COVID-19 and Easter Sunday (Part IV)

Read Part I here.
Read Part II here.
Read Part III here.

Despite the fact that it is Holy Week, all the news still seems to be about the coronavirus called COVID-19. Everything else has faded from view. No NCAA tournament, the US election all but forgotten, fights over healthcare, climate change, or the impeachment all seem like distant memories. As Christians, we have to intentionally remind ourselves that this is Holy Week. It is times like this that people throw the problem of evil in our faces. How can God be both all-powerful and all loving? How could a loving God allow something like COVID-19 encircle the world? He must either be not all powerful, or not all loving; he cannot be both.

Scripture has long testified to the twin truths that God is both all loving and all powerful. Psalm 62:11 says, “Once God has spoken, twice have I heard this: that power belongs to God and that to you, O Lord, belongs steadfast love” (emphasis added). In the Hebrew it is oz and hesed—both power and love belong to him. But the psalm goes on to remember the other free agent in the world when it concludes, “for you will render to a man according to his work” (Ps. 62:11–12). Our actions are brought into the picture. The problem of evil is not just about God’s character, it’s about our own: the use of our power and the extension of our own goodness through the image of God and the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit through us.

God’s answer to the problem of evil is not to give us some amazing theological resolution or an intricate philosophical formula. God responds to evil by entering into the world, not in a show of power, but in a show of weakness and vulnerability. That’s the other mystery of God’s power and love. Sometimes his greatest power is manifested in weakness, and sometimes his love allows hard lessons to come our way that we might turn our hearts more fully to him and give up our false idols. In the incarnation, we remember that Jesus became a man and entered into this broken, sinful world. Jesus addresses the root of the problem: us. We are in rebellion against God and the whole world is reeling with groans. Jesus alone has taken on all this sin and pain, evil, and shame. If you want to understand the heart of God in the face of a world trapped by sin, then look into the face of the crucified Jesus. The cross is God’s answer to human pain for Jesus is the only truly innocent sufferer.

He doesn’t give us an answer; he bears it. Holy Week is one long caravan of sin: betrayal, cowardice, indifference, mockery, cruelty, and death, whether seen in Judas or the disciples or the soldiers, or Pilate . . . sin upon sin. Then, there is Easter. Easter Sunday reminds us that Jesus is victorious over all! Easter is God’s final victory over a lost and broken world. It is the risen Lord and the community of those who are called by his name who herald the victory of God over a broken world because we, too, have put our own fingers into the nail scarred hands of the risen one.

COVID-19 and Easter Sunday (Part III)

Read Part I here.
Read Part II here.

We are exploring how Christians have tried to resolve the problem of evil in different ways. The Puritans expressed a beautiful truth in their prayers, namely, the fleeting nature of this world. Everything in the world is passing away and every breath we take is a fresh gift from God. Yet, the Puritans were tempted toward determinism and sometimes failed to see that our actions really matter in the world. We are not called to simply be a city set apart, the city on the hill, but we have to wade right out into the world with all of its messiness and contingencies, even into its pain, and act and live with confidence and joy.

The Wesleyan view honors the view that life is fully contingent and every day is a gift from God. God does not owe us any pre-determined length of life (like the seventy, or “by reason of strength,” eighty years of Psalm 90). On the other hand, we believe that God has called us fully to engage in life, serving the poor and preaching the gospel, as long as we do it within the frame of deo volente (God willing). In fact, we believe that God calls some Christians to actively enter those places of disease and death. Father Damien, a Roman Catholic priest (1840–1889) felt called by God to minister to the lepers on the Kalaupapa peninsula on one of the islands of Hawaii. He is now one of the two statues Hawaii is permitted to place in the National Statuary in Washington, D.C., just south of the Rotunda. Christians are called to be healthcare workers, to come to the side of dying people, to lay hands on the sick, to stand with bereaved families at the graveside. This is because illness and death is that liminal space in human existence where our transience is made manifest and we stand there as a testimony to the truth that only God is eternal, and that our eternality is only through being united with his eternal life.

We live in a world that regularly testifies to its own brokenness. Towers fall, active shooters shoot, viruses spread, and planes crash into buildings. But we know that someday this world will come to an end, and that the final enemy, known as death, will itself be killed by the eternal power of Jesus Christ. We live in the in-between time of a kingdom fully inaugurated, but not yet fully consummated. So, as it turns out, the problem of evil is more mysterious than we have made it out to be. Traditionally, this conundrum is couched in rather stark terms: If God is all loving, he would not permit evil in the world. If he is all powerful, he would act to stop it. Therefore, God must be either all powerful or all good, but he cannot be both.

