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. In the second of this four-part series, Professor Lennox looks at what answers, if any, the Christian faith can provide at this time. 

The first thing to say is that I don’t have all the answers. I’ll be honest with you, this is the hardest question that any of us face. To offer simplistic answers is worse than hopeless. We react very differently to coronavirus, temperamentally and psychologically and, this is one of the reasons I believe Christianity to be true, it deals with this differential diagnosis. Some people, like me particularly, need intellectual answers; but I’m not suffering at the moment, I’m an observer of suffering. There are people suffering it and an intellectual response isn’t necessarily the way to help them when their emotions are torn to pieces.

Let’s take those two things: the intellectual and the emotional. In John’s Gospel, there is a story about a family tragedy, in one sense a small tragedy. It is a story about a man called Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha. You might say, ‘What’s that got to do with a global pandemic?’ The answer is everything. The suffering in a pandemic consists of millions of small tragedies and each tragedy is that family’s catastrophe: having to say goodbye to a loved one without being able to touch them.

 

Let’s take those two things: the intellectual and the emotional. In John’s Gospel, there is a story about a family tragedy, in one sense a small tragedy. It is a story about a man called Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha. You might say, ‘What’s that got to do with a global pandemic?’ The answer is everything. The suffering in a pandemic consists of millions of small tragedies and each tragedy is that family’s catastrophe: having to say goodbye to a loved one without being able to touch them.

Let’s use the small story of Lazarus to illustrate what is happening on a large scale. Jesus and his disciples were nowhere near where Lazarus and his sisters lived when Lazarus fell ill. The sisters, realising that Jesus had been a frequent visitor to their home and that he was very fond of them, sent a message saying that Lazarus was ill. They expected him to come and he didn’t come. In fact, Lazarus died in the meantime. It was only when he had died that Jesus said to his disciples, ‘let’s go to Judea.’ They thought that was crazy and suicidal but, nevertheless, he went.

He arrives in the graveyard at Bethany and Martha meets him. She very bluntly says, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.’ Just think of that. What was his problem? His distance. He seemed utterly remote, he wasn’t there, ‘if you’d been here…’ You can hear the cry of many hearts today are on that level, ‘God, where are you? Are you in self-isolation, if you exist? Why don’t you come near?’

I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die 

John 11:25-26

So, there is the issue of nearness. Because the Lord had remained distant and allowed the Lazarus to die, that raised a very big question as to: (i) did he really love them; and (ii) if he did, did he have the power to do anything about it? Those are the two big questions being asked today.

What does Jesus go on to say to her? Your brother shall rise again, is the first thing he says. And that is a wonderful encouragement, certainly to Christians like myself. He didn’t just say Lazarus will raise again, he was talking about relationships forged in this life, your ‘brother’ will raise, there will be something left of that relationship, the precious part of it, that will endure on into eternity. Now, that’s a huge statement. Atheism denies that utterly by definition, how is that possible?

Now, Martha comes in with her high-powered intellect. She had obviously read quite a bit of theology and been well taught. I know, she said, he will rise in the resurrection on the last day. That was good Jewish Biblical teaching and she paraded it, rather proudly, I suspect. This is within four days of Lazarus dying, she’s not emotional at all. She’s intellectual, philosophical and theological. And now Jesus comes in with something utterly new, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die (John 11:25-26).”

This is utterly astonishing and begins to show us why this story is in the Gospel, it is telling us about the identity of Jesus, filling in what it means that he’s the son of God. “I am the resurrection.” Well, what would that mean? What could that possibly mean? Well, it’s about to be shown to us what it could possibly mean.

Now Martha goes and gets her sister Mary, telling her that “the Teacher is here” and Mary stumbled out into the graveyard, she’s weeping copiously and she says the very same thing as her sister, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died (John 11:32).” But it’s now very different. Jesus is deeply moved by this. When he sees standing there what death has done to this little family, he sees Mary weeping and what does he do? Does he enter into a long philosophical….? No! He weeps. And this shows me the profound sensitivity of God, dealing with needs as they arise. Martha’s need was to understand the nature of the resurrection, to learn something dramatically new. Mary’s need was to see Jesus’ tears. And in these days of COVID-19 tragedy, a hug – if we were allowed to do it – or a friendly touch or weeping, would speak volumes for some people, much more than any attempt to talk about resurrection. That tells me that this kind of differentiated answer has got such a ring of truth about it.

There is an eternal life that we can receive through trust in Christ

Later on, of course, John in his Book of Revelation is going to tell us even more, that there is a new world coming in which there is going to be no crying, no pain, no death and then it ends with this wonderful promise and God will wipe away all tears from their eyes (Revelation 21:4). If either of us are crying, we normally wipe away our own tears because if anybody else tries it they’re likely to poke our eye and hurt us. The eye is the most sensitive organ in the human head.

What sort of God is it who, in the end, will wipe away all the tears? Here is the promise and it is a spectacular one. But now to the reality. How do we know Jesus can do that? And, of course, he comes to the grave and he says, ‘roll the stone away’. And Martha, as practical and as intellectual as ever, says, ‘Lord, he’ll be stinking by this time, I wouldn’t do that if I were you.’ And he said to her, ‘didn’t I say that if you believed you’d see the glory of God? Remove the stone!’ And then, in a loud voice, he tells Lazarus to come right out of the grave and the dead man, festooned no doubt with spices and grave cloths, stumbles out the tomb and is seen by everybody to be alive. What a voice Jesus has!

Now, John has said earlier in his Gospel so that we would get this, that our Lord’s voice is unique because it is the voice that, in the end, will operate the resurrection. Therefore, the promise for Christians is, as he said to Martha, ‘If you believe in, though you die, you live and he or she – that lives that believes in me, shall never die.’

As my final point, it’s interesting to compare those two. Most of us will die but there is an eternal life that we can receive through trust in Christ in the here and now, that never dies. This new life that he offers through trusting him is not something we get in the last day after the judgement, it is something we receive not by meriting it (none of us can do that) but by receiving it as a free gift, which is why Jesus died on the cross himself and was raised from the dead by God, to prove that he was who he claimed to be: the son of God, the savour of the world. That’s a long answer but it seems to me that this is a hugely important question.

Read ‘Part 1: Is coronavirus a judgement from God?’