Tag Archives: Pandemic

Pandemics and the Problem of Natural Evil

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The recent Covid-19 pandemic raises the age-old problem of evil and the goodness of God.  How can an all-good and all-powerful God allow evil things to occur?  Considered by many to be the “Achilles heel” of Christianity, how can an omnibenevolent and omnipotent God co-exist with profound and incessant evil?

In an earlier post, I explained how genuine human moral freedom brings with it the possibility that some evil choices will result.  But what about those events deemed “natural evils,” where despite their devastating impact, no obvious human moral decisions are involved?

It should first be acknowledged that the Bible makes it clear that our world is not currently as it should be.  Disease and sickness are some of the tragic marks of a world deeply marred and damaged by sin.  After Adam sins, God tells him, “cursed is the ground because of you,” and Romans 8:22 reminds us that creations groans and longs to be freed from this curse.  Viruses like Covid-19 are just one more example of a world gone wrong because a long time ago in a garden far, far away, our ancestors refused to submit to and trust in the goodness and wisdom of God.  Everyone has been paying a heavy price ever since.

In Christian history, many great thinkers developed responses to this problem of natural evil that have come to be called “theodicies,” or ways of justifying a perfect God in an imperfect world.  Most argue that an orderly creation is a necessary condition for certain divine objectives to be possible.

The idea is this: It would be very difficult for a moral agent to act with intentionality and responsibility in an unpredictable environment.  As Michael Peterson points out in Evil and the Christian God, “If the objects in the world acted in sporadic and unpredictable ways, deliberation and action would be severely impaired if not eliminated.”  For example, if an individual could not predict what would happen when they pointed a loaded gun at someone’s head and pulled the trigger, then how could a responsible moral action be ascribed to that individual?  But the laws of physics as well as past experience (i.e., predictability) clearly inform the event and give the agent at least some knowledge of its moral value.

In addition, the so-called “laws of nature” are a two-edged sword.  As Peterson puts it, “The same water which sustains and refreshes can also drown.”  At this point, it becomes clearer that when people are upset about the way the natural world normally works, they are ultimately asking for is some sort of suspension or alteration of natural law whenever a natural disaster occurs.  But this would only succeed in producing a chaotic and unpredictable universe where the supernatural (miraculous) could not be distinguished from the natural, and where the “normal course of events” would have no real meaning.

Two observations are worth noting at this point.  First, perhaps God really could miraculously intervene every time some natural catastrophe was about to take place.  But again, if God was constantly intervening this way in nature, then predictability and the resulting stability and responsibility of human moral choices (not to mention the possibility of scientific knowledge) would be severe jeopardized, if not rendered meaningless.

The natural universe is constructed such that when an individual’s brain is disrupted by a speeding bullet (for example), the likelihood of survival is greatly diminished.  But if God were to intervene each time a speeding bullet disrupted the brain functions of a human being, then the person who shot the bullet could hardly be held responsible for doing something good or evil.  This would negate all freedom to make a moral choice, for the moral agent could foresee no negative recourse for his or her actions and would therefore never know or have to be concerned about the difference between good and evil.  Consequently, “natural evil” is part of the fabric of the universe for it makes moral decisions possible and everyday life meaningful and predictable.

A second observation is closely related to the previous one.  If God is omnipotent and all-wise, why didn’t He create natural laws that precluded the possibility of natural disasters?  The problem here is that it is extremely difficult to imagine a universe where natural laws that make life possible could have been made such that they exclude the possibility of natural evil.  For example, if water quenches thirst in the human body, it must also have the property of being able to drown the individual who cannot swim.  Exercise is good, but resistance from gravity is a necessary prerequisite to its benefit.  As such, gravity is also the cause of the unfortunate results when someone falls from a tenth-story balcony.  It is extremely difficult to imagine a universe where gravity would operate as it does without also having the potential to be an accomplice to some occurrences of what are termed “natural evils.”

Because the natural order is a highly complex system, even tiny changes in that system will have far-reaching and profound effects upon the rest of the system.  The universe is predictable and functional because of the way it is put together in the current system.  Skeptics and critics consistently fail to provide a workable model for a different system that would have all the benefits of the current system with none of the liabilities.

