Did God Cause the Coronavirus?
So was it? And did he? And what do we make of God if what John Piper says about him is true?
Let's road-test this conclusion by comparing it to what the Bible teaches us in the first chapter of the book of Job.
The book of Job is one of many ancient writings that philosophers refer to as a theodicy. The Greek words theos and dike mean God and justice, so a theodicy is an attempt to put God on trial for all the suffering in the world and to vindicate his righteousness. A theodicy is an attempt to answer the dilemma which was expressed by the Ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus:
“Either God wishes to take away evil, but he is unable; or God is able to take away evil, but he is unwilling; or God is neither willing nor able to take away evil; or God is both willing and able to take away evil. Well then, if he is willing and unable, then he is feeble, which is not in accordance with the character of God. If he is able and unwilling, then he is malevolent, which is equally at variance with God. If he is neither willing nor able, then he is both malevolent and feeble. If he is both willing and able, which alone is suitable to God, then where does evil come from and why doesn’t he rid the world of evil?”
Almost two thousand years later, the English philosopher David Hume was still struggling with the same dilemma:
“Epicurus’s old questions are yet unanswered. Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”
The book of Job is one of many ancient theodicies, which gave an answer to this dilemma. It attempts to answer the big question which many of us have been asking throughout our present coronavirus crisis. But the book of Job differs fundamentally from all the other theodicies. For a start, it is much longer. The book of Job never tries to offer us glib answers or easy short-cuts through our pain and confusion. It never tries to fob us off with clichés or with the cheery quotations that clog up many of our Facebook feeds. It insists that we must go on a slow journey through the land of suffering if we want to emerge on the other side with answers real enough to answer a dilemma that has taxed the greatest minds in history.
An even bigger difference is that the book of Job never tries to make excuses for God. It doesn’t try to dodge our questions or to blame somebody else for what happens in the world. The Dispute Between a Man and His Soul (Egypt, c.1850BC) ends without giving the man any real explanation for his suffering. His soul simply promises to try a little harder to make him happy. The Dialogue Between a Man and His God (Babylon, c.1650BC) sounds in places like the book of Job (“A young man was weeping to his god like a friend, constantly praying … I do not know what sin I have committed!”) but it also offers little in the way of real explanation. The man’s idol never explains why he is suffering. Once he feels better, it simply warns him, “Now you must never forget your god until the end of time!”
The same is true of The Poem of the Righteous Sufferer (Babylon, c.1300BC), where a man loses his possessions and his health, while remaining convinced he has done nothing to offend his god. When he recovers, he attributes his healing to his idol but remains none the wiser for his pains. He never advances beyond the confusion he expresses early on in the poem: “I wish I knew what was pleasing to a god! What seems good to oneself could be an offence to a god. What in one’s heart seems detestable could be good to one’s god. Who then can grasp the reasoning of the gods?!” The sufferer in The Babylonian Theodicy (Babylon, c.1000BC) fares even worse. We are not even told that his god delivers him. His complaint that “Those who neglect the god go the way of prosperity, while those who pray to the goddess are impoverished and dispossessed” evokes some sympathy from his friend, but it is met with stony silence from heaven.
The book of Job is fundamentally different from all of these pagan theodicies because it never seeks to dodge our questions and or to make excuses for the Lord. Although there are clearly forces at work in Job’s life that exonerate God, the writer never uses them to downplay God’s role in the drama. He makes it abundantly clear that the Lord is the one who is in control. He tells us unequivocally in Job 1:12 that “The Lord said to Satan, ‘Very well, then, everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.’”
The writer could have passed the blame onto Satan. After all, a literal reading of verse 12 makes it clear that the hand behind Job’s suffering isn’t God’s. It is Satan’s. “Look, everything he has is in your hand, but on him you shall not stretch out your hand.” Yet the writer never tries to use this to disguise the Lord’s own role in Job’s sufferings. He deliberately ignites our sense of outrage by recording God’s conversation with Satan in the most unflattering of terms. When the Lord asks literally in verse 8, “Have you set your heart on my servant Job?”, the writer makes the two of them sound a bit like the callous company directors who wreck Dan Ackroyd’s life for the sake of a wager in the movie Trading Places. It is Satan who is at work here, plotting evil against the innocent, but the writer is honest with us that the Lord could stop him in a moment.
