It’s the tale of two crowns: the so-called coronavirus that looks like a crown under the microscope, and Jesus Christ as King of kings and Lord of lords. Can God be good when thousands around the world get sick and die from something they cannot even see? Where is he, and what is he doing?
John Lennox poses these and other good questions in a new book, Where Is God in a Coronavirus World?, published by The Good Book Company. John Lennox is professor of mathematics at Oxford University (emeritus) and an internationally renowned speaker on the interface of science, philosophy, and religion. He is senior fellow with the Trinity Forum and has written a series of books exploring the relationship between science and Christianity, including Can Science Explain Everything? You may also know him from his debates with noted atheists Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Peter Singer, and his book Gunning for God.
In his new book on COVID-19, Lennox points out how the coronavirus exposes our vulnerability, when we expend so much energy pretending that we are immortal. And yet it should be obvious that the relationship between creator and creation is disordered. All is not well. Perhaps this epidemic will make it impossible to avoid the fact that we will all die.
What, then, can Christians say to an anxious world? Can we solve this problem? Lennox doesn’t go that far. He writes that “a Christian is not so much a person who has solved the problem of pain, suffering and the coronavirus, but one who has come to love and trust a God who has himself suffered.” Our discussion touches on God’s providence and how we can determine the purpose and nature of his judgments, as well as the differences between natural and moral evil.
Listen in on Gospelbound as Lennox and I discuss the God who wears the crown and why we can love and trust him.
This episode of Gospelbound is brought to you by Southeastern Seminary. In a disenchanted world looking to themselves for answers, Southeastern’s three-year Doctor of Ministry in Faith and Culture plants graduates at the intersection of theology, culture, and church to bring the world a better story—the gospel. Learn more at sebts.edu.
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Collin Hansen: All right. We’ll start in three, two, one. It’s the tale of two crowns and it’s not only the so-called coronavirus that looks like a crown under the microscope, but also the goodness of Jesus Christ as King of kings and Lord of lords. Can Jesus be good at when thousands around the world get sick and die from something they cannot even see? Where is he and what is he doing? John Lennox poses these and other good questions in a new book, Where Is God in a Coronavirus World? published by The Good Book Company. John Lennox is professor of mathematics at Oxford University, (emeritus) and an internationally renowned speaker on the interface of science, philosophy and religion. He is a senior fellow with the Trinity forum and has written a series of books exploring the relationship between science and Christianity. You may also know him from his debates with the noted atheists, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Peter Singer.
Collin Hansen: In this book, he points out how the coronavirus exposes our vulnerability at a time when we expend so much energy pretending that we are immortal. And yet, the relationship between creator and creation is disordered, all is not well. Perhaps this epidemic will make it impossible to avoid the fact that we will all die. What then can Christians say to an anxious world? Can we solve this problem? Well, Lennox doesn’t go that far. He writes, “A Christian is not so much a person who has solved the problem of pain, suffering and the Coronavirus, but one who has come to love and trust a God who has himself suffered.” Lennox joins me on Gospelbound to discuss that God who wears the crown and why we can love and trust him. Thank you for joining me, John.
John Lennox: It’s a pleasure to be with you.
Collin Hansen: Why does the Coronavirus scare us when we might even now still be more likely to die from the flu or a traffic accident or any number of other things?
John Lennox: I think it’s the scale of it and our awareness of that scale by the massive 24-7 worldwide news coverage. I was interested to read that the director of your national Institute of health, Francis Collins points up the speed of transmission of this virus, especially the way in which it not only transmits from very sick people like SARS did. But people seem to be able to carry it and infect others totally unaware. The other thing is that it isolates people and deprives them of their loved ones in a time of greatest needs. We haven’t been here before and it’s just the huge scale of the thing that I think scares people. Statistics don’t really help when you’re watching it unfold right around the world before your eyes.
Collin Hansen: Why do you think we thought that this couldn’t happen before? Pandemics are a normal aspect, a horrible, but a normal aspect of life for as long ago as we can find in recorded human history. Why did we think we were different?
