Author Katherine Stewart let Christians have it last Friday, at the least the “ultraconservative” ones, the science-deniers, and the uncritical thinkers. Laying the blame for the pandemic in part at our feet, she cites as an example the pastor who hosted the president last month at his church in Miami. “Do you believe God would bring his people to his house to be contagious with the virus?” he asked his full house. “Of course not.” Such conviction led many churches to gather together last Sunday for worship, a defiance defended as faithfulness, though as it turned out the virus indeed infects the righteous and unrighteous alike.
I’m sympathetic to Stewart’s concern that Christians are not listening to medical science, and I’m sympathetic to the pastor’s sentiment too. One year ago this week I stood in Capernaum, reading from Luke 4 about Jesus exorcising demons while in the very synagogue where he did it. I stood there with my late wife who was dying of pancreas cancer, its own kind of demon. Our tour guide, a non-religious Jew, suggested we pray for healing, given all the healing that happened here. As a pastor, I felt embarrassed—why hadn’t I thought of that? Where was my faith? Did I believe God would bring his people to his house and let cancer win? Of course not. But my wife did die.
Such questions haunt Christians, a chronic thorn in our theological flesh. We crave simple answers, the sort Stewart describes in political arenas as “a battle between absolute evil and absolute good” (which she resorts to herself, with her overly simplistic characterizations). We live in a day when everything gets reduced down into binary, either/or simplicity for the sake of a Twitter fight. Good versus evil. Light versus darkness. Left versus right. Red versus blue. Law versus grace. Faith versus works. Justice versus love.
St. Augustine (A.D. 354-430) lived during a time of severe political and theological unrest, as well as pandemic and plague. Barbarians pressed in upon the Roman Empire as schism and dissension threatened the church. Augustine dove head first into the theological fray, battling the binaries of his day, which, similar to ours, pit the powers of goodness and light against the equal powers of darkness and evil. For Christians, there is no fair fight because God is almighty. So how then is it that evil exists?
St. Augustine proposed the notion of evil as essentially nothing (no thing), a basic nonentity all its own. By this he did not mean evil is not real; he meant only that its power is wholly derivative. Like a parasite or a virus, it extracts its life from the goodness it perverts. Thus evil often gets spoken in terms of what it is not: injustice or iniquity or ingratitude, disorder, disobedience, faithlessness, lawlessness, godlessness. Augustine wrote, “evil has no existence except as a privation of good, down to that level which is altogether without being.”
In these days of pandemic, evil works like a virus. Classics professor Katherine Kelaidis, reflecting on the great pandemic of Athens in 430 B.C., noted how a virus, like evil, has no head of its own. “It is not just without reason, but without motive. It is truly only half alive. It has nothing to gain and nothing to lose. No sense of itself. No desire to live, something animals and even certain planets possess. This is why diseases and the threats they bring lay us all so bare. The only soul in the equation is our own.”
Not that a virus itself is evil, but evil is viral in that it relies on a host to survive. It doesn’t belong in God’s world but somehow got in. Part of the evil of evil is its defiance of logic. “Who can unravel that twisted and tangled knottiness?” Augustine plaintively asked in his Confessions. “It is foul. I hate to reflect on it. I hate to look on it.”
Just as social distancing measures serve to starve a viral outbreak, so spiritual distancing from temptation and sin would starve evil. But who can do this? The Apostle Paul himself famously bemoaned the impossibility: “I do not understand my own actions, for I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Rom. 7:15, NRSV). Binary categories neither explain nor assist. “The only soul in the equation is our own.” Christianity has long taught how our hearts curve in on ourselves. Our best intentions are tinged by self-interest, our good works self-serving. This applies to pastors and politicians as well as to the columnists who criticize them. “Wretched man that I am,” Paul bewailed by chapter’s end. “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (7:24).
If Augustine is right about evil, you can’t destroy a nonentity without affecting in some way the goodness from which it gets its life. The admonition of social distancing to rid the world of the microscopic coronavirus comes at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives, millions of jobs, a likely economic recession, stressed relationships, and heightened anxiety and fear.
Unlike evil, a pandemic eventually ends. Immunity and vaccines take hold. But there is no human-generated immunity or vaccination against evil. Sin infects our souls over and over again. Our only hope, thank God, is through Jesus Christ (Rom. 7:25), who starves evil of its power with his own sinless life. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). That the Son of God had to die to deliver us from evil attests to its truly hideous and destructive nature. Yet we praise the Lord for the cross and call it good news. And so we move toward the cross and toward Easter—socially distant from our churches (to starve the virus), but spiritually tethered to Jesus (to save our souls).
Daniel Harrell is Christianity Today’s editor in chief.