“Why is this happening, who is to blame, and where is God in this pandemic?”
These and other similar questions are probably part of many conversations happening around the world today, and given our human condition, it is pretty easy and satisfying to add one more accusing finger to the “blame game” which seems to be everlasting.
The question that I want to address is whether God can also legitimately be the subject of our accusing fingers? Can we accuse God of being the Master Mind behind the Coronavirus? That He “created it, controls it, and determines who will get the virus, and who will die from it?”
Before I begin to even try to answer this difficult, but necessary question, allow me to say something else first. All of us who are wrestling with the “why, who and where” question spelled out above, need to recognize the following: The COVID-19 pandemic has been the source of small uncomfortable life-interruptions for many, which only changed your daily routine in one way or another. Nothing too serious. For others this pandemic has been the source of loss, pain, despair, suffering and death. Something very serious and close to home. I hope that this will give us some perspective as we attempt to answer the deep questions that arise from the current COVID-19 situation.
This weekend, I read an article titled “Is God to blame for the Coronavirus?” by Bruce Gerencser. In it, the following objection is basically raised, listen carefully: If God is all-powerful and all-loving (as Christianity claims), then surely, He can and wants to stop the virus. If He can stop the virus, but He won’t, then surely, He is not all-loving? If He wants to stop the virus, but can’t, then surely, He is not all-powerful.
Gerencser, however, doesn’t stop his objection here. He goes on to add another statement:
“… if God can stop the virus, but he only does it for some people — people who believe the right things; pray the right things; do the right acts of penance — what does this say about God’s character?”
This objection takes us back to the age-old “problem of pain, evil, and suffering,” or as it is also called the “theodicy.” This is an issue that theologians and philosophers have pondered over for millenniums. And as they have grappled the issue, a distinction needed to be made between “natural” suffering which is caused by illness or natural disasters which inevitably is different from “moral” evil which refers to suffering as a result of the actions of moral agents (think of Hitler and Stalin for example).
But, without getting too technical, the point is that during a time of a global pandemic, for many, this age-old question of questions is back on the table. As James Martin, a Jesuit priest, recently wrote in the New York Times: “… the question now consumes the minds of millions of believers [and non-believers I would add], who quail at steadily rising death tolls, struggle with stories of physicians forced to triage patients and recoil at photos of rows of coffins: Why?”
One thing we need to keep in mind, is that although the “question of pain and suffering provides the greatest challenge to belief in God,” every single person, from any background, and any religious belief system, must answer this question. Nobody escapes it. Everyone needs to look evil, pain, and suffering in the white of the eye, examine it, and formulate some sort of response to it.
Although Gerencser in the end concludes the following: “I don’t believe for a moment that God is to blame for anything. He’s a myth, and the man Jesus has been dead for 2,000 years. The only things standing between us and the virus are scientists, medical doctors, and rational people who understand what is required of them to deal with the coronavirus,” it doesn’t get him off the hook. As a secular person he also needs to provide a satisfactory answer to the question of pain, suffering and, death in the light of this pandemic.
Another thing to keep in mind is that whatever one’s answer to this question might be, it can’t just merely provide ammunition to tackle the philosophical side of this issue, although that is very important. You must realise there is also a deep personal and existential side to address. As Carson reminds us: “… when we ourselves are weeping, we want comfort. Merely intellectual answers do not readily satisfy.” The point is that it is very important to recognize the proper place of the philosophical investigation into the problem of pain, evil, and suffering, without losing sight of the deep existential ramifications when pain, suffering and death comes knocking on your own door, or those of loved ones.
So, lets begin by looking at some of the answers to the problem of pain, evil, and suffering that has been provided in the past, and see how some of these other worldviews and religious systems would answer this question in light of the COVID-19 pandemic?
The Moralistic View
The first perspective on pain and suffering is called the moralistic view. This view would typically suggest that pain and suffering are the result of people’s failure to live rightly. In other words, the Coronavirus will be perceived as a sort of “wake up call,” in this case, for the whole world to repent and make some drastic changes in its lifestyle. Timothy Keller for example states that “Many societies believe that if you honor the moral order and God or the gods, your life will go well.”
One form of this view can be found in the doctrine of Karma as it is manifested in some of the Eastern religions. This doctrine holds that every living being will be reincarnated over and over again. As you enter each lifecycle, you bring all your past deeds from previous lives with you. If you have behaved yourself in a good and moral fashion, then your new lifecycle will be filled with good things. On the other hand, if you have behaved yourself immorally, then your life will be filled with pain and suffering, which might include being infected with the Coronavirus. This doctrine doesn’t allow anyone to get away with anything and in the end your “soul is released into the divine bliss of eternity only when you have atoned for all your sins.” So, if you are infected with the virus, it is but the result of moral failures in your former lifecycles, and keep in mind that your response to this suffering in your life now, will determine your pain and suffering in your next lifecycle.
