Foundations: No.80 Spring 2021

Covid-19 and Creation: Megaphones, Mystery and Lament

This article surveys four Christian responses to the coronavirus crisis of 2020. The main focus is on the different ways the authors attempt to reconcile God’s goodness with the suffering caused by this pandemic. The implications for our understanding of origins that result from the authors’ various responses are also considered. Three recurring themes (judgment, mystery and lament) are examined in more detail before discussing Noah’s flood as a helpful model to frame a biblical response to the crisis. The article highlights the difficult choices we have to make in apologetics: to attribute natural evil to human sin requires the timescale of evolutionary history to be rejected.

I. Introduction

As the immensity of the virus crisis became apparent in early 2020, books responding to it multiplied like the virus cases. In this article I review a selection of these publications from well-known, influential Christian authors. My focus will be on the apologetic issue of how we reconcile the existence of a good, sovereign, creator God alongside a pandemic caused by a deadly virus. In particular, how does our understanding of origins relate to the various responses that are given?

Most of the publications I examine have a wider remit than this, and rightly so. In the midst of suffering people are not necessarily asking “Why?” – they want help in coping with the impact of the virus on their lives. Mair and Cawley’s book in particular contains much helpful material on all sorts of practical issues for individuals and churches arising from the virus crisis.

My concern is that in the midst of seeking to provide comfort and support, a mistaken approach to origins[1] is assumed (and therefore normalised and legitimised) in a way that undermines the true comfort and hope found in the gospel. Long term, the contradiction and confusion hidden in such responses is as dangerous as the virus itself.

II. Overview of Four Responses

1. John Piper, Coronavirus and Christ (Wheaton: Crossway, 2020)

As might be expected from books produced at such speed there is little new or surprising if you are familiar with the author’s previous writings. Piper begins with his own experience of cancer and the impact it had on his life and ministry. This is followed by a series of chapters setting out the doctrine of God that must shape our response to the coronavirus pandemic. Significantly, he begins with God’s revelation in Scripture: it is only through what God has revealed that we can know what God thinks. As those familiar with Piper’s ministry would expect, he also emphasises God’s sovereignty. The virus is a “bitter providence” (22, 37) but it is God’s providence: “everything happens because God wills it to happen” (39). And this is where we find hope: “The same sovereignty that could stop the coronavirus, yet doesn’t, is the very sovereignty that sustains the soul in it” (38).

In the second half of the book he gives six answers from Scripture to what God is doing through the coronavirus (whilst acknowledging that God “is always doing a billion things we do not know” [57]). His first two answers are the most significant for this review, beginning in chapter 6 with,

God is giving the world in the coronavirus outbreak, as in all other calamities, a physical picture of the moral horror and spiritual ugliness of God-belittling sin.

He is explicit that human sin (specifically Adam and Eve’s sin, 65) is the “origin of global devastation and misery” (61) and thus that the fall is God’s judgment because of sin. The physical horrors around us reveal how horrible sin is and get our attention. Echoing C. S. Lewis, he says, “Physical pain is God’s trumpet blast to tell us that something is dreadfully wrong in the world” (66). His second answer in the following chapter is even more pointed: “Some people will be infected with the coronavirus as a specific judgment from God because of their sinful attitudes and actions” (69). Piper gives various biblical examples to back up this answer and is clear that self-examination is required because, “while not all suffering is a specific judgment for specific sins, some is” (71). I will discuss this argument further below.

Overall this is a book that is aimed at Christians, helping them pastorally to respond to the crisis much as Piper has responded to his own cancer. It assumes a biblical worldview in which suffering and death have resulted from Adam’s sin, but Piper does not highlight, or indeed exploit, how different that worldview is to evolutionary history. Nor (in common with many others who take a similar position)[2] does he acknowledge that his answer requires a radical revision to the dates assigned to fossils in mainstream contemporary geology as I explain further, below.

2. John C. Lennox, Where is God in a Coronavirus world? (London: The Good Book Company, 2020)

In contrast to Piper, John Lennox writes with non-Christians in view as an apologist, but not abstractly. He wisely recognises that he is speaking to people trying to make sense of suffering who are themselves in the midst of suffering. So his approach is to replicate talking with you personally in a coffee shop (which at the time of writing he couldn’t!). He wants to “convey some comfort, support and hope” (5). A holistic approach is needed: “We each need to make sense of coronavirus in three different ways: intellectually, emotionally and spiritually” (17). As the book title makes clear he is providing a response to the problem of natural evil specifically (13), with coronavirus being the case-study. “Coronavirus confronts us all with the problem of pain and suffering. This, for most of us, is one of life’s hardest problems” (13) – although not a new problem, as he reminds us of pandemics down history (10).

