God’s will and the coronavirus
Photo by Edwin Hooper via Unsplash

[Editor’s note: This article was originally on Thomas Jay Oord’s website.] 

I’m not surprised some people are blaming God. Maybe “crediting” God is more accurate. 

I’m reading social media posts saying the coronavirus (COVID-19) is God’s will. Our current suffering is part of some predetermined divine plan. 

One post put it this way:

“Sorry to break up the big panic, but the coronavirus will not take anyone outta this world unless that’s the good Lord’s plan. And you’re not gonna change that no matter what you do or what you buy.” 

If this view is true, no need to worry. No need to prepare, defend, protect, sacrifice, or act. It’s all in “the good Lord’s plan.” 

Not the plan!

I don’t believe the coronavirus is God’s plan. God is not causing a pandemic that kills some, makes many miserable, and has widespread adverse effects on society.

God did not cause this evil!

Those who say, “God is in control” often claim all that happens, good or bad, is part of a master plan. Every torture, murder, rape, disease, war, and more are part of the divine blueprint. 

Your sister’s rape? God’s plan. That miscarriage you suffered? God’s plan. Every ruthless dictator or fascist system? God’s plan. Cancer, meth addiction, leukemia, severe disability, and so on? God’s plan.

The coronavirus? God’s plan.

I don’t buy it. I can’t believe a loving God would design that kind of plan! If that’s what God’s love is like, I want nothing to do with God!

God allows the virus?

Fortunately, a large number of people today reject the idea God is causing the current pandemic. Unfortunately, a large number believe God allows or permits it. 

Does that make sense?

Those who say God allows evil imply God could stop it singlehandedly. If God wanted, God could end this pandemic with a solo act of control. For some reason, say these people, God is allowing death, illness, and widespread harm.

Suppose one of my kids began strangling another of my children. Suppose I could step in and stop this act of violence. But suppose I allowed it – and the death of my child – saying, “I didn’t cause this killing, so don’t blame me!”

No one would consider me a loving father if I failed to prevent the evil I could have prevented. Fathers who allow their kids to strangle one another are not loving.

Those who say God permits the coronavirus make a major mistake. They undermine our belief in a perfectly loving God. Just as a loving father wouldn’t allow his kids to strangle one another, a loving God wouldn’t allow a virus to wreak widespread death and destruction.

It makes no sense to say, “It isn’t God’s will, but God allows it.”

“See the good that’s come…”

Many who claim God causes or allows the coronavirus will see some good that comes from our current crisis. They’ll point to stories of self-sacrifice or the good that comes from people cooperating to combat this pandemic. 

Upon seeing the good that comes from the pandemic, some will use a “greater good” argument.  “We’ve learned something valuable from the coronavirus!” they might say. “This pandemic has taught us we don’t need all the stuff we thought we needed.” “It took a virus for us to learn to slow down and focus on what’s important.”

Good things will come from the evils we currently face. Count on it. But we shouldn’t say God causes or allows evil for this good. It isn’t part of some predetermined plan.

Instead, we should think God squeezes some good from the bad God didn’t want in the first place. 

God never gives up on anyone or any situation. Working with a broken and diseased creation, God works to wring whatever good can be wrung from the wrong God didn’t cause or allow.

It’s a mystery

A growing number of people recognize the theological problems that come from saying God caused or allowed the coronavirus. Instead of offering a better way to think about God’s action, however, they appeal to mystery. 

“We don’t know why God acts this way,” they say. Some of the more sophisticated thinkers will say God doesn’t “act” in any way we can understand.  What it means to say “God acts” is an absolute mystery. Finite beings can’t in any sense understand an infinite God, they say.

Others play the mystery card by saying God is uninvolved. Deists say God created the world long ago but now has a hands-off approach. This God watches the world from a distance as it suffers. This God has the power to stop the mayhem but sits on the sideline eating popcorn.

I wonder why anyone believes in a God of absolute mystery. If we can’t provide plausible answers to our deepest struggles and biggest fears — including the coronavirus — why believe in God at all? 

If God’s ways are not our ways, no way is as good as any other.

NT wright on the coronavirus

In a recent Time article titled, “Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus. It’s Not Supposed To,” NT Wright makes some statements with which I can agree. But I don’t agree with his main point.

Wright begins his little essay by referring to the Christian practices of Lent. He rightly calls some explanations for God’s relation to the coronavirus “silly.” He rejects the idea God is punishing us, warning us, or giving a sign by sending this pandemic.