Another form of this moralistic view, which is very popular at this stage within religious circles, comes in the form of “doomsday prophets” declaring this virus to be the judgement of God on people who are not living in line with His commandments. A pastor in the US, Steven Andrew (quoted in “God’s Vengeance: the Christian Right and the Coronavirus” by David Rosen), made the following comment for example: “Obeying God protects the USA from diseases, such as the coronavirus… Our safety is at stake since national disobedience of God’s laws brings danger and diseases, such as coronavirus, but obeying God brings covenant protection… God protects the USA from danger as the country repents of LGBT, false gods, abortion and other sins.” In this case COVID-19 is God’s judgement on the apparent godless and sinful people in society.
The Self-Transcendent View
The second approach to pain and suffering is called the self-transcendent view. This view is particularly prominent in Buddhism, and entails that pain and suffering is the result of unfulfilled desires, which in turn is the result of the illusion that we are individual selves. So, from this point of view, the ideal is to free yourself from all material attachments, including yourself. You must renounce the world and free yourself, not to be your own individual here and now, but literally to free yourself from individuality itself. You must recognize that you are part of the whole and any individuality or particularity or diversity is but an illusion.
The COVID-19 pandemic is, in this case, the result of one’s inability to detach oneself from this material world. You still have too much desire and craving for the material. Maybe you are incapable of tearing yourself away from your family, friends, and other commitments. And if you get infected with the Coronavirus, the fact that there even is a “you” is just an illusion that is holding you back from achieving calmness for your soul which causes all desire, individuality, and suffering to vanish.
The Fatalistic View
The third view is called the fatalistic view. This perspective on pain and suffering introduces a high view of fate and destiny. Keller describes it as a stance towards life where one’s “life circumstances are seen as set by the stars or by supernatural forces, or by the doom of the gods, or, as in Islam, simply by the inscrutable will of Allah.” People who have this fatalistic view of the world, have but one choice, they must reconcile their souls with the inescapable reality of pain, suffering, sickness, struggle, and ultimately death. The ancient Stoic philosopher Seneca (quoted in “Accepting One’s Fate” by Dylan DiGerolamo), described it like this: “Accept in an unruffled spirit that which is inevitable.” Ancient pagan cultures in Northern Europe for example believed that there is a fixed day when all the gods and heroes will be killed by giants and monsters in the battle of Ragnarok. No one can escape that fate. Also, in the religion of Islam, as already referred to, submission to the mysterious will of Allah without any queries or questions is considered essential.
In this case, the Coronavirus is but a result of divine fate, and whoever this “divine” figure is, he/she/it is ultimately the efficient and the formal cause of the Coronavirus to bring about pain, evil, and suffering. He/she/it “created it, controls it, and determines who will get the virus, and who will die from it…” The only way to deal with it is to accept it as it is, with courage and determination, and without any complaint or questions.
The Dualistic View
The fourth position is called a dualistic view. This perspective entails that the world is not under God’s control, but rather a battleground between the forces of darkness and the forces of light. Pain and suffering in all its forms is present in the world because of evil, satanic powers causing it.
If you want to apply this to COVID-19, it would mean that this virus is spreading because Satan has been behind the steering wheel of the world the last couple of months. He has achieved some sort of victory over the forces of light and managed to open the gates of hell on humanity. All the people who have died and are infected, are but casualties of the cosmic battle going on between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. If you are therefore infected with the Coronavirus, you are a victim of this raging battle. We can only hope that the forces of light will make some sort of comeback sooner rather than later. I acknowledge that there are well-meaning Christians who might be comfortable with a view similar to this, but I would recommend steering away from this dualistic view of things. You might also end up dividing the world between good people and bad people.
The Secular View
One thing to recognize about all the views thus far, is that although I think they are not ultimately satisfying, they still maintain a spiritual dimension of some sort to reality, and even some sort of purpose for pain and suffering as punishment, or a test, or even an opportunity to be courageous. The final view, which is the secular view, totally abandons all of this.
