Thursday, 14 January 2021 19:43

God and Covid-19

For over a year now, those of us living on planet Earth have not been able to escape the powerful tentacles of the coronavirus. As of this writing, about 1.9 million people have died from it, just yesterday 4,408 died of it in the US, and with at least one new strain of Covid-19 that is doubly contagious, the pandemic will be with us for a while, vaccines notwithstanding. Unsurprisingly, such a widespread “natural” disaster has caused many of us to do some soul searching.

I taught Comparative Religion to two sections of thirty undergraduates at St. Joseph’s University this last semester. One of the two textbooks I use for this course is authored by four colleagues in the Religious Studies Department of a smaller Jesuit college than ours in Syracuse, NY (Le Moyne College). Introduction to the Study of Religion (by Nancy C. Ring, et al., in its 2012 second edition) defines religion as the human attempt to find meaning in this life beyond the day-to-day preoccupations of family, work and social interactions. It is also about tapping into the power of life while battling aging, disease and death. In their words,

 

“Religious communities grapple in their teachings and practices with the paradox of life and death. Religions express the human desire to understand and to engage the powers of life. They speak of the power of life in terms of the sacred, the holy, the transcendent, the absolute, the good, the beautiful, the true, the energy to effect change. The religious imagination gives the powers of life location and character” (41).

 

They then go on to provide examples like the Aztecs “looked to the heavens whence the sun and the rain sent their warmth and moisture to the earth”; “Confucianists, Shintoists, and many indigenous communities turn to the ancestors . . . to give them wisdom and strength”; “The Plains peoples of North America imagine the powers of life to be dispersed throughout nature”; Zen Buddhism advocates “living intensely in the present.”

But what about the power of death always crouching at the door, ready to pounce? Buddhism frames suffering as the central reality of a human life subject to ceaseless change and the vicious cycle of karma and reincarnations. Nirvana can only be attained through a resolute commitment to the “Eightfold Path.” In this tradition, wisdom has everything to do with non-attachment to this world of illusion. By contrast, the three theistic religions (or Abrahamic faiths) posit a good Creator God who offers a path to some kind of blissful existence after death but stumble when it comes to the reality of evil. Any theory attempting to explain the existence of evil in a world created and managed by a god who is both all-good and all-powerful is called a theodicy. Jewish, Christian, or Muslim theologians have all offered some version of why freedom of choice is crucial to the moral and religious life, and why suffering is a necessary test of our submission and obedience to God. Still, if one factors in the unspeakable suffering visited on the human race by wars and the cruelty of dictators, terrorists and abusers of all kinds on the one hand, and of natural disasters on the other, such theories fall far short of what we know and experience. Evil, whether at the hand of people or of nature, is pervasive and perplexing, to say the least.

I do not intend to solve this riddle here. Instead, I take off my religious studies scholar’s hat and explain to you why my wife and I found so much comfort in reading a little 60-page booklet written in a week this past April entitled Where is God in a Coronavirus World? The author is John C. Lennox, Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford and a well-known speaker defending the Christian faith on university campuses around the world. And though Muslim, Jewish, and readers of other faiths (or no faith) will disagree with some of his points, I offer this post as food for thought and a contribution to our collective soul searching in this numbing covid season. I hope this will motivate you to get your own copy, read it, and pass it on to friends.

After sharing a few facts about pandemics in historical perspective and about the dead-end of atheism when it comes to the problem of evil, I’ll summarize Lennox’s views on the Christian approach to theodicy.

 

We’ve been here before

What are some of the known pandemics of the past?

