Updated: Jul 15, 2020
The coronavirus pandemic is perplexing and unsettling for all of us. How do we begin to think it through and cope with it? John Lennox unpacks this question in this excerpt from his newest release, “Where Is God in a Coronavirus World?”
We are living through a unique, era-defining period. Many of our old certainties have gone, whatever our view of the world and whatever our beliefs. Whether you are a Christian or not, the coronavirus pandemic is perplexing and unsettling for all of us. How do we begin to think it through and cope with it?
This book excerpt consists of my reflections on what we are experiencing right now. I started writing in March 2020. Things have changed quickly since then and no doubt will do so again. There will, inevitably, be some rough edges and inadequacies. For that I apologize.
I would invite you, the reader, to view this reflection like this: I am sitting with you in a coffee shop (if only we could!) and you have asked me this question: “Where is God in a coronavirus world?” I put down my coffee cup and attempt to give you an honest answer. What follows is part of what I would try to say to convey some comfort, support and hope.
Cathedrals and Worldviews In times of crisis, hope is what we look for. In a New York Times article on March 10, 2020, Italian journalist Mattia Ferraresi wrote the following:
“Holy water is not a hand sanitizer and prayer is not a vaccine…. But for believers, religion is a fundamental source of spiritual healing and hope. It’s a remedy against despair, providing psychological and emotional support that is an integral part of well-being. (It’s also an antidote to loneliness, which several medical experts point to as one of the most worrisome public health issues of our time.) At a deeper level, religion, for worshipers, is the ultimate source of meaning. The most profound claim of every religion is to make sense of the whole of existence, including, and perhaps especially, circumstances marked by suffering and tribulation. Take such claims seriously enough, and even physical health, when it is devoid of greater purpose, starts to look like a hollow value.”1
When life seems predictable and under control, it is easy to put off asking the big questions, or to be satisfied with simplistic answers. But life is not that way right now—not for any of us. It is not surprising that, whatever your faith or belief system, the big questions of life are breaking through to the surface, demanding attention.
Coronavirus confronts us all with the problem of pain and suffering. This, for most of us, is one of life’s hardest problems. Experience rightly makes us suspicious of simplistic answers and facile attempts to come to terms with it. What I want to try to do here, then, is to avoid those kinds of “answers,” and to think with you, as honestly as I can, through some of the ideas that have helped me to wrestle with these difficult questions as coronavirus has begun to change everything.
RUINED CATHEDRALS Pain and suffering come from two distinct sources. Firstly, there is suffering as a result of natural disasters and diseases, for which humans are not (directly) responsible: earthquakes, tsunamis, cancers, and the coronavirus. This leads to the problem of pain, or, as it is often called, the problem of natural evil. This terminology is somewhat unfortunate, since the word “evil” has moral connotations and neither earthquakes nor viruses are moral agents. Second, there is suffering for which men and women are directly responsible: acts of hate, terror, violence, abuse and murder. That leads to the problem of moral evil. Christchurch Cathedral in New Zealand, Coventry Cathedral in England, and the Frauenkirche in Dresden, Germany, are powerful and poignant symbols of these two problems. These three ruined churches bear traces of two things. On the one hand, they show evidence of the beauty and elegance they once possessed. On the other hand, they are also marred by the deep scars of catastrophe—an earthquake in Christchurch and bombings in Coventry and Dresden. Each ruined cathedral, therefore, presents a mixed picture of beauty and destruction.
Together they remind us that it is unlikely that there are any easy answers to the deep existential questions that arise from catastrophe. For many at such times, the picture is more than ragged—it is extremely raw. Those of us who stand outside the immediate pain of others run the risk of failing to be sufficiently sensitive to that rawness. However, there is a difference between Christchurch and Coventry. The cathedral in Christchurch collapsed as a result of the shifting of tectonic plates. The cathedrals in Coventry and Dresden collapsed as a result of war. Some people compared the Christchurch earthquake to 9/11, because it sent a similar shockwave around the nation; but there is a major difference. The destruction of the Twin Towers was not a natural disaster: it was a moral disaster. It was a product of human evil. Earthquakes, meanwhile, are natural, not moral, catastrophes.