As he considers different worldviews, he rejects the idea that natural evil can be understood as the judgment of God on specific sins, and says such a view is like karma in pantheism (22-23) and not what we find in the Bible. Considering atheism, he exposes its inadequacy in providing any answer to the problem of evil since it, in effect, explains away the problem by denying the reality of evil in any transcendent sense. Lennox addresses the central dilemma of a Christian worldview in chapter 4: “Can the coronavirus be reconciled with the existence of a loving God?” (31). He begins by arguing that viruses are essential to life, with only a small proportion being harmful to, for example, humans. In a similar way, he cites earthquakes as a (presumably small?) downside to the overall good that plate tectonics achieves. Then, anticipating the objection of why could not God have made the world without the negative “side effects”, Lennox switches back to the issue of moral evil. Human free will means we can choose evil, and he explicitly cites “the first humans, Adam and Eve” (37) as the originators of human disobedience. Physical death was the result, along with wider consequences for creation (including epidemics, 40) as now (citing Romans 8:20) creation “has not achieved the goal for which it was designed” (39). He then returns to our human culpability suggesting that a more realistic formulation of the problem of moral evil is: “I think and do evil. If, then, there is a God, why does he tolerate me?” (42).

Concluding the chapter, his argument then takes a strange, even contradictory, turn. Having given what sounds like an explanation for natural evil resulting from human sin, Lennox retreats to mystery in his concluding paragraphs. He emphasises the reality “that there are deep flaws both in human nature and in physical nature” (42), but we cannot know the reason(s) God has allowed the world to be like this. Instead, in a world that combines both beauty and ugliness, we should be asking if there is evidence for a God we can trust “with our lives and futures?” (43). Lennox answers this question in chapter 5, by pointing to the person of Jesus and his death and resurrection. He stresses that Jesus is the Judge of humanity, thus ensuring ultimate justice. This is clearly an essential element of the answer to moral evil, but strangely, what would be more relevant to the problem of natural evil, the new creation, is left until a brief mention on page 61. There is a passing reference to “a world where suffering will be no more” (47), and similar references to “that other world” (58) but this could be (mis-?) understood as referring to a non-physical heavenly existence.

Lennox quotes C. S. Lewis’ famous words about suffering being God’s “megaphone” (49), urging his readers to look to God, and then, in chapter 6, gives helpful advice on how Christians should respond to the pandemic, including the importance of loving our neighbour.

The book ends with mystery, in a postscript which begins: “Do I think I have answered all the questions that this crisis has raised? No, I don’t. Far from it” (62). Ironically, the question that I am left with is less about the crisis, and more about his book that is trying to answer those questions: Why does he retreat to mystery? I am not suggesting that we fully understand God’s purposes in this crisis (see later), but rather that we are given a clear, direct answer in Scripture for the existence of physical death and the disease and dangers that lead to it. It is the answer that Lennox himself appears to provide, for example on page 49: “In a fractured world, damaged through the consequences of human sin, pain and suffering are inevitable.” If so, why does Lennox never state that the original, pre-sin, “very good” creation (Gen 1:31) did not therefore contain deadly viruses?[3] That is a question only he can answer, but to state such a view explicitly would of course bring him into conflict with evolutionary history in which death and all that leads to it has been present long before human beings existed. In addition, it would undermine his initial argument (34) that viruses, including deadly ones, are essential to life. Not only could God have made “viruses that were always beneficial” (35), he did so in the beginning, and will make a plague-free new creation in the future, undoing the damage of sin.

In short, Lennox exudes pastoral warmth and elucidates various important biblical truths but, oddly for a Maths professor, he does not show his working, to make the logical connection between these truths and their consequences explicit. Adding an element of mystery comes across as evasion as it has the effect of shielding awkward questions concerning the compatibility of his view with the evolutionary timescale.

