President Trump said yesterday “It’s going to be a painful two weeks.” He’s right; it is going to be painful to watch as others (strangers, friends, family) struggle. For some it can be painful because you yourself catch the virus.. And, invariably, with pain comes the question “why?”. It is a question that everyone has asked in the past weeks. It is a question that gets asked regardless of personal belief in God or worldview. Even those philosophers and theologians who professionally know the answers in times like this will step away from the pulpit or desk and whisper “why?”.
N.T. Wright wrote an article for TIME Online addressing this. The title was “Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus. It’s Not Supposed To.” The author cites the “biblical tradition of lament” in the Bible where the emotion is expressed but no answer is given. He does draw some conclusions about lamenting, though, that must hint at answering “why?”. He says that as we cry out and lament what is happening, it opens us up to a larger view of the world’s suffering, and it makes room in our hearts for new possibilities, including acts of kindness, scientific understanding, hope, and wisdom for our leaders. I liked this article (aside from the irresistible click-bait title) and agree that the details of “why?” are not always given for us to know.
But I would offer two universal answers about why coronavirus and other catastrophes happen; these answers are broad enough to not infringe on Wright’s point. In fact, maybe they point us in the same direction, making “room in our hearts for new possibilities.”
The first answer is that sin in the garden and the consequential judgment have put us in a place where these natural catastrophes can and do occur. Romans 8 makes us think about the earth being subject to decay and about how even creation “groans” and awaits redemption. This answer is not going to scratch the itch of those in the throes of suffering; the medicine this answer brings is best taken before the illness comes. But acknowledging this does help in times of trouble. You will find yourself asking “why?” in times like this but not shaken to the point of exclaiming “This can’t happen!!!”
The other answer to “why?” that I would offer is also broad, universal, and practical. It is summed up in Paul’s words when he was addressing the Lord’s Supper: “A man ought to evaluate himself.”: Pain makes us explore the possibilities. We always ponder the same questions in times like these.
1. “Is this some kind of warning?” This thought occurs to believer and non-believer alike. The believer who hangs their hat on this might say “if you read Revelation, you can look at this virus as just a preview of coming attractions.” Have you not seen similar statements from believers on social media? The non-believer might say “keep punching the earth (meat consumption, global warming, Monsanto…) and the earth will eventually punch back.” PETA has capitalized on this thought.
It is a human tendency to love saying “I told you so.” I would suggest resisting all such uncompassionate words in a time like this. This does not mean, though, that I would not entertain the thought that an event like this could be a warning. I cannot say with certainty (Biblically or otherwise) that God is using this virus as a warning to me, you, and the world; consequently, we should then quickly repent and change our ways. But I can say with the utmost certainty (Biblical and otherwise) that God desires me, you, and the world to repent and change our ways. On top of that, this virus has done me the favor of making me ponder those changes. Is this “why” the virus came? I do not know. Is my reaction a good outcome? Definitely.
2. “Is this God’s Judgement?” This is the one that famously got Jerry Falwell in social crosshairs after 9/11. You could pick a sin and post a formula saying _____ +God’s judgment =COVID19 and you also will find yourself in social crosshairs.
It is a human tendency to want to equate your own judgment with that of God’s. It sounds as if you are saying “well, I’m surprised God waited this long to punish ___.” If you say things like this people will throw social distancing to the wind and form a mob against you!
This does not mean, though, that I would not entertain the thought that an event like this would be judgment from God (in addition to the already mentioned Gen. 3). I cannot seem to find anything in Scripture to rule out that possibility. When I do ponder this (and you have also), I have my top list of suspect sins that could be the reason for wrath.
But again, I cannot say (Biblically or otherwise) that God is certainly using this virus as a judgement on me, you, and the world; consequently, we should then quickly repent and change our ways. But I can say with the utmost certainty (Biblically and otherwise) that God desires me, you, and the world to change our ways. On top of that, this virus has done me the favor of making me ponder those changes. Is this “why” the virus came? I don’t know. Is my reaction a good outcome? Definitely.
3. “Is God being strategic in this?” This answer to “why?” likely will not show up for some months. Only after the virus has subsided will someone say “Look at how God used coronavirus to get His Church thinking outside the building” or “Look at how God made our divided country work together” or “Look at how God brought the world together to fight this pandemic.”
Hindsight is also a human tendency, but hindsight can be a cynical word for retrospect, and in retrospect there will be lessons learned and some good outcomes. However, what applies to number 1 and 2 must also apply to 3. So let’s do this one more time:
I cannot say (Biblically or otherwise) that God is certainly using this virus as some specific strategy for me, you, and the world, and that the more quickly we align ourselves with His specific strategy, the more quickly He will end this virus. But I can say with the utmost certainty (Biblical and otherwise) that God does have a plan. We are privy to a good portion of it! He does desire me, you, and the world to come together, believe in and be conformed to the likeness of His Son Jesus. On top of that, this virus has done me the favor of making me ponder that likeness and how I am reflecting it. Is this “why” the virus came? I do not know. Is my reaction a good outcome? Definitely.
“Thou are not to question why, thou art just to live and die”–that only works when parents are using it on their kids. God does not say that to the Psalmists, and He does not say it to us. It is ok to question “why?” It is ok to come up with some possible answers. It is especially ok when your possible answers make you, me, and the world move and become more like Jesus.