Of course, moral and natural evil are sometimes connected. The situation is complicated because one can lead to the other: greedy commercial deforestation may lead to the proliferation of desert, which in turn may lead to malnutrition and disease. But the coronavirus outbreak seems to be a case of natural evil (although moral evil lurks nearby in selfish panic buying and hoarding of food). Inevitably, conspiracy theorists will seek to put the blame on some human agent. Humans are involved in virus transmission, but not deliberately or selfishly—and the main presumption is that the virus jumped from animals to humans.
That said, there is evidence that the authorities in China initially suppressed reports of a potentially devastating new virus. In the Guardian newspaper on March 11, 2020, Helen Davidson reported from Hong Kong:
“Official statements by the Chinese government to the World Health Organisation reported that the first confirmed case had been diagnosed on 8 December. Doctors who tried to raise the alarm with colleagues about a new disease in late December were reprimanded. Authorities did not publicly concede there was human-to-human transmission until 21 January.”2
Sadly, Dr Li Wenliang, the Wuhan ophthalmologist who was hailed a hero in China for raising the alarm about the coronavirus in December 2019, himself died less than two months later as a result of catching the infection.
No doubt, there will be recriminations and counter-recriminations for each country’s reaction to the coronavirus for a long time to come. But none of that will help deal with the crisis, nor help us know how best to react personally.
How we respond will inevitably depend to an extent on our perspective. The way coronavirus appears to an elderly infected woman, hovering between life and death in intensive care, is very different from how it looks to the doctor who is treating her, or to the family member who is unable to visit her, or to the pastor who is trying to help her. Another concern for many of us is whether we have it, or have had it; and whether we could pass it, or have it passed, on to anyone else.
We each need to make sense of coronavirus in three different ways: intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. All are important—and together they present a formidable challenge to anyone.
We all wish to have intellectual clarity, and many people will spend hours watching news programs and trawling the internet in the hope of gleaning some new piece of information that may help them understand what is happening. However, intellectual analysis does not easily penetrate a veil of tears. How does one bring sense—or if not sense then perhaps hope—in situations that are devastating, indeed irreversible? The deep questions flow in an unending stream, and perhaps they are a torrent for you as you read this: Why has this happened to me, or to them? Why did they get infected and die and I was spared? Where can I find alleviation of my physical and mental pain? Is there hope?
WHAT PAIN DOES Human experience and elementary medicine teach us that pain has an important role to play in our lives. First, pain warns us of danger. If, for example, you put your hand too near the fire, your nervous system alerts your brain and you feel pain, which makes you withdraw your hand and so protects it from injury. We cannot say, then, that pain is all bad. Second, a certain amount of pain is involved in physical development. For instance, if athletics, mountaineering or the physically demanding games of American football, British rugby and boxing are anything to go by, sports enthusiasts will put up with a great deal of pain in order to excel. Third, at a deeper level still, suffering and pain can contribute to character formation. There are many examples of resilience and fortitude in the face of suffering—molding characters of great quality. There is truth in what the Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky had his character Raskolnikov say: that he could not imagine a great person who had not suffered. “Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart.”3 Parents are often aware of this. On occasion, they will allow a child to go through a painful experience that they know, from their own journey, will profit them in the end. I do not claim to know much about this, but let me speak personally for a moment. Some years ago, pain in my chest told me that something was badly wrong. I was rushed into a hospital, where the situation was deemed so serious that I had to say goodbye to my wife. Skillful medical intervention saved me in the nick of time from a massive heart attack that would, in all probability, have been fatal. In a sense, I had had an earthquake in my heart. That kind of experience will leave no one unchanged. For me, it taught me a great deal. It taught me that I was mortal and that I was vulnerable; and I now feel that my life was given back to me as a precious gift to be treasured. It brought more urgency into my sense of purpose and calling.
