“Theodicy” is the name for the conundrum at the heart of faith. “If God is all good and all powerful why is there suffering? If he is all good God would want to end suffering. If he is all powerful he is able to end suffering. Therefore he must not be either all good or all powerful.”
That certainly seems reasonable from a sort of seventh grade level of logic, and it has always astounded me that grown up philosophers and theologians still pick their brains over it. I’ve therefore suspected that they don’t really puzzle over the question. It’s really just an adolescent hissy fit because they have decided they don’t like God.
Nevertheless, the question remains, “How can a good God allow suffering? Does God cause suffering as punishment for sin? Is the COVID-19 virus God’s judgment on mankind?
To answer the question we first have to examine what “suffering” is. Suffering could be defined as pain of any kind, and pain–although it feels bad–is not always bad. If you put your hand on a hot stove you will experience pain. That pain is a natural response to get you to remove your hand from the stove. If you have an ache or pain in your body it is a sign that something is wrong. If the front end of your car wobbles and rattles you need to pull in to a garage and get it fixed. If you have physical pain your body is telling you the same thing. Something is wrong that needs to be fixed. So, although this kind of pain is truly painful, it is not bad in itself.
The second category of suffering is the suffering we obviously bring on ourselves. If you drink a gallon of whisky every day you will probably develop liver disease and other painful disorders. Likewise if you smoke, gorge on junk food you may develop physical ailments because of your poor choices. If you engage in dangerous sex don’t be surprised if you contract an ugly disease. Choices have consequences and a huge amount of our suffering is brought on by our own bad choices. We can be sorry for that, but no sense crying too much over it if we only have ourselves to blame.
The third category of suffering is the pain we cause other people. Through crime, abuse, violence, greed and lust we don’t hurt ourselves, we hurt other people. The blame for this also cannot be laid at God’s door. Could he stop the suffering we cause ourselves and other people? Technically he could, but in reality he cannot because he will not violate our free will. He sees all the suffering we are causing ourselves and others, and grieves over it, but he will not interfere. But does he interfere? In a way he does, but I’ll come back to that.
A fourth category of suffering is caused by corporate malfeasance. A government or a company or some other group of people may cause suffering through their legislation or decisions. This may cause suffering which cannot be specified and appointed to a particular causal agent or a particular outcome. So, for example, an electric company may put power lines through a neighborhood and it turns out living in proximity to power lines causes a higher likelihood of cancer. Another example is a food company that puts additives or preservatives in their food and it seems safe, but a build up of those chemicals causes some health problem which was unforeseen. Now the suffering is much more general and we have brought it on ourselves, but without malice or intention. It was a by product of some other action we took–either as individuals or a group of people.
A fifth category of suffering is similar to the fourth. It is suffering caused by a group or nation which is the by produce of some other intention. So one country may send in troops to defeat a dictator and restore freedom, but the price of that justice is widespread suffering often among the innocent.
In all of the examples above the suffering is caused not by God, but by human beings in one way or another. There remains, however, another category of suffering: natural disasters. A plague, earthquake, tsunami or birth defects all seem to be part of the natural order. Why doesn’t God solve those problems and take that suffering away? The Christian answer has always been that the whole world is broken. It leaks. The natural order is fallen and suffers from disorder and disarray and we are part of that disordered condition.
So did God send coronavirus as judgment? I don’t think so. Instead he uses the disasters and catastrophes that occur within history as a wake up call–to remind us of the true nature of reality. When suffering comes as a result of our sin, then there is a natural judgment which is built in to the sin itself. When disaster occurs through the disordered lives we lead then bad things will happen. God designed the system to work a certain way and when we deviate from his plan the consequences are dire, but I don’t believe God is up there hurling lightning bolts as punishment.
So what are we to do, therefore, with the Old Testament passages that seem to show God to be a vengeful God intentionally visiting catastrophes and judgment on people? I think the answer is not so much in God’s character, but in our perception of his character. It was natural in the early stages of our relationship with God to understand these disasters as his intentional judgment on sin. Jesus, however, fulfills the law and the prophets and teaches that this understanding of God is only partial. He is a God of justice, but he is also a God of mercy and Jesus Christ reveals the justice and mercy of God at the same time. God does judge mankind, but he does so through the law of mercy and the law of mercy is fulfilled in the justice he metes out.
Which brings me back to the question of whether God interferes when suffering is going on. Yes, he does. I believe he often interferes to prevent suffering through the ministry of our guardian angels and through our participation in the will of God through our own prayers and sacrifices. I believe God often answers our prayers and his grace is poured into situations of suffering to relieve us and deliver us. Notice, however, that he does this not in violation of our free will, but as our free will joins with his almighty will to bring goodness and grace into the world.
But there is a deeper level to God’s interference. The cross teaches us that God does not avoid human suffering nor does he always deliver us from it. Instead he plunges into the suffering. He does not take us out of suffering, but he goes with us through it. When the three Hebrew boys were thrown into the fiery furnace the king said there was a fourth one there with them. That was an epiphany of Christ the Lord and a lesson on the depth of the suffering of God himself. He feels our pain. He bears our iniquities. He is a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
What response, therefore do we have in the face of the coronavirus? To fast and pray that God may deliver us to be sure. To minister to all those who are suffering as we are able. To do all we can to prevent the spread of sickness, suffering and death, but also to pray God for the strength to walk through the valley of the shadow of death knowing that he walks beside us.