Billy Graham’s Words in Oklahoma City Helped Heal After Worst Mass Murder

The bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, was the deadliest act of homegrown terrorism in American history. The weapon of choice was not high-powered assault weapons. The evil perpetrators instead turned a Ryder Rental Truck filled with 4,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer and 1,000 pounds of fuel oil into a weapon of mass murder.

At 9:02 a.m. on a beautiful spring morning in the middle of America’s heartland, that homemade bomb was detonated, tearing off the Murrah building’s entire north wall, damaging 300 nearby buildings and incinerating hundreds of vehicles.

When rescue efforts were completed, the death count was 168. Among them were 19 children, most of whom were playing in the building’s day care center. The youngest victim was 4 months old. Hundreds more of all ages were hospitalized or injured.

Days later, a memorial service was held at the Oklahoma State Fair Arena in honor of those who lost their lives. Speakers included in the nationally televised event were the mayor of Oklahoma City, the governor of Oklahoma, and President Bill Clinton. Last to the podium was the Reverend Billy Graham. The most trusted pastor in America had come to Oklahoma City to address the question human beings have been asking God since the beginning of time, a question about unexplainable acts of evil.

Since I have been here, I have been asked the question several times, many times, “Why does God allow it?” Why does a God of love and mercy that we read about and hear about allow such a terrible thing to happen? Over 3,000 years ago, there was a man named Job who struggled with the same question. He asked “why” because he was a good man. And yet, disaster struck him suddenly and swiftly. He lost seven sons, three daughters. He lost all his possessions. He even lost his health. Even his wife and his friends turned against him. His wife said, “Curse God and die!”And in the midst of his suffering he asked this question: “Why?” Job didn’t know. “Why did I not perish at birth?” he cried.

Perhaps this is the way you feel. And I want to assure you that God understands those feelings. The Bible says in Isaiah 43:2: “When you pass through the waters I will be with you; and when you walk through the fire, you will not be burned. The flames will not set you ablaze.” And yet, Job found there were lessons to be learned from his suffering, even if he didn’t fully understand it. And that is true for all of us as well.

Graham then addressed the mysterious nature of evil. And how, after all of his years of teaching and experience, he still didn’t comprehend why God would allow such a thing.

I’ve been asked why God allows it. I don’t know. I can’t give a direct answer. I have to confess that I never fully understandeven for my own satisfaction. I have to accept by faith that God is a God of love and mercy and compassioneven in the midst of suffering…. I recall walking through the devastation left by hurricanes in Florida and South Carolina, and typhoons in India, and earthquakes in Guatemala and California, and I’ve asked myself, “Why?” The Bible says God is not the author of evil. And it speaks of evil in 1 Thessalonians as a mystery. There’s something about evil we will never fully understand this side of eternity.

That’s why so many people loved the late Billy Graham. He never tried to answer questions that were not his to answer. He was able to say—without hesitation in front of millions—the three words we don’t often hear from our learned or wise leaders: I don’t know.

Billy Graham in Oklahoma City
The Reverend Billy Graham delivers a sermon on April 23, 1995, following the Oklahoma City bombing. “Why does a God of love and mercy that we read about and hear about allow such a terrible…

Photo by © Wally McNamee/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Graham then talked about something he did know: how mankind—how we human beings—choose to deal with such devastation.

Times like this will do one of two things: It will either make us hard and bitter and angry at God, or they will make us tender and open and help us to reach out in faith. And I think that’s what the people of Oklahoma are doing that I’ve met since I’ve been here these past few days. I pray that you will not let bitterness and poison creep into your soul, but that you will turn in faith and trust in God, even if we cannot understand. It is better to face something like this with God than without him. A tragedy like this could have torn this city apart, but instead it has united you in a way that you’ve never been united before.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of prayer groups around the world have been praying for you. And I’m sureas I’ve been told that you sense their prayers and their support. The forces of hate and violence must not be allowed to gain their victorynot just in our society but in our hearts. Nor must we respond to hate with more hate. This is a time of coming together, and we’ve seen that already.

This is how Billy Graham closed things out:

Some of you today are going through heartache and grief so intense that you wonder if it will ever go away. I’ve had the privilege of meeting some of you and talking to you. But I want to tell you that our God cares for you and for your family and for your city. The Bible says that he is the God of all comfort who comforts us in our troubles. Jesus said, “Blessed are they that mourn for they shall be comforted.” I pray that every one of you will experience God’s comfort during these days as you turn to him, for God loves you and he shares in your suffering.

Just days after that memorial service, the wheels of justice began to turn. Two suspects were arrested, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. Not long after that, both men were convicted: McVeigh was sentenced to death and Nichols to 161 consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole.

In December 2000, McVeigh pleaded with a federal judge to stop all appeals to his sentence and for a date to be set for an execution. The request was granted, and on June 11, 2001, McVeigh, 33, died by lethal injection at a penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana. He was the first federal prisoner to be put to death since 1963.

The Murrow building was demolished for safety reasons in 1995, and the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum later opened in its place. The Gallery of Honor and a field of 168 empty chairs serve to forever memorialize those who were killed on that dark day in 1995. More than 600 names are inscribed on the memorial’s Survivor Wall, and in the middle of an open field stands an American elm tree, one that withstood the full force of the blast back in 1995. It stands as a living symbol of the city’s resilience and God’s love.