The German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-72) is perhaps best known for teaching that God is nothing more than man’s projection upon the backdrop of the universe. He taught that people choose to believe there is a God who will look after them and take them to heaven when they die. In other words: human beings are always tempted to invent a view of God that gives them a good feeling.
Recently Christian leaders have been asked: “Where is God in the coronavirus crisis?” One popular theologian has been quoted as saying that Christianity does not give us an answer to this question, and instead instructs us to lament. When another prominent leader was asked this same question, he replied: “God is right in the middle of it”, suggesting the Almighty is found in the good works of nurses, doctors and other key workers. Other leaders have argued that God is too loving to cause anything like this, therefore it must be the work of Satan. (My concern with this view is that it imputes more power and authority to the devil than to God. I am troubled by those who have a greater fear of the devil than God.)
What is God like?
I suspect that many of us naturally resent the notion that God could in some sense be the architect of Covid-19. And if God is nothing more than humanity’s projection on the backdrop of the universe, who among us would choose to believe in a God who directly causes Covid-19? No reasonable person would invent a God like this, would they?
But the Bible confronts our deepest assumptions about what we think God should be like. The Old Testament prophets asked: “Does disaster come to a city, unless the Lord has done it?” (Amos 3:6, ESV), and: “Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come?” (Lamentations 3:38, ESV). The God of the Bible says: “I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the Lord who does all these things” (Isaiah 45:7, ESV).
These Old Testament prophets tend to refute Feuerbach’s premise. They epitomise what many people hate most about God: a God who is sovereign over suffering and a God who has the ability to bring judgement. This is not a message confined to the Old Testament, though. The very first message of the New Testament contains a warning to “flee from the wrath to come” (Matthew 3:7, ESV). According to Paul, we are justified by Jesus’ blood in order to escape the “wrath of God” (Romans 5:9, ESV).
God could have stopped Covid-19 if he chose to. If he could not have stopped it, then he is not in control, and Hebrews 1:3 teaches us that Jesus Christ “upholds the universe” by his word. St Augustine (AD 354-430) said a God who does not know the future is not God. And I would add: a God who is unable to stop evil is not God.
Does this mean that because God had the ability to stop coronavirus, and yet chose not to, he therefore caused it? My answer to this question is: there are some things we may want to figure out that God does not want us to figure out.
When Moses saw the burning bush that did not burn up, he headed straight for it to figure out what was going on. But God said: “Stop. Don’t come any closer. Take off your shoes. You are on holy ground” (see Exodus 3:5). The difference between what God predestines and what he permits is holy ground. There are some things that God does not want us to understand.
The believers in Corinth wanted to know why some Christians were suddenly ill, some weak and some actually dying. These Corinthians had a belief in the sovereignty of God, which was clearly present in the way they formed their question. They knew that something this huge had to come from God in some way. Paul agreed and then explained exactly what was going on. There were those in the church who had abused the Lord’s Supper. They drank judgement on themselves. Paul explains: “That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died” (1 Corinthians 11:29-30, ESV).
King David faced a very similar situation. There was a famine in the land during his kingship and it lasted for three years. The Bible tells us that David “sought the face of the Lord”. Why did David do this? Because he knew that anything as huge as a famine could not have taken God by surprise. He knew God had a reason for it. Indeed, the answer was: “There is bloodguilt on Saul and on his house, because he put the Gibeonites to death” (2 Samuel 21:1, ESV).
If God judges us by way of a plague, it is not for us to try to figure out whether he caused it, or simply allowed it. The difference between what God predestines and what he permits is holy ground. Our responsibility is to take off our shoes and worship.
A nation under judgement
It is my view that America is under judgement. I do not say this is the case in Britain, as I am not qualified to know that, but I do believe America has received a double whammy in 2020: coronavirus and violence. After the shameful death of George Floyd in May, there came an eruption of unprecedented violence in the United
States that included murders, smashing store windows, setting public and private property on fire, tearing down historic statues and attacking police. Never in my lifetime have I seen anything like it.
I believe America is under judgement for four things: racism, legalised abortions for any reason, approval of same-sex marriage and theological liberalism in pulpits. God is fed up. He has stepped in.
There are five kinds of judgement. First, retributive judgement. This is the principle of “eye for an eye, tooth for tooth” (Leviticus 24:20, ESV); it is getting even. Second, gracious judgement. This is partly retributive and partly merciful. David’s sin of adultery and murder “displeased the Lord” (2 Samuel 11:27, ESV). God’s judgement was that “the sword shall never depart from your house” (2 Samuel 12:10, ESV). And yet God was gracious: “The Lord…has put away your sin; you shall not die…Nevertheless…the child who is born to you shall die” (2 Samuel 12:13- 14, ESV). Third, redemptive judgement, as when Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness and those who looked at it were shown mercy (Numbers 21:8-9). Fourth, natural judgement. This is the principle of one reaping what they sow. Fifth, silent judgement. This is the worst kind of all – when God does nothing. God is not like you and me; we tend to show it when we are angry. The angrier God is the calmer he becomes. Sodom was not warned in advance; God just suddenly rained fire on it. It is not a good sign when God is silent.
It is my view that God is trying to get our attention. I think that believers all over the world need to be open to the possibility of God’s gracious judgement taking place today. The principle of gracious judgement is this: “whom the Lord loves he disciplines” (Hebrews 12:6, NASB). If we really believe in the God of the Bible, then we must concede he is a God who can bring judgement, and we must not dismiss this option out of hand.
I would urge you not to take the popular view of: “I believe in a God of love, not a God who sends judgement.” If that is your view, are you not arbitrarily making a choice according to what you’d rather believe? Are you not forming a god in your own image? Are you not playing right into Feuerbach’s view?
As Professor John Lennox points out in his book Where is God in a Coronavirus World? (Good Book Company), it could be dangerous to claim Covid-19 is God’s judgement. I agree with him. Who is truly qualified to say this? Caution is required. But the examples of David in a three-year famine and the plagues on the Corinthian church – both of which were directly God’s judgement – invite us to at least ask the question.
It seems to me that it is a most reasonable perspective to say that we may well be under God’s judgement. If this acknowledgement results in Covid-19 getting our attention and turning us back to God, the value of such a perspective would surely be incalculable.