I just found out that someone important to me, a mentor whose health was already compromised by serious illness, has been tested for COVID-19. Moments earlier, I had seen someone tweet a quote from a recent post, “How Do We Make Sense of the Coronavirus,” by the Calvinist preacher John Piper: “Jesus is never backed into a corner; he is never forced to tolerate what he does not will.”
A comment accompanied the retweeted quote: “God has a plan. It’s all part of God’s plan. There’s a reason for everything.”
Unlike me, you might not have the benefit of an expensive seminary education. So take it from me when I tell you that this manner of seeing the happenings of the world as the definite doings of God is what theologians call “bullshit.” A world where everything is the direct and immediate unfolding of God’s will is NOT the world as the New Testament sees it.
For as often as we read it at funerals, we forget: the reason Paul works to reassure in Romans that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus is because there are Powers and Principalities in the world— synonymous for Paul with the Power of Death— contending against God and working to separate us from him. The Apostle Paul reminds us of this fact in the epilogue of his letter to the Ephesians where he points to our baptisms as our armour in our world where our antagonist is not flesh and blood but the Enemy, the devil, the Power of Sin behind our present darkness.
Christians of a certain stripe often exult in the “mysterious” ways God ordains tragedy to bring about “good,” humble his creatures, display his sovereignty, and coax sinners to repentance and faith.
The notion that a pandemic, whose innocent victims will likely number in the millions, is the “good news” of God’s sovereign plan reminds me of Aristotle’s caution, in so many words, that if the happy expressions on your face don’t match the godawful sentiments coming out of your mouth, you’re batshit crazy.
Or a moral cretin, Aristotle would say.
Worse, the God conjured by such espousals of “sovereignty,” the God who would will a grandmother’s death for any reason, eternal or otherwise, is, quite simply, evil.
Evil is not good just because God is supposedly the One doing it. Better to say- God cannot do evil exactly because God is good.
The ancient Christians believed that not even God, who is Goodness itself, can violate his eternal, unchanging nature. God cannot, say, use his omnipotence to will violence, for to do so would contradict God’s very nature.
For God to be free and sovereign, then, is NOT for God to do whatever God wills. For God to be free and sovereign is for God to act unhindered according to God’s nature.
Those who claim “God has a reason for______” suppose that God has no eternal nature which limits, controls or guides God’s actions. God is free to do whatever God wants, and those wants are not determined by anything prior in God’s character. If God wants to will COVID-19 on a nurse made vulnerable by her act of compassion, then God has the freedom to do so, no matter how inscrutable and unnecessary his death seems to us.
To which I say: bullshit.
During my days at UVA, I was lucky enough to have David Bentley Hart as one of my first theology teachers. In his little book The Doors of the Sea DBH recalls reading an article in the NY Times shortly after the tsunami in South Asia in 2005. The article highlighted a Sri Lankan father, who, in spite of his frantic efforts, which included swimming in the roiling sea with his wife and mother-in-law on his back, was unable to prevent any of his four children or his wife from being swept to their deaths.
In the article, the father recounted the names of his four children and then, overcome with grief, sobbed to the reporter that “My wife and children must have thought, ‘Father is here….he will save us’ but I couldn’t do it.”
In the Doors of the Sea, Hart wonders: If you had the chance to speak to this father, in the moment of his deepest grief, what should one say? Hart argues that only a ‘moral cretin’ would have approached that father with abstract theological explanation:
“Sir, your children’s deaths are a part of God’s eternal but mysterious counsels” or “Your children’s deaths, tragic as they may seem, in the larger sense serve God’s complex design for creation” or “It’s all part of God’s plan.”
Hart says that most of us would have the good sense and empathy not to talk like that to the father. This is the point at which Hart takes it to the next level and says something profound and, I think, true:
“And this should tell us something. For if we think it shamefully foolish and cruel to say such things in the moment when another’s sorrow is most real and irresistibly painful, then we ought never to say them.”
And if we mustn’t say them to such a father we ought never to say them about God.
Hart admits there very well could be “a reason for everything” that happens under the sun that will one day be revealed to us by a Sovereign God in the fullness of time. He just refuses to have anything to do with such a God.
Like Ivan Karamazoz, Hart wants no part of the cost at which this God’s Kingdom comes. Hart’s siding with suffering of the innocent is a view profoundly shaped by the cross. It seems to me that his compassion for innocent suffering and disavowal of ANY explanation that justifies suffering comes closer to the crucified Christ than an avowed Christian uttering an unfeeling, unthinking platitude like “God has a plan for everything.”
Contra the false teaching of the “God has a plan…” variety: The test of whether or not our speech about God is true isn’t whether it’s logical, rationally demonstrable, emotionally resonant or culled from scripture.
The test is whether we could say it to a parent standing at their child’s grave.
To preach a sovereign God of absolute will who causes suffering and tragedy for a ‘greater purpose’ is not only to preach a God who trucks in suffering and evil but a God who gives meaning to it.
A God who uses suffering and evil for His own self-realization as God is complicit in suffering and evil.
The Gospel, that Easter is God’s (only) response to suffering and death is something far different.
As Hart writes:
“Simply said, there is no more liberating knowledge given us by the gospel — and none in which we should find more comfort — than the knowledge that suffering and death, considered in themselves, have no ultimate meaning at all.”
“Yes, certainly, there is nothing, not even suffering and death, that cannot be providentially turned towards God’s good ends. But the New Testament also teaches us that, in another and ultimate sense, suffering and death – considered in themselves – have no true meaning or purpose at all; and this is in a very real sense the most liberating and joyous wisdom that the gospel imparts.”
“The first proclamation of the gospel is that death is God’s ancient Enemy, whom God has defeated and will ultimately destroy. I would hope that no Christian pastor would fail to recognize that that completely shameless triumphalism — and with it an utterly sincere and unrestrained hatred of suffering and death — is the surest foundation of Christian hope, and the proper Christian response to grief.”
In other words, if there is indeed a reason for everything, then there is no reason to worship God. Not because God does not exist but because he is not worthy of our worship. Even though this might sound like sacrilege, with the coronavirus sweeping the globe and the economic collapse creating victims of a different sort, it strikes me as the most faithful of responses.
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