In these difficult times, almost everything seems to about Covid-19. It is a pandemic that is already bad and looks like getting a lot worse.
However, many Christians feel almost contractually obliged to look for the good side of the pandemic, and this just ends up showing the bad side of their religion.
It’s OK to look for good in a situation
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with looking for the bright side of the current situation. We do hope and believe this pandemic will be over sometime, though we don’t know when. And when it’s over we will look at a changed world - some parts of which may be better than the world before Covid-19.
I’ve heard people hoping that it will help us get off the rat race and focus on what’s important to us. That more people will realise they can work remotely, avoid lengthy commutes, and get better access to flexible working schedules. That we’ll be able to spend more time with family and friends, either electronically or in real life. That it will bring out the best in people - just like all disasters can. And that we’ll be better prepared for the next pandemic (though that’s small comfort now).
Since I have a number of friends in the US, I hear them hoping the country will realise they need better sick leave and better healthcare. And also that it will make it more difficult for Donald Trump to be re-elected (given the way he has handled Covid-19, I don’t think that’s a bad thing).
However, I think it’s important to remember that the people saying these things are not trying to make out that the pandemic is good. They are not trying to pretend that these potential benefits somehow make the many deaths and substantially changed lives worth it.
But my proof text says it must be good!
A few weeks ago, I saw an article titled 10 Ways in which this Coronavirus Pandemic Can Be for Our Good. Read it and weep. From the first it really upset me, but it took a while to figure out why it upset me.
Look at the central claim:
I am a Christian and therefore I want to look at this coronavirus pandemic through the lens of the Bible, particularly of Romans 8:28–29, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.”
This text teaches us that for us, believers in Christ, all things, without exception including the coronavirus, work together for good. Although sometimes in time of great trial we feel what Jacob felt, “all these things are against me” (Gen. 42:36). But later, once we look back we can say with Joseph, “God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20).
Unlike my previous section, this is not trying to say “This is a bad situation, but some good may come out of it”. It suggests that the current pandemic is actually working for good. Perhaps not for the good of the entire world, but at least for the good of believers.
The author has chosen “the lens of the Bible”, and I think we can see that it makes for a badly distorted lens. It treats one proof-text from the Bible as more important than all our lived experience.
I’ve probably said it before, but one of the biggest differences I see between firm believers and doubters or unbelievers is in how we treat Biblical promises. Believers start by assuming the promises are true, and often find quoting them encouraging. However, doubters in particular can find them extremely depressing: They are still trying to hold onto the promises, and yet those promises don’t match reality. Too often they end up blaming themselves because the promises aren’t working. I know from experience this can be a difficult time, but it can also lead to finally acknowledging that the problem is with the promises, not with the doubter.
Even firm believers don’t always have the answer to how exactly God is working with Covid-19. God moves in mysterious ways, after all. However, if they take the proof text seriously, they can’t just acknowledge that it’s a bad situation which God doesn’t appear to have done anything to help.
This leads some to try and come up with reasons why this pandemic might be good for us, like in the linked article. And those reasons don’t fill me with confidence.
Whose good is this for, really?
The article claims it has 10 ways the pandemic is for believers’ good. However, it turns out that most of the stated reasons are actually for God’s good.
For example, the fifth point (parents being able to spend time with children) might qualify as a human benefit, but even then it’s really about God: Children are to be taught “how to react to a crisis like this in a God-honoring way”.
Similarly, the second point talks about showing Christ’s love, which could be good. However, the main goal isn’t things like helping the underprivileged or reassuring those who are fearful. Instead, it’s to take the opportunity to share the gospel with unbelievers. Really, it’s a sales pitch intended to give glory to God.
Going through the rest of the points, some of them are direct benefits to God: He gets more prayer, believers are to spend more time thinking about God, direct competitors like sport are eliminated (World Cup Final, anyone?), and God is to be trusted for healing in spite of giving no evidence that he actually does heal. And it seems that when humans do manage to work out a solution, God is entitled to take credit for that solution as a gift from God (the Betoota Advocate has something to say about that).
Other points aren’t quite so direct, but it’s still clear that they benefit God rather than humans. In particular, believers are meant to be reminded of their mortality so they prepare for God’s judgement at Christ’s second coming. God has declared certain things terrible sins (for reasons best known to himself), and believers are meant to beat themselves up over having done those things. Basically, Covid-19 is a reminder that believers must be compliant, or else God will hurt them far worse than Covid-19 ever could.
The final point refers back to the verses quoted at the start and seems to be the author’s conclusion. The main good of the pandemic is making believers conform to the image of Jesus. It’s supposed to bring them closer to God. After all, it’s their spiritual good that matters, not their physical good.
Don’t forget, Gospel Jesus was executed at a young age and died a painful death. Maybe that had all kinds of spiritual good, but is this really the example we want people to conform to?
The list promised to tell us how the pandemic would work for the good of believers, and in the end can only give examples of how the pandemic might compel believers to better focus on God. When I was younger that level of self-sacrifice appealed to me, at least in principle. Now it repels me.
I found another list in an article entitled God and Coronavirus: Is it a Sign of the End Times?
Let’s look at seven reasons God sends disease and trouble in the Bible:
- To Accomplish His Purposes
- To Teach Obedience
- To Oppose Pride
- To Abolish Idolatry
- To Teach Gratitude
- To Defend His Holiness
- To Reveal His Power
To be fair, the article did give verses in support of each reason. But I was struck by how uncritically it accepted those verses and those reasons. There was no question about whether God was right to do any of these things, or whether any of these reasons were good. It’s just a matter of accepting that God does work like that. If you don’t like that, tough luck.
