Coronavirus and Christianity: Part 1 – Why does God allow it?

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‘Why does God allow coronavirus?’ is a question a lot of people have been asking. At time of writing, there have been 1.6 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 and almost 96,000 deaths. Why would a good God allow so much suffering and loss of life? Of course, the problem of suffering is an age-old question that goes back to the Greek philosopher Epicurus and even further back to the book of Job in the Old Testament. Many books have been written on the subject by saints and sceptics alike and we have looked at some of those debates in previous articles, where you can find more details (here and here).

Here I want to consider a few common responses you might here from Christians and look at some problems with them as well as offer a few thoughts of my own. However, I don’t pretend to know the answer to this question, but I do think we can respond to the sceptic’s charge that there could be no such answer. That might sound confusing, so let me explain. If the sceptic is claiming that there could be no satisfactory answer to the question ‘Why does God allow coronavirus?’, it is enough to respond by showing that there are possible reasons why God might allow it. It is not necessary to go beyond that to claim to know what God’s reasons actually are – who could claim to know such a thing?

But this approach only takes us so far and will inevitably leave us feeling unsatisfied, so in Part 2 I will turn to a different question ‘Coronavirus and the Crucifixion’ which explores the issue further from a slightly different perspective.

  1. Divine Judgement

Any time there is a natural disaster, there are always some Christians who attribute it to God’s judgement. According to this view, it is God’s direct and just response to human sinfulness. Before offering several reasons for rejecting this view, I want to consider one weak objection to it. Some people object that God would not act in judgement. They consider a God who judges humans for their sin to be incompatible with a God of love – it is an out-of-date view of God that is no longer tenable in our modern, enlightened age. But if we take the Bible seriously, this option is not open to us. God is a God of love, but also a God of justice. He has acted in judgement before and will do so again when one day we will all stand before God.

But there are still reasons for rejecting this approach to COVID-19.

a) When the Bible speaks of God having acted in judgement in the past, it was revealed to prophets such as Isaiah. In fact, that is why Christians believe God acted in judgement – because God told us through the prophets. But how could we know that today? While prophecy is one of the gifts of the Spirit to the church, are there people today who are able to pronounce on God’s actions in international affairs and foretell God’s acts of judgement as Isaiah did? I’m not inclined to think so.

b) In the absence of this kind of revelation concerning a natural disaster, how we are to tell whether it is God’s judgement or not? We all accept (presumably) that not all cases of suffering are God’s direct judgement, so how can we make this call in a particular case?

c) When Jesus was asked about people who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them in Luke 13 (were they more guilty?) and the man who was born blind in John 9 (was it his sin or his parents’ sin?), he did not attribute these events to God’s judgement. Interestingly, though, in Luke 13 he urged people to change their ways in light of what happened otherwise they would face the consequences of divine judgement.

In light of Jesus’ response, we shouldn’t ignore the issue of divine judgement and the fact that human sinfulness has serious consequences (Romans 1), but at the same time I don’t think we have good grounds for attributing natural disasters to God’s judgement. And we also must bear in mind that God is “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love and he relents from sending calamity” (Joel 2:13). God’s judgement will come eventually, but in this era of his grace, he gives us every opportunity to change our ways.

  1. The Fall

Another response from Christians is that COVID-19 is a result of living in a fallen world. It is not a direct result of recent human sinfulness, but an indirect result of the sin of the first humans and of human sinfulness in general. I think this is definitely part of the story, but I think we also need to be cautious about how we use it as a response for why God would allow a natural disaster for the following reasons:

a) Even if it is correct, it is not clear that it provides an adequate response on its own to the sceptic’s question because it raises the further question of why God would have brought about natural disasters as a consequence of human sinfulness. No doubt, it makes sense that there should have been some consequences of human sinfulness. For example, it makes sense that the suffering brought about by humans would result from human sinfulness, and also that our lives would be adversely affected by this break in our relationship with God, but why would God introduce natural disasters? I’m not saying there is no answer to this question, but only that appealing to the fall just pushes the question back one step further.

b) Appealing to the fall in the context of natural disasters raises some tricky questions relating to science. Some Christians claim that there was no animal death before humans sinned against God (what about the dinosaurs?), that there were no earthquakes before the fall, and even that the laws of science changed as a result of human sinfulness. But to say the least, these are very controversial views among Christians who take the Bible seriously. While some Christians hold the view that God created everything in six literal 24 hour days a few thousand years ago, other Christians thinks this is a misunderstanding of what the Bible teaches (see John Lennox, Seven Days that Divide the World).