John Lennox: That’s absolutely right. I suppose that there’s always the danger of we forget these things and we become complacent, particularly in the West with our advanced health care and relative prosperity and once a pandemic is over, we breathe a sigh of relief and we think when a medicine is never good to allow this to happen anymore. And that’s why it then hits us so hard when it does happen.
Collin Hansen: Given the scare, given the fright, given the mistaken expectations that this could not have happened, what are you seeing in terms of spiritual openness? I’m getting kind of mixed messages. I’m seeing images on the one hand of Walmarts where all of the Bibles have been sold out. But at the same time it’s hard to evangelize neighbors who you can’t see and in churches that can’t meet. So what are you discerning in terms of people’s responses to this? Because we like to imagine that sometimes there is a huge spiritual outpouring, but that’s not always been the case. Sometimes the opposite a lot of skepticism rises.
John Lennox: No it hasn’t. I react very much like you do. It’s a mixed picture. The churches are empty. On the other hand, I get the impression that many churches have got internet services going on that are much better attended than the churches were when they were opened, and I’m sure people are asking big questions. Of course, other people react very negatively and just say, this is the world as it is and clearly there’s no God, and why should we care?
Collin Hansen: Do you think that atheists would be willing to own up to that worldview in a situation like this? To say, look, there’s no rhyme or reason to this. This is merely the natural world and this is what happens in the natural world.
John Lennox: Well, you’re almost quoting Richard Dawkins.
Collin Hansen: That’s right.
John Lennox: Whom I’ve debated in your home city there in Birmingham, Alabama. And I think the harder atheists will take that view. There is no God dimension in their lives and I don’t detect any particular openness, although one never knows when people are really up against it. They used to say in wartime that there are no atheists in the foxholes. And certainly this pandemic has had an effect and causing people to ask very big questions. After all, people have much more time on their own in their homes and self isolation, and inevitably they’re going to think about the implications of it all.
Collin Hansen: Yeah. We might imagine that with all the distractions that we now have at home, that we might just merely move from certain distractions to other distractions. But given the fact that it doesn’t appear to be ending anytime soon, we’re quickly going to become bored of Netflix. And then you wonder if at some level this is almost like the most appropriate judgment that God could ever give us to say, so you just want to be at home and sit in front of a computer all the time, entertaining yourself? Well now you can, and you can see just how incredibly unfulfilling that is.
John Lennox: Well, it would be good if it had the effect of really showing people that these temporal entertainments are pretty trivial and they don’t satisfy the deep longings of the human heart. I really do believe that God has set eternity in our hearts. And this is one of those times when something is happening to raise that much higher in people’s consciousness. And that in itself would be a very positive outcome.
Collin Hansen: We often talk about the problem of evil, but you point out in this book that there is a difference between the problem of natural evil and the problem of moral evil. So could you describe the difference between those two different issues and how that applies in this particular situation with the coronavirus?
John Lennox: These are the real hard problems, and I confess that the whole question of suffering and evil is the hardest problem that any of us meet in our lives and have to wrestle with. But I find it helpful to make a distinction, that’s actually a biblical distinction. If you think of that ancient.
John Lennox: If you think of that ancient book on suffering, the book of Job, and look back at what plagued his family and caused the whole discussion of the problem of evil that’s in the book, you’ll see that there were two sources. There were two raids on his family by marauding terrorists, so to speak. And that’s moral evil. These were people who were damaging and killing other people, but then there was fire and there was wind that destroyed their homes. And that’s what we call natural evil. What things like cancers, tsunamis, and of course the coronavirus. That is where we do not perceive any direct involvement of human beings. Now, the thing is very complex because of course, moral evil can lead to natural evil. If people greedily destroy the world’s trees and end up with deserts, it results in that moral greediness turning something into a natural evil of a wilderness that we’re nothing grows.
John Lennox: So it’s a very complex issue. But there are two sources and the Lord Jesus himself, and this is most important to me, commented on both of these in a famous passage in the gospel of Luke. Some people drew to his attention the fact that Pilate had murdered a group of people in the temple area and mingled their blood with their sacrifices. That’s obviously moral evil, but then he reminded them that a tower, the tower of Siloam in Jerusalem fell and killed 18 people. That is what we would call natural evil. So far as we know, there was no other human involved in that.
