Back on March 17th, Daniel Harrell, Christianity Today’s editor in chief, ran an article addressing this very question. Harrell served ten years as Senior Minister of Colonial Church, Edina, Minnesota, and for 23 years before that as preaching minister at Park Street Church, Boston, Massachusetts. It is a really good article in my opinion. He addresses several concepts that I think are spot on in the relationship of Science and The Faith that I like to write about.
First off, he deals with the theological concept that God’s good creation has gone bad. This is the notion that the fall of Adam has corrupted every aspect of creation. That is a distinctive Augustinian notion that the earlier Church did not hold to, nor does the Orthodox Church hold to now (see here for example). Harrell says:
“But unless God’s creation defies every characteristic of biological reality, bacteria and viruses are not bitter fruits of the fall, but among the first fruits of good creation itself. If the science is right, there would be no life as we know it without them. God makes no mistakes, and bacteria and viruses indeed are mirabilis (from the Latin meaning remarkable, or even amazing or wondrous, adjectives frequently used to describe creation) and part of the plan from the start.”
Harrell cites an earlier article by microbiologist Rebecca Randall on “Why Zika, and Other Viruses, Don’t Disprove God’s Goodness” also a read well worth your while. The scientific fact is that death is a requirement for organic life to exist at all. And as Christians, we believe that death is essential for eternal life to exist as well. As Romans 6:9-11 says:
9 For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. 10 The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. 11 In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Christ’s death wasn’t God’s Plan B- he was “the lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev 13:8). As the Orthodox say, “Christ trampled down death by death”.
Another excellent point Harrell makes is that creation has been given a certain freedom to be itself by God. Just as love cannot be coerced, so God endowed us with freedom to reject him, we can
“…extrapolate this logic to nature (from whence humans are made) and you might deduce, theologically speaking, that nature has been endowed with a similar freedom. The sea that inspires can also flood. The ground that stands firm can also quake and give way. The microscopic organism that serves life can threaten to take it away.”
This makes more sense to me, both theologically and scientifically, than the notion that God is micromanaging every event in the universe, including who get sick and who doesn’t. Compare Harrell’s article to a recent one by John Piper where he said:
“Jesus has all knowledge and all authority over the natural and supernatural forces of this world. He knows exactly where the virus started, and where it’s going next. He has complete power to restrain it or not,”
Piper’s theology, while maybe strictly true, leads to the attitude of some pastors to open their churches to service despite medical advice to the contrary . The fact is that a highly contagious virus will spread when the opportunity is provided, not “God is greater than the coronavirus.” There was a good reason Jesus didn’t throw himself off the temple (Matthew 4:5-7), and there is a good reason to avoid crowds during a pandemic.
As Rodney Stark detailed in his book, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became a Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1997), during a plague in AD 251 that swept through the Roman Empire decimating the population, the church father, Dionysius, in his Easter letter around AD 260, wrote a tribute to the believers whose heroic efforts cost many of them their lives during the plague.
Pagans tended to flee the cities during plagues, but Christians were more likely to stay and minister to the suffering. According to Dionysius: “Most of our brother Christians showed unbonded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Needless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy.”
Dionysius added: “The best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of presbyters, deacons, and laymen winning high commendation so that death in this form, the result of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal of martyrdom.”
Many of those Christians suffered the natural consequences of exposure to the plague — they got sick and died – nevertheless, they ministered to their neighbors, loving them as they loved themselves. Our attitude during this pandemic should be the same, we should love our neighbors as Jesus loves us, but we should also take every reasonable precaution. I think that is the best course of action, both theologically and scientifically.