John Lennox, Where is God in a Coronavirus World? The Good Book Company, 2020.
I’d like to offer a brief resume of this book by an Oxford mathematician, philosopher of science, and Christian apologist.
I think that I have faithfully reflected – albeit mostly in my own words – the main lines of thought.
1. Feeling vulnerable
Lennox writes in April, 2020, just a few short months into the world-wide emergency that has been precipitated by the rapid spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus. He, like the rest of us, is in ‘lockdown’, reflecting on the pressing questions that must occur to any thoughtful person, whether believer or unbeliever.
Many aspects of daily life have ground to a halt. Shops are closed, jobs and businesses are under threat, social gatherings are banned, health services are stretched, churches are empty.
People feel vulnerable and fearful. And there is no clear end in sight.
As I write, deaths associated with the coronavirus in hospital are approaching 20,000. As everyone keeps saying, each one of these is a sad – even tragic – event. But it is easy to lose a sense of proportion. Each year, in the UK, roughly the same number die each year from seasonal ‘flu. A larger number (around 26,000) are killed or seriously injured each year in road traffic accidents.
Pandemics have occurred in the past. In AD 165-180, a plague (probably measles or smallpox) killed around 5 million people. Over 25 million people dies in the Plague of Justinian (AD 541-2). The Black Death (14th century) killed between 70 million and 100 million people in Eurasia, depleting the world population by about 20%. The ‘flu pandemic of 1918-1920 accounted for up to 50 million lives. The Asian ‘flu (1956-1958) killed two million people. The HIV/AIDS pandemic, which peaked in 2005-2012, has had a death toll of about 32 million.
Many people have an expectation that modern science and medicine should be able to prevent such pandemics today, or, at least, to rapidly develop effective treatments.
But where is God in this?
2. Why suffering?
There are two sources of pain and suffering: natural and moral. A physical disaster such as an earthquake might cause the first type, while human action such as war would cause the second type. Of course, the two types can be linked: a drought might be regarded as a natural disaster, and yet human action such as deforestation may have precipitated the problem. Similarly, although a viral epidemic would be regarded as a natural disaster, human action (in the form of panic buying, profiteering, or failing to adhere to reasonable rules about physical distancing) may contribute to its effects.
Of course, pain plays a vital role in our lives. It warns us of danger, contributes to our development (‘no pain, no gain’), and helps mould our character. Wise parents do not protect their children from every painful experience.
But, sometimes, suffering seems to have no purpose. Why does one person recover, and another tragically die? What does a Christian worldview have to say?
3. Why a naturalistic worldview can’t help
A naturalistic worldview is atheistic. It says that the physical realm is the only realm.
It is likely to aver, with the philosopher David Hume, that God might be willing to prevent evil, but not able, or that God might be able to prevent evil, but not willing. In the first case, God is impotent; in the second, he is malevolent.
Thus ruling out the possibility that there is an all-loving and all-powerful God, we are shut up to the dogmatic atheism of Richard Dawkins, according to which we are all at the mercy of the unfeeling and uncaring forces of nature.
But in such a universe, there is not only no room for God, but no room for good and evil. There is just the blind, pitiless indifference of fatalism. In such a worldview, it makes no sense to regard Covid-19 as being bad or evil. This does not mean that atheists have no concept of good or evil (here they are mercifully inconsistent). Nor does it mean that they are incapable of doing good (some of them put some of us to shame in this regard). It is, rather, that they have no secure basis either for defining or for doing good and evil.
We might (I hope!) agree that torturing children for fun is evil, but only those who believe in a divine Law-giver, can give a secure basis for our emotional recoil from such a thing. It is only within a theistic worldview that objective morality makes any sense at all.
4. If God, why coronavirus?
Although we regard earthquakes as natural disasters, the underlying process – plate tectonics – is essential for the formation of land masses and for the continuance of life on earth.
Similarly, we easily suppose that viruses do no good, only harm. But this is mistaken. With their ability to invade living cells and replicate themselves, viruses make a vital contribution to the recycling of nutrients in nature. Of the millions of virus types that exist, only a tiny minority actually cause disease in humans.
Could God have made a world that didn’t need plate tectonics or viruses? Could he have made electricity that wasn’t dangerous, water that you couldn’t drown in, fire that didn’t burn you? Could he have made a living world without predation? Could he have made people who did no wrong? (‘After all,’ writes Lennox, ‘though coronavirus is serious, it is not going to kill as many people this year as other people will.’)
The answer to this last question is ‘Yes’. God could have made us like the animals (who cannot be said to do wrong, because they are not moral creatures). He could have made us as pre-programmed robots. But then we wouldn’t be human.
The very fact that we are capable of doing good means that we are also capable of doing evil; our ability to obey our Maker’s instructions implies that we can also disobey them. Permission to do good entails permission (although not approval!) to do the opposite.
We have been given a choice*.
But what have we, as a race, done with that choice?
We have misused it, that’s what.
Genesis chapter 3 describes this in terms of an act of downright disobedience, of the creature asserting its own will against that of its Creator. The consequences were huge: a fracturing not only of the divine-human relationship, but of nature itself. Death would pursue, and finally overtake, each one of us.
Expelled from paradise, sinful humans retained a role within a damaged world. But life (including work and child-birth – typical activities of men and women respectively) would become difficult and dangerous (Genesis 3:17ff).
