By Cole Hartin
At the risk of adding to the influx of handwringing and punditry on all things coronavirus, I want stake out ten theological theses that might orient the way Christians think through the times in which we are living.
- God intends for us all to die.
While this is probably the least pleasant of the theses, it is one of the most fundamental. We are all going to die — some of us soon, some of us later, some of us in terribly awful ways, and some of us in less awful ways. Not only are we all going to die, but I can say with some confidence that this is God’s will for us. Except for a few people (Enoch, Elijah, and maybe Mary, depending on your tradition) everyone has lived before us has died.
This is God’s will for us all.
I know, you might be thinking, “Well, death is only the result of human sin — man and woman ate the forbidden fruit — that is why we die.”
True enough, but death follows from sin only because the Lord God created the world to be so, “for in the day when you eat of it, you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17). Death is part of the plan. Moreover, death becomes the very means by which in Christ, God reveals his love for the world. It is the death of Christ that makes way for his resurrection and death’s final defeat.
- Everything good we experience is a gift of God.
Not only does God intend for us to die, but he has fashioned creation so that we might experience its deep-down goodness. God creates and “it is good.”
All that we live to love — our deepest relationships, the terrible beauty of the pounding ocean, the majesty of the mountains, the taste of fresh tomatoes, and any other good thing — all of these things come as wonderful gifts of God, to be enjoyed by the righteous and the wicked alike.
- Most of the good we experience comes from God via others.
As we are cooped up in quarantine, we glimpse another truth: While God is the source of all goodness, most of the good we experience comes to us through others. Aside from our relationships with others, we can only access other good things because of the work of our neighbors. The terrible beauty of the ocean is only accessible to most of us because others have worked to produce cars, and roads, and steps down to the beach. The wonderful meals we enjoy come to us through the work of farmers, truckers, and those working in grocery stores. The recipes we use might have been passed down to us from a friend, or perhaps we gleaned them from a blog written by a person we do not know.
As our social-distancing measures are put into place, we feel strain, realizing that the deep-down goodness of life given by God is brought to us by other creatures.
- COVID-19 falls under God’s providence
The term “providence” conveys the idea of God’s creation and superintendence over the world. It’s not that we believe God is directly causing all that we experience, like some miser playing chess alone, but neither do we believe that God fashioned the universe and left it to flail about. In some mysterious way, God is at work sustaining all things. We cannot always grasp this, and much of providence ultimately remains hidden to us. A virus, after all, is part of the created world. Whether or not viruses were always part of the fabric of creation, or if they were somehow introduced as the result of human failing, in any case they are woven into our lives – lives whose every part is still under the sustaining providence of God.
- God sometimes allows disaster to “just happen.”
While Scripture unveils for us specific instances of providence and their meaning (I’ll get to this below), it does not follow that we can rightly grasp that manifold working of God today. We are limited in our capacity to understand our own lives, let alone the wider sweep of history. Add to this another important feature of providence: not every instance of suffering has an explanation. There may never be one. There exist absurd elements that we cannot explain theologically or otherwise. We are left to mourn and pray.
In Luke 13 we see something to this effect: In a discussion about the relationship between sin and suffering, Jesus surprised his listeners by suggesting that sometimes tragedy simply strikes without any particular reason. Jesus mentions the Tower of Siloam that fell and killed 18 people, not because they were particularly sinful, but because in a broken world terrible events occur. We are in no position to theorize about them.
Other examples might include the suffering of children, or the suffering of animals. There is not a way to instrumentalize such evils, to “use” them for some greater good. They are left unexplained but also undeniably present. They prevent us from saying too much.
- God sends and/or allows plagues to kill some of us, remind us of mortality, call us to repentance.
While some elements of tragedy stand as absurdities, there are instances in which God reveals himself in pestilence and plague. However, just because the destructive forces of nature — whether they be earthquakes or tsunamis or viruses — fall under God’s providence, does not mean that God is causing them in any direct way, much the same that we could not say that God “causes” human evil, such as instances of murder or suicide. Still, the created world in which we live allows us the capability to be violent, and the bounds of physical existence exert themselves upon us in ways that press us toward God.
In the Old and New Testaments, God is portrayed as responsible for these catastrophes in some sense. Moreover, they are used by God to various ends: the ten plagues in Exodus are sent as a means of punishing Egypt for Pharaoh’s refusal to liberate Israel. God permits disaster to visit Job in order to prove his faithfulness, sickness comes as the result of receiving Holy Communion unworthily (1 Cor. 11:30), God uses trials to discipline his people for their good (Heb. 12:7-11), and so on.
This is not to say that we can point to a particular plague such as COVID-19 and say that God is afflicting the world because of some particular sin (whether imperialism, sexual immorality, abuse of the environment, or others). To make such judgments is not a sign of faith or discernment, but rather a sign of hubris.
On the other hand, neither can we skirt the issue and say, “God would never punish us for our unfaithfulness.” This too is beyond our capacity to judge.
We must affirm, as Scripture and tradition do, that God has and does allow and use disaster for his own ends. We must also refrain from pontificating about what these ends may or may not be.
In short, God uses disaster for many ends.
- Christ shows us that God’s judgment, and the violence of the world, are borne by the righteous as well as the wicked.
Building on the previous theses, we see that disaster — plague, sickness, or death — are not just punishments for the wicked. They are not simply moral lessons, but rather they are evils that fall upon the righteous and the wicked. This comes into the sharpest focus with the cross, where the violence of humanity and the judgment of God are borne by God himself, in the second person of the Trinity made man. The universe is not fair. Our experience is not fair. God stands with us as a willing victim of this unfairness.
- In Christ, the Church suffers the judgment of God and the violence of the world.
The Church stands as the body of Christ in the world (1 Cor. 12:27). This means that the same disaster that befalls the righteous one, the same betrayal, and loneliness and death — this too befalls the Church. And not only this, but because the Church is a corpus mixtum, its members suffer too for their wickedness. For Christians, suffering is — even suffering in times of disaster — part of our vocation as the broken body of Christ.
- Our hope as Christians is not a better world, or a return to normal, but the life of the world to come.
Christians do not believe the world is progressively getting better. Neither do they believe it’s progressively getting worse. Rather, Christians believe all of the created world is finding its place in Christ, for “all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the Church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything” (Col. 1:16b-18). The direction of the universe is toward Christ, and our hope as Christians is not that our circumstances will get better. They may, but they may not. Our hope is rather the resurrection the body.
- This life in the world to come is revealed in the resurrection of Christ, so that we might share it in him.
Hope that in the last days, in the eschaton, Christ will bring all things to perfection, is the hope on which we can set our hearts. This is not a blind hope, but a hope that is guaranteed for us in the resurrection of Christ himself.
Or, as St. Paul puts it:
If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he will also deny us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful—
for he cannot deny himself. (2 Tim. 2:11b-13)
That is, in dying with Christ we hope that we too will share in his resurrection life.
The Rev. Dr. Cole Hartin is assistant curate at St. Luke’s in Saint John, New Brunswick.
Thank you Fr. Cole, for a great post. Just tracking this: the post foregrounds the providence of God, of which Christians need a robust understanding if they’re not going to drift into a sort of functional Manicheism. Also note the same wedding of judgment to the cross as we saw in Bishop Royal’s earlier post. A virus is one of the smallest of God’s creatures, albeit susceptible to the effects of the fall. Augustine points out in De civ. Dei that the activity of the smallest creatures seems to us more amazing than the largest. No doubt he himself would… Read more »
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