Do Deadly Viruses Undermine God's Goodness?

Christianity Today’s interview with microbiologist Anjeanette Roberts about how her work with the SARS virus has impacted her faith in God touches on the problem of suffering and evil in this world. A problem that all humans interact with throughout their lives. I am no different, and so I read with interest Dr. Roberts’ explanation for why dangerous viruses do not disprove God’s goodness.

When asked, “In what ways do you think viruses could be the result of the Fall?” the microbiologist said:

I thought back in grad school that it made the most sense that viruses probably originated as defunct cellular machinery and that defunct cellular machinery was probably a product of disease that was probably the result of the curse.

But I actually don’t think that way anymore. I actually think that’s a really bad theological position and a really bad scientific position.

While reading the first two paragraphs of her answer, I was a little skeptical about where Dr. Roberts was headed. As I continued reading, my skepticism was proven unfounded.

In short, Dr. Roberts believes that Adam and Eve were real people and that the Genesis narrative actually happened. After explaining how God expelled Adam and Eve from the Garden because of their sin, keeping them from the Tree of Life, she adds:

What that suggests to me is that there was a decay process that was part of the creation from the very beginning.

And that makes sense as a microbiologist who understands that bacterial death is absolutely necessary for other living organisms. God didn’t just create single organisms in isolation. God created balanced ecological systems. And part of that, it seems, involves decay. It seems from the Genesis narrative that was probably already substantiated in the human population, but God had a solution right there. All the people had to do was reach out and eat from the Tree of Life … That suggests to me that viruses may exist, alongside other things like bacterial infections and predation, so that one population doesn’t overextend its ecological niche.

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what I think about Dr. Roberts’ explanation, but it’s interesting. I’m also going to be asking my scientist friends what they think. The second part of her answer is just as interesting:

Our mismanagement of creation puts us at risk of some viruses. So we don’t know where Ebola comes from, but if we knew where it came from, would we be able to link it to mismanagement or just ignorance? I don’t mean ignorance in a negative way; I mean, we just didn’t know. There are certainly other viruses—Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever virus, Rift Valley fever virus—we’ve encountered in places where humans hadn’t been before and where we went for pretty ecologically destructive reasons. Those viruses passing into humans and causing disease resulted from mismanagement coupled with not knowing.

CT then goes on to ask Dr. Roberts how her work “on deadly viruses has impacted [her] thinking on suffering.” Her answer calls us to reflect on God’s sovereignty. Among other things, she points out:

When I say in the middle of my own suffering, “God is worthy of our trust,” I think it has the same ramifications that Job had when he turned to trust God. If that resounds through the heavens, for angels who had undenied access to God (and some of them chose to rebel) is that not saying at a theodicy level “God is worthy”?

I encourage you to read the interview in its entirety. It’s well worth your time, and may help you better understand suffering and evil in light of God’s goodness.