Monday, April 27, 2020

A Conundrum: Two Incompatible Propositions

Two weeks ago I left readers with the following conundrum:

If God is benevolent and controls the universe, how could God be responsible for a pandemic during which so many perish?

The first proposition (“God is benevolent”) in the face of a world-wide pandemic clashes with the second (“God controls the universe”). Even if the propositions are reversed, they are still incompatible, for a God who controls the world could not be responsible for a world-wide, life-killing, pandemic, if that God were benevolent.

            The conclusion seems inevitable: something is wrong; the propositions are incompatible. We actually do have a world-wide pandemic. That is an indisputable fact! Hundreds are dying every day, and the most capable scientific minds of our generation have not succeeded in finding a vaccine to protect us from the virus. We are told not to expect a vaccine for 12 to 18 months.

Of course, it is possible that neither proposition was ever true, but it is also possible that by modifying one or the other proposition the conundrum may yet admit of a solution and one could still remain somewhat traditionally Christian (should one choose to) with respect to the benevolence of God. Suppose, for example, that God is generally benevolent but unfortunately has a pernicious mean streak that sometimes surfaces in his actions toward the world, as God actually is described in the Bible.1 The writers of the biblical texts apparently had no problem with this inconsistency and describe a God generally benevolent, but regularly describing his mean streak; why could not modern followers of one or another biblical faith2 adopt the same posture, and recognize that God is simply inconsistent and unpredictable when it comes to benevolence? After all, that is what the basic text (the Bible) of traditional Christianity reflects.

I would like to think that obedience to God would exempt one from God’s pernicious mean streak, but that does not appear to be the case. Job’s experience is a case on point. The author depicts God as knowing that Job was absolutely faithful to him (Job 1:1, 8); nevertheless, God allowed Satan to ruin his life (1:9-2:10) in order to prove an unnecessary point.

            The second proposition (“God’s absolute control of the universe”) is likewise undermined even in the Bible. Here are a number of passages describing God’s seeming inability to make things happen in accordance with the divine will: God tries to kill Moses but cannot (Exod 4:24-26); God cannot foresee outcomes of his actions (1 Sam 15:10-11; 6:5-8); and God through his prophets sometimes made failed predictions (2 Sam 7:1-13; Jer 33:17-18; Ezek 26:15-21). In other words God is depicted as not always being in control. It is true, however, that God is described as controlling the weather to keep the Israelites serving him faithfully (for example, 2 Chron 7:13-14), but control of the wind is another matter, as Jesus is depicted as saying, “the wind blows where it wants to” (John 3:8).3 That is good news indeed for people of faith when we consider the case of hurricanes and tornadoes.4 Since God does not control the wind, God could not be responsible for the destruction to property and loss of life from such aberrations of nature.

            As I consider the inconsistency of the propositions, if I am to be completely honest with myself, I cannot allow these two propositions to stand in harmony with one another, and at the same time continue to make sense of the world as I experience it. The second proposition (“God controls the world”) is patently untrue, unless God is actually a demonic force. The first proposition (“God is benevolent”) pales in force, unless one modifies it. I can accept, for example, that God is benevolent and does the very best s/he can in a hostile world controlled by natural forces, which Romans 8:28 seems to be saying:

We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (NIV)5

That is to say God works to bring about the best that he can.

Could someone please convince me that the two propositions with which I began are actually logically consistent?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1See Hedrick, Wry Thoughts about Religion Blog, “Did God Cause (or Allow) the Covid-19 Pandemic.” April 12, 2020. Note in Isa 45:5-7 God is depicted as boasting that he “creates weal and woe,” and in I Sam 15 God takes revenge on the Amalakites, commanding Saul (through Samuel the prophet ) to utterly destroy them and all they have, even down to nursing infants (1 Sam 15:3).

2Clearly there are at least two biblical faiths: Israelite and Christian; but arguably there are several dissonant Christian faiths reflected in the New Testament.

3See Hedrick, “Does God Control the Wind?” pages 49-51 in Unmasking Biblical Faiths (Cascade, 2019).

4See Hedrick, “Does Mother Nature Control the Wind?” pages 51-53 in Unmasking and “Does the Wind Make its own Decisions?” pages 53-54 in Unmasking.

5One should compare other translations of this verse since there are subtle differences in the way it is translated. For example, the King James Version translates: “We know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.”

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Did God Cause (or Allow) the Covid-19 Pandemic?