At this point, Peterson’s conclusion proves insightful: “The whole matter becomes so complex that no finite mind can conceive of precisely what modifications the envisioned natural world would have to be incorporated in order both to preserve the good natural effects and to avoid the . . . evil ones.  And if the desired modifications cannot be detailed, then the further task of conceiving how the proposed natural world is better than this present one seems patently impossible.”

The real objection, it seems, is an objection of both scope and degree.  Given the fact that God is not expected to intervene at every point in which some natural evil might occur, why can’t He at least intervene more often than He already does and so reduce the amount of natural evil we experience?  This has been called the “inductive problem of evil.”  Applied to natural evil, it suggests that God could at least do a marginally (if not significantly) better job of managing natural disasters so that fewer lives would be lost and greater human flourishing would result.

Here again, though, this objection assumes we know better than God about these things.  It is, however, impossible for us to know how much natural evil is already restrained by God in order to make life on planet earth possible.  For all we know, God is constantly holding back the tide of natural hostilities to keep our planet habitable and hospitable.

The sad reality is, we often find it hard to fully trust in God’s wisdom and power because deep down, despite our obvious incompetence and incapacity, we are still convinced we know how to run the universe better than God.  But we clearly do not know what combination of disasters and relief creates the right mix for human beings to be properly chastised for our sin and reminded of our gross inability to control the realities of our own lives, let alone those of the entire universe.

This is where our attitudes and responses to events like the Covid-19 pandemic come most forcefully into play.  Whether we want to admit it or not, part of natural evil’s goal is to humble and remind us that we are severely limited in our power and understanding.  We are decidedly not in control of our own lives and destinies.

In view of this, we can either refuse to submit to and continue shaking our fists at the God who lovingly made and sustains us, or we can beautifully demonstrate to those around us the authenticity and significance of our faith in Jesus Christ by giving thanks, affirming, and resting in His sovereign wisdom, goodness, and grace.

Faith or Fear? Trusting God in the COVID-19 Age

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Since the Covid-19 virus impacted Asia long before the rest of the world, we’ve been living under various restrictions here in Singapore for over a month now.  It’s given me some time to reflect on life, death, and seeking a greater faith in God.

The fact is, apart from the second coming of Jesus Christ, we will all die someday.  The only question is, how and when?  As Christians, we really shouldn’t fear death, although most of do if we’re honest.  And I confess, I am by nature a fearful person.  Although I became a Christian very early in life, some of my earliest childhood memories included the (irrational) fear that I would get sick and die young of some terrible disease.  I suppose it didn’t help watching movies like, “The Andromeda Strain,” and “The Omega Man,” but I always found it difficult to release these fears and trust in the goodness and faithfulness of God.

I take some comfort in the fact that fear is nothing new, and the Bible talks a lot about it.  The simple but profound phrases, “do not be afraid” and “fear not,” are found 67 times in the ESV translation of the Bible.  In Matthew 6:25-34 alone, Jesus mentions anxiety six times.  Closely related positive variations on this theme (“trust/hope in God”) occur numerous additional times as well.  It would seem that all human beings, Christians included, are incredibly prone to fear and need to learn (and constantly relearn) to trust in God’s wisdom and goodness.

With the recent pandemic, it’s incredibly tempting to let anxiety and fear strangle our faith in God.  Surprisingly, I have been experiencing a profound sense of peace in the midst of all the clamor.  In many ways, I am more concerned about the inconveniences of widespread and long-term lockdowns and shortages than I am about death.  After all, death for those in Christ merely means experiencing true life forever in the presence of God!  Why in the world would I fear that kind of everlasting hope and joy?  In the words of the Apostle Paul, “that is far better” (Philippians 1:23)!  In the meantime, however, all of us must continue to struggle to trust God through the vicissitudes—and viruses—of life.

How do we do that?  The answer is neither hidden nor profound.  We ask Him for His grace to live in faith when it’s much more natural to live in fear.  We let the peace of Christ reign in us when panic tries to take over and push Him from the center of our hearts.  And we offer our lives as living sacrifices for God’s glory so that whether in life or in death, our lives remain safely held within His wise and loving hands.

