Just after half-past nine on 1 November, All Saints Day, 1755 a powerful earthquake struck Lisbon. About 40 minutes later a huge tsunami hit, flooding the ruins and an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 people died. This disaster shook not only Lisbon but the foundations of the Christian church in Europe.

This was a bad news day for Christianity. How could a loving, almighty God allow this to happen? The atheist philosophers of the enlightenment used the disaster to cast doubt on God’s existence. Today as the coronavirus ravages the world, hitting hardest the poor and most vulnerable, it looks like more bad news for the church? How can the gospel be good news in a world where such things happen?

The atheist theory goes that because an all-loving, all-knowing and all-powerful God would have the desire, knowledge and power to prevent suffering, the mere existence of suffering proves His non-existence. This is the logical trap and, put this way, there is no escape by logic or reason. However, some of the assumptions built into the argument may not be valid. For example, can we assume we have the knowledge and wisdom to know how a loving, omniscient and almighty God would act or what His longer-term purposes might be? Furthermore, a theory needs to be consistent with all the evidence. The Christian faith centres on the evidence of Jesus Christ – His life, His death and most of all, on His resurrection. The evidence for the resurrection could suggest there is a bigger picture and our lives are part of a longer story.

Before we get to the resurrection we need to get some things out of the way. There are three answers that are often given to the problem of suffering in general, and the current pandemic in particular, that need to be challenged.


1. The first mistaken answer is that we live in a fallen” world – all the death and suffering is the result of Adam and Eve’s sin in the Garden of Eden. But does the Bible actually say that? Can we really extrapolate from increased pain in childbearing and thorns and thistles of the Genesis story to earthquakes, fires and floods, famines, disease and deadly pandemics? I think not. No, God made the world good in the sense of good for its purpose. Genesis tells us that sin affects our relationship with the world, but it has not changed the goodness of creation. The biblical evidence for a fallen world seems too weak to bear the weight put upon it. It is certainly not the only way to interpret Genesis 3 or the few verses in Romans 5 and 8 that are usually quoted.

2. The second mistake is to see disasters or disability as God’s judgment for particular sins. Apart from the jaw-dropping arrogance of presuming to know how God judges anything, this is clearly not consistent with the God we know in and through Jesus Christ. Jesus taught clearly that being killed in a collapsing building or being born blind was not a result of anyone’s sin. Check out what Jesus actually said in Luke 13:4 and John 9:1 – 3.

3. Thirdly we are told, Well, yes these disasters are terrible things but they are sent by God for our own good.” Really? Is that always true? How can we weigh the suffering and death of innocent children against the good it might bring to those who survive? No – that won’t do either. Disasters are disasters, they are not blessings in disguise. True they are occasions when great courage and compassion is shown – but does that justify the pain and the suffering? There may a pointer here but we need to go further.

These three answers won’t help anyone who doesn’t believe in God. It’s an understandable complaint that if this world is the best God can do then I’m not impressed. There is, however, an underlying assumption here that we could do a better job of making a world. But that assumption is surely not justified. Consider how our polluting of the earth, our driving species to extinction, and our climate-changing lifestyles shows we are not doing a good job of caring for this world let alone being capable of making a better one.

A more reasonable answer begins by realising that in any real world things will be interconnected. There will be limits to what is possible and some things that not even God can do. Could we have gravity to hold things together, making life possible, but not kill us when we step off a cliff? Viruses and bacteria are essential for life but they can be deadly if in the wrong place. Life involves complicated interdependent processes. It has to be this way – or something like it.

Other things are also inextricably linked such as pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow. The joy brought by the birth of a child intensifies the pain if that child dies. A child’s sorrow at a parent’s death is increased in proportion to the love that was shared. Joy and pain are interconnected. So would it have been better not to create the world in the first place? I doubt we are in a position to make that judgement.

We know also that God is constrained in certain ways. Jesus prayed in Gethsemane, Father if it be possible let this cup pass from me…” (Matthew 26:39). The answer was seemingly No,” but that was not the end of the matter. 

