Why would an all-good and all-powerful God allow a pandemic?
by John Shaheen—
To understand the problem of natural evil better, it is important to consider God’s sovereignty over the events of the world and their connection to free beings. Given that free will (the ability to choose to do good or evil actions undetermined) is something that we all have, does this leave God impotent in controlling what happens? Has God given up his control over our lives in order to allow us freedom? If he has, this seems to be frightening on a personal level. The God that we understand as our protector seems to have taken a step back. If he hasn’t given up control over our lives, in what sense are we really free?
Luis de Molina understood this dilemma and considered a brilliant solution in 16th century Spain. Perhaps part of God’s omniscience is knowledge of possible worlds. Perhaps he knows not just how the future of this world will look, but also how it would play out given different scenarios. This kind of knowledge has been termed “middle knowledge.” This theological framework has immense explanatory power and is now known as Molinism. In this system, God would not manipulate our freedom. We still have the ability to make choices undetermined by him or any physical factors. However, he does reserve the right to manipulate the world outside us. He can decide which situations to allow us to be born in and live. Consequently, God knows what decisions we will make in certain scenarios, and can place us in them accordingly.
A few important points need to be clarified here. First, God’s foreknowing our free decisions does not determine them. God’s foreknowledge is based on our actions, not the other way around. The question arises; can we do other than what we do? If we can, then it seems this would make God’s knowledge wrong. If we can’t, we are not free. The Molinist solution to this is that we can do otherwise, but will not. Given that God has a certain knowledge about our future actions, this only tells us that they will happen contingently, not necessarily. If we were to do otherwise, God’s foreknowledge would be different. Given that it is not different, this only tells us that we will freely do what we will do. Secondly, the fact that God places us in certain scenarios knowing that we will act a certain way does not determine our actions. It is not the scenario that determines our decision. It may influence it, but ultimately, we have the power to decide to act. Placing us in certain circumstances where God knows how we will act gives God control over which world to actualize, but he does not control our actions themselves. This perhaps creates a logical limitation on which worlds God can actualize. Perhaps it is infeasible for God to create a world where all people freely choose to do good or freely choose to accept and love God. These limitations become very relevant in the discussion of natural evil.
Given this understanding of what God will control, it is also important to understand what He desires to happen in the world. God desires that all freely choose to love him and find salvation in Christ (1 Timothy 2:4). Unfortunately, it could be the case that any world with this many free beings has evil and rebellion. This logical limitation means that God would create a world where an optimal number of people come to know him and an optimal amount of good is accomplished. Good here can be understood not only as happiness and joy, but knowledge of God, which leads to ultimate and eternal joy.
There are two levels that God acts in the world to influence the beings in it. Though they ultimately break down to the same thing (God actualizing counterfactuals) it can be helpful to think on a large and small scale. First, God manipulates the counterfactuals to guide the lives of each individual living person to bring about the most knowledge of God and goodness in their lives. On a larger scale, God must manipulate the counterfactuals so that certain people are born in certain situations so that these optimal lives are set up. Consider the unfathomable complexity of achieving these goals. Though this is child’s play for an omnipotent, omniscient mind, it is good to recognize the limitations in trying to understand the purpose of certain events from our perspective.
Given the epistemic limitation, let us attempt to grasp a little bit of the big picture. First, for God to create optimal lives and an optimal number of saved beings, he needs certain people to exist at certain times and places. In order to do this, God needs certain people to meet and have children at certain times and places as well as certain people to die in specific times and places. One way in which he may do this is through natural “evils.” By allowing something like a pandemic to happen, God is permanently altering the future population and the environment that they will live in. God ultimately decides who is affected by a disease, so he can use such an event to cause people to die at optimal times while allowing others to live. In allowing certain people to live and others to die, God can control, through our free decisions, who is born in the next generation and also the specific circumstances in which they are born and will live. Though the word, “control” sounds deterministic, one needs to keep in mind that God will not control our decisions, only our circumstances. By control, I mean something as simple as allowing two people to cross paths that never would have met if the previous counterfactuals would have been different. In allowing such a thing to happen, our free decisions do the rest of the work.
Consider the following possible situation. Perhaps God refrains from allowing a pandemic to occur. This would mean that different people would be born in different circumstances and a completely different population would exist from that point onward. Perhaps this population contains more people doing evil or more people who will freely reject God than the population in the world with the pandemic. It seems clear that if it came down to making the choice between allowing temporary suffering that would amount to more eternal joy or allowing temporary comfort that would lead to more eternal damnation, God would choose the former. God can tailor a disease to accomplish exactly what he needs it to in order to produce invaluable goods. If any amount of temporary evil is necessary to allow for eternal good, the tradeoff is justified. Some may object that no evil is causally necessary. To this, I urge them to read my exclusively Christian response, The Free Will Dilemma.