To apply it to the coronavirus, it would go something like this: If God really loved us he would not allow COVID-19 to stalk the world and kill hundreds of thousands of people. Since it is stalking the world, either God is not good or he does not have the power to stop it. The problem with this conundrum is that this classic tension pits two attributes within God against one another: his love and his power. However (and this is the point), there is another actor in the world; namely, us, and the world, the flesh, and the devil who are arrayed against us. We have been granted a free will to act in the world God created.

God could have made us all automatons, like mechanical robots who did his every bidding and served him without question. This would have prevented any evil from entering the world, but, as Wesley regularly noted, the goal of salvation is not perfect obedience, but perfect love. You can make someone serve you, but you cannot make someone love you. Love is made possible through free will. Without free will there is no love. Though, the very possibility of love—i.e., the free will embrace of the divine life—also opens the door to the possibility of our rejecting God and disobeying him. The human race, of course, provides countless examples of both. But, we are created to be acting agents in the world.

In the fourteenth-century the Incans made amazing rope bridges, but they could rot and break. So, we have worked together and produced better bridges. That is an important Christian instinct. That is the image of God at work in us and through us. Countless diseases have stalked the world, because the world is broken and fallen. We have developed inoculations against many diseases and I am sure we will find an antidote to COVID-19 as well. Whatever team of scientist produces this will be bearing witness not only to a fallen world, but, whether they acknowledge it or not, to our longing for a healed creation that will only be fully realized in the Eschaton. Paul teaches that sin has “subjected the world to bondage” and, in fact, he says that “the whole creation is groaning . . . up until the present time” (Rom. 8:20–22). Apart from sin there would be no murders, terrorists, viruses, or any other signs that we live in a broken world. Meanwhile, we groan.

Holy Week is a week for groaning. We should feel deep within our being the brokenness of this world. We shouldn’t allow our anticipation of Easter rob us of really feeling the bitter gall of this world, and having the patience to walk through it. We are all walking through a particularly challenging time right now, but we must keep on walking. There is no pathway to Easter Sunday except through the cross.

COVID-19 and Easter Sunday (Part II)

Read Part I here.

Don’t you feel like you were living on planet Earth and one day you woke up and looked out and found that you were no longer on Earth, but on planet COVID? There are many things about this new planet which are familiar. Our family is here, most of our jobs are still recognizable, and the day is still twenty-four hours long. But, the rules of engagement are all different and everything around us feels toxic and we are trying to adjust to this new planet. In the same way, we are accustomed to walking through Holy Week with certain standard protocols. Maybe it is the stations of the cross, or the beautiful and moving Tenebrae service, or the Easter morning church-wide pancake breakfast. Suddenly, everything is changed. This is how we need to reflect more deeply on the COVID-19 virus, because it has been disruptive and has caused us to think more deeply about the problem of evil.

The church, in reflecting on natural disasters, whether a collapsed tower, a bridge that falls, or a virus that spreads across the world tends to inhabit two different mind-sets. On the one hand, there are Christians who emphasize that every day is a fresh gift from God and we have no claim on tomorrow. So, right out of the chute, this view points out that we can never say things like “their life was cut short” or they died an “untimely death,” because God only gives us our lives one day at time, there is no promise for tomorrow, and, therefore, you have not been robbed if you don’t live to see tomorrow. If you read the classic collection of the prayers of the Puritans known as The Valley of Vision, you will readily see this perspective. They faced intense persecution and martyrdom for their non-conformist faith. They regularly experienced, like all people before the days of modern medicine, the natural disaster of a very high birth mortality rate. In the face of this, they regularly remember in their prayers that each day is a gift from God and it is God’s prerogative to call any of us home on any given day. On the other hand, there are Christians who have emphasized the power of God to providentially protect Christians from harm and to preserve their life in the midst of these kinds of disasters. In its most extreme forms, this view holds that if we have sufficient faith, then God will protect us and any untimely death is robbing us of the full inheritance of life that is ours. This view is reflected in a wide range of popular Christian movements around the world and has been powerfully documented by Kate Bowler in her book Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel. This theology is not only found in the United States, but in a wide range of movements throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Many of the proponents of this view have enjoyed a wide dissemination of their views through the medium of television.

The Wesleyan perspective on this, as I understand it, sees some truth in both views, but also offers a significant critique of both. On the one hand, however distorted and sometimes misguided the prosperity gospel can be, it is a reaction to a God-is-distant-and-remote view, which functions as kind of practical deism. This is a true error that also inflicts the church, but is often not so readily named. In fact, God does protect his people, and our bodies are part of the atonement covered by Christ. God can and does heal people in response to prayer. We can and should pray for the healing of those who are ill, including cancer, those who have contracted COVID-19 and any other ailment that may inflict us. We should not be passive or, in its worst form, fatalistic about life. Belief in the sovereignty of God should never be translated into some kind of raw determinism about your life. It is true that James exhorts us to not say, “today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money” (James 4:13). This is one of the texts which does emphasize that we have no guarantee for tomorrow. We also recall Jesus’ parable about the Rich Fool (Luke 12:15–21) who foolishly believed that his wealth would guarantee him prosperity and security. But, James does not say that we should not go to a city and spend a year there and try to make money. The text goes on to say that if we do make plans we should make them with the important addition “if God wills.” In other words, we are not to inhabit the world of Islam—en shallah—“if Allah wills,” but understood as an expression of fatalism. This is not the Christian view. We are encouraged to joyfully and actively engage the world, make plans, establish goals, pursue dreams, but always do everything within the larger frame of God’s purposes and will. God may call me home today, but, in the meantime, if God wills, I am to joyfully engage in my life as president of Asbury Theological Seminary.

