote:

"We as a country have been telling God to go away. We told him to get off our currency, get out of our schools, get out of our Pledge of Allegiance, take your Ten Commandments out of our courthouses, get those Bibles out of hotels and no graduation ceremonies in our churches. How can we expect God to give us his blessing and his protection if we demand that he leave us alone?"

Read: The man who made Aurora’s iconic crosses

Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, took a similar tack in an appearance on the Heritage Foundation's "Istook Live" radio show, laying the blame at the feet of a nation that has turned away from its God:

"You know, when people say, where was God in all of this? Well, you know, . . . we’ve threatened high school graduation participants that if they use God’s name that they’re going to be jailed, we had a principal of a school, and a superintendent or a coach down in Florida that were threatened with jail because they said the blessing at a voluntary off campus dinner. I mean, that kind of stuff… where is God? Where, where? What have we done with God? We told him that we don’t want him around. I kind of like his protective hand being present."

5. God was present at the massacre but with the victims, not the perpetrator

One classic claim in the Abrahamic tradition of Jews, Christians and Muslims is that God is with those who suffer - the poor and the oppressed. Some commenters saw God’s miraculous hand in the midst of this suffering, not causing it to happen but bringing it to an end.  “This may sound crazy,” wrote Diana, “but I believe God had a hand in that the gun jammed so that more people weren’t killed.”

CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories

The most common claim in this category came from peacemaker, who wrote, “God is and was with the victims and s/he is weeping.” In a more explicitly Christian vein, Lauren wrote: “He was there in the theater, pierced by bullets with the victims. He was scarred by the shrapnel. His eyes were scorched with gas and then burned with tears as He mourned alongside the broken.”

6. Which God?

Some commenters interrogated the question itself, arguing that the knots it twists us into are rooted in what commenter Ego_Death called “a false idea of what God is.” After all, the problem of evil in a world ruled by a sovereign and good God only presents itself if you posit one personal God who is both good and all-powerful.

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Referring to "our idea of a human-like personal God" as "an ancient myth," Northstar56 wrote:

"But just because this kind of God does not appear to exist, does not mean that God, in fact, does not exist. I think many have developed a more mature and realistic perspective . . . in which God exists as a pure fundamental consciousness or state from which all of existence arises. This God does not control anything, but rather continues to perpetually emanate as reality . . . God was present in all of the victims, and everyone else. God was present in the killer as well. The tragedy is that the killer's awareness was so distorted and twisted that he could not see or be aware of the intrinsic priceless value of every person he gunned down."

Evoking something more akin to the “watchmaker” God of the deists, who makes the world and its laws and then refuses to intervene in its operation, Norm wrote: “God is not involved in our everyday mundane activities. How arrogant of man to think he’s the center of the universe and has God’s constant attention and every action is ‘God’s will.’”

Taking a different tack, "varun" invoked the teachings of the beloved Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita:

"Only the followers of Semitic religions have problem with understanding this - because they do not believe in rebirth and karma. As soon as you introduce these two concepts into (the) picture along with the eternal indestructible soul (something Semitic religions do believe in), everything makes sense. Read Bhagavad-Gita and everything would be as clear as daylight."

7. Who knows? It’s a mystery

Agnosticism is a rare virtue in the United States nowadays, but there were a few commenters who admitted to something less than the absolute certainty exhibited by atheists and evangelicals alike. "The answer," wrote Terry, "is we don't know where he was." Fluffy the Gerbil of Doom saw this "God works in mysterious ways" move as “ultimate cop-out/rationalization,” but I am not so sure.

In September 1862, in the midst of a much greater American tragedy, Abraham Lincoln wrote a private “Meditation on the Divine Will” in which he struggled to make sense of what God was doing in the Civil War. He later reworked those reflections into his second inaugural address, one of the greatest speeches in American history.

Surveying the corpse-ridden landscape of North and South, Lincoln observed, “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.” Clearly there was little good in slavery, he reasoned, yet equally clearly God was not giving a swift and sure victory to the Union. So what was God up to? In the end, Lincoln had to admit he did not know. Or, as he put it, “The Almighty has His own purposes.”

I suppose this is in a sense a “cop-out,” but it is a humble one, uninfected by the absolute certainties (either pro- or anti-God) that have shed more blood on earth than agnosticism ever will. It is also a classic example of answering a question with a question: What is God doing with this war? Who knows?

“Josephpusateri” also answered our question with a question. His comment was in my view the best of the hundreds I read, so I will end with it here:

"Oh, the blindness of such a question... as if only theodicy was a relevant question in white, American suburbs. Where is God in Afghanistan? Where is God in Gaza? Where is God in Syria? . . . Where is God, indeed."

