Ben McFarland
 on April 23, 2020

Dare We Test God? What new experiences, experiments, temptations and trials can teach us

As we all adapt to the changes happening in our communities, we examine various types of tests, including those faced by Jesus, to wrap our minds around this global crisis.

Mountain range

As I write this, our country is in the middle of a once-in-a-century epidemic. We are being tested by a tiny virus, and by hundreds of voices each day suggesting what it means and what to do about it. As a professor at a Christian university, I’m hearing opinions from these voices (in no particular order): the governor, the President, my university president, my pastor, my wife, my choir director, my dean, my Scripture reading, and all the various voices from across the world that flit across my social media feed.

Each moment is a test of who I will listen to and how I will act. The most painful voices have been the several phone calls from those I love who have contracted COVID-19 or similar symptoms. By God’s grace, they are all well now. But it’s also been painful to cancel all meetings, especially my church and choir practice. I don’t believe every voice, but test every voice, to paraphrase 1 John 4:1. After testing the voices, I think God’s calling us to stay apart for now. Reinforcing this conclusion is the fact that I’ve seen God work through extreme circumstances, even the laggy and unpredictable online communications we are forced to adopt.

Adjusting to New Norms

We are distancing at my academic job as well. Seattle Pacific University started classes for the Spring Quarter on Monday, April 13. A month ago, our governor directed us to stay at home except for “essential functions.” All of our classes must take place as videoconferences, for the entire quarter.

I co-teach a senior seminar, so instead of walking around a classroom, I had a screen with 25 little boxes of faces to follow. As we talked, I noticed a few things: the pauses between questions and answers are uncomfortably long; when you make a joke and hear no response whatsoever, you cringe involuntarily even if you know it’s because everyone’s muted; and our students are remarkably resilient given how much things have changed in a matter of weeks.

a zoom conference call

I’m reminded how important nonverbal communication is in finding out what’s really going on with a student. It’s harder to figure out what the real question is and what the real problem might be when you’re interacting with an inch-high face.

The students sense this too, and I think they are more verbally open as a result. In the seminar, we heard several stories about how students are reacting to this. One student, speaking from her home in another state, said she was glad to be home but it didn’t feel like home. Social distancing meant she could only see her immediate family. Her friends are only blocks away, but might as well be two states away still, since they can only talk through screens.

This is a real-life test for how the students will react to an unforeseen crisis, far more important than any pop quiz I could give. They are passing. They’re clearly burdened by their own uncertainty, but the burdens they talked about most were on behalf of others.  They carry burdens for their relatives and feel a duty to protect them. These students are determined to protect their former protectors.

Protecting Ourselves and Others

But how do we best protect others? We are not at the point where we can sort out which kind of contacts most risk viral spread. The virus is made of atoms—like your body, the food you eat, the air you breathe, and the clouds in the sky above. We know something of how these atoms work, how viral genes are transcribed into proteins, and the chemical shapes those proteins adopt. Moving in unpredictable paths, these atoms predictably diffuse both from body to body and within each body, bonding and interacting with other atoms according to chemical rules. These rules are the same everywhere, so the virus, like the rain, falls on the just and the unjust alike.

From studying this and similar viruses, we know something about how SARS-CoV-2 moves through different environments. It thrives when it is hiding inside cells, but it struggles to survive outside of its host, and it starts to decay as soon as it leaves the human body. The chemical forces of wind and water pull it apart, and once it lands on a surface, that surface chemistry can attack its integrity as well.

You may have seen some of the studies of viral half-lives on different surfaces. You may have also noticed that some studies give different results. These come from differences in experimental details: how much virus they started with, how it was applied to the surfaces, and how it was measured after time elapsed.