3. Tom Wright, God and the Pandemic (London: SPCK, 2020)

Tom Wright, as ever, writes with verve and originality to produce a book that contrasts with both Piper and Lennox. It appears to be aimed primarily at Christians. His focus is to correct what he sees as a faulty understanding of the storyline of Scripture that leads to ill-considered “knee-jerk” reactions (4-6) that echo approaches found in the ancient world (2-3). Although he says we should refuse “to use the crisis as a loudspeaker for what we’d been wanting to say in any case” (53, and similar on page 7), the book reads as exactly that for Wright as he presses well-worn themes that will be familiar to those who know his work well! His argument is not helped by the rather haughty tone pervading the book as he seeks to correct those who are less enlightened.

A specific focus of his criticism is a particular view of God’s sovereignty (“an iron grip, relentlessly ‘controlling’ everything”, 56) coupled with the idea that the virus crisis is a sign of judgment from God. “When bad things happen, it must be God that’s done it (because he’s responsible for everything), so that must mean that he is angry with us for some reason” (6).

He recognises Old Testament teaching that interprets disaster as punishment for sin (not least the Exile, 8), but sets this alongside numerous examples of innocent or unexplained suffering, most famously in the book of Job (12-13). Wright’s argument is crystallised in chapter 3 where he focuses on Jesus and the gospels and it is reiterated in the rest of the book: “Jesus himself is the ultimate ‘sign’” (17). Hence to view the virus crisis (or any other natural evil) as some sort of message from God is to undermine the climactic nature of Jesus’ mission: “...you don’t need extra signs. More is less, as so often. You need Jesus... Every attempt to add new ‘signs’ to this narrative diminishes it.” (52-53).

This framework provides the grid with which he interprets Jesus’ teaching. When Jesus points to disasters to warn his hearers of the need to repent he is speaking like an Old Testament prophet – for example John 5:14.

Yet at other times he seems to have been looking, not backward to sins which might bring about judgement, but forward to the new thing that was happening: the kingdom of God (16),

citing the contrasting account of John 9:1-3 as an example. The “signs” of judgment that Jesus speaks of, point to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70 (15). So, for us today, “the summons to repentance... come[s] not through wars, earthquakes, famines or plagues... They come through Jesus.” (23) Jesus himself is the final warning “sign”.

Nevertheless, Wright caveats his stark conclusion by noting that God can do whatever he wants. “If he wants to draw things to people’s attention in a special way, that is up to him” (22, and similarly 29, 41). So, it seems he does not want to totally silence C. S. Lewis’ “megaphone”, but is reluctant to identify its voice through specific events such as the coronavirus crisis.

He develops the argument further from the rest of the New Testament in chapter 4. Disasters such as the famine prophesied in Acts 11:28 are not signs calling for repentance, but an opportunity to provide practical help to those in need. The call to repentance in Acts 17:30-31 is grounded in Jesus’ resurrection, not examples of recent natural disasters.

If we are not to preach repentance in the light of the virus crisis, what should our response be? Wright offers two main answers: practical action, coupled with lament. The former is introduced as early as page 3, asking the question, “What can we do?” and Wright expands on this later in the book, pointing to past examples of Christians pioneering care for the sick and those in need (61ff). As for lament, Wright takes his cue from Jesus weeping at the tomb of Lazarus (27, 44), and he draws a similar lesson in his treatment of the crucial verses, Romans 8:19-21:

When the world is going through great convulsions, the followers of Jesus are called to be people of prayer at the place where the world is in pain (42, emphasis his).

He contrasts this activity of prayer with “commenting from the sidelines: it’s because you’re all sinners!” (43). In fact, not using words (Rom 8:26) is seen as a virtue. We do

not have any words to say, any great pronouncements on “what this all means” to trumpet out to the world... but we, the followers of Jesus, find ourselves caught up in the groaning of creation... That is our vocation: to be in prayer, perhaps wordless prayer, at the point where the world is in pain (45, emphasis his).

He even suggests, tentatively, that God himself “has no appropriate words to say to the misery when creation is out of joint” (46).

Wright himself is strangely wordless in relating this whole topic to his understanding of creation in the sense of what God made in the beginning. Original human sin gets a mention (55), but there is no hint that this is the reason for the groaning of creation. He prefers mystery to explanation (a theme I will return to later). Given Wright’s commendable passion for the doctrine of new creation I was surprised this did not feature more strongly in his argument. His focus is more on what the church can do now, than on God’s final answer to the problem of natural evil. But then to be explicit about the hope of a future creation without deadly viruses begs the question of why God would make the original creation with these in place.