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Atheism • Belief • Christianity • Culture wars • Devil • Ethics • God • Violence

soundoff (4,074 Responses)
  1. Jim

    GOD did not create man. Man created GOD.

    July 26, 2012 at 6:26 pm |
  2. Andrew

    I myself am a self-professed atheist and trust me, atheists not only comprise a much higher percentage of the U.S. but are increasing rapidly as a demographic. At least, get the facts right CNN. This is very disappointing.

    July 26, 2012 at 6:26 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      what 'facts' did Stephen Prothero get 'wrong'?

      July 26, 2012 at 6:52 pm |
  3. Francisco Contreras


    July 26, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
    • Rick James

      Tu eres estupido. Abre los ojos.

      July 26, 2012 at 6:29 pm |
  4. yneeemee

    Option # 10:13 People who believe know where He is... atheists don't care – no need to over analyze the situation CNN

    July 26, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
    • Rick James

      Where is he, then? Is he in the clouds? In space? Out of space? No one has been able to figure it out. You might be able to win the Noble prize for physics and peace if you can just tell us where he is.

      July 26, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
  5. Maria

    I know where God was......he was at every other horrific and miserable crimes that are commited in this country and around the world that terrible night. He was also in Aurora,Colorado. Why are we not questioning where HE was at every other crime that has been committed? God has no magic wand to wave and make people stop and think before they commit a crime. God's wrath (if there is such a thing) will happen after death for this insane madman who took so many young lives before there time. While we are still here on earth we should ask ourselves what we do (if anything) to stop any future crimes that may be committed. I believe that from the moment you are born, He knows when you will die. You can take precautions to avoid danger but eventually your name will be called.

    July 26, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
    • illuminated Genius

      God exists? Where was he? I have serious doubts. We have a mystery at hand. Who in the world knows? Maybe the Atheists are right, and this intelligent Joker James Holmes may have the King James Bible named after him for proving God is nothing more than a Joker's fantasy.

      July 26, 2012 at 11:50 pm |
  6. Zu En

    I agree with number three

    July 26, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      Then you're fudging idiot.

      July 26, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      Then you're a fudging idiot.

      July 26, 2012 at 6:28 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      Sorry 'bout the double post. Maybe I'm an idiot (but not a fudging one, like you).

      July 26, 2012 at 6:29 pm |
  7. Rick James

    I checked up on that 2% figure, and he was right. The number of unaffiliated is growing though to around 20%, and we have religion to thank for that. The faster that religion goes away, the better off we will be.

    July 26, 2012 at 6:23 pm |

    Why would a nation for the most part.,ask the question.WHERE WAS GOD? when for decades we have push GOD out of every area of our lives.people have gone to jail just for talking about him or praying to him in schools,stadiums,neghborhoods,and in many public buildings,only when something really bad happens do we even utter the word GO.NEVER,NEVER DO WE SPEAK of him or give him credit when many many good things to our
    nation.ever human being has a will to do good or bad a FREE WILL given to us by GOD.and on that unspeakable nigh that young man choose to exercise his free will.WHEN WILL AMERICA WAKE UP, ( GOD DID NOT DO THIS)

    July 26, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      Cite any example of somebody going to jail for praying in school.

      Also, it's in the First Amendment. If you don't like it, get the fudge out.

      July 26, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
    • Rick James

      Who has gone to jail for praying? What an absurd statement. Just because one can't force his beliefs on another does not mean that bad things happen as a result.

      July 26, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
  9. Mark

    1, 6, & 7 appear to me to be the only worthwhile explanations. 2 and 4 deserve particular mention though for their manifestations of delusional thinking.

    July 26, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
  10. Peter

    The author has his statistics dead wrong. Atheists make up 12-16% of our society depending upon the survey. 2%!!! Maybe in Branson, Missouri, but not throughout the USA.

    July 26, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      what survey has 12-16%. The only reputable data I have seen is consistent with 2%,
      You can find it here: http://religions.pewforum.org/reports

      July 26, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
  11. sam

    maybe god was taking a break having a beer with his buddies up there. give the guy a break

    July 26, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
  12. sybaris

    7 answers to 'Where was God in Aurora?'

    which god?

    July 26, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      Probably that desert storm god who's influence grew due to incredibly violent followers. Yahweh I believe is his name.

      July 26, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
    • ME II

      Didn't read the article, did you?

      "6. Which God?" – from the article.

      July 26, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
  13. JLS639

    Well, time to offend people with an obvious argument (#8) that nobody has the guts to mention...

