Unsurprisingly, millions around the globe have turned to the internet for solace as the pandemic sweeps the land; searches related to prayer in 75 countries skyrocketed to their highest levels in five years in March. Online ministries are doing a land office business in cyber conversions. Confused, worried and looking for hope, more and more are putting their faith in the divine.
Yet, even as deaths mount, particularly in disadvantaged strata of society, God has remained silent. In one way, it’s almost perverse: America, most pious of countries, stronghold of the modern evangelist movement, a country where 40 percent of the population believes God created humans as they are, has been hardest hit.
Inevitably, the situation brings into stark focus the age-old debate over the Problem of Evil: How to reconcile belief in an omnipotent, omnibenevolent and omniscient God, with the existence of evil and suffering in the world? How can God stand by as innocent lives are lost to a pandemic, or lost because of man’s own cruelty to fellow man?
A “theodicy” is a theological construct that attempts to defend God against the charge that the manifestation of evil and suffering are inconsistent with the existence of a good, just and loving supreme being.
There are many such theodicies, though none are particularly convincing:
• It’s all God’s plan, which puny human intelligence cannot fathom. But all will be clear at some later date as God, accompanied by trumpet-blowing archangels, descends from heaven to raise the dead and summon the living to be with him forever.
• And, so, we should endure suffering now, because “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:18)
• In any case, it’s not fair to blame God for everything. We humans share the responsibility; time and again we have failed to prevent, or respond adequately to, catastrophes despite early warnings. The vulnerability of New Orleans to hurricanes, for example, was well documented long before Hurricane Katrina devastated the city. It’s too early for definitive comment on Covid 19, but it’s clear that forethought and early action could well have mitigated the impact of Katrina.
• Human responsibility is echoed in Karma — a fundamental precept of Buddhism and Hinduism — which can be viewed as the accumulation of merits and demerits based on an individual’s actions in current and past states of existence. The storehouse of Karma overflows from time to time to decide that individual’s fate. There is no innocent in this view; even a newly born baby carries its weight of Karma from previous lives.
• In many cultures God creates, but then moves on to other things. God simply sets the ball rolling and steps out of the way; thereafter, God’s too busy to care about the fate and morality of his creation.
• An indifferent God comports well with Spinoza’s concept of God as nature. If everything is nature, including us, then human actions too are governed by nature’s laws; they are part of nature’s unfolding. It could be said, then, that everything — from hurricanes to the Holocaust — is just another milestone in an evolutionary path delineated by nature’s laws. Moral judgement plays no part.
But, a morally indifferent creator can hardly be termed a loving god.
In Plato’s Euthyphro dilemma, Socrates asks Euthyphro, “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” (In his song, “No Church in the Wild” rapper Jay Z references the dilemma with the line, “Is pious pious ’cause God loves pious? Socrates asked whose bias do y’all seek?”)
The philosopher Gottfried Leibnitz (inventor of the calculus, concurrently with — but independently of — Isaac Newton) reframed the dilemma by asking whether the good and just “is good and just because God wills it, or whether God wills it because it is good and just.”
In that vein, consider this:
• By definition, an omnipotent God is responsible for everything that happens in the world. (Why have a God who’s less than omnipotent, anyway?).
• Genocide is unambiguously NOT “good and just” by any measure in the rational world. We don’t need God to tell us that. It’s an inviolable moral standard. But since such crimes do occur — through an omnipotent God’s will — are we, now, to take them as “good and just?” God appears to contradict what we know to be wrong, which could only mean that God is less than omnibenevolent toward humankind;
• Or, if it is the case that God wills only things that are good and just, God could not have willed genocide, because it isn’t good and just. So, if it happened despite God’s non- involvement, it would mean that God is not omnipotent either. If it happened without God’s knowledge, then God isn’t even omniscient.
This line of argument whittles away at God’s attributes. Taken to its logical extreme it challenges the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving God. But those aspects of God’s nature need not be questioned, if — and only if — God is positioned above the fray. Disinterested in man’s morality and machinations, God simply chooses not to act. God’s love is elusive.