Why would God allow pandemics?

Many momentous world events hold our attention a few days but don’t really change our daily lives much thereafter. The Covid-19 pandemic is different. It has fundamentally altered so many aspects of our lived realities.

Life’s fragility has been underscored in vivid way. Between 4-5 million people are included in the official global death toll so far, but it’s widely recognised that the true figure is probably a lot higher. I have several friends who work in healthcare and who have been on the frontlines during the first and second waves which threatened to overwhelm the health system in the UK. Their experiences are deeply sobering. One of the most tragic things about Covid-19 is the way that people dying from it so often have to say goodbye to their loved ones via video-link rather than in person. And then, of course, there’s the way that the virus has wreaked havoc on countries with fragile health systems. It was harrowing to witness images last April of Covid patients in cities like New Delhi in India lying on makeshift stretchers outside hospitals, often not able to get the oxygen they so desperately needed. As for the economic impact of the pandemic, it probably won’t be fully be understood for years to come, save to say that many economic forecasters predict that the global economy will be permanently smaller than it would otherwise have been, with all the consequences that will have for the developing world. And then there are the impacts that are even harder to quantify: the impact on people’s mental health, the impact of isolation and loneliness.

Even if you’ve not suffered with or had a loved one suffer seriously with Covid, even if you’ve not had your employment seriously affected by the pandemic, even if you’ve had a solid network of friends around you (albeit over WhatsApp or Zoom for some of the time), the thing that you won’t have escaped from is the enormous sense of uncertainty about the future that is affecting all of us.

Despite the successful vaccination programme in some (though by no means all) countries, we don’t know whether there will be new variants of the virus in the coming months that will be sufficiently able to evade the vaccines as to put us back to square one. We don’t know when international travel will become possible again in the way it used to be. In short, the new world that this pandemic is bringing about is one in which a lot of things we used to take for granted are now completely up in the air.

So why would God allow this, if there is a God? It’s a very natural question to ask in the midst of great adversity. If God is there in the midst of this calamity, why is it so hard to discern God’s reasons for letting this mayhem unfold?

The Covid-19 pandemic could be seen as a kind of natural disaster. But the line between natural processes that are outside human control and things that are within human control is somewhat blurry in this case. We still don’t know for sure how Covid-19 originated and spread to humans. But both of the main possibilities being investigated now make it clear that certain aspects of human behaviour made a pandemic like this quite a lot more likely: whether it’s our relationship to the animal world; our unwise experimentation with biotechnology; our over-use of air travel. Even so, it seems incorrect to say that this is straightforwardly a human-made disaster. Even if certain aspects of the modern world have made pandemics more likely, contagious viruses have been an unavoidable feature of human existence for millennia.

One possible answer to the question of why, if there’s a God, he would permit this suffering, is that it’s a form of punishment. Now, it’s true that in the Old Testament we occasionally read of God bringing about judgement through plagues and other sorts of natural disasters. At the same time, the Bible doesn’t generally encourage us to postulate divine judgment as an explanation for these sorts of calamities. In the book of Job in the Old Testament the main protagonist is a man who suddenly loses everything — his children die, his livestock perish, and he finds himself suffering from agonising sores all over his body. The friends who come over supposedly to comfort Job offer various explanations for his suffering, prominent among which is the idea that Job must have some hidden sin in his life that is being punished. Job resists this line of explanation, and ultimately he is vindicated when he stands face-to-face with God — his suffering wasn’t a punishment. Turning to the New Testament, on two separate occasions in the Gospels Jesus rejects divine punishment as the explanation for disease and natural disaster.[1] I want to suggest, then, that it isn’t helpful to view the Covid-19 pandemic as a divine punishment.

So what is the explanation for disease and natural disasters, according to the Bible? The picture offered in the New Testament is one of a world that is fundamentally out of joint, broken at a deep structural level. In Romans 8 the Apostle Paul talks about the “groaning of creation” and how the world is waiting to be liberated from its “bondage to decay.” According to the Biblical picture God didn’t want the world to be in this state and moreover that he won’t leave it in this broken condition forever. God has promised to make all things new, bringing about an ultimate healing and redemption not just of human beings but of the very fabric of the material universe. But what we aren’t told is why God has permitted the world to be in this broken, disordered state, albeit temporarily.