Has God brought the coronavirus into our world (or allowed it) for some reason, which might, by an impossible leap of imagination, be considered good? What could possibly be good about coronavirus? People of faith worldwide, however, are forced to consider this possibility because of a general Christian belief that the God who controls the universe is benevolent (Rom 8:28; Jer 29:11; Prov 16:4). If one believes that God controls the universe (Eph 1:11; Ps 115:3; Isa 45:6-7), then the conclusion is inevitable that God in some fashion is ultimately responsible for the covid-19 pandemic. If one also believes that God is benevolent, it follows that covid-19 is a good thing.

God has done similar things in the past (i.e., plagues and epidemics), if the Bible is to be believed. Recall, for example, God caused eleven plagues on Egypt (Exod 7-11) to free the Israelites. In fact, God is frequently depicted in the Bible doing bad things to people (Amos 4:6-11; Ezek 14:21-23; Rev 8:6-10:7; Rev 16:1-21) in order to achieve what God considered good ends (2 Chron 7:13-14; Deut 28:15-35). Sometimes conscience (if God has a conscience) seems to trouble God causing him to find his actions regrettable (2 Sam 24:15-16; 1 Chron 21:14-17; Ps 106:40-46; Amos 7:1-6), but of course the harm was already done. At other times God reconsiders his intent to harm and does not follow through with his plans (Jer 18:5-8; Exod 32:11-14; 2 Chron 12:1-8; Jon 3:6-10). Sometimes God changes his mind when things do not turn out as he apparently expected (1 Sam 15:11; Gen 6:5-8).

            As with most matters in religion, the answer to the question: “did God cause or allow the covid-19 pandemic” will depend on whom you ask. For example, when the Assyrian Sennacherib (705-681BCE) reported in his annals on his successful campaign into Palestine, he credited Ashur, his God, with his successes. He claimed to have shut up King Hezekiah of Judah “like a bird in a cage.”1 The reports on Sennacherib’s campaign in Hebrew literature bear out Sennacherib’s successes (2 Kgs 18:13-19:37; Isa 36-39; 2 Chron 32:9-23), but the Israelites attributed their deliverance to an angel of the Lord who reputedly killed 185,000 Assyrians in one night forcing the Assyrians to withdraw (2 Kgs 19:35; Isa 37:36-37).2 Was it an Assyrian victory or a Hebrew victory?

In the novel, The Plague by Albert Camus, Father Paneloux, the Jesuit Priest of the town of Oran on the Algerian coast, came to the conclusion that the plague, which caused the town to be sealed off from the rest of the world, was brought by God “for the punishment of their sins” (p. 99).3 “You deserved it,” Paneloux said (p. 94). And an elderly asthma patient agreed with the priest: “That priest’s right; we were asking for it” (p.117), although later he contradicted himself: “God does not exist; were it otherwise there would be no need for priests” (p. 118).  One of the town physicians, Dr. Bernard Rieux, a leading character of the novel, is a bit evasive about Paneloux’s sermon: “I’ve seen too much of hospitals to relish any idea of collective punishment. But, as you know, Christians sometimes say that sort of thing without really thinking it” (p. 125). Rieux initially evades a direct question as to whether or not he believed in God by saying “I’m fumbling in the dark.” Later he answers directly “that if he believed in an all-powerful God he would cease curing the sick and leave that to Him. But [he asserts] no one in the world believed in a God of that sort; no, not even Paneloux, who believed that he believed in such a God” (p. 127). A visitor to the city, Jean Tarrou, who had taken residence in a hotel and become a friend of Dr. Rieux, said of the sermon preached by Paneloux, “I can understand that type of fervor and find it not displeasing. At the beginning of a pestilence and when it ends, there’s always a propensity for rhetoric…It is in the thick of a calamity that one gets hardened to the truth—in other words to silence” (p.116). In other words Tarrou was of the opinion that the question has no answer.

Of course it is only a novel and the characters and dialogues were invented by Camus, but the novel has an eerie similarity to our own pandemic. Fiction or not, Camus has graphically illustrated the truthfulness of the statement: when it comes to religion, what is true depends on who is talking. Historians cannot corroborate, or even evaluate, divine intervention in human affairs because such claims are opinion, based on a person’s personal religious faith. I am certain, however, that most readers will have an opinion on God’s responsibility for the pandemic.

Nevertheless, here is the conundrum facing us: If God is benevolent and is in control of the universe, how could God be responsible for a pandemic during which so many perish? My questions to the mystery of the universe are returned in silence. It is difficult to be a “true believer” during a pandemic.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

2Hedrick, When History and Faith Collide, 4-5.
3Albert Camus, The Plague (translated by Stuart Gilbert; Vintage, 1991 [1948]).