June 6, 2020

Is the Coronavirus Evil?

Is the Coronavirus Evil?

Back on March 17th, Daniel Harrell, Christianity Today’s editor in chief, ran an article addressing this very question.  Harrell served ten years as Senior Minister of Colonial Church, Edina, Minnesota, and for 23 years before that as preaching minister at Park Street Church, Boston, Massachusetts. It is a really good article in my opinion.  He addresses several concepts that I think are spot on in the relationship of Science and The Faith that I like to write about.

First off, he deals with the theological concept that God’s good creation has gone bad.  This is the notion that the fall of Adam has corrupted every aspect of creation.  That is a distinctive Augustinian notion that the earlier Church did not hold to, nor does the Orthodox Church hold to now (see here for example).  Harrell says:

“But unless God’s creation defies every characteristic of biological reality, bacteria and viruses are not bitter fruits of the fall, but among the first fruits of good creation itself. If the science is right, there would be no life as we know it without them. God makes no mistakes, and bacteria and viruses indeed are mirabilis (from the Latin meaning remarkable, or even amazing or wondrous, adjectives frequently used to describe creation) and part of the plan from the start.”

Harrell cites an earlier article by microbiologist Rebecca Randall on “Why Zika, and Other Viruses, Don’t Disprove God’s Goodness” also a read well worth your while.  The scientific fact is that death is a requirement for organic life to exist at all.  And as Christians, we believe that death is essential for eternal life to exist as well.  As Romans 6:9-11 says:

9 For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. 10 The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.  11 In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Christ’s death wasn’t God’s Plan B- he was “the lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev 13:8).  As the Orthodox say, “Christ trampled down death by death”.

Another excellent point Harrell makes is that creation has been given a certain freedom to be itself by God.  Just as love cannot be coerced, so God endowed us with freedom to reject him, we can

“…extrapolate this logic to nature (from whence humans are made) and you might deduce, theologically speaking, that nature has been endowed with a similar freedom. The sea that inspires can also flood. The ground that stands firm can also quake and give way. The microscopic organism that serves life can threaten to take it away.”

This makes more sense to me, both theologically and scientifically, than the notion that God is micromanaging every event in the universe, including who get sick and who doesn’t.  Compare Harrell’s article to a recent one by John Piper where he said:

“Jesus has all knowledge and all authority over the natural and supernatural forces of this world. He knows exactly where the virus started, and where it’s going next. He has complete power to restrain it or not,”

Piper’s theology, while maybe strictly true, leads to the attitude of  some pastors to open their churches to service despite medical advice to the contrary .   The fact is that a highly contagious virus will spread when the opportunity is provided, not “God is greater than the coronavirus.”  There was a good reason Jesus didn’t throw himself off the temple (Matthew 4:5-7), and there is a good reason to avoid crowds during a pandemic.

As Rodney Stark detailed in his book, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became a Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1997), during a plague in AD 251 that swept through the Roman Empire decimating the population, the church father, Dionysius, in his Easter letter around AD 260, wrote a tribute to the believers whose heroic efforts cost many of them their lives during the plague.

Pagans tended to flee the cities during plagues, but Christians were more likely to stay and minister to the suffering. According to Dionysius: “Most of our brother Christians showed unbonded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Needless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy.”

Dionysius added: “The best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of presbyters, deacons, and laymen winning high commendation so that death in this form, the result of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal of martyrdom.”

Many of those Christians suffered the natural consequences of exposure to the plague — they got sick and died – nevertheless, they ministered to their neighbors, loving them as they loved themselves. Our attitude during this pandemic should be the same, we should love our neighbors as Jesus loves us, but we should also take every reasonable precaution.  I think that is the best course of action, both theologically and scientifically.

 

Comments

  1. Robert F says

    And as Christians, we believe that death is essential for eternal life to exist as well.

    Does that mean that death will continue in the Eschaton? And with it the attendant suffering of say someone asphyxiating to death on a cross or in the COVID-19 ward of a hospital? — and if not, then why is it necessary for eternal life that such horrific death and suffering exist now, but not later in the Eschaton?

