PTS Class Asks: ‘Why is God Allowing the Coronavirus Pandemic?’

The following is a commentary submitted by Tony Richie, D. Min., Ph. D., lecturer in Theology at Pentecostal Theological Seminary.

Cleveland, TN–Our “Introduction to Christian Doctrine” class at Pentecostal Theological Seminary this semester has a wonderful array of students. It includes successful church leaders who have been in ministry for decades as well as young folks embarking on their ministry vocations. It includes women and men, pastors, evangelists, and missionaries. It has strong ethnic and racial diversity as well as national and international representation. And they are all deeply dedicated to serving Christ effectively and faithfully. But they are not afraid to ask questions. Indeed, they are quite willing to tackle hard questions. This past Tuesday came one of the hardest questions: “Why is God allowing the coronavirus pandemic?”

At that very moment we were convening class via teleconferencing technology consistent with PTS directives for social distancing. The Sunday immediately prior most of us had participated in church worship services in a similar manner. It certainly was a relevant question. But there was a further reason we could describe the timing as particularly providential. That day our preassigned topic (in place before the semester started) was “Sin, Evil, & Theodicy”.

Accordingly, we had discussed the biblical teaching that although God created the world good something has gone horribly wrong (Gen 1-3). Sin and suffering have entered our world. We discussed what theologians call “the problem of evil”, which represents perhaps the most difficult challenge of for Christian theology. Christians affirm both the existence of an all-powerful, good, and perfect God and the reality of evil in the world.

Theodicy (“God” and “justice”) is the theological category which explores and defends this complex Christian teaching. Typically, Pentecostal theologians argue for some version of the “free will defense”. God is not the author of evil. God created humans with free will in order to make real relationship possible. We are not puppets or robots; we are people. Unfortunately, that makes wrong choices possible too. Therefore, evil and suffering are part of the risk of authentic, loving relationship.

Traditionally, Pentecostals don’t so much struggle with speculative theories of sin’s origin and nature as focus on dealing with the reality of sin and evil with the practical implications for daily life and for eternity. Obviously, it was not a surprise to me when part way through our class time someone asked what that all means for our present situation with the global coronavirus/covid-19 pandemic. I soon realized my students were not asking if God is benevolent, blameworthy, or impotent. They were seeking to discern the face of God in a time of darkness. They continued their probing inquiries. “Is this pandemic a result of divine judgment?” “Is it a call to repentance and revival?” “Is it merely the result of living in a broken world?” “In what sense, if any, is it spiritual in nature as well as medical/physical?” And, perhaps more importantly, “How should Christians respond?” “What is the role of our faith now?” “How can we best represent Christ to a world reeling from the enormous impact of this tragedy?” We had many, many questions. Often enough, that’s what theology does.

At a certain point I began to sense divine leadership. God didn’t give me a great quip or set of talking points. Rather, as a theology professor I sensed the Holy Spirit directing our class to prayer. And that’s what we did. We had extended, extemporaneous, corporate, Spirit-led prayer. Afterwards, one pastor still had a special burden so I asked her to lead us in a specific prayer for that need. I am not exaggerating when I say that a sense of God’s presence was palpable. Yes, even though we were only “gathered” via technology. Subsequent comments from students described similar experiences. Now I have a question. Could it be that above all the covid-19 pandemic presents believers with an urgent call to prayer? See 2 Chronicles 7:14, please.

Interestingly, during prayer God also brought to our minds a potent phrase from Esther 4:14: for such a time as this. What kind of time was it? It was a time of pending danger. A time of possible destruction. And a time of divine providence. Although “God” is not referred to even once in the entire narrative, Esther is a story of faithfulness, courage, and irony. The Jewish people survived a planned pogrom that would have meant their end. Clearly, God was behind it all! Before Haman’s evil plot to destroy the Jews was even hatched God had already put a person in place to deliver, or rescue, his people.

The Lord was ahead of the curve then, and he’s ahead of it now. God is never absent and never passive. God is always present and always active. God was in control then. God’s in control now.

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