“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
These are the comforting words Jesus Christ spoke to His disciples as recorded in John 16:33. Perhaps these are the same words the world needs at this time due to the devastating effects of the Covid-19 pandemic that has gripped the world’s attention.
By April 15, the number of infections globally stood at two million, with 131,393 deaths. The United States alone had more than 600,000 confirmed cases. The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has predicted an additional 100,000 to 240,000 deaths in the US.
These statistics coming from a country considered to be the most powerful and among the most developed on earth paint a grim picture of the future for the rest of the world, especially the Third World. In Kenya, the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases had reached 225 by April 15, with the Ministry of Health predicting that the numbers could reach 1,000 in the same week, 5,000 by mid-April and 10,000 by April 30.
The most notable outcome of the pandemic is the fear it has elicited among government officials, health professionals, researchers and ordinary folk. Not surprisingly, the question on everybody’s lips is: Where do we turn to now that all the human prescriptions aren’t so effective in tackling the spread of the virus?
Towards the end of March, a friend of mine invited me to join him and another friend at his guesthouse in my home town of Bondo in Siaya County. Hebrews 10:25 talks of “… not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near”.
So there we were, three Christians observing the appropriate social distance and having washed our hands with soap and water that had been strategically placed at the entrance. The subject of our discussion was: Has God allowed the coronavirus pandemic? And if so, why? If it is based on the fact that man has become too sinful, why punish the innocent with the guilty? And can we say that God is fair?
The conversation was interesting but at some point it was also confusing because it exposed some of the theological and philosophical differences that we have even as believers. The good news is that the conversation ended with a consensus – that we cannot answer all the questions to do with why God allows suffering or evil in the life of man yet He has the power to prevent or destroy it.
I am aware that the question of man’s suffering when there is a God who is touted as being loving, caring, all-knowing, all-powerful and all-wise has been canvassed in theological and philosophical circles by some of the best brains without a conclusive answer. But that does not minimise our quest to find out more on the subject.
Two of the most common verses used by believers to respond to these concerns are Romans 8:28 and Deuteronomy 29:29.The former says: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose.” The latter quotes Moses regarding the observance of the law: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”
The text from Romans is commonly used to advance the notion that nothing takes God by surprise since He is omniscient. Therefore, whatever happens is with His knowledge and at the end of it all, whether good or bad, it will ultimately contribute to the greater good of man thus fulfilling God’s will. The second text is often used as a stop-gap to prevent any further debate or inquiry into the things of God that are regarded as “mysteries” or too deep and beyond man’s understanding.
One may opt to pursue a purely theological approach or a purely philosophical approach in unmasking the complexity of the issue of suffering and evil, or pursue a mixed methodology, which is a theologico-philosophical stance. Theology basically refers to “a systematic study of God” or “a conversation about God.” Philosophy on the other hand is simply “the study of wisdom” but it elaborately includes a “systematic and analytic way of finding explanations to various events or issues affecting man”.
A theologico-philosophical stance would tackle questions such as: Did God allow the coronavirus to pass judgement on the sin of humankind? Is the coronavirus pandemic part of God’s will?
In their book, Contemporary Perspectives on Religious Epistemology, R. Douglas Geivett and Brendan Sweetman say: “Christians (and one might include certain Jews and certain followers of Mohammed, among others) have accordingly been pledged to defend the existence of a kind of non-natural realm, including God, vast purposes, indestructible values, and a lot else besides, which realm is only penetrable by the help of special philosophical and theological concepts.”
Two phrases are important: “existence of a kind of non-natural realm” and “only penetrable by the help of special philosophical and theological concepts”. This stance rules out the non-existence of God (atheism) and also underscores the importance of accessing the knowledge of the realm of God through “philosophical and theological concepts”.
Simply put, Christian theology begins from the point of the existence of God who “… created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). And philosophically speaking, he is not a God who just dismisses any form of reasoning. For He says in Isaiah 1:18: “Come now, let us reason together…”
Around the time of my debate with the two bishops, some pastor friends confronted me and asked why born-again Christians, washed by the blood of Jesus and believing in eternal life, are behaving as if the pandemic is another god to be honoured above the Lord Jesus Christ. Why should believers abandon normal forms of greetings and distance themselves from each other simply because of the fear of a disease, or death? Why should they not meet for prayers and fellowship because the government has said so?
While these friends had a biblical basis in 2 Timothy 1:7, which explicitly says, “For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control”, one should not be oblivious to the danger that comes with ignoring government directives on public conduct to prevent further spread of the virus. Indeed, with governments all over the world taking drastic measures, one has every reason to worry.
Bondo, for instance, has seen an influx of people from Nairobi due to job losses and fear of the virus. Meanwhile, survey findings show that three out of 10 Kenyans do not have enough food to last more than a few days.
So where do we run to?
In my search for answers, I came across a small book written by Paula Ripple Comin titled, Mixed Blessings. In the seventh chapter – Unintended Journeys: Responding to Life’s Surprises along the Way – the author mentions a poem by Robert Frost titled, The Road Not Taken. “In his poem, Robert Frost describes human decision-making in terms that imply choices for greater life. He says, ‘Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less travelled… And that has made all the difference.’”
“Earlier in the poem, he tells of how he could have chosen either way, that both had the possibility of leading to some place of new life. But there is another way that has the potential to call us to new life – it is a call that comes not through decision-making but rather through some surprise event that propels us onto another course, without choice, and as often as not, with great fear and uncertainty. I am speaking of what I choose to call the “unintended journey.” These are journeys that have no prior planning, no prior options and no clear outcome.”
Frost could have envisioned difficult times posed by such disastrous events like the coronavirus that call us to arrive at decisions that propel us to an “unintended journey”. But there is one whom the Bible says has already travelled this road of pain, suffering and trouble before and therefore we need to learn from Him.
Hebrews 4:15-16 tells us: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
Psalm 46:1 also tells us that “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” while Proverbs 18:10 says: “The name of the LORD is a strong tower; the righteous man runs unto it and is safe.” The Bible is replete with instances where God came to the rescue of man in times of trouble.
We might not be able to answer all the theologico-philosophical questions regarding Covid-19 but one thing is certain, the Bible has been proved throughout the ages by anthropologists, archaeologists and even historians to contain the true account of historical world events and its prophecies have proved more accurate than any other book or form of literature that ever existed.
Against this background, I am not afraid to say security is found only in the God of the Bible through His son Jesus Christ, who says in John 14:6: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” John 11:25 says: “Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.’”
Belief in Christ does not imply that one will not experience physical death during this pandemic, but it does imply that Christ has the power to deliver us from untimely death. And even if we die, we shall live again with Him.