If God, Why the Coronavirus?
Vince Vitale takes a sober look at this question, keeping the suffering and hardship faced around the world and God’s response at the forefront of his answer.
If God, why the coronavirus? This type of “Why?” question is often raised by arm-chair philosophers. Perhaps some of us have raised it in that way in the past. But no one is asking this question in a detached, theoretical way right now. Rather than serving as material for a good thought experiment, today’s “Why?” is being asked around the world with real emotion, and for many people even with desperation.
When I hear a question like this, I always try to remember the first conversation I ever had about suffering after I had become a Christian during my college years. It was with my aunt Regina, and she spoke with me about some serious suffering in her life and in the life of her son, my cousin Charles. At the time, I was more interested in the question—the philosophical question—than the questioner; so after I listened to her speak, I quickly began spouting some of my abstract theoretical explanations for why God might have allowed Charles to suffer. Aunt Regina listened very graciously to me, and at the end of my thoughtless musings she said, “But Vince, that doesn’t speak to me as a mother.” Ever since, I have tried to remember her words when responding to a question like the one in front of us today.
The Tone of Our Response
Jesus was much better at remembering this sentiment than I was. When he heard that his good friend, Lazarus, was ill, Jesus waited a couple of days before going to see him, and by the time Jesus arrived Lazarus had already died. Reading between the lines of this passage,[i] it becomes apparent that Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha, were not too impressed. They said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died”—essentially, “Why didn’t you come sooner? What do you have to say for yourself?” As a Christian, I believe that Jesus could have given an explanation then and there, but to Mary he didn’t. Instead, in response to her tears, the text says that “Jesus wept.”[ii] It’s the shortest verse in the Bible, and it’s also very important to me as a Christian because it reveals that, first and foremost, God weeps at the suffering of this world. Surely this has to be our first response as well.
“Jesus wept.” It’s the shortest verse in the Bible, and it reveals that, first and foremost, God weeps at the suffering of this world.
I’d like to share a couple of other thoughts in response to this question, but please hear me at the outset when I say that this is not in any way meant to be an exhaustive answer.
Cultivating the Proper Perspective
First, I think it’s interesting that, in philosophy, when we talk about something like the Coronavirus, it would be referred to as “natural evil.” That in itself is interesting terminology. You might think it’s an oxymoron: If it’s genuinely natural, if it’s just the way it’s supposed to be, is it actually evil? Can you get a moral category like evil out of something which is just physical and natural? And if it is genuinely evil, wouldn’t that make it unnatural rather than natural? I find myself wondering if rather than pointing away from God, perhaps this classification of “natural evil” actually points towards God; perhaps it points towards a moral lawgiver who can be the ground of a moral standard that undergirds a moral reality that can then get us to a category like moral evil. I also wonder if it points towards a narrative that makes sense of the fact that the current state of our world seems very unnatural; we have this unshakable sense that things are not the way they are supposed to be.
Rather than pointing away from God, perhaps this classification of “natural evil” actually points towards God; perhaps it points towards a moral lawgiver who can be the ground of a moral standard that undergirds a moral reality that can then get us to a category like moral evil.
Another perspective worth consideration is that natural evils are not intrinsically evil in and of themselves. A tornado, for instance, viewed from a safe distance, can be majestic and awesome and fill the heart with wonder. Likewise, if you put a virus under a microscope, its shape and complexity can be beautiful to behold. There is even a category of viruses—"friendly viruses”—which our bodies need in order to function. In fact, the vast majority of viruses have a positive impact in our world. If viruses didn’t exist, bacteria would replicate so quickly that they would cover the entire earth and make it impossible for anything else to survive, including us.[iii]
This raises the question, Is the problem the fundamental, natural features of our environment, or is the problem the way that we are functioning within it? Could it be the case that our bodies are not operating within the natural world the way that they are supposed to? When a feral child is taken out of all human community and deprived of all of the relationships she was intended for, that child does not function properly in her environment. Could it be the case—this is a question raised by the philosopher Peter van Inwagen[iv]—that humanity as a whole is living separated from the relationship that we were most destined for and apart from the divine community in whom we are meant to “live and move and have our being?”[v] On a cosmic scale, could we be feral children who are hurt by things that should produce wonder and joy because the relationship between creature and creation has fallen into a state of dysfunction?
On a cosmic scale, could we be feral children who are hurt by things that should produce wonder and joy because the relationship between creature and creation has fallen into a state of dysfunction?
The Only World Fit for You and Me
There’s so much more to say on this topic, but for now here is one more perspective for your consideration. Oftentimes when we think of suffering, we think about it like this: We picture ourselves in this world, with all of its suffering; then we picture ourselves in a very different world, with no suffering or far less suffering, and then we wonder to ourselves, “Well, surely God should have made me in that other world.” It’s a reasonable thought, but also potentially problematic, because we never ask the question, Would it still be you, and me, and the people that we love in that very different world that we think God should have made? In a moment of frustration with my father, I might wish that my mom had married someone else—perhaps someone taller or better looking or, I know, a movie producer! I could have been a star! “I would’ve been better off,” I might think to myself. But upon having that thought, I should stop and realize that it simply isn’t true. If my mom had ended up with someone other than my dad, maybe some other child would have been taller and better looking and starred on the big screen, but that child would not have been me. I would not have existed at all!
Well now imagine changing not just that little piece of history but the way the entire natural world operates. Imagine if we were never susceptible to disease, or imagine if plate tectonics didn’t behave the way they do or if the laws of physics had undergone a redesign. What would be the result? One of the results is that none of us ever would have lived.
My Christian faith leads me to believe that God does not like that result. I think one of the things He values about this world, even though He hates the suffering within it, is that it is a world that allowed for you to come to exist, and allowed for me to come to exist, and allowed for every single person who has ever lived to come to exist. I believe that God intended you before the foundation of the world, that He knit you together in your mother's womb, that He knew you before you were born. He desired you, and this was a world that allowed for you to come to exist and to be invited into relationship with Him.
Are we going to have all the answers to this question, If God, why the Coronavirus? No, we’re not, but I don’t think we should expect to. I was thinking this morning about my one-year-old son, Raphael, and how generally he does not understand why sometimes I allow him to suffer. We recently had to have some tests run on his heart, and in order for the doctors to get the necessary readings I had to hold him down as he shrieked in horror at all of the wires coming out from his chest. He couldn’t understand. He couldn’t understand that I was loving him through that moment. And all I could do as a father was just keep saying, “I’m here, I’m here, I’m here,” over and over again.
Ultimately, the reason that I trust God through something like the Coronavirus is not just because of philosophical arguments but because I believe the Christian God came and suffered with us. I believe that, in the person of Jesus, God is saying, “I’m here, I’m here, I’m here.” In the words of Jesus himself, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.”[vi] That is the hope that we have—the hope of a reconciled relationship now that will culminate in the wonder of a redeemed creation enjoyed with the creator Himself for all eternity.
[i] John 11:1–44
[ii] John 11:35
[iii] See, for example, Anjeanette “AJ” Roberts, “Why Zika, and Other Viruses, Don’t Disprove God’s Goodness: A Microbiologist Reflects on the Problem of Evil in Human Diseases,” interview by Rebecca Randall, Christianity Today, August 14, 2018, https://www.christianitytoday.....
[iv] See van Inwagen’s “The Magnitude Duration and Distribution of Evil: A Theodicy”
(Philosophical Topics 16.2, 1988) and his book-length treatment The Problem of Evil (Oxford University Press, 2006).
[v] Acts 17:28
[vi] Revelation 3:20