Where is God in a Coronavirus World? is really a piece of old school—the old “school” of C.S. Lewis—apologetics reworked for the COVID-19 era. This slight and simple book “concentrates on the problem of natural evil,” John Lennox says. In a time of crisis we look for solace and hope. Where are we going to find it? Atheism cannot help because it can provide no rational basis for morality. “If… there is no God, and therefore there are no transcendent values, then how can there be any objective standard of good?”
But if we want to say that hope is to be found in God, we have to answer the age-old question of why, if he is so good and almighty, he doesn’t do something about all the evil and suffering in the world that he created. The answer comes in two well-worn arguments. First, humans were given the freedom to choose evil—we are not a-moral animals or automata. Secondly, the natural order has also been “fractured” and subjected to “ineffectiveness” by our first disobedience.
The question about God and evil is probably unanswerable, Lennox suggests, but we can, nevertheless, confidently affirm that we can trust in the God of love, who experienced human pain and suffering in the person of Jesus. “Therefore, a Christian is not so much a person who has solved the problem of pain, suffering and the coronavirus, but one who has come to love and trust a God who has himself suffered.”
Jesus, moreover, has conquered death and will be the “final Judge of humanity.” This addresses a “fundamental difficulty that the atheistic worldview cannot cope with: the problem of ultimate justice.” God is the authority behind the moral law and will ensure, in the end, that “perfect justice will be done in respect of every injustice that has ever been committed from earth’s beginning to its end.”
So how should Christians respond to the pandemic? They should heed the best medical advice, maintain a faith perspective, love their neighbours, and remember eternity.
That’s a very rapid summary of a rapidly written book. “This book consists of my reflections on what we are experiencing right now,” Lennox says in the introduction. “I started writing it a week ago….”
Lennox is a mathematician and he brings a rational, and in many ways sensible, perspective to the subject: there have been plagues throughout history, viruses and earthquakes are essential for human life on this planet, and there are plenty of other things that kill us on a routine basis. If you need an undemanding old school defence of a Christian perspective on God and evil in a time of Coronavirus, then this may be what you’re looking for. But I think that the overall approach and the detailed arguments are inadequate to deal with the issue.
Job and suffering
According to the Bible, it is not true that if someone suffers some severe illness or accident, we should conclude that he or she has secretly been guilty of serious sins. (23)
This is Lennox’s response to the claim sometimes made by Christians that natural disasters are a direct judgment of God. The key word in the statement, however, is “secretly.” It’s not secret sins that are the issue.
Job suffers even though he has done no wrong; there is no hidden sin for which he is being punished. But the moral argument only works because it is otherwise assumed that such extreme suffering could reasonably be attributed to wrongdoing—and conversely that righteous behaviour ought to lead to prosperity.
It is important to remember that Job begins blameless and prosperous and ends up blameless and even more prosperous. What the book asks is whether Job’s blamelessness is a cause or a consequence of his prosperity. Let’s take his prosperity away from him, Satan proposes, and see if he curses God. In the end, the moral equation between righteousness and well-being, sin and punishment is affirmed in the book.
Jesus and sin
Jesus likewise explicitly denied that suffering was necessarily connected with personal wrongdoing. (23)
Two instances are considered. Jesus’ response to his disciples in John 9:3 is not strictly a denial of a causal relationship between sin and blindness. It is only that in this particular case the reason for man’s congenital blindness was that “the works of God might be displayed in him.”
Jesus believed that the scribes and Pharisees (at least as a class) had sinned and would not escape the judgment of Gehenna—meaning, of course, the destruction and slaughter of the war against Rome (Matt. 23:32).
Indeed, the more important passage is Jesus’ response to the question about the slaughter of the Galileans and the collapse of the tower in Jerusalem (Lk. 13:1-5). Jesus’ point here is not that those who died were innocent but that the manner of their deaths anticipated the punishment that would come upon his people at the time of the Roman invasion, when countless Jews would fall to the Roman sword or be crushed in the destruction of the city. Whether the victims of Pilate’s brutality and the tower’s structural weakness were any worse sinners than other first century Palestinian Jews is beside the point—most Jews were part of the problem.
Lennox’s comment that “Jesus is referring here to the fact that we shall all die and meet God” is simply wrong, underlining the tenuous link between standard evangelical theologising and the biblical texts.
Lennox acknowledges that Paul attributed illness in the church in Corinth to an “immoral lifestyle” (1 Cor. 11:30-32). But, he says, Paul was writing with “the special insight of one who was inspired by God’s Spirit. We do not have the same authority to decide who is being punished in this way.”
This is gratuitous. Paul does not claim a unique authority here—if anything, he expects the church to exercise their own discernment and draw the conclusion for themselves. Would this not count as an “utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:8)? Obviously such a practice is open to abuse, but the biblical answer is to learn how to use the gift in a mature way (cf. Eph. 4:15-16), not to ban it.
Is there an objective standard of good?
If… there is no God, and therefore there are not transcendent values, then how can there be any objective standard of good? (29)
I am by no means a moral philosopher, but it seems to me that the obvious response is another question: why should there be an “objective standard of good”? From a secular or atheistic point of view morality, however it is codified culturally, only needs to sustain and safeguard the well-being of a community against disruption, whether from within or from without. The effectiveness or validity of any moral system is determined by that basic pragmatic criterion. Objective standards of good are as likely to be a hindrance as a help, not least because the conditions for well-being change over time.
It is doubtful even in biblical terms that an absolute moral standard precedes human social existence. The creational ideal is not conformity to an absolute moral standard but obedience to God, first at the level of humanity as a whole, then at the level of the family of Abraham. Goodness is characterised in relational and material terms, and only subsequently is Law imposed—in Paul’s understanding as a provisional measure until the coming of Christ. As I said, objective standards of good are as likely to be a hindrance as a help.
