Why did a loving God allow the Coronavirus?
Is this actually true?
The Christian story is of a broken and rebellious creation that is awaiting the renewal of all things.
Little did we think when we heard the reports from China in January 2020 that within two months virtually the whole world would be in lock-down. I shall not deal with all the medical and scientific issues. But what about issues raised for Christians?
How should a Christian think about such a pandemic? Yes, there have been many in the course of history and the worst in Britain and other countries was the Black Death in the 14th century.
A pandemic raises such questions like;
Why did God allow it?
How can God be good?
Which are all variants trying to understand the WHY of suffering.
Most attempts consider what is called Natural Evil and for long I have wondered whether that is both a misnomer and misunderstands the nature of the universe, or the way the world is. One who has taken it head on is Justin Brierly of Premier Christian Radio in a recent blog. I think his alternative understandings are most unsatisfactory.
The question of God and suffering is one of the oldest questions ever asked and there are no easy answers. Most often the response needed for those who are walking through suffering is our love and care, not our clever theology and philosophy. However, when the time comes for intellectual answers, I believe there are some helpful way to make sense of suffering.
Justin is right on here. There are no easy answers and I wonder if there is ananswer. He is right to say those suffering need love not theology, clever or not. Some are most unclever. As he continues Justin offers some theology, which is focussed on Romans 8 vs 19ff.
The Groaning of Creation
But when it comes to Coronavirus we may be tempted to ask: Why has God allowed death, disease and natural disaster to exist at all? We may be able to understand the existence of evil caused by our own free will, but what about the ‘natural evil’ that exists in the world? This question can only be answered by a Christian from within his or her own worldview, and means we must expand our perspective to a cosmic scale.
This is the Fundamental question which is almost impossible to answer – I keep failing on it.
Out of Kilter?
The apostle Paul states that “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Romans 8:22). The Christian story is that the whole created order is in some sense ‘out of kilter’ at a cosmic level. Some theologians trace this to human rebellion – an outworking of ‘the fall’ which acts both forwards and backwards in time. Others point to the existence of an earlier rebellion in the angelic realm that sparked a ‘cosmic fall’ (hinted at in Revelation 12:9).
This is dangerous pinning a certain idea on a few verses, especially as they have long been open to different understandings. There are questions on the translation here, but I’ll leave that. What does it means for the whole creation to be groaning?
Is Creation out of kilter?
Is it actually true that creation is ‘out of kilter’ at a cosmic level.”? Here he seeks to answer
Why has God allowed death, disease and natural disaster to exist at all? We may be able to understand the existence of evil caused by our own free will, but what about the ‘natural evil’ that exists in the world?
Justin does not consider that fact that death and natural disaster i.e volcanoes, earthquakes and floods, were there from the beginning of this planet’s history. Further, if he is right that the creation is “out of kilter”, when was the creation knocked out of kilter? We need to ask
“in what ways “
“and in what ways was it out of kilter a billion years ago, when there were no humans?”
I never had a sense the created order is “out of kilter” whether in my geological work or as I look around me or when I cycle or walk in the countryside. That is not to say humans are not trying to put creation out of kilter, but that is totally different
What Justin is claiming that a Fall, whether of humans in the Garden of Eden or of an angelic Fall, has put the whole cosmos out of kilter. This is not what either Genesis 3 or Rev 12 vs9 state. It is reading into it. It probably has more to do with Milton’s Paradise Lost than the Bible.
I am fully aware that many theologians have argued for one or the other to get God off the hook for suffering, but succeed in attaching God more firmly to the hook, and making Him an ogre. To afflict the cosmos with a Curse because of the misdemeanours of Adam and Eve seems cruel to everyone and everything else.
He claims; “Whatever the origin, the result is a world that is not as it should be.” I have to ask in what ways is the world not as it should be.
If you mean the physical world, nothing has changed in geological time. The physical laws have not changed. Volcanoes are still erupting four billion years on. Yes, I’ve looked at volcanic rocks one or two billion years old. Viruses also keep attaching themselves to other living things as they did billions of years ago, and at times kill their hosts.
However human behaviour is totally out of kilter and often damages the natural world. I suspect the Coronavirus would have stayed in bats if humans had not mistreated them.
Yet Paul includes the promise that one day “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).
What does Justin glean from this?
Everybody has experienced living in the tension of this broken world. The groaning of creation brings both good and bad across our path. The natural laws that operate are both a blessing and a curse. Tectonic plate activity renews the surface of the earth with minerals, yet wreaks havoc when humans build cities on the fault lines. Cell replication allows our bodies to grow and develop, yet can result in cancer when natural processes misfire. Death is a necessary part of the cycle of life, yet still remains our “last enemy” (1 Corinthians 15:26).
