As the corona crisis hit in late March, TIME magazine ran an article by theologian Tom Wright with the provocative title: Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus: It’s Not Supposed To. Wright dismisses as ‘the usual silly suspects’ any idea that God has sent this pandemic in judgment or punishment.
Actually that is how the Old Testament sometimes portrays plagues. And it’s also how the Church often interpreted plagues through the ages—as a call to repentance. John Lennox, in an online talk for the European Leadership Forum, points out that when the Bible says God sent a plague, we have God’s word for it. But we don’t have God’s word for Covid-19.
Jesus addressed this question when asked about the slaughtered Galileans whose blood Pilate mixed with the blood of their sacrifices in the temple (Luke 13: 1-4). “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered this fate? No, I tell you. But unless you repent, you too will all perish.…Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam collapsed on them: Do you think that they were more sinful than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you. But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
In other words, not all tragedy is the result of the victims’ sin. But all tragedy, including Covid-19, makes us aware of our vulnerability and mortality, raises questions of eternity and relationship to God, and confronts us with our need for repentance.
Wright’s point is to urge us to learn to pray the psalms of lament. Good advice. We need to weep with those who weep. There’s no comfort in telling the bereaved that their beloved deceased are the victims of God’s judgement. But need we accept his conclusion that ‘it is no part of the Christian vocation, then, to be able to explain what’s happening and why’?
Wright continues: ‘In fact, it is part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain—and to lament instead.’ Granted, there is no chapter and verse to explain why this pandemic should devastate global society in this particular year of 2020. And granted, we Christians don’t have all the answers. But it does raise the age-old question of theodicy: how can a good God allow bad things to happen? And that’s a question needing a response.
Firstly, we can ask: why do we get upset when bad things happen? Where does our sense of ‘bad’ come from? Why do we sense that this shouldn’t happen? Where does our sense of ‘should’ come from? Why are we not content to simply accept ‘fate’? that life’s not fair, whatever ‘fair’ means? Why should we think it should be otherwise? Where does our inbuilt compass of fairness and justice come from? If we throw out God, we have to throw out fairness and justice too. Why should we expect a random, accidental world that’s nothing more than slime-plus-time to be ‘fair’?
What if there was a good, creator God who made a good creation, but that something went horribly wrong, and things are not as they were intended to be?
Actually, that’s the bad news that’s the start of the good news, the Gospel. As Lennox puts it, we live in a fractured moral world and a fractured physical world. But even in this broken world – a totally unique environment in the whole cosmos, by the way – the original beautiful, awe-inspiring design can still be discerned.
Yet grieving people don’t usually seek intellectual answers. They need emotional support. The Gospel offers both. God hasn’t abandoned his broken project. He hasn’t left us in our brokenness. He has actually joined us in our suffering.
When Jesus visited Lazarus’ grave, he wept. He entered into the sisters’ grief. He lamented the disruption of death just as he does for all the death Covid-19 has brought around the world. Soon he himself – God incarnate – would be facing his own gruesome death. What an empathetic God!
Days earlier, Jesus had told his doubting disciples that Lazarus’ sickness was ‘for the glory of God’ (John 11:4). Now, after declaring himself to be the resurrection and the life – an insane claim unless true – and in demonstration that death was not the last word, he commanded Lazarus to step out of the grave, as depicted above by Vincent van Gogh (with the artist’s red beard!).
We need not assume God has afflicted the world with this pandemic to achieve something, anymore than he afflicted Lazarus; but we can accept he can use it for his glory. Even if those words might sound as crazy to us now as to the disciples then.
After all, Jesus showed he is the resurrection and the life. And the Christian faith is all about death… and resurrection.
Director Schuman Centre