At the precise time of the publication of my book, The Theology of Suffering, the world finds itself in the grip of a great threat to economies and lives. This beast crept up on us all, originating in China, then spreading its tentacles to more than 200 nations, and still it keeps spreading. Silently and invisibly it has arrived almost everywhere, and we are all shocked by the speed of this enemy coming against us with drawn sword to cut us down – coming like a tsunami from nowhere to sweep us away.
We are completely confused and so many of us are afraid to the extent of panic. They are truly in a condition of great fear and trembling.
In this shock the world has locked down. Public places have closed, and people are being isolated as they are instructed by governments to stay in their homes to avoid being infected. All social gatherings including church services have been banned. Businesses have also been forced to shut. The social, psychological, and economic effect of such radical action can be assessed, but it is of such an extent it cannot be fully known.
Pragmatically, if one is removed and distanced from an infected area or from people who might be infected, one cannot get infected. However, this form of radical isolationism – while effective in limiting the reach of the virus – is really changing one disaster for two others.
The first disaster is the breakdown of society: human beings need community. We are social beings and need to maintain our social connections. Indeed God, who is community, creates those born in his image to be in community with him: “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Equally vital is that we have our being in community with each other. We desperately and essentially need each other.
The Lord said, “It is not good that man should be alone: I will make a helper fit for him” (Gen 2:18). The wider meaning here is that, beyond the essential community of marriage, we need one another. Jesus’s new commandment is that we love one another. We are called to love our neighbour, and our neighbour is he or she who has need of us (Luke 10: 25–37). Imposed isolation, even for limited periods, moves us back in the direction of Adam’s aloneness in its widest sense.
The second disaster we are experiencing is the breakdown of national economies. The isolation means that production ceases, shops are empty, and services are greatly hampered. There is no money supply. The wealthy have reserves, but the poor, who live from week to week, struggle to meet their essential needs almost immediately. If the isolation continues for a substantial period, all countries will go into recession, producing a global recession.
At this time of writing, nearly 200,000 people have died of the coronavirus and over 2.8 million have been infected. These numbers are constantly increasing, and it still has only been a few months since the disease emerged from its unknown origin. In Lombardy, Italy, the hospitals can no longer cope. The number of cases is so high and increasing at such a rate that the demand far outstrips the hospitals’ capabilities. A similar condition exists in Spain.
The Quest for Meaning
The fear and panic of so many derives from the unknown. The enemy, upon which governments have declared war (in many places the military have actually been called in for assistance) is a hidden enemy whose tactics are secret. The patterns and advances in this attack on the world cannot be known. Like the wind, we do not know precisely where it comes from or where it is going, but we do know its effects – and the effects are devastating.
The question for believers is where is God in all of this?
The question for believers is where is God in all of this? Has this terrible attack crept up also on God? Certainly not! Such a statement is ridiculous. But the question is raised: is this, then, a judgement from God? The same question applied to the AIDS outbreak in the not so distant past.
Since God is the sovereign, all-powerful Lord of his created universe, he must at least be permitting this evil attack. With this we must agree. But we can be sure from what we know of the nature of God, from his self-revelation to us in the Bible, that he has a purpose even in this disaster, which is also at this point unknowable and silent. Since God is the infinite power of all creation, then proper and intelligent fear must surely be the fear of God. This fear, we are told, is the beginning of wisdom.
The question why is God permitting this evil is precisely the same as the ancient question, why does God permit evil and suffering in his world? In this light there is nothing new here.
The Bible and biblically rooted theologies declare that God is all knowing and all powerful, He also foreordains in a mysterious way the path of world history and – vitally and most especially – salvation history which runs within world history. And so, Christian brother or sister, you have absolutely no cause to be afraid of this ferocious viral terrorist. God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) is in absolute control. Rest in your trust in him through your faith and total love.
Christian brother or sister, you have absolutely no cause to be afraid of this ferocious viral terrorist. God is in absolute control.
So many, including weaker Christians who perhaps have what we term “little faith,” are in great fear and trembling concerning the devastation coming at them. This severe anguish produces the all-encompassing inner pain of extreme anxiety.
But this suffering has a great purpose: it is a revelation from God. A revelation of ultimate reality which allows us to see ourselves in a real light and, indeed, to see the true value of life in contrast with the fallen world.