DISASTERS AND WORLDVIEWS At almost the same time as my near-fatal heart attack, my sister lost her (just) married 22-year-old daughter to a malignant brain tumor. If I am going to thank God for my recovery—as I do—what shall I say about God to my sister? And what shall I say about God when it comes to a pandemic like coronavirus, where we can see no positive dimension whatsoever, only unrelieved disaster? C. S. Lewis once wrote a letter that will resonate with most of us: “It is so [very] difficult to believe that the travail of all creation which God himself descended to share, at its most intense, may be necessary in the process of turning finite creatures (with free wills) into—well, Gods.”4
And we could now add the coronavirus to this concern. Lewis was a one-time atheist who became a Christian in middle age and who explored the problems of pain, suffering and evil in two books: The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed. They both illustrate the fact that our attitude to these deep issues is influenced by our worldview—the framework, built up over the years, which contains the thinking and experience that each of us brings to bear on the big questions about life, death and the meaning of existence. We all have such a framework, however much or little we have thought about it.
James Sire, in a very helpful book entitled The Universe Next Door, points out that there are essentially only three major families of worldviews. First, there is the theistic worldview, held by the three Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This teaches that there is a God who created and upholds the world and who created human beings in his image. (Notice that I said “families” of worldviews; there are crucial variants within each category, as any Jew, Christian or Muslim who takes their holy book seriously will tell you.)
Second, there is the polar opposite of the theistic approach—the atheistic worldview, which holds that this universe (or multiverse) is all that there is; there is no supernatural dimension. Third, there is the pantheistic worldview, which merges the concepts of God and the world into one impersonal entity.
I am also well aware that there are people who take a skeptical or agnostic perspective. But no one is skeptical or agnostic about everything, and so deep down most people fit somewhere into one of the three worldviews just mentioned.
I fit into this picture, too. I have a worldview. I am a Christian, and I shall therefore try to make clear why I think that Christianity has something to say about the issue of natural disasters like coronavirus—something that is not to be found elsewhere. Perhaps you will agree with me, and perhaps not. But I hope after you read this reflection you might understand why Christians are able to speak confidently about hope and to feel a sense of peace, even in a world of uncertainty in which death has suddenly loomed closer.
Evidence of Love We need convincing evidence of the goodness of God’s character if we are to trust Him. I would therefore ask you at this point to listen to the core of Christian teaching—whether you are familiar with it or whether it is new to you—and to try to understand it before concluding that belief in God is inconsistent with the existence of the coronavirus, or any other pandemic, disease or fracture in the natural world. Christianity claims that the man Jesus Christ is God incarnate—the Creator become human. At the heart of its message is the death of Jesus Christ on a cross just outside Jerusalem. The question at once arises: if he is God incarnate, what is he doing on a cross? Well, it at the very least means that God has not remained distant from human pain and suffering but has Himself experienced it. Therefore, a Christian is not so much a person who has solved the problem of pain, suffering and the coronavirus, but who has come to love and trust a God who has Himself suffered. That, though, is only half of the story. If that suffering had been the end of what Jesus did, we would never have heard about it. But it was not the end. The message that set Jerusalem buzzing that first Easter—the message that riveted the first-century world—was that Jesus had conquered death: that he had risen from the dead and would be the final Judge of humanity. The importance of this cannot be overestimated. It addresses a fundamental difficulty that the atheistic worldview cannot cope with—the problem of ultimate justice. As we are all aware, untold millions of human beings throughout history have suffered grievous injustice, and after lives of misery have died without any redress. No doubt, that will also be true of some of the many victims of the coronavirus. These people did not receive justice in this life. 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. But the resurrection declares that justice is not an illusion and that our desire for justice is not futile. The abusers, terrorists and evil men and women of this world will one day be brought to justice. When I have tried to make this point to atheists, they often say that the thing to do is to work for justice in this world. I, of course, agree—working for justice is a Christian duty. But I also point out to them that this does not go any distance towards solving the matter of ultimate justice. Atheism, by definition, knows none. Atheism is an affront to our moral sense. By contrast, the biblical view is that ultimate justice is very real. God is the authority behind the moral law, and He will be its Vindicator. There will, in consequence, be a final judgment, when perfect justice will be done in respect of every injustice that has ever been committed from earth’s beginning to its end. Justice is not a mockery. When the Christian apostle Paul lectured to the philosophers at the Areopagus Council in Athens, he told his audience that Jesus had been raised from the dead and appointed Judge of the world—a fact that guarantees that there will eventually be an ultimate answer to the deepest human questions. There is a human tendency to long for justice to be done, but there is also a tendency to react negatively to the message of ultimate justice, because it raises the question of our own position before God. “I couldn’t believe in a God like that,” some say, even as they protest at moral evil and accuse God of failing to intervene! Here is the problem with our natural response to God’s future judgment: we welcome God’s intervention only so long as it is an intervention in the lives of others and not of ours. The fact is that we tend to see the evil in others, not in ourselves. So, when we think of what God should do, most of us would hold the view that God should be getting rid of the very evil people around us, but never us. After all, we are not as bad as all that. The Bible teaches, though, that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). None of us has kept our own moral standards, let alone God’s—the Ten Commandments tell us that all too clearly (see Exodus 20:3-17). 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. According to Christianity, that solution lies once more in the cross and the resurrection of Jesus. These events do not simply give us a way into the problem of evil and pain and a resolution of the problem of justice. They show us what the name of Jesus means—“he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, those who repent of (which means “turn away from”) their own evil and their own contribution to human pain and suffering—those who trust Jesus as their Lord—receive forgiveness; peace with the personal God who created and upholds the universe; a new life with new powers; and the promise of a world where suffering will be no more. Here Christianity does not compete with any other philosophy or religion—for the simple reason that no one else offers us forgiveness and peace with God that can be known in this life and endures eternally. A Christian, then, is not a person who has solved the problem of suffering but one who has come to love and trust the God who has suffered for them.
TWO CROWNS So how can this help us cope with disasters and pandemics? The coronavirus is so called because it visibly resembles a crown (“corona” in Latin). A crown is a symbol of power and authority—and certainly this virus has colossal power over us humans. It is invisible to the naked eye, and yet just think about what it has forced many millions—indeed, billions—of us to do and not do. It also forcibly reminds us of our vulnerability. It is easy to forget that we humans are mortal. The coronavirus is evidence that both our relationship with creation and creation’s relationship with us are disordered; and that this is not an accident. But hope is found in another corona: the crown of thorns that was forced on Jesus’ head at his trial before his execution.
That corona shows us just how deep the break between creature and Creator goes. Earth is God’s creation, not ours. We are not its owner, but we seek to be. We are only tenants and stewards, and flawed ones at that—many of us have made a mess of our own lives and even those of others, to say nothing about what we have done to the planet. There cannot be two paradises for humans, one in fellowship with God and one without Him. The coronavirus is very rapidly demolishing the illusion that we can build perfection on earth—and turning our initial lackadaisical, even complacent response into real fear, frustration and anger.
In a fractured world, damaged through the consequences of human sin, pain and suffering are inevitable. Perhaps we had hidden from this reality until coronavirus rampaged across the globe. Now, we cannot ignore it, nor the big questions about life and death, which it prompts. Here is C.S. Lewis again:
“We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”5
Perhaps the coronavirus might function as a huge loudspeaker, reminding us of the ultimate statistic: that one out of every one of us dies. If this induces us to look to the God we may have ignored for years, but who wore a crown of thorns in order to bring us back into relationship with Him and into a new, unfractured world beyond death, then the coronavirus, in spite of the havoc it has wreaked, will have served a very healthy purpose.
John Lennox is Professor of Mathematics (emeritus) at the University of Oxford and Adjunct Lecturer at OCCA the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics. This article was published in the 28.3 edition of Just Thinking magazine. To view the magazine in its entirety, click here.
1 Mattia Ferraresi, God vs. Coronavirus, The New York Times (March 10, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/10/opinion/coronavirus-church-religion.html. 2 Helen Davidson, “First Covid-19 case happened in November, China government records show – report,” The Guardian (March 13, 2020), https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/13/first-covid-19-case-happened-in-november-china-government-records-show-report. 3 Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment (Clayton, DE: Prestwick House Literary Touchstone Classic, 2005), 233. 4 See “To Belle Allen” (November 1, 1954) in C.S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume 3: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy, 1950 - 1963 (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2007), 520. Lewis is not saying here that creatures—humans—literally become God. He is rather referring to the fact that becoming a Christian through trusting Christ means that we are brought into God’s family as his sons and daughters (see John 1:12-13; John 3:1-21). 5 C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1940), 81.