Here we enter the realms of speculation. For millennia philosophers and theologians have wondered about the possible reasons why a good God might allow pain and suffering. The fact that the Biblical authors don’t offer us any clear-cut answers inclines me to be very tentative about how much weight I place on such speculative theories. With that note of caution in place, two of the major theories of why God might allow suffering are the free will defence and what’s known as the soul-making account. These two theories could both be true, so it isn’t a case of playing them off against each other.

According to the free will defence, God deeply values free will in his creatures, and the reason that God values free will so much is that it is only by granting free will to humans that humans can genuinely exhibit love to one another and ultimately to God. The central insight here is that love must involve a genuine choice. If God had simply programmed us to love him and one another, then that wouldn’t in fact be love at all. The trade-off, though, is that genuine freedom can be misused; used, that is, to harm rather than to benefit and bless.[2] Now, you may have noticed that as I’ve described it so far this theory doesn’t provide any explanation for why there would be forms of suffering in the world that are the result of natural processes like diseases and disasters, over which humans have very little control. But there are two ways that the free will approach has been expanded to try to offer the beginnings of an explanation for these forms of suffering.

One way is to consider the possibility that there is misuse of free will not only by human creatures, but also by supernatural beings — fallen angels — who exercise a significant degree of power over the workings of the natural world, including perhaps the workings of the biological world. This approach was hinted at by C. S. Lewis in some of his writings, and has been articulated more recently by the theologian Michael Lloyd.[3] The other way to try to explain diseases and natural disasters by appealing to free will is to consider the way in which the possibility of humans exercising genuine freedom requires the world to have a certain structure: it needs to be a world with orderly and regular ways of working. An irregular world, a world in which (for example) a boulder rolling off a cliff could just as easily tickle someone as it could fatally crush them, would be a world in which humans would be totally unable to predict the outcomes of our actions and hence we wouldn’t be able to exercise genuine free choice. The thought, then, is that free will requires a system of regular laws and processes in nature that God doesn’t intervene in too often, and that inevitably humans will sometimes get hurt by that system. The Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne has done a lot to develop this line of thought.[4]

Another major theory is called the soul-making account, which claims that a possible reason why God permits pain and suffering is that it is only in a world of great adversity that humans have opportunities to grow in character. In principle, this approach could shed light on suffering that is the result of natural processes. The basic idea is this. The possibility of becoming more courageous, for example, can only exist in a world in which there is significant danger to be faced. The possibility of becoming more generous can only exist in a world in which there are limited resources. The possibility of becoming more patient can only exist in a world in which good things are often difficult and take time to bring about. The possibility of becoming more forgiving can only exist in a world where there are serious wrongs to forgive. And so on. The philosopher John Hick has developed this account in a lot of depth, drawing on the ideas of the second century church father Irenaeus.[5]

It seems to me that both of these theories are onto something, and yet both have significant limitations. Neither of them seems able to provide a complete explanation for all the different kinds of pain and suffering we find in our world.  As for the free will approach, there seems to be something right about the idea that a world in which serious freedom is exercised needs to be a world with a certain kind of physical setup. But does it need to be a setup that allows for so much chaos to unfold? As for the soul-making account, if we think about it there do seem to be aspects of the pandemic that are creating opportunities for growth not just of individual character but also opportunities to reorient our societies as a whole towards things that are of greater value than material consumption. But equally, there may very well be other ways in which the pandemic ends up eroding the fabric of our societies.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be all that surprising that as limited and fallible creatures we aren’t able to come up with a theory that fully explains why a good God might allow evil and suffering. At best there appear to be vague outlines of possible answers to the question. A number of philosophers today who write on this question are drawn to a view that says that we shouldn’t be surprised that we aren’t able to see clearly the reasons that God might have for allowing pain and suffering to occur; the fact that we aren’t able to come up with a fully satisfying answer doesn’t mean that there isn’t one.[6] Here’s an analogy. Suppose I, who am not very good at chess, were to play a chess grand master like Gary Kasparov. And suppose that Gary Kasparov were to make a move that looked completely incomprehensible to me — a move that seemed to me unfathomable if he wants to win. Should I conclude that he doesn’t have a good reason for making that move? No. My ability to discern possible chess moves and strategies is relatively limited, meaning that the fact that I can’t figure out what Gary Kasparov is up to doesn’t entitle me to conclude that he hasn’t got a good reason for the move he made.

