The World's Walk Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death
The coronavirus pandemic has changed lives across the world in ways unprecedented in modern times. Most of us face an indeterminable period of time confined to the safety of our own homes. The response of those of religious faith to the global situation has varied. While some are pleased with recent events—as they believe that we are seeing the "end of days" playing out before our very eyes before the imminent return of Jesus—most believers have shared our alarm. It must have crossed the minds of many people of faith, as well as those of us who are not so sure, how an all-mighty God can sit by while the virus brings death and destruction across the world. Although man's inhumanity to man or 'moral evil' can be easily explained, theology has always awkwardly grappled with the question of how 'natural evil'—suffering not caused by man's decisions—can be reconciled with the existence of an all-loving God.
As I argued in a previous article, Judaism advocated monotheism much later than many people presume, and their accreditation as pioneers of monotheism should instead go to the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten, who ruled in the 14th century BCE. In reality, the ancient Israelites flirted with the many gods that were worshipped in the Levant during the Iron Age. The Old Testament contains a number of references to such dalliances (see Judges 3:7, 1 Samuel 7:3-4, and Hosea 13:1-2). They believed that all of these gods had power, and could create miracles and curses; some were evil, and some were good. Natural disasters could therefore be explained by the actions of a vast array of evil gods and 'things that go bump in the night.'
The Lord is a God who punishes people.
God, come punish them. (Psalm 94:1)
During the Babylonian Exile in the 6th century BCE, when a large portion of the Jewish scriptures were brought together, the Israelites began to further develop the belief that Yahweh was the only god to exist in reality. All of the other gods came to be seen as make-believe. After this belief was established, however, the ancient Israelites could no longer blame nefarious rival gods for natural disasters. The expedient way to explain away these occurrences was to say that God was punishing people who needed to be punished. For example, the famous 'ten plagues' were inflicted upon the Egyptians for their refusal to emancipate Jewish slaves in the days of Moses (see Exodus 7-11). Later on in the Old Testament narrative, the Assyrian army was wiped out for their attempted invasion of Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 32:21).
If the Israelites had themselves suffered misfortune, the understanding became that this was because of God's jealousy of their trysts with other gods and thus he was punishing them accordingly. The main upheavals in the geopolitical life of the ancient Israelites are blamed on their disobedience of him. When the northern state of Israel fell in 722 BCE, it was said to be due to God's wrath at Israel's worship of other gods, such as Baal and Asherah (2 Kings 17:15-17). Similarly, King Manasseh's encouragement of the worship of other gods described in 2 Kings 21 is given as the reason for the southern state of Judah's annexation by the Babylonians.
While the Judeo-Christian tradition would eventually come up with more sophisticated rationales for catastrophes, many people of faith are currently using God's wrath as the explanation for the current COVID-19 crisis. But who is he punishing now, exactly? The global nature of the disease means that it cannot be a tribe or nation, as it could have been in biblical times. Various prominent Christians have each given their perspective on this. According to Rick Wiles, radio host and pastor of Flowing Streams Church in Florida, coronavirus is a "death angel" sent by God to inflict his punishment on the Jews for their continuing rejection of Jesus Christ as the son of God. Apparently God is not interested in punishing Gentiles who reject Jesus' divinity. Another popular target for God's ire during similar natural disasters has been the homosexual community. Many readers might remember a similar tactic used in the wake of 9/11. As far as White House Bible study group leader Ralph Drollinger is concerned, it is their turn again. Such analyses raise two questions that Wiles and Drollinger don't seek to answer, however. First, why doesn't God choose murderers or terrorists as the groups to single out for his punishments? Second, why does God seem to have lost his ability to pinpoint particular groups? In the days of Moses, God was said to have sent a plague that would specifically kill the firstborn child in every household of a certain nationality (see Exodus 11). Why does God choose the elderly and those with weak respiratory systems to pay with their lives as punishment for the innocent actions of people who are Jewish and/or homosexual?
Then the Lord raised up against Solomon an opponent [a satan], Hadad the Edomite, from the royal line of Edom (1 Kings 11:14)
Following the Babylonian Exile, during the period that we might term 'Second Temple Judaism,' the Israelites not only became further established in their new found monotheism, but also increasingly drifted to the belief that God was not the jealous entity described in some of their scriptures after all. He was instead a supremely loving god—an idea that was to be further developed by Jesus of Nazareth and his followers.