    • Dana Ames says

      I think the word “essential” needs some nuance. Certainly, Christ’s death is essential in that by it he both removed our sin and destroyed death.

      Scripture doesn’t really talk about animal or plant death; it’s concerned with human death, more so as the OT unfolds (do take note of the order of books in the Septuagint – the latest written come last in each section of History, Writings and Prophets). Since humans are created beings, we don’t have life in ourselves. When we turned from finding our sustenance in God, the natural outcome of that is physical death – though God continues to hold our souls in life until the Resurrection. I’m with Fr John Behr: humans are God’s project, and it is humans alone among all creation who have to give the “fiat” in order for God to finish the project and to become fully human. In our condition now, living our lives in consonance with God and being formed into his likeness over time (dead already through baptism into Christ) is meant for preparing us to enter our place of greatest weakness, the grave. It is at the moment of our physical death that we can finally give the “fiat” and become weak clay that God can fashion into a human being. Since Christ went through death, it has been changed: it is the final means – from our side of things, in the sufferings of each of our lives – of our redemption.

      For a long time I’ve thought that, had our first parents said “yes” to God and “no” to the serpent, rather than the other way around, they would have grown in greater trust in God’s love until finally they would have voluntarily given up their physical lives and allowed themselves to be laid in the ground – to somehow rise again in a newness of life that God would provide. This is pure speculation, and practically of no value. Things happened the way they happened, and God knew from before the beginning what would be. He knew what would be required before he said “light, be” – and at the moment he said it, the Lamb was slain.

      “As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death on behalf of every [hu]man. For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering.” Heb 2.8b-10

      For the theologically inclined, Fr John’s lectures on becoming human are outstanding. Look him up on YouTube. “Death, the Final Frontier” is good – 3 talks. Also, the outstanding Advent retreat he gave at Little Portion Hermitage (John Michael Talbot’s monastery) – 10 talks.

      Dana

      • Dana Ames says

        Better: Christ’s death is essential in that by it he both removed our sin and destroyed the power of death.

        D.

      • Thanks, Dana, for your thoughtful reply.

        I hope you are well.

  2. Robert F says

    God makes no mistakes, and bacteria and viruses indeed are mirabilis (from the Latin meaning remarkable, or even amazing or wondrous, adjectives frequently used to describe creation….

    …..there is that leviathan, whom thou hast made to play therein. Psalm 104:26

    It may be so, and yet, I cannot find it in myself to view the coronavirus in this way, or imagine God delighting in its existence the way he delights in Leviathan. I see it as the enemy, the way Camus views plague in his novel The Plague. I guess I’m too much of a humanist.

    • It’s fine to be a “humanist” which has a long tradition not only in humanity in general but also in Christianity.

      Christian Humanism declares that, in Jesus, the light of God has shone on the human sphere and illumined everything. While God and his creation are separate, we no longer believe that anything exists apart from its God conceived shape, essence and purpose. All things existed in the mind of God before they existed in reality, and in that moment, opposites are reconciled. We believe that the “Godness” and the “this world-ness” of all things are visible in the incarnation of Jesus.

      Michael Spencer, 2006

  3. Mike, good thoughts.

    I draw a distinction in my own thinking between “evil” and “tragedy”/”misfortune”. There is much in life that is tragic, but it does not result directly from forces or persons that produce suffering for the sake of suffering.

  4. “Piper’s theology, while maybe strictly true, leads to the attitude of some pastors to open their churches to service despite medical advice to the contrary . The fact is that a highly contagious virus will spread when the opportunity is provided, not “God is greater than the coronavirus.” There was a good reason Jesus didn’t throw himself off the temple (Matthew 4:5-7), and there is a good reason to avoid crowds during a pandemic.”

    Having been on the inside of the Calvinist wing of the Church for many years, it does seem uncoincidental that the louder a person proclaims God’s sovereignty, the more callous/fatalistic they tend to be.

    • Christiane says

      I don’t find ‘truth’ in Piper’s quote, no.