  • The Antonine Plague (or Plague of Galen, 165-180 C.E.): perhaps measles or smallpox, 5 million dead
  • The Plague of Justinian (541-542 C.E.): bubonic plague, i.e., spread from animals (rats) to humans, 25 million dead
  • The Black Death (1346-1353), bubonic plague, 70-100 million dead, or 20% of world population
  • Several cholera pandemics in the 19th and 20th centuries: over a million dead
  • The 1918-1920 flu pandemic: 20-50 million dead
  • Asian flu (1956-1958), 2 million dead; Hong Kong flu (1968-69), one million dead
  • HIV-AIDS pandemic (reaching its peak in 2005-2012), about 32 million

More localized, there have been recent epidemics, like SARS and Ebola. But think about people in the West before the early 1900s and how epidemics like typhus, tuberculosis, cholera and others, were seen “as part of normal life” (10).

Another aspect of this issue we need to keep in mind is that pain – both the physical sensation and the psychic pain resulting from loss and suffering in general – can have a beneficial side to it. Physical pain warns us of danger. If your hand is too close to the fire when roasting marshmallows, for instance, the pain caused by the heat warns your brain and you respond by pulling your hand further back. A second beneficial role pain plays in our lives, Lennox reminds us, is that “a certain amount of pain is involved in physical development” (18): athletics, gymnastics, contact sports, etc.

Finally, pain in a wider sense can be used to deepen our character and teach us valuable life lessons. It can build “resilience and fortitude” and allow people to develop “characters of great quality.” Lennox himself was rushed to the hospital with a massive heart attack. He was only saved because a very skilled surgeon caught it just in time. This experience changed him:

 

“For me, it taught me a great deal. It taught me that I was mortal and that I was vulnerable; and I now feel that my life was given back to me as a precious gift to be treasured. I brought more urgency into my sense of purpose and calling” (19).

 

Yet his joy at being saved was immediately tempered, because at about the same time his sister “lost her (just) married 22-year-old daughter to a malignant brain tumour.” As you can imagine, this brought to the fore the larger question of human suffering and its profound injustice on many levels.

 

Can atheism help?

That is the title of his third chapter. He begins by noting that in the worldviews of Hinduism and Buddhism, suffering is the result of bad karma, or of bad deeds one had committed in the past. In fact, bad behavior is the cause of a seeming endless chain of reincarnations. For Hindus, moksha is the deliverance from that vicious cycle, achieved either by a life of asceticism or by devotion to particular deities. Buddhists, for their part, see this suffering as coming from a warped understanding of life. The solution is to see rightly (the Four Noble Truths) and live rightly (the Eightfold Path).

The Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament, for Christians) contains the book of Job which is a protest against the common idea that one’s suffering results from sins previously committed – our own or those of our forebears. Jesus agreed. He “explicitly denied that suffering was necessarily connected with personal wrongdoing” (23). One example is in Luke’s gospel:

 

“There were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered in this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower of Siloam fell on them – do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish” (Luke 13:1-5).

 

To focus on the question of who is a greater sinner worthy of harsher punishment is wrong for at least two reasons, Jesus teaches here. First, from a human perspective, we cannot know why people suffer in specific instances, either as a result of moral or natural evil. Second, no one is innocent in God’s eyes. As Paul wrote, “For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard” (Romans 3:23). Therefore, Jesus calls us to repent and turn to God’s mercy and grace.

Lennox unpacks that last statement further on in his booklet. But here he is concerned with debunking the atheist’s argument. This is a task he has done very publicly, by the way. You can watch his debates on YouTube with Richard Dawkins and with the late Christopher Hitchens, both leading atheist writers and propagandists. The other popular atheist debater, Sam Harris, illustrates well how the problem of evil is their favorite (and likely most potent) argument.

Lennox quotes from evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’ 1992 book, River Out of Eden:

 

“The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. If there ever was a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.”