Collin Hansen: Does our apologetic response or our explanation, how does it differ between the two types of evil?
John Lennox: Well, the second natural evil is much more difficult to deal with. Now this is a very complex issue and I’ve written about it in detail else where in my book Gunning for God.
John Lennox: But where we see morality, human morality, the breakdown in human nature, we can’t to a certain extent understand it or at least I do, in the fact that God has made us in such a way that we are capable of doing both good and evil, saying yes to him or saying no to him, and that degree of freedom enables us to do wonderful things that fills the world with love, but unfortunately you cannot have that potentiality without the possibility of its opposite. But the question that bothers many, many people is okay, I understand that a little bit, but what I don’t understand is the brokenness of the world at the physical level. Why do we have to have earthquakes? Could God not have made the world so that there were no earthquakes or cancers or tsunamis? I think that is actually a harder problem.
Collin Hansen: That’s been true I think certainly in the Enlightenment period and on. We go all the way back to Voltaire’s comments about the Lisbon earthquake. It’s been a very difficult apologetic challenge for Christians for a number of different centuries and continuing now in this particular kind of natural evil, which I think we can point out in this case has also been attended by some moral evils, some lying and cover up and things like that. So even in this situation there’s a combination of both.
John Lennox: I think that’s right. Just look at the selfishness of people raiding the food stores and not leaving enough food for other people. The things get very mixed indeed. And so trying to find a way into it that makes sense to people is a hard problem. But I think we have to try to do that. I suppose one of the big things for me is this: that we all will argue, surely a good and all powerful God would have done or could have done or should have done this, that and the other thing. And I remember many discussions like that throughout life and we never seem to be able to come to a satisfactory conclusion. And as I reflected on that, I thought perhaps we’re asking the wrong question because no worldview worthy of the name can refuse to accept that we have a mixed picture.
John Lennox: I often call it beauty and bombs, but I could call it beauty and coronavirus. The world presents us with a mixed picture. There’s a wonderful side and there is an awful side. Now granting that that is the case, my question that I raised in this book for people to reflect on, but it’s a very hard question and it’s this: granted that the world’s like that, that there is a mixed picture, is there any evidence anywhere that there is a God that we could trust with it? So that brings me down to the heart of Christianity, to the fact that there is a God who has suffered.
Collin Hansen: And let’s talk about some of the other worldviews here because it’s important I think in discussing Christianity and these problems that we face as Christians where we don’t quite have as much of a clear explanation as what we would have hoped for in scripture.
Collin Hansen: And yet we find that the situation doesn’t suddenly become easier when we consider alternatives.
John Lennox: No, it does not.
Collin Hansen: In fact, many of the advantages that Christianity brings, the explanatory power of Christianity is lost in other worldviews. And so what do you see in this situation? Because it strikes me as a unique moment where the same thing is afflicting and inflicting suffering in so many different places at once, and I’m not sure I can think about anything like this before. So you have cultures with their attendant worldviews as diverse as China and India and Great Britain all responding at the same time. Walk us through a little bit of how different contrasting worldviews might respond to the same experience even in real time at the same time.
John Lennox: Well, in fact, each one of those countries is a mixture of worldviews.
Collin Hansen: Good point.
John Lennox: I came up against this some time ago when I arrived in New Zealand just after the earthquake happened and the multitude of worldviews was astonishing to behold. Some people said, “Well, this is obviously the judgment of God that we all deserve”, but they never could quite explain why. Others reacted by saying, “Look, we take our refuge in God” that they cited in particular Psalm 46, God is our refuge and strength and ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth give way in the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, and then there were yet others who took it in more Eastern-type worldviews and philosophies that people who suffer in these events are simply experiencing the result of their karma. And so you shouldn’t really help them because that will mean they’ll have to suffer even more in another life.