Wright can speak with penetrating insight: he characterises the central dilemma in our response to the crisis as a clash between the god of healing and the god of money, with the weak going “to the wall” (72-73). So much of what he affirms is right: Jesus is the ultimate sign calling us to repentance. Our understanding of, and response to, this crisis, and every crisis, must indeed be “Jesus-shaped” (23). The problem, as is so often the case, is with what Wright denies. In a different way to Lennox, there is a flawed logic at work. Understanding the virus as a demonstration of God’s judgment on sin (see further below) is not an alternative, nor in opposition to, providing the practical help he rightly advocates. Nor does it undermine the climactic nature of the revelation of God in Jesus – rather it gives it traction. His is a “Wright-shaped” theology that, deliberately or not, remoulds the gospel to be more palatable to a modern, western liberal mindset. Consider the language he deploys as he describes the message of modern “prophets” giving their views on the crisis: “…strikingly detached moralizers (it’s all because the world needs to repent of sexual sin) to valid but separate concerns (it’s reminding us about the ecological crisis)” (7). Notice how he characterises speaking against sexual sin as “moralising” whereas environmental concerns are entirely “valid”.

4. Paul Copan, “Viruses and God’s good creation: How do they fit?” in Kristi Mair & Luke Cawley (eds.), Healthy Faith and the Coronavirus Crisis (London: IVP, 2020)

Finally, we turn to Paul Copan’s chapter. This is a different entity in that it is a narrowly focused chapter in a wide-ranging, multi-author book. The title is precise, seeking to address the objection that viruses are inconsistent with a “good creation”.

Copan begins with examples of Christian medics being at the forefront of fighting disease, sometimes at great personal cost. His point, as he makes explicit in his summary at the end of the chapter, is that “trust in God is not opposed to science” (52). This is a crucial first step in his argument, a premise that determines the outcome. By “science”, he is not merely referring to the enterprise or the discipline of science, but the conclusions of mainstream science in areas that extend far beyond medicine. Hence, he asserts as a fact that animal predation and animal death were part of the created order before humans appeared on the basis of what “the fossil record indicates” (44). That assumption shapes his reading of Genesis: “…prior to the fall, things were perhaps ‘rougher’ than we’ve been led to think” (43). He then points to various other parts of Scripture to support his conclusion that predation and human mortality have always been part of creation.

Then turning specifically to the existence of viruses he argues that they, like hurricanes and earthquakes, are example of “trade-offs” necessary for life:

…they play an important God-given role in providing for the overall good or well-being of earthly creatures. However, these can also present potential threats under certain conditions (46).

Copan concludes this section saying, “God the Creator established a very good, well-ordered world for the benefit of his creatures” (48). But he then goes on to explain why we experience a “broken world”. It is due to “our first ancestors” (he does not identify these as Adam and Eve), rebelling against God and becoming “vulnerable to a host of potential threats” – including “harmful microbes” (48-49). He then states without further elaboration or explanation, “While humans enjoyed fellowship with God, they were protected from these potentially destructive forces” (49). Strikingly, for such a crucial step in his argument, he provides no textual support for this statement. Nor, is it clear how this sits alongside the conclusion of the previous section: if the world including viruses is “for the benefit of his creatures”, what do the first humans need to be protected from? Furthermore, why did God make such a world with these deadly dangers existing long before human sin? Copan’s answer hardly provides a robust defence of God’s goodness. His approach leaves him with the dilemma of having to argue that either deadly viruses are not bad, or God is not good. 

The inconsistency continues as Copan on the one hand eschews describing virus outbreaks and the like as God’s judgment, yet also sees them as “indications of our brokenness and alienation from him” (49) and therefore they act as a “spiritual wake-up call” (50). Finally, he points to the hope found in the resurrected Jesus in the face of the inevitability of death. But his critique of atheism at this point – “if there is no God, there is no cosmic justice, no guarantee that virtue and happiness will be united, no guarantee that good will triumph” (50) – rings hollow. If God is the one who made suffering and death in the beginning, how can we be confident in his promise to remove it in the end?