 

Notice, first of all, that in a morally blind universe there is no room for categories such as good or evil. Things just are the way they are. Period. Lennox quotes Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky in his Brothers Karamazov, “If God does not exist, everything is permissible.” But second, this theory should give us pause, in that “terrorists and the architects of genocide in the killing fields of Cambodia and Rwanda were simply carrying out their own inbuilt genetic programmes: likewise Stalin, Hitler and Mao in their horrific crimes against humanity” (28). The problem with such a statement is that it is hard to live by. Dawkins himself was far from consistent. He and other atheists, in their zeal to debunk all forms of religion, have spilled a good deal of ink denouncing “Islamic terrorism” as dangerous and yes, evil. If you want to be a full-blown rationalist, you cannot have it both ways!

It is not by chance that I chose God Is Not One as my second textbook for Comparative Religion. Boston University religion scholar Stephen Prothero’s main thesis in this book is that each major religious tradition has its own definition of the human dilemma, its own solution, its own techniques (rituals) for attaining this solution, and its own exemplars. But what does unite all these paths (which for him do NOT lead up to the same mountain summit!), is the existence of some fundamental ethical principles attached to human dignity. Hence this quote Lennox offers from one of the most influential Christian philosophers of our time, Richard Taylor:

 

“The modern age, more or less repudiating the idea of a divine lawgiver, has nevertheless tried to retain the ideas of moral right and wrong, not noticing that, in casting God aside, they have also abolished the conditions of meaningfulness for moral right and wrong as well . . . Educated people do need to be told, however, that questions such as these have never been answered outside of religion” (29).

 

How can there be a coronavirus if there is a loving God?

First, we have to look at human nature and reckon with how we got to a world where so much evil has corrupted the goodness with which it was created. Then Lennox talks about how the Christian message brings justice and love together in the person of the crucified and risen redeemer.

 

Human nature and the fall

I have dealt in detail with the qur’anic story of “the fall” in Earth, Empire and Sacred Text. One difference has been highlighted by Muslim feminist interpreters, namely that in the Qur’an Eve bears no more responsibility for the disobedience than does Adam: “But Satan whispered to Adam, saying, ‘Adam, shall I show you the tree of immortality and power that never decays?’ and they both ate from it” (Q. 20:120-12, Abdel Halim). Another difference, quite similar to the Jewish reading of Genesis 3, is that there is no “original sin” in the sense of a curse placed on humankind banishing it from the presence of God forever. Put otherwise, there is no need for divine redemption.

The words of God to Satan in the Qur’an are similar to the Genesis account, at least the promise of hostility between him and the woman’s offspring. But the next phrase is not picked up by the Qur’an and becomes central in the Christian reading of this passage. Speaking of the woman’s offspring using a masculine singular, God announces: “He will strike your head, and you (the serpent) will strike his heel” (Gen. 3:15). For Christians this is a prophecy of the Messiah Jesus Christ who will be crucified as a result of Satan inciting the crowd against Jesus (“Crucify him! Crucify him!”). It also states that this victory of Satan is completely overshadowed by the complete and final victory achieved by Messiah’s cross and resurrection. In his obsession to destroy God’s incarnate Son, Satan unwittingly signed his own death warrant. More on that below.

 

Creation and the fall

The physical world as well was directly affected by Adam and Eve’s sin: “Cursed is the ground because of you [Adam]; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you” (Gen. 3: 17-18, NIV). Paul, the rabbi who met Jesus in a dramatic vision while on the way to Damascus in a mission to persecute followers of Jesus, writes that “creation was subjected [by God] to ineffectiveness, not through its own fault, but because of him who subjected it” (Romans 8:20). The Greek word (mataiotes) translated here by “ineffectiveness,” says Lennox, means something that does not reach the goal for which it was designed.

On the one hand, we cannot deny that humanity has developed impressive ways of managing and developing the natural world for its benefit. On the other hand, “Over and over again, nature has fractured and impeded human progress with thorns and thistles, backbreaking labour, pests, disease, epidemics, droughts, famines, earthquakes, volcanoes, and so on – coupled, sadly, with the destructive forces unleashed by selfishness, greed and moral corruption” (40).

