Why does God allow pandemics?

Australian Jesuit Fr Richard Leonard says God does not send plagues to teach us things, though we can learn from them.

The following article was first published in The Tablet. Reprinted with permission. 

Some Christians seem to have a very limited image of the Holy Trinity: nasty God the Father in heaven; sweet, lovely Jesus … and the bird! While the creeds teach that there is one God in three persons, they act as one in creating, saving and inspiring. In John’s Gospel Jesus says he does nothing on his own (5:30); ‘the Father and I are one’ (10:30); and ‘to have seen me is to have seen the Father’ (14:9). Christians believe that Jesus came to fulfil the Old Testament; they believe, too, that everything in the Old Testament should be interpreted through the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.

This matters when we come to understand the meaning of plagues and other natural disasters. For the peoples of the ancient world, if there was a flood, plague or pestilence then God was saying something through it. But in the Gospels Jesus never sends a plague, a natural disaster or turns anyone into a pillar of salt. If Jesus isn’t into murderous retribution, nor, if we take him at his repeated word, is God the Father. Jesus is the incarnate correction to false views of how God works in the world.

So, even though Covid-19’s origins are yet to be finally established, they have a natural explanation, and the way the virus has spread has been in measure the result of poor human decisions. God has not sent the pandemic upon us.

Whenever there is a local or a global catastrophe, whether it is the fire that destroyed the roof of Notre Dame or the spread of Aids, there are always some Christians who say that it has been sent as a punishment by God for various contemporary sins. This reveals a belief in God as a kind of extra-powerful figure ruling the universe, a chief executive who tolerates bad behaviour up to a point, but then his patience snaps and he stops the nonsense, sending a tsunami or a pandemic to remind us who is boss.

God as a vengeful tyrant is a neat if frightening solution to the deep pain in our lives: our suffering has to come from somewhere, and perhaps it is understandable that some seek the explanation that it is sent directly by God.

But there is a huge difference between God permitting evil in our world and God perpetrating such acts upon us. The Church teaches that the first proposition is true, but not the second, although listening to some Christians talking about the coronavirus pandemic you would be forgiven for thinking it did. Because God wants us to be fully free, our world holds the possibility of our choosing evil; if it were otherwise, we would be marionettes. This is a world away from God directly causing suffering and destruction.

Just because sometimes people grow through pain and suffering, it does not mean God has sent these things as a test: rather this growth is a testament to God accompanying us through every moment, inspiring us to be in solidarity with all God’s children, so that together we make the best decisions in the shadow of death and the valley of tears.

Nor does God send plagues to teach us things, though we can learn from them, and we are learning a lot right now about our delicate relationship with the created order and how poor choices made in one place can have unintended consequences in other places. We are also learning that the best response to natural disasters or health emergencies is transparency, good government, honest reporting, human ingenuity, responsible citizenship, and valuing the common good; we are also learning how extraordinarily resilient some of us are in the face of tragedy

How can I be so confident that God is not deadly by nature? Because the God revealed in Jesus Christ is not a tyrant but a lover, a God prepared to go to any lengths – even to give up his life on the Cross – to save us, even though we do not deserve it. John 1:5 says, ‘God is light, in him there is no darkness.’ If that is true, plagues and pandemics cannot be part of an arsenal of weapons deployed by an angry God to punish us for our selfishness and greed.

Spiritual sanity in these difficult days rests in seeing that every moment of every day God does what he did on Good Friday: not intervening to prevent humanity killing Jesus, but not allowing evil and despair to have the last word. The power of amazing grace enables us to make the most of even the worst situations, to help each other in every way we can, and to let light and life have the last word. Easter Sunday is God’s response to Good Friday: life out of death.

Fr Richard Leonard SJ is the author of What does is all mean? A guide to living lives of faith, hope and love (Paulist Press).