How could God allow such an awful thing to happen?
How does it fit into his divine plan?
There are no easy answers, but we struggle to find them. Students of human behavior call it our “search for meaning.” Faced by a great evil like racism—brought to the fore when Floyd was killed—we can at least resolve to work to right that wrong in the future, and that can provide the comfort of knowing we have done what we could.
But natural events like Hurricane Katrina or the pandemic are particularly hard to explain because there is no human cause other than living in a fallen world.
Is it God’s judgment?
Some Christians have interpreted the pandemic as a sign of the coming end times and God’s judgment, but theologians such as Dr. Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, disagree.
“There is nobody who can say, with any authority, that this is God’s judgment against our country or our world,” Jeffress said. “Any pastor or so-called prophet who says that the coronavirus is God’s judgment on America is either a crank or a crook.”
But when the Air Force Academy established a place of worship in 2010 for Wiccans, Druids, and members of other religions, Jeffress said that our nation would be judged because of it. In other words, we know we bring on God’s judgment when we break his laws, but we won’t know this side of heaven why he does certain things or allows them to happen.
Is it ‘a brute fact of nature’?
Sam Ben-Meir, a professor of philosophy and world religions at Mercy College in New York, mused in a recent article: “What is the temptation to view a catastrophe like the plague as divine punishment as opposed to a brute fact of nature? Surely at least one reason we are tempted to do so is because, if it is heavenly retribution, then the hardship still has some meaning; we still live in a world with an underlying moral structure. Indeed, to many, the idea that such a great calamity is nothing more than a brute act of nature is far more painful to contemplate than an account by which God cares enough about us to punish us.”
If we can’t explain why something terrible happened, we don’t know how to prevent it from happening again, which makes it even more frightening. “With the pandemic, there is a lot we do not understand,” University of Texas psychology professor Dr. Arthur Markman said. “That makes it hard to predict the future and to know what we are supposed to do to make things better.”
Is it Bill Gates?
In the face of events like the pandemic, conspiracy theories flourish.
One of the more bizarre ones involves billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates, whose foundation has pledged more than $250 million to help fight the pandemic. Yet a poll in May found that 28 percent of Americans believed that Gates would use a vaccine to plant microchips in people to track their whereabouts.
“Conspiracy theories are deeply attractive to people who have a hard time making sense of a complicated world and who have no patience for less dramatic explanations,” Tom Nichols wrote in The Death of Expertise. “Such theories also appeal to a strong streak of narcissism: there are people who would choose to believe in complicated nonsense rather than accept that their own circumstances are incomprehensible, the result of issues beyond their intellectual capacity to understand, or even their own fault.
“Conspiracy theories are also a way for people to give context and meaning to events that frighten them. Without a coherent explanation for why terrible things happen to innocent people, they would have to accept such occurrences as nothing more than the random cruelty either of an uncaring universe or an incomprehensible deity.”
Nichols noted that conspiracy theories spike after traumatic events like the assassination of President Kennedy and the terrorist attacks of 9/11. In these cases, it may seem easier to believe an outlandish theory than the terrible reality.
Is it someone else’s fault?
People also like to play the blame game.
“One reason we like to have something to blame is that it makes us feel a bit more in control of the situation,” Markman, the Texas professor, said. “Now I know that this person or object was the root cause of the problem. Another reason . . . is that bad events (particularly big bad ones like the pandemic) create a lot of energy in the form of anxiety. We want to be able to direct that energy at something. By having something to blame, we can take out our frustration on the source of that blame. That is why we see some people in the US taking out their anger on people from China and others taking it out on President Trump. They are looking for someone to blame. And, of course, God has always been a place where people could direct their anger.”
Is it known only to God?
Theologian N. T. Wright doesn’t think that we are meant to understand the “dark power that from the start has tried to destroy God’s good handiwork” in instances like the pandemic.
“We are simply to know that when we are caught up in awful circumstances, apparent gross injustices, terrible plagues—or when we are accused of wicked things of which we are innocent, suffering strange sicknesses with no apparent reason, let alone cure—at those points we are to lament, we are to complain, we are to state the case, and leave it with God,” he wrote in God and the Pandemic.
We are called to be faithful, much like Job was, even when we don’t understand why bad things happen. We are called to be loving even though “we see through a glass, darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12) and can’t clearly see God’s plan.
We are called to care for the sick and encourage the brokenhearted, as Christians have done for thousands of years, giving meaning to apparently senseless tragedy. In a year when we’ve witnessed an impeachment trial, a coronavirus pandemic, massive unemployment, and racial strife, we can find some comfort and purpose in that.