Having surveyed these four contributions individually, I now want to explore in more detail some recurring themes and how they relate to the origins debate.

III. Recurring Themes

1. Is Coronavirus a Judgment from God?

All the authors, except Piper, answer, “No”.[4] To suggest otherwise is, Lennox says, “a very crude response that causes a lot of unnecessary hurt” (22). As we have seen, the case of the man born blind in John 9 is frequently cited, along with the suffering of Job to justify this negative answer. What is less often cited is the case of the paralysed man in John 5, whose condition Jesus explicitly links to his sin (14). To his credit, Wright does set this example alongside John 9 (16-17), and, he also recognises physical disasters are sometimes interpreted as judgments on sin in the Old Testament. Yet he can also make the astonishing statement that, “Passover was never about forgiveness” (30) even though striking down the firstborn is explicitly described as a judgment (Ex 12:12), and the Israelites were, as the event’s name suggests, literally “passed over” in this judgment on the basis of the sacrifice of a lamb.

Clearly, a proper answer to this question has to go beyond quoting selected texts and examples and take into account the whole sweep of biblical theology. Pastoral wisdom is also needed in how we express the answer, as it is easy, especially in the age of social media, to be misunderstood and cause the “unnecessary hurt” that Lennox is worried about. Many of his concerns can be alleviated if we are clear that statements like, “event P, affecting the group of people Q, is a judgment on sin R”, are both arbitrary and ignorant. First, it is arbitrary because reality is less neat. Typically, natural disasters have a range of effects, from mild to deadly – does that mean those affected worse, are worse sinners? (Note that Jesus provides the answer to a similar question in Luke 13:2-5). People are guilty of many sins, so why should sin R be the one that is selected as the cause of a particular judgment? Further, group Q includes a whole variety of people, some of whom may not be characterised by sin R at all, and there are others outside group Q who may be immersed in sin R yet escape unscathed.[5] Even where God does link the disaster enveloping a community with its sin, it is clear these complexities remain. For example, before the exile Israel’s disobedience extended back many centuries, yet only the generation alive at the exile faced that specific consequence. Similarly, many of those exiled were faithful Israelites (e.g., Daniel) and some who remained in the land continued in disobedience and unbelief.

Secondly, our assessments are based on ignorance because most of the time God does not give us a running commentary on how he is working out the justice of the universe. We are not God, and attempting to second guess his purpose will never end well pastorally.

In short, we cannot answer the question, “Is coronavirus the judgment of God on...?” but that is not the question I am asking. The question, “Is coronavirus a judgment from God?” can be answered on the basis of what God has revealed. If death is the wages of human sin (Rom 6:23), then coronavirus and other death-inducing features of the physical world must be part of the consequences of sin, and therefore become part of the natural order sometime after the first sin (the fall) of Adam. As a result, the natural world now operates differently (Gen 3:14-19, Rom 8:20-23) to the original “very good” creation (Gen 1:31).[6] With this history of the world in place we can provide the biblically-grounded explanation of natural evil: all suffering is due to sin, but not necessarily the sin of the person suffering.

In this framework, “innocent suffering” (i.e., suffering not directly related to the sin of the person suffering) is the result of our interconnectedness, both with other people and the physical world: my thoughts and actions have consequences for others and the world. Humanity as a whole, down history, suffers a complex mixture of physical consequences from Adam’s sin, everyone else’s sin, as well as our own individual sin. And it is those physical consequences that alert us to something being profoundly wrong spiritually. As Piper puts it, “physical evil is a parable, a drama, a signpost pointing to the moral outrage of rebellion against God” (66, italics his).

As we have seen, others like Lennox and Copan who do not share Piper’s approach, still want to preserve the apologetically helpful idea that suffering is, in C. S. Lewis’ words, “God’s megaphone”. However, if the link between sin and natural evil is broken, the megaphone produces a muted and distorted message. It is muted because if natural evil is part of how the world was made and how it has always been, then it is much harder to argue this is not how it is meant to be – i.e., that there is something wrong with how creation functions now. Apologetically, this is an own goal, since one of the few things just about everyone does intuitively sense is that there is something wrong with the world! That sense of “paradise lost” is explained by Adam’s fall, corrupting an originally “very good” creation. The “shock value” of natural disasters is also muted, because these events have always happened such that they are a regular, normal (albeit unpredictable) part of life on this planet. In the words of 2 Peter 3:4, “everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation”.