This created a problem. If God was now too loving to cause mass death and disease when humans did not act in a way that pleased him, how could natural disasters now be explained if he was the only god? The Persian invasion of Judah later on in the 6th century BCE exposed the Jews of antiquity to beliefs that gave them the inspiration to answer this question. The Persian religion Zoroastrianism also laid claim to monotheism, affirming belief in a supremely good god called 'Ahura Mazda.' However, their deity also had an enemy—'Angra Mainyu.' The Jews adopted this idea and reinterpreted some scriptures so that they featured a cosmic opponent to God. For example, some Old Testament passages use the word 'satan' (Hebrew: שָּׂטָן). Derived from the Hebrew verb that meant 'to oppose,' 'satan' (lowercase) was used to describe an opponent of any kind. 'Satans' could be human. They could also have good intentions. For example, when King Solomon starts worshipping idols, God sends Hadad and Rezon, two 'satans,' to challenge him (see 1 Kings 11).
However, 'satans' were often nefarious, and it was these that would eventually become the singular, supernatural opponent-of-God 'Satan' of Christianity, complete with a tail and horns. Another reinterpretation saw the serpent in the Garden of Eden recast as Satan, who had adopted another form to tempt Adam and Eve. Books that appeared very late in the Second Temple period, such as the Book of Enoch, explained the origins of 'Satan' as an angel who had decided to rebel—a story that has many echoes of the Zoroastrian narrative about Angra Mainyu.
For some, it is this 'Satan' who is to blame for the recent pandemic. For the prominent Brazilian pastor Edir Macedo, the novel coronavirus is a "tactic of Satan" used to wreak havoc across the world. Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga (1932- ) has argued that, in the same way that God allows humans free will, celestial beings are also afforded free will to rebel against God and use their God-given power to ruin lives on a global scale. Many would counter these ideas and ask why suffering caused by fellow human beings is not enough for us to endure? Why do we have to endure the mischief of a cosmic wrongdoer, too? If there is a cosmic 'Satan' causing death by spreading viruses, then why doesn't an all-powerful God destroy him? Perhaps God is not all-powerful after all. This might explain why Macedo lines the pews of his church with hand sanitizer to help with the fight against the Evil One.
"Cursed is the ground because of you" (Genesis 3:17)
A more persuasive argument put forward by people of faith is that we live in an imperfect world. God's creation was initially perfect, as attested to by the multiple times that God "sees it as good" in the opening chapter of the Old Testament (Genesis 1:3-31). Unfortunately, the arrival of humans onto the scene saw it become corrupted as they decided to disobey God and do their own thing (Genesis 3). According to mainstream Christian belief, Jesus will return (many hundreds of years after his first appearance on Earth) and restore the balance, ushering in a time of peace, free from disease and suffering.
Justin Brierely—presenter of the UK's Premier Christian Radio's apologetics program "Unbelievable?"—puts forward a version of this argument in a recent blog piece, stating that "the Coronavirus is just one more example of the broken world we live in." For him the coronavirus, as well as other natural disasters, are examples of the effects of humans not living in balance with nature. An example that he uses is that of the devastation caused by earthquakes. Whereas according to Brierley, tectonic plate activity "renews the surface of the earth with minerals," problems are caused "when humans build cities on the fault lines." This line of argument treats natural disasters as a type of moral evil caused by defective human decision-making.
Many agree that the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as previous pandemics such as swine flu, were caused by poor animal husbandry and factory farming, although Brierley's argument essentially utilizes a convenient get-out clause common among people of faith. The majesty of God's creation can be invoked in cases of awe and beauty, such as the blossoming of a flower or the holometabolism of a butterfly in a chrysalis. Conversely, when parts of the natural world are less appealing, the post-Fall despoliation at the hands of humans is to blame, and God is irreproachable.
"Nature is not cruel, only pitilessly indifferent" (Richard Dawkins)
While Brierely is right that many problems are caused by humans' poor stewardship of the world, the coronavirus ultimately exposes the brutality of the natural world. Each organism, from the simplest virus to animals such as ourselves, is engaged in a struggle to do two things—survive and reproduce—and has benefitted from many millions of years of evolution which has made it good at doing them. Concern for any other species largely does not register. The tiger has no concern for the antelope he kills to gain the energy to survive; the frog is similarly unconcerned with the well-being of the moths he eats.
