Coronavirus, God and the problem of pain

 
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imageBook review: Where is God in a Coronavirus World? by John Lennox (The Good Book Company, 2020)

Where is God in a coronavirus world? It’s a persistent thought stalking through our minds; like a stray cat looking for lunch. Whether we profess any particular faith, or perhaps deny them all, John Lennox’s latest book invites us to consider how we can possibly reconcile the idea of a compassionate God with the Covid-19 catastrophe that has constricted our every move during much of this year. Streets full of masked strangers, schools refusing parents entry through the front gates, retail staff lining us up like cattle and even our homes transformed into prisons with vague release dates. It’s been easy to feel alone, when we can’t so much as shake hands or give someone a hug. What might God be up to in all of this? Did He cause it? Allow it? Is this part of His overall “plan”? And, most importantly, does He care how this impacts me?

John Lennox, an Oxford mathematician, philosopher and public defender of Christian faith, is perhaps best known in popular circles for his gracious, grandfatherly smiles during controversial public dialogue with atheist rivals. This book, written in the space of only a week, is much less formal than his debates and academic writing. In the introduction, Lennox laments that, due to lockdown, he is unable to meet with us in person at a local cafe for a chat. Thus, this book is his attempt to recreate on paper what is difficult during lockdown: a private face-to-face conversation with a friend. Those looking for a deep, comprehensive and systematic treatment of this topic might appreciate something more like John C Peckham’s Theodicy of Love: Cosmic Conflict and the Problem of Evil (2018, Baker Academic).

What Lennox does achieve in only 58 pages is nevertheless worthy of consideration, due to his unique focus. Many books have been written addressing the wider “problem of evil”. Interestingly, Lennox distinguishes “natural” evil from “moral” evil. He does suggest these categories are not completely separate and may interact with each other, an example being greedy commercial deforestation (moral evil) that can lead to malnutrition and disease (natural evil). Nevertheless, generally speaking, Lennox deals with natural evil (for example, earthquakes, tsunamis and, most significantly, pandemics such as Covid-19) rather than moral evil (such as terror attacks, wars, crime and other human-created hardship).

If you are struggling with the concept of natural evil, or perhaps have a friend who is asking thought-­provoking questions, but is not ready to earn an advanced degree to satisfy themselves, then this book is for you. Taking a kind, gentle and humble tone, Lennox seeks to explain to us what his worldview offers and why he thinks this God-centred approach could help you and me as well. He has both the believer and sceptic in mind as he writes.

The meaning of pain

Lennox begins by considering the often-overlooked benefits of pain. This is not a wholesale whitewashing of pain, but a nuanced and personal reflection involving tragedy in his own family. He points out that our attitude to pain is significantly influenced by our worldview and invites us to consider whether theism (belief in God’s existence), atheism (denial of God’s existence) or pantheism (a merging of God and the world) can best help us to make sense of the pain we experience.

First, he examines atheism to see if this worldview can help us understand how to deal with pain and suffering. He wonders aloud how we can complain about suffering in an indifferent universe, which has apparently evolved to be this way. He also notes that if we remove God from our worldview, this does nothing to alleviate suffering, and in fact raises a problem of hopelessness.

By way of contrast, Lennox offers a brief yet thoughtful review of the biblical teaching on suffering. It is not necessarily a judgement from God, but it does not therefore follow that suffering is always independent of God’s sense of fairness. Yes, God does have the ability to intervene against calamity, but no, this does not therefore mean that God always does, possibly for good reasons that may not be apparent to us.

Lennox asks, “How can there be coronavirus if there is a loving God?” In an unexpected turn, he considers the beneficial aspects of earthquakes and viruses, both of which are actually necessary to maintain life. Nevertheless, the persistent inquirer may still ask, “Couldn’t God design things to be otherwise?” And, of course, an all-powerful god could, but how would that redesign impact us?

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Tracing evil

Perhaps the most controversial section of the book addresses the nature of humanity and the suggested interplay between human morality and natural evil. For those who prefer to lay their hopes on the “essential goodness of humanity” or struggle to see the interplay between human moral accountability and natural calamities, this part of the book may appear a little abrupt and vague at first glance. But if you take the time to digest more carefully the reasoning offered, you might face some unexpected and uncomfortable personal questions. Am I really that good? Are you? Are our motives sterling or stinky? Why can’t we simply quarantine “bad” people to create a utopia for “good” people? It’s not as simple as we may have hoped.

From this vantage point, Lennox offers a God who suffers with us. “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.” Lennox points us away from the coronavirus to another corona—the crown of thorns Jesus wore when He suffered to bring our planet back into relationship with Himself and into a new existence where there will be no more suffering.

Summing up Lennox’s conclusion, although probably with less tact than he uses, might look something like this: Life without God during our pandemic does not offer much hope or direction. In contrast, a life lived in solidarity with Jesus brings clarity, fulfilment and assurance that all natural and moral evil together will be terminated soon. Given the crazy times we face, both Lennox and I find this bright outlook encouraging.

 

A qualified pilot and keen student of philosophy, theology and science, Nathan Tasker lives with his family in Maryborough, Queensland.