Daniel Harrell is editor in chief at Christianity Today.
When I first asked whether the coronavirus is evil, the virus was still novel and the panic not quite a pandemic. But as I type now, almost 1.5 million people have died worldwide and the virus proliferates relentlessly, a conflagration with plenty of wood yet to burn as we await a vaccine and its dissemination. What may have seemed to be a controllable fire in the beginning now rages nearly out of control in the United States, India, Brazil, Europe, and elsewhere. Viewing the virus as part of God’s “good creation” presses against our theological sensibilities. Is the coronavirus evil? How can it not be?
“COVID-19 pandemic has wide implications for what Christians mean by the goodness of creation,” wrote theologian Hans Madueme, who leveraged my “hornet’s nest” of a query for an online symposium. As this array of brilliant respondents has written, a virus, no matter how destructive, cannot carry the moral equivalence of human willfulness. But the mere lack of moral willfulness does not make it good.
Viruses are not free agents, but I still wonder about a kind of created freedom in the nature of things—akin to what we know about uncertainty in the quantum realm undergirding the reality we experience. Inasmuch as humans are made from the dust in God’s image (Gen. 2:7), there exists a continuity between Creator, creation, and creature. The free will of God manifests in the moral choices humans make, and is reflected, perhaps, in what we perceive as the random nature of nature.
John Stackhouse labels the virus “a pestilence with no place in the messianic kingdom to come.” Katherine Sonderegger aptly narrated the dreadful landscape wrought by this microscopic legion, a link to Mark 5:9 and to the tyranny of Satan persuasively argued by Gregory Boyd, a virus victim himself. The New Testament easily attributes viral pestilence to the Devil’s work, though God can use it for his own glory. Whether or not we believe this is what we’re witnessing with the pandemic depends on our theology.
As Jim Stump asserted, “science doesn’t get to answer theological questions, but it can certainly prompt us to reconsider whether we’ve done our theology well.” Science prompted me as a pastor to rethink certain aspects of my theology. As Christians, “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7), which means there’s more to reality than what we see. But it doesn’t mean we ignore what we can see. Faith is not fantasy. If theology is going to matter, it too must correspond with the way things are rather than with the way we believers want things to be.
I’ve never been fully satisfied by the delineation of labor between science explaining the how and theology the why. As creator of all things, God authored all that science discovers. We know death and viruses preceded humanity’s appearance on earth, and both play an essential part in biological evolution. “A bad thing might be a good thing,” as Stackhouse reminds. Conversely, a good thing can become a bad thing too, as Sonderegger allows with her mention of privatio boni (the absence of good). I wrote a follow-up editorial in praise of St. Augustine’s reasoning of evil as essentially nothing, a basic nonentity with wholly derivative power. Like a virus, evil extracts its life from the goodness it perverts. Thus evil often gets spoken in terms of what it is not: injustice or iniquity or ingratitude, disorder, disobedience, faith lessness, law lessness, god lessness, and the rest.
By laying the pandemic at Satan’s feet, Boyd asserts that to “take the New Testament’s perspective seriously” is to regard creation as “corrupted at some point by an enemy, to one degree or another.” As for how Satan becomes the Devil, science can’t help us. Tradition surmises he mutated through free will of his own. Theology grants moral agency on Satan’s part, a fallen angel before the fall who then provoked the fall of humans. Stackhouse notes the slithering serpent in Eden (and talking, no less, Gen. 3:1) as evidence of evil’s pre-Fall intrusion. Nevertheless, why allow an angel to become a demon? And why allow a snake in Eden’s grass—not to mention physical death and mosquitoes and the biological necessity of bacteria and viruses?
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Source: Christianity Today