    No deity felt the need to intervene in such a relatively small affair. As mass killings worldwide go, a dozen killed and scores injured is not that large. Maybe your deity was preventing more of the big ones we sometimes read about that are not happening often in the wealthier, more stable countries. Maybe this deity was preventing a drone from blowing up a Afghan wedding party and killing dozens. Maybe your deity was convincing a military commander in Syria to not massacre an entire village. Maybe your deity was preventing a ferry with 500 people aboard from capsizing. Maybe he was stopping Columbian ranchers from murdering 2 dozen Indians and raping their wives and daughters to fight communism.

    Of course, argument #1 is the most obvious, followed closely by argument #9 that an immortal, all-wise universe-spanning being does not care about a theatre full of people, or even humanity. The idea that any person believes such a being would care about them rather than regard them as one very tiny, insignificant data point seems immensely narcissistic to me.

    July 26, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
    • Duh

      God was busy preventing Mitt Romneys rusty balloon knot from unraveling and gassing thousands of people in the auditorium that night...

      July 26, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
    • Big Al


      July 26, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      your argument #8 is moot if you believe in an omnicient, omnipotent and pervasive God – like most of the believers do.

      July 26, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
    • Sean

      Omniscience and omnipotence are mutually exclusive. They cannot exist in the same being.


      July 26, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
  14. archstanton14

    A better question, "Where was George Zimmerman when you needed him?"

    July 26, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      If only the shooter was a black child.

      July 26, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
    • Big Al

      Getting his a$$ kickec by a 17 year old....

      July 26, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
  15. mhklein

    I liked Stephen Prothero's piece. I'm a believer but I think his agnostic approach works best.

    July 26, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
  16. Ken

    He seems to have more than a few things wrong about atheists. First that they are 2% of the American population and that their belief is, as he put it "Agnosticism is a rare virtue in the United States nowadays, but there were a few commenters who admitted to something less than the absolute certainty exhibited by atheists and evangelicals alike." Most modern atheists only state there is no proof of God's existence, and that any "proof" attributed to him can easily be explained by the natural world, not that he does not exist.

    July 26, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
    • Sean

      Additionally, atheism and agnosticism are two separate issues.

      Theism = belief in god
      Atheism = no belief in god

      Gnosticism = knowledge of something
      Agnosticism = lack of knowledge of something

      Agnostic does not equate to atheist, nor does theist specifically preclude being agnostic.

      July 26, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
    • Mass Debater

      I consider myself an atheist for I do not believe in any God's. That does not however preclude the possibility of a God existing, so as a reasonable person I must accept that it is just as valid a possibility as many of the other things I don't believe in and cannot completely rule out without any evidence. I don't believe in star travelling comet eating unicorns, but there's always a chance right?

      July 26, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
  17. corcor

    "Self-professed atheists may make up only 2% of the U.S. population.."

    And this is a far as I needed to read in this article. Nice work Stephen, I guess "non-religious" or "agnostic" wasn't anti-theist enough for you. The real number is 17%, and growing, fast, thank (g)od.

    July 26, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      I don't think anybody really knows the right number.

      July 26, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      where do you get that number?

      It is way bigger than any reputable estimate I have seen.

      July 26, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
    • uhofemei

      I must +1 this one 🙂

      July 26, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
    • Sean

      @GOPer that's because you refuse to look in the right places, and continue to refer to biased religious blogs for your information.

      July 26, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
    • corcor

      @rational, do you think it's anywhere near 2%? Shall we account for the "other" religions as well? Where were those "gods" during the shooting? Almost all studies are showing an increase in secularism in this country.

      @I'm not a GOPer Pew research poll. http://religions.pewforum.org/reports/

      One of the most reliable, and also does not account for unpracticing and closeted non-believers. I'd love to see your "reputable estimates"

      July 26, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian


      What do other gods have to do with this?

      July 26, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      the Pew Forum data is exactly my 'reputable' source.

      It clearly states that atheists are 1.6%. Please look at it more closely. Do not confuse atheist with 'unafilliated'. Atheists are a subset (10%) of the unafilliated total.

      July 26, 2012 at 6:33 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      please point me to the 'right' sources. I'd be happy to see something more encouraging than the Pew Forum data.

      July 26, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
    • corcor

      @rational so your saying this article should only be read through the eyes of a believer in the god of Abraham? Shall we muddy the waters with all the conflicting beliefs under this 73% number? Mormnaism, JW's, protestant, etc.

      July 26, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
    • corcor

      @I'm not a GOPer The converstion ends when you misunderstand what Atheist means. Non-theist, non-toothfairyist, etc. Agnostics are the same. They're all the same. These are tired arguments and there's no need for me to elaborate further.

      July 26, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      I think you might be making an incorrect assumption here.

