The coronavirus causes us to confront, yet again, the problem of evil, and to ask why God permits such suffering.
By Ryan Bilodeau
8 July 2020
Parents who receive the news that their child was killed in a school shooting. A teenager who was left orphaned after his parents were killed in a car accident. Hundreds of thousands of people whose family members were lost to the coronavirus pandemic. All these events have people asking one question: why would a good God allow bad things to happen to good people? This question has been taken up not only by everyday people who encounter everyday suffering on levels small and large, but also by philosophers and theologians alike.
It is the job of philosophers to speculate about, hypothesize on, and analyze exhaustively the world around us. When it comes to the coronavirus pandemic, for example, these deep thinkers have been asking existential questions about what it even means to be healthy, or economic ones about the wisdom of a globalist infrastructure able to spread disease to every area of the globe within hours.
Where theologians differ from philosophers is in the additional lens of faith through which they view that world. The evils of illness and death lend themselves to theological questions about the nature of a God who allows seemingly meaningless and unnecessary suffering to occur. It is a question as old as time, and it is one that has been a path of divergence for philosophers and theologians for centuries.
It is also a place where many believers part. Some of those experiencing devastating suffering go on to lose faith in God, viewing Him as a cruel author of their suffering. For others, suffering becomes a bridge that brings forth a closer union with the Lord. I would contend that the way believers respond to suffering has to do a lot with our initial view of and relationship with Him, and our opinions on the role of suffering in our lives.
Why Does God Permit Suffering?
Our image of God must be a correct one if we are to grow closer to Him during times of trial. Is our view of God this sort of divine vending machine from whom I get good things every time I deposit a prayer? Or is He someone who Himself suffered on the cross, and walks with us as we inevitably suffer as a result of original sin?
I have at times in my life viewed God not as an end in Himself whom I should love for His own sake, but as a means to an end. Isn’t that what we all do when we approach God in prayer only when asking for good things? If we leave God when times get tough and refuse to accept the bad things that come our way, then our love is revealed as a conditional proposition.
This still begs the question why God would allow suffering at all. We know intellectually that it is the result of original sin of mankind, but still might feel confused about why God might allow us to be affected by its consequences. To an extent, our suffering in this lifetime is a mystery. God could have snapped His fingers and opened the gates of Heaven, but He chose suffering as the means of salvation. What we do know about suffering is that it helps one grow closer to and more reliant upon God. After the tragedies of 9-11, I remember churches being full for the first time in my lifetime. Sometimes it is only when we are knocked down by life that we are in the position to stay on our knees and pray. Although suffering is mysterious in many ways, we know God permits it to bring about good. Anyone who has worked hard in the classroom or workplace or sports field knows that growth in life demands some form of suffering and sacrifice.
The Problem of Evil
So this so-called “problem of evil” is for the Catholic thinker not a source of frustration with an apparently heartless God who allows evil but is actually a font of wisdom from which springs many truths about the meaning of life itself. Theologian Peter Kreeft and Pope Saint John Paul II help clarify this point in multiple theological treatises.
The problem of evil can be expressed like this:
- If God exists/is good, then evil would not exist
- Evil exists
- Therefore there is no God / God is not good
Kreeft addresses the problem of evil from a philosophical point of view by attacking the first premise of the argument above. He does so in four ways:
- God didn’t create evil because you can’t create a lack of something. Evil is a lack of good in the same way that darkness is a lack of light.
- In as much as you can create evil, it was human beings who created it by means of their free will.
- The person of Jesus Christ came along and gave meaning to suffering. Physical suffering (or physical evil) can now be used as a means of redemption.
The premise above relies upon a certain point of view. Humility corrects this view of humanity by reminding us that:
- Who’s to say we are good people? This calls into question the entire ‘why do bad things happen to good people?’ question.
- Who’s to say suffering is all bad? Doesn’t it show us, by contrast, the nature of true happiness?
- Who’s to say we have to know all God’s reasons? God could be allowing suffering for a greater good I will come to recognize later.
Unlike Peter Kreeft who questions the validity of the problem of evil by attacking it on a philosophical basis, Pope John Paul II admits in Salvifici Doloris that evil mysteriously exists but can be viewed as a problem paradoxically adding meaning to our lives in the form of:
- an increase in charity, empathy, and humility
- a transformation of our very character
- redemption as modeled by Jesus on the cross.
The Meaning of the Coronavirus
The coronavirus has negatively affected millions of people around the world in ways small and large. From changes in daily life to the loss of jobs and even of lives, COVID-19 has brought to the world so much pain and suffering. And yet it has also brought with it other contagious dynamics like an outpouring of love and empathy. The number of people who have given their time, money and even their lives in the pursuit of helping others is almost unprecedented. And while God is not a shrewd tactician weighing the plus and minus of the coronavirus from above, He is a sort of master chess player who, by allowing this evil through His permissive will, is bringing about a greater good.
The late Pope John Paul II is correct in pointing out the increase in empathy and humility that stems from evil and suffering in the world. And Peter Kreeft is also correct in arguing that this sort of Lenten extended period of suffering has a redemptive quality to it. Maybe the problem of evil isn’t a problem after all? Eternal rest grant unto those who have died of the coronavirus, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace.
Photo credit: Milada Vigerova, unsplash.
Ryan Bilodeau is a high school theology teacher, author and homeless advocate in New Hampshire who just launched a Catholic app called Catholic Cases. He spent his collegiate years working on local and national political campaigns and non-profits before going on to grad school and earning an M.T.S. in Theology. Ryan is a big fan of New England sports, and can be followed on Twitter or his website.