COVID-19: Some Semi-factual Reflections

 

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With the recent COVID-19 pandemic, there are a lot of unanswered questions and incorrect information swirling around on the internet.  I am neither a medical doctor nor a virologist, but I’ve seen so much that is misleading and inaccurate, I couldn’t help adding a few semi-factual reflections to the confusing cacophony.  I do so with the hope that at least for some, it might provide a bit more sanity and clarity.

First of all, as much as no one wants to hear it, the main goal at this point is mitigation, not eradication.  I’ve heard many make the claim that the vast majority of cases (80-85%) are relatively mild and most will readily recover.  So far, so good.  The real problem is the 15% (using the more conservative figure), as well as the wildly disparate death rates from country to country.  It would appear the reasons for the disparity are many, but it’s not my purpose here to get lost in the numbers.  Others have already put out valuable and accurate articles along those lines to help explain the reasons for these disparities.

Because this disease is very contagious—almost twice that of the flu—so-called “social distancing” is the main way to slow the spread.  This ultimately achieves not eradication, but mitigation, and mitigation is necessary to keep those who will get very sick from the virus manageable in terms of numbers.

Italy (as well as China and Iran) is a good test case for this problem.  Italy failed to put serious restrictions in place until many people had already died.  When the numbers of sick shot up exponentially, medical resources were almost immediately stretched to the breaking point.  There were not nearly enough medical personnel, beds, medications, ventilators, etc. to meet the burgeoning demand.  If they had put restrictions in place earlier, they would at least have slowed the exponential spread of the virus and given the medical community a smaller and steadier stream of patients to be treated and released, making room for others to come in on their heels.

As it is now, Italian hospitals are deciding who lives and who dies based on factors like being a parent, being young and healthy, having no pre-existing medical conditions, etc.  This is triage of the most macabre and dreadful kind, but wholly necessary given the situation they are in.  Sad to say, all of that is now water under the bridge.  If, however, the USA can learn anything from all of this, it’s that they need to put widespread draconian restrictions in place sooner and not later.

While no one wants to hear or face it, quarantines, shortages, travel bans, online-only education, and the cancelation of large-scale social events (regular church services included) are likely to be the new normal for quite some time—likely months and not just weeks.  If we have learned anything from the lockdown in China, it’s that this virus is not going to be eliminated on a large scale for a long, long time.  On January 23 in Wuhan, China closed down virtually everything that did not pertain to vital services for a city of 11 million people.  The rest of China soon followed.  While cases of the virus have finally fallen to nearly zero, it has taken almost two full months to get to this point and the Chinese lockdown has been enforced in draconian absolutist communist style, literally locking and sealing people into their respective homes and communities.  Even so, it is still unclear when the restrictions will be lifted and to what extent.  One thing is for sure, China will not be allowing people from other parts of the world back in to re-infect them anytime soon.

I am deeply concerned for the situation in the US for many reasons.  First and foremost, Americans love their freedom way too much.  They also tend to distrust and disrespect their leaders and those in authority over them.  It’s difficult for most Americans to be told what to do.  It’s even harder for them to actually do what they are told.

Most Asians, on the other hand, have a much more communal mindset and clearly understand the value of making hard personal choices for the sake of the overall societal wellbeing.  Their Confucian roots also make them much more trusting of those in authority over them.  This combination makes it more likely that people will do what they are asked (not even required) to do by the authorities for the sake of the greater good of all.  We have seen the happy results of that here in Singapore where the virus spread continues to be kept from blowing out and overwhelming the medical system.

Beyond all of this, it’s still very hard to say what effect warmer and more humid days will have on COVID-19.  We can only hope that similar to other coronaviruses like the flu and the common cold, warmer summer months will help slow the speed of transmission.  We simply do not know yet, but very warm and tropic places in Asia (like Singapore) show that this virus is not easily contained in any climate.  We also hope for a vaccine to be developed sooner and not later.  But in the meantime, people everywhere need to be patient and take the governmental restrictions put in place very seriously so that hospitals and medical workers will not be overwhelmed and forced to make dreadful decisions about who will live and die.

So far, these are relatively factual (although admittedly debatable) reflections.  In the post that follows, I will reflect more on issues of faith and fear as we increasingly come face-to-face with the realities of a post-COVID-19 world.