Written by Dr. Todd Daly, Associate Professor of Theology & Ethics
Sunday, April 19, 2020
Father Paneloux grasped the wooden pulpit with both hands before delivering his opening blow: “Calamity has come on you, my brethren, and, my brethren, you deserved it.” His words were met with a flutter of aghast and murmurs throughout the packed cathedral. What kind of God would punish his people with an insidious, infectious, and incurable disease? This is one of the questions Albert Camus was asking in his novel The Plague. His 1947 novel presents a catalog of responses to incomprehensible suffering and death as a plague swept through the North African town of Oran, decimating its population.
Doesn’t such suffering disprove either the goodness of God, who won’t bring this suffering to an end, or the power of God, who can’t? Camus presents his own position on God through Dr. Rieux, who ends up working side by side with Father Paneloux to help stem the bleak tide of death overwhelming the city. When asked what he thought of Paneloux’s sermon, Dr. Rieux replied that that he’d seen too much of hospitals to relish any idea of collective punishment, and preferred to relieve suffering instead of pointing out its salient features. Camus concludes, Dr. Rieux believed himself to be on the right road—“in fighting against creation as he found it.”
And so, it seems that the most morally defensible position is indeed to fight against creation as we find it, to relieve suffering caused by natural calamities, a stance that hardly requires belief in God. In fact, Camus would have us believe that this is the only morally defensible stance in the face of suffering. That Christians have recourse to God’s judgment as an explanation for human suffering is, for Camus, to stretch credulity beyond its breaking point. Camus is right on at least one point, for there is ample evidence to show that those who deny or have little interest in God’s existence are no less compassionate, caring, and self-sacrificing in the face of senseless suffering than Christians. We can and should be thankful for those on the front lines of the Covid-19 pandemic—whether atheist or Christian—who have put their own lives at risk to relieve suffering where they find it.
But Camus’ striking phrase, “fighting against creation as he found it,” appears slightly disingenuous, for it is extremely difficult to understand the meaning of “creation” without a Creator, which he denies. And without a clear theological concept of creation, describing our current pandemic will prove inadequate. More pointedly, I believe that the Christian doctrine of creation allows us to make the most (not complete) sense of this pandemic insofar as it allows us to identify Covid-19 as a natural evil. But how, it might be asked, could anyone consider this pandemic as anything but evil?
And yet, given the dominant scientific interpretation of nature that sees the world as the product of adaptive survival in the face of violent, chaotic and hostile forces, it is hardly clear, from a species standpoint, that we should be battling a virus that weeds out the weak and vulnerable—especially when ventilators and other medical equipment are so scarce. This was the conclusion of the British sociologist Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), who, in developing a philosophy based on Darwinian evolution, concluded that society at large is served by the elimination of the unfit. Indeed, it was Spencer—not Darwin—who coined the term “survival of the fittest.” Most contemporary philosophers wisely distance themselves from such conclusions, arguing instead that since there’s no meaning to life we must make our own meanings and values, one of which happens to be the preservation of human life. In short, morality is entirely subjective because we cannot read it off nature. Thus, to call the coronavirus “evil” is only to express a human value system; it is nothing more than a response about how one feels about the virus—“yuck!”—for example.
When Christians identify Covid-19 as evil, it means something more; namely, that the virus is an assault on God’s good creation. Indeed, evil is only rendered intelligible (though not fully) as a negation of the good. We can identify the coronavirus as evil because it is an assault on human beings who are created in God’s image (Gen. 1:26). Christians call this plague a disorder, specifically because it undermines the order of creation as established by God, an intelligible order that reflects the mind of a rational God who fashioned things according to their kinds (Gen. 1:11, 12 [twice], 21 [twice], 24 [twice], 25 [three times]). More shockingly, in the New Testament we learn that all that exists has been created in and through Christ, the divine Logos, who also sustains creation (Col. 1:16-17). As Joseph Ratzinger has noted, creation “arose from God’s reason and reposes on God’s Word.” Though there are several forms of disorder in our world, the center nevertheless holds, because the divine Word is there, holding things together.
And yet, a Christian perspective on creation hardly absolves humanity of guilt, for Genesis 3 also reminds us that the chaos and disorder of this world is of our own doing. Creation is good, but fallen. Because we are children of Adam, all of creation suffers and groans for redemption (Rom. 8). Moreover, and to bring us back where we started, creation’s fallenness means that Father Paneloux’s shocking claim that we deserve this is a valid point. God may be using this pandemic to teach us something—about inequality, indifference, suffering, loss, the callousness of our own hearts, or the idol we make of life itself. Due to our primal Fall, God does indeed permit suffering, but out of love and respect for His creatures who are created in His image. It means that even this particular natural evil can nevertheless be used by God and redirected to serve God’s purposes.
But this last claim is precisely the one that our secular age most fervently rejects, for a God who is unable to stop suffering is no God at all. The only fitting response to Covid-19 is a scientific one, founded on optimism and bent on eliminating all forms of suffering through technique. But the worldview on which such thoughts rest is a tyrannical one, for when our technological solutions fail—as they inevitably do—it concludes that there’s nothing more that can be done in a world devoid of purpose.
But because creation is sustained by the living Word, we’re no longer held hostage by mere optimism. We have hope. Though we cannot evade questions of God’s judgment in our own day, we face suffering differently because we see creation through the Word made flesh who sustains creation, the Great I AM, the resurrection and the life (John 11:25). Though we stand under the threat of death, God remains on the throne of His creation. This means, as Dallas Willard once observed, that “this present world is a perfectly safe place for us to be”—not because we are promised a divine cloak of protection from such viruses, but because of our hope in the Risen Lord, the One who sustains creation and will one day renew it, banishing evil, sorrow, sickness, and suffering forever.