Since the world was seemingly turned upside down a week ago by the coronavirus, Christianity Today has published a number of helpful articles—some theological, some practical, and some medical. We need outlets like CT to provide thoughtful reflection during these tumultuous times.
But yesterday’s editorial by Daniel Harrell, CT’s new editor-in-chief, was baffling.
The basic gist made sense: take heart, love God, and love one another. But to get to that conclusion, Harrell made some curious claims. Let me briefly mention three.
First, Harrell insists that COVID-19 “is not a ‘foreign virus’ but endemic to our common nature as humans and thus a means of drawing us together for the good of all.” Setting aside the fact that the virus undeniably originated in China—which is, of course, no reason to mistreat our Chinese neighbors—the rest of the sentence invites questioning. By “common nature” does Harrell mean our common human nature as given by God? If so, how is a killer disease endemic to that nature? If he means our common fallen nature, how do the two halves of the sentence advance more than a tautology? Of course, coming together in a crisis is good (though in this instance not literally coming together). But you could just as logically say “lying is endemic to our common nature” or “idolatry is endemic to our common nature” and thus lying or idolatry or anything that humans have in common is a means for drawing us together.
Second, Harrell argues that the reason for suffering in the world is explained by God’s inviolable commitment to human free will. Harrell extends this familiar argument further to the natural world, suggesting that the sea and the land have a kind of free will too. If human free will means freedom from external coercion and compulsion (and that is a meaningful kind of freedom) then humans are certainly free. But even if one does not accept a Reformed view of divine sovereignty, it must still be acknowledged that when the Bible stares into the depths of human suffering it does not come out the other side extolling human free will. When calamity fell upon Job he could have rightly pointed to the activity of the Sabeans, the Chaldeans, fire that fell from the sky, a great windstorm, or even Satan himself. But Job’s cry was undeniably theocentric: “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21). The one explanation Job never countenanced during his whole, terrible ordeal was that natural and anthropological freedom were the answers to his heartbreaking questions. Job never imagined that God was not superintending the tragic events of his life.
Third, and most perplexing, Harrell seems to answer the title of his editorial, “Is the Coronavirus Evil?” with a firm “no.” Harrell explicitly rejects Barth’s contention that the bacillus attacking his (Barth’s) body late in life was a monstrosity that did not belong to God’s good creation. In contrast to Barth, Harrell argues that bacteria and viruses are among the first fruits of God’s good creation and that organic death existed before the fall. Furthermore, Harrell maintains that it is “Better to view creation not as something perfect gone awry, but as something begun as very good only not yet finished.” What should we make of these claims?
For starters, Harrell is right that bacteria and viruses as such were likely a part of God’s good design for an intricately ordered creation. We know from microbiology that bacteria play an integral role in sustaining life on the planet and that viruses contribute to the functionality of these bacterial agents. There is no problem in affirming that bacteria and viruses per se are not evil.
Likewise, let’s set aside the question of whether organic death (of some kind) existed before the fall. I believe that death is a result of the fall, which is one reason I believe in a young earth. But many orthodox theologians have held that the death of plants and animals occurred before the fall of Adam and Eve. So again, if Harrell’s argument were simply that God made bacteria and viruses, and that plants decayed and lions chased gazelles before the fall, those would be unremarkable statements.
But he is arguing more than that. Harrell maintains that when God looked over his creation on the sixth day and declared it very good, he meant that creation was not yet finished. To be sure, mankind was given a task to subdue the earth, to build “culture” as it were. In that sense, there was work to be done. But the work was man’s to be done in the created realm. There’s no sense in which “very good” can mean the divine work of creation was incomplete.
Most concerning, Harrell implies that the coronavirus is not evil, that a respiratory illness that may kill millions of human beings is not the result of creation gone awry. If Harrell wants to put in a good word for bacteria and viruses, so be it. But his post is about the coronavirus. A rogue virus already inflicting illness and death upon thousands is impossible to square with the depiction of creation as “very good” (Gen. 1:31).
Here, for example, is how Matthew Henry’s commentary describes the goodness of God’s creation at the close of the sixth day:
It was good. Good, for it is all agreeable to the mind of the Creator, just as he would have it to be. Good, for it answers the end of its creation, and is fit for the purpose for which it was designed. Good, for it is serviceable to man, whom God had appointed lord of the visible creation. Good, for it is all for God’s glory. (The Matthew Henry Commentary, 5)
Or consider Calvin’s description:
After the workmanship of the world was complete in all its parts, and had received, if I may so speak, the last finishing touch, he pronounced it perfectly good; that we may know that there is in the symmetry of God’s works the highest perfection, to which nothing can be added. (Commentary on Genesis, 100)
Later in the same work, Calvin explains the effects of the fall on the created world. His description is not a unique Reformed reading of the text, but a mainstream understanding of what it means for human beings to make their way in a world that is not the way it’s supposed to be.
Before the fall, the state of the world was a most fair and delightful mirror of the divine favour and paternal indulgence toward man. Now, in all the elements we perceive that we are cursed. . . . The earth will not be the same as it was before, producing perfect fruits; for he declares that the earth would degenerate from its fertility, and bring forth briers and noxious plants. Therefore, we may know, that whatsoever unwholesome things may be produced, are not natural fruits of the earth, but are corruptions which originate from sin. (173-74)
Could viruses have existed in Genesis 1? Sure. Do fatal viruses exist prior to the events of Genesis 3? Of course not. Water was God’s good creation; the flood was the result of sin. It makes much better sense to attribute a rogue virus not to the supposed incompleteness of God’s very good creation, but to the “thorns and thistles” that now grow up in a fallen world (Gen. 3:18), part of the futility to which the creation has been subjected in its bondage to corruption (Rom. 8:20-21).
The coronavirus is a natural evil, under God’s providential control to be sure, but whose existence is the result of original sin. The root of all human pain and suffering in the world is the rebellion of our first parents—a rebellion that Christ conquered on the cross and will one day wipe away, along with all its sad and sinister effects.