We see before our very eyes the results of humankind’s stewardship of the earth. We have made immense strides in making it a fruitful and comfortable place in which to live. But still entire civilisations come and go. Greed, selfishness, and laziness within, together with drought, famine, earthquakes and pestilence without, conspire so that our success is never complete.
Let us admit that the line which divides good and evil cuts right through each one of us. We are part of the problem. No view of human nature, or of the world we live in, or of God, which ignores this painful fact can hope to have any traction in the long run.
Perhaps, then, we ought to re-frame the fundamental question about God and evil.
Not: ‘How can a good God tolerate evil?’
But rather: ‘How can a good God tolerate me?’
5. Evidence of love
The heart of the Christian message is that God stepped into this broken world in love.
In the person of Jesus Christ, God has suffered with the world.
But there’s more to it than that.
Jesus has not only suffered death: he has conquered death. He is not in his grave; he is risen.
Still further: the process of renewal that his resurrection has begun will culminate in his putting all wrongs to right.
The many injustices of our present life (and death) will find redress.
No atheistic worldview has any solution to the problem of ultimate justice, because, for atheism, death is the end. There is no next life, no Judge, no final justice.
‘By contrast, the biblical view is that ultimate justice is very real. God is the authority behind the moral law, and he will be its Vindicator. There will, in consequence, be a final judgment, when perfect justice will be done in respect of every injustice that has ever been committed from earth’s beginning to its end.’
Jesus has been raised from the death and has been appointed Judge of the world (Acts 17:31).
We tend to be creatures of two minds. We both long for justice, and shrink from it. Ultimate justice, after all, raises uncomfortable questions about our own standing before God. We blame God for not intervening now, and yet fault him for promising that he will decisively intervene at the end of the age. We want justice for others, but mercy for ourselves.
Again, the Christian faith points to the death and resurrection of Jesus. The great achievement of these twin events is expressed in the word ‘salvation’. To those who turn away (‘repent’) from their own evil, and place their trust in Jesus receive forgiveness from God, peace with God, new life, and the promise of a new world in which suffering and evil have no place.
A Christian is not a person who has solved the problem of suffering. Rather, a Christian is a person who has come to love, trust, and serve the God who has suffered for them.
The coronavirus reminds us of our vulnerability. It demolishes our pretences of self-sufficiency. It points us to the certainty of death for everyone, sooner or later. It shouts to us, rousing us from our complacency, and directing us to the God whom we may have neglected for many years.
6. The Christian response
First, we need to heed the best medical advice of the day. The fact that God can protect us and heal us is no excuse for behaving recklessly.
Second, we must maintain a sense of perspective. We are all living under a death sentence of sorts, and, as has been the case throughout human history, some of us will die in unpleasant ways. The coronavirus adds nothing that is really new to this scenario. If it finds us, let it find us, not huddling fearfully and uselessly in a corner, but being about whatever daily business we are capable of.
Third, let us love our neighbours. From the beginning, Christians have been outstanding in their selfless and costly care for victims of plague, and for their holding out a spiritual model whereby plagues were not the work of capricious deities but rather the product of a world in rebellion against its good Creator.
Fourth, let us remember eternity. The early Christians knew that they lived in a dangerous and uncertain world, but they were sustained in large measure by a belief that this life was not all there was. They had a real and solid hope in life beyond the grave. Such a hope is not to be pushed into the background, but is rather to be foregrounded as an impregnable source of strength and encouragement. Paul (who knew his share of suffering) certainly thought so (see Romans 8:18,38-39).
But that’s all very well in theory, you say. But what about in practice? Let the final words by those of Jozanne Moss, suffering from a terminal disease (motor neurone disease). She likens her experience to that of a mountain ascent. After a while in base camp, she set off to climb her Everest:
‘It definitely has not been easy, and my foot has often slipped. I have often felt weary and at times I didn’t think I could go any further. Parts of this climb are very steep and far beyond anything I could achieve, but he continues to show me his power and strength, and when I’m tired, he is there. “… but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not faint.” [Isaiah 40:33]
‘My climb is nearly over. I think I am near the summit of my mountain. The higher climbers go, the closer they get to the summit, the harder it becomes to breathe. The oxygen level decreases as the altitude increases, which causes climbers to suffer from altitude sickness. (According to the Internet: ‘Symptoms of mild and moderate altitude sickness typically consist of headache, shortness of breath, sleeping trouble, loss of appetite, nausea and rapid pulse.’) As the muscles of the body weaken with the progression of Motor Neurone Disease so too do the muscles necessary for breathing become weaker. I feel short of breath, have regular headaches, have trouble sleeping and often experience a very rapid pulse. But it doesn’t worry me because I know I am nearly at the top of my mountain. The climb is becoming tough now, but I must press on. The reward that awaits me when I complete the climb, far outweighs any sacrifice one makes. Ask any mountain climber!
‘So here I stand, looking up. The end is in sight and my heart races with excitement. I look forward to the day when I can say: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”‘ [2 Timothy 4:7]
Jesus promises us his peace right up until the time that he returns (John 14:27-28). Then, he will usher in nothing less than a renewed creation, in which pain and plague, evil and death have no place (Revelation 21:1-4).
Jesus promises to do all this. Will we trust him to do so?
*John Lennox writes of ‘free will’. I don’t strongly object, in the present context. Still, I think it’s a term that’s open to misunderstanding and misuse, so I have replaced it with the slightly less ‘loaded’ word, ‘choice’. For more on this, see D.A. Carson’s review of another book by Lennox.