Following the release of Professor John Lennox’s latest book, ‘Where is God in a Coronavirus World?’, he sat down for a virtual conversation with RZIM President Michael Ramsden. One of the biggest questions they tackled was the prevalence of people suggesting the current pandemic is a judgement from God or that it is the result of ‘cosmic karma’. This is what Professor Lennox had to say.
The problem with talking about the karma principle is that it can end up being very cruel. It was another thing I heard talked about in New Zealand [Professor Lennox was in Christchurch shortly after the devastating 2011 earthquake that killed 185 people]. A further corollary of ‘cosmic karma’ often raised is the idea that if we help the ‘victims’ then we reduce their suffering and, as a consequence, they will suffer even worse in their next existence.
Cosmic karma is an extremely cruel doctrine and it is rejected strongly in the New Testament by Jesus himself. Not all suffering, according to Christ, is a result of past sins. When Jesus meets a blind man in John’s Gospel, he is asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” says Jesus (John 9:1-3).
Cosmic karma is totally unsatisfactory but, of course, there is a Christianised version expressed in questions about God’s judgement and his role in this. It is something we have to navigate because, if we look in the Bible, which is my guideline, we do find some plagues there and we are told that they are God’s judgement. Now, if God tells us in Scripture that a particular plague or pandemic was his judgement then we have his word for it. But, so far as a I know, we do not have God’s direct word on COVID-19 or even the Black Death.
Now, what do we do in that case? What we do is see exactly what position Jesus himself took on this issue of judgement. There is a short passage in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 13:1-5), Jesus is on the temple mount and the crowd remind him of the massacre where Pilate killed Galileans and mixed their blood with that of their own sacrifices, an incident that raises the problem of what we call ‘moral’ evil.
Jesus turns this round and recounts the tragedy at the pool of Siloam, where the tower had just collapsed and killed 18 people. The Lord made the point, and here’s the important thing for us to take on board because this is a deep principle. He said, ‘do you think the people who were massacred or the people on who the tower fell were sinners above all other sinners?’ Jesus answered his own question, “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish (Luke 13:5).”
There are two things there. Firstly, he’s saying clearly that not all tragedy results from one group of people being more badly behaved than others. I take that extremely seriously; we must be very careful before we ascribe pandemics or anything else to the judgement of God.
We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world
What I’ve observed is that there may well be a message in it because think of what Jesus goes on to say, “unless you repent, you will all likewise perish”. C. S. Lewis wrote this once, “We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
Now, let me say two more things. First, suppose someone says, whether they are Christians are not, that COVID-19 is caused directly by God, how do people react? I know how they react because I’ve heard them. They say, ‘Who do you think you are taking an arrogant moral high position and saying this is the judgement of God? What right have you to do that?’
Notice that their focus is not on God at all, it is on the person making the accusation. They don’t consider what God might be saying through this. In other words, they bypass the very message that one would want to get across. That way is not the Biblical way.
The Biblical way is to say, ‘Look, what can we learn from this? Is COVID-19 a megaphone shouting at us?’ I think it is. It reminds us of our vulnerability, of our mortality, of the God question and of the fact that one out of one of us is going to die and, if there is a God, we will have to meet him. Those are the big issues. We don’t need to make judgements because we don’t know. What we can do is ask, ‘what is God saying to us here?’
John Lennox is Professor of Mathematics (emeritus) at the University of Oxford and Emeritus Fellow in mathematics and the philosophy of science. He is also an adjunct lecturer at OCCA, The Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics and author of several books. You can order ‘Where is God in a Coronavirus World? from the Good Book Company.