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
Missouri State University
2Hedrick, When History and Faith Collide, 4-5.
3Albert Camus, The Plague (translated by Stuart Gilbert; Vintage, 1991 ).
Giving up on any belief of a supernatural theistic god who dabbles in the events of history is the beginning of liberation from childish superstition.
Just some thoughts!
Jesus looked at nature and saw the sun shining and the rain falling on the lives of the just and the unjust (Matthew 5:45). Thus, natural events, including covid-19, are not reward or punishment for humanity's moral decision making. Sun and rain, however do mirror the nurturing capacity to treat an enemy with love (Matthew 5:44).
However, unlike sun and rain, covid-19 is more likely to show prejudice such as infecting the poor more than the rich (social domain) and infecting the weak more than the strong (health domain). God has apparently placed the resolution of such matters in human hands as their responsibility in a creation which:
"...waits with eager longing...for the creation was subjected to futility... In hope that the creation itself will be set free from it's bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God (Christ followers). We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now (expectation of Christ's return);"
And unexpected by Paul, 2000 years later the labor pains have not subsided.
A frequent letter writer in our local paper last week said the virus was God’s way of “getting our attention.” In the same letter she said she believed the virus was sent from Hell, so she was somewhat inconsistent. According to her, our attention was necessary to bring a fear of death so people would (speaking of Jesus) “... accept his love and go to heaven.” “Getting one’s attention” is a euphemism at least around here for a threat or of punishment, so she seemed to be applying the metaphor of God as father and humans as children. This, however, creates a murderous god unleashing indiscriminant death. Per capita, a small county in Georgia, Dougherty, has the largest percentage of those affected in the state with COVID-19. Though it is dwarfed by metro Atlanta counties, it also has one of the five largest incidences (raw numbers) of the disease. This has been traced to attendance at two religious services, funerals. A similar outbreak occurred as a result of church attendance in a community in Northwest Georgia. (The irony is not lost.)
Viruses and bacteria are a part of nature very efficient in survival. In the first half of the twentieth century tuberculosis and poliomyelitis ravaged the country. Though still around, they have quieted down from antibiotics (TB) or immunizations (polio). Respiratory diseases, however (flu and pneumonia) , are still the eighth largest cause of death in the USA, with around 55 thousand each year, though there are vaccines. COVID-19 will be probably be similar, though it spreads rapidly and there is a lack of immunity. The next years will undoubtedly be dangerous, and people are already experiencing major changes in values and needs, a re-ordering of perception and a shaking of beliefs. To attribute it to “God’s will” is to do nothing, and could be potentially worse. When the Separatists (Pilgrims) came over on the Mayflower, they saw many human bones, signs of the around 90% of the native Americans killed by smallpox because they had no immunity. They interpreted this as God’s sign that he was giving the country to them. Sanctions like that assure destruction. We really haven’t evolved since that foolishness, at least in many enclaves of the USA. Natural disasters are still seen by some televangelist as “signs” of heavenly displeasure at the televangelists’ versions of “sin.”
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Am I correct in assuming from your second paragraph that you take God to be benevolent and does have all power In the universe but has allowed the pandemic for some reason? I am basing that on the last sentence of the paragraph.
I left out a word in my previous reply and hence removed the comment. But here it is again said more strongly with the omitted word added:
I am deeply troubled by the stupid and dangerous (I used these words deliberately) pastors and church leaders who still manage to con the simple and benighted into following them in their irresponsible actions and ideas. Some it seems are apparently incapable of critical thinking.
Good morning Friend Roger,
Thanks for weighing in. What do you say about Paul's ideas on the "weaker brothers" (Rom 14:1-15:1; 1 Cor 8:1-13; 1 Cor 10:23-33)?
should we try to lead them with a long rubber band (a tip of my hat to Jack Flanders) or cut off all relationships with them?
First, I see that I forgot to note that the Pauline passage is Romans 8:19-22.
I tried to show that Jesus suggested that God the Father didn't interfere in our moral choices, other than to provide sun/rain evidence that both friend and enemy should be loved.
