I hadn’t planned on talking about 9/11 with my four-year-old son, so I had no idea what I might say. The topic came up unexpectedly in a children’s book we were reading. National Geographic has put out a series of books that address the curiosities of children with simple explanations and pictures. On one of the pages discussing the concept of balance, there was a picture of a famous tight rope walker. It just so happens that the the two sky scrapers he was bridging with his tight rope were the Twin Towers. I stared at the picture for a few seconds, mesmerized. Like many people, I know exactly where I was when I got word that a plane had struck the first tower (10th grade drafting class). My mind quickly skipped from ruminating on that experience to the recognition that the towers are not there anymore. The photograph captured what was but now is not.
Without any parental forethought, I blurted out, “Those buildings aren’t there anymore.” In classic kid-fashion, my son asked, “Why?” “They fell over because two airplanes crashed into them.” That was the physical explanation . . . then came the moral issue. “Why did they do that?” “Well,” I said, “Evil men stole the planes and crashed them into the buildings.” “Evil men?” He said. My wife picked her head up from reading to our daughter: “A lot of people died, sweety. It was really sad.” Our son is a deep feeler. I could see him processing what we’d said. “That’s so sad,” he muttered.
As it turns out, my wife was reading a children’s Bible to our daughter, and at that very moment they were reading about the crucifixion. “Evil men killed Jesus, too. And that was even more sad,” I said. I could tell he didn’t understand. The thought of two enormous planes crashing into sky scrapers and reducing them to burning piles of ash and metal seemed much more horrific than the familiar story of a man being nailed to a tree two thousand years ago. We might feel the same way. Unless . . . unless we really believe that Jesus is who he says he is.
I would be the first to say that there is inexpressible horror in the 9/11 attacks–haunting, mesmerizing horror. So much chaos and death and destruction. So much loss. Buildings were not the only things that collapsed that day; families fell in on themselves too. People were crushed, even those who were no where near the attacks. Death and violence marched upright before a watching world. And there was, as the attackers hoped, terror.
How can the crucifixion of Christ be comparable to this, especially when we have no images, no visual representations to prick our souls? How can the death of one man two thousand years ago possibly be understood as more tragic than the 9/11 attacks? The answer lies in who Jesus is.
None of the people who lost their lives on that fateful day in September was God incarnate. None of them was the second person of the Trinity wrapped in flesh. Think about that for a moment. The God who spoke the world into being (Gen. 1), who sustains it by the word of his power and holds everything together through himself (Heb. 1:3; Col. 1:17), who walked in the Garden with the very first of us (Gen. 3:8) and promised to stand with the very last of us (Matt. 8:28), who followed a haggard Israel for forty years in the Mesopotamian wilderness and poured out his Spirit on kings and counselors throughout the myriad twists and turns of human history, who dwelt with every widow and orphan and contrite heart that has ever longed for wholeness, who gathered a motley crew of nobodies and gave them the life-giving secrets of eternity in exchange for nothing but their faith, who is still knocking on the door of every human heart (Rev. 3:20), asking you (of all the mysteries under heaven!), yes you, to turn the handle and let in the light. That one–the pure, selfless, love-giving, sin-suffering friend of rebellious prodigals–that one was hammered to a cross, the ultimate symbol of defeat and degradation. And in the greatest act of love and friendship, he stayed there. He stayed . . . to dissolve the terror that has always haunted us with regret and corruption and shame, the terror of sin.
Terrorism is no new evil, my friends. It is an ancient thing. And its ultimate defeat was carried out a long time ago. We have the words today that bring us to believe it. No pictures of smoke and ashes, no panoramas of panic, but words. And if you believe them, then, yes: the crucifixion of Christ is incomparably sad when set next to any other human atrocity we can imagine. Because what God suffered out of love for us is, in the purest sense of the word, unimaginable. As is the reason for God’s love of those who hate him.