      God ‘allowed’ for the sequence of events that set the stage for our country’s infestation, sure. When the call came in with the warning about the virus in China and how we would be soon at risk, the topic was unwelcomed and was changed to a discussion of ‘when are private companies going to begin to produce flavored salts for vaping again?’

      so time went by, and warnings came in, and were unwelcomed, and more time went by

      Piper didn’t get it that Jesus Christ Son Savior was fully man as well as fully God, but was not a ‘sinner’ who would practice sins of omission that would bring harm on innocents, no;
      it wasn’t Our Lord who directed and caused the neglect of the warnings, no. That was human error. With human consequences.

      I’m not a ‘Piper’ fan, no. Too much misogyny there for me to look for any real wisdom from that pitiful man. But to paint Our Lord with the responsibility of ‘completely controlling’ the free choice of any soul to decide between right and wrong, seems more to come out of ‘predestination’ where all is ‘controlled’ by the God of wrath who has already lined up a bunch of us poor slobs to burn in hell ‘for His glory’. No, I find much to be missing in the theology of the Piper’s of this world. For many, Piper is a legend in his own time and very influential, but his view of Our Lord as even remotely related to that ‘god of wrath’ worshipped by fundamentalism seems to override the revelations of God in Christ Who came among us with healing in His Hands.

      Why is theology so prone to ‘thought systems’ that close the door on the great and holy mysteries of God and leave people with images of someone who might have ‘cared’ at least for the innocent in the pandemic, but ‘would not’ or ‘chose not’ . . . . which lets the ones who really dropped the ball get off the hook, I suppose.

      If I am wrong, I need some help to sort this out. I’m sorry for Piper and his followers, but something about the way he views women tells me he is more wounded than not and so maybe he cannot ‘trust’ in the great mercy of God, in the way of those who have learned to ‘trust’ Him??? Who am I to judge? Eeyore, if you have insights, please share with me. There is much I don’t fathom in the Calvinist world that APPEARS to assign God to that which I cannot see in Him, since I view Jesus Christ as the Revealer of God. Is Piper a one-off theologian???
      I know the Dutch Reformed people of New Jersey are wonderful Christian people, so ‘Calvinism’ is a confusing term for me to try to sort out. No need to respond unless you care to, but thanks for listening.

      • Mike the Geologist says

        Christiane: I know you saw this Roger Olson post: https://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2020/04/where-is-god-in-this-pandemic/ because I read you comment response to it. In my opinion, Olson’s humble response is one of the best I’ve seen.

        • Christiane says

          Hey Mike-the-Geologist,

          I was just there replying to him. He is amazing. I think he has had a very difficult life early on and it has given him some depth to his insights on theology. He’s always worth reading, yes.

          I’ve been commenting there for some time. It’s like being in a master class in ways, and I am grateful for the experience of being able to interact there.

          For those who are not familiar with Dr. Olson, His link is here on this blog over to the right as ‘R Olson’
          and I have found it to be a meaningful experience to read and to respond and am always happy to see Dr. Olson’s replies, when he does reply.

          Thanks for the info. Good to know he has a fan base. 🙂

    • Michael Z says

      If you take the Calvinist argument literally, it would be okay to drive drunk because no one is going to die as a result of your actions unless it’s God’s will. (Risking exposing yourself or others to a deadly virus is pretty comparable to drunk driving, in my opinion – reckless, irresponsible, and selfish.)

      • Mike the Geologist says

        Well said

      • I had almost this same argument over FB with some Calvinist friends of mine, though I used snake-handling as my analogy. And to Eeyore’s point about them being more callous and fatalistic, it sure makes their pro-life “save the fetuses” stance seem rather hypocritical. They become very selective, then, in applying their theology. Drives me nuts.

        By the way, No…. I did NOT get anywhere with my friends in seeing the other viewpoint. I still think they think the pastor was perfectly fine having his congregation come en masse despite experts, data, and leaders telling him otherwise. God is sovereign, ya know.

        • The only advice I could give you is based on how I eventually evolved out of Calvinism – keep asking them if Jesus acted like a “good Calvinist”. If Jesus IS God, then what He says and does about such things should have the final say. And Jesus doesn’t look to be a “good Calvinist” to me anymore.