Paul's paragraph suggests that humankind's "fall" was shared by the entire creation. If only the transformative end of the world would come and covid-19 would become a new creation as those who are the first fruits of Christ, and the burden of responsibility for new life would fall from the shoulders of humankind.
Until the end time arrives, if one there be, humankind seems to be fully responsible to clean up its dirty work, including covid-19.
I personally know nothing of God. I've never had a transcendent experience. Jesus seems to have known something.
For a challenging way to think about God-talk, I point the group again to Walter Wink's The Human Being (2002): "... divinity is fully realized humanity...humanity empties itself into transcendence (Feuerbach)...we must learn to think of ourselves as the universe reflecting upon itself...'Humanity indeed is the chief property of God, not almightiness, not omniscience and the rest, but humanity, freedom, love, sacrifice' (Berdyayev)...human beings cannot approach the divine by reaching beyond the human (Buber) ..." (pgs. 26-49).
Good Evening Charlie,
First, If it's ok with you, I'd like to quickly respond to Dennis's comment regarding the Mishnah's rules of punishment for children who defied their parents authority... I was shocked to learn that it included the possibility of stoning as a last resort. I did not know that as I've never taken the time to read any translation of a Mishnah. So that was eye-opening, and now I can see why someone like Jesus was considered a heretic and a radical to the Sanhedrin. His ideas were indeed revolutionary, but still not worthy of having him killed... Definitely attention grabbing... The concept of "Parents, don't provoke your children" would have been unheard of in those brutal times. I still don't think it got Jesus crucified, and I do not see Jews as "Jesus killers," but his ideas definitely clashed with their strict orthodoxy. Also shows how cruel and horrific parents were to their children in ancient times. You have to have a strong stomach to study history.
I'm interested in your observation that it's difficult to be a true believer during a pandemic:
1) Isn't the shattering of old belief systems a good thing? Don't you see any benefit in dismantling old, outdated, antiquated beliefs? Some beliefs need to be discarded or else they become an idol that we cling to for certainty. (Certainty does not exist)
2) What's so great about being a "true believer?" What does that obtain for you?
3) It sounds like you do not think God should allow any suffering whatsoever, pandemic or not. Without suffering, how would we stay conscious? What would motivate us to reach beyond our current understanding and concept of this universe we all live in? Without suffering on this planet, why would you even give two hoots about studying the Bible and its origins?
It sounds to me like you have some very deep questions about the role of suffering in human existence... "Life isn't meant to make you happy- it's meant to wake you up." All those old fashioned beliefs about "God" and "True Believers" and "Sin" and religious rhetoric.... their only purpose is to put you to sleep. Without challenges, we'd never seek anything beyond our own doorstep. Many thanks as always! Elizabeth
The Mishnah is merely following Deuteronomy 21.18-21, which says the same thing, though the Mishnah is not as harsh as the Bible on that matter. Lev. 20.9 says pretty much the same thing ("If anyone insults his father or his mother, he shall be put to death...") These are probably based on Ex. 20.12. A wisdom saying, Prov. 30 says the one who mocks a father and disrespects a mother will have one's eye gouged out by ravens and devoured by eagles. The fifth commandment was one which once had "bite."
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Good afternoon Elizabeth,
I hope that the weather is better in St. Louis than it is in Kansas City! Mother has been a bit irascible with the Kansas City weather this Spring.
1.You are absolutely correct. Religious Beliefs like everything else need to be taken out and given a good airing. No one should simply parrot a confession.
2.Read again my response to #1: No one should be a "true believer" in anything. I, like yourself (if I remember correctly some of your comments), came out of a conservative type of Christian conservatism or near fundamentalism, and never spent much time in critiquing my own beliefs. That is not the case now.
3. in this essay above I was interested in the issue of suffering only as it impacts the question of the character of God and what is believed about God. We live in a world that proceeds without divine oversight (if God there be). What happens in the natural world is due to natural forces, and what happens in the world of human of human affairs is due to human causation. As such we do not live in a "rose garden" but in a dangerous "briar patch."