John Lennox: That actually seems to me to be a very cruel type of doctrine. And so you get this mixture and you also get the atheistic reaction saying, “Look, this is just what you would expected.” I hear the voice of Richard Dawkins saying this universe is just what you’d expect. If at bottom, there’s no good, there’s no evil, there’s no justice. And then he says it’s not fair, but that’s what you’d expect. DNA just is and we dance to its music. Now of course that’s a fatalistic determinism and it has the devastating effect of removing all sense of morality and therefore as you investigate the responses, what I find is that although it’s hugely problematic for a Christian, precisely because we believe in a God who loves us. Still, atheism appears to remove the problem by saying there’s no God, but what it does not do is remove the suffering, and in fact, I would want to argue that it can make the suffering worse because one thing that atheism, whether it’s denial of life after death and any hope of resurrection, it removes all hope.
John Lennox: It is really a hopeless worldview, a hopeless faith. So you’re absolutely right. The different worldview reactions are all seriously problematic, and that’s why I come back to the Christian faith because one of my reasons for being a Christian through life has been that it takes this huge problem very seriously. It doesn’t trivialize it. It doesn’t give us a simplistic answer. In fact, it doesn’t in that sense, technically give us an answer, but it points a way to a person who is the answer. And just to make that point, if I may, the heart of Christianity, there is a cross and the central Christian claim is that the one who died on the cross is God incarnate, and to put it slightly crudely, if that is God on the cross, then it tells me at the very least-
John Lennox: … cross, then it tells me at the very least that God has not remained distant from human suffering, but has himself become part of it. That’s the first step. The second step is the tremendous fact that Jesus was raised from the dead, and that changes everything, because it means that death is not the end, and that is the heart of the gospel message to people even in the midst of pandemics, that it’s possible to come to know God through Christ, and receive a life that will outlast coronavirus or anything else.
Collin Hansen: One of the things, John, that you point out in this book Where Is God in a Coronavirus World? is that many Christians have often turned to divine judgment as an explanation, sort of discussing a moral evil within the categories of kind of with natural evil there as the cause of it within this sort of broader framework of God’s judgment. This is what you write in the book: “Beware of anyone who interprets pain caused by natural evil as a divine punishment, but equally be aware also of anyone who says that God has nothing to say through this pandemic, particularly to Western societies that have largely turned their back on him as culturally irrelevant.”
Collin Hansen: Talk about the complications that come from pointing to disasters, or pandemics, like the coronavirus as divine judgment. I haven’t seen much discussion of this that way, but it does strike me that for much of Christian history that would have been perhaps the dominant, or at least the initial instinct of Christians to something like this.
John Lennox: And, I think it often is, and what I should have said was, beware of anyone who interprets pain caused by natural evil as necessarily a divine punishment, but my balance to that statement I think puts that side of it, and I agree it was a common response for Christians in previous eras. Let me make one or two comments that are reflections that I found helpful. I think we need to be careful before we ascribe any particular tragic event to God’s judgment for this reason. Firstly, from the scripture perspective, God sometimes tells us in scripture that a particular plague was a judgment, so in that case, we have his direct word for it, and therefore can take it as such.
John Lennox: But, and here’s where I begin to be careful, so far as I know, we do not have God’s direct word on plagues like the black death, or COVID-19, but what we do have is the fact, as I’d mentioned a bit earlier, that Jesus himself has made it clear that not every tragedy results from one group of people being more sinful than others. The incident of the Tower of Siloam recorded that, but it’s most interesting how Jesus responds to that. He says to the crowd, “Do you think that they were sinners above all other sinners?” The answer obviously is no, they weren’t, but then he says, “Except you repent, you shall all likewise perish.”
John Lennox: In other words, he is using those two events, one moral evil, the other natural evil as warnings, and warnings about the vulnerability of human beings, and their mortality, and it reminds me of what C. S. Lewis once wrote. He said, “We can ignore pleasure but pain insists on being attended to.” God whispers to us in our pleasures. He speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rose a deaf world, and if you think of it that way, I find it very helpful that this is God shouting at us. Now what is he saying? I have observed something else. When someone who’s Christian, or not says, “That disaster is directly caused by God.” The reaction that I normally see is that people focus on that person.
