Pastor John, in episode 468 you talked briefly about ISIS and terrorism in the Middle East. On this subject, it raises the question for us of whether or not Christian adults should watch the gruesome ISIS beheading videos online, or even look at the gruesome pictures of ISIS’s evil online. Should we, or not? How do you think through this question?
It seems to me that there are reasons why it might serve a person to watch such a thing, and there are reasons why it might not. And maybe what would be helpful is if I mention a few of those reasons, and people then can decide which group they are in. Will it serve them, or will it not serve them? Will it help them love people and love God to watch this, or will it not? And, of course, that does imply I don’t think there is anything intrinsically wrong with seeing this horror. I don’t think seeing horror is necessarily sharing in the sin of the horror.
A Powerful View of Suffering
So, first, why or how might it be helpful to see it? And I will start with a personal example. In June 2004, Paul Johnson, an American helicopter mechanic in Saudi Arabia, was kidnapped by Al-Qaeda, and they threatened to kill him if prisoners weren’t released. And, of course, the prisoners were not released, and they killed him. And they put the video and the pictures of his beheading online.
Now that was the very first time in my life I had ever had the occasion to even think about looking at such a thing, and I did. I did. They found his head a month later in a refrigerator in Riyadh. I went to the news site, and I found the picture. I have it. And here is the weird thing: I copied it. It is in my “iPhoto.” I looked at it again to get ready for this. His head is sitting on his back. I mean, just think of his wife or his kids, just the horror of such a thing. So, Piper, what are you doing? Are you sick? Why did you even go there, and why, for goodness sake, did you save it?
And here is what is going on in my head: I thought to myself, We in the modern west are often so insulated from real, horrible, physical suffering and death. We have 9-1-1 and emergency rooms and antibiotics and morphine, and they have put us so out of touch with the kind of suffering and death that much of the world deals with constantly. We can hardly feel what it is like to really risk our lives or confront the most dangerous and horrible kinds of evil head-on. It seemed to me that John Piper in 2004 needed to be confronted face to face with this kind of horror, this kind of evil. I needed to feel some of the revulsion or horror that many people around the world have to face daily, including Christians and sometimes, because they are Christians.
Biblical Basis to See
I gave the biblical basis for this kind of thinking years ago. And what I thought of in those days and reflected on again was Hebrews 11:37. It says, “They were stoned, they were sawn in two.” Think of that. They were sawn in two. Probably alive, with one of those big, two-man logging saws. They were sawn in two. They were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats — destitute, afflicted, mistreated.
“If we have not come to terms with these horrors theologically and emotionally, our faith may collapse when we see this horror face to face.”
And that last word mistreated is not a light word like a slap on the cheek. It is a horrible word, and it is used one more time in the New Testament — namely, Hebrews 13:3. It says, “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated” — these are like people who are being sawn in two — “since you also are in the body.” I don’t think that means in the church. I think that means you have a body. They have a body. You have a body. They are being slaughtered. You have a body. Can you imagine what it is like for them to be slaughtered? I think that is the gist of this text: getting inside their skins and sharing.
So I thought, “I have a body. I need to feel a little bit of what it would be like to have a knife at my throat with somebody saying, ‘Will you renounce Christ?’” So I think it may be good for some of us who feel a bit cloistered and sanitized and distant from the horrors of the world — whether murders in our cities right here or terrorism around the globe — to have a little bit of exposure to this horror so that we are not naïve, and at least not as naïve as we could be. We can’t really prepare ourselves for what that would be like, but I think it is good to try.
The day is going to come. If I read the book of Revelation rightly, the day is going to come when such horrors will be more common and closer to home. And if we have not come to terms with them theologically and emotionally, our faith may collapse when we see this horror face to face. I can imagine a lot of Christians whose theology is so weak when it comes to God’s sovereignty and suffering in sovereignty that when they see something like that, they become emotionally unglued. They are totally undone and throw away their faith in a good and sovereign God.
Freedom Over Duty
But I said there were reasons both ways on viewing beheading images. On the other hand, it is not a duty. I don’t mean to put anybody under any kind of pressure to do this. There is no biblical mandate to look at a horrible picture or to see horror. We need to know ourselves. If it is going to give you nightmares or if it is going to otherwise decrease your ability to function in a loving way, then don’t, by any means, look at it. So that is the criteria in the end. Will looking at such a thing increase your emotional capacities to do good to others, or will it decrease them?