If God is good, why the virus?

Nurses in Manchester, Connecticut. Photo by Rusty Watson on Unsplash

The problem of evil

It bothers me when I hear people say that God sent the coronavirus to “punish” us for our sins. While the Old Testament God did have a track record of sending diseases to punish people, the death of Jesus Christ in the New Testament means that it doesn’t make sense anymore for God to be so vengeful. How can the loving God of the present day actively cause 40 million jobs lost in the US alone? How can he actively cause the drawn-out, painful death of more than 350,000 people? I don’t think that God sent the coronavirus to punish us. But he certainly does at least allow it. The question is why.

One potential answer: the devil

One traditional response is that God wants the world to be good, but he can’t, because the devil causes evil as fast as God can stamp it out. Often people will bring up the image of a spiritual war, where God and the devil are fighting over earth. And then the reason that there’s evil is because the devil wants to tempt us, and he sometimes succeeds. Our duty, then, is to resist this temptation to evil by calling on God.

The free will theodicy

Another common answer that conveniently ties together two problems in the philosophy of religion is known as the “free will theodicy” (theodicy “vindication of divine justice,” from Greek theos “god” and dike “right, justice”). This theodicy explains evil via an appeal to free will: evil exists because people are free to choose it, and some people do in fact choose it. Since free will is a greater good than having no evil, God therefore endowed us with free will rather than the robotic inability to commit evil.

The soul-making theodicy

One better theodicy is called the soul-making theodicy, advanced by the philosopher John Hick in the late seventies. He maintains the core idea from the free will theodicy that evil exists as an unfortunate but necessary consequence of the pursuit of some other, greater good than the absence of evil. In Hick’s case, that other good is what he calls soul-making. What he means by this is something akin to ‘spiritual growth (by demonstrating goodness).’ Essentially, the argument goes like this: (1) in order to be with God (in whatever sense you’d like — the specifics don’t matter here), you must be good. (2) But in order to show that you are good, you must have the opportunity to do good things. (3) In a world absent of evil, there is no opportunity to do good; (4) therefore, the world must have evil.

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hearhere Journal of Christian Thought

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