I can’t let flabby Christian responses go unanswered. In a recent article, I summarized a long Christian defense of God’s response to the deadly covid pandemic (or lack of response). It gets points for honesty—it made clear which sections were speculation and where the Bible was contradictory—but the simple, naturalistic “There is no God” explains more and leaves fewer questions unanswered.
That Christian defense was “Why would God allow pandemics?” from the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics. Let’s critique its arguments defending God from blame for the pandemic.
Why the pandemic?
Maybe covid is God punishing us. (The Christian argument are in italics.)
Maybe, and we find precedents for that in the Bible. God sent snakes against the Israelites for whining during the Exodus, he inflicted the Ten Plagues on the Egyptians, and the Babylonian exile was punishment for worshipping other gods.
On the other hand, God made clear that Job’s suffering wasn’t punishment. And Jesus provided counterexamples: those who died when the tower in Siloam fell weren’t singled out for being bad, and the man who was blind from birth was not bearing the consequences of his or his parents’ sin.
Christians can cite their infallible holy book for either side of a debate, but that’s not a good thing. A pliable, contradictory Bible is useless.
The world is broken
We shouldn’t be surprised by pandemics. “[Our world] is fundamentally out of joint, broken at a deep structural level.”
The Christian is walking a tightrope here. On one hand, anyone can see that there are problems within society. Millions are sick or hungry, and the world is a carousel that spins from one natural disaster to another—hurricanes, drought, wildfires, and of course pandemics like covid. But on the other hand, how can a loving and omnipotent God have created such an inept rough draft?
God didn’t want this.
Is God omnipotent or not? If God created humans, don’t blame the humans for being imperfect. If Creation is screwed up, blame the Creator who created it. Christopher Hitchens noted the contradiction: “We are created sick and commanded to be well.” And yet somehow all this is part of God’s plan.
But of course, blame can’t land at God’s feet. We must treat God like a baby.
God promised to make things right.
We’ve heard that before. In the first chapter of the Bible, God created the world, and “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.”
That might’ve been true for a while, but things aren’t perfect now. With this guy’s track record, let’s not be too confident about a perfect afterlife.
And remember that Jesus was an Apocalyptic prophet. That is, he wasn’t just preaching about the end, he was preaching about the end happening very soon. Apocalyptic thought held that the end was within the lifetimes of the hearers of the message. Jesus’s moral preaching looks quite different if it’s not rules governing your entire life (and your children’s and theirs and so on) but temporary rules until the End mere months in the future, or a few years at most.
You can be good just until Christmas, can’t you?
Argument 1: free will defense
To the credit of the author, he admits that this is speculation. God doesn’t make his motives clear, so his human followers must step in to speak for their silent god.
God values love highly, and love depends on free will. It’s not love if it’s forced or programmed.
Yes, free will is important, but in your eagerness to extricate God from blame, you’ve trampled on how love works and made God into an abusive partner. You earn love, you don’t demand it. This isn’t hard: love comes after someone demonstrates that they’re worthy of love. If love isn’t happening, don’t blame the presumed lover. The problem is the lover doesn’t find the lovee worthy of love. And if you read the Old Testament, you’ll see God has work to do in the being-worthy department.
Megachurch pastor John Piper made clear that likening God to an abusive partner isn’t libel. He celebrated it: “God is more glorious for having conceived and created and governed a world like this with all its evil.”*
In response to questions about whether God ordained the deaths in the destruction of the World Trade Center towers on 9/11, he channeled Job: “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.… Where would we turn if we didn’t have a God to help us deal with the very evils that he has ordained come into our lives?”*
So you’re supposed to turn for help to the guy who brought you the calamity in the first place? You’re on the ground after a punch, and then you thank the guy who punched you when he helps you up? How lucky for us that there’s no good evidence that this bully actually exists.
Free will applies to things besides love. You are granted the freedom to follow God or not, though hell awaits those who freely choose the wrong answer. When the first commandment says, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” that’s a commandment, not an invitation.
What’s the point of free will if you’re punished for eternity for using it?
Maybe it’s all the humans’ fault
Free will has the downside of allowing humans to cause harm. Don’t blame God for evil caused by humans.
Again we’re protecting God from blame for human imperfection when God made humans in the first place.
Do people dislike being in hell? Then God is violating their free will by forcing them there. And God is no champion of free will if he watches injustices by the millions—murder, rape, robbery, assault, and so on—but does nothing. If you must, say that God can’t restrain the murderer to protect their free will, but then God’s inaction means the victim’s free will has been violated.
Think about what this means for prayer. If apologists insist that God can’t infringe on anyone’s free will no matter who gets hurt as a result, that constrains prayer. Prayers for protection against church shooters or religious terrorists, for example, must always be ineffective.
We can even find God deliberately messing with people’s free will in the Bible.
- “The Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart and he would not listen to Moses and Aaron” (Exodus 9:12).
- “The Lord foils the plans of the nations; he thwarts the purposes of the peoples” (Psalms 33:10).
- “It was the Lord himself who hardened their hearts to wage war against Israel, so that he might destroy them totally, exterminating them without mercy” (Joshua 11:20).
The New Testament has examples, too (see Romans 9:18, Rom. 1:26, and John 12:37–40). And many theologians rationalize away some of the problems with their theory of hell by assuming free will is constrained in heaven.
It’s strange that Christians see it causing so many problems when God has already figured out how to create a world with free will but with zero downsides. That world is heaven. If free will is essential for human well-being here on earth, surely heaven has it, too. And if heaven is sin-free because, say, everyone is given great wisdom, God could give us that wisdom here on earth.
But if heaven can’t have free will because free will can never exist without evil, then God’s gift of free will is part of the problem. Again, I ask: why blame the humans when it’s not their fault?
“Free will” appears in the Bible exactly zero times. Not even the Bible supports the idea that free will is a big deal.
For more on why the complexity of Christianity argues against its truth, see The Argument from Simplicity
Living forever with God is the endgame,
so what’s the point of creating this elaborate,
blink-of-an-eye, soul-filtering machine called Planet Earth,
where beings have temporary bodies made of meat?
WTF?! Just create everyone in “Heaven” to begin with,
and none of the rest of this horror-show ever has to happen.
— commenter Kingasaurus
*Thom Stark, The Human Faces of God (Wipf & Stock, 2011), 64–5.