I plan on being present at Asbury’s 100th anniversary in 2023, if God wills. My body has been secured by the atonement, and my healing and wholeness has been purchased by the atonement of Christ, but (and this is the fatal flaw of the prosperity gospel) his promise is mysteriously embedded in both the present and the future. He may choose to heal me today. But, even if he does not, I know, and every Christian should know, that there is no disease in the new creation. There is no coronavirus in the presence of God. Someday, he will raise up all of our bodies and give us resurrection bodies. So, yes, God heals. But, some he heals instantly or gradually in the present, but even if he does not heal us in this life, we will all be healed in the resurrection. So, speaking theologically, the error of the prosperity gospel is not in their confidence in the healing power of God; it is in an overly realized eschatology that insists that the only true sign of that power, or our faith, is if God heals us right now in this present world.

COVID-19 and Easter Sunday (Part I)

I remember the exact point when I fell in love with literature. Even as a small child I loved to read. Whenever I had a spare minute, my mother tells me she would find me curled up in a corner reading a book. But it was in 1972 (when I was thirteen years old) that I really fell in love with literature. My parents had given me a copy of Thornton Wilder’s classic novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey, first published in 1927 and a best-seller ever since. It was like no other book I had ever read. I wouldn’t have understood it as a thirteen-year-old, but the book is actually about the problem of evil.

The fictional story takes place in Peru in the year 1714. There was a long rope bridge that stretched across a canyon. It had been woven together years before by the Incas. At noon on July 20, 1714, five people were crossing the rope bridge when it suddenly broke sending all five down the canyon and to their deaths. This horrible tragedy was witnessed by a Franciscan friar named Brother Juniper. He wonders why those five people were on the bridge at that particular time. There were several who were just a few feet from stepping onto the bridge when it broke, and several others who had just completed the crossing seconds before it broke. Why were those saved and the others lost? Brother Juniper spends six years interviewing everyone he could find who knew those five people, trying to discern some underlying reason or theme which would make sense of this tragedy. But, there was no common thread. Some were godly people, some were not; some were rich, others not; some were beloved, others, not so much, etc. Without giving away the plot, let me just say that Brother Juniper struggles in finding a satisfying answer.

The novel has come back to me in recent days as the coronavirus has swept across our nation and the world. It is amazing that the peak of the death toll will, more or less, hit during Holy Week. Daily stories pour in about the people who have died. We are now told that the number of dead just in the USA, even with complete adherence to stay-at-home orders and social distancing will be around 100,000 people, perhaps more. There are already quite a few examples of devout Christians who have died from COVID-19. There will surely be countless Christians who will someday praise God because they never caught it.

There are many examples of active shooters—like at Columbine or Sandy Hook—where multiple people are killed, but several close by were left unharmed. Why did those die and not the others? I have a friend from Boston who took American Airlines Flight 11 on the same day and time every week for his work, which took him to California each week. It was American Airlines Flight 11 that was that tragic flight Muhammad Atta hijacked and crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center killing all passengers and crew. The day of that flight my friend got up and wasn’t feeling well and decided at the last minute to take a later flight to California. That decision saved his life. He asked, “Why me?” What about those who boarded the plane that day? Why were they not spared?

These kinds of experiences raise deep questions. The church has always struggled to know exactly how to respond because there is a mystery to all of this which cannot be resolved. Brother Juniper learned that in the novel.

Jesus himself addressed a situation like this in Luke 13. There was a tower in a neighborhood on the south side of Jerusalem known as the Tower of Siloam. It unexpectedly collapsed and eighteen people were killed. Jesus clearly states that those who died in the tower that day were not “worse offenders” than others who lived in Jerusalem. But, he uses the tragedy as a general call for all people to repent. What can we learn from this? First, we know that the collapse of the Tower of Siloam was not a sign of God’s particular judgment against those particular eighteen people. Second, we learn that all people need to be mindful of the brevity of life and Jesus himself reminds us of the importance to live each day with an attitude of repentance and humility. Tomorrow, we will continue this reflection as we walk through Holy Week together and move closer to Easter.