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On Religion: Where is God in the Coronavirus Crisis?

Queen Elizabeth II has seen more than her share of good and evil during her 68 years on the British throne.

Candles shining in the darkness just before Easter are familiar symbols of the presence of good, even in the hardest of times, said the 92-year-old queen, in a recent address about a single subject affecting her people — the coronavirus crisis.

“Easter isn’t cancelled. Indeed, we need Easter as much as ever,” she said. “The discovery of the risen Christ on the first Easter Day gave his followers new hope and fresh purpose, and we can all take heart from this. We know that coronavirus will not overcome us. As dark as death can be — particularly for those suffering with grief — light and life are greater.”

An ancient question loomed over the queen’s remarks: Where is God during this global pandemic that threatens the lives and futures of millions of people?

Theologians have a name — “theodicy” — for this puzzle. One website defines this term as “a branch of theology … that attempts to reconcile the existence of evil in the world with the assumption of a benevolent God.”

In his book “God in the Dock,” the Christian apologist C.S. Lewis of Oxford University argued that “modern man” now assumes, when evil occurs, that God is on trial. This process “may even end in God’s acquittal,” he noted. “But the important thing is that Man is on the Bench and God is in the Dock.”

This tension can be seen during news coverage of tragedies, wars, disasters and pandemics. Ordinary people involved in these stories often address “theodicy” questions, whether journalists realize it or not. This is a pattern I have observed many times — since this past week marked my 32nd anniversary writing this national “On Religion” column.

The late Peter Jennings of ABC World News Tonight noted that, whenever news teams cover disasters, reporters often ask questions that sound like this: “How did you get through this terrible experience?” Survivors frequently reply: “I don’t know. I just prayed. Without God’s help, I don’t think I could have made it.”

What happens next, Jennings once told me, illustrates the gap that separates many journalists and most Americans. There will be an awkward silence, he said, and then the reporter will say something like: “That’s nice. But what REALLY got you through this?”

Here we go again. The COVID-19 crisis will, for many ordinary people, raise unavoidable questions about darkness and light, evil and good. Journalists will have to face this, since we are dealing with one of the biggest stories of our era.

How big? We don’t know yet. However, I believe that — depending on the final death toll — this could be the biggest global “theodicy” story since World War II. The health and financial toll will cause many people to reject God, while others will dig deeper into their faith traditions.

It’s crucial that journalists see the personal faith issues in this crisis, rather than thinking in “impersonal” terms about major historic events, like the Black Plagues or the Holocaust, said Russell Moore, leader of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission in Nashville and Washington, D.C.

With Sept. 11, it was easy to see parallels to Pearl Harbor and other acts of terrorism — events that affected parents and grandparents, he said. “So journalists may have been rattled” by terrorism, “but they knew where they thought that story was going to go. They had seen this before.”

Now, the world faces a disaster that resembles plagues of the past, combined — potentially — with a major economic depression, said Moore. It’s a story that “no one really expected and nobody really knows how this will end.”

For religious believers, this crisis is causing a kind of grief and lamenting that “is truly unique and very personal” since, in their attempts to fight the virus, they can’t even come together in worship to share their questions, pain and suffering.

“The church has been through things like this in the past and we see that in scripture and in our hymns and in church history,” said Moore. “What many people are struggling with is trying to understand that something like this could happen in our world today — in 2020.”


Terry Mattingly.

Terry Mattingly (tmatt.net) leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tenn. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.

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