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At the start of the lockdown a journalist asked me, "Will Covid-19 challenge people’s faith?"
This question implies that human suffering, in its many manifestations, is problematic to faith. Is it? Why do bad things happen to good people?
Covid-19 has raised this age-old question again. Yet grappling with suffering isn’t merely academic; it is intensely personal. Often the best response is companionship, empathy, and listening.
Nonetheless, it is quintessentially human to try to make sense of what is going on. The "why suffering?" question is challenging for everybody’s worldview to address. In her recent book Where is God in all the Suffering?, Dr Amy Orr-Ewing contrasts how worldviews governed by karma, fatalism, and naturalism differently answer this question, before showing the unique response offered by Christian faith.
"Why do bad things happen to good people?" raises the question of God’s relationship to the world.
God’s decision to create gave the world the "space to be: to be other and particular" (Colin Gunton). God gave the creation a kind of autonomy such that, when on the seventh day God rested, creation went on.
"God did not have to keep pushing it along all the time," says Lesslie Newbigin. God has granted creation a genuine sense of becoming, a momentum, including the freedom to self-propagate and develop. Flora and fauna reproduce by their own creaturely processes, not by the direct action of God.
Therefore, not everything happens by the direct action of God. God is not omni-controlling, saying yes or no to everything that happens.
Creation’s freedom to become, to evolve, includes the tectonic plates moving, and organisms — including viruses — reproducing, multiplying, and evolving. This is all part of creation’s freedom to become.
Therefore, "Why did God create or allow Covid-19?" is the wrong question.
A better question is: "Why are there viruses at all?"
According to epidemiologist Prof Tony Goldberg, "If all viruses suddenly disappeared, the world would be a wonderful place for about a day and a-half, and then we’d all die."
He continues, "All the essential things they do in the world far outweigh the bad things."
Viruses mutate, and many of these mutations are helpful, but some are harmful.
The Bible describes creation as being "subjected to frustration", "in bondage to decay", and one day "the creation itself will be liberated" (Romans 8). There is mystery here. Nevertheless, biblically, creation is not currently as God intends it to be, including the horrible suffering caused by this pandemic.
God’s gift of freedom to creation is also given to humans. Why? By God’s design, human freedom serves the purpose of love. The New Testament teaches, "You have been called to live in freedom. Use your freedom to serve one another in love."
But freedom is risky. Why did God give humans free will knowing we could and would misuse it?
"Because", says C. S. Lewis, "free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having."
In short, bad things happening to good people is a result of the freedom of creation, including human freedom, gone awry.
God desires a world in which people love God and each other; love is the reason and goal of creation. Suffering, then, "is, in effect, the metaphysical price God must pay" to arrive at this goal, says theologian Greg Boyd. Since suffering is so widespread and awful, creation is not currently as God intends it. The Lord’s Prayer puts it, "Your kingdom come; Your will be done on Earth as it is in heaven."
God’s will is often not being done, hence the prayer.
A Christian response also includes protest. Large chunks of the Bible, not least the Psalms and Job, contain God-inspired protest at earthly suffering.
Where is God in all this? Decidedly not reclining in some cosmic spectators’ gallery. God the Son enters creation as Jesus of Nazareth, fully human. Jesus repeatedly enacts God’s will by relieving people of their suffering. How? Through healing, action for justice, including the excluded, and feeding the hungry.
Jesus also wept, grieving with those who grieve. He was "a man of suffering, familiar with pain".
God doesn’t minimise or justify our suffering; he shares in it. Dr Orr-Ewing says "God is actually prepared to bear the cost of love, which is pain, himself."
In his final act of love, Jesus allowed himself to be crucified. Quantum physicist John Polkinghorne explains: "The Christian God is not a compassionate spectator, looking down in sympathy on the sufferings of the world; the Christian God is truly the ‘fellow sufferer who understands’, for in Christ God has known human suffering and death from the inside. The Christian God is the Crucified God."
God does not cause or specifically allow our suffering, but on the cross God does take responsibility for creation gone astray.
Jesus is called Emmanuel, God with us. He is with us in our pain and suffering. Furthermore, he conquered suffering and death through his bodily resurrection from the dead.
Life, not death, has the last word.
All who follow Jesus, which begins by identifying with his death and resurrection through baptism, share in this same hope and experience this same life.
- Dr Adam Dodds is a senior pastor at the Elim Church, Dunedin.