Vengeance Is Mine: An analysis of the spiritual origins of violence and murder

May 9, 2009

(Note: This may seem a departure from the typical theme of this blog, but given the recent rash of mass shootings, I though it appropriate to re-print an article I wrote several years ago on the subject. Specifically my analysis considers the spiritual origins and causes of such violence. The context of the article is the Columbine school shootings, but I think it’s still relevant to what’s happening today. Also, this was originally written for a Christian magazine and audience, so you’ll notice such a worldview predominates throughout. Not the only way to approach the issue, of course, but perhaps you’ll find it helpful.)


Columbine, Cain and the rising culture of violence in our schools

Imagine how our modern culture might assess history’s first murder.

Brother Cain kills brother Abel. We ask, what could have led him to do such a thing? Was he neglected, perhaps even abused by his parents, Adam and Eve? Were rocks and sharp objects too accessible? Perhaps it was the resentment of being forced to eat food by the sweat of his brow among the thorns and thistles of his father’s curse before God? A smug brother? An overbearing mother? Most importantly, our society might ask, what conditions could have been changed to prevent this first of human tragedies?

Perhaps none. In fact, according to Scripture, although Cain and Abel were born after the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, there is every reason to believe that the residual benefits of living in Paradise still had a strong hold on their quality of life. In other words, their character, their health, if not the conditions of their environment, still had many generations to go before real corruption would have its hand.

So, it’s doubtful that Cain had it so bad as to justify his “temporary insanity,” as so many in our culture might press if he were on trial for his crimes today. In truth, he had things almost perfect. So, why did Cain kill his younger brother?


Cain wanted justice for his loss of favor before God, so he adopted for himself God’s exclusive prerogative to exact either condemnation or mercy in killing Abel. He was simply obeying the enticement first whispered by Eden’s deceptive serpent: “You will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Deciding that the ultimate sense of good and evil was his to measure, Cain carried out his crime.

The Modern Cain

The foundations of sin laid in Eden are no different, of course, from the fundamental cause of sin today. And, just as Cain would play judge, jury and executioner upon his innocent brother, our culture is seeing its youth strike out against their own “brothers” and “sisters” in much the same way.

Only now, over the last few years especially, it’s happening in our schools. And our children’s secular caretakers are scrambling to discover why and, more importantly, what secular conditions they can change in hopes of preventing this “new” phenomena from ever happening again.

But, despite their desires, it is happening over and over, and our schools have become places of fear as much as they are places of learning. In the last five years alone, the country has seen more than 15 separate school shooting incidents, and while statistics show that homicide in the general population has decreased, the massacre of groups, especially on school campuses, has risen dramatically.

Do access to guns, exposure to violent movies, videos, music, and persecution at the hand of bullies serve as a cause for this seemingly novel trend of youth violence? Certainly. But, the fact that these exact cultural conditions may be unique to past generations does not naturally dictate that by removing them, we necessarily remove this new brand of violence they are blamed for.

These cultural influences that have enticed our children to kill their peers are part of the problem to be sure, but they are merely symptoms of the much deeper, age-old sickness of Cain.

Judgment Day

Just two years ago this April, this sickness revealed itself most notoriously in the hearts and actions of Columbine’s Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. In a 46-minute killing spree in Littleton, Colorado that they would call their “own little judgment day,” these two boys committed the coldest, most calculated and bloody school massacre the nation has ever seen.

While there have been numerous school shootings before and after Columbine (most recently in two communities near San Diego, California), none have matched it for its vile ferocity, or for its spiritual implications about a culture that produces children where God has become increasingly irrelevant.

While the other shootings certainly contributed a part to understanding these implications, Columbine’s complex and chilling story offers us a more comprehensive whole. In other words, to understand the motives for other school shootings past and future, we could do well to begin with the lessons of Littleton.

In its aftermath, as with every school shooting before, investigators and members of the media again went on their typical search for answers, for how these “normal” kids from such an affluent white suburb could do such a thing.

One such member of the media was Wendy Murray Zoba, a writer for Christianity Today. Mrs. Zoba went searching too, but, unlike many of her contemporaries who missed the point on Columbine entirely, Zoba’s investigation of the these shootings produced some more than notable conclusions on what the story of Columbine should awaken us to culturally, morally and spiritually.

In her superbly insightful book, Day of Reckoning: Columbine and the Search for America’s Soul*, Zoba approaches the story of the Littleton shootings on many levels and from numerous perspectives. But, in particular, she shows the heart of two violent young men who reflected their culture and followed the way of Cain, borrowing the prerogatives of God and his right to pass judgment on mankind.

Pursuing the recurring questions about what motivated these killers, she and others found the following philosophy on Eric Harris’ personal web site:

My belief is that if I say something, it goes, I am the law, if you don’t like it, you die. If I don’t like you or I don’t like what you want me to do, you die. . . Dead people can’t do many things, like argue, whine, b—, complain, narc, rat out, criticize, or even . . . talk. . . God I can’t wait till I can kill you people. I’ll just go to some downtown area in some big-a—city and blow up and shoot everything I can. Feel no remorse, no sense of shame.

They entered the school library the day of April 20th, 1999 (reportedly chosen because it fell on Adolph Hitler’s birthday), Harris in his t-shirt with the words “Natural Selection” and Klebold’s t-shirt reading “WRATH” in tall, red, block letters. It was there that they would commit by far the worst bloodshed, killing 10, seriously injuring dozens.

Zoba recounts the words of one witness in the library who survived to tell what he’d seen: “‘There were a few times girls would ask [them], “What are you doing? Why are you doing this?” They answered, “We’ve always wanted to do this. This is payback. We’ve dreamed of doing this for four years. This is what you deserve.”’”