 

We are all part of the problem

None of us can pretend we have no part in the moral evil that is at the root of this broken world. Lennox offers this moving quote from the Russian writer who spent years in Stalin’s Siberian gulag camps:

 

“If only it were so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place; sometimes it is squeezed one way by exuberant evil and sometimes it shifts to allow enough space for good to flourish. One and the same human being is, at various ages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being . . . But his name doesn’t change, and to that name we ascribe the whole lot, good and evil” (40-41).

 

What if the Good News Jesus and his followers preached is true?

Here I diverge a bit from Lennox’s book to offer some common ground between the Abrahamic faiths. All three (though not all Jewish branches subscribe to this) teach that God will preside over a final judgment in the Hereafter. This is a very relevant point to our discussion: there will be justice in the end, and our despair over the abuse, torture, and killing of so many victims over the centuries will turn to resolution and comfort. In this scenario too we will presumably find closure in witnessing untold millions of children who were killed by abortion, disease and natural disasters finding peace and a beautiful life in God’s presence.

But justice by itself doesn’t take us very far – for two reasons. First, Judgment Day isn’t just for the serial killers, or human traffickers, or brilliant white-collar criminals. It’s for you and me too. As mentioned above, “For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard” (Romans 3:23). Many Christians wrongly believe God will give them a pass based partly on their good deeds and partly on his mercy – a view shared by most Muslims in my experience (good deeds include obedience to the Five Pillars, while hoping for the Prophet’s intercession on the Last Day).

The Good News (or “gospel”), however, is that “God is love,” as John puts it in his first epistle. John records in his gospel that Jesus explained it this way: “For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16, NLT). Jesus, the only sinless human being, sacrifices himself to fulfill the justice that was coming to all of us (“You must not eat [of the tree] or even touch it; if you do, you will die,” Gen. 3:3) and demonstrate God’s boundless, infinite love for humankind.

Lennox explains that for Christianity, the solution to an unbridgeable chasm between God and humanity lies in the cross and resurrection of Jesus:

 

“These events do not simply give us a way into the problem of evil and pain, and a resolution to the problem of justice. They show us what the name ‘Jesus’ means – ‘he will save his people from their sins’ (Matthew 1:21). Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, those who repent of (which means ‘turn away from’) their own evil and their own contribution to human pain and suffering – those who trust Jesus as their Lord – receive forgiveness; peace with the personal God who created and upholds the universe; a new life with new powers; and the promise of a world where suffering will be no more” (47).

 

Parting words

Lennox’s last chapter is “The Difference God Makes.” Here we come back together as members of the Abrahamic family, but too as people of faith in general and people of no religious persuasion. We are all suffering together through a pandemic most of us never imagined was even possible anymore. In bullet form, I offer his last thoughts for your consideration:

  • Heed advice: follow the health and safety protocols issued by the authorities. So much medical research has already been done globally. Get vaccinated as soon as possible!
  • Maintain perspective: we’ve been through this and much worse before as a human family; we will get through this!
  • Love your neighbor: Lennox quotes from a March 13, 2020 Foreign Policy “argument” piece by Lutheran researcher Lyman Stone, “Christianity has been handling epidemics for 2000 years.” The church grew the fastest during the Antonine Plague of the 2nd century and the Cyprian Plague of the next century, because people saw how sacrificial Christians were in caring for the sick and in providing “a spiritual model whereby plagues were not the work of angry and capricious deities but the product of a broken Creation in revolt against a loving God.”Millions of people, including healthcare workers, so-called essential workers,and many others, have demonstrated selfless and sacrificial care. Unfortunately, there have been many Christians -- many American evangelicals in particular -- who have flouted wearing masks, ignored social distancing, and have bought into destructive conspiracy theories. That is NOT loving one's neighbor!
  • Remember eternity: if you believe and wholeheartedly trust in God’s gracious provision through Jesus, you can experience the peace Jesus promised his disciples in the upper room the night when he was arrested:

 

“I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world” (John 16:33, NLT).