Moving into isolation is also a movement into inner pain – the pain of the anguish of Adam’s aloneness. Before entering into community and union with Eve, this aloneness was radical and extreme.
This suffering has a great purpose: it is a revelation from God.
The isolation of single people during this time, and particularly older single people, is like being cast onto a desert island. Being cast into loneliness beyond that which they already know. The question is, for how long?
Those who have contracted the virus are suffering severely, both physically and psychologically, and a high number are suffering unto death. Whilst God’s curse on the world, as a result of the disobedience of Adam and Eve, remains – and this original sin is generally held to be the cause of suffering and death in the world – this particular death is very severe, involving pneumonia and causing great difficulty in breathing.
Christ also died similarly of asphyxiation on the cross.
The category of suffering, which largely applies in this particular case, is described in The Theology of Suffering as “undeserved suffering.” (Most illnesses fall into this type of suffering, though some illnesses come under the category of “deserved suffering.”) Undeserved suffering immediately causes us to reflect on, and even question, the meaning of our lives and the nature of God. The questions why are we suffering and why is God allowing this suffering to happen? tend to rise up and keep demanding answers.
Undeserved suffering immediately causes us to question the meaning of our lives and the nature of God.
Science moves us inexorably, and I think necessarily, towards the black hole of isolation. It does so, seeking to flatten the curve of global infection and death. But again, isolated singles are being cast into the unknown. If they already have serious fear in this specific case, then the reality is that there is no one to share their fear with and no one to encourage hope. It is a bit like enforced ostracism.
When we realise we are being attacked by a dead enemy (as viruses are not strictly “alive”), the origin of which we can only conjecture at but not absolutely know, we realise that we are confronted by a great mystery.
I have heard that the coronavirus may have been lying dormant in bats before spreading through some channel to humans. If so, where did it emerge from to infect the bats? Bats themselves surely did not produce this virus. The mystery remains. The vital aspect for human life is to prevent the deadly mystery entering the human body, which is done scientifically by building immunity through vaccination or by isolating from the infected masses.
The mystery involving a deadly attacking non-conscious entity which has the capability to wipe out an entire country’s population is a horrendous reality to face. The fear of this mystery which cannot be understood through science and, therefore, cannot be controlled is an almost unbearable reality.
For example, most people live with a certain degree of fear concerning cancer because we don’t know how to control it. There is still no absolute cure. As soon as a cure for cancer is found the universal fear will disappear. Until that hopeful time, what we are left with is prevention.
This is where we are with the coronavirus. The tactic is stay clear of the mystery, but we can’t hide from it because it is the cause of a massive number of deaths. Ultimately, this worldwide disaster is about death. In its wake it leaves mass bereavement which itself is world changing. In effect, death comes before us en masse as the ultimate reality.
Biblically, through the fall of Adam and Eve into sin against God, this ultimate reality of death is, along with its cause, revealed: “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen 2:17).
Death is God’s curse on sin which is seen here as disobedience and the rejection of God’s authority. The virus of original sin is inherited by all human beings and is more serious and more secret than even the coronavirus. The coronavirus, like all mysterious viruses, could be seen as a herald of this primary virus, and it comes blowing the horn of destruction and hopelessness.
Our Certain Hope
This curse appears to human consciousness as a stone-cold rock face which is insurmountable and utterly hopeless. But for Christians, the reality is that all we have is hope. Jesus himself said to be anxious for nothing. God will look after us – this also is certain. This is not a false or shallow hope. But a rock-solid hope resting on the truth held by a rock-solid faith which cannot be moved.
For Christians the reality is – all we have is hope.
God is already united to true believers in the person of the Holy Spirit so we can rejoice in our God and be at total peace.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. (Ps 23:4)
In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:38–39)
Let us therefore pray for the world in this that they would find the source of our peace.
by Bryson Arthur
A Theology of Suffering – get your copy today.
J. Bryson Arthur has a PhD in Systematic Theology from the University of Glasgow, UK. He has taught extensively throughout the world and is founder and former president of Nazareth Evangelical Theological Seminary, Israel (now Nazareth Evangelical College). He currently serves as Head of the Honours Degree programme and Senior Lecturer in Systematic Theology at Mukhanyo Theological College, South Africa.