John Lennox: What right have you? Who do you think you are to say it’s God’s judgment? That is they don’t focus on God at all, and they’re not interested in anything that God might be saying through what is happening at all. They are simply concentrating on the right of a given person to, and their impression almost stand in the place of God, and say, this is God’s judgment. What that tells me is that this approach is simply not helpful because it doesn’t turn people’s eyes, and hearts, and minds in the right direction. I would rather put it this way, that the coronavirus is a huge loudspeaker that reminds us of our mortality, and I hope at least that leads us to ask deep questions about life, about God, and eternity.
John Lennox: Perhaps it will induce us to look to the God who we may have ignored for years, and he is a God who wore a crown, and I often think of this corona crown. We’re in a crown of thorns in order to bring us back into relationship with him, so that’s the way I would begin to approach. It’s a sensitive question, but I think that just saying, right, this is God’s judgment. How are we sure that for every individual involved that, that’s what it directly is when the Lord himself has pointed out that that is not the case necessarily.
Collin Hansen: Yeah, it’s clearly a doctrine that is easily abused, and clearly also a doctrine that is easily misunderstood in this particular time period, so you make a good point about the apologetic implications of this. I think I would be more comfortable myself talking about sort of God’s providential hand in it, but the challenge there is I still can’t necessarily connect it to any particular purpose that God has revealed to me, or to anyone else, and I can’t necessarily see how that’s going to play out, and I think the temptation comes for me to then be able to connect it to something that I already… Basically one of my priors.
John Lennox: Yes.
Collin Hansen: I was already upset about X thing, and so, this merely confirms what I was already thinking. I think one of the apologetic challenges that you identify there is that we have effected in the West a pretty dramatic replacement where God had been at some level at the center, and derived a measure of authority, and that we were accountable to him, but Western individualism, and enlightenment, and things like that has clearly reversed that so that we are at the center, and so, what you’ve described there is a kind of trap that we face as Christians to get into a situation where the world feels as if they have the right to be able to judge God.
Collin Hansen: And so, when we begin to discuss God’s purposes in these things, it is a pretty strong affront to them, but I think you point out something very helpful in this book, and you turn it around, and you say that atheism is actually in a front to our moral sense, so that problem is skirted by you because you can say, look, the very fact that you’re upset right now about the possibility of divine judgment speaks to your moral intuitions, which according to atheism, do not make any sense.
Collin Hansen: Can you tell us a little bit about how we can kind of redirect that conversation to be able to say yes. The fact that you think that this is wrong, this is not the way things should be, or that hoarding toilet paper is a bad thing is a sign that your atheism doesn’t work.
John Lennox: Yes. Well, you make several points there, and I certainly don’t deny God’s providence, but God’s providence is a very complicated business.
Collin Hansen: Absolutely.
John Lennox: This is a world that God has created, and so, ultimately we look to him as the king and controller of the universe, but how that plays itself out is, as you know, a supremely difficult question, but the atheism business is very important. I go back in a way, I think one of the clearest expressions of this is due to Fyodor Dostoyevsky in his famous novel, The Brothers Karamazov where it says, if there’s no God, everything is permitted.
John Lennox: Now, of course, Dostoyevsky was not remotely suggesting that the atheists cannot be moral. In fact, sometimes they can embarrass Christians by their moral attitudes, good moral attitudes, but the point is that there’s no rational basis for morality if you deny the existence of God, and I see it…
John Lennox: … if you deny the existence of God. I see it simply like this. If there is no objective standard of good and evil outside ourselves, then in the end, our moral judgments are simply arbitrary. Sometimes they’re even reducible to our feelings and our preferences. Why should we take any interest in them at all? Therefore if we, like Dawkins is an extreme example because he’s so clear on this. He says there’s no good and there’s no evil. DNA just is and we dancer to its music. Then it amazes me that the man is prepared, as I believe he is, to talk about the problem of evil. Because the tension that arises, I think, is that he finds himself, like all the rest of us, to have a conscience.
