The coronavirus is so called because it visibly resembles a crown (“corona” in Latin). A crown is a symbol of power and authority - and certainly this virus has colossal power over us humans. It is invisible to the naked eye, and yet just think about what it has forced many millions - indeed, billions - of us to do and not do.
It also forcibly reminds us of our vulnerability. It is easy to forget that we humans are mortal. The coronavirus is evidence that both our relationship with creation and creation’s relationship with us are disordered; and that this is not an accident.
When God created human beings to live in his “very good” creation, he endowed them with the marvellous gift of free will that made them into moral beings. Because of that, there was an inevitable possibility of moral breakdown through misuse of that freedom. And that is what happened - as the third chapter of the first book of the Bible, Genesis, so vividly depicts.
Genesis 3 says that human disobedience arose from a fundamental disagreement with God over the nature of life and the serious possibility of death. God had explicitly warned the first humans, Adam and Eve, that if they ate fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which he had told them was off-limits - in other words, if they acted in downright disobedience to him and independence of him - then they would surely die (Genesis 2:17).
We need not discuss what the nature of the fruit of the tree was, or to wonder what quality it must have had so that eating it should produce the knowledge of good and evil. To interpret it that way is to miss the point of the story. To eat from the tree is to have a frame of mind that asserts the creature’s will against the Creator’s; that pushes the Creator aside and makes central to everything the pursuit of one’s own egotistical interests and interpretation of life. That is, in principle, what “sin” is.
What happened in Genesis 3 was that the humans rejected God and sin entered the world. The consequences were huge. There was death, first in the spiritual sense of a rift in the relationship between humans and God, and later, physical death.
Moreover, nature itself was fractured. Genesis tells us that, upon their rebellion, though humans had to leave God’s presence, they were not immediately ejected from their role of administrating the earth under God. They were allowed to keep their job of developing earth’s potential. At the same time, however, “creation was subjected [by God] to ineffectiveness, not through its own fault, but because of him who subjected it” (Romans 8:20).
In the original Greek, the word for “ineffectiveness” (mataiot?s) carries the meaning that something is all “in vain”: that is, it has not achieved the goal for which it was designed. When this passage says that creation was subjected to ineffectiveness and frustration “not through its own fault”, it is referring to the curse God put on the ground because of Adam’s sin: “Cursed is the ground because of you [Adam]; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you.” (Genesis 3:17-18)
That is, the fracturing of humanity’s relationship with its Maker had consequences wider than humans themselves. A rower in a boat who refuses to row the correct way will affect not only themselves but also all the others in the boat - and may even damage the boat itself. Similarly, humanity’s refusal to remain in the place assigned to them - made by God to know God and enjoy creation according to its Maker’s laws - meant that God’s very good creation became flawed and fractured.
This means that when we look at the world, we are faced with the kind of mixed picture presented by a ruined cathedral - with all the beauty of the opening of a flower to the sun, and all the ugliness of a coronavirus destroying the human respiratory system. And, just as there is good and evil in creation, and in humanity in general, so there is good and evil in each one of us. We too are part of the problem.
But hope is found in another corona: the crown of thorns that was forced on Jesus’ head at his trial before his execution.
Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, those who repent of (which means “turn away from”) their own evil and their own contribution to human pain and suffering - those who trust Jesus as their Lord - receive forgiveness; peace with the personal God who created and upholds the universe; a new life with new powers; and the promise of a world where suffering will be no more. Here Christianity does not compete with any other philosophy or religion - for the simple reason that no one else offers us forgiveness and peace with God that can be known in this life and endures eternally.
A Christian, then, is not a person who has solved the problem of suffering but one who has come to love and trust the God who has suffered for them
John Lennox is an Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford and Emeritus Fellow in Mathematics and the Philosophy of Science at Green Templeton College. Lennox has been part of numerous public debates defending the Christian faith against well known atheists including Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Peter Singer. He is the author of a number of books, including Can Science Explain Everything? His latest book Where Is God in a Coronavirus World? (The Good Book Company) is out now