On Christmas Eve William Spengler set fire to his house. When firemen responded to the call, he ambushed them; killing two and wounding two others. That was the third time this month (December, ’12) that someone has gone on a horrific killing spree in America.
Spengler committed suicide; which is what Adam Lanza did after he killed 26 in Newtown on Dec 14. On Dec 12 in an Oregon mall, Jacob Tyler Roberts killed two and then took his own life. Back in 1999, the Columbine killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, also killed themselves. Thinking about this, I began to wonder how many “killing spree” killers ended their rampage in a similar manner. I was surprised at what I found.
A Wikipedia article provides a lists of what it calls “rampage killers”—those who have committed mass murder at schools, work, and other various places. Of those who perpetrate school massacres, the article gives a list of 15 murderers (a link to a longer list is available there). It turns out that of those 15, 13 committed suicide (one was killed by police). Only one out of the 15 allowed himself to be taken alive.
I admit that trying to be an armchair psychiatrist is a risky endeavor. I don’t pretend to have a clue about the motivations of such persons. I really can’t relate to them. No doubt each one committed suicide for a number of reasons. Maybe some were mentally ill or even insane. Perhaps others killed themselves as a last demonstration of hatred towards everyone and everything, including themselves. But I want to argue that their respective decisions to kill themselves were not made in a theological vacuum. In fact, they seem to be making a very strong collective statement about a shared belief system. They were avoiding accountability. They didn’t expect to face God.
They believed that by killing themselves they would not have to answer for their crimes. None of them thought that there was any type of judgment to come after death. They were theological nihilists. To put it in biblical terms, none of them feared God.
Or as the Apostle Paul puts it:
“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 3:15-18)
The portrayal of God as Judge and the theme of a coming Judgment Day run literally throughout the Bible. And Christians of earlier generations spoke regularly of an eventual divine reckoning. But today the notion has evaporated—and not just from the culture at large but from within the church. Think about it. When was the last time you heard a sermon devoted to the topic of divine judgment?
Yes, there are Islamic jihadists, suicide bombers, who kill people because they believe they are doing Allah a favor. But that fact goes to my point that one’s beliefs about ultimate truth really do guide one’s behavior. And there seems to be a common theological thread among killing spree killers. They’re not worried about God, judgment, or a place called hell.
Spengler, who also served 18 years for murdering his grandmother in 1980 with a hammer, left a suicide note. He made it clear why he set his house on fire: “I still have to get ready to see how much of the neighborhood I can burn down, and do what I like doing best, killing people.” Whatever pathologies are going on in the heads of people like Spengler, I can’t begin to imagine. But the theological underpinnings of their madness seem clear enough. There is no fear of God in their eyes.
This post is crossposted at www.theologyforthechurch.com