Coronavirus and the Problem of Evil
Jim takes a look at natural evil, and what perspective it can give us when faced with it in our everyday lives, like during a pandemic.
My professional training is in philosophy, which means for me almost all problems ultimately lead back to what philosophers call the problem of evil: how do we reconcile the existence of evil in the world with a good and loving God? For some problems, the route to evil is fairly circuitous—like why we can’t get stoplights to control traffic better (I confess, some of my evilest thoughts come sitting at a red light when there is no traffic at all from the other direction). But for the coronavirus pandemic, it doesn’t take long for serious questions about evil and suffering to arise.
When evil happens to us personally or to those we love (as it likely will before this pandemic is over), the most pressing question might be something like, “Why isn’t God protecting us from this evil that is amongst us?!” That is usually more like an existential cry of the heart than a philosophical puzzle to be solved. In the midst of suffering for most people, it usually doesn’t help to do philosophy. But most of us aren’t in that situation yet, and in the midst of our isolation (and absence of sports on TV) we might have the mental leisure to consider the deeper, more theoretical question that nags in such times: Why would God create a world like this, where this coronavirus can wreak such havoc on our daily lives, and even kill people by hijacking their respiratory systems?
It doesn’t bother me too much, at least on the philosophical level, that people can do evil things. That’s a direct consequence of free will. And I think it’s a defensible position to say that the world is a better place because there are humans with free will, even though they sometimes use it for evil purposes. (Again, that is shallow comfort when humans choose to do some evil to you personally, but at least at the theoretical level, it makes some sense to me.) Removing humans’ capacity for evil would also rid the world of tremendous good and beauty and love.
The coronavirus is different, though. The free will defense doesn’t work for viruses. They aren’t intentional agents that make decisions or have moral responsibility. They just do what they are programmed to do. So why in the world would God create these things and program them to devastate like this?!
We humans (or at least quite a few of us) seem programmed to ask such questions, and this isn’t called a problem for nothing. There are no easy answers, and any direction we go with this problem, there will be unsatisfactory consequences to confront. But I think it is worthwhile and even important to try to say something about why things are the way they are and why God might have set things up this way.
Why are there natural evils?
Some of us Christians think it is best to take God off the hook and say that evils like the coronavirus are simply effects of the Fall—we brought them on ourselves when we rebelled against God and the good world God created for us. But that response is unsatisfying to me on two levels.
First, theologically I don’t see that it “takes God off the hook.” On that account, God still made the world such that when we first sinned, all these natural evils would be introduced. Did God have to do that? If our normal moral intuitions are any guide in this (and if they’re not, then we should give up trying to say anything here), the punishment doesn’t seem to fit the crime. The way this story usually goes, it was Adam and Eve in the garden, being tricked by the snake; and according to the text, they didn’t even yet know good and evil (Genesis 3:22). It seems more than a tad harsh to unleash viruses and earthquakes and tornados on the world just because a couple of morally naive people ate some forbidden fruit.
But I totally understand that it also seems problematic to say that God created the very good world from the beginning with viruses and earthquakes and tornados that cause suffering and death.
So, secondly, if you find yourself torn between these options on theological grounds, consider this: there is clear and ample evidence that viruses and other natural evils were around long before there were human beings on the planet.
It seems that it is this life—with God’s grace, Christ’s redemption, and the power of the Holy Spirit—that can prepare us for our roles in eternal life. Each of us is now developing the character that we will take with us into eternity.
Viruses don’t leave traditional fossils behind because there is nothing to calcify, but increasingly they are being discovered frozen in ice that goes back at least 30,000 years ago—well before the traditional setting of Adam and Eve in the Bible (though there are other proposals for a historical Adam and Eve). And viruses do leave “fossils” in the DNA of other organisms, from which their history can be reconstructed. A few years ago a research group published a paper showing the history of one group of viruses back to around 30 million years ago, which predates any reasonable proposal for the entrance of human sin into the world. And even further, everything we understand about life implies that viruses have been around about as long as life itself. We can confidently say that life as we know it would not exist without viruses.
That is the point I’m working up to.
As a comparison, think about earthquakes. These are the result of tectonic activity, without which the planet would probably be totally covered by water or totally covered by land—neither of which would allow for the kind of life we see now. So we might wonder why God created the Earth with earthquakes, and the answer is: removing the possibility of earthquakes from our planet takes away other aspects of the world we couldn’t live without.
The same goes for dynamic weather systems, which are so crucial for life. Yes, they sometimes give rise to tornadoes and hurricanes, but this is a side effect of a necessary condition for life to flourish.
