Where is the Living God in the Covid-19 Pandemic? An Appeal for Understanding that Acknowledges that we Live in a Good Creation but One Whose Occasionally Rogue Viruses need Subduing
To ask these two questions is to echo what Paul prays for his readers: a quest for “wisdom and understanding” (Col 1:9; Eph 1:17). Our analysis begins with what the Apostle calls synesis—the comprehension, intelligence, and insight that will enable us to understand.
Understanding Viruses and What They Do
Viruses are so unusual that there is continuing scientific uncertainty about whether they should even be called “living”—they only survive if they can find the living cells of susceptible hosts in which to reproduce. Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that can cause illnesses which have symptoms that range from mild to severe and can be fatal. During December 2019, an outbreak began in eastern China of a new strain of coronavirus: “SARS-CoV-2” (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome CoronaVirus) with the disease it causes labelled “COVID-19” (the “19” indicates the year of first detection). What do viruses do? Almost all viruses survive and flourish by infecting single-cell organisms, mainly the bacteria that are absolutely critical to the life of everything on planet Earth. As one virologist, Anjeanette Roberts, points out,
if there weren’t viruses that were controlling the bacteria populations, Earth would be one giant ball of single-cell organisms, primarily bacteria. So viruses are at the very foundation of life on Earth’s extremely fine-tuned ecological system where you have masters of reproduction [bacteria] … kept in check by things that can’t replicate on their own. It’s just amazing.
She also adds that the number of viruses that adversely affect human health is “totally insignificant compared to the total number of viruses.”
David Harrell is editor of Christianity Today and poses a twofold question: “Is the coronavirus evil? Or is this part of life in the world God made?” Like Anjeanette Roberts, he clearly affirms the second option. Harrell points out that the primary reason for viruses is that
there was a decay process that was part of the creation from the very beginning. … God didn’t just create single organisms in isolation. God created balanced ecological systems. … That suggests that viruses may exist, alongside other things like bacterial infections and predation, so that one population doesn’t overextend its ecological niche.”
Without this “viral villain that we cannot see,” there would be no life as we know it.
God makes no mistakes, and bacteria and viruses indeed are remarkable, or even amazing or wondrous, and part of the plan from the start.
The Australian radio and television source, “ABC Religion & Ethics,” recently commissioned an article from a virologist and two medical researchers—each with a Christian worldview—that they published with the title “Fear not, sneer not: a healthy Christian response to COVID-19.” The article reviews the current state of coronavirus research and argues that a key behavioural strategy is to grasp the way in which the pandemic is utterly dependent on the fact that “viruses need to find susceptible hosts to reproduce.”
Explanations in General: Faith Has its Reasons
There are good reasons for explaining things, especially given the incessant human curiosity that wants answers to its “what?” and “why?” questions; consider the barrage of questions at current Covid-19 media conferences! There is something satisfying and affirming about hearing well-considered answers to probing questions and Christian faith has usually agreed that “faith has its reasons.” Christian faith is not blind faith and explanation has a helpful place in understanding and defending Christian belief and practice—despite the temptations and dangers of rationalism and its smug ally, reductionism, that can attach themselves this side of the Enlightenment to the urge to explain. So, explanation has a necessary role in understanding and communicating how deadly viruses relate both to a good creation and a loving God.
Understanding the Origins of the Coronavirus
Research into the genome of the Coronavirus published in March this year in the journal Nature Medicine indicates that its origins are found in non-human hosts such as bats or pangolins and that the virus then jumped to humans via civets, camels, or ferrets. There is agreement that bats are a natural reservoir of SARS-CoV-2, but an intermediate host is needed for it to jump from bats to humans. The same analysis of the Coronavirus genome offers no evidence that the virus is laboratory-made or otherwise engineered. Other research rules out snakes as the intermediate host for Coronavirus, and neither did China’s fresh (or “wet”) food markets launch the pandemic (but a large question mark does hang over its wildlife and industrial livestock markets).
Dangerous Viruses Were Not Caused by the Fall
Creation was good but not perfect—even before the Fall of humanity. Palaeontology and geology make it clear that death from cancer and the presence of viruses were present long before the advent of humanity on planet earth.