Secondly, breaking the link between sin and natural evil and thus avoiding the language of judgment, distorts the message that suffering conveys. It tells us that we are victims, needing therapy, rather than guilty people deserving judgment. Put in those terms the attraction of going down this route in today’s culture is obvious, but it is a distortion of the gospel and does not point people to Christ. If we interpret suffering as a badge of our victimhood, it merely leads us to seek comfort and whatever relief from suffering that we can find from any source, not necessarily Christ. Our focus becomes relief from suffering, treating the symptoms not the cause. It also distorts how the cross of Christ is understood such that it becomes about God sharing in our pain – as Wright puts it, “his hands, in fact, are nailed to the cross in order to share our pain”. [7] However, if suffering is ultimately due to sin, it confronts us with our guilt before our creator. The only answer to that guilt is found in Christ, in particular his wrath-bearing atonement on the cross.

A message that natural evil is evidence of God’s judgment against sin and a warning of the greater wrath to come will not make us popular. But it will make us relevant, giving traction to our message that eternal judgment is something to be taken seriously – just as a patient experiencing pain or other negative symptoms is more likely to act on a doctor’s warnings of early death due to their unhealthy lifestyle. As Piper rightly notes (65-67), the physical is tangible evidence of the spiritual reality. Jesus cites physical judgments from the past (Luke 17:26-32), as well as contemporary events (Luke 13:1-5) as warnings to be ready for the judgment to come.

While such warnings do need to be spoken boldly (not apologising for God’s righteous judgment), they must never be spoken coldly – Jesus wept as he prophesied Jerusalem’s destruction (Luke 19:41-44). Nor should providing this theological rationale for our suffering be seen as opposed, or as an alternative, to practical help. Rather, understanding natural evil as a result of sin, and its removal as part of the redemption Christ has purchased provides the motivation to do all we can to alleviate suffering in the present.[8] In doing so (and in this I concur with Wright, 60-61), we are following Christ in bringing glimpses of the new creation into the present.

2. Mystery

Answering “No” to the question of the previous heading naturally leads to the heading of this section. Deadly viruses like coronavirus exist, and if they are not to be explained as God’s judgment on sin, then (if we are theists) there is little choice but to retreat into mystery. Wright seems to regard this as a positive virtue as if seeking explanations in the face of evil is almost impolite: “That way danger lies: to give an account of God’s good creation in which there is a ‘natural’ slot for ‘evil’ to be found” (57). Such a response is not without wisdom: God and his purposes are much bigger and greater than we can conceive. And just as Job was not given an explanation for his suffering (as Wright notes, 13), we can rarely fathom the specifics of suffering: why this suffering, for this person, at this time? We are called to trust and worship, recognising we are not owed answers to these questions. The words of Spurgeon that Lennox cites (62) are apt: “God is too good to be unkind and He is too wise to be mistaken. And when we cannot trace His hand, we must trust His heart.”

However, just as it is arrogant to claim we know what God has not revealed, it is not a mark of humility to keep silent about what God has made clear. It is theological cowardice and bad medicine. Suffering on its own does not lead people to God. Without the biblical explanation given above the megaphone of suffering is only making an unpleasant noise. In a similar way a doctor who provides an accurate but unwelcome diagnosis may not be liked, but they are a better doctor than one who empathises but who does not really understand the problem. It is the accurate diagnosis, revealed to us by our Creator, which gives us relevance, if not popularity. None of this is theoretical: People are hurting. But Wright’s words: “…we, the followers of Jesus, [do] not have any words to say, any great pronouncements on ‘what this all means’ to trumpet out to the world” (45) hardly bring reassurance in the midst of the urgency and distress of this coronavirus crisis.

