Where Is God in a Coronavirus World? by John C. Lennox is a short essay about “the problem of natural evil,” the suffering that is “a result of natural disasters and diseases, for which humans are not (directly) responsible.” By contrast, “the problem of moral evil” is “suffering for which men and women are directly responsible” (page 14). In other words, Lennox’s book is an outline of theodicy.
The problem of evil, in whatever form—natural or moral—is often taken to be an argument against the rationality of belief in God, as well as for the rationality of atheism. In the words of the Scottish philosopher David Hume put it, citing Epicurus: “Epicurus’s old questions are yet unanswered. Is [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then is he impotent. Is he able but not willing? Then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?” (page 26).
Unfortunately, however, atheism—at least the kind informed by evolutionary naturalism—is unable to explain why something is good (or bad). Lennox quotes evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins here to good effect:
In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reasons in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music (page 26).
Perhaps this bleak determinism appeals to some, but with Lennox, I am inclined to see it as both unreasonable and unlivable.
If, however, there is no God, and therefore there are no transcendent values, then how can there be any objective standard of God? If there is no good or evil in any case, the concept of morality disappears, and moral outrage is absurd. The so-called “problem” of evil—moral or natural—dissolves into the pitiless indifference of uncaring matter (page 29).
Once Lennox dismisses atheism, he turns to Christian theism. “How can there be a coronavirus if there is a loving God?” (as the title of chapter 4 puts it). He begins to answer that question by paraphrasing Penn State viral ecologist Marilyn Rossock, who argues that “viruses are essential to life, and that at most 1% (a high estimate) of them are pathogenic—that is, harmful to their hosts” (page 34). In other words, he appeals to laws of nature—that is, scientific descriptions of the way things work—as a theodicy.
That only pushes the question back further, however, as Lennox recognizes. He asks, “could God not have made a world without viral pathogens?” (page 35). His argument then takes an anthropological turn and gestures at a free-will theodicy:
In fact, people who wish they inhabited a world without the possibility of evil are actually wishing themselves out of existence. The reason is that one of the greatest gifts that God has given us is that of free will. We can yes or no, and that capacity opens up wonderful things: love, trust and genuine relationships with God and each other. However, that very same wonderful and good capacity makes us capable of evil, even though it does not give us permission to do evil (36).
In the biblical narrative, it is Adam and Eve’s misuse of free will that introduces both moral and natural evils into the world. “What happened in Genesis 3 was that the human rejected God, and sin entered the world,” writes Lennox. “The consequences were huge. There was death—first in the spiritual sense of a rift in the relationship between humans and God, and, later, in the sense of physical death” (pages 38–39).
Interestingly, Lennox concedes that “none of us has ever been satisfied with the outcome of that particular discussion,” that is, about “what a good, loving and all-powerful God should, could or might have done” (42). As a Christian, I do not think the atheist use of the problem of evil, in whatever form, makes an airtight case against belief in God. The case has too many leaks, especially since it proceeds on a sense of moral evaluation that it cannot maintain metaphysically. But that doesn’t mean theodicies are airtight arguments either, at least from a philosophical point of view.
So, Lennox turns to a different question: “If we accept—as we must—that we are in a universe that presents us with a picture of both biological beauty and deadly pathogens, is there any evidence that there is a God whom we can trust with the implications, and with our lives and futures?” (page 43).
Here, Lennox dives back into the biblical narrative, focusing on the Incarnation:
Christianity claims that the man Jesus Christ is God incarnate—the Creator become human. At the heart of the Christian message is the death of Jesus Christ on a cross just outside Jerusalem. The question at once arises: if he is God incarnate, what was he doing on a cross? Well, it at the very least means that God has not remained distant from human pain and suffering but has himself experienced it.
Therefore, a Christian is not so much a person who has solved the problem of pain, suffering, and the coronavirus, but one who has come to love and trust a God who has himself suffered (page 44).
And, obviously, Christ’s story does not end in death but in resurrection. “The importance of this cannot be overestimated,” Lennox writes. “It addresses a fundamental difficulty that the atheistic worldview cannot cope with: the problem of ultimate justice” (45). And not only justice. The death and resurrection of Jesus also make a way for the salvation of those who do evil. Those who repent and confess faith in Jesus “receive forgiveness; peace with the personal God who created and upholds the universe; a new life with new powers; and the promise of a world where suffering will be no more” (page 47).
Where Is God in a Coronavirus World is short, coming in at only 64 pages, and my review has gone on long enough. What I appreciate about the book is three things: 1) It clearly identifies the problem. 2) It shows the deficiency of atheism in accounting for the objective nature of good and bad. 3) It offers several lines of theodicy that are elements of a Christian theistic account of evil, whether natural or moral, even as it recognizes their philosophical limitations. And 4) it focuses on the heart of the Christian narrative—the Incarnation of the Word of God—as a way of accounting for both the reality of evil and for hope that it will be overcome in the future.
Where Is God in a Coronavirus World? is more like a sketch of directions on a napkin rather than a detailed topographical map. But it will get the average reader where he or she needs to go.
John C. Lennox, Where Is God in a Coronavirus World? (Charlotte, NC: The Good Book Company, 2020).
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