The American biblical scholar, Terence Fretheim, begins his Creation Untamed with a chapter on “God’s good creation” in which he points out that when human beings do appear, they are told to “subdue the earth” (Gen 1:28). That is, God’s good creation was not believed to be tranquil and perfect before the Fall into disobedience and sin—or there would not have been the need to “subdue” it. A prominent theme in Fretheim’s discussion is that
[potentially destructive] natural events such as … cell mutations, and deadly viruses were an integral part of the creation before human beings showed up.
God has created a dynamic world; earthquakes, volcanoes, glaciers, storms, bacteria, and viruses have their role to play in the world’s becoming. … The potential for natural evil … was present from the beginning.
In the New Testament, Jesus’ “wheat and tares” parable also implies the co-existence of good and harm in the created order (Matt 13:24–33, 36–43). The Fourth Gospel assumes the created order has within it both light and darkness. To which we might add the familiar plea of the Lord’s Prayer, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” and the creation as waiting “in eager expectation” for the day when it will be “liberated from its bondage to decay” (Rom 8:19, 21). In other words, when the creation is declared to be “good” or “very good” in Genesis 1, the implication of goodness appears not to mean “without any imperfection whatsoever” but more along the lines of “fit for purpose” despite the presence of yet-to-be subdued elements.
Viral Threats Do Worsen Because of Fallen Human Ignorance and Hubris
Hubris,ignorance, and unwise behaviours intensify the potential for suffering and damage in a world that is experienced as both good and yet also dysfunctional at times. In my opinion, the current pandemic has been made worse by the foolish and harmful actions of fallen humans. Here are some examples:
Alongside bacterial control, Roberts points out a second reason for the emergence of some viruses: what she calls “our mismanagement of creation” whereby deadly viruses have been encountered in places where humans hadn’t been before and where we went for pretty ecologically destructive reasons with the result that these viruses were transmitted to humans.”
Culpable climate change will accelerate this ecological degradation.
- One journalist uses theological language to lament the way in which, in a crucial month (February 2020), a Covid-19 “testing fiasco” became “the original sin of America’s pandemic failure, the single flaw that undermined every other countermeasure.”
- A behavioural warning from the US Surgeon General, Jerome Adams: vulnerable minorities should avoid alcohol, tobacco, and drugs because of alarming statistics about their increased susceptibility to Covid-19.
- And, of course, New Zealand has provided numerous examples of potentially damaging behaviours during the pandemic lockdown. Christians are understandably cautious about publicly pointing out the relevance of human pride and self-centredness—although the one Muslim contributor to a recent article on “Faith in a Time of Coronavirus” does not hesitate to call out “the complete weakness” of humanity in the face of the pandemic and the culpable folly of corrupt leaders.
All of these are examples of how the actions of fallen humanity worsen the threats from harmful viruses.
So, Where is God in the Covid-19 Pandemic?
When theologians describe God’s good creation as imperfect—with appeals to the mystery, risk, and freedom implied in its creation—they are trying to hold together the twin realities of a God known to be good and loving, and human life in a less-than-perfect, evil-containing world. They offer explanations that affirm the following:
- God remains a God of love and goodness even in times of crisis. In the recent Sunday Star-Times article, “Faith in the time of coronavirus” (mentioned above), the Easter themes of love and hope are especially prominent.
- God does not micro-manage the creation in some precise way and is not morally required constantly to intervene in every harm-causing event. To the question, “Could God do more to reduce the suffering of the pandemic?” a Christian can argue that even one intervention would oblige God so to act in every case, thus destroying the natural order. As we have seen, a “good-harm analysis” points to both the helpful and the harmful roles played by viruses in a finely-balanced, and interconnected creation.
- The by-product defence: occasional harm and suffering exist as the inevitable by-product of the design and creativity that God has built into a finely-tuned planet. Implicit acknowledgement of design is even found in the language used by senior medical authorities. For example, an Asian Dean of Medicine describes the ability of the virus to mutate and spread as “brilliant.” Similarly, a University of London specialist on the behaviour of deadly viruses remarks that “we virus-watchers take our hats off to this one. It’s an extraordinary virus with immense potential, quite remarkable”—even while both are committed to subduing (and even eliminating) the virus.