3. Lament

With mystery goes lament. (See how Wright brings these two together, 14). If we cannot offer an explanation, at least we can bring solidarity in the suffering: weeping with those who weep, like Jesus (John 11:35). In Wright’s words, “this is a time for lament. For admitting we don’t have easy answers... For weeping at the tomb of our friends. For the inarticulate groaning of the Spirit” (53). Again, there is plenty of wisdom here for how we should engage with one another in suffering. Who could object to these sentiments? But that is precisely the problem: there is the danger that we cease to speak with a prophetic edge and our message is reduced to, “I (or maybe God) feel(s) your pain.”[9]

Speaking of lament has become fashionable in recent years as Christians have come to a welcome new appreciation of this biblical genre.[10] Biblical lament is multifaceted, and it does include an element of mystery – just think of the number of lament Psalms that ask, “Why?” as they wrestle with how suffering has afflicted them personally in their specific circumstances. But it is wrong to pit lament in opposition to providing answers. Lament is ordered grief in which our emotional response is shaped by what God has revealed. Fundamentally, lament is the cry to God, “It’s not meant to be like this.” That cry presupposes not mystery, but the sure knowledge of God’s purpose based on what he has revealed. Biblical lament is an evidence of faith because it stems from taking God at his word as it expresses the gap between our present experience and what God has promised.

In short, biblical lament is only coherent within a biblical worldview, with the right history of the world in which something has gone wrong, for which we are responsible. If deadly viruses have always been present in creation, if they are part of God’s original good purpose for creation, then to lament over their presence now is incoherent, even presumptuous. We might moan and cry over their unwelcome impact on us, but that is not biblical lament. We are not helpless victims, rather we lament as the undeserving. Thus, lament is humble – not through hiding in mystery – but through a recognition of our guilt. It includes a sense of regret for the part we have played, collectively as sinners, in bringing about the tragic events we lament (e.g., Dan 9:1-19). Even where we lament as those who are innocent in the sense of facing unjust suffering, the lament is not that we deserve better. In lament we cast ourselves on God, as his children, because our hope is in him (Lam 3:22-24).

4. Summary

The error I have discussed under the above three headings is the same: it is starting with something that is true and extrapolating from that to make it the whole story in a way that conflicts with the complete narrative that God has revealed. So, it is true that we cannot interpret the virus pandemic as specific judgment on individual sins, but that does not mean it is not a judgment on sinners in any sense. It is true that there is mystery in suffering (and indeed all that happens), because God has not revealed all the details of his purposes to us. But that does not allow us to reject or be silent about the explanation of natural evil that he has provided. It is right that we “weep with those who weep”, but that does not exhaust our response to those in suffering, and nor does it reflect the theological richness of biblical lament.

These errors flow from the difficulty of communicating, with pastoral sensitivity, a message of judgment and grace to people in the midst of suffering. In the final section I want to suggest an alternative response to the coronavirus crisis that is based on the biggest natural disaster in history: Noah’s flood. It could be described as the natural disaster to, if not end, then limit, all natural disasters. A theology that can handle the wiping out of all air-breathing animals and people, except those on the ark, is one that is big enough for our current pandemic.

IV. Flood: Judgment and Grace

The flood is the most dramatic and devastating example of human sin leading to physical judgment, with the physical consequences extending beyond humanity. It is God’s physical exposition of the curse he first announced in Gen 3:14-19 (and warned of in 2:17). Sin has physical, deadly consequences because it is turning from the God who is the giver of all life; the world, designed to support abundant life, is now a place of danger and death; creation is reversed. Were it not for the ark, the flood would have marked the end of all air-breathing life, of all humanity: “But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and the livestock that were with him in the ark” (Gen 8:1). God had a plan of rescue, of grace (Gen 6:8) that would not only include Noah and his family, but the animals with him and the earth itself (Gen 9:12-16). In short, in the flood we see not only that the consequences of human sin extend to the rest of creation, but also that the salvation of humanity includes the rescue of creation. There is a re-creation in the flood that anticipates the new creation when Jesus returns (2 Pet 3:5-7).[11]

Modern apologists understand the power of stories. In the flood we have a true story that tangibly communicates the reason we live in a world of coronavirus and every other natural evil – tangible, because we are surrounded by evidence of the flood: from the rocks we walk on and the coal we burn, to the fossils we hunt. It is a story that communicates warning of the need to repent and be ready for the future judgment (Luke 17:26-27; 2 Pet 3:3-10), but equally, for those who do repent, the hope of a future new heaven and new earth, “the home of righteousness” (2 Pet 3:13). Judgment and grace are woven together in the flood story, and also in the post-flood creation that we live in now.

