Last time I was looking at whether pandemics and plagues are sent by God to punish sin, and concluded that (even in the Old Testament) the picture is a lot more complex than that.
So did God actively send coronavirus or did he just allow it, and why? And perhaps as importantly, what do we really want to know when we ask these questions?
What are we really asking?
Aside from just intellectual curiosity (which seems a perfectly valid reason to me), I can think of at least 4 reasons we might be asking if and why God sent Covid-19…
- We might be trying to understand God’s character and nature; to discover what kind of God he (or she or whatever) is. Is God an almighty sovereign who chooses and causes everything that happens? Is he/she good and can I trust him? Does he actively intervene in the world or just watch ‘from a distance’? Is he angry and vengeful, needing appeasing, or are his purposes always benign? Does he care, and is he capable of saving us from trouble? Is he really worthy of worship?
- Alternatively, we may just be looking for some meaning, purpose and hope in a confusing and difficult situation. Do our trials have a good, even divine, reason and can they have a good outcome? If it was sent by God, could Covid even turn out to be a positive thing ultimately, a blessing in disguise, despite everything?
- Relatedly, we may be seeking guidance and direction, asking how we should respond to this crisis. Is there anything specific God wants us to do to alleviate it, end it or bring good out of it – whether that’s an overtly religious response like prayer and fasting, or whether it’s about practical action to alleviate suffering or find a cure?
- Or as I said last time, we may simply be looking for someone to blame for our troubles – whether that be God himself, or more often a human scapegoat who’s brought Covid on us all by their sin (or just their carelessness). And in so doing we may be seeking the reassurance of a neat explanation for our troubles, and also perhaps the comfort of knowing that someone else is to blame and will have to take the rap for it.
Leaving aside the last which we’ve already kind of dealt with, I’d like to look more closely at these questions over the next couple of posts. Starting with…
What kind of God do we believe in?
The question of what kind of God creates or sends Covid-19 is essentially another version of the classic ‘problem of pain’; the perennial and age-old question of why God – if he’s truly good and omnipotent – allows or even sends suffering and other things that we see as evil.
And in asking it we may be seeking reassurance that God really is good, really does love us and really is ultimately capable of saving us.
Or we may be approaching from the opposite side and looking to discredit God, to show that he’s either useless (unable to save us from Covid), petty (using it to punish minor infractions), or actually evil (delighting in inflicting suffering), and is therefore clearly unworthy of worship. (Incidentally this response has almost as long a historical heritage as the idea of plague as divine punishment – Lucretius, the great proto-atheist of the 1st century BC, used Thucydides’ account of the Athenian plague as demonstration of the uselessness of belief in the gods.)
So what is the nature and character of a God who sends – or at least allows – a disease like Covid-19? There are a few obvious alternative positions on this (and probably a bunch of others I haven’t thought of):
- God is completely sovereign and all-powerful, so everything that happens – including Covid – must be directly planned and willed by him, or at the very least be allowed by him for a divine purpose.
- God is good and loving but not all-powerful (or he allows his power to be limited in particular contexts for particular reasons); he therefore cannot always prevent all the evils in the world, however much he would like to.
- God doesn’t ever intervene.
- God doesn’t exist.
The first (God is sovereign) is usually associated with Calvinists and others who emphasise God’s absolute supremacy and holiness, and we looked at it a bit last time when asking whether God uses plagues to punish sin.
The plus side of this view for many is that it maintains God’s greatness and majesty (oh, and that it’s ‘biblical’). On the flip side it does lead to the charge that God can’t be truly good or loving if he wills things which we see as cruel or evil. This isn’t unanswerable of course – our view of what’s evil may be mistaken; there may be such things as ‘necessary evils’ or the lesser of two evils; and allowing evil to happen doesn’t necessarily make someone evil, depending on why they allow it. Also, there’s the argument that God has rights over his creation that we as creatures don’t have – so while it’s wrong for people to kill each other, it’s not wrong for God to take away life which was always his gift to us not a right.
The second view (God is good but not all-powerful) protects God’s character as good and loving, but brings the charge that he is weak or useless. Again, this isn’t unanswerable – if God can’t prevent all evils, it may simply be that his power is not of the form we expect or exercised in the way we expect (I’ve argued elsewhere that love is both the strongest and weakest power in the universe). Or it may be that he has chosen to limit his power for a greater purpose, perhaps to allow his creation genuine freedom and responsibility. And crucially he may be able to redeem the evils and even bring greater good out of them than if they had not been.
The third view (classic Deism) neatly sidesteps the issues – if God never intervenes in the world, we can’t accuse him of being evil for causing evil, nor of being weak for not preventing it. But it does bring the charge of his being uncaring and aloof, more like a lab experimenter than a loving father. Again, this isn’t entirely unanswerable – God might not intervene simply because he places such a high value on our autonomy and responsibility. And good parents often don’t intervene to bail their children out of difficulties, knowing that if they did so their children wouldn’t develop life skills, judgement, independence and responsibility. (However, most parents would intervene in situations where their child’s life is threatened.)
And the fourth view (God doesn’t exist) removes the question entirely, but doesn’t take away Covid or make it any easier to deal with – and doesn’t help us if our experience or reason convinces us that there is a God.
Of course it’s possible to take more or less nuanced versions of any of these views – and the reality may be something quite different that doesn’t fit into such neat logical categories.
Incarnation and redemption (and Satan)
My own belief is that God is genuinely good, loving and powerful, but that he chooses to allow his creation considerable autonomy and so limits the exercise of his powers. And I believe in incarnation – that, in Jesus, God is truly present in and through us, and in and through our sufferings. I also believe in redemption – that God is actively working to bring good out of our trials. So I do therefore believe that God intervenes, at least in the sense that he is actively present in and through our lives.
The other thing to mention here is the idea of Satan, or forces of evil that are not God and that even oppose his will. It would be convenient just to blame Satan for all evils in the world including Covid, but that doesn’t really change what we’ve said above. If God is fully sovereign, Satan can only do what God wills or allows anyway; if God’s good but not entirely almighty, Satan is simply the chief evil God isn’t fully able to prevent. (And if God never intervenes or doesn’t exist and Satan’s real, then frankly we’re a bit stuffed.)
Maybe it’s also worth asking whether Covid-19 really is evil as we tend to assume. It’s fairly obvious why we view it as evil, because of the devastating effect it has on human lives and communities – but perhaps that’s not the full picture. I’d like to look at this more fully next time when thinking about divine purpose.
I do realise that all of this only scratches the surface and doesn’t really address the deep age-old questions about suffering. I have looked at suffering in some depth before so I won’t rehash it all now but do have a browse.
For the moment I’ll just say that suffering is an unavoidable and perhaps necessary part of all life; and I find it more helpful to see suffering as a mystery to be experienced and changed by than as an intellectual puzzle to be solved. I also hold to the belief that sufferings and trials have the potential to be redemptive, or at least to be redeemed.
And to end, I don’t believe that suffering is the end or that it has the final word. In the end, all shall be well…