Is COVID-19 proof that God is wrothful or that he does not exist?

Also published in the current issue of Hermes Magazine.

Any concrete experience of suffering tends to invite an argument over the abstract question of God’s character. This question often takes the form of what is called theodicy which is roughly: “why does a God, who is, by definition benevolent/good, omniscient/all-knowing and omnipotent/all-powerful, allow a world with evil in it?” For instance, one might pose the question, “why would God allow the hardships associated with COVID-19 and its attendant phenomena?” Of course, this question is premised on the postulate that whatever we understand as “the Corona-phenomenon” is comprehensive and accurate, which is doubtful because our information and our intelligence are both limited, and moreover our view of a given matter is invariably conditioned by factors extraneous to understanding it. These can be innocuous things like physical situatedness, or more sinister things like propaganda or deliberate misrepresentation. But usually the most significant obstructions to accurate judgments are our own preferences. “The greatest delusion men suffer is from their own opinions,” as I think Da Vinci wrote in one of his diary entries (which would require not only fluency in Italian, but also a mirror to read since he had the eccentric habit of writing in reverse).

Presuming we have a sufficiently accurate understanding of what is really at stake in the phenomenon we call “the COVID-19” outbreak, which is somewhat doubtful for the reasons I mentioned, the theodicy only confronts us with all the more urgency. I once heard a theologian concede that it is the single hardest question for a believer to answer without contradicting essential tenets of the concept of God. Some even hold it to be unanswerable. The paradox between God’s supreme goodness, knowledge, and power, on the one hand, therefore, and the existence of evil on the other, does not permit of a superficial resolution.

Of course, atheists have always attempted to resolve this paradox by affirming the second point and denying the first. In other words, “there is evil in the world because there is no God.” Epicurus summed up this argument from the premise of evil some twenty-three centuries ago in a more elegant manner than many of its modern proponents:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

This is not nearly so neat a rejection as it might seem, however, because it is very difficult to see how one is not discarding the standard to judge something as evil at the same time as one is denying the existence of God. For Epicurus, the proto-Utilitarian, “evil” could have only meant “anything that diminishes pleasure.” But this view is no more tenable than modern iterations of it and so I will not pursue it further here. Any Utilitarian moralist is invited to defend his views in the comment section and I will happily consider his arguments whether they cause me pleasure or no. The naturalist ground fails to support the atheist solution to the theodicy any better than the hedonist one. “Natural selection,” for instance, fairs no better than “pleasure” in filling the concept of “evil” with any meaningful content. If it were permitted that “events which contribute to the survival of a given species” were adequate to determine a concept of “good,” and that “evil” were, therefore, the antithesis of this, it would still fail to provide any way to connect these abstract notions to the event of COVID-19. After all, it might be aiding survival of human beings in the same way as any other evolutionary bottleneck, not to mention the positive impact that an economic downturn will likely have on other species. I have only gone on this tangent in an attempt to show that to regard the existence of evil in the world as evidence to deny the existence of God is a fallacy. If someone is convinced by it, it is for reasons other than the soundness of the argument.

There is moreover a fundamental problem as presenting the existence of evil as counter-evidence to the existence of God. This is because the concept of God defines evil as such. Evil is, in an essential way, contingent on God because it is a privation of goodness. We could not recognize evil as such without bearing an implicit concept of goodness to begin with, and God is traditionally understood to be the cause of goodness. Goodness is a “transcendental” in that all Creation participates it to some degree. Evil is the degree to which a creature fails to participate the good. In either case, evil cannot be cited to disprove what it is a privation of and more than a shadow can disprove the light-source that is casting it. This kind of proof depends on establishing logical relations between propositions so it will not do to neglect logic and expect to retain the proof. It will also not do to attempt to modify our concept of God without risking that it becomes impertinent. For instance, it would be easy to say that evil exists because God doesn’t know about it. But this is inconsistent with the way God is formally understood so it can hardly be considered a solution to the problem of evil. This was the crux of Epicurus’ argument, as it was summarized above.

Still, that theodicy is not a simplistic issue is not to say that there is no way to approach it. Rather, there are many possible answers to the problem of evil, and I have merely attempted to lead with the non-answers so that they need not trouble the remainder of this study. The Book of Job, for instance, gives a very compelling answer to the problem of evil: “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding.” It is very moving because it strikes the root of our arrogance: how can I presume to cast judgment on a world against whose existence my life is just a flash and a whimper? At the same time, we somehow feel ourselves qualified to recognize evil when we see it. This is expressed, among many other symbols, as the “tasting of the fruit and the knowledge of good and evil that it conferred on the original human pair,” as well as the notion that “man is made in/towards the the image and likeness” of God. So the answer to Job, though compelling, can never be final because, though we do not know in whole, yet we know in part. Another proposal to answer the theodicy is that God creates and sustains the best world he can given the constraints of respecting free will of his creatures. This is also both compelling and unsatisfying, though for different reasons. There are other ones as well, and some of them, like the solution proposed by Aquinas—that “God is the doing of all being,”—deserve infinitely more treatment than I can offer them in this short reflection and for that reason, an indication in deference to them will have to suffice.

