I need to stress this point: life is brutal and unfair. It has always been so. The Corona virus is devastating, no doubt about that. Moving forward in its wake, it will radically shift the way humans do things, I am sure. Much has been written and will yet be written on that. And that is good. It is about time we took seriously how rampant consumerism threatens our very existence, for example. We need to have conversations about our neglect of the poor and the elderly, of all society’s most vulnerable members. We certainly need to reflect on and reconceptualise our relationships with animals. But this is a theological blog, so I will leave dialogues around those important topics to those better suited to driving them. But I don’t think theology is unimportant I this discussion. In many respects, I think poor theology has contributed to the problem, and as a result I think that a theological reform is necessary in how we reshape post-pandemic life.
Social media is awash with trite Christian platitudes about not worrying because God is in control. Times of crisis always generate terrible hermeneutics: in order to avert panic, we disregard critical textual engagement and we adopt an Old MacDonald approach to Scripture – a verse verse here and a verse verse there – with scant regard for context . Context, after all, is sooo inconvenient because then we cannot make the verses say comforting things. And right here is one of the problems: we treat the Bible as if it is God’s attempt to correspond directly and personally with us. So thousands of Christians can treat Jeremiah 29:11 and 12, for example, as if those words were not only God’s (not “Jeremiah’s” on behalf of God), but that they were directed specifically to us . And I get it. I really do. It is psychologically necessary sometimes to avoid looking at life’s harder realities. In an age where online social networking keeps us up to date with countless thousands of personal tragedies every day, and where the world’s natural disasters are broadcast into our lives continuously, despair is never far from overwhelming us. I completely sympathise with the need to feel that God has our backs.
The problem with this approach to Scripture is that it makes us our own arbiters of truth. When we treat the Bible as direct communication from God, we ignore the act of our own unconscious interpretations of the texts, and the meaning we derive from the texts becomes the infallible word of God. Combine that with an underlying psychological need to create comfort and stability and you have a recipe for trouble. It means that we are bound to project our unconscious needs and desires onto our interpretations of the text and infer the text to be speaking directly from God to meet those needs. And when many of the Biblical texts attribute some pretty awful things to God, we land up with a very twisted lens through which we evaluate our lives.
That is why, I think, we see so many pastors arguing that Covid-19 is God’s judgment on the sinful. Just imagine how such a theology would make people view those who are different from themselves and how they would consequently treat those people; imagine how those people process their own guilt. Maybe then you will see why I think the doctrine of the Bible being the inerrant Word of God is so detestable. (Please note that it is not the Bible I find detestable. I love the Bible and think it has incalculable value when approached appropriately. What I find detestable is how we understand the Bible, how we think about it, and therefore how we let it impact on our lives.)
But if Covid-19 is God’s judgment on the sinful, then proponents of that theory would need to explain why it is not only the sinful that suffer, and why – presumably – some of the sinful will end up escaping contracting the virus altogether. If God is taking a Noah’s flood-type approach to punishing the sinful (which would be reneging on the promise in Genesis 8 not to do that ever again), then Corona seems like a bit of a shotgun approach to it. It is not satisfactory justice because there is too much collateral damage. Some who have already been “saved by the blood of Jesus” will end up dying from the disease, which would seem unjust to me if the disease were a form of divine punishment.
If it is not a punishment, then how else do we explain why God allows such immense suffering? It seems to me that what Covid-19 is doing is compelling contemporary Christian theology to address a conundrum it has hitherto managed to avoid answering meaningfully, because the question has mainly been asked at an individual rather than a social level, and can therefore be more readily explained away: how do we make sense of suffering if God is loving? Covid-19 makes it clear (to me anyway) that we need to reject the notion that there is a causal relationship between suffering and sin. While I do not dispute that sin1 causes suffering, I do not think it is logical to conclude that suffering cannot exist independently of sin. Covid-19 makes it abundantly clear to me that suffering is an inescapable part of how life works.
I do think that most Christians are sensible enough to see this. Yet we still cling tenaciously to such problematic theologies. We need the trite platitudes to comfort ourselves, because the pandemic raises very difficult theological questions. We can no longer hide behind the old, worn-out explanation that God allows suffering so that we have a reason to turn to God, the giver of life. In the face of the enormity of the suffering we are facing, and the economic devastation that is bound to follow, that explanation for Covid-19 would make God cruel2. Simply put, Covid-19 – as with any form of human suffering, actually – suggests that either God is not loving, or that God is not in control. And you know where I stand on that question.
I do not believe that God sent the Corona virus. Nor do I see any indication from history to suggest that God will intervene to save us from this suffering. But that does not mean that I do not see in this disaster a ‘turn-to-Jesus’ invitation. Because I do not believe that the gospel message was ever an invitation to being rescued from punishment. Rather, the gospel is an invitation to a different way of being in the world. It offers a framework for how we ought to respond to the suffering that is a natural part of life, not a recipe for avoiding it. It offers an invitation, too, to a God who is willing to be with us in that suffering, encouraging us to endure until all things are made anew.
When the lockdown ends, the world will be a different place. Will those who call themselves followers of Christ be accusing and blaming, or will they be co-suffering graciously, searching to find a better, more Jesus-like way of being in the world?
1 I understand sin as the destructive ways in which we process our hurt ie. sin is primarily a relational dysfunction, not – in the first instance – a personal act that transgresses a law.
2 Where, by the way, are all of the faith healers in all of this? Those who claim that they have a God-given authority over every disease? Surely it would be inexcusably selfish of them not to be exercising their divinely-bestowed healing gifts by vanquishing this disease? Surely this is precisely the perfect opportunity to bring glory to God and dispel all doubt? Yet there is not a faith healer to be seen, of course. Corona will expose these charlatans for what they are.