In the post-flood world grace dominates. The great message of the rainbow, given to Noah’s descendants, the living creatures and the earth, is that despite ongoing sin life will be preserved. In the post-flood world, judgment is still present (it is still a fallen world), but limited. The rainbow is like a shield of grace protecting the world from the full extent of what is deserved. We live in an era of “common grace” preserving life. God promises the regularity of the seasons so food can be grown (Gen 8:22; Acts 14:17). We have bodies that are normally well equipped to fight off infection. He gives people medical skills, the ability to design ventilators and produce vaccines.[12] We benefit from many acts of kindness and generosity. In short, the world is nothing like as bad or dangerous as it could be: most viruses are not deadly but serve useful functions as Lennox and Copan rightly point out.[13] In the fallen creation there is a sensitive balance between enough danger and suffering to communicate that something is wrong (so we might repent and find grace), but not too much to make life unsustainable. What would be seen as bad in the original “very good” creation such as predatory behaviour and thorns are, in a fallen creation (where disease and death are present), necessary to preserve life overall.[14]

In a fallen world we have to hold two truths together: Life is precious (Gen 9:5-6) and yet death is inevitable (Gen 9:28-29).[15] Every death is a tragedy (death is a terrible evil, 1 Cor 15:26), yet life can only be preserved for so long, and at a cost. In many ways, the difficulties and dilemmas we are facing as a society in responding to the coronavirus crisis stem from holding these two (biblical) truths together.[16] These tensions inherent in negotiating a fallen world highlight our limitations, our vulnerability and our utter dependence on God. The coronavirus, like other natural evils, confronts us with reality.

Neither natural disasters nor human acts of wickedness increase the death toll of humanity. Death is inevitable, as Copan reminds us at the end of his chapter (51), quoting C. S. Lewis. In a different quote, Lewis noted (speaking about the Second World War):

I think it important to try to see the present calamity in a true perspective. The war creates no absolutely new situation; it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice.[17]

Before the coronavirus outbreak, nearly 1500 people per day on average died in England and Wales. Those figures never made the news. It is the extra, unusual, hastened loss of life due to the pandemic that catches our attention. These significant, but limited, judgments are God’s megaphone, warning us of our danger without him. Even here we see grace in judgment, in that God is holding back the final judgment, “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pet 3:9).

V. Conclusion: We Cannot Avoid Hard Choices in Apologetics

Many Christians are nervous about the apologetic difficulties of questioning the long ages required by the evolutionary chronology. But adopting the evolutionary timescale comes at a cost: it means death and all the disease and other natural evils leading to it (including deadly viruses), long predate a biblically historical Adam falling into sin.[18] This means it is an act of apologetic “mis-selling” to allude to, or to imply that human sin is an explanation for natural evil if long ages are assumed.[19] Instead, it should be made explicit that God made a coronavirus world and he called that world “very good”. This is the route many Christians do go down and they recognise (and attempt to alleviate) the difficulties for God’s character that result.[20]

There is an alternative that provides a more satisfying and robust defence of God’s character, but it comes with its own hard choice. Natural evil can be explained as the consequence of human sin if we are ready to challenge the evolutionary chronology so that the fossil evidence of disaster, disease and death is dated to a time after Adam’s sin. The scientific work involved to understand the evidence within this alternative history is considerable, but immensely worthwhile. It is only within this framework that the doctrinal coherence of the gospel can be maintained (for example, Jesus needed to physically die on the cross, because physical death is part of the punishment for sin). Furthermore, it is a framework with far greater apologetic power to address topics beyond merely natural evil.[21]

Rather than be on the defensive over the “problem” of natural evil, we need to be confident in presenting an enormously attractive and radically counter-cultural history of the world in the face of the alternatives. Atheism is a hard choice: It is bleak – stuff just happens. There is nothing wrong with the world and there is no solution, no hope. In contrast, God’s word provides an explanation and a solution: There is something wrong with the world, that is our fault – a hard, yet necessary truth. But God in his grace has provided the answer to save us from our sin and to redeem the whole of creation. It is an explanation and solution that addresses both the spiritual and the physical. The coronavirus crisis has exposed our human vulnerability and the impotence of the modern idols in which we trust because of its physical impact. It is a dose of reality, and therefore highlights the relevance of the gospel. With the right history of the world, including its origins, we can make the most of this opportunity to present our society with a message of hope.

 

Next article >>   Back to contents page >>