So too, we can understand the existence of viruses along these lines. The population of viruses on Earth is estimated to be 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. That’s a really big number (1031)—ten billion times more stars than there are in the universe! What are they all doing? The vast, vast majority of them are not infecting humans, but rather they are infecting bacteria and keeping them in check (this point was first made to me by Praveen Sethupathy on our podcast episode on coronavirus).
There are about the same number of bacteria on Earth as there are viruses. In our bodies alone, each of us has about 100,000,000,000,000 individual bacteria. That’s about ten times more bacterial cells than human cells in our bodies! They provide all kinds of useful functions for us, particularly for our immune system and in digestion. It’s safe to say that life as we know it wouldn’t work without them. But they have a tendency to take over, if left unchecked.
For example, E. coli bacteria reproduce every 20 minutes under ideal conditions. So if you start with one bacterium, in 20 minutes there will be two, and in forty minutes there will be four, and at one hour there will be eight. If that went on unchecked, by the end of one twenty-four hour day, the population would double 72 times, which is close to 5 x 1021, and if you let that go on for a year, it’s a number so big I’m pretty sure that is more bacteria than the mass of the Earth (someone check me on that).
So, it is very good that the overwhelming majority of viruses on Earth are infecting bacteria and slowing down their reproduction. And in order to keep doing that effectively, viruses have to keep mutating. So every once in a while, a virus will appear that can infect and do harm to humans. Taking away that possibility, though, would make it impossible for us to live.
Just like earthquakes and tornadoes, viruses sometimes cause harm, suffering, and death. But without them, we cannot conceive of how life would be possible.
An Eternal Perspective
Does that solve the problem of evil? Probably not. We might ask how eternal life will work: will heaven have tornadoes and earthquakes and viruses? I wouldn’t think so. But maybe the eternal perspective raises another aspect of this response to the problem of natural evils.
According to orthodox Christian theology, God created us humans to reign and rule with Christ in the Kingdom of God forever and ever. To do that, we must become the kind of people who are capable of fulfilling that role. How do we become that kind of people? Does God just snap his fingers and turn us into that when we die? If so, I wonder why God wouldn’t just create us in that state to begin with? Why put us through this life if we could have just been immediately glorified and able to fulfill the role God intended us for?
It seems that it is this life—with God’s grace, Christ’s redemption, and the power of the Holy Spirit—that can prepare us for our roles in eternal life. Each of us is now developing the character that we will take with us into eternity. I don’t mean that we’ll be exactly as we are now. The Apostle Paul said that we will all be changed at the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:51). But he also said that we must go into strict training to get a crown that will last forever (1 Corinthians 9:25).
Each of us as individuals has had a spiritual journey, which for most of us has included responding to adversity, needing to repeatedly place our trust in God, and learning to love our neighbors and our enemies. This is not easy. James said:
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. (James 1:2-4)
Times of adversity can lead to us becoming mature and complete. And what is true for us as individuals might be true for us as a species—call it the spiritual journey of Homo sapiens. Earthquakes and tornadoes and viruses have allowed life as we know it to flourish on this planet. But they (and lots of other natural adversities) have also provided opportunities for us to develop the physical and cognitive capacities we need to become the mature and complete people God intended for us to be.
Too often the story of evolution is told as a history of death and suffering. And there has been plenty of that, to be sure, but that’s not the whole story. Our species’ history is also one of cooperation. From a purely naturalistic perspective (which also is not the whole story), our species has overcome tremendous odds and faced numerous challenges along the way by developing the capacity to cooperate and empathize to a degree that is not remotely seen in any other species. I’m not claiming that morality is a purely natural phenomenon like digestion. But the development of morally mature people demands the involvement of those people in responding to adversity, and choosing not to be selfish.
Can we respond to the adversity of the coronavirus today in ways that nudge us further toward becoming the kind of people who can reign and rule with Christ for eternity? Will we use this as an opportunity to practice loving our neighbors as ourselves? Will we do our best to preserve and protect life—especially “the least of these” Jesus called us to care for (Matthew 25:31-46)—while at the same time not to fear death, as though this life is all there is?
I told you there were no easy answers. I happen to think this answer is correct, but it is not easy.
It is appropriate for us to ask God to protect us from the coronavirus. And I think it is appropriate for God to ask us to respond to the coronavirus with the hearts and minds he has given us.
And I think God expects us to persevere in this adversity with joy (which is not the same as fun). And I think God designed this world perfectly—viruses and all—so that we could become the kind of mature and complete people God intended us to be from the beginning.
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