I am grateful to the organizers of this Areopagite for the invitation to consider this spiritually demanding question, one that reaches down into the heart of our confidence in the Good God, and in our constant need for repentance, confession and renewal. Of course such a question touches on complex doctrines—of sin, of providence, of creation and of evil. How a Christian teaches and confesses these doctrines will inform how she answers a profound question such as the one before us. But nothing in the Christian life is far removed from the inescapable spiritual struggle that is signaled also by this question: just how in our life of prayer, of Scripture study, and contemplation of the Living God is the presence of this pandemic, this plague, this great suffering to be grasped, endured, confronted and overcome? The spiritual and the doctrinal meet in the question placed before us. Is the coronavirus evil?
Let me begin with the unmistakable elements of evil that attend every encounter with this virus, in our nation and across the globe. When this virus enters a fragile human body, suffering begins. It seems to come gradually, stealthily finding a foothold in lungs or nervous system or heart—the very organs on which life depends. For some sufferers, this virus breaks out into a flood that overwhelms life, robbing the patient of strength, resistance, of the very breath of life. Some recover; some carry with them scars from this struggle that may shape and deform their life for many seasons, perhaps to the end. At the end of this long road, death waits. Some sufferers of this virus have died; this very day, whenever these words are read, some thousands of people will die this death, a life, long or short, cut down, silenced.
Suffering and dying from such a disease seem especially capricious—‘unmerited’—and a profound wrong to a vital human life. The most innocent of human acts, and the most loving—the handshake, the embrace of friends, the intimacy of families, gathered at table or front stoop—these become defiled by the threat of this plague, and are robbed of their place in our lives as signs of God’s benevolent gift of embodied love. We might be inclined to defuse this profound sense of wrong by attributing blame: the funeral never should have been held, the trip to the store postponed; hands should have been washed more faithfully, a better diet followed, masks worn, distance between people better preserved, exercise, abstinence. But these mitigations of ‘unmerited suffering’ do not seem to penetrate to the deepest reserve of this ordeal. For this virus appeared without invitation or warning; it spread through countries like a raging flame, burning to ash the sufferers, the doctors and nurses, the feverish attempts to contain or treat or protect the ill; and no one knows how long this will go on. To imagine a single life whose lungs seemed filled with something like a gelatinous mass, who cannot catch a breath and for whom no ventilator will help, and who will die alone, the last prayers said by a faithful nurse or by the family, speaking their farewells through the tinny speaker of a mobile phone—to imagine this one loss is to put calculation of blame far in the shade. And it is this death, or something like it, that has been repeated across the globe, hundreds of thousands of times. Such suffering deaths are incommensurate with guilt or desert.
These signs of evil seem to fall into the two large camps that have organized Doctrines of Evil: the privation of good, and the realist incursion of evil. Since the days of Augustine, evil has been defined as the absence of good; privatio boni. Such a definition carries with it the odd conviction that evil, as such, does not exist. Rather the good created and bestowed by the Eternally Good God has been diminished, contained, emptied, defiled. The suffering and death caused by the coronavirus seem a perfect candidate for evil of this sort. Everywhere the good is robbed and hollowed out: embodied closeness ripped apart; carefree tasks stripped of their joy;We seem far better at naming what is wrong, what is absent, what has been taken away from us, what has been laid bare than uttering a positive word. stores and theaters and restaurants shuttered; employment postponed, diminished, taken away; the very breath of life stilled. Even the profound political discord about this illness takes of the character of negativity. We seem far better at naming what is wrong, what is absent, what has been taken away from us, what has been laid bare than uttering a positive word. It may be that in this virus and disease we have been granted a particularly clear and haunting exemplar of the whole long Platonizing tradition of evil as the privation of the good.
