Einstein’s scientific theories are famously difficult to understand for most people and he is quoted as saying that explanations should be “as simple as possible … but no simpler.” Simple explanations are hugely attractive and simplicity is often seen as a characteristic of a theory’s validity. And yet, Einstein’s warning is also valid, for when an explanation becomes too simple, as it may, then it can cease to be an explanation at all.
Theological theories are no less prone to the dangers of over simplification and when they mutate into doctrines then they risk becoming unhelpful. The current pandemic of Covid-19 caused by the corona virus can be explained scientifically but it is also raising theological questions. Questions like, “Why is this happening?” or “Where is God in this disaster?” are receiving public explanations from respected Christian leaders and apologists.
I fear, however, that some of these are just too simple and raise more questions than they answer. Of course, such questions are neither new nor specific to the corona virus. The “standard” answer being given – that we live in a “fallen world”, is also not new, but I believe it needs to be re-examined in the light of Scripture and the teaching of Christ.
The idea of “the fall”, as is well-known, is based mostly on the first three chapters of Genesis and an enigmatic passage in Romans chapter 8, where Paul speaks of Creation being subject to futility and, in the context of hope of future glory, its being “set free from its bondage to decay.” (Romans 8:21)
The Genesis message is of a world made “good” by its Creator and yet now, in our experience of natural disasters or a pandemic, it looks far from good. The simple conclusion is that a world that was once perfect has been spoiled as a result of human sin – the curse put upon the ground by God following Adam’s disobedience. The explanation is thus that suffering, including the present pandemic, is God’s response to human sin. “Simples” as Orlov the meerkat would say!
Following St Augustine, the Christian church has gradually taken this idea to be a basic doctrine rather than just a theological theory. But is it really biblical? How does it fit with the rest of the Bible and, more importantly, with what Christ says about human suffering? The truth is that there is very little else in the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, to support the idea and it has no place in Jewish theology.
The book of Job is pretty clear that poor Job did not suffer because of his sin. Nonetheless the idea persisted that human suffering from such things as congenital blindness (John 9:1,2) or being killed by a collapsing tower (Luke 13:4) are divine punishment. And yet, Jesus explicitly rejects this simple explanation. Things are more complicated and more subtle than that. Jesus tells us that these things are opportunities to experience the grace of God’s work in our lives. (John 9:3)
We are not given tidy explanations of why the world is the way it is.
Genesis teaches us that the world was made good, and good in the sense of being fit for purpose rather than perfect as we might understand perfection. The whole of the Bible is surely an account of how men and women experience God’s grace in the ups and downs of life, its pain as well as its joys. It is by finding the grace of God in an uncertain world that faith grows to maturity. Job was given no simple answer to his question, “Why is this happening to me?” Instead of reasons he finds a relationship with his Creator and vindication of his faith that his redeemer lives and that in his flesh he shall see God. (Job 19:26)
This pandemic, like so many things in life, presents us with a puzzle, but we are reassured by Paul that, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, [or in a riddle] but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Christ, above all, teaches us that our faith is not a matter of knowing what we cannot understand; it is, instead, trust in a loving God who will make all things well. Our task is to work in the suffering world using God’s gift of science and show the love of Christ to all.