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Viruses: The Problem of God

Viruses: The Problem of God

By Him all things were created, in Heaven and on earth, visible and invisible. — Colossians 1:16

I don’t tend to see things from the virus’s point of view.

With virtually every creature I know about, I have moments when I consider them as living beings in their own right. This is even true of the ones I viscerally dislike: wasps, spiders, stinging nettles, mosquitoes, even cats. I recognize that they have some kind of purpose in their actions, albeit one which frequently conflicts with mine, and that they do the nauseating things they do only because it helps them achieve something important to them. A mosquito bites people in order to get food. A wasp stings because it feels threatened. A cat minces around with a superior look on its face because somebody has to cut human beings down to size, and it might as well be them. If I try, I can see the world, even if only temporarily, from their perspective.

But when it comes to viruses, I find this almost impossible. There are probably good reasons for that. They are invisibly small. They cannot replicate unless they are inside the cells of another creature. I am still not entirely sure I know what they are. But so far as I am concerned, they are a subset of me, or an experience I have, rather than a creature with any agency of their own. When I sneeze, I never ponder the fact that I am helping the virus reproduce itself in other organisms by projecting it several feet away (or, more commonly, that I am foiling its reproductive plans by cupping my hands around my mouth). I never consider that the reason I vomit is because a virus is trying to reach other creatures and/or their water supply, nor that rabies is the result of a particularly fiendish virus that not only infects dogs but then induces them to bite other creatures and so spread itself further. A virus, as I perceive it, is something which happens to me — a bug, a disease, a day off work, even a nationwide lockdown — as opposed to another created entity.

This also means I rarely grasp the drama of the way my body responds to it. When I run a fever, I see it as a symptom of the infection rather than as my body’s declaration of war against marauding and unwanted colonists as I unconsciously heat myself up so as to kill them before they kill me. I fail to appreciate the marvel of antibodies, whereby defeating a particular virus once (and this is true of many of the big boys, including smallpox, rubella, measles, and mumps) ensures that I never need fear it again. Meanwhile I tell my children that Calpol will make them better, while having this vague awareness that it will do nothing of the sort but merely make them feel slightly more comfortable while their immune system does the real work of hunting down the offending microbes and showing them who’s boss. It’s not something I often reflect upon, but every time I get sick, it is war. I want to feel better, which means killing the virus. The virus wants to reproduce, which (if unchecked) could mean killing me. It’s a fight to the death, man against microbe, virus versus vir, and may the best one win.

If you haven’t thought about this much, as I hadn’t until recently, you may well find it biologically interesting. But it is also theologically troubling. It means that viruses like smallpox, hepatitis, yellow fever, HIV, and COVID-19, which have killed many millions of people over the centuries, are not merely diseases, infections, or people becoming sick and dying. They are creatures, made and sustained by Almighty God, who knows that they will kill millions of people (let alone animals) and creates them anyway. There are somewhere around 1 × 1031 of them on earth today — if you laid them end to end, they would stretch for one hundred million light-years — and many of them make people’s lives miserable.1 One of them, at the time of writing, has brought much of the world to a standstill. Some of them cover children in painful sores and ultimately kill them. Some of them pass from pregnant women to their unborn babies. Yet there they all are, and every last one of them is upheld by the word of God’s power.

Few things in creation express the problem of evil more sharply than the virus.

Many of our theological defense mechanisms are powerless against it. “Suffering exists because humans have free will,” but it is far from obvious why viruses are required for human freedom, and it seems pretty certain that viruses existed before humans anyway. “Suffering exists because there are physical laws, which are necessary for life,” but physical laws could presumably exist without smallpox. “Suffering exists to enhance our souls and prepare us for eternity,” but viral infections disproportionately afflict the young, poor, and vulnerable, while the ones who (according to Scripture) often need the most soul work, like the rich and powerful, often escape largely unharmed. “God never meant for there to be suffering,” but He continues to sustain trillions of viruses every day, and none of them can replicate unless they are inside the cell of another creature. “Suffering is a consequence of our sin,” but that’s a pretty tough sell when a baby can contract HIV in utero. There aren’t many theological objections which resist our usual apologetic medicine as much as this one.

Having said that, the flip side of this is also true. If we can respond appropriately to the problem of viruses, then our response will also serve as an appropriate reply to the problem of evil and suffering more generally. If we know what to do with viruses, we will be immune to all kinds of attack.

So the question is, how could an all-powerful, all-loving God create viruses, which can survive only by afflicting other creatures? (This is true of all predators, of course, but our experience of viruses sharpens the point.) And the answer — although you’re not going to like it — can be expressed in three short, frustrating, yet enormously important words: we don’t know.

That’s the sort of punch line that can get a book thrown across the room. That’s probably what I would have done, had I heard it, when I first became a Christian. But after pastoring for fifteen years, reading a lot of church history, preaching sermons and writing books about the problem of evil, and raising a daughter with childhood disintegrative disorder, I genuinely think it’s the best, most honest, and most biblical answer to the problem of suffering. It’s an answer you find in Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Reformed, and Pentecostal writers.2 More important, it’s also an answer you find in biblical books like Job and Ecclesiastes.

Why do people suffer? We just don’t know. Why is there evil? No idea.

And we’re better off admitting that than trying to guess, let alone (like Job’s comforters) foisting our guess on our grieving, bereaved, boil-infested friends.

This is not to deny that Scripture gives plenty of resources to help us. It identifies the two fundamental aspects of evil — sin and death — and shows us both their beginning and their end. It insists repeatedly and stubbornly that the world will not always be like this. It debunks easy answers — especially religious ones! — and narrows the field until we have no option but to hope in Christ. It centers on a gospel in which God conquers both sin and death in the crucifixion and resurrection of His Son. It tells us numerous stories of people who suffered far more than we have yet clung to God nonetheless. It ends with a vision of a world in which all evil has gone. But for all that, it never gives us a direct answer to our most pressing and disturbing question, and it occasionally scolds those who ask for one.

Nor is it to deny that we can find morally satisfying reasons for some suffering. Human choices, physical laws, the enhancement of our souls, the consequences of sin: these can all explain some of the pain we experience, some of the time. But none of them can account for all of it, all of the time. No matter how long I think about it, and no matter how many times my children ask me, I simply cannot think of a good reason why God would create the coronavirus, and in all likelihood, I never will. And that’s okay.

But that doesn’t mean there is no such reason. If God is all-knowing and I am not, there are all sorts of things I would expect God to know and to do that I cannot understand. It is simply to say that I am ignorant of what that reason is. Living with that ignorance can be unsettling and sometimes deeply troubling, especially when suffering strikes us personally. But questions, paradoxes, and mysteries are part of the fabric of Christianity. There is a limit to how far creatures can understand the Creator. Ignorance is built in.

And faith involves acknowledging that ignorance, trusting God in our confusion, and finding hope in the fact that one day

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. — Revelation 21:4

  1. “Microbiology by Numbers,” Nature Reviews Microbiology 9 (2011): 628.
  2. Books which deal with this particularly well or thoroughly include David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea; C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain; Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion; Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom and Evil; Tim Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering; and perhaps most powerfully, Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov.

Excerpted with permission from God of All Things by Andrew Wilson, copyright Andrew Wilson.

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Your Turn

When it comes to the question WHY spiritually, we just don’t know. It’s frustrating, but it’s the build-in nature of faith in Jesus Christ. Are you wrestling with it? ~ Devotionals Daily