If God is good, why the virus?
A look at the soul-making explanation of the problem of evil
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.
After all, he knows how much humans are suffering from it, he’s able to stop it, and he even desires that it be stopped. We know this about God because of the common conception of God as a being who is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good. Philosophers of religion call these attributes omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence, respectively. All three of these seem to be basic attributes of God, but together they seem to be incompatible with a world with evil (I’m using this word interchangeably with “bad”, so something doesn’t have to be that evil to be considered “evil”).
If God weren’t omniscient, then maybe he doesn’t know about the evil (although he could stop it and he would stop it). If God weren’t omnipotent, then maybe he can’t stop the evil (although he knows about it and he would stop it). If God weren’t omnibenevolent, well, he might indeed be the one causing the evil. But a God who deserves worship is the God who is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent. It’s hard to reconcile these attributes in our evil world.
This is the problem of evil, and I bet that most people who have considered religion have thought about this problem. It’s a hard problem, and it’s often a major reason for rejecting theism. How could I believe in a God who allows such a pestilent pandemic? A lot of work has been done on this subject, and I think that there is an explanation of evil that satisfies me. But before we get to that, let’s discuss some historical answers to the problem of evil.
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.
This answer makes us feel like we’re part of something, and it was an important metaphor when Christians could afford to paint non-Christians as pawns of the devil or whatever. But it doesn’t stand up today. It weakens God by implying that the devil can somehow do things that God doesn’t notice, or that God can’t deal with.
The reality is that if God so decreed, the devil could disappear right now. In the Biblical book of Job, it clearly says that God allows the devil to do evil. God could, and he no doubt does, stop the devil from doing all sorts of evil worse than what he actually allows. There is nothing that is logically coherent that God cannot do, and to claim otherwise is to deny God. But the problem remains of why God allows the devil to do such evil as he does.
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 major problem with this view, however, is that it doesn’t explain non-moral evil. What I mean by non-moral evil is evil which was not caused by an immoral act. This includes earthquakes, tornadoes, and, yes, pandemics. For if evil comes only from people freely choosing to do evil, a concomitant and unfortunate result of the gift of free will, then either non-moral evils must not really be evil or they were in fact caused by someone’s individual choice. It’s hard to imagine anyone’s choice causing something like a pandemic. It was nobody’s free and deliberate choice to cause the coronavirus. But it’s also hard to imagine that these things are not evil, or at least very bad. It’s just an objectively bad thing for so many people to be suffering so much from the coronavirus and its downstream effects. Yet all the same features of the problem hold true for the coronavirus as well: God knew it was coming and how much we’re suffering from it, he has the power to stop it, and he even desires that it be stopped. But the virus continues, and it and other non-moral evils will surely rear their heads in the future. We need something to explain the presence of non-moral evil as well as moral 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.
To make his point, Hick invites you to imagine a world where there’s no evil. The sidewalk magically flattens before you so you don’t trip. The drunk driver’s car miraculously swerves out of the way. SARS-CoV-2 mysteriously mutates to lose its contagiousness, and nobody ever dies when they don’t want to. Part of the necessity of evil can be seen in the difficulty of imagining a world without it — we’d have to throw natural laws and a universal logical consistency out the window; sometimes gravity works and sometimes it doesn’t; there would be no science, philosophy, or probably even art. It’s hard to imagine even religion. In this world, there can be no charities, since everyone has food, water, and shelter. There can be no civil rights movements, since everyone is treated fairly. There can be no faithfulness, no sacrifice, and no mercy.
This is where, according to Hick, God took issue with the absence of evil. For in this hypothetical world, it’s not possible for me to show or become good, since there’s no evil to act on. If you believe that people are inherently good, this means there would be no way to tell in this world — we’d be forced into a moral limbo. But if you think people are inherently evil, then this world is a nightmare — we’d have no opportunity to learn how to be good. And yet God, who sees all, would know the evil that resides in our hearts. To be condemned from birth to a permanently ambiguous moral state seems anathema, and yet this is how it must be without evil.
This is why, according to Hick, there must be evil.
[O]ne who has attained to goodness by meeting and eventually mastering temptation, and thus by rightly making responsibly choices in concrete situations, is good in a richer and more valuable sense than would be one created ab initio in a state either of innocence or of virtue. In the former case, which is that of the actual moral achievements of mankind, the individual’s goodness has within it the strength of temptations overcome, a stability based upon an accumulation of right choices, and a positive and responsible character that comes from the investment of costly personal effort.
This explanation, in tandem with the free will theodicy, illuminates the problem of evil. According to the soul-making theodicy, non-moral evil as well as normal evil exists to serve the greater good of soul-making. Unfortunately, this means that in order for evil to make sense, we as free moral agents have to use them as opportunities to do good. You can’t sit back and throw up your hands and say that the world is irredeemably evil, even though it is. But it’s evil precisely so that you can be not evil.
God might or he might not have actively chosen for the coronavirus to ravage the world. But regardless of this, God is letting it live out its natural life, complete with death and destruction. God’s allowing the coronavirus (and evil in general) so humans can use this unprecedented time as an opportunity to exercise our humanity. Coronavirus is tying us together as a species, hyper-aware of our frail mortal bodies. Coronavirus makes us more resilient, more prepared, and I have hope that in the end we’ll turn out better for it. But whether or not we really do get better for it, what matters is that we have the choice. It’s now humanity’s job to step up to the plate.
Andy Han is a rising second-year at Pomona College double-majoring in Computer Science and Philosophy.