Who says this is a broken world? It is as it has always been. The movement of tectonic plates is just normal and has been going on for billions of years, causing earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis.
Why does Justin not accept this?
The Coronavirus is just one more example of the broken world we live in. Life is a God-given miracle of extraordinary engineering and complexity. Yet the physical process of life itself are subject to viruses, parasites, and disease. The “bondage to decay” that St Paul speaks of reverberates through the cosmos.
This is rather high-flown with an appeal to the bondage of decay from Paul. It sounds impressive but what does it mean?
By creating a world of free creatures – both physical and spiritual – God has granted a level of freedom to the whole of the created order. That means that God won’t simply step in and wave a magic wand to take away the suffering in the world. We are part of the problem of evil, and God has chosen us to be part of the solution too.
Where does Justin think the other part of the problem of evil comes from?
Throughout the New Testament we are presented with a worldview of spiritual warfare in which God has chosen his people to be fellow combatants waging a war, not against flesh and blood, but against spiritual “principalities [and] powers” (Ephesians 6:12) through our prayer, love and action.
How on earth (literally) does Justin see spiritual warfare in plate tectonics?
God hates Coronavirus
I have increasingly seen that this ‘warfare’ view of reality may help those who have experienced great suffering to understand that God is not the author of their pain. One such person is Jessica Kelley, whom I interviewed about the loss of her four-year-old son Henry to brain cancer as related in her book Lord Willing?. …….Jessica had come to reject what she terms the ‘blueprint’ view of a God who creates pain and suffering as part of his sovereign plan. Instead she embraced the warfare view, that we live in a world where natural disasters, disease and evil are tied up not only with the choices of human beings but with the freedom exercised by spiritual forces in rebellion against God. Although the war was decisively turned towards victory through the death and resurrection of Jesus, there still remains a world of running spiritual battles. …….. Henry was a casualty in the ongoing battle to redeem a fallen and broken world:……………..
Jessica’s perspective can equally be turned to this present Coronavirus pandemic. God did not will this crisis. Let’s not lay the blame at his door. But he is working through the actions and prayers of those who are seeking to see his Kingdom come on earth.
It is hard to comment on this owing to Jessica’s tragic loss of a child, which I have not had to go through, but to argue “Instead she embraced the warfare view, that we live in a world where natural disasters, disease and evil are tied up not only with the choices of human beings but with the freedom exercised by spiritual forces in rebellion against God.” It is very dubious to tie up what he calls natural disasters i.e. volcanoes etc with spiritual warfare..
Are volcanoes, earthquakes, floods caused by spiritual forces in rebellion against God” There is nothing in the bible to support that and is very Manichaean.
Nevertheless, Jessica’s view is controversial to some. Many would object that a God who isn’t in control of the whole show isn’t the God of the Bible.
Why should we ever believe that God is control down to the last detail? It sounds great but it is not true to experience, though many of us experience a general guidance at times, but not at others. Did God really was in control when you twisted your ankle while out on a walk?
Some e.g. Thomas Oard rightly argue that God does not “interfere with and control” his creation, as in his book The Uncontrolling love of God. He extends the idea from Phillipians 2 of Jesus Christ emptying himself to God emptying himself in creation and often letting things be.
Calvinist theologians believe that God is the author of both joy and sorrow and, even though we may struggle to see it, works through both for his ultimate purposes and glory. They say the warfare view contains too much of the same sort of randomness in suffering that the atheist must contend with.
For me, I end up with a certain agnosticism in respect of God’s control but the warfare view is both Manichean and tries to divide creation into good (flowers etc) and evil (volcanoes) and makes Christians see everything as warfare and conflict.
Inevitably, different Christians will come to different understandings of how to reconcile God and suffering. What we can agree on is that God is good, suffering is bad, but that his love and purposes will win out in the end.
Yes, but that does not mean we should tolerate what can only be called extreme views – as is the warfare view, or that popular view of the Curse. What we need to agree on is that God is good, even when things are going badly and don’t make sense. That is found in Romans 8 especially the conclusion
The Christian story is of a broken and rebellious creation that is awaiting the renewal of all things.
This is simply not biblical. Just considering the Bible, there is nothing to support “a broken and rebellious Creation”. It is a variation of the Curse mythology which reckons God screwed up a supposedly “perfect “ creation because of Adam and Eve. The Christian Story IS of a broken humanity who are also stuffing up the rest of creation, but only on this planet but not beyond the Solar System, if that. In what ways are meteors, distant stars and planets “broken and rebellious”? Or even birds and bees and even bats and pangolins? Or, dare I say, viruses? The story starts there with humans stuffing up the earth and culminates with Jesus Christ who “unscrews” humanity and reconciles them (2 Cor 5)
If, and a big if, Justin’s is the Christian story then I wholeheartedly reject it as fanciful and absurd. Further it is not the Christian story held by all Christians over the last 2000 years.