We have now seen one way of looking at a pandemic, from the perspective of an optimal population. Perhaps this is one way that God accomplishes his goal of creating a world where the most people freely come to know him and the least freely reject him. Furthermore, in manipulating the population in such a way, God can manipulate how much good and evil people freely do. In allowing the population to be altered by a disease, God may be preventing a greater suffering due to the free actions of the people that would have existed had there been no disease.
Some may object that this seems awfully utilitarian and cruel. Does God allow some to die just so that the future population would be different? From a strictly logical perspective, if this is the only way to allow for more people to be saved, the tradeoff is worth it. People should take joy in knowing that they suffered for so great a purpose as the salvation of another. Even with this understanding, it seems that there is more complexity to it than this. Perhaps God, in his ultimate knowledge and sovereignty, could also so order the world such that the suffering caused by the disease serves the dual purpose of giving the most optimal life to the sufferer as well as the future population. Perhaps the sufferer of the disease, if allowed to live, would encounter a greater suffering in the future. The suffering of the disease may also play into the salvation of the person who has it. Perhaps in their last dying breaths God may use this state to show them the vanity of this world and the true importance of knowing God. Though this is highly speculative given our epistemic limitations, it is certainly within the realm of possibility. And if such a morally perfect God exists, as the theist argues, these speculations become highly applicable to the actual world.
Looking at the big picture, one must admit that the future would be quite different if even one person lives an extra several decades rather than die at a certain time. The interactions and events that occur in several decades of life are innumerable. In order to shape the future to be optimal, God has a very specific time and place for the birth and death of each person. Simply put, to alter these could significantly change the future. It should also be noted that God reserves the right to take life as he sees fit to accomplish the most good. People consider it an evil when someone dies “prematurely,” but this in itself is not in any way an evil. What could be construed as an evil is the suffering that may preclude this death, or the suffering of the loved ones of the deceased. It seems that death is a necessary feature of this world, given God’s purpose. We start off here at an epistemic distance from God as beings with free will. If we so choose, after living a life of freely choosing God, we will be passed into the next stage of life, eternity with God. God seems to have created this world to be optimal given two separate purposes. One purpose is the great value of free will and the other the value of eternity in God’s presence. In order to allow us to freely choose an eternity with God, we pass through a life outside of God’s fully revealed presence. People must die at different times, so there will be sorrow while we are separated. This sorrow should be overshadowed by the joy of what lies ahead.
As for the suffering leading up to death, it could serve various purposes. First, suffering is a warning of death. For someone to die suddenly is much harder on a family than when someone has time to have closure. Also, if understood correctly, the suffering is a final reminder that refocuses one’s mind on God and helps them realize the vanity of material cares. This is an invaluable realization for one to make at any point in their life. Sometimes it takes being on the edge of death to realize it.
At this point, it seems clear that the greater purpose of creating an optimal population is deeply connected with people’s personal lives. God manipulates the population and circumstances so that he can he can give people optimal personal lives. Obviously, there is still suffering. By optimal, I mean those that would freely come to know Christ are placed in circumstances where that would happen. There is still evil that is nothing more than the unfortunate consequence of freedom, but perhaps a certain amount of this evil is necessary to produce the good in this world and the next.
Ultimately, God is guiding the future to his ends. He reserves the right to use something such as a pandemic to set the world’s stage for his perfect purposes. Not only is he guiding the population and personal lives of the beings in this world, he is guiding the world’s economy and politics. Every event that occurs, including the spread of disease, influences the economy and the political decisions of populations. In Christianity, God is setting the stage for an incredible and glorious ending in which very specific events must occur to bring the last people of the world to salvation. Certain political leaders need to rise and certain changes to the world’s infrastructure need to occur. These can only happen through the free decisions of people. In order for God to keep control, he may use something panic-inducing knowing that it will shape people’s political decisions.
It is incredible how something like a virus, which appears as seemingly pointless suffering from our perspective, can be used by an omniscient mind to actualize an optimal world for his purposes. The inter-connectedness of the world’s events is impossibly complex for us to understand beyond speculation. Despite this, God’s middle knowledge has access to all possible ways the world can go. He knows what needs to happen to produce the best outcomes. These truths are so epistemically out of our grasp that to make probability claims seems futile. Some object that God probably could have created a world with less evil while preserving the same amount of good and the same amount of saved beings. The burden of this claim is immense. Without access to middle knowledge, justification for its truth (or falsity) is on weak ground. The best approach to determine whether or not this evil has a purpose is to argue whether or not the God of Christianity exists. From here, progress can be made toward understanding the strange beauty of suffering.