Thank you Charlie!
Yes, KC is much further north than Springfield isn't it? It's even a little further north than STL, but we are used to cold miserable Aprils unfortunately... Not sure what April is like in Springfield, but I'd guess it's warmer than where you are now... Sorry about that! I remember my first April in KC (I moved there in 1992 which is where I met Craig). I moved there from Fort Worth, Texas and I was shocked and dismayed at such cold weather in spring time- I was used to wearing shorts in April!! So I feel your pain... My favorite nature writer, Hal Borland, described April as a "problem child," because you never know how it will behave. (STL had record high heat only last week!)
I was very interested in Dennis's description of parental punishment in the Mishnah (and Deuteronomy and Leviticus and Proverbs...) I never paid attention to those passages. So my question is this: on the whole, was capital punishment used frequently? Certainly not against children?? The reason I ask is because I want to know if the Sanhedrin really plotted to have Jesus crucified. I've heard Jewish rabbis say that capital punishment at that time was very rare and Jesus's "crimes" would never have risen to that level of severity. Who do you think is more responsible for his crucifixion- Sanhedrin or Roman government?
Thank you for clarifying that the issue you were raising with regard to this pandemic has more to do with God's character than the role of suffering in physical reality. That helps me understand where you are coming from a little better.... Speaking of God's character, what do you think of Isaiah 45:7? Did you know the original Hebrew translation states that God created "evil?" (KJV states that as well) Other translations say God created "disaster" or "calamity." I bet that doesn't sit well with you!
Do you have any theories as to why God would want to create evil? Many thanks- and stay warm! Elizabeth
PS: You referenced a novel featuring a Jesuit priest, Father Paneloux... My son goes to a Jesuit high school and we are very impressed with the Ignatian educational model they follow there. Jesuits are very good teachers and we are really thankful for the individual attention he receives and the engaging learning environment at his school.
1. Paragraph 2: I do not know if capital punishment was "used frequently" in Israel in the first century. Part of the problem is the lack of sources. But I do know there are few instances of capital punishment in Josephus. In the gospels both the Judean religious leaders and the Romans are depicted as sharing "responsibility." The Judean religious leaders are portrayed as agitating to have Jesus taken out of the picture but it was the Romans who were depicted as actually putting Jesus to death. Who had the greater responsibility? I would say the Romans.
2. Isaiah 45:7. The Hebrew "ra" is given in the Hebrew Lexicon (Brown, Driver, Briggs) as a type of disaster; words used to translate "ra" in this category are evil, distress, misery, injury, calamity. One must read the word in its context to determine what makes the most sense. But the point is that it is not an ethical evil that God "creates." Isa 45:7 is listed with the "disaster" usages and there is a separate category for ethical evil. It is pretty clear from the Hebrew Bible that God causes calamities and disasters. Actually the truth be told, the God of biblical faith has a mean streak that compensates for his benevolence and kindness--sorry about that.
How do I feel about that? I take it up in my next blog essay.
Thank you again Charlie- looking forward to it! Elizabeth
Hi again Charlie- one more point that came to mind after reading Dennis's comment and your reply... There are churches out there who interpret world events "prophetically" and try to read things into them that supposedly God revealed to them. The reason I know this is because Mike
Bickle's church I told you and Gene about that I attended (the cult) did that all the time. And I agree with you Charlie, it is deeply disturbing that those pastors would prey upon people's fears and vulnerabilities. What I still wrestle with is the fact that I (and people I know) were the simple and benighted ones who were conned by these charlatans. How could that happen to seemingly well educated, otherwise intelligent human beings? How could we fall for such claptrap? I'm still trying to come to terms with that question- maybe when I write that essay you suggested I will gain clarity and insight. But the bottom line is that it takes two to tango regarding the con-men that Dennis wrote about as well as the simpletons (like me) who eagerly lap up their propaganda. In other words- why do so many people willingly believe such nonsense? Those con-men would have no one to sell their prophecies to without willing and compliant participants. What makes us susceptible to these cults?
