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How a callous, cruel unfeeling pastor devastated Betsy Aardsma’s family: Death is not “God’s will”

Headlines from The Daily Collegian

Rewriting of “I do not believe that everything that happens is ‘God’s will’.”

As I posted earlier this week, a young 22-year-old woman was killed by a man who has never been caught, charged or even linked to the murder.

Losing a beautiful young daughter and sister is difficult enough. What the family did not need was a clueless pastor telling them that what happened to their daughter was “God’s will.”

Yet, that is what happened to the Aardsma family at Betsy’s funeral.

Here is that part of the story from a previous post. This is a different book than the first one, with much more detail, but they both came to the same conclusion:


The book that I am reading is entitled “Murder in the Stacks: Penn State, Betsy Aardsma, and the Killer Who Got Away.” It was written by a former investigative reporter for the Harrisburg Patriot-News, David DeKok. The author is a native of the same town, Holland, Michigan, that Aardsma was. The murder has never been solved, nor will it probably ever be. DeKok has his theory as to who the murderer is …

Betsy Aardsma was a young graduate student at Penn State who had just been on campus for about three months when the murder occurred. The investigators found no one who hated her, no one who had any reason to kill her. After an extensive investigation, they found her to be a beautiful, popular and intelligent young woman. No enemies — which is one reason that her murder has never been solved.

However, she grew up in what DeKok called “the insular, Calvinist, small-town church culture from which she longed to escape.” He pointed out that she had embraced much of the good of the 1960s, “especially the fight for civil rights for blacks, an end to the war in Vietnam, and the beginning of the rights for women.” Those are very Christ-like beliefs. Remember how Jesus loved Mary Magdalen.

From, July 14, 2018

Outrage from the family: Betsy had changed

Betsy’s beliefs after graduating from college were not congruent with the religion in which she had been raised. The 1960s were a time of tremendous change in the United States, and the generation known as Baby Boomers was coming of age and rejecting many of the values of their parent’s generation.

This is similar to what is happening today with young people and religion. In the 21st Century religious culture that is present today, many young people have rejected organized religion, and Christianity is dying on most levels because of the callous, hypocritical way in which religious leaders and members present themselves — just as the pastor at Betsy’s church revealed.

Young people today are often spiritual, and perhaps Betsy was, too. What was evident was that she had rejected the religion in which she had been raised,

People change in their college years

Betsy had spent two years at Hope College in Michigan and then two at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich., where she received her undergraduate degree in English. During those intellectually-formative years, her conception of many moral beliefs had apparently changed.

The pastor read from a poem that she wrote in high school entitled “Why do I live?” In it, she wrote, “I am living in preparation for death / What I live for will last.” The pastor interpreted the poem to say that she had “accepted the reality of her death and the fact that her death would be God’s will.” That is the Puritanic, Calvinist view, but it gave no solace to the family, nor to her friends, who believed that it did not really reflect Betsy’s beliefs.

As DeKok writes,

“I still recall her funeral with a great deal of anger toward Reverend [Gordon] Van Oostenburg,” her brother-in-law said. “Rather than dealing with why someone who was young and making a difference in the world was murdered, he merely dusted off his fill-in-the-blanks, “old lady dies of cancer,” stock funeral sermon. He seemed to say that it was not Christian for us to grieve, because Betsy was in heaven, and we should not celebrate her life.” That is a sad way of trying to explain God’s beneficence. Hey, it’s your time, just go. It is callous and unfeeling, and that is why many people reject that approach.

A roommate of Betsy’s was upset with the sermon, too. “It made me so angry. And I remember leaning over to her mother after the funeral. I said, ‘This is not God’s will.’ She said, ‘I know it. I know it’.”

From, July 14, 2018

Imagine telling a family that they should not grieve when a beautiful, vibrant 22-year-old is killed because it is “God’s will” and she is in heaven.

What Rabbi Kushner taught me about “God’s will”

The best-selling book that taught me a great deal of the will of God was written by a Rabbi, Harold Kushner. Here is a summation of what I learned and how it relates to Betsy’s situation,

I read “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” a book written by Rabbi Harold Kushner. That gave me some solace because the Rabbi believed that “God does not will personal tragedy …”

God created nature, let it take its course

It has been a while since I read Kushner’s best-seller, but I remember quite a bit of it well. And in particular, I remember what I took from it regarding God’s will.

Kushner and his wife were the parents of a young boy whom they loved tremendously. However, when he was 3, he was diagnosed with Progeria, which is a disease in which people age ten years for every physical one. He died when he was 14, at a time when his father was the pastor of Boston Temple Israel of Natick. That led Kushner to question God. Why should God punish him after all he had done to give solace to others, had given others directions as to what God wanted them to do with their lives. He was leading people to God, yet God appeared to punish him.

Kushner continued to ask “Why me, God,” until he finally read enough and prayed about it. That led him to write down his thoughts. He realized that giving Aaron such a horrible disease was not God’s will. Instead, God created nature and let it take its course. When a person is killed in a hurricane, in an accident, when a child is born with a horrible, debilitating disease, it was not because of his will.

Why is a child born into terrible poverty in an impoverished nation? Why are other people born to wealth, with high IQs, with tremendous beauty? Our genes are part of nature, and those determine our future. Those diseases and tragedies that result are not because of God’s will, but because God created nature -- our challenge is to cope with the pain and turmoil that has been placed in our lives.

From, July 14, 2018

To this day, I do not believe that God wills horrible things to happen to people. He indeed created nature and let it take its course.

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