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 ).