I agree with Wright that God is not causing the pandemic for some higher purpose. We should not “explain” suffering as God orchestrated. The coronavirus isn’t part of some divine blueprint. I also agree when Wright says our suffering grieves God. God is “in the tears of Jesus and the anguish of the Spirit,” as he puts it. “God also laments,” says Wright.

Perhaps my favorite line is this: “Some Christians like to think of God as above all that, knowing everything, in charge of everything, calm and unaffected by the troubles in his world. That’s not the picture we get in the Bible.” 

I couldn’t agree more!

Lament

Instead of searching for answers to God’s will and the coronavirus, Wright says our response should be to lament. The essay’s final paragraph provides his central argument:

“It is no part of the Christian vocation, then, to be able to explain what’s happening and why. In fact, it is part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain—and to lament instead. As the Spirit laments within us, so we become, even in our self-isolation, small shrines where the presence and healing love of God can dwell. And out of that can emerge new possibilities, new acts of kindness, new scientific understanding, new hope.”

I agree lament can be a place “where the presence and healing love of God can dwell.” And from this place, I think new possibilities, acts of kindness, scientific understanding, and new hope can emerge. God can squeeze some good from lament.

But do we have to choose between lament and explanation?

I disagree…

“Always be ready to give an account of the hope that is within you,” says the Apostle Peter (1 Pt. 3:15). I take this verse to mean we should seek explanations for what God might be doing during this pandemic. I find numerous biblical passages explaining God’s action in response to suffering. 

Most of the explanations I’m encountering today for what God is doing are “silly.” I don’t think God sends the coronavirus to punish or teach us a lesson. God has not caused and is not allowing the virus to kill, harm, and cause havoc. 

God is not in the evil business.

But it is part of the Christian tradition to offer a plausible explanation to what’s happening. It’s part of being Christian to seek believable answers to the “why” questions. It’s part of being a Christian to give an account of the hope we have.

We should lament the suffering in our world. But we can simultaneously seek answers to why God doesn’t prevent suffering in the first place!

God’s uncontrolling love

The explanation I find most helpful to God’s relation to the pandemic says God is not in control. In fact, God can’t control. God is not to blame, because God is neither causing nor permitting the pandemic, as if God could stop it singlehandedly. 

The pandemic solidifies our need to rethink God’s power in light of God’s love.

My reasoning rests on the logic of love. I think God loves everyone and everything. And God’s love is always uncontrolling. Consequently, God can’t control anyone or anything. 

Not even God can stop the coronavirus singlehandedly.

Instead of appeals to mystery or only lamenting the suffering we endure, Christians can say God suffers with us and cares for us. And God cannot singlehandedly prevent the coronavirus as it wreaks havoc. 

The God I am describing is not watching from a distance, eating popcorn. Instead, God actively fights against evil. But God needs cooperation from creatures and creation for love to win. In this time of struggle, God needs the best of medicine, the best from social leaders, and the best from each of us.

I call this view “the uncontrolling love of God,” and I’ve written academic and popular books explaining its details. See my best-selling book, God Can’t: How to Believe in God and Love after Tragedy, Abuse, and Other Evils or my more academic book, The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence

The uncontrolling God of love is the most potent force in the universe! But because love does not force its own way (1 Cor. 13:5), even the strongest Lover cannot control others.

God’s will for us

What is God’s will? In one sense, it’s the same today as every day: to love God, love others, and 

In our current crisis, God’s specific will changes. God calls each person, each family, each community, and each political structure to unique responses of love. These specific calls are particular to what each creature can do in each situation. God calls us all to act in loving ways in light of what’s possible.

For most, social distancing can be a significant form of love. Sharing provisions – including toilet paper – can be another. Cooperating with health officials can be a powerful expression of love. Taking reasonable precautions can be an act of love. And so on…

We cannot win without God’s empowering love. But God needs our cooperation to overcome this evil. We should admit God cannot prevent evil singlehandedly. But God is working against the coronavirus. And God calls you, me, and all creation to overcome evil with love.

We are always called to love. Our present crisis presents new challenges in discovering what love now requires. I commit to doing my best to discern and then respond to God’s calls of love. 

I hope you join me. God does too.

Thomas Jay Oord

Thomas Jay Oord is a theologian, philosopher, and scholar of multi-disciplinary studies. Oord is a best-selling and award-winning author, having written or edited more than twenty-five books. He is the director of the Center for Open and Relational Theology and directs a doctoral program on open and relational theology at Northwind Theological Seminary. A twelve-time Faculty Award-winning professor, he teaches at institutions around the globe. Oord is known for his contributions to research on love, open and relational theology, science and religion, and the implications of freedom and relationships for transformation.

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