At least this one doesn’t pretend that all these things are for our good (honest!). But to me it still leaves the most important question unanswered: Why should we care about any of this?
I can understand God wanting to accomplish his purpose, abolish his competition, flex his muscles, and make sure everyone acknowledges how powerful and important and special he is (though it does seem to make him “selfish” - a sin which believers are quick to accuse humans of, but apparently never think of applying to God).
However, why should we humans fall in line with this? Why should we be obedient and grateful to God, just because he claims in the past he killed people who didn’t? Yes, he also claims that he is being nice not killing us all now, but people are hurting, and that matters.
For point (5), the article mentioned the way God treated his “chosen people” in the wilderness. That treatment was appalling, and we’re totally OK to call him out for it. Similarly today - God is welcome to claim that he’s responsible for Covid-19, and that it’s accomplishing his purpose and revealing his power. However, we don’t have to be grateful for it, and we’re entitled to be proud of resisting this killer.
Is God gaining believers all that matters?
I find point 10 in the original article particularly disturbing:
It is certain that God will only use this pandemic as an instrument in His hand to conform us more to the image of His Son Jesus Christ. So the coronavirus is not designed to drive us away from God but to draw us closer to Him. It is in this sense that this virus is ultimately for our spiritual good and for God’s own glory.
To me, this suggests that anything which makes more people believe in God, or which makes believers more focused on God, is a good thing. As before, I can understand why God might think this is good, but I’m not sure why humans should think it good.
Consider a couple of other ways this might be shown:
Hell: I’ve heard that fear of hell can make people commit to God, and when they run into doubts can make them more hesitant to walk away. Does that make preaching and teaching about hell a good thing? After all, generations of Christians may be traumatised for life, but at least God can feel a warm glow and look forward to a good harvest of believers. Yes, in any other context, we would consider eternal torment barbaric and evil, but clearly because God is God he must know what he’s doing. Maybe without him everyone would go to hell?
Theocracy: I’m sure in a well-run theocracy God would have more believers and more praise than in a liberal democracy where people actually get to choose what religion (if any) they wish to practice. Does that make trying to establish a theocracy a good thing?
I don’t know whether the author of this article would accept either of these things - but I do know that there are believers who accept them. Many of these people complain the modern world is terrible because “anything goes”, and yet genuinely think that anything goes when it comes to making believers.
Divine Command Theory
To me, this kind of thing always comes back to Divine Command Theory. Under this theory, God is always right, his motivations always pure, and his demands always reasonable. Meeting God’s needs and complying with his demands is the highest calling a human can aspire to. He cannot be questioned, and he truly deserves obsequious followers.
In their turn, those followers know there must be a good reason for his actions and demands, even if they can’t understand that reason. After all, like the rest of the world they’re just broken individuals in need of salvation. Even the author of the first article claims to be “A poor-needy sinner saved by God’s grace alone”.
I can certainly understand this, because I preached similar things myself not too many years ago. I think at the time I felt I needed God far too much to see his flaws.
However, now I look at the situation with new eyes, I can see why God might want things to be this way. But I really can’t see why humans should accept it.
It gets worse, though: Some believers positively revel in these actions of God. They see people in fear and either view them as marks to sell their religion to (as in the first article) or inferiors who are being justly taken down a peg or two by Almighty God. Either way, the fact that people around the world are badly stressed is an unimportant background detail when compared to God achieving his oh-so-important purpose and demonstrating his power.
It’s times like this when I want to echo the words of Douglas Adams’ Oolon Colluphid: “Who is this God Person Anyway?”
To me it’s simple: We can see people, while we can’t see God (maybe he’s social distancing?). Therefore we should be making decisions that benefit people, not decisions that benefit God.
The world I want
I believe that humans are autonomous agents that are of value in themselves and to themselves. I want a world where people can live their own lives. Where they can have their own dreams, and make their own choices. Where they are recognised as risen apes: Flawed, but still in control of their own destiny rather than needing a saviour from outside. And where they can set aside their differences and work together to improve the world.
When considered in these terms, the current pandemic is unequivocally bad. The lockdowns, while necessary, are already reducing the choices of many, and are set to continue to do so. They are already disrupting the hopes and dreams of many, and are set to continue to do so. People are living in fear, and that fear may continue to get worse.
The disease itself is already shortening the lives of many, and is set to continue to do so. This will also have an effect on everyone connected to those dying people.
I’m not going to claim our world is perfect.
It wasn’t perfect before Covid-19 struck. In all likelihood, some of the bad decisions made in different parts of the world over previous years are coming back to haunt us now.
It isn’t perfect now: It will take time to fight this disease, and I fear that those already low on the social scale will feel the effects of lockdown and increased unemployment and restrictions far more than I will. Some countries have tried to strengthen the social safety net to protect many of these people, but I don’t know how well that will work.
Nor will the world be perfect after Covid-19 is contained and life returns to some new version of “normal”. I hope we will learn things that help us improve the world, but fear we will actually make it worse.
However, it’s a damn sight better than the God-inspired vision: A world where the cosmic absentee landlord rigs the rules in his favour. Where he claims he has the moral high ground, and punishes eternally anyone who doesn’t fall into line. Sorry, not buying that. Not now, not ever.
To me it really doesn’t matter whether God was trying to find new followers, to better mold existing followers to suit his whims, or just to flex his muscles. I don’t believe God exists, but if he truly sent the pandemic for his own purposes without caring about the human cost, he is someone we should resist.