Katherine Ann Olson packed her car's backseat with children's books before she drove to her babysitting job on October 27, 2007. The 24-year-old Minneapolis woman was answering a post at Craigslist.org. This wasn't the first time she had answered an online ad. But this time, 19-year-old Michael Anderson was waiting for her. One day later, authorities found Olson's dead body in her car's trunk. Last week, Minnesota District Judge Mary Theisen sentenced Anderson to life in prison without parole.

Olson's mother, Nancy, told Theisen in court that she had endured the same nightmare several times since Katherine died 17 months ago.

"She appeared to me as a 24-year-old, naked, with a bullet hole in her back and crawled into my lap," Nancy Olson said. "I cradled her for a long time, trying to protect her from the cruel world."

Nancy said after sentencing that Anderson is a "pathetic human being." She does not want a relationship with him. Nor will she pray for him. She clings to a friend's counsel. "There is in life a suffering so unspeakable, a vulnerability so extreme that it goes far beyond words, beyond explanations and even beyond healing. In the face of such suffering all we can do is bear witness so no one need suffer alone."

Rolf Olson, Nancy's husband and Katherine's father, is the lead pastor of Richfield Lutheran Church in Minneapolis. He acknowledged that his daughter's death has tested his faith. "I do that pastor thing … evil, forgiveness, God's grace, sin." He said the New Testament defines forgiveness as "to cut free, to let go." Slowly, he and his family are trying to cut Anderson free. "Forgiveness is a process. There is no rush."

Like the Olson family, Cindy Winters lost a loved one to a deranged killer. But she has responded with astonishing kindness to Terry Sedlach, who shot her husband, Fred, as he preached at First Baptist Church in Maryville, Illinois, on March 8. Little more than a week after the shooting, Cindy shared her "remarkable story of forgiveness" on CBS's The Early Show.

"I do not have any hatred or even hard feelings towards [Sedlach]," Winters said. "We have been praying for him. One of the first things that my daughter said to me after this happened was, 'You know, I hope that he comes to learn to love Jesus through all of this.' We are not angry at all, and we really firmly believe that he can find hope and forgiveness and peace through this, by coming to know Jesus. And we hope that that happens for him."

Winters even expressed interest in reaching out to Sedlach's parents, saying tragedy had united them. She wants to comfort them by explaining that she loves them and shares their pain.

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"I know that the same way God got me through last Sunday, he's gonna get me through next week, and he's gonna get me through the next 10 years," Winters told CBS. "He has been my rock, and I know that when I get to those really dark, painful days, he's gonna be there for me and for my daughters. I'm counting on that."

Though these responses differ, each can claim some biblical warrant. Winters is walking the same difficult road the Amish community of Nickel Mines traveled after a gunman killed five of its young girls in a one-room schoolhouse. The community's example of love following tragedy inspired even many unbelievers. Its offer of unconditional forgiveness pointed toward Jesus' example on the Cross, when he said, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

The Olsons may not be prepared to forgive their daughter's killer, but their grief also reflects biblical truth. Christians should not allow hatred to consume them, of course. But anger toward evil reminds the world that God is just. Drawing upon biblical study and pastoral experience, author Chris Brauns advocates conditional forgiveness.

"Biblical forgiveness is not primarily a feeling. Rather, it is something that happens between two parties," Brauns writes in Unpacking Forgiveness: Biblical Answers for Complex Questions and Deep Wounds. "Biblical forgiveness is conditioned on repentance and results in the elimination of guilt. God only forgives those who repent. While some consequences may remain, it would contradict biblical meaning to insist that God forgives everyone unconditionally or that someone forgiven could still go to hell. Still, while actual forgiveness is conditioned upon repentance, forgiveness should be graciously offered to all."

Most biblical discussions of forgiveness speak of God forgiving humans. Yet several verses stand out, including Ephesians 4:32 and Colossians 3:13. Brauns explains that the apostle Paul employs more than one word that English translations render as "forgive." In the case of these two verses, the word we read as "forgive" shares the same root as "grace," so we can understand these verses as charging Christians to treat others with grace. God alone retains the right to exercise justice and forgive, though he works through Christians to offer grace. When we remember that unrepentant sinners will endure the torments of hell for eternity, we can find Christlike compassion to love them.

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Without their loved ones, the Olson and Winters families will struggle on Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Yet these events Christians commemorate are the grounds of their hope. Good Friday displays the extraordinary lengths God has gone to reconcile sinners.

"Do you doubt that God — who is so committed to justice that he sent his only begotten Son to the cross — do you doubt that he will bring justice to its rightful fruition in the end?" Brauns asks. "Do you have any question that God — who spoke all things into existence, numbers the hairs on your head, and determines the times set for you and the exact places where you live — do you have any question that this God will work all things together for your good?"

The death of a child tests believers unlike anything else. Like Jesus' disciples felt the day after he was crucified, hope appears to be a fool's errand. But when Martin Luther lost his 14-year-old daughter, Magdalena, to the plague, he found hope. As carpenters nailed shut her casket, he exclaimed, "Hammer away! On doomsday she'll rise again."

Collin Hansen is a CT editor at large and author of Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists.

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