Zoba later documents that these boys considered themselves “evolved”—beyond humanity, beyond good and evil itself—which might explain the troubling ease with which they carried out their deeds. Unlike many school shooters who fired their guns out of visible pain and desperation, these young men killed with a determined calm and satisfied glee.

The Fear of God

“There was a corner of their hearts that whispered to Harris and Klebold: You are your own masters; you don’t have to serve anybody but yourselves,” writes Zoba. “They were convinced, as Dylan Klebold noted on one of [his home] videos, ‘We’re gonna have followers because we’re so . . . god-like.’”

The violent fantasy life these two boys entered into wasn’t just about allusions to video games like Doom, or simply emulating Arnold Schwarzenegger. Ironically, although they are documented as loathing all things Christian, they often imbued their quest for revenge with numerous spiritual themes about the wrath of God, assuming it was theirs to dispense. Zoba writes:

Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold . . . brought “God” into this event at almost every turn. In the planning stages Harris documented the rampage in the blue spiral notebook he called ‘the book of God.’ . . . Harris said, ‘We have a religious war.’ [Their home] videotapes abound with biblical imagery and ravings against God and Christianity. Harris said, ‘The apocalypse is coming and it’s starting in eight days.’

Caught up in their delusions of deity, and devoid of any healthy reverence for His name, it was only natural that they’d come to resent the One, True God, and especially, the obedient servants God favored and adored. Just like Cain:

The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.” . . . [then] Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him (Genesis 4:4b-7,9b NIV).

The Columbine shooters were further unique from most other school shooters in that they showed a premeditated pattern of striking out specifically against well-known Christians at their school, arrogantly mocking their belief in God before murdering them at point-blank range.

One of these Christian Martyrs was a girl named Rachel Scott. Recounts Zoba: “‘They came back up to where Rachel was crying,’ said [Rachel’s sister,] Dana Scott. And lifting her head by her ponytail, ‘one of them confronted her with the question, “Do you believe in God?” She said, “Yes” and he took a gun to her temple and killed her.’”

While the veracity of some of the accounts were questioned, particularly the martyrdom of Cassie Bernall, Zoba writes that most witnesses confirmed that at least three of Harris and Klebold’s victims were well-known Christians, all uniquely and deliberately being shot in the head.

According to accounts collected by investigators, Harris and Klebold, at least implicitly, felt slighted by God for the way they grew up, for how they were treated by their peers, for how life appeared more absurd and meaningless than it did livable.

In truth, they were suicidal, and eventually took their own lives at the end of their rampage, but they were determined not to leave this world without taking with them as many of those they hated as possible. Justice would be served and while they would probably be remembered in infamy, it was their destiny, they believed, to nevertheless long be remembered. Writes Zoba:

Feeling victimized and exacting revenge arises from the sense of being empowered to act upon one’s own version of truth as the master of one’s destiny. It gets messy, however, when one person, in mastering his personal destiny, cuts short the destiny of someone else.

The Death of Vengeance

Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold committed a vile act of murder and rage that will likely haunt schoolyards and classrooms for years to come. Yet, however notorious their actions might seem to our tabloid culture, what they did has been done from the beginning of man.

Man cries out in pain for the injustices of this world, and often seeks his own murderous justice in return. But, just as history’s first son exacted the price of his own pain on his brother, God’s only begotten Son paid the ultimate price of pain for us all through His death on the cross. God’s righteous wrath on mankind was rendered on the only man who deserved none, rendering vengeance’s ultimate demise.

“There is so much that is wrong in this world, so much that is unjust and unavenged,” Zoba writes. “These unanswered injustices, and the judgment due them, come together on the cross.”

She later writes:

The cross was necessitated before the first shot was fired, in fact before the first murder in human history registered. The cross was necessitated because of the part of the human heart, theirs and ours, that inclines to go the wrong way, to become like God. The impulse is the same, only in lesser degrees, in us all when we convince ourselves that we don’t have to serve anyone or answer to anybody as we live our own God-likeness and assume his prerogatives.

Life on this earth is so fleeting, and often so painful, so evil, that in the smallest ways to the most destructive, we all tend to believe the Edenic lie that in “knowing good and evil,” we can somehow hold fast against our own mortality and corruption, and “not surely die.” But, we all will die someday short of Christ’s return, whether in the quiet sleep of old age or, God forbid, as the victims of our violent culture. No one is immune—not even our children.

But, in the face of evil, we can turn to the One who is good, whose Lordship over our lives can supersede our urgings to try to master the chaos that surrounds us, and whose resurrection from the dead has conquered death itself, giving us hope for a life eternal—free of pain, and full of everlasting justice.

Theologian, N.T. Wright: “To pray ‘deliver us from evil’ or ‘from the evil one’ is to inhale the victory of the cross, and thereby to hold the line for another moment, another hour, another day, against the forces of destruction within ourselves and the world.”*

So, by the power of the cross, we hold the line.

* All the following excerpts from Mrs. Zoba’s book are used by permission of Baker Books Publishing.
* From The Lord & His Prayer. Used by permission of Eerdman’s Publishing.

About John Michalak

Writer and speaker, John Michalak

An author and speaker, John Michalak has spent more than 25 years encouraging others in the areas of life-change and personal relationship. John’s inspirational book, 365 Devotions To Embrace What Matters Most is available from places like AmazonBarnes and Noble, and most everywhere books are sold.

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  • Pepper
    December 2, 2009 at 7:13 pm

    Thank you for sharing this. This is baseline truth and relevance. Found even more true today.

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