Is God the author of evil?
The New Testament is clear that God is never the author of evil…. (36)
The footnote reference is to James 1:13. The person who endures a trial or testing (peirasmon) will receive the crown of life. What is in view here is not general human suffering but persecution. When persecution comes, the believer should not say, “I am being tested (peirazomai) by God.” For “God is not tested (apeirastos) by evil, and he himself tests (peirazei) no one” (my translation). This is a little difficult to decipher, but it is not saying that “God is never the author of evil.” He is not the author of the persecution of the followers of Jesus.
Later, James will advise the wealthy to “weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you” (James 5:1). The cries of their exploited workers have reached the Lord, and the Judge is now standing at the door. I think that James also has in mind the catastrophic judgment of lawless and unjust Israel by the agency of Rome’s armies. I don’t see how we can say that YHWH was not in some sense the “author” of that carnage.
Sin and creation
What happened in Genesis 3 was that the humans rejected God, and sin entered the world…. Moreover, nature itself was fractured by that same event…. (38-39)
This is a key move in the standard apologetic: the world is a dangerous place because humanity rejected God. But it’s a bit of an assumption.
The immediate consequence of Adam’s disobedience in the garden for the natural environment is only that the ground is cursed and will be difficult to cultivate (Gen. 3:17-19). The central thought is not that humanity will suffer arbitrary natural evils but that a creature that has come from the ground will return to the ground (cf. Gen. 3:23).
Paul makes no clear reference to this in the passage in Romans which Lennox uses to implicate the whole of creation in Adam’s sin:
For the eager expectation of creation awaits the revealing of the sons of God. (For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of the one who subjected it in hope.) For the creation itself will be set free from the slavery of decay to the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans together and is in travail together until now. (Rom. 8:19–22, my translation)
What I think he is saying here is that a created order subject to decay (living things die and rot away) looks forward to the resurrection and transformation of the suffering martyr churches at the parousia because that limited attainment of human immortality will be confirmation of the final renewal of all creation. For the details see my book The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom (121-23).
In any case, the emphasis is again on corruptibility of life, not on the threat that viruses, earthquakes, and other natural evils pose to humanity. Paul does not explicitly attribute natural evil to human sin.
The point is that neither the author of Genesis 3 nor Paul is interested in theodicy—in defending God against the charge that he has allowed evil to enter his creation and has done nothing to fix it. So I think we have to be careful about drawing philosophical conclusions from texts that were written with quite different objectives in mind—not least because the apologetic argument is vitiated by misuse of the texts. We also, therefore, have to ask what Paul is interested in.
According to atheism, since death is the end, there is no next life in which justice could be done. If there is no final Judge, there can be no ultimate justice. (45)
Again, the obvious riposte—though I shouldn’t really speak on behalf of the atheist—is, “So what?” There is nothing incoherent or irrational about the view that we live and die as part of the natural world. There doesn’t have to be ultimate justice any more than there has to be an absolute moral order.
I like the fact that Lennox includes judgment in the story about Jesus. But his account of the good news is undermined, I suggest, by its disregard for history, and the consequence is that we still do not have a good way of framing events prophetically.
The theologically controlled incarnational paradigm is inadequate. That Jesus died on a cross outside Jerusalem means not that God has experienced human suffering but that Jesus was the faithful Son through whom YHWH was delivering his people from historical obsolescence, annihilation.
And I have to ask, did the God who made the heavens and the earth and all things in them really need to become incarnate and die in order to understand human pain and suffering? This is not remotely a biblical idea. It is a spurious theological argument designed to bolster a trinitarian paradigm that needs to ascribe absolute cosmic significance to the historical event of Jesus’ crucifixion.
What is the gospel?
We have none of us kept our own moral standards, let alone God’s—the Ten Commandments tell us that all too clearly. Therefore, we all need a solution to the problem of the sin and guilt that—whether we know it or not—comes between us and God. (47)
So here’s the gospel. Notice again that the absolute moral code comes first. We fail to live up to the standards of the moral code or law, so we need a solution, which God has provided by sending his Son to die for our sins.
I don’t think that’s a very good summary of the biblical narrative.
What comes first is creation, life and relationship, first on the macrocosmic level, then on the microcosmic level. Israel’s moral life as God’s priestly people was codified under the Law because the natural created arrangement of dependency and trust failed.
Built into the Law was the prospect of a catastrophic judgment in the event of persistent lawlessness. So when the angel says that Jesus will “save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21), he means that he will save his people—or at least a stump of his people—from the final calamity of the foreseen war against Rome.
This is the heart of a much more complex, and much more interesting, account of God and his people, of salvation and kingdom, than is found in the reductionist incarnational model. Most importantly, it keeps us grounded in history, which is where pandemics happen, where social injustice happens, where climate change happens.
Lennox takes Paul’s talk of judgment in Athens to be a reference to a final judgment of the world—“a fact that guarantees that there will eventually be an ultimate answer to the deepest human questions.” That is a mistake. That’s evangelicalism giving up on history—and more seriously on the God of history; and we are theologically poorer for it.
Paul’s apologetic argument in the Areopagus is not that the men of Athens have all sinned by falling short of an absolute moral standard. It is that the God of history is no longer prepared to overlook age-old Greek idolatry and its concomitant behaviours (Acts 17:22-31; cf. Rom. 1:18-32). He has fixed a day in history when he will judge—ie. overthrow and replace—the whole pagan order by a man whom he has appointed.