The Christian story in its basics is that humans screwed things up and Jesus thorugh his death and resurrection has shown the way to unscrew it. Forget about warfare with volcanoes, or animal predation.
How should we see God in the light of the coronavirus?
Above all it is wrong to focus on death and suffering as due to Adam’s misdeeds, and neither of Justin’s alternatives make sense. This is the danger of a self-contained biblical argument and not looking at what we know of the world. Any world view which disregards the science is worthless. If we applied that principle to astronomy we would believe in a flat earth and that seeds actually die before they germinate (1 Cor 15). We need to take note of science and especially the history of the earth and the life therein. Here it is in outline
The Universe was formed 13.4 by years ago with the big Bang (which was put forward by a Christian cosmologist Fr G Le Maitre)
The Earth was formed 4.6 billion years ago and since then its surface has been sundered by plate tectonics. There seemed to be no involvement by naughty angels and it was too early for Adam to cause the eruptions.
Life first formed between 3 and 4 billion years ago. The earliest forms were like bacteria with viruses going piggy-back. Thus from then on bacteria were dying and being infected by viruses. We then have the sequence of life and so to vertebrates, dinosaurs, mammals and lastly humans.
This makes it clear that death disease and suffering were there from the beginning and along with volcanoes. The earth is IN kilter.
So it continues today with volcanoes, earthquakes, animals and people dying.
Every so often the earth is hit with something like the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, which some implied had a human origin, rather than being natural. Some want to regard the bits which are painful as Natural Evil. That is a wrong term as those things are simply – – – NATURAL.
Can you call this evil – natural or not? It is simply life and the way the world is .Any belief system or worldview which does not accept this is flying in the face of facts.
Here we come face to face with problem of suffering, which comes out so starkly in Covid-19. All living things die, often after getting a disease. Even the fossil record shows that. At times it is accompanied with great pain. It is a problem because it is downright ghastly and we feel it should not be that way We try to rationalise it and often by one of the three put forward by Justin. We are unwilling to say it’s purely natural and believers don’t want to say God did it.
It is a dilemma, which we all seek to resolve. Not all find a resolution which supports faith and many conclude that God cannot allow the suffering and if He did then He must be the Devil. This alone should stop us from coming out with slick answers, which may help us but repel others.
Suffering was a great problem for Charles Darwin as I discuss here
What should we say as Christians?
Here we turn to the Christian story – the four gospels, which are odd as they give so much on Jesus’s last week on earth, describing in his public execution in gruesome detail.
As Jesus he died, he shrieked;
Eloi eloi, lama sabachthani!
My God. My God, why have you forsaken me?
There was Jesus, the Son of God, suffering an excruciating death. Imagine those fat, rusty nails hammered through your wrist and ankles. Then being suspended making it almost impossible to breath along with the nails tearing your flesh and broken bone.
The centre of the Christian Faith is on the ghastly death of Jesus and his surprising resurrection. Traditionally Christian have viewed the death of Jesus being purely an atonement without considering that in death Jesus shared human suffering.
Is this an answer?
Yes and no
It is not a simplistic answer.
The Old Testament doesn’t give an answer, but a poem/saga about suffering – the book of Job. Job had suffered badly and all his advisors were useless and then he met God, who asked him if he was present at creation (Job 38 -41). Job realised he did not understand and then trusted God. We can do no more, as we don’t understand as suffering gives no logical explanation and there is no logical explanation for suffering. The message was “trust God”.
This where Moltmann’s insights in The Crucified God are so helpful, as we see that the cross is not only forgiveness and reconciliation but also God in Christ entering into all suffering and shrieking “My God, My God. Why have you forsaken me?” That is what we often do when suffering hits us. Suffering points to the cross.
That is as far as we can go. There is nothing wrong in saying our understanding is partial, but it is very wrong to think we have understood suffering.
This raises the question whether suffering can be called Natural Evil as it is not Evil but just Natural. Volcanoes are just the normal activity in the earth’s crust. OK, some suffering is caused by the evil of others, but that should never be called Natural Evil, but just Evil. It’s a bit tough if you are being eaten by lion, drowned in a tsunami, or suffering a disease, but this is the fabric of creation. For the record I put my foot four inches from a sleeping Cape Cobra!