Many thanks always, Elizabeth
Good morning Elizabeth,
You ask me how could otherwise well educated and intelligent people so easily get caught up in a web of misinformation about religion promulgated by others who claim to have special knowledge. You said it a little differently, but this is the question as it came across to me.
There are likely a number of reasons, since people are all different, but I tend to think that they would all have at least two things in common.
1. They are too credulous about matters religious--that is they are not suspicious enough of organized religion and its practitioners. Practitioners of religion have their own agendas, and for the most part are quite good at what they do (i.e., in getting others to follow them).
2. Because of the iconic status in the Bible in the popular imagination. Such folk do not have enough critical information about the nature of the Bible.
I would not call people who get caught up in the web of misinformation put out by misguided religion practitioners "simpletons." They just do not have enough critical information. And that is what an organization of scholars and likeminded folk like the Westar Institute is trying to correct. This is the institute that sponsored "The Jesus Seminar." The institute is trying to educate the public as to religious literacy. They aim to shine the light of the best of critical biblical scholarship of contemporary religion. My last book (Unmasking Biblical Faiths) attempted to do that as well.
Sorry about this. Two corrections in my last comment.
#2 first sentence should read: ../iconic status of the Bible...
#2 next to last sentence should read:...scholarship on contemporary religion.
Maybe it would be helpful to contact this guy!
"Dr. Stanley H. Cath, a psychoanalyst and psychology professor at Tufts University, has treated more than 60 former cult members over the course of his career. From this unique firsthand experience, Cath has noticed an interesting trend: many people who join cults have experienced religion at some point in their lives, and rejected it. Perhaps this is surprising, considering many cults tend to be religious — or at least claim to be. But Dr. Cath asserts that this trend is a sign of something deeper. Many of those who join cults are intelligent young people from sheltered environments. Growing up in such an environment, says Dr. Cath, often means that “many have a history of failing to achieve intimacy, of blaming others for their failures, and of constantly striving for perfectionistic goals.” These characteristics make them prime targets for cult recruitment."
My thoughts on the attraction of cult leaders have to do with a lack of healthy experiences which allow one to question authority in the natural flow of life. In this respect it could be said that the Two Sons (Charlie's last blog) both had healthy attitudes about authority. One could say that each had the flexibility to evaluate and change his mind, each going a different direction.
Aside from what you said, Charlie, the social network of a church, by the nature of churches being a social setting, provides almost subliminal reinforcement not unlike that seen in television ads. Two of those, affiliation and endorsement, are even found in 1 Cor. 15.3-8, in which the author notes a great number (500), to whom Christ “had appeared,” “had been seen,” or “had been perceived,” depending on how one translates ōphthē. (TV ads might say, “Four out of five doctors recommend...”) The propaganda technique of “endorsement” is also found in 1 Cor. 15 when he speaks of Cephas, the twelve, James, the apostles, and himself having experienced this.(TV ads use celebrity stars to hawk products, even professional “rasslers.”) This comes into play in churches, the first with congregations and sheer number of Christians, (“That many people couldn’t be wrong”) and the second, with people of high stature in the community or state (politicians are notorious for their religiosity) proclaiming their “faith” or attending a high profile church. Since a majority of Americans came from Christian households, affiliation and endorsement are very powerful. Unlike prescription drug ads, unfortunately, they don’t come with warnings and contraindications. Like prescription drug ads, they offer a maintenance plan for a need for affiliation some found and find reinforcing. Cognitively and educationally, they are as average as the rest of the population. The educated Christians I have known can compartmentalize their religion and belief in God away from the rest of their life.
