Is the coronavirus evil? Daniel Harrell posed that question as editor in chief of Christianity Today. He stirred up a hornet’s nest. His editorial begins with a poignant remark from Karl Barth near the end of his life. The German theologian was dying from kidney disease:
This monstrosity does not belong to God’s good creation, but rather has come in as a result of the Fall. It has in common with sin and with the demons also that it cannot simply be done away with but can be only just despised, combated, and suppressed . . . the main thing is the knowledge that God makes no mistakes and that proteus mirabilis has no chance against him.Letter to John D. Godsey, January 25, 1966.
Barth was merely echoing the conviction of Christians down the ages. God’s creation as we experience it now isn’t what it was meant to be. Sickness and disease are the collateral damage of Adam’s transgression. As the apostle Paul writes in Rom 8:19-22, creation has been groaning since the divine judgment of Gen 3:17. Nature is out of joint and waiting for Christ to return when he will make all things new.
Harrell turns this narrative on its head. All of God’s creation is good, not fallen. Natural evil is part of the warp and woof of creation’s splendor. The created order, the world as it is now, is no different from what it was in Genesis 1 and 2. Harrell writes, “bacteria and viruses are not bitter fruits of the fall, but among the first fruits of good creation itself.” Floods, earthquakes, and physical disorders exist just because God gave nature the gift of freedom. John Polkinghorne articulated this position decades ago: “God no more expressly wills the growth of a cancer than he expressly wills the act of a murderer, but he allows both to happen. He is not the puppetmaster of either men or matter.”John Polkinghorne, Science and Providence: God’s Interaction with the World (Philadelphia, PA: Templeton Foundation Press, 1989), 78. My emphasis.
In separate reactions to the CT editorial, Kevin DeYoung and Al Mohler defended the traditional view that viruses like SARS-CoV-2 are evil and part of fallen creation. David French also weighed in with an Amen for that side. Many others like Bob Robinson, Senior Fellow Emeritus of Laidlaw College in New Zealand, agreed with Harrell that the coronavirus reflects the goodness of creation. While he was not responding directly to the CT editorial, Tom Wright dismissed rationalist explanations as a death trap and urged Christians instead to practice lament in the face of the pandemic. Wright has an entire book on God and the pandemic, as do John Piper and John Lennox, all of them addressing the question of evil (among other topics).
Science and religion scholars have long wrestled with these questions. John Schneider, Bethany Sollereder, and Jon Garvey, for example, have recently argued against the very idea of a fallen creation on scientific, historical, and exegetical grounds. Michael Lloyd at Oxford University’s Wycliffe Hall believes that the primordial fall of angels unleashed pre-Adamic pain and suffering into the natural world; presumably this particular coronavirus, being of recent (post-Adamic) vintage, may have a more mundane origin story.E.g., Michael Lloyd, “The Fallenness of Nature: Three Non-Human Suspects,” in Finding Ourselves After Darwin: Conversations about the Image of God, Original Sin, and the Problem of Evil, ed. Stanley Rosenberg (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2018), 262–79. Such proposals are just the tip of the iceberg.
Indeed the COVID-19 pandemic has wide implications for what Christians mean by the goodness of creation. In this Areopagite installment, we have posed the original question to a spectrum of thinkers: Is the Coronavirus Evil? Daniel Harrell, fittingly enough, will close out the dialogue with a final set of reflections. During these surreal days of mask wearing, hand washing, and social isolation, we hope this conversation will be encouraging and intellectually energizing.