The data from these tests tell us that SARS-CoV-2 acts a lot like SARS-CoV-1 and other coronaviruses. Interestingly, copper surfaces degrade the virus quickly, so that even a high viral load is pulled down within a few hours (and infectivity, which is what matters most, is likely lost in even less time).

a stack of masks

Tests and experiments are how we know that wearing masks is effective at protecting others from your viruses. The six-foot guideline is an estimate of a safe distance based on tests and certain assumptions about how the virus spreads (i.e., in droplets vs. in aerosols). Promising antiviral pharmaceuticals are currently undergoing clinical trials in which they are systematically tested against the virus. These trials reveal which promising antidotes can become widely-used, effective treatments. None of these is certain, but become more certain with more tests.

Other tests are harder to do, especially with a new virus. How this simple virus interacts with a complex human body is unpredictable, and how it interacts with hundreds of different human bodies, in a restaurant, a movie theater, or a church, is more unpredictable. Experiments at this scale can’t be controlled in the same way as spraying a virus on a surface. What we can do is look at historical data for how similar viruses acted, and more recent data for how this virus has acted.

In Seattle, we had several instances recently that tested how the virus spreads through gathered groups. The one that hit closest to home for me was the case of the Skagit Valley Chorale, which met on March 10. The group took normal precautions against the virus, according to what we knew at the time (which wasn’t much). The precautions didn’t seem to slow the virus. Three weeks later, 45 of the 60 members at the rehearsal had shown symptoms of infection, and two had died.

I am a member of a similarly sized church choir in the area that stopped meeting in early March. That could have been us. I can tell from our choir’s weekly (now online) prayer meetings that nothing like that has happened to us, either in symptoms or deaths. Comparing those two similar groups with different outcomes is a rough test of the hypothesis that even normal precautions are insufficient to halt the spread of this virus.

The bigger the phenomenon, the harder it is to run an experiment. It’s easy to test a virus on a surface, harder to test how the virus spreads through groups, and harder still to test how long we have until we can cease these social distancing precautions. Time will tell what the underlying truth of the matter is, but we don’t have time when decisions need to be made and lives need to be lived now.

At a certain point, I am no longer the one running the tests, but I am the one being tested. When I am tested, the tests reveal underlying truths—no longer truths about atoms and crowds, but about soul and spirit.

The “Experiments” of Satan

All humans are tested. Jesus, the one true human and the one true God, is no exception. Jesus began his ministry with a trial in which the prosecuting attorney was Satan himself. In a sense, you could say Satan was running diabolical “experiments” (the Greek word could work that way) testing the proposition that Jesus is the Son of God.

In Matthew 4, Satan starts with a crude, skeptical hypothesis: “If you are the Son of God, then so-and-so will happen.” He even replicated his experiment with three different questions, echoing the tests of hunger and idolatry that Israel faced for 40 years in the desert. Jesus fulfilled his calling by passing these tests, not by engaging Satan with a long, reasoned debate, but by repeating God’s words from the Torah.

The second test in Matthew speaks to our current moment, in which we feel the spiritual hunger to see each other and just shake someone’s hand and sing together to offer the sacrifice of praise. Doesn’t God want that? Right now, the second temptation of Christ suggests to me that, no, God does not.

In his second test, Satan takes Jesus to the top of the highest, holiest place and says “If you are God’s Son, cast yourself down; for it has been written that ‘He will command his angels concerning you’ and that ‘They will catch you in their hands, that you may not strike your foot against a stone.’” (Matthew 4:6, David B. Hart translation)

The devil has no problem quoting scripture or making an apparently holy request. Adding to the irony is that Satan is quoting Psalm 91, which at the time was a favorite verse of Jewish exorcists driving out demons. Hearing him quote Psalm 91 “is rather like seeing a modern day cinematic vampire waving a crucifix, or gargling holy water,” writes Philip Jenkins.

mountain top

The dramatic spectacle Satan proposes sounds like a good idea, just like gathering for church or for choir practice sounds like a good idea. Having a healthy church in the midst of a plague would certainly show a lot of people that Jesus is indeed God’s Son, right? Add a little dry ice to the show, the meme would go viral, and all would see.

