Ravi Zacharias, a philosopher and apologist for the Christian faith says the question of pain and suffering provides the greatest challenge to one’s belief in God. It is also one of the greatest obstacles for the unbeliever. There are two errors I think we can make: saying too much and saying too little. We can say too much and thereby attribute things to God and what he is doing that isn’t true, or we can say too little and give the impression that God has nothing to say, nor does he have anything to do with this calamity. I believe we have to walk a fine line between the two.
One approach is to look at the current pandemic through different lens or perspectives. I came up with 5 such lenses:
- the lens of history
- the lens of culture
- the lens of the fall
- the lens of the gospels
- the lens of the cross
Last time we looked at Coronavirus through the lens of history. We learned that plagues and pandemics are not new, we have experienced them in the past, in far greater measure and worse outcomes. We also saw how Christians were always on the frontlines, putting their own lives on the line when others fled. They could do this because of their hope in the resurrection, freeing them from the fear of death.
This time we are going to look at Coronavirus through the lens of culture.
2. The Lens of Culture
We are all influenced by the culture we live in. And every culture has its own worldview. A worldview represents your fundamental beliefs and assumptions about the world and human life. It’s what we use to make sense of the world we live in and influences our understanding of things like plagues, disasters and pandemics.
One of the most devastating and far-reaching natural disasters in modern history was the Lisbon earthquake in 1755. Although the death toll wasn’t as high as other disasters, this one deeply impacted people’s thinking about God. The earthquake hit on All Saints Day when churches were packed. The buildings crumbled, killing everyone inside. Fires broke out across the city, making rescue efforts almost impossible. Then came the tsunami, which pounded the coast drowning people who were fleeing falling buildings. Somewhere between 30-60,000 lives were lost as a result and three-quarters of the city was reduced to rubble.
Afterwards, all kinds of reasons were offered up as to why the disaster happened. Some said the earthquake was an act of divine judgment on a sinful city. What was puzzling, however, was a street filled with brothels was left largely undamaged while the churches filled with worshippers were destroyed. Protestants were saying it was God’s judgement on the Spanish Inquisition. The Jesuit Priests responded by saying the quake revealed the anger of God because the Inquisition had not gone far enough! Clearly, people were confused.
There are modern-day comparisons. Many Muslims believed that Allah caused the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami in Southeast Asia due to immorality, sin, alcohol, and other excesses. Following hurricane Katrina, some said that Allah was heaping vengeance on the United States for the war in Iraq. In the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquake, conservative Christians were saying it was God’s judgment on a sinful city. Others were saying it had nothing to do with God; it’s just natural forces of mother nature at work.
So you see we will come to a different understanding of things depending on our worldview. There are four dominant worldviews that influence people in our world today. We will examine each of these and then compare it with the Christian worldview in my next post.
Worldview #1: Buddhism
About six centuries before Jesus walked the earth, a young prince is said to have escaped the trappings of materialism and found the path to enlightenment. Now known as the Buddha—the enlightened one—he left behind a formula to help others discover nirvana – the ultimate spiritual goal.
The problem of suffering, Buddha concluded, is connected to desire. We desire things, we desire success, we desire wealth, and we desire happiness. All these desires make us vulnerable to pain and suffering. We need to get to a place where we will no longer desire anything—the state of nirvana. Buddha’s conclusion was that detachment is the key to happiness. If you never wish for anything anymore, then you are never without what you wish to have. The answer for the Buddhist, therefore, is be happy with the way the world is – viruses, tragedies, disasters included.
Worldview #2: Hinduism
According to the Hindu those who suffer do so because of sin in a previous life, and suffering in this present life serves to help them to work off their karma. Therefore, since the chain of cause and effect is unbreakable, there is no point in making an effort to relieve their pain; that would only serve to slow down the process of their purification. It is hard to see how this worldview offers any hope at all to people suffering from coronavirus or any other disease.
Worldview #3: Islam
Like the Bible, the Quran teaches that people are descendants of Adam and Eve and are imperfect sinners. Unlike Christians, Muslims believe that humans are sinners because Allah has willed it. They have no understanding similar to the Bible’s teaching that humans, not God, caused sin through rebellion against God.
The very word “Islam” means “submission.” Many Muslims understand that to include suffering–enduring pain or loss is a way of submitting to the will of Allah. Therefore, for the Muslim, Coronavirus is the will of Allah. If people die from it, that is the will of Allah. If people live, that is the will of Allah. In this form of determinism, Allah wills everything.
Worldview #4: Atheistic naturalism
The atheist/naturalist says that ultimate reality in life consists of matter and energy. That’s all life is – atoms and particles banging into each other. There is no God; there is no good and there is no evil. Suffering is a mere fact of existence like the redness of red or the wetness of water. It’s just the way things are. Richard Dawkins, a leading spokesman for atheism says:
In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, and other people are going to get lucky; and you won’t find any rhyme or reason to it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at the bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good. Nothing but blind pitiless indifference. DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is, and we dance to its music.
In Dawkins’ view, terrorists and murderers and people like Stalin, Hitler and Mao who carried out horrific acts of genocide were simply acting in according to their inbuilt genetic programming. No one can actually blame them. They couldn’t help it. Natural disasters are forces working indiscriminately and if you get caught in them it’s simply bad luck. This is what happens when you take Atheism to its logical conclusion. Everything is meaningless.
It is worth noting that all other worldviews hold that this life is not the whole story; we are part of a bigger story. Not so for the atheist. This life is all that there is. We must, therefore, create our own meanings. How do we do that? You find something to live for. You might live for your family or your career or a political cause or accomplishment. But in order to have a meaningful life, life must go well for you. Suffering disrupts this and has the power to destroy your meaning.
Viktor Frankl was a Jewish doctor who survived the death camps during World War II. In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning he explored the reason why some people stayed strong and kind under terrible conditions while others gave up. His conclusion was that it had to do with a person’s meaning in life. Those who made their career or family or social status their meaning often gave up and died. Others collapsed morally, betraying family and friends in order to save themselves. Those who did not crumble had a reference point outside of this life to orientate themselves. They had a “depth and vigour of religious belief” that surprised those around them.
The atheist worldview, therefore, is hardly satisfying. It doesn’t give us any answers and leaves people feeling that life is meaningless and empty.
How do these different worldviews stack up with the Christian worldview? That’s what we will be looking at next time with the lens of the fall.
Note: This post is based on Part 2 of a series we are currently working through during lockdown called “God and Coronavirus.” You can watch and listen to the message here (the message starts at 12 min 50 s into the online service).
 Zacharias, Ravi. Why Suffering?: Finding Meaning and Comfort When Life Doesn’t Make Sense (pp. 116-117). FaithWords. Kindle Edition.
 Karma (in Hinduism and Buddhism) is the sum of a person’s actions in one of their successive states of existence, which is regarded as deciding their fate in the next.
 Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (Basic Books, 1992), p 133.
 Tim Keller, Making Sense of God (Viking books), pp.72-73