- Imperfections as rogue elements in the created order, including viruses; in fact, the adjective “rogue” is found in the title of a medical research report published in 2015: “Birth and Pathogenesis of Rogue Respiratory Viruses”—in which the adjective “rogue” is used three times. The notable British theologian, T. F. Torrance, argued that
It is difficult not to think that somehow nature has been infiltrated by an extrinsic evil, corrupting natural processes, and introducing irrational kinks into their order.
And he adds,
far from evil having to do only with human hearts and minds, it has become entrenched in the depths of created existence.
We might well conclude that rogue killer viruses are examples.
Some of these aspects of God’s creation will be unpalatable to Christian opinion that seems to have accepted alien (meaning unbiblical Hellenistic) notions of a supposedly “perfect” creation. Wishing the created order to be other than it actually is will not make it so. To appeal to Pascal again: the heart cannot and should not delight in what the mind knows to be untrue.
A Christian Response to the Pandemic: The Wisdom-Led Question, “What Should We Do Next?”
The article by Schilling and others calls for a response marked by the Christian virtue of measured concern: measured because it listens to the warning of Jesus, “Do not be anxious about your life” (Matt 6:25) but concerned and responsive enough to love neighbours near and far, and to avoid panic and stockpiling. In its simplest form, this means that in situations where people are traumatised and shocked by something bad that has happened, the first and best question to help them ask and answer is not: “Why did this happen to me?” but “What do I need to do next?” Asking “What do I do next?” may be the first step towards what Christians mean by salvation which is, ultimately, help from the living God.
Conclusion: Subdue, Resist, Support
We also remember that the call in Genesis 1:28 was to “subdue” with its clear implications of the active resistance that we are to show in regimes of prevention, treatment, and associated research. We do not passively accept the presence and activity of rogue viruses but support and pray for those who work to subdue them. This should include those who research in the field, one of whom writes:
I’m adopting moral courage by wanting to study really bad viruses, but every one of us who is a Christ-follower should have that same type of courage … and sometimes stepping into someone’s life who’s really suffering takes more courage than stepping into a laboratory with a deadly virus.
Like the troubled disciples, we are in lockdown but that does not hinder both the affirmation and reminder of Christ himself, “In this world you will have hardship, but be courageous! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
Bob Robinson is Senior Fellow Emeritus of Laidlaw College and devotes time these days to constructive Christian apologetics in his writing and speaking.
 The author gratefully acknowledges the responsive help received when the outline of this article was delivered firstly as a sermon at his home church and elsewhere at a young adults’ dinner and at a homegroup.
 The title of a new volume by John Lennox (The Good Book Company – with publication indicated for April 2020). This short book (64 pp) is made more interesting by the parallels it draws with the Christchurch earthquake of February 2011 and Lennox’s first-hand experience of the quake.
 Anjeanette Roberts, interviewed by Rebecca Randall, “Why Zika, and Other Viruses, Don’t Disprove God’s Goodness,” Christianity Today, August 2018. https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2018/august-web-only/why-zika-and-other-viruses-dont-disprove-gods-goodness.html.
 Daniel Harrell, “Is the Coronavirus Evil?” Christianity Today, March 17, 2020. https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2020/march-web-only/coronavirus-evil-covid-19-disease-theology.html.
 Daniel Harrell, “Is the Coronavirus Evil?”
 Mirjam Schilling, Joel Gamble and Nathan Gamble, “Fear Not, Sneer Not: a Healthy Christian Response to COVID-19”; posted 17 March 2020; original emphasis (https://www.abc.net.au/religion/coronavirus-a-healthy-christian-response-to-covid-19/12063556).
 One example from social media: the increasingly popular Netflix series “Explained” that provides densely compacted explanations of topical and sometimes anxiety-inducing questions that impact people's lives but for which the daily news cycle provides little or no (or inadequate or misleading) answers.
 An adaptation of Pascal’s “the heart has its reasons …” (Pensées, 277).
