The Chinese coronavirus ravages the world. In a desperate attempt to slow the spread, cities, states, and national governments have halted everyday life in its tracks. Thousands are dying. Millions are jobless. Millions cannot afford rent. Millions don’t know where their next meal is coming from.
Where is God in a crisis like this?
All this suffering poses a problem for Christians who believe that God is all good, all-knowing, and all-powerful. Yet the Bible provides answers — and some solace to those who are suffering.
Some Christians have suggested the coronavirus is a punishment for an increasingly secular world. But Jesus clearly taught that not all natural evil is a punishment from God for sin. “Those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you,” He said (Luke 13:4-5).
Likewise, when Jesus’s disciples asked, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” He replied, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:2-3). Jesus healed the man, demonstrating His power and relieving the seemingly senseless suffering.
It may surprise Americans to hear that Jesus practiced a form of social distancing. He didn’t purposefully stand six feet away from His disciples, but He did wait a few days before coming to visit His close friends Mary and Martha when Lazarus got sick and died. Jesus stayed away from Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, even though He loved them.
Jesus was not present when His friend Lazarus died, just as so many family members are not allowed to visit their dying relatives in the hospital during the coronavirus crisis. When Jesus came to the place where Lazarus was buried, He wept. Then He prayed to God the Father and thanked God for hearing him so that the people around him “may believe that you sent me” (John 11).
Jesus stayed away from Lazarus — even allowing him to die — not because He did not love him, but because He planned to raise him from the dead. Jesus had a greater good in mind — a miracle for Lazarus and a powerful sign that He was the Messiah.
Jesus could have healed Lazarus early into his sickness, but He didn’t. Instead, He chose to make Lazarus a key part of an even grander story — the story of how God would reconcile the world to Himself.
Jesus did not just come to cure the sick, to heal the blind, and to raise His friend from the dead. He came to bridge the ultimate gap between sinful and dying humanity and a perfect, all-living God. Human beings had cut themselves off from the source of ultimate love, joy, and peace — and God had a plan to offer new hope.
Where is God during the coronavirus pandemic? God is here, suffering alongside the sick and dying. God is here with the homeless, with the unemployed, with the hungry. God came down to earth to suffer and die to reconcile us to Him.
This Friday is Good Friday, a holiday that celebrates the agonizing, humiliating, and terrifying death of Jesus Christ.
Suffering is the gap between desire and satisfaction, between wholeness and sickness, between life and death.
If God were a philosopher, He would have told humanity to suck it up. Humans desire too much satisfaction, so Stoics taught that accepting your fate is the path to sanity. Pull desire back to the level of satisfaction.
If God were a salesman, He would have told humanity to just keep working harder. Americans are constantly seeking the next step toward satisfaction: the new car, the new house, the new job. Just push satisfaction up to the level of desire.
But God is not a philosopher or a salesman. He is a lover. He pursues us, reaches out to us, even dies for us. Rather than telling us to pull desire back or push satisfaction forward, He enters the tragedy with us. When the undying God dies the humiliating death of a criminal, something in the universe is set right. Apparently senseless suffering becomes a tool for the salvation of the world.
We cannot see the full picture of how God is redeeming the pain of the coronavirus, but there are glimmers. The international Christian charity Samaritan’s Purse has airlifted an emergency hospital to coronavirus-stricken Italy. Samaritan’s Purse has also set up an emergency hospital in New York’s Central Park. This group is mobilizing volunteers to put themselves at risk and save lives during a pandemic.
These extraordinary acts of Christian charity echo the sacrifice of the early church during ancient Roman plagues. During the two devastating plagues of the 100s and 200s A.D., pagan Romans would cast infected people out of their houses to die. Christians, by contrast, went to serve the sick, risking exposure themselves but saving many in the process. This act of service not only helped save lives but also helped spread the gospel in a hostile culture. The Christian witness during these plagues helps explain how the marginal Jesus movement eventually conquered the largest empire in the world at that time.
Jesus suffered and died with us, and He sent the Holy Spirit to change our hearts so we will lay down our lives like Him. The Christian witness during Roman plagues, the Christian inspiration behind the founding of hospitals and orphanages, the outreach of Samaritan’s Purse during the coronavirus pandemic — all these are acts of God working through the church.
And what of those who are not saved? The Bible does not have good news for those who reject Jesus’ free gift of eternal life. But an epidemic can jolt them out of complacency.
It is far too easy to live in the modern world. Our prosperity is so pervasive, we can barely fathom what it would be like to live without things like heating, air conditioning, running water, refrigeration, cars, planes, trains, food and other goods brought in from across the country or across the world, and the internet. Yet for all of this, we are still human — we will suffer, we will age, and we will die. We aren’t even fully protected from the weather or from pandemics.
As C.S. Lewis wrote in The Problem of Pain, “We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
Epidemics like the coronavirus remind us that we are human, that we cannot decide our fates and define our ultimate essence. They give the lie to modern conceits. They may remind even the most stubborn and self-absorbed among us that we need a savior from the ultimate misfortune: death itself.
So where is God during the coronavirus? He is on the cross, receiving a painful punishment He does not deserve. He is in the church, inspiring acts of charity like Samaritan’s Purse’s emergency field hospitals. He is in the conscience, pricking the hearts of the unrepentant. He is behind all things, the creator of this majestic wilful universe. This coronavirus, too, shall pass. Yet the Christian’s greater hope is the Resurrection — the ultimate happy ending for a story in which the coronavirus plays a mercifully small part.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.