In summary of what I was trying to say last time is that we would all agree that the COVID-19 pandemic can be considered as an act of evil against humanity because it causes a great deal of suffering and death. Like all events of evil, from wars to viruses, to accidents and cancer like mine are part of this evil. The philosophical or theological question is why?
I was making the point last time that the American evangelical community, as well as some other Christians in various places in various times and many Muslims have a model of God as one who is all powerful, loving, just, and mirco-manages all of life. In this scenario there is no luck, good or bad, and no working out of natural laws.
But when you hold that position, or try to hold it, and real evil touches your life, it creates a tension that, in my view at least, is untenable. Say if your child is murdered, which I think is about the worst kind of evil anyone can face. You can pretend to believe that God has all four of the characteristics mentioned above, but deep inside, I believe that most people will start to doubt one of those four areas in order to reduce the tension and to help the throne (mentioned last time) to stop wobbling. Usually that unspoken doubt is in the area of God’s justice (or fairness) or in his love for you. Being around some cancer support groups I’ve heard such language expressed by Christians. Sometimes, especially when the suffering is great, you may start to doubt God’s power over the evil or even that he exist.
It is odd, but it seems that the one area that should be doubted is God’s sovereignty, but for some reason is the last to face such scrutiny. Again, sovereignty means different things to different people, especially to my Christian friends who have the John Calvin influence as I have. But what I mean by sovereignty isn’t the right to have control, but the choice by God to control all things.
The picture of the throne in the last post had a big “N” on it because it was Napoleon Bonaparte’s throne. He certainly led France (and lusted for all of Europe) with an iron fist and great power. But he did not try to micro-manage France, although he could have.
This is where I’ve come to accept the mystery of God. I have suffered a lot in the past 14 months, more than I ever thought a human could bear. But I have never doubted God’s existence, his power, his goodness or love. But the reason that I have not, is because I was able to vent off the pressure decades ago when I faced my first great loss in life, by accepting that God chooses to let the laws of nature to play out in most cases. Some of those laws end up in suffering and what I would call evil. I had one single protein gene in my blood plasma that, when it went to reproduce, folded in the wrong direction and since then, following the natural biological laws associated with that fold, has completely wrecked my life. It did not have some big intent for something, just a cosmic mistake. I mean, in my case, no one knows why. It could even be caused by some unknown virus as some cancers (like cervical).
It is not because God is impotent to do anything about it. I think that is what Rabbi Kushner was trying to say in his best seller, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. It has been decades since I’ve read it, but I was a dyed-in-the-wool evangelical at the time and hated the book because I thought he was concluding that God was lessor than the laws of nature and therefore impotent to stop them.
I am saying something very different here. My evangelical friends, I’m sure, get mad at me when I say these things because, like me in the 1970s, always tend to interpret me as saying God is too small. I’m really saying the opposite. God is huge, unknowable by our mortal minds but for some mysterious reason allows these evil things to work their course in the world and it is not by his design to punish us, teach us, or shape us and certainly not because he is done with this world and is about it end it all. I don’t know why he doesn’t intervene.
So back to the COVID-19 virus specifically. The Christian theological view of evil, is that because mankind had sinned, evil was allowed to enter and taint this, otherwise perfect and wonderful world. But I spent some time thinking about viruses in general and back to my original image on the last post, did God create them for a good purpose and then they went rogue?
I went back and studied this role of viruses from a biological perspective. While viruses have shaped us, as much as 30% of human DNA has been determined by this age-old battle with viruses (see here), it isn’t so clear that we needed them otherwise. Just because something shaped us, doesn’t mean that we are dependent upon it. But now we have been at war with these little bundles of blueprint (as in the case of COVID-19 virus a single strand RNA) for ages and will continue to do so.
But to try and find meaning in this, I think is huge mistake. There is no meaning, no purpose, or plan. But the big moral picture is not about purpose or intent, but what do we do with evil once it arrives? This is where God is watching, not that he created the evil as a test.
Most of us have had experiences where suddenly we were in a crisis. We have witnessed the character of those people involved suddenly come to the surface. A few of mine are; 1) getting caught in a blizzard while backpacking on the Appalachian Trial, 2) running out of food in a group canoe trip in Canada, 3) working in an earthquake zone that killed 90 thousand people, the the pro-Taliban were threatening to kill us and there have been others. But in each of those named examples, I noticed how the character that I suspected in people, quickly rose to the surface. The nineteenth century evangelist Dwight L. Moody said it simply, “Character is what you are in the dark.” It is in the darkest hours we should allow the light of our best character shine.
My least favorite people on this planet, and who I think are the most evil, are the lying, money hungry TV evangelists. Jim Bakker is one of the worst. He cares about nothing but fame, money, and sex and to do it in the name of Christ, makes me sick. He was arrested for promoting a fake cure for COVID-19. But the most common practice or should I say malpractice of TV pastors is the association of this evil event with obscure Bible prophecies. In one of my favorite books, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, the author (historian), Mark Noll, said;
For those who doubt the continuing domination of this way of thinking among evangelicals, it is worth remembering the Gulf War of 1991. Within weeks of the outbreak of this conflict, evangelical publishers provided a spate of books featuring efforts to read this latest Middle East crisis as a direct fulfillment of biblical prophecy heralding the end of the world. The books came to various conclusions, but they all shared the disconcerting conviction that the best way of providing moral judgement about what was happening in the Middle East was not to study carefully what was going on in the Middle East. Rather, they featured a kind of Bible study that drew attention away from careful analysis of the complexities of Middle Eastern culture or the tangled twentieth-century history of the region toward speculation about the most esoteric and widely debate passages of the Bible. Moreover, that speculation was carried on with on with only sight attention to the central themes of the Bible (like the divine standard of justice applied in all human situations), which are crystal clear and about which there is wide agreement among evangelicals and other theological conservative Christians. How did the evangelical public respond o these books? It responded by immediately vaulting several of these titles to the top of religious best-sellers list. (pages 13-14)
But this is the time for real Christians to show love. To care for our neighbors. To not give up hope. To be diligent to avoid spreading the infection. I see me fighting my cancer as in a face to face battle with pure evil. Fighting the COVID-19 virus is a pure form of fighting evil too because the virus was not something created by God but intends to bring destruction to God’s wonderful creation. The virus is our enemy and the enemy of God. It has no intent but to harm us.