Where Is God in a Coronavirus World? | Book Review


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.

Book Reviewed
John C. Lennox, Where Is God in a Coronavirus World? (Charlotte, NC: The Good Book Company, 2020).

P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

Review of ‘What Does the Bible Say About Suffering?’ by Brian Han Gregg


what-does-the-bible-say-about-sufferingBrian Han Gregg, What Does the Bible Say About Suffering? (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2016).

“Suffering is one of the great universals of human life,” Brian Han Gregg writes in What Does the Bible Say About Suffering? For the Christian, the experience of suffering poses a difficult theological question: “Why has my God, who is both wholly good and completely powerful, allowed this to unfold?” To answer that question, Gregg turns to the Bible and outlines its response.

Or perhaps I should say responses (plural), for Gregg argues that “there is no single way forward,” as far as the Bible is concerned. Instead, it includes “a number of different responses to the problem of suffering, and we do ourselves and the Bible a great disservice by adopting a one-size-fits-all approach.” He compares the “biblical witness” to a “talented choir” that sings in a “complex harmony.”

According to the Bible,

  1. “[S]uffering may be punishment from God” (e.g., Deuteronomy 30:15–20).
  2. It may result “from the sinful choices of others” (e.g., Genesis 4:1–8).
  3. Regardless, “God’s redemptive power is stronger than the suffering that afflicts us” (Genesis 45:4–8).
  4. Suffering can be “the work of Satan…to cause [us] to fall away from Jesus” (Luke 22:31–34).
  5. Sometimes, we must humbly accept “the mystery of suffering,” which is beyond our power to comprehend (Job 40:8–14).
  6. Often, suffering takes place “within the context of God’s redemptive purposes” (Romans 8:18–25).
  7. Other times, it plays “an important role in our spiritual growth and development” (Hebrews 12:1–13).
  8. On occasion, God himself uses suffering “to test our faith” (Exodus 17:1–7).
  9. On other occasions, we experience “the power of God’s new life” only when “we embrace suffering in solidarity with Christ in his death” (2 Corinthians 4:7–12).
  10. At all times, “God is our comfort in the midst of suffering” (2 Corinthians 1:3–7).
  11. “We are invited to join [Christ] in emptying ourselves for the sake of others so that we might also share in his glory” (Philippians 2:5–11).
  12. Our suffering participates in “God’s own suffering as it unfolds in the already and not yet” of the kingdom of God (Colossians 1:24).

When we realize the “complex harmony” of the Bible’s message about suffering, we shy away from simplistic answers about suffering. For example, sin—whether ours or someone else’s—is sometimes the cause of our suffering (answers 1 and 2), but not always (answer 5). The temptation Satan uses to trip us up (answer 4) can be the test God uses to build us up (answer 8). The number of different responses to suffering requires that we use discernment when counseling the sufferer, lest we misdiagnose the cause of their suffering and prescribe the wrong treatment for it.

While these twelve responses differ among themselves, they have this in common: “Each…draws us back to God,” Gregg writes. “Together they encourage us to seek him in the midst of our suffering so that hope may be reborn.”

What Does the Bible Says About Suffering? is a short-but-wise book. Pastors will find it useful in their preaching and counseling ministries. Similarly, small groups and book clubs will find that it generates helpful conversations about the church’s response to suffering. I highly recommend it.

_____
P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

P.P.S. This review was cross-posted at InfluenceMagazine.com.

The World Wide (Religious) Web for Friday, May 6, 2011


CNN Poll: Majority in U.S. say bin Laden in hell. The rest have read Love Wins.

Jackson Lears critiques atheism, specifically Sam Harris, from the port-side of the political spectrum.

On Harris’s view of science:

To define science as the source of absolute truth, Harris must first ignore the messy realities of power in the world of Big Science. In his books there is no discussion of the involvement of scientists in the military-industrial complex or in the pharmacological pursuit of profit. Nor is any attention paid to the ways that chance, careerism and intellectual fashion can shape research: how they can skew data, promote the publication of some results and consign others to obscurity, channel financial support or choke it off. Rather than provide a thorough evaluation of evidence, Harris is given to sweeping, unsupported generalizations. His idea of an argument about religious fanaticism is to string together random citations from the Koran or the Bible. His books display a stunning ignorance of history, including the history of science. For a man supposedly committed to the rational defense of science, Harris is remarkably casual about putting a thumb on the scale in his arguments.

On Harris’s view of religion:

But Harris is not interested in religious experience. He displays an astonishing lack of knowledge or even curiosity about the actual content of religious belief or practice, announcing that “most religions have merely canonized a few products of ancient ignorance and derangement and passed them down to us as though they were primordial truths.” Unlike medicine, engineering or even politics, religion is “the mere maintenance of dogma, is one area of discourse that does not admit of progress.” Religion keeps us anchored in “a dark and barbarous past,” and what is generally called sacred “is not sacred for any reason other than that it was thought sacred yesterday.” Harris espouses the Enlightenment master narrative of progress, celebrating humans’ steady ascent from superstition to science; no other sort of knowledge, still less wisdom, will do.

On Harris’s confusions about ethics:

Harris’s version of scientific ethics does not allow for complexity. In The Moral Landscape, he describes his philosophical position as a blend of moral realism (“moral claims can really be true or false”) and consequentialism (“the rightness of an act depends on how it impacts the well-being of conscious creatures”). He does not explain why he has abandoned the intentionalism he espoused in The End of Faith. Nor does he spell out how his newfound consequentialism can allow him to maintain his justification of collateral damage (which surely “impacts the well-being of conscious creatures”), or how his new view differs from the pragmatism he had previously condemned. Pragmatism, the argument that ideas become true or false as their impact on the world unfolds, is nothing if not consequentialist.

And on Harris’s fundamental reductionism:

There is a fundamental reductionist confusion here: the same biological origin does not constitute the same cultural or moral significance. In fact, one could argue, Harris shows that the brain cannot distinguish between facts and values, and that the elusive process of moral reasoning is not reducible to the results of neuroimaging. All we are seeing, here and elsewhere, is that “brain activity” increases or decreases in certain regions of the brain during certain kinds of experiences—a finding so vague as to be meaningless. Yet Harris presses forward to a grandiose and unwarranted conclusion: if the fact-value distinction “does not exist as a matter of human cognition”—that is, measurable brain activity—then science can one day answer the “most pressing questions of human existence”: Why do we suffer? How can we be happy? And is it possible to love our neighbor as ourselves?

Interesting.

Stoicism: The Army’s newly invented faith?

Why the National Day of Prayer endures. Because we need economic miracles to cover the distance between what government spends and what it makes? That’s my answer.

Random thoughts on theodicy and psychics. My favorite line about psychics: “Only in America, I guess, do fake practitioners of false phenomena worry about the authenticity of their professional work.”

Howard Kainz offers a Catholic explanation of how Jesus had brothers if his mother was a perpetual virgin. Color me unconvinced.

Christ wasn’t a communist. No duh! But he wasn’t a capitalist either.

Hebrew baby names still tops in 2010, but Jews constitute only 1–2% of the American population. Two explanations: (1) The biblical tradition continues to influence American culture. (2) Hebrews have cool baby names.

Using History to Mold Ideas on the Right: An article about David Barton, WallBuilders, and the quest of the historical Christian nation. UPDATE: Over at GetReligion.org–an indispensable blog about religion stories in the news–Sarah Pulliam Bailey has some questions about this article.

A two-part series on the Christian redemption of the “dismal science”: Part 1 and Part 2.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: