You may have heard the analogy of the terrible car accident, an example of something you don’t want to see but you can’t help but watch. Some parts of Scripture seem fitting passages for such a comparison (think of the story of Lot’s daughters in Genesis 19 or of David’s adultery and murder in 2 Samuel 11). Horror movies also match the model with their fantastical depictions of the broken state of reality. But true crime stories, for many people, may serve as more poignant examples of evil in our world.
I remember listening to the first season of the podcast “Serial” and being drawn to the mystery of the story. I listened through the first season of “Up and Vanished” as well, and I’ve recently started working through “Crime Junkie.” But podcasts aren’t the only avenue for such stories to be told. I remember catching segments of “Unsolved Mysteries” in waiting rooms and hearing of breaking stories from local news broadcasts. Streaming services have also joined the trend, Netflix’s “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes” serving as a recent example. In each case, audiences follow stories of real crimes and real people. And the stories are all the more chilling because we know them to be true.
I’m not sure what draws people (myself included) to such stories. The sense of mystery, the hope of justice, and the pursuit of truth may each play a role, and the primary draw may be different for each individual. Regardless of the reasons we feel drawn to such stories, however, I think these stories can remind us of some important lessons. First, true crime stories remind us that things are not as they were intended to be. Sin is a corruption of God’s good design. Cornelius Plantinga made this point clear in his book Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin. While fictional tales can disturb us (see more on that concept here), true crime strikes a deeper chord, for we feel the weight of reality in each loss. True crime stories sharply distinguish between what is and what should be, between wrong and right. We see the atrocities and feel in our souls the longing for good to overcome evil, for the truth to prevail over corruptions. The more we see of the world’s darkness, the more we long for the light.
Second, true crime stories show us that we are not as far removed from evil as we might assume. Crimes happen to people just like us in towns just like ours. We are not immune from tragedies, no matter what our experience may suggest. Further, true crime stories show us that criminals are not all that different from us. When we learn how normal criminals appear in public, how unassuming they seem before they are revealed as lawbreakers, we feel a tinge of fear as we realize they are, in many ways, just like us. Criminals love their families, work hard at their jobs, have dreams and desires that drive them forward. While we want to draw a distinction between “us” and “them,” the reality is that the lines are blurry, if they even exist at all. “For all have sinned,” Paul writes (Romans 3:23).
When we turn to the Bible, we find similar stories. And as horrific as the events in the biblical accounts can be, however, they’re nonetheless still included in the narrative, meaning they serve a purpose. God wants us to see them, to look and to learn. He doesn’t want us to turn away. But we aren’t to be attracted to the violence or to the injustice but to the larger reality in which these situations reside. Though we see depravity, we also see redemption. Though we see suffering, we see a Savior. Though we see tragedy, we see the truth that justice will prevail, righteousness will overcome. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).
Stories of crime seem inescapable. We feel the fall’s effects in creation and groan for redemption, and we examine ourselves closely in order to walk according to the Spirit rather than according to the flesh. And we can do this effectively because of Christ. In him we have a living hope the broken world desperately needs. Let us then be people who walk by faith, rest in peace, and rejoice even in the fiercest trials. Let us be people who point to the living hope that endures every dark day. And let us shine in the midst of the darkness with a light that will never be extinguished.
Thanks to Jamie for reading a draft of this post and offering her feedback.