John Lennox: We’re made to the image of God, and we are moral beings and therefore atheism just wipes that out. Unfortunately, as you quite rightly pointed out, one of the legacies of the Enlightenment is to spread atheism a bit like a pandemic, particularly in Europe. So the word God doesn’t appear once in the European constitution as I understand it. Therefore, turning our backs on God in Europe inevitably has consequences. So I would very much hope that people in their quieter moments may begin to rethink have we abandoned God far too prematurely and let’s re-examine what we have lost because we’re actually living in Europe from the legacy of Christianity. All our legal systems, the very fact that we’ve hospitals and hospices are all things that were given to us by Christianity.
Collin Hansen: Just a couple more questions here with John Lennox, author of the new book, Where Is God in a Coronavirus World? This is a bit of a personal question, but do you get scared by the coronavirus? Is it something that worries you for yourself or for loved ones or just how does it make you feel?
John Lennox: Well, as I look to the future… You see, you’re asking someone who’s been given his life back because I nearly died a few years ago, about 10 years ago when they thought I couldn’t be saved because I was about to have a massive heart attack. So I said goodbye to my wife. If you forgive a personal answer to this, and the thing that I experienced at that time was a deep sense of calm, absolute deep sense of calm. That wasn’t proceeding simply from my emotional temperament. I do believe that this is something that God has promised. I had real peace. I knew I would see my wife again. I knew that although that would cause great pain to her, the children, the grandchildren, nevertheless, I had a real hope.
John Lennox: That’s one side of it. The other side of it is that prospective death can be scary if we’re thinking of the process of dying because of the way it might happen because we know that some deaths… and we’ve all probably seen them in loved ones… can be very disturbing and painful and uncomfortable in spite of the great advances in palliative care. The process of dying is not a pleasant thing. Remember, death is still an enemy that has yet to be overcome.
John Lennox: What would concern me and where I have peace of course is that there’s another kind of death that Scripture talks about, and that is separation from God. What makes the big difference for me is the fact that I know where I’m going, that I have received as a sheer gift, not merited, a gift of God. Through trust in Christ, I’ve received that life that is imperishable. So as I look toward the future, of course, I have no idea what my emotional reaction would be if I was dying of lack of breath having contracted this disease, but I know that deep down, I would have peace with God because there’s a promise that when I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me. That biblical idea is wonderful. That the Lord is my shepherd is a magnificent thing to have in a time like this.
Collin Hansen: Amen. One last question here. You’ve been really at the forefront of this conversation and debate about science and philosophy and Christianity for a number of years. It seems that this pandemic brings all of them together. It’s why I’m so glad that you’ve written this book, but when we’re on the other side of this, Lord willing, how do you hope that this crisis will have changed the way Christians and their critics will interact with each other and argue with one another? How might you anticipate and hope this conversation changing when we get through this?
John Lennox: Well, I very much hope as an older person that it will increase our gratitude to the wonderful people who are keeping our health services going, keeping the food supply, the agriculture, the infrastructure, and the basic laws in society and looking after our country. The way in which volunteers have responded is nothing short of spectacular. I hope something of that spirit, the love your neighbor as yourself, will endure into the other side of this.
John Lennox: But secondly, I trust that we’ll all have a greater sense of urgency to take God seriously, realizing that we’ve only got a limited time. We’re not permanent residents on this planet. We haven’t got eternal tenure. We’ve got a limited time as Christians before we go to glory. Therefore, I would hope that we would redouble our efforts not only to live as believers in our communities, but to express our Christianity in taking the serious questions of our friends who are searching and making a real effort to find credible answers that commend the gospel.
John Lennox: One shocking statistic… It’s not really a statistic, but observation… is that people certainly in Europe are leaving the churches in droves. The main reason they give is this: they don’t answer our questions. I do sense that we need to wake up to the fact that Jesus and the apostles were constantly answering people’s questions and provoking them with their own questions, and in so doing were bringing them closer to understanding the wonderful truths of the gospel message.
Collin Hansen: It’s a great place to end it. It’s been a great privilege to host John Lennox, author of the new book, Where Is God in a Coronavirus World?, published by The Good Book Company. I also want to point out another new book from John Lennox, Can Science Explain Every Thing? Another one that he’s written with The Good Book Company and an excellent time to be able to pick that up. Thank you so much for giving me this time, and thank you for working so diligently to be able to produce this urgent and timely book.
John Lennox: Thank you very much for having me on.