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.