I would like to propose another view on the matter and I will return from the more abstract “problem of evil” to the more particular concern of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some depictions of God in the Old Testament might appear to square very neatly with the notion that the pandemic is punishment for human iniquity. A pox on all our houses! The virus is God’s punishment for our transgressions. But how can God appear so capricious and vengeful and still be God? It can be very difficult to read the Old Testament because they present with such starkness this apparent contradiction between our concept of God and what he does. At the same time, if we imagine the pandemic to be an evil that God merely permits without directly willing it—less of a punishment than a negligence—the problem of evil remains unresolved because we will encounter the same contradiction that Epicurus pointed to.

But perhaps the approach to theodicy by way of theology stands the issue on its head. A vision of God will always be a function of the one whose vision it is. What if the real question is ‘what kind of person am I?’ ‘What kind of people are we?’ These questions must first be considered in order to understand in what light our own level of moral, spiritual, and intellectual development will allow God to appear in. I have found the texts of Scripture come to life when I read them as dialogue between the writers and God, and a dialogue whereby Israel, as a personification, comes to an increasingly intimate and sophisticated understanding of its Lord. God inspires the priests and prophets, but that inspiration is inflected and in an important way dampened by their own insight and development, or limits thereof. So in Scripture, we are getting a narrative about God—God according to Abraham, God according to Moses, according to David, etc. What we are not getting is an abstract “view-from-nowhere” on God. This bears emphasis because many conceits of post-17th century science have conditioned us to expect this kind of view on things. Scripture always relates the experience of communication, not data.

With this clear, we must ask ‘How many times have I misunderstood my brother or sister?’ And to comprehend God’s meanings must exceed my understanding infinitely more than my fellow human being. But at the same time, God “condescends” to communicate them to me through his Word. So I both receive the communication and also do not, since my understanding can never achieve the infinite depth that would be necessary to fathom the full meaning of God’s expressions. Crucially, however, my understanding can evolve if I apply myself towards attempting to understand. I need only wish to understand.

I think this developmental pattern is just what we see through the Torah, and with increasing intensity in the New Testament. In fact, the New Testament presents something of a fruition of the promise that was offered in the Old. To understand the trajectory of this development and its consummation, we can reflect on the way in which the nature of the dialogue between man and God changes from Adam to Abraham to Moses and so on. A clear transformation appears in the relation between the writer and the Lord. Abraham, for instance, appears to be in direct dialogue with God. Moses, by comparison, appears to perceive God’s presence through revelation, as in the Burning Bush or on Mount Sinai to Moses. Similarly, he reveals himself to Job in the whirlwind. To Elijah, God’s present appears as “the still small voice.” Elijah had looked for God in these manifest forms, but to no avail:

…but the LORD was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice. (1 Kings 19)

The development outlined above might seem to suggest that God is growing more distant, but it might also reflect the development of more nuance and intimacy in communication. Jesus, of course, refers to God as “Abba,” or “Father,” which achieves a completion of sorts of the evolution that the Old Testament indicated. Jesus is, moreover, believed by Christians to be the Word of God himself incarnate so the immediacy is supreme. Our words are a concrete form and expression of our meanings.

In sum, people generally either (1) affirm God’s goodness as a postulate and then attempt to understand why it often appears otherwise, or they (2) regard every apparent (to our eyes) transgression of God’s goodness as grounds to question it. I have tried to offer a way to take the first approach that has the potential to yield insights that might otherwise be inaccessible to our understanding. Namely, I think we should regard Scripture as the testimony of the ones who are writing it. They are witnesses, not transcendental stenographers. As a final comment, I wish only to remark that the theory of evolution that I have suggested corroborates the concepts of the three ages of the Church, sometimes called “the Church of Peter,” “the Church of Paul,” and “Church of John” (I know Valdimir Solovyov used these designations) or “the Age of the Father,” “the Age of the Son,” and “the Age of the Spirit” (I think these terms come from Joachim di Fiori, though they are implicit in the letters of Paul). A great deal more things could be said about this, but I can’t bear them now. I will conclude by directing any readers who may be interested to a related reflection that attempts to address the question: “What does it mean that a given community of Jews accepted him as the Messiah (which is the Hebrew word for “the Redeemer” or “the Anointed One,” for which the Greek word is Χριστός or “Christ”) while the rest refused him?”

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