The writer could also pass the blame onto Job. After all, he is part of a human race which has given Satan legitimate authority to inflict suffering on the earth. Had there been no Fall, there would be no suffering. Whenever we point the finger at God, we are therefore pointing three fingers back at ourselves. We see this in 1 Kings 22:19-23, which echoes these verses in Job, where the Israelites reject God’s truth and decide to embrace lies, so the Lord grants permission to a deceiving spirit to go out and lead them astray. The Israelites reap what they have sown. They get what their deeds deserve. But the writer of the book of Job doesn’t use this principle to make excuses for the Lord. He reasserts in verse 8 that Job is entirely innocent. Satan, the Great Accuser and Fault-Finder, can find no legitimate grounds for any accusation in the life of Job.
Instead of blaming the Devil or humanity as a whole, the writer emphasises the Lord’s sovereignty over all the suffering that befalls Job. This courtroom scene portrays no clash of equals. The Devil’s very presence betrays that he knows, deep down, that he can only act on God’s say-so. The way he sulks about Job’s worship betrays that he lacks God’s omnipotence. The way he has just returned from a reconnaissance mission throughout the earth betrays the fact that he lacks God’s omniscience and omnipresence too. Even when he receives permission from the Lord to torment Job, it comes with very strict parameters. He is like a dog on a leash. In the words of Martin Luther, he is “God’s Satan”. He is a defeated foe, who knows he will never be permitted to tempt one of God’s children beyond what they can bear. He is like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. When Frodo complains to Gandalf, “What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!”, the old wizard gently replies: “Pity? It was pity that stayed his hand … For even the very wise cannot see all ends … My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many.” In the same way that an act of Gollum’s wickedness enables Frodo to succeed in his mission at the end, the Lord only gives the Devil enough rope with which to hang himself.
Based on the book of Job, at least, John Piper’s statement rings entirely true. The writer does not try to dodge our question about why the Lord allows suffering in our coronavirus-blighted world. He makes no excuses for him. He doesn’t hide behind the Devil’s wickedness or the fact that we have given him legitimate grounds to work his mischief in our world. He simply asserts that God is wise enough to use Satan’s evil actions to perform his greater good. He simply assures us that, at the end of time, when we see things far more clearly than the brief glimpse we are given in these verses, we will worship the Lord for his wisdom and confess that what Romans 8:28 says is true: “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him.”
God is so good that he can use great evil for an even greater good. Admittedly, from where we find ourselves right now in the story, it seems pretty hard to grasp what that good might eventually be. Many of us have had COVID-19. Some of us have friends who have died. Most of us have been caught up in the economic hurricane. All of us have experienced the pain and loss of months of lockdown. And yet, in the midst of our suffering, the Lord invites us to find our comfort in his total sovereignty over all that has happened to us. Since God permitted the coming of the coronavirus, we can rest assured that we will see the wisdom of God’s judgment vindicated gloriously in the end.
I can’t quite see yet what that vindication will entail, but then I couldn’t see how sparing Gollum would help the Frodo to succeed in his mission the first time I read The Lord of the Rings either. Nor could I see why God would let the Devil strike down Job the first time that I read the Bible. There’s a lot that I don’t see about God’s wisdom in the world. But what I do see from the book of Job is that John Piper’s conclusion brings genuine comfort to us all.
“The coronavirus was sent, therefore, by God … It is a bitter season. And God ordained it.”
This blog has been adapted from a chapter Phil Moore’s new book “Straight to the Heart of Job: Why Does God Allow Suffering?”.
Epicurus died in 270BC, so most of his writings are too ancient to have survived. We know that he wrote these words because he is quoted by Lactantius in c.315AD in his treatise On The Anger of God (13.20-21).
David Hume wrote this in 1779 in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion
For more on how human sin gave the Devil legitimate authority over humanity, see Luke 4:5-7, John 12:31, John 14:30, Ephesians 2:2 and Ephesians 4:27.
This conversation between Frodo Baggins and Gandalf the Grey takes place in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring (1954).