Yet we must say that this tradition, extensive and sophisticated as it is, does not seem to capture the whole of what we face in this season of pandemic. We are in the midst of a profound spiritual battle, a struggle with principalities and powers that set upon us and attack the good creatures of God. It is not only the military hue of our language about viruses—they ‘attack,’ they ‘invade,’ they ‘conquer and kill.’ It is also the ghost of war that hangs about every scene from this plague. Images from Milan or New York or Cape Town remind us of cities after terrible sieges and engines of war: ward after ward of suffering bodies, lined up in make-shift hospitals, refrigerated trucks serving as temporary morgues, grocery shelves emptied of every essential, wild animals roving city streets, the citizens long gone or hidden away. It seems ‘an enemy hath done this.’ More virulent still is the attack this virus has made on the vulnerable in this country. The very frail in nursing homes, army veterans in their hospitals, the human lives already burdened by chronic illness or poverty: these are human lives being assaulted by disease and stalked by death.
Evil invades the communities of African Americans, Latin Americans, and First Nation peoples, spreading disease, suffering and death far out of proportion to their population in this country. The stark inequalities in our nation, in housing, in work, in medicine, in policing and imprisonment, in wealth and security, are not mere facts, lying inert on the page; they kill.It may well be that Barth would have seen the coronavirus as another example of the ‘shadow side’ of creation—still good but shrouded in darkness. This virus and the pandemic of disease assault and strip the livelihood and the life from the oppressed; the evils of racism and poverty are laid bare for all to see. What Liberation Theologians have taught us to call ‘structural evil or sin’ is the collective menace of evil working against the good, undermining it, hollowing it out, mocking and tormenting the oppressed, extinguishing the light.
And yet: we must ask still whether we are right to say that the coronavirus is evil. Is it not simply a natural element within a good, created realm? Does not the virus stand at that mysterious limit between the living and the inert, manifesting a startling, fascinating, and unexpected complexity in such a miniscule cell? To read the biological studies in the coronavirus and the large family to which it belongs is to enter the intricate realm of virology and its extraordinary family of viruses and their forms of replication. Viruses teem in the oceans of our world, in the soil of this good earth, in animals of all sorts. The movement of these viruses into the human world is the onset of suffering and disease; but these too are moments entirely natural within a natural body and its internal ecosystem. Is it proper to Christian humility to say that anything that hurts or destroys us must be evil? In these questions are summed up the long argument against the very notion of ‘natural evil,’ itself a short-hand of modern attempts at theodicy. Karl Barth made a particularly sharp attack on the idea of natural evil, calling it a slander against God’s good creation, one that exhibits a callous blindness to the rhythms of seed-time and harvest, of waxing strong and failing, of flourishing and decay, that the LORD God made and assumed in the Eternal Word. It may well be that Barth would have seen the coronavirus as another example of the ‘shadow side’ of creation—still good but shrouded in darkness.
Perhaps in the end we might think about this pandemic, and the virus that lies at its core, under the same rubric we use for death itself. On one hand, the decomposition and decay of living things is entirely natural; indeed it is just what we mean by finite, created organisms. They have their flourishing and their little day. To live is Christ; to die is gain. And yet the same Apostle can call death the ‘last enemy’ which is put under the feet of the victorious, Risen Christ. The Eternal Son comes into this world to attack, to mock and to defeat death, to rob it of its spoils, to lead captivity captive and set the creature free. We who have witnessed the lingering death of an intimate, who have endured loss, who face each day with a terminal diagnosis in hand, know death as enemy, as sin and evil and wrong. So we might ask:With the Apostle we must affirm: In death as in life, we are the LORD’s. What makes some deaths holy and others tragic or brutal? What terrible force turns the natural into the gruesome and monstrous? How can something be at once so natural and so evil, so ordered and still so wrong?
The Augustinian notion of the Fall may aid us here. The world out of joint is our world after Eden. Still creaturely, still sustained and protected by the Good God, still guided under His Omnipotent Hand; yet beset round about by inner rebellions, cruelties and neglect, outward injustice, malice, and greed. Augustine allows us to say that both things are true: the world remains the good creature of God, and He stays the evil that we would do through His grace; yet it remains under sin, and death reigns. Perhaps we should say the same about the coronavirus and its aftermath: entirely natural, entirely a creature of the Good God; yet working suffering and death, evil in its active destruction and defilement of creation and its steady negation of the good. We must say in the end that there is no remedy to this complex two-sidedness but in the LORD God and His Mercy. With the Apostle we must affirm: In death as in life, we are the LORD’s.