Christianity Offers Many Possible Answers About the Coronavirus. It is Supposed to.

Christianity Offers Many Possible Answers About the Coronavirus. It is Supposed to. April 6, 2020

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The COVID-19 pandemic makes us wonder “If God exists, why does He allow a pandemic to happen?” This is the old theodicy question that troubles both Christians and non-Christians alike. N.T. Wright wrote a great article in the TIME magazine, entitled, “Christianity offers no answers about the Coronavirus. It’s not supposed to.” Is this true? Yes and no.

The problem is not that Christianity has no answers to the problem of theodicy. The real problem is that multiple writers of the Bible across time had proposed different explanations as to why God allowed suffering, in their particular circumstances. In short, I would list them here, as previously formulated by Stephen J. Vicchio in his Voice from the Whirlwind (2001) and more recently in his Theodicy in the Christian Tradition (2020):

  1. Original sin: suffering is caused by the fall of mankind. Due to the fall, the whole cosmos is corrupted, such that all creation is groaning (Rom 8:22).
  2. Devil: suffering is caused by the Devil. After all, Jesus was crucified because Satan entered Judas according to Luke and John. (Lk 22:3, Jn 13:27).
  3. Free will: suffering is caused by the abuse of free will. Suffering is an inevitable consequence of freedom (Ecc 15:14).
  4. Divine plan: suffering is all part of God’s divine plan for good (Is 25:1 or worse yet popular – Jer 29:11).
  5. Test: suffering is a test of our faith (1 Pet 4:12-13).
  6. Moral quality: suffering is necessary to cultivate virtue and morality (Zec 13:9).

Let me elaborate on them more here. The first three models: original sin, devil, and free will are models that find explanation for suffering in the past. They try to find the source of suffering. I might group them as “ontological models”. Ontological means pertaining to Being/Source related to underlying reality/origins. The original sin model (model #1) basically says that the world that we have now is in a corrupted state due to sin. From this basic model of original sin, one can draw two implications logically to the second and third model.  First, it is easy to point the finger to the Serpent or the Devil (in New Testament perspective & literal reading) as the Tempter that caused Adam and Eve to sin and cause original sin to perpetuate universally (model #2). Second, since original sin drives actual individual sins in each person, logically then suffering must also be caused by our own actions. This free will defense (model #3) argues that the cause of suffering is attributed to human abuse of freedom.

Let’s use an example for how the first three models interact. Death caused by murder is not God’s fault. It’s the murderer’s fault. Why did God allow that murderer to kill? He didn’t. God prohibits murder (the Ten Commandments), but God does give all of us freedom (model #3). However, freedom means the ability to do not only good, but also evil. It is not possible for God to give humans freedom where humans will only do good things. That is a robot. Freedom is not a gradient that you can set like a thermostat: I want him to be free to do good things, but not bad things. (Isn’t this every parent’s dream for their children?) Unfortunately, by its very nature freedom is binary. Either you have it or you don’t. Thus, when God gives us freedom, bad actions are inevitable. Unfortunately, we are not perfect and we always make mistakes, either due to temptation (as in model #2), or due to our own inclinations (model #3). God bestows freedom, not evil. Now returning to original sin (model #3), Paul argues in Romans 8 that the consequence of sin is broader than just the human realm. The whole creation is in suffering due to that state of sin, which is original sin. Thus, unlike the free will defense model, the original sin model can be used to address natural evil (natural disasters, pandemics, etc), while the free will defense model can be used only to address what is classically called moral evil.

Just as we can look into the past to see the cause of suffering, we can also look into the future for the purpose of suffering. The latter three models do exactly just that: the divine plan model (model #4), test view (model #5), the moral quality view (model #6). I can group them as “teleological” models, because telos means purpose. The divine plan model argues that suffering is all part of God’s plan. God’s plan is good, but it is so complex encompassing all peoples and all times, such that we don’t always understand His reasons. From the divine plan, one can logically derive the two other models. First, it is part of God’s plan (model #4) to allow suffering, to test our character and our faith in Him (model #5). Why? Well because bad circumstances provide us the opportunity to exercise our faith, be courageous, and even do great things (i.e medical staff at the front line during this COVID-19 pandemic). In other words, suffering is nothing but a challenge for us in working out our faith, our virtues (model #6).

Overall, the three ontological and three teleological models provide us with multiple answers both in themselves but also in hybrid forms (combining parts of different models for specific situations). This is why the scriptures have been an endless resource for peoples of faith in their times of tribulation. But having gone through all six models briefly, you may wonder: so does that mean we have answered the theodicy question? Well not really, because there are three major issues with the aforementioned models:

  1. Some of these models overlap (divine plan & test view), while some of these models are in opposition (Devil and divine plan), which implies my next point below.
  2. Not all models are applicable to every scenario simultaneously. For example, it would be detestable to tell a rape victim that their suffering is part of God’s plan.
  3. Thus, we don’t know which model is relevant to a particular scenario. Sometimes it becomes more clear in retrospect, but often times never.

It is precisely because of this third issue, that Tom Wright correctly urges us to lament. It is difficult to discern the cause or purpose behind suffering. One tends to gravitate towards ontological models when it is a moral evil, because the source of suffering can be found. Then one tends to gravitate towards the teleological models when it is natural evil, because there is lack of agency in natural disasters. Most, following the footsteps of Paul, have tried to synthesize both ontological and teleological aspects of the various theodicy model. Going back to the end of Romans 8, Paul says God promises glory in the end of suffering, thus suffering and glory in all creation creates, what Michael J. Gorman calls, a cruciform structure in his Inhabiting the Cruciform God (2009) and more recently, Participating in Christ (2019).

Tom Wright, Biblical scholars, and theologians are well aware of these complexities. His more extensive treatment of theodicy can be found in his book, Evil and the Justice of God (2013). But in a short article, Tom Wright, like many pastors, cannot confuse those in suffering with a theological model, let alone six and their combinations! This is why as pastors, it is easier for us to just talk about our favorite model in a Sunday sermon. Though practical, it could be misleading. But in the end, if we were to ask WWJD – What Would Jesus Do? Jesus Himself never had a theodicy discussion with His disciples before healing someone. He simply helped those in suffering.  So should we.

About Arvin Gouw Ph.D.
Arvin Gouw, Ph.D. is an instructor at Stanford University School of Medicine and affiliate faculty at the Center for Science, Religion, and Culture of Harvard University School of Divinity. Prior to Stanford and Harvard, he did his fellowship on science and religion at Princeton Theological Seminary. He received his doctorate from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, master's degrees in philosophy from University of Pennsylvania, in theology from St. Mary’s Seminary’s Ecumenical Institute of Theology, and in neuroscience from UC Berkeley. He is co-editing a book with Ted Peters, Transhumanism and its religious critics with Lexington Press. You can read more about the author here.

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