 This lies behind N. T. Wright’s assertion that “Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus. It’s Not Supposed To,” the title of his Time magazine article (29/3/2020: https://time.com/5808495/coronavirus-christianity) in which he warns that “rationalists (including Christian rationalists) want explanations” whereas the Christian response should be lament. Others also warn against the notion of “Christianity as explanation;” see, for example, Andrew Moore, “Not Explanation but Salvation: Scientific Theology, Christology, and Suffering,” Modern Theology 22 (2006): 65-83. Nonetheless, Alister McGrath argues that scientific method is a search for explanation: the human yearning to see the “big picture.” “Both the natural sciences and Christian theology offer such theories as a means of explaining what may be observed in the world, and are entirely justiﬁed in doing so ... . It is as if we are designed and intended to yearn to press beyond the world of appearances, and ask what lies beyond or behind it” (A Scientiﬁc Theology, Volume Three: Theory [T&T Clark, 2003], 10, 14).
 ‘COVID-19 coronavirus epidemic has a natural origin not made in a laboratory or otherwise engineered.’ Science Daily https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/03/200317175442.htm.
 Research published in Journal of Proteome Research as reported in Science Daily, March 26, 2020 (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/03/200326144342.htm).
 For an explanation of the difference, see Christopher St. Cavish, ‘Commentary: No, China’s Fresh Food Markets Did Not Cause Coronavirus,’ Los Angeles Times, 11 March 2020 (https://www.latimes.com/food/story/2020-03-11/coronavirus-china-wet-markets). On the probable role of industrial livestock see, for example: https://www.iatp.org/covid-19.
 Creation Untamed: The Bible, God, and Natural Disasters (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010), 3 (repeated 41); 108. Fretheim’s entire first chapter (about one fifth of the book) is entitled: “God Created the World Good, Not Perfect” (9–37).
 See the deployment of the parable by Nicola Hoggard Creegan, Animal Suffering and the Problem of Evil (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), chapter 6 (pp 82-96).
 Anjeanette Roberts, interviewed by Rebecca Randall, “Why Zika, and Other Viruses.”
 The tragic story in recounted in Ed Yong, “How the Pandemic Will End. The U.S. May End Up With the Worst COVID-19 Outbreak in the Industrialized World,” The Atlantic, March 25, 2020.(https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2020/03/how-will-coronavirus-end/608719; emphasis added).An American health expert also argues that, for reasons of political expediency, his federal government “has already squandered February and March” committing “epic failures” and a “mind-boggling degree of disorganization” in the face of the spread of Covid-19. Tom Frieden, former Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as cited in the Sunday Star-Times, 12 April, 2020 (https://www.pressreader.com/new-zealand/sunday-star-times/20200412/282570200231201).
 See, for example: https://newsone.com/playlist/jerome-adams-blacks-big-momma-drugs-comment/.
 Sunday Star-Times, 12 April, 2020; the contributor sees the pandemic as Allah’s response to human sin (https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/health/coronavirus/120875670/coronavirus-as-our-collective-faith-is-tested-religious-communities-are-coming-together).
 For an initial survey, see Nancey Murphy, et al (eds). Physics and Cosmology: Scientific Perspectives on the Problem of Natural Evil (Vatican City State and Notre Dame, IN: Vatican Observatory and University of Notre Dame Press, 2008).
 In the reflections, Peter Lineham takes the extra step of adding that the pandemic is “no mark of divine anger. Christians, especially at Easter time, ought to have the good sense and the theological tools to see that the God who allowed Jesus to be crucified is well aware of the suffering of the world, but has no intention to inflict suffering on anyone, this side of the cross.” Chapter 4 of John Lennox’s, Where is God in a Coronavirus World? examines the question “How Can There Be Coronavirus If There Is a Loving God?” Reference has already been made to the title of Randall, “Why Zika, and Other Viruses, Don’t Disprove God’s Goodness.”
 Hong Kong Medical Dean Gabriel Leung and Professor Peter Openshaw, University of London, in Sunday Times, London, March 15, 2020 (https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/coronavirus-what-uk-can-learn-from-italy-and-the-global-scientific-battle-w5wl9fghl).
 Annual Review of Pathology, 2015 (https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/pdf/10.1146/annurev-pathol-012414-040501).
 T. F. Torrance, Divine and Contingent Order (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 116, 123.
 “Fear not, sneer not: a healthy Christian response to COVID-19.”
 This is one of the valuable insights of Rabbi Harold Kushner, Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People? (New York and London: Schocken, 1981; Pan Books, 1982).
 Dr Anjeanette Roberts, interviewed by Rebecca Randall, “Why Zika, and Other Viruses.”