The coronavirus survives by invading the cells of living beings. Like most viruses, it cannot exist for long periods of time outside of the body of an unwilling host. Once the virus takes over the cell machinery of its host, it reproduces by making copies of itself. In its fervor to survive longer and reproduce further, it gives its host a persistent cough so that droplets containing the virus are coughed out. These droplets are then ingested by other people, prolonging the life of the virus. The fact that the cough and related respiratory issues may cause the death of the host is not really an issue, as each infected person goes on to share the virus with between 1.5 and 3.5 people. This perpetuates the survival of the virus and increases the number of people who have been infected until the resulting disease—COVID-19—becomes a pandemic. Keeping one's distance from other people is therefore a rational way of ensuring that the virus is not passed on. The offending droplets do not then have the opportunity to infect other people.
On the other hand, prayer is a less worthwhile activity in these desperate times. Although Donald Trump designated March 15, 2020 as a 'National Day of Prayer' in an effort to recruit divine power in the fight against COVID-19, there has never been any demonstrable benefit to public health that can be attributed to prayer. A 2006 meta-analysis concluded that "there is no scientifically discernable effect for intercessory prayer as assessed in controlled studies." All prayer, whether for the sick or for more selfish gains like amassing wealth, also has a contradiction at its core, particularly in those Abrahamic traditions that teach that God is all-caring, all-knowing, and all-powerful. If he had all of these attributes, by definition he would have already pursued the most loving course of action, and no quantity of collective human murmuring would cause him to deviate from it. The Bible even affirms that God does not change his mind (see 1 Samuel 15:29 and Numbers 23:19).
To be fair, the reaction of many religious communities has not been to philosophize about the reasons for God's inactivity at these times. They have typically been at the forefront of providing practical assistance to those affected by the virus, by doing such things as providing food for the elderly and shelter for the homeless. The early Christian thinker Irenaeus (c. 130-202 CE) suggested that God allows suffering to take place so that people can become compassionate in this way. If alive today, he would argue that a world where pandemics occur is desirable because it causes us to become more moral. There are parts of Irenaeus' argument which make sense; we can't really develop our sympathy unless there are people to be sympathetic toward. There will certainly be some good that will result from the current pandemic—families will reconnect, friendships will be rekindled and new ones will be made, and people will realize how much we have and how little we need. However, the notion that worldwide suffering is part of the mysterious plan of a benevolent God must be rightly treated with the contempt that it deserves. Stay safe everyone.
 Sebastian Kettley, "End of the World: Why Coronavirus is Only Tip of the Iceberg—Claim of 10 Deadly Plagues." Daily Express (April 24, 2020). <https://www.express.co.uk/news/weird/1251502/End-of-the-world-coronavirus-Bible-prophecy-covid19-deadly-plague-Jesus-Christ-Revelation>.
 Marcy Oster, "Conservative Pastor Says Coronavirus Spread in Synagogues is Punishment from God." Times of Israel (March 30, 2020). <https://www.timesofisrael.com/conservative-pastor-says-coronavirus-spread-in-synagogues-is-punishment-from-god/>.
 Laurie Goodstein, "After the Attacks: Finding Fault; Falwell's Finger-Pointing Inappropriate, Bush Says." New York Times (September 15, 2001). <https://www.nytimes.com/2001/09/15/us/after-attacks-finding-fault-falwell-s-finger-pointing-inappropriate-bush-says.html>.
 Brooke Sopelsa, "Trump Cabinet's Bible Teacher Says Gays Cause 'God's Wrath' in COVID-19 Blog Post." NBC News (March 25, 2020). <https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/trump-s-bible-teacher-says-gays-among-those-blame-covid-n1168981>.
 Euan Marshall, "Brazil's Coronavirus Deniers are in Positions of Power." The Brazilian Report (March 17, 2020). <https://brazilian.report/power/2020/03/17/brazil-coronavirus-deniers-positions-power/>.
 Justin Brierley, "Why Doesn't God Stop Coronavirus and Mend the World?" Premier Christianity blog (March 24, 2020). <https://www.premierchristianity.com/Blog/Why-doesn-t-God-stop-Coronavirus-and-mend-the-world>.
 Joseph Eisenberg, "How Scientists Quantify the Intensity of an Outbreak Like COVID-19." Michigan Health Lab blog (Michigan Medicine, University of Michigan) (March 17, 2020). <https://labblog.uofmhealth.org/rounds/how-scientists-quantify-intensity-of-an-outbreak-like-covid-19>.
 Kevin S. Masters, Glen I. Spielmans, & Jason T. Goodson, "Are There Demonstrable Effects of Distant Intercessory Prayer? A Meta-Analytic Review." Annals of Behavioral Medicine, Vol. 32, No. 1 (August 2006): 21-26.
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