But that would not reveal the truth about God. It would reveal a God who arbitrarily rescinds the law of gravity for Jesus or the law of diffusion for us in a pandemic, who saves us from our own perfectly predictable follies and who is on a leash, compelled to serve our own whims and our ideas of the way things would be. It would reveal that God is not God at all, but a mere mechanism, a genie, a hollow idol.

Jesus says no by quoting Deuteronomy: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” (Matthew 4:7) Deuteronomy’s “test” referred to is when Israel grumbled against God’s guidance. I have questions about this: In a democracy, we’re supposed to speak out and let our leaders know that meeting as a church is much more essential to us than it seems to be to them. Yet I’m troubled by the blurred line between democratic protest and self-centered grumbling. What I do know, is that in Matthew 4, we get a solid “no” to a religious spectacle. Jesus passes the test where Israel stumbled, by doing things God’s way and according to God’s own unchanging word. No human gets to run experiments on God.

There’s a time for acting like Peter and John in Acts 5 and speaking out when told to remain silent. But there’s also a time for remaining silent in the face of questions, accepting the trial, and saying “not my will, but Thine be done.” In my reading, there’s more stories in the Bible about the latter case than the former. At the very least, there’s a need for discernment.

One of these stories comes at the conclusion of Luke-Acts, when Paul chooses to travel to Jerusalem, despite his friends’ voices of objection. Their fears come true and he is arrested. In a head-scratching legal move, he chooses to appeal to Caesar, despite the fact that his appeal puts him in chains and on a voyage to Rome. The greatest missionary of the early church is isolated and confined.

Then, a wondrous thing happened when Paul was under house arrest in Rome: the church grew. In Acts 28:23 it says that “…many came to him at his lodging. From dawn to dusk he expounded and testified about the kingdom of God.” (Christian Standard Bible) Paul’s chains became a paradoxical catalyst for the Word of God to be proclaimed under the Roman Emperor’s nose, because the power was not Paul’s, but God’s. Paul didn’t try to break out of house arrest, and he likely never left Rome alive. But God used that circumstance to show that God’s ways are the upside-down ways of Christ, not the world’s ways of publicity and advertisement.

This year has been an upside-down and disappointing year. In early March, I began praying specifically and repeatedly that we would be able to assemble as a church on Easter. What hope that would show the world! As the weeks dragged on, it became clear that we could not assemble. The answer to my prayer was “no.” God’s will was not for our collective sacrifice of praise on April 12, 2020.

Instead, in a world hiding inside from the virus, Jesus surprised me, showing up behind locked doors. One of my best friends from high school has become the pastor of an Illinois church. It seems like just yesterday we were cruising in his big old Cadillac, but it’s been decades. Since 1996, I have only seen Alex at his wedding. But this month I saw and heard him, through a screen, preach to his congregation on a Sunday morning. I never knew this, but he has a melodic tenor voice when singing hymns. Alex spoke of God’s mercy to Moses in a passage a few pages from the one Jesus quoted, and it spoke to me of forgiveness and grace.

One of my other friends visited four church services on Easter to be with friends and family virtually. No, it’s not the same, but God is working despite the difference. All this has revealed the literal truth when Paul wrote “I am with you in spirit.” (1 Corinthians 5:3, Colossians 2:5). The Spirit bridges the distance between us in space and time.

Long distances and legal proclamations restrict the body but they cannot restrict the soul. In these trials, may we see this truth more clearly and cultivate patience for the time when we can gather again. I’m praying that it will be soon.

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About the author


Ben McFarland

Ben McFarland teaches biochemistry and chemistry at Seattle Pacific University in Seattle, Washington. He grew up near Kennedy Space Center and wanted to be a paleontologist in the second grade. He received a dual B.S. in Chemistry and Technical Writing from the University of Florida and a Ph.D. in Biomolecular Structure and Design from the University of Washington. His research uses the rules of chemistry to redesign immune system proteins. In 2013 he received an Evolution and Christian Faith (ECF) grant from BioLogos to write A World From Dust: How the Periodic Table Shaped Life (Oxford University Press, 2016). He lives near Seattle with his wife Laurie and his children Sam, Aidan, Brendan, and Benjamin.