Life is a risky business: there are dangers and difficulties to be overcome. But somehow the difficulty and danger can enhance the experience of being alive. The human spirit leads some to deliberately choose risk and challenge. Climbing mountains can be difficult and dangerous but immensely rewarding and somehow it seems worth the risk. A few years ago with a friend I made an alpine crossing of the Southern Alps near Mt Cook in New Zealand. On the second day of the climb we reached the ridge where there was supposed to be a pass giving a safe way down. But we had gone wrong and found ourselves at the top of a scary 300-metre chimney of ice-covered, near vertical rock. It was the scariest place either of us had ever been. 

It looked impossible to climb down but then we noticed a climber’s sling over a spike of rock. It was a sign that someone had gone that way before. So we went down trusting that sling at first and then with our own rope and equipment. When we reached the glacier below we almost danced and skipped with joy that we’d done it. It was dangerous and risked disaster but it was also a hugely life-enhancing experience. Our doubt that it could be done was partly assuaged by believing that someone had gone that way before. Personal experience gives things that can’t be learned from books or from other people. Life is just like that. Life has great joys and great pains – maybe, in this life, it can’t be any other way. 

Unfortunately, that thought doesn’t always help when disaster or tragedy hits us personally. Take the Old Testament story of Job. He was the one suffering and his friends, his so-called comforters, with their tidy theological answers, did not help. His was deep personal loss and grief with physical pain, emotional distress and spiritual depression. His cries are echoed in our question, where is God in our suffering? There is an interesting aspect of the book that is a bit lost in translation. At the beginning, in chapters 1 and 2, God is Yahweh,” the personal covenant God, the I Am”. Then, from chapter 3 to 37, through all Job’s arguments and cries to God, it is El Shaddai,” the Almighty – a more distant, detached, all-powerful God, who is addressed. Just when we need Him most God seems far away – and the best theology doesn’t help at all. 

Then something very surprising happens. Out of the whirlwind, God speaks to Job and it is Yahweh again – a personal encounter. And what does God say to Job, a man at the end of his tether? Hey, look at this hippopotamus!” But first Job is invited to look at creation – the immensity of the stars, the delicacy of snowflakes, the stars, the storms, the snows, the rains, the wonders of nature. Then he is asked, who has the wisdom and knowledge to create and sustain all these interconnected things? Only God. Then God says, look at the hippo and crocodile, Behemoth and Leviathan, symbols of raw natural power that only God can control. But what about justice, the thing Job has been looking for all along? Again, it is only God who can vindicate Job, not by reasoned argument but a personal encounter of faith and trust. 

Job’s faith is vindicated – the faith he expressed and held on to at the time of his deepest distress – in chapter 19: I know that my redeemer lives and that even though worms destroy this body yet in my flesh shall I see God.” Even when Job knows so little he shows such faith. He had no knowledge or sign that he could go through death and live again – yet he trusted God. When my friend and I came close to disaster in the mountains we had that sign that someone had gone that way before. Now after Jesus has died and risen again, we know someone has gone before us. 

So the answer to doubt is not a logical certainty, nor a simple explanation we can easily understand. Job was not given a reason but a renewed relationship with His creator. His contemplation of creation changed the way he looked at things – it changed his worldview. Science is God’s gift whereby we can see more clearly His power and wisdom in creation. God invites us to participate in creating the world – this is surely the meaning of man’s role to till the ground” in the Genesis story (Genesis 2:4,5). The work of science is God’s work, not just as German astronomer Johannes Kepler wrote, to think God’s thoughts after Him,” but also to do Christ’s work of healing, restoring and caring for one another and the environment. 

Science is a vocation in which we not only reveal the glory of God’s work in creation but also use the knowledge to meet the challenges of life. We see God not only in nature but in the love expressed by doctors, nurses, carers, and good neighbours. We love because God first loved us. He is the source of love and all that is good in the world. Resurrection sends us into the world to bring hope to the hopeless and help to the helpless. 

Jesus’ resurrection showed us a new kind of body that would fit in a new creation, a new heaven and a new earth. It is a clue that this life is part of a longer story that is still unfolding. We don’t yet see all the answers but we are changed by all that happens. This world with its joys and its sorrows, its pleasures and its pains, is where we grow. Just maybe that is why God made it that way. And the good news is that the one who went before us promises, Lo, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”