There is always a moment in every human life when the myth of our own invulnerability is punctured, and we’re keenly reminded of our own fragility and mortality. For me that moment occurred on September 23, 1995. I traveled that morning from Nashville to Knoxville to watch Peyton Manning’s Vols play Mississippi State. By the drive home, I was in unexplained, horrible pain. What I first thought was possible food poisoning turned out to be something much worse, and days later I was in the hospital faced with the possibility of facing major surgery to save my life.
What happened next is a story for another time (I recovered, and it’s quite a tale), but I bring it up because it represented the first time that I truly, from the bottom of my heart, asked God, “Why is this bad thing happening to me?” Make no mistake, this was not the first time I’d faced adversity, but always before my petition to God began not with “why?” but with “forgive me.” My clearly identified and obvious sins had consequences, and I was asking God for grace. Here, however, an illness struck from the clear blue sky. It had nothing to do with my behavior. It had nothing to do with my choices. I was healthy. I ran every day. Like every red-blooded Kentucky kid, I played basketball. And I was flat on my back in the hospital, wracked with pain.
It was then that I learned of a concept called “natural evil.” It was then that I learned of the role of a savior beyond one’s personal destiny of heaven and hell. And it was then that I began to understand what Paul meant when he wrote in Romans 8 that creation itself suffers from a “bondage to corruption.”
What does any of this have to do with coronavirus, you ask? Hang with me for a moment, and you’ll see. It boils down to understanding a reason for suffering that transcends our own sense of individual injustice (“what did I do to deserve this?”), highlights some interesting differences in Christian thinking, but ultimately demonstrates the full glory of God’s redemptive purpose.
To borrow a bit from pastor and Bethlehem Seminary chancellor John Piper’s framework for understanding suffering, we often focus on the mystery or justice of the “micro” cause without pondering the “macro” cause. We often feel a sense of odd comfort when we can understand and appreciate the micro cause. When a person dies from lung cancer after a lifetime of smoking, we lament the loss but we understand its reason. When a person spends money irresponsibly and faces financial adversity, we feel sympathy, but there’s still a sense of cosmic justice. We get the notion that dangerous acts have terrible consequences.
But we know that not all suffering is so easily explained, and rarely is that truth so apparent than in times of general disaster. This month, many thousands of Americans are lying in hospital rooms, gasping for air, and they did nothing irresponsible. They did nothing wrong. Think of all the wise, entrepreneurial, and hardworking men and women who are losing their livelihoods at this very moment. They had done everything right. Then came the virus. Then came the shutdowns.
How do Christians process this? It’s a huge topic, of course, and I’m not going to pretend to speak for all of Christendom, but an interesting piece in Christianity Today exposed a key difference among Christians and helped me solidify my own thinking about the subject. In a March 17 essay, CT editor-in-chief Daniel Harrell asked the question, “Is the coronavirus evil?” and answered no:
[T]he inclination is to ascribe bacteria and viruses and the diseases they cause to Adam’s folly [the fall of man]. But unless God’s creation defies every characteristic of biological reality, bacteria and viruses are not bitter fruits of the fall, but among the first fruits of good creation itself. If the science is right, there would be no life as we know it without them. God makes no mistakes, and bacteria and viruses indeed are mirabilis (from the Latin meaning remarkable, or even amazing or wondrous, adjectives frequently used to describe creation) and part of the plan from the start. Death itself is required for organic life to exist. This is true of eternal life too. Christ died for the sake of new life (Rom. 6:9–11). Better to view creation not as something perfect gone awry, but as something begun as very good only not yet finished.
But this seems at odds with Paul’s words that “creation was subjected to frustration” and that it is in “bondage to corruption.” This may sound strange to a nonbelievers’ ears. It’s an assertion that rests on a supernatural premise – that sin has a metastasizing, cancerous effect on creation itself. In an excellent response to Harrell in The Gospel Coalition, Kevin DeYoung, a pastor and a professor at Reformed Theological Seminary, puts it like this:
Could viruses have existed in Genesis 1? Sure. Do fatal viruses exist prior to the events of Genesis 3? Of course not. Water was God’s good creation; the flood was the result of sin. It makes much better sense to attribute a rogue virus not to the supposed incompleteness of God’s very good creation, but to the “thorns and thistles” that now grow up in a fallen world (Gen. 3:18), part of the futility to which the creation has been subjected in its bondage to corruption (Rom. 8:20-21).
In other words, the virus is evil. It’s a “natural evil” that exists as the result of the fall. On Friday night my family finished rewatching Peter Jackson’s outstanding adaptations of Lord of the Rings (we will not speak of his Hobbit movies). As I watched, I was reminded again of how Tolkien so brilliantly tied good and evil to the natural world. His books are not allegories, of course, but rather more properly understood as myths that exposed and revealed truth.
Read Tolkien and you see the close connection between evil and physical decay. While physical appearances can be deceiving (remember Sam’s conversation with Aragorn where he suspected a servant of the enemy would “look fairer and … well, feel fouler”), the true expression of evil invariably manifested itself in physical ruin and the despoiling of the natural world.
Does this connection seem strange? It is no more strange than a virgin birth or a physical resurrection after rotting three days in a sealed tomb. Christianity acknowledges the physical laws of God’s creation, but it also recognizes the existence of spiritual truths that impact the physical, natural world. And the corruption of creation has unleashed a deadly plague upon our land.
DeYoung reminds us of these words from John Calvin:
Before the fall, the state of the world was a most fair and delightful mirror of the divine favour and paternal indulgence toward man. Now, in all the elements we perceive that we are cursed. … The earth will not be the same as it was before, producing perfect fruits; for he declares that the earth would degenerate from its fertility, and bring forth briers and noxious plants. Therefore, we may know, that whatsoever unwholesome things may be produced, are not natural fruits of the earth, but are corruptions which originate from sin.
That’s an awful lot of bad news. I remember pondering that bad news when I suffered on my hospital bed in 1995. My body was rapidly becoming a casualty of the fall. But as one of my old pastors was fond of saying, while the bad news of the fall is worse than we realize, the Good News of redemption is better than we can comprehend.
Last night, my wife and I were walking through our neighborhood and saw a pastor friend in his backyard. We stopped him and had a lovely conversation while maintaining proper social distancing from the sidewalk. As we shared our own burdens and stresses, he made an important observation – this moment demonstrates so clearly our need for a savior.
By that, he meant far, far more than the idea that we need some of that “old-time religion” before we meet our maker. No, he meant that a broken world eagerly awaits the redemption declared in Revelations 21, when the Lord declares, “Behold, I make all things new.” He meant that we will one day see, as Paul prophesied, “creation itself will be set free.” Moreover, that redemption comes through a messiah who came to this earth, experienced the full weight of evil in spite of his own holiness, and then triumphed over death, the ultimate manifestation of physical decay. As Christians suffer, they worship a God who suffered also.
“Why did this happen to me?” is a question that is often impossible to answer in isolation. We see through a glass darkly. We have no way of understanding why one of us falls ill while others remain healthy. But why is this happening to us is a question we can answer. We are being attacked by a natural evil that inhabits a fallen world, an evil that human beings can confront and God willing control through His mercy and grace. But it’s also an evil that’s doomed (as all evil is doomed) by a savior who comes not just to grant individuals eternal life, but to remake and renew creation itself.
One last thing …
Many thanks to the readers who sent me this marvelous hymn from the Nashville quarantine:
And if classical music is more your cup of tea, here’s the Toronto Symphony Orchestra with “Appalachian Spring,” which is based on the Shaker hymn, “Simple Gifts”:
Photograph by John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images.