          • I hear ya. Just as Jesus did to the Pharisees of his day, I try to hold up the mirror so they can have a look, but seeing as they’re trying to convince me I need to become Calvinistic I don’t hold out much hope. At the end of the FB discussion over this matter, I literally said, “I wave the white flag. You win.” I mean, they leave you with nowhere to go when the sole argument is “God is sovereign, He knows everything.”

            Oh, and don’t get me going on their view of scripture. That’s another “can’t win” argument.

            To your point, frankly this is what I see from them: “God is sovereign, Scripture is supreme… and then there’s that Jesus fellow.” They’ll deny that, of course — they have to, otherwise be heretics — but deep down that’s they way they view things. It comes out that way in every argument.

            • David Greene says

              They try to convince you to be Calvinistic. Others try to convince you to be Catholic, Mormon, Jehovah’s Witness, Progressive, Red-Letter, Pentecostal, Fundamentalist, Charismatic, NAR, Evangelical, Post-Evangelical, Orthodox, or whatever. When will it stop.

              That is why I like i-Monk, you can just talk and share… most of the time anyway 🙂

              • Rick Ro. says

                Oddly, I’ve never seen anyone in my circle of Wesleyan Armenian try to convince someone they need to be Wesleyan Armenian. Maybe that happens, but I’ve never witnessed it. I HAVE seen it be the case with all those others you mention.

                • Mike Bell says

                  I try, on rare occasion. I shared both this post and Roger Olsen’s with a couple of friends! 😀

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        If you take the Calvinist argument literally, it would be okay to drive drunk because no one is going to die as a result of your actions unless it’s God’s will.

        “In’shal’lah… AL’LAH’U AKBAR!”

        • Michael Z says

          And, of course, there are parts of the US where it’s actually a matter of pride and machismo to drive drunk, as a sort of bold f-you to God and to your community and everyone you’re endangering. So it shouldn’t be too surprising that, especially in those same communities, we find a lot of people willfully flaunting the measures to control the coronavirus.

    • I find NOTHING from Piper that is commendable.

  5. Good article, Mike the Geo. I like your perspective and enjoyed the different elements you brought into it to support it.

    I really liked this point:

    -> “The scientific fact is that death is a requirement for organic life to exist at all. And as Christians, we believe that death is essential for eternal life to exist as well.”

    I’ve been meditating lately on the idea that God is the author of life, not death, and thus these types of things aren’t necessarily “of Him,” but rather something that He can take us through to get us to the eternal life He intended for us to experience from the beginning.

  6. David Cornwell says

    Yesterday, and a few days before that, I have talked with neighbors across the divide of our driveway/parking lot — as we meet each evening to check up on each other. Last evening there were about 15 of us. The conversation turns theological each evening. I mostly listen and briefly comment if I feel so led. But one comment seems to dominate. I’m not sure if this is the majority opinion or not, but is certainly the loudest:

    “When my time comes, I will die. It doesn’t matter where I am, or what I’m doing.” In other words, it is basically preset in time, if not in space. We have a certain preordained date with death and regardless of what we’ve done to slow it down or prevent it, it will happen at the preordained time.

    My next-door neighbor is an older widow. She offered a brief counter-argument, with no avail. Her husband committed suicide a few years ago.

    I’ve heard this throughout my life. Not from my parents or my Methodist background or ancestors — but from friends, neighbors. They seem to think that God controls all the bad as well as the good — and that He will have his way. To me, this seems a fatalistic argument that absolves us of responsibility — and places it all on God. And I suppose the devil is worked into their argument somehow. Maybe as a sidekick to God to carry out the dirty work.

    • Michael Z says

      Yeah, I really don’t understand that sort of hopelessness and helplessness, but it seems all too common these days. Perhaps it’s just because it’s easier to see yourself as a victim, with no agency or control, than to take responsibility.

  7. David Cornwell says

    The life, teachings, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus is a study in freedom. And what it means to be truly human. As centuries have passed it should be evident that it is easy to get lost in some of Paul’s writings. Context and nuance of Greek have been a challenge. Augustine wasn’t the best Greek scholar. There is an argument that biblical scholars would be better served to have learned and mastered classical Greek, rather than Koine. I think this is might be true.

  8. RIP, John Prine.

  9. a tiny dead finch
    in the middle of the road
    transfixed by the light