Most people lament the world-wide suffering caused by COVID-19: the loss of lives and livelihoods, the curtailing of freedom and the periodic shortages of necessities like toilet paper. They mourn the loss of access to their loved ones now forcibly held in nursing homes and assisted living apartments across America and the world and they grieve over the isolation caused by the lockdowns and social distancing designed to save their lives and that of their friends. But despite the ever-present angst, there has been very little discussion about why this pandemic exists to begin with.
This is not a discussion about the genesis of the disease—there has been plenty of speculation about whether it came naturally out of the markets of Wuhan or escaped from an infectious disease center. It is about the place of the disease in Providence, God’s plan for the salvation of the world.
The Prodigal Son & Pandemic Theology
It is perhaps not that surprising that in a secularized world, few stop to think about the theological implications of a global pandemic. In fact, many find themselves agreeing with Epicurus, that evil and suffering are incompatible with a loving, omnipotent God and have lost faith. It is probably equally unsurprising that many of those that remain faithful , consider the pandemic some form of divine punishment for the manifold sins of mankind, divine retribution taken out on His ungrateful offspring by a vengeful God. Both views suffer from a lack of understanding of the nature of God. Had they done a cursory view of the gospel, they might have encountered Jesus explaining the nature of God through the Beatitudes while demonstrating it through parables like that of the prodigal son (Lk 15: 11-32)
In this parable, Jesus portrays the father as remarkably patient with his son, who demands his inheritance early and strikes out on his own, quickly wasting all of it on prostitutes and a life of dissipation. This son, suffering now from a lack of resources in a foreign land, comes to realize that he would be better off as a slave in his father’s house than as a free man on his own. He returns to his father, content to do so as a slave, but the father will have none of it. He loves his son so dearly and is so excited to have him back that he rushes to him, welcoming with a great celebration and complete forgiveness, not concerned about what the son had or had not done.
If the Father truly is as compassionate, loving, and forgiving as Jesus describes Him, then we need to re-evaluate how we think about suffering. Any true theology of suffering must be consistent with this understanding of the Father’s love for all of His children. Suffering cannot be merely a punitive tool. It must be an instrument for God to use to reunite with His wayward progeny. Indeed, in the parable, it is suffering in the form of hunger that brings the young man to his senses and facilitates a return to his father. It also makes the son realize that his father loves him very much and provides everything he needs. This is the ultimate role of suffering: to facilitate our return to Our Heavenly Father, Who loves us more than we love ourselves, and in Whose presence we will find joy and fulfillment. It is how He calls us to return home to Him.
It can be hard for many to accept that a good God uses evil and suffering to bring about our conversions but this is caused by a misunderstanding of the nature of evil. In Judean-Christian thought, everything God made is good for its intended role. Therefore, evil exists only as a privation of good, much like darkness is the privation of light and silence is the privation of sound. If evil is understood as the absence of good, rather than an opponent of good, then there are many ways that a just God could and should withhold good from mankind to bring about even a greater good: to share in His eternal life.
Suffering is not evil but is an evil detector, alerting us whenever evil (or better stated, the absence of good) threatens our existence. When we lack food, we feel hungry; when we lack friends, we feel lonely. Suffering is harsh and persistent to motivate us to seek the good we are lacking, like any good alarm system. In this way, it is also directive, making the path of righteousness appealing by making the alternatives uncomfortable.
In a universe with finite resources, death is required to provide resources for new life and even for existing life to grow. Death is also paradoxically needed for entrance into eternal life. At times, as we saw in 2020, God sees fit to concentrate death in a way that will make the whole world take notice.
Many people will struggle to understand why God subjects us to pandemics like the plague of the Middle Ages or the COVID-19 virus in 2020. This is not surprising and is just another manifestation of the “problem of evil” that has been with us since at least the days of Epicurus. Just as in the case of Epicurus, the struggle is based on a lack of understanding of the nature of God, the nature of evil, and of God’s goals for mankind.
Why would a benevolent, all-powerful God allow a worldwide pandemic in 2020, causing widespread fear and unspeakable losses? Perhaps because He is using it to teach the whole world how to live virtuously, and because we are so ingrained in our vices, nothing short of a global pandemic will suffice.
Many are undoubtedly angry at God for the imposition of the pandemic on their lives and the failure of God to protect them from evil, never realizing that God has already put the power to solve the problem into our hands and is now working to make us realize that the problem is not the virus, it is in us. Mankind already has the power to address the underlying virus, as it has demonstrated over the last hundred years of subduing contagious diseases. Granted, it is not fully contained yet but there is little question that in time it will be. What mankind needs is to learn to love and help its most vulnerable neighbors, putting self-interest aside, and that may well be the legacy of the COVID-19 virus.
The Legacy of Crisis
The world into which the COVID-19 virus was injected was badly fractured, with strong partisan divides within countries and between the nations on earth. By creating a common enemy for the entire human race that requires us to all work together to survive, God has provided the impetus for a radical re-shaping of the way people relate to each other. At the beginning of the crisis, the initial tendency was to isolate ourselves into our homes and blame all those around us for the circumstances. As the crisis grew and intensified, it became increasingly clear that we all needed to work together for the good of the whole. Communities and nations began to share best practices, and later, to share required supplies. Everyone came to realize that there were vulnerable populations that needed to be protected, and that doing so would require sacrifices. At the same time, others were spontaneously offering to help their needy neighbors and most came to recognize that being socially isolated was a bad thing.
All four tasks of suffering are on constant display in times like these, as God provides more opportunities than normal for men and women to grow spiritually. Many will only focus on the material hardship it brings, because this is the extent of their perspective, but others will take note that times of difficulty will bring out the best in those who love, while at the same time bringing out, and making clear to everyone, those who are selfish.
Because a virus infects kings and paupers alike, it teaches an invaluable lesson to humanity about the dignity of all life, and also about how inconsequential human wealth and power are in the eyes of God. Saints and sinners are never easier to detect than in times of crisis, and it also causes people to recognize the value and cost of each and to decide which they prefer to be. Unfortunately, in the past, many people have quickly forgotten the lessons of previous crises, thus forcing additional crises to re-enforce them. Others, though, are moved to repent and re-orient their focus to the higher goals, which is the reason that God utilizes contagious diseases as part of His providential plan.
This article is an adapted excerpt from Dr. Chaloux’s latest book, Why All People Suffer: How a Loving God Uses Suffering to Perfect Us. You can find your copy at your favorite bookstore or online through Sophia Institute Press.