Let’s try to put this point in context. If we are responding to the sceptic’s question and we appeal to a view of the fall that i) may well raise a lot more questions for the sceptic about science and the Bible, and ii) Christians have different views on these questions anyway, we might want to explore further ways to think about it.

  1. Part of God’s Creation

Another response from some Christians takes a very different route from the previous one. While not denying that the fall had serious consequences, they will nevertheless argue that earthquakes, viruses, and the like are part of God’s creation, not a result of the fall. Roughly speaking, the idea is that God created a world suitable for humans and where they would be able to make decisions as to how to live and whether to follow or reject God, a world where their choices and actions would have consequences. For example, earthquakes and volcanoes have played an important role in regulating the temperature of the planet and releasing nutrients into the soil.

While this view, like the last one, has something going for it, it too seems to face some problems:

a) It doesn’t seem to capture (at least on its own) the biblical view that the devastation brought about by natural disasters such as COVID-19 is not part of God’s good creation.

b) Even people who don’t share a biblical view may have a sense that in natural disasters things aren’t supposed to be this way. There is something wrong with the world. The problem is that this view doesn’t seem to do justice to this insight.

For what it’s worth, I think there are ways of incorporating aspects of views 2 and 3. As advocates of view 3 point out, natural events such as earthquake are not evil per se and so there is no reason to think they could not be part of God’s good creation. Rather it is the suffering they give rise to that is the problem. And as some have pointed out (see for example Bob White, Who is to Blame? Disasters, Nature and Acts of God), it is often bad human choices that are really responsible for most of the suffering, not the natural events themselves. For example, White argues that the vast majority of the fatalities in the Haiti earthquake in 2010 were due to factors such as political corruption and poor construction. This fits in with view 2 that as a result of the fall, it is humans, out of relationship with God, who are responsible for a lot of the problems. In addition to this, it is possible that had humans not rebelled against God, not only would we have made better choices, but God would have protected us from natural disasters. So, it isn’t that God changed the laws of science as a result of the fall, but rather that we gave up the protection that could otherwise have been ours.

It still seems to me, though, that views 2 and 3 leave us some way short in responding to COVID-19 and so I think we need to take into account a wider perspective. Views 2 and 3 help us to think about God’s purpose in creating the world and us, and also about the consequences of rejecting God. Pursuing this a bit further, let’s think about God’s purpose in creating us. What is the purpose of our existence? When we think about suffering, we might be tempted to think that God’s priority for us would be a life with as much happiness and as little suffering as possible. And perhaps this is what the sceptic assumes when asking the question. But according to Christianity, God’s purpose for us is much great than that. In fact, it is much greater than we can fully comprehend. It is that we can come to know, love and worship God himself, our loving Creator and the source of everything good we can imagine.

Now while that is God’s purpose for us and what he desires for us more than anything else, he will not force it upon us. Loving relationships cannot be forced, but must be freely entered into. Could it be that in a world where we had everything we wanted and no suffering, we would ignore God and fail to find the purpose for our lives? God would in effect be unnecessary. By contrast, perhaps it is in a world like ours where more people come to find the purpose for their lives in God. The story of Israel in the Bible is that when things were going well they often forgot about God whereas in times of crisis they cried out to God. Perhaps we need to do the same.

Christians also believe that God can bring great good out of great evil. In fact, in a sense this is what Christianity is all about, how God rescues us from disaster. I will explore this topic more in part 2, but in the context of COVID-19, while it results in terrible suffering, perhaps good can also come out of it. We see this to some extent in the self-sacrifice of many on the frontline of the battle against it, the incredible working going on to find a vaccine, in the coming together of communities, in the setting aside of differences to achieve the common good, in a refocusing of priorities from a world where we are so often caught up with material things to one where we now appreciate like never before the value of family and friends and the gratitude for basic necessities which we often take for granted. And perhaps God has plans to bring about even greater goods than these. Perhaps he wants to bring many people into a loving relationship with himself.

Does this mean that God sent COVID-19? No. Or that COVID-19 is really something good despite all appearances to the contrary? Certainly not. Or that we should not fight against it? Not at all (that is one of the good things that can come out of it). Does it explain why God allowed COVID-19? No, I do not claim to know how God might bring good out of it, but am just pointing out that God, in his infinite wisdom and mercy, is able to bring good out of evil, even COVID-19, in ways we couldn’t imagine. The interesting thing is that perhaps the main way in which God can bring about good out of an evil such as COVID-19 is through our responses. Following Jesus in Luke 13, we should not attribute it to sin or to divine judgement, but ask how we can change our ways so that God’s good purposes can be fulfilled.

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