For the most part, the Western societies sees the world as “naturalistic.” Keller explains that “Western thought understands [the world] as consisting of material forces only, all of which operate devoid of anything that could be called “purpose.” It is not the result of sin, or any cosmic battle, or any high forces determining our destinies. Western societies, therefore, see suffering as simply an accident.” A statement that clearly illustrates this is from Richard Dawkins:
“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 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 pitiless indifference.”
The only meaning left in the world from this point of view, is the meaning you are able to give it yourself. You can decide what kind of life will be meaningful and then work towards that. But, what about COVID-19 from a secular point of view? Well, in the words of Dawkins “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 justice.” If one accepts this view, any act of love and charity towards those in need during this time, becomes a matter of personal preference. We lose the overarching moral incentive that drives all the beautiful stories of doctors and other medical staff working together to help people in the midst of this pandemic. This is probably the most unsatisfying answer of all given so far.
The Christian View
I have deliberately left what I think is the most satisfying answer to the problem of pain, evil, and suffering, for last. What does the Christian have to say about the question of questions?
“Why is this happening, who is to blame, and where is God in this pandemic?”
Contrary to the moralistic view, pain and suffering are often unjust and disproportionate in a classical Christian worldview. The problem is not that bad things happen, “but that they happen to good people just as much as to bad people.” The book of Job illustrates this strikingly. It begins to introduce Job as “a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” (Job 1:1). This is a pretty good start, but, when you reach verse 12, this righteous man has already lost everything he owned in one day. Why did this happen to him? Why did God allow it? It is honestly very difficult to say.
As a Christian I am also very careful to invoke the rhetoric of the “doomsday prophets.” People who live remarkable and moral lives often go through the deepest pain and suffering, while people who you might think would deserve certain punishments, live a pain free life. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus mentions an event where the tower in Siloam fell and killed 18 people and He responds to it as follows: “do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Lk. 13:4). Also, in the Gospel of John, the disciples of Jesus ask Him whether the blind man was born blind because of his sin. Jesus responds: “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (Jn. 9:3). We shouldn’t introduce the judgement of God as an explanation for major calamities on humanity or individual pain and suffering. It can be dangerous.
Contrary to the self-transcendent view, pain, evil, and suffering are real. While Buddha viewed it as a mere illusion, Jesus is not referring to some sort of illusion when he says in the Garden of Gethsemane before His crucifixion: “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death” (Mark 14:34). According to the self-transcendent view He should have detached Himself from His situation by realising that all of it is just an illusion. But, Christianity explains reality for what it is, and therefore Jesus engaged with His pain and suffering, since it was real.
Pain and suffering are sometimes overwhelming and unbearable. It will make you cry out to heaven with questions. But, contrary to the fatalistic view, Christians are encouraged to do this. Christians can pour themselves out before God in the face of immense pain and suffering. It is not just something to accept without any emotion. When Lazarus died, we read in the Gospel of John that “Jesus wept” (Jn. 11:35). The death of His friend made Him sad, and He expressed His sorrows in tears, even when He knew He was going to raise Lazarus from the dead. We can legitimately be outraged and extremely saddened by pain and suffering, because we know, in one sense, that this was not how God intended things to be. Jesus and His Father created this world good. Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli says that “The fact that we do not naturally accept this world full of injustice, suffering, sin, disease and death… is a clue that we are in touch with a standard of goodness by which we judge this world as defective, as falling drastically short of the mark.”
Contrary to the dualistic view, God is all-powerful without an equal force opposing Him. So, even when it seems as if God is not behind the steering wheel anymore, He is still there. And on this point, we must remember that there is a difference between knowing what you would have done if you were all-powerful, and what you would have done if you were all-powerful and all-knowing. When you are all-knowing you can see the whole puzzle, but only God enjoys such a view. Only He can see how the whole COVID-19 pandemic is going to play out from its beginning to its end. And if we were all-powerful and all-knowing as well, perhaps we wouldn’t have thought that God is not in control of things, but in fact steering this situation to an end that is beyond our imagination. In John Henry Newman’s poem titled Lead kindly Light, there is this one phrase where he prays “I do not ask to see the distant scene; one step enough for me.” What he is basically saying to God, is that he knows that God is in control, that God sees the whole “distant scene” of things, and that he therefore trusts God. Newman is only interested in what God wants him to do here and now as he takes one small step in the greater scheme of things.
Contrary to the secular view, Christianity maintains that pain and suffering is meaningful. The world is not just some unguided, naturalistic mechanism wherein humanity was thrown up by chance. No, this world is endowed with meaning and purpose. It is definitely not always easy to know what the meaning and purpose of pain and suffering might be, but one must remember that just because our minds “can’t plumb the depths of the universe for good answers