      I don't believe in God. I like real data.

      The only hard data I've seen says that there are very few people (2%) that will openly declare themselves as atheists. If you count the agnostics (and I'm OK with that so long as the intent is clear), the number is 4%.

      July 26, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
    • corcor

      @I'm not a GOPer

      Glad to hear you're an atheist. The point I'm trying to make, and many have made this point publically (including our favorites; Harris, Dawkins, Dennett) is that the number of agnostic and unaffiliated in the states is very, very, likely to be much higher. There's a reason they're marked unaffiliated, the same reason there is really no need to label ourselves atheists. We should'nt need to profess our non-belief in something that does not exist -I'm thinking of Harris' non-astrologer example. Those that fall into this catagory are in fact, non-believers. That phrasing should make more sense of the pew numbers

      July 26, 2012 at 6:58 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      I agree that in a country full of bigoted religionists the number of people professing religion is likely higher than those actually practicing (or even observing the forms) of religion. Similarly, the number of people who openly declare not having a religion is deflated.

      Nevertheless, the data stands as the best picture we have.

      Of the 12.1% of the 'nones' that are not atheist or agnostic, 5.8% are religious unafilliated, meaning they believe in some kind of God/spirituality, and it is at least somewhat important to them. The remaining 6.3% claim a belief in God/spirituality but it is not important to them. I would agree that some of these people are athesists who won't admit it to a pollster or maybe even themselves.

      There are a lot of people in the 12.1% who fall into the 'spiritual but not religious' category. Einstein and his belief in a Spinozan God would fit this category.

      I don't think we can accurately claim the 19% "nones" as all being atheists and Stephen Prothero's assertion of 2% actively professing atheism stands up to scruitiny. (Sadly.)

      July 26, 2012 at 7:20 pm |
  18. Byrd

    Where was god? Behind the trigger. Where else would he be?

    July 26, 2012 at 6:14 pm |
    • ArthurP

      Yea. God likes to kill. Read his book it is all in there.

      July 26, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
  19. Chad

    @Believer "It's been said that the only thing we can truly give God is our will because its the only thing we possess that is uniquely ours. Everything else was given to us by him, and is, in effect, not ours to give in the first place. As such, and despite his omnipotence, he cannot intervene. . . . He only possesses power where power can be possessed – and controlling our actions is not within that realm."

    =>so well said.. nicely done

    July 26, 2012 at 6:14 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      So we're basically the robots from I, Robot. Got it.

      July 26, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
  20. Nietodarwin

    Atheist make up 19 PERCENT of the US Population.

    July 26, 2012 at 6:13 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      says who?

      July 26, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
    • Nietodarwin

      America’s “Nones” — the nonreligious — are at an all-time high, now comprising nearly one in five Americans (19%), according to a new study by the Pew Center for the People and the Press. The 19% count is based on aggregated surveys of 19,377 people conducted by the Pew Research Center throughout 2011 and reported by USA Today.

      July 26, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      There's a massive difference between nonreligious and atheist.

      July 26, 2012 at 6:26 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      Look more closely at Pew's data.

      Here is their complete (older) survey:
      http://religions.pewforum.org/reports (16.1% unafilliated)

      This is people with no particular organized religion.
      Atheists ........................ 1.6%
      Agnostics ...................... 2.4%
      Nothing in particular ..... 12.1% which is half what they call 'secular unafilliated' and half what they call 'religious unafilliated'.

      The 'new' data for unafilliated (the nones) is 19% but I don't see that on Pew's website anywhere.

      The 'nones' include people who call themselves 'spiritual but not religious' meaning they believe in some sort of God, but don't buy into any particular dogma.

      People who declare as "atheists" are no more than 2%.

      July 26, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
    • corcor

      LOL @I'm not a GOPer you're welcome for the pew refrence. Yet you still read it a bit too subjectively.

      July 26, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      I've read the full report (at least all the graphs/data tables). It's 124 pages long. Their meaning is clear. Here is what they say:

      Like the other major groups, people who are unaffiliated with any particular religion (16.1%) also
      exhibit remarkable internal diversity. Although one-quarter of this group consists of those who
      describe themselves as either atheist or agnostic (1.6% and 2.4% of the adult population overall,
      respectively), the majority of the unaffiliated population (12.1% of the adult population overall) is
      made up of people who simply describe their religion as “nothing in particular.” This group, in turn,
      is fairly evenly divided between the “secular unaffiliated,” that is, those who say that religion is
      not important in their lives (6.3% of the adult population), and the “religious unaffiliated,” that is,
      those who say that religion is either somewhat important or very important in their lives (5.8%
      of the overall adult population).

      July 26, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
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