Why does God allow suffering? This question has become more prominently brought up due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Multiple churches have provided different answers to this “theodicy” question. Even the notable Biblical scholar Tom Wright wrote a great article featured in TIME magazine. Some have completely denied the severity of the pandemic, not unlike religions that consider evil as a mere illusion of the human mind. A recently arrested mega-church pastor in Florida, who held church services despite social distancing recommendations, is a case in point. Some have also entertained the idea that this pandemic is a punishment from God. Others have resorted to conspiracy theories that this is not from God, but from evil scientists and clandestine government plans. Yet the questions today are not so different than those in the ancient times. We all strive to provide rational explanations for the world around us, pandemics included.

Christian scholars and theologians have proposed six explanations for the cause of suffering without questioning God’s omnipotence and benevolence (more fully fleshed out in this article):

  1. Original sin: suffering is caused by the fall of mankind. Due to the fall, the whole cosmos is corrupted, such that all creation is groaning (Rom 8:22). Paul argues that original sin corrupted not only human nature, but all of nature. But Paul further gives us hope that all creation will be made new.
  2. Devil: blame it all on Lucifer. After all, Jesus was crucified because Satan entered Judas, according to Luke and John! (Lk 22:3, Jn 13:27). A literal reading of Genesis would easily pinpoint that Adam and Eve fell into sin due to the temptation of the Serpent. Walking hand in hand with the original-sin model, Satan was behind it as well.
  3. Free will: blame suffering on the abuse of free will and the fact that suffering is an inevitable consequence of freedom (Prov 11:31). The free will defense argues that suffering is a consequence of bad actions. Bad actions or sin will always be a potential consequence of having true freedom to choose between good and evil.
  4. Divine plan: blame suffering on our lack of understanding of God’s plan (Is 25:1). The divine-plan argument argues that suffering is part of God’s divine plan, which will all work out for the good; it is just that we cannot possibly fathom what God had in mind before the creation of the foundations of the world (Job 38).
  5. Test: blame suffering on life being a big test for us (1 Pet 4:12-13). The “test” view can be seen as a subset of the divine plan. Logically, suffering can be understood as a test from God as part of His divine plan to make us better.
  6. Moral quality: suffering is necessary to cultivate virtue and morality (Zec 13:9). The moral quality view also follows from the divine plan, because becoming a “better” or more “virtuous” person entails tribulation. In an Aristotelian sense, virtue is a habit that arises out of repeated good actions over time, including overcoming challenges. 

Given my experience as a Sinai and Synapses (S&S) Fellow and my past training as a scientist, I cannot help but wonder, what does science have to say with regards to these models?

I would argue that sometimes science can help elucidate some aspects of theodicy, depending on the case. First, with regards to the original sin (model #1), original sin has been connected to the fall and the corruption of the image of God. In the past, some theologians have interpreted the image of God to be human reason, or morality (Augustine, Aquinas). Scientists in rapidly advancing areas such as behavioral science and genetics are now beginning to explore human reason and morality. For example, if scientists were to discover a “rationality gene” or “morality gene”, then one can argue that the very biological locus of the image of God has been discovered. However, most scientists – including another S&S fellow, Stefanie Leacock, and myself – agree that we are not our genes, and many human traits such as intelligence and morality are not genetically determined. Any scientific search for the image of God in the human body would be related to original sin, because original sin causes us to be the broken image of God. In fact, Jack Lewis wrote a book, entitled “The Science of Sin,” in which he argues scientifically that evolutionarily, our brain has been wired to promote survival. Having survival as the primary goal of the species, we are inevitably programmed to put ourselves above others, rendering it impossible for us to not sin under certain circumstances, especially under pressure.

The work of two other S&S Fellows in my cohort also offers lessons relevant to life during COVID-19-induced social distance. Sarah Goss has emphasized that we need to bear in mind the importance of neuroscience in developing resilience in the presence of stress. And as Kendra Holt Moore has found in her studies on terror management theory, this awareness helps keep us from falling into our own inclinations toward self-preservation. 

Second, with regards to the moral quality view (model #6), some have questioned the necessity of overcoming challenges in developing virtue. For example, Mark Walker has argued that we ought to reduce evil in this world by genetically enhancing the biological aspects of virtue in an initiative he calls the Genetic Virtue Program (GVP). In other words, if we know that certain hormones such as oxytocin may increase pair-bonding, should we not genetically enhance the release of oxytocin in the brains of a married couple? That’s a thought. However, others like Ted Peters and I have resisted such a reductionistic view of morality. We are more than just our brains. Our decisions are not dictated by hormones, let alone morality. In fact, it would be an oxymoron for someone to demonstrate moral fiber without having overcome any moral dilemmas. 

Third, with regards to the free will defense of theodicy (model #3) in COVID-19, scientific investigation is applicable. Is this COVID-19 pandemic really caused by humans and our excessive use of free will? I am not thinking of conspiracy theories here, because scientists have shown the genetic origins of the SARS-CoV2 virus behind COVID-19. I’m thinking more about human exploitation of wildlife, overpopulation, and food resources, which contribute to this pandemic. Neglecting these issues has also led to the other enormous problem of our age, climate change. As I argued in my presentation at the BioLogos conference last year, many natural disasters today cannot always be considered natural. Thus, we cannot simply blame God for floods and fires, because our actions have contributed to global warming, and in turn, natural disasters. Celia Deanne Drummond considers them in between moral evil and natural evil, calling them anthropogenic evil. She would probably consider COVID-19 pandemic to be anthropogenic evil as well.

We cannot help but wonder why COVID-19 happened. As part of the Christian tradition, many would buy into one of the classic models of theodicy that have been used as explanations. With regards to COVID-19, three of these theodicy models would benefit from scientific observations. But in most cases, there is no answer to that question, and this is why as pastors, it is easier for us to just talk about our favorite theodicy model in a Sunday sermon. Though practical, it could be misleading; the congregation could assume that there is only one answer to suffering in the Scriptures. 

In the end, if we were to ask WWJD – What Would Jesus Do? — we would remember that Jesus Himself never had a theodicy discussion with His disciples before healing someone. He simply helped those in suffering. So must we.