Many Christians are unwilling to accept that suffering and “natural disaster” is written into the structure of the earth, and thus what some call “Natural Evil” is simply natural. Many perform theological contortions and bad exegesis to explain evil and suffering. The temptation is to explain it away by an appeal that suffering came in at the Curse when Adam fell, or some angelic fall, or spiritual warfare. I would argue that not only are they bad/heretical/false theology but are liable to have very bad pastoral effects.
First, it results in a Manichean dualism, where everything natural is split into good and bad. An amusing example of this is that when we were in Yellowstone National Park, some visitors asked Rangers why they didn’t remove the bad animals – presumably grizzlies and wolves!! It is unfortunate if your hiker’s bear bell is found in grizzly scat, but that is not because that grizzly is bad. It is unnerving to hike in Yellowstone. This negativity spreads to those who want to kill every “bad critter”, especially insects. So the insect spray is always handy. Why zap every wasp and squish every beetle?
Secondly, this can have disastrous results on the environment as we purge it of everything bad from dandelions (weeds) to daddy long legs.
Thirdly, it can easily create a judgmentalism with a tendency to regard suffering and illness as the penalty of sin. An example is a minister I knew telling the parents of a boy suffering from cancer, that someone had sinned in the family. And then most clergy often heard people who are ill or suffering asking, “Why is God punishing me?”
It is understandable why some may think these things, but that does not make them right. Just think that menstruation was once called the Curse.
What about the Coronavirus?
As said earlier, viruses are part of the natural order and have existed as long as life itself. They cause a vast number of serious diseases in plants, animals and humans. Though they are not evil in a moral sense, they cause disease to all forms of life. Simply considering humans they cause an immense amount of suffering and death.
However the damage viruses cause is often made worse by human behaviour whether innocent, reckless or due to a lack of care for the natural world. It seems likely this coronavirus entered humans from a bat in a live animal market in China. That trade is perverse and criminally evil to animals. It also provides the right conditions for viruses to jump species.
Thus, we can say that the coronavirus is a mixture of the natural and human evil. Were it not for the latter – both the live animal market and the cover –up – we may never have heard of it.
The wildlife trade is repulsive. Ultimately we have say that it and other ways of trashing the environment are immor and evil. The coronavirus is just one of many examples. If we hold to an Adamic or Angelic Fall, or “spiritual Warfare” we are in danger of not recognising the human sin behind it. It removes the responsibility away from those who caused it – and that includes all of us who mistreat God’s creation in any way.
Now my answer is not definite or clear-cut as it starts from the fact that volcanoes, suffering and death are totally natural and written into all creation, without a malevolent being, human or spiritual, causing them. And most definitely not a God after the Fall.
This, and the need to look after the environment in myriad ways, deals with the more general aspects, but suffering is on a personal level we must go beyond that. We need effective action not explanations. To do this involves risk and sacrifice, which we see in those who are on the frontline in the health services and other vital services today. We have seen some of them die of Covid-19.
No appeal to spiritual warfare or the Fall of Adam or angels is of any value here – except to give an attitude of spirituality superiority, which is neither Christian nor humanitarian. If Christianity is not humanitarian it is not Christian.
Suffering reduces us to a position of weakness and humility. This is a major theme of both the Old and New Testament, even though it is often sidelined in Christendom and revivalism, which prefers Christ as Lord and King rather than servant. It can be argued that the New Testament refers to Jesus as Lord and Saviour to subvert the demand in the Roman Empire to see Caesar as Lord. How could an executed felon be Lord and Saviour?
So consider this felon. His teaching was a development of the prophetic side of the Old Testament Law with the emphasis on love of neighbour. Apart from their worship of a different god to most Romans, this became their mark along with their keenness to care for the less fortunate. This put most expressively in the Letter to Diognetus (late 2nd cent?), “They share their food, but not their wives.” Holland discusses it in his chapter (V) on Charity in his book Dominion.
This love and service to others is self-emptying, or kenotic. It is hinted at in Isaiah with his suffering servant; Chap 42 vs 1-9, and Chap 52 vs13 to53 vs12, which forms the backcloth of the accounts of Jesus’ death.
Suffering is emptying. Paul develops that in his appeal to be conformed to the likeness of Jesus Christ in Philippians 2.vs5-8
4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.
Yes, I know I left out the resurrection, but my emphasis is on self-emptying love in action here.
His self-emptying is seen finally in the cross and comes out in his putting down of power hungry disciple Mark 10 vs 43-5
43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
As a result when early Christians after Constantine were not involved in politicking and re-inventing the trappings of the Roman Empire, were in the forefront of caring for those in need. This was manifest during the intermittent plagues and more continually in the foundations of hospices and places to care for the sick.
This is probably where the only “answer” to suffering can be found.
Eloi, eloi, lama sabacthani.