But even more than this, I want to suggest that an answer — in the sense of a theory about why a good God might allow things like pandemics — is not necessarily the thing we need most in the midst of suffering, although it is understandable that we desire at least some sense of the outlines of an answer. The claim of the New Testament is that in the midst of adversity, God has given us himself in human form, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth: a human being who knew suffering close up. God has not merely given us a proposition; he has given us a person.[7]

The atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once remarked that the only answer to the problem of suffering worth taking seriously was one in which the gods endured human suffering firsthand.[8] Nietzsche seemingly didn’t make the connection to the Christian claim about the incarnation. But Nietzsche’s point is a good one. If God came down to our level and entered into the human drama, experiencing both its peaks and its valleys, then that does seem to cast things in a different light. I remember when in was in my late teens, considering Christianity afresh for the first time in several years, I had the distinct thought one day that the only God I could take seriously was a God who entered into the misery of this world for himself.

To be sure, the claim that God came in the flesh and experienced human suffering close up doesn’t by itself give us an explanation for why God allowed all the pain and suffering in the first place. But it does give us a kind of assurance that we wouldn’t otherwise have. Here’s another analogy. Suppose that my youngest daughter has to have some blood taken for a test, and because she’s only three, even if I tried, it would be very difficult to explain to her the reasons why she needs to have a needle stuck into her arm. But suppose that I do something else. I come alongside her, and I ask the doctor to take some blood from me first, so that my daughter can see that I too am going through the same thing that she is. That doesn’t give her an explanation for why she’s having to undergo this traumatic event, but my willingness to share in what she is going through assures her of my love for her, and of the fact that there is, ultimately, a good explanation, even if she isn’t able to grasp it at present. This, in essence, is the unique angle that Christianity is able to offer on the problem of pain and suffering: God with us.

Here’s a final thought. Try to imagine what Jesus’s disciples would have been thinking on the evening of the day that Jesus was crucified. Their friend with whom they had spent three years travelling, the man whom they had seen deliver countless people from all sorts of kinds of spiritual and physical captivity, the man whom they had begun to hope would be the fulfilment of all of Israel’s hopes — this man had been taken from them by force, subjected to a sham trial, tortured, stripped, and hung naked in agony on a Roman cross in front of crowds of people jeering and taunting him. This would have seemed to his disciples to be the ultimate tragedy; a complete and utter waste; a totally bleak and hopeless end to the story. And yet, if it’s true that through what looked like completely pointless, wasteful events, God was in fact working to bring about the greatest act of redemption in the history of the world, how much more is God able to redeem the catastrophes that confront us in our lives?

[1] Luke 13:4-5; John 9:2-3

[2] For a classic statement of the free will defence by a leading philosopher on the topic, see Alvin Plantinga, God Freedom and Evil (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1977).

[3] Michael Lloyd, “The Fallenness of Nature: Three Non-Human Suspects,” in Finding Ourselves After Darwin, ed. S. Rosenberg, 262-280 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2018).

[4] Richard Swinburne, Providence and the Problem of Evil (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998)

[5] John Hick, Evil and the God of Love (Glasgow: Collins, 1977)

[6] See Michael Bergmann, “Skeptical Theism and the Problem of Evil,” in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology, 374-99 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009)

[7] The philosopher Eleonore Stump has explored this distinction between propositional knowledge and personal knowledge in relation to the problem of evil in her book Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

[8] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy and the Genealogy of Morals, trans. Francis Golffing (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1956), p. 30.

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