My reading of Isaiah 45 –
Isaiah45.7 is part of a chapter that I see as the author needing to have YHWH “save face.” This part of Deutero-Isaiah was necessary in order to solve a historical problem, that of a foreigner with a different god laying waste to Babylon and returning “his children.” God wasn’t able to find a “herald” (ch.41) in Jerusalem, and in chapter 44, he satirically skewers those who build and pagan worship of idols (very funny!), but he chooses a Persian to anoint. Why? One finds in Herodotus that Cyrus has crushed Babylon, one finds in the Cyrus Inscription that Cyrus returned the captives and their gods, and if that is the known “history,” one has to ask why it was a pagan who was chosen to liberate the captives from Judah.(and thereabouts). The problem with that is that Cyrus’s god is Marduk, named in the inscription and the magi are highly respected by Cyrus in Herodotus. It necessitated the figure of a “universal” god, one that caused everything., including evil or catastrophe. (That is not a scholarly view, just my thoughts having read Book 1 of The Histories, Deutero-Isaiah and the components of the Cyrus Inscription.)
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Good Quarantine Evening Charlie and all!
Charlie, I just ordered your book- thank you for reminding me about it! I look forward to reading it, as I do all of your books. You stated the following and it really resonated with me: "I would not call people who get caught up in the web of misinformation put out by misguided religion practitioners "simpletons." They just do not have enough critical information. And that is what an organization of scholars and likeminded folk like the Westar Institute is trying to correct." I'm glad to have found this blog which has introduced me to likeminded individuals such as Gene and Dennis who like yourself are "pushing back the frontiers of ignorance" with regard to religious propaganda. But then- I'm open to listening. People close to me are not open at all and do not wish to let go of strongly held convictions and beliefs. So I really have no one to discuss things with other than the people here. (and my husband)
Gene, thank you for referring me to Dr. Cath... I'd dearly love to pick his brain and ask a lot of questions that have been swirling around in my head for years and years. You stated "My thoughts on the attraction of cult leaders have to do with a lack of healthy experiences which allow one to question authority in the natural flow of life. In this respect it could be said that the Two Sons (Charlie's last blog) both had healthy attitudes about authority. One could say that each had the flexibility to evaluate and change his mind, each going a different direction." I agree wholeheartedly with what you said about a lack of healthy questioning of authority in the natural flow of life- I can relate.
Dennis stated "Since a majority of Americans came from Christian households, affiliation and endorsement are very powerful. Unlike prescription drug ads, unfortunately, they don’t come with warnings and contraindications. Like prescription drug ads, they offer a maintenance plan for a need for affiliation some found and find reinforcing. Cognitively and educationally, they are as average as the rest of the population. The educated Christians I have known can compartmentalize their religion and belief in God away from the rest of their life." Those words are truer than you even know. My mother wrote a book and if any are interested, I can give you the name of it. In it, you will find that my parents were deeply, deeply, deeply influenced by the opinions and endorsements and decisions of their friends. Basically everything they believed about Christianity was because they wanted to fit in with some group of friends. I never recognized this until I was well into my 40s.
So many thanks and well wishes from St. Louis! Elizabeth
Happy to see you still at it. There's really only one answer to this conundrum, and Epicurus had nailed it a couple of thousand years ago:
“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”
My heart goes out to truly good and ethical Believers like yourself who just can't seem to get over that last hurdle.
Of course God is an abstraction, begotten of human intellect, and fabricated in antiquity by primitives who anthropomorphized their multitude of supernatural beings.
An erupting volcano or devastating earthquake or plague or famine, if God's work, had to be caused by some expression of anger or other negative feeling. So then logic had to be tortured to somehow justify it. Humans are bad. We deserve our punishments.
The clearer thinkers, like Epicurus, weren't bamboozled.
The problem you're wrestling with is that Faith isn't Truth. It's outside of epistemology. The best a thinking Believer can do these days is follow Christopher Isham: Faith is emotional, it's mystical. Nothing wrong with that, but suspend your faculties of Reason. Faith is inherently irrational/unreasonable. Don't try to parse it with the tools of Knowledge.
As Stephen Jay Gould put it, Non-overlapping Magisteria.
But yeah, if you're going to assert that God is the triple-Os, he's responsible for both the good and the bad. Can't wiggle out of that.
I continue to wish you all the best. Stay safe and well. And keep up the good works.
Regards from Berkeley,
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