God, Evil, and COVID-19

by Paul Gavrilyuk | ελληνικά

Epitaphios, Stavronikita Monastery, Mt. Athos

Our current pandemic has brought us face-to-face with the reality of human mortality, our susceptibility to disease and death. We no longer confront death in the abstract: its long hand has reached out to our communities and, in some cases, even touched our families. In our big extended family called the Church, we have become more aware of our common brokenness, and we are called to become more compassionate, more responsive to each other’s needs.

Throughout the Church’s history, communities that have been visited by similar or greater disasters, including “famine, plague, earthquake, flood, fire, and sword,” have always asked for divine protection in prayer. In addition to imploring God for protection, their members in the past and today have wondered, where is God amidst horrendous human suffering? And why would God allow suffering on such an astonishing scale?      

Before the advent of modernity, the answer that tended to drown out all other answers was that such suffering was a form of divine punishment for human sin. The objection that the angel of death appeared to be blind, striking both the guilty and the innocent, the impious and the pious, was met by claiming that no one escaped the implications of the original sin, which made all equally susceptible to death. We might never know precisely for what reason God’s wrath visited some, but not others, but we could rest assured that God’s punishment was just. When some believers had private doubts about such an answer, they could follow the example of the biblical Job and accept undeserved suffering as a test of their loyalty to God. Still others could find much consolation in lament and in the Church’s prayers.

There are Christians today who might be inclined to accept these ancient answers. To be more precise, there could be individual circumstances to which such answers are quite applicable. However, as a general rule, those contemporary Christian leaders who invoke the claim that large-scale human suffering is a consequence of divine punishment are typically rebuked by more informed theological authorities. In fact, some of the best Christian theologians today favor a very different answer to the problem of large-scale human suffering. This answer is that God suffers with us. In the words of Alfred Whitehead, which are often quoted in contemporary theological discussions of the problem of evil: “God is a fellow-sufferer who understands.” This is a powerful answer for several reasons: it emphasizes God’s sacrificial love, not His punishing wrath; it brings out God’s compassion; and most importantly, it means that in our suffering we can be united with Christ’s passion on the cross. Thus, in situations of extreme human suffering, “only the suffering God can help.”   

While this is an emotionally appealing answer, on closer examination, this answer is also deeply misleading. The answer is partially true: compassion includes a measure of empathy for the condition of the sufferer. For example, a doctor or a nurse, who is fighting on the front lines, needs to appreciate—as most healthy human beings certainly do—that those for whose sake they are risking their lives are in dire need of medical assistance. However, it would be a mistake to reduce compassion to fellow-feeling alone. It would be neither expected, nor desirable for a compassionate doctor to contract COVID-19; when this tragically happens, such a suffering doctor loses her ability to help, precisely because she has become a fellow-sufferer, perhaps even fighting for her own life. Such a doctor may be able to return to her duties and then help, but only after her recovery. Likewise, God, if he suffers at all, does not presently suffer from an acute form of COVID-19, for such a form of divine suffering would only add to human misery rather than alleviate human suffering. Compassion is first of all an action directed at improving the situation of the sufferer. To reduce compassion to fellow-feeling is to misunderstand the nature of compassion, whether human or divine.

But what about the Passion of Christ? Has not God, on Golgotha, made “the captain of [our] salvation perfect through suffering” (Heb. 2:10)? During the Holy Week, don’t Orthodox Christians glorify Christ as their “crucified God” and “exalt his divine Passion above all forever”? To these questions that strike at the very heart of our faith, a profound answer was given by the fifth-century Church Father St Cyril of Alexandria, in his dispute with Nestorius of Constantinople. Nestorius taught that only Christ’s humanity suffered on the cross, whereas his divinity remained unaffected by suffering. Cyril objected that such a sharp distinction between divinity and humanity did not do justice to the uniqueness of the union that was accomplished in the incarnation. Instead, Cyril insisted that God the Word suffered in the flesh and that Christ suffered impassibly. Cyril understood impassible suffering to mean that Christ has voluntarily accepted the suffering of humanity into the communion with his divine person. Furthermore, that the divine Word himself participated in the suffering of the human nature, which he made his own. In the process, the Word transformed all human experiences of suffering and conquered death. Thus, while God entered the tragedy of human brokenness in Christ, the divine Word did so in order to communicate life, rather than to multiply misery and eternalize death. In the words of the Paschal Troparion, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.” Christ bestows his life at the price of his death on the Cross; but this death, or any disease leading to death, such as the coronavirus, does not have the final word. There is no bad infinity of suffering in God. On the contrary, divine life consists in the eternal and permanent victory over suffering and death. Each Lent and each Paschal Vigil, we are invited to have a foretaste of this reality, and while still here on earth, to renew our Christian hope in Christ’s power over the dominion of death.

Paul Gavrilyuk is Founding President of the International Orthodox Theological Association and the author of The Suffering of the Impassible God (Oxford, 2004).