Viruses and the Problem of Evil

But scripture shows a god that specifically acts with the PURPOSE of causing pain and suffering, as in the killing of the first-born of Egypt and the wholesale slaughter of the Midianites. Surely, this means that “natural evil” isn’t a problem at all, doesn’t it? You don’t need to fret over theodicy when scripture itself characterizes the god in question as frequently intending and causing harm; a god that would cause harm intentionally certainly might do it recklessly, or incidentally in the course of accomplishing some other purpose.


Oh my, absolutely not. Christians do have brains and hearts after all. Even if someone affirms inerrancy and divine inspiration that doesn’t mean their aren’t big big questions or confusing aspects. I don’t know many Christians that feel like the Problem of Evil is not an actual problem. They love of God is what drives their belief, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have questions. And particularly with natural evil (disasters, etc.) I think people find it difficult. We are used to human decisions having consequences, we are troubled when bad things happen for seemingly no reason.


This theological topic has been beaten to death since the dawn of theology, but the question I often have is if God intended for viruses not to hurt people, then why are they? How can an all-powerful God have his plans changed against his will?

It is a difficult question without any satisfying answers. I will always respect an honest “I don’t know”, so I appreciate your honest approach.

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Right, but when god actually acts in evil ways, does that not sort of shove the “problem of evil” in the conventional sense to the back burner? I mean, the whole premise of the problem of evil assumes a god that is morally good–but that’s not a god consistent with the scriptures. Once one takes on board the fact that the god of the Bible is an intentional cause of suffering, it’s hard to find much to puzzle over in less direct sources of suffering that might merely be incidental details of the creation.

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Yeah, absolutely, those are good questions. For me personally, I work in an Wesleyan context which is Arminian in theology, so I have gravitated towards something more along the lines of “God has created a world in which love is possible and so as a consequence he also created a world in which viruses were possible”. I see God creating a universe that “creates” itself. That’s why God-guided evolution is attractive under that approach. Viruses then become something like what Behe is talking about, but without God specifically intending them. I’m not suggesting that that answer is entirely satisfying (couldn’t God have figured it out to not have mosquitos and viruses?) but I think it’s better than the more deterministic version. I think perhaps God may well “change his mind”, in a sense, based on humanity’s decisions because in a real relationship both parties influence each other. Does that mean God’s will changes? I dunno. I don’t think God’s nature or essence changes, but there is some Biblical evidence that he does “change his mind” based on peoples decisions and actions.


I don’t personally know any Christians that would say that, and I wouldn’t say that.

Well, I do know Christians who would acknowledge that the OT atrocities, such as the slaughter of the firstborn of Egypt and the slaughter of the Midianites, are evil, but who would insist that these stories are of things that either didn’t happen or that didn’t involve their god. But I don’t know anyone who would be eager to say that killing innocent children is anything other than evil, and the Bible does quite explicitly put that deed in its god’s hands.

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we agree! :slight_smile:

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Indeed, and a good thing that is. But while I do not “know” anyone who would be eager to say that, I have met any number of people online who DO say that. Their view is that their god is the sole arbiter of good and evil and that, therefore, if he murdered children, then on that occasion murdering children was good.

These same people tend to be literalists, so they do accept the OT atrocities as true and historical.

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I don’t think I’ve met anybody that stark, though I think pastor/author John Piper has said things fairly close to that. Many Christians (my context is Evangelical circles so I don’t want to universalize) seem to believe that if bad things that happen, there must be a “greater good” or “something better”. Also, there is also a tendency to view many of the OT passages as less literal (they happened, but the description was hyperbole), the 'bad guess" less innocent (they deserved it), and the innocent as collateral damage (God didn’t intend for women and children to die, but fallen humanity is like that). I don’t know many people who would truly say “the OT says that God acted in a morally evil way, and that’s perfectly fine”)

I’ve run into some of that. The “not literal” method is the only one that makes any sense to me. If one recognizes that some of the stories are probably simply made up out of whole cloth, that solves some problems. If one recognizes human authorship, and allows that human motives and interpretations have a major role in writing the tales (e.g., “we committed genocide, but then we said that our god told us to do it, and besides, we hated those people and don’t feel bad about it”), that solves some others. And this is the approach of most of the not-too-crazy people I meet.

But the Biblical literalists do seem to stick hard to “those adults deserved it, and their babies would have grown up evil, so they would eventually have deserved it, too!” This is often coupled with an attempt to make god, rather than man, the arbiter of moral values (which I find puzzling; I can’t figure out how a god’s opinions could even be slightly relevant to moral questions, much less dispositive of them), and to give god a sort of free pass: he defines morality, so can’t be immoral no matter what he does. I haven’t seen the “fallen humanity” excuse much – the difficulty there is that if you really are a literalist, you can’t attribute the things god does to humans.

The “greater good” bit always sort of blows me away. I do not think that I could murder a child for any “greater good.” And I suspect that someone omnipotent could figure out how to get to a greater good without the child-murdering phase intervening.

As I say, I don’t know any of those personally (although, come to think of it, I do know one who might go there if I asked her), but I do encounter them online. They would put it differently, though. They would say that the OT says that their god did things which, in a human, would be considered morally evil, but because he’s the Almighty, these things are not morally evil but are, in fact, morally good. How that works, of course, is never made clear, and it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

This seems a singularly ungracious reply (by a courtier?). Can’t you elaborate at least briefly?


Nobody says that. What they say is that whatever God does is by definition morally justified, so if he kills children, it isn’t morally evil for him to do so. And I’ve run into several people who say that sort of thing.

This post from Eddie on a previous thread concerning measles is relevant and worthwhile. I do not find this answer satisfying, but I credit Eddie with not evading the tough question here as do many of his peers, or just off loading to the fall, or God is arms length removed defensive apologetics. @Eddie

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I think that the “problem of evil” as it is traditionally framed doesn’t really come up here, because the premises for the problem aren’t met. I find it strange that this seldom gets talked about.

The problem of evil is basically that IF one believes in a morally good god with kind intentions towards humanity, THEN one must figure out how to explain the existence of every sort of unpleasant thing, from traffic accidents to viruses to headaches. Surely, IF one believes in such a god, and if that god is said to have omnipotence and omniscience, this poses an interesting philosophical problem, which people have been running about in circles over for centuries, yammering and yelping about free will and “fallen” humanity and every damned thing.

My point is simply that if we are asking this question in relation to Christianity, at least of the sort which is so desperate to preserve traditional scriptural statements as history that even Adam and Eve are to be regarded as historical people, then it is the wrong question. We can’t get past the “IF.”

The god of Christian scripture – again, noting that this is the case IF we regard that scripture as authoritative, so that this may not apply to people in, for example, mainline denominations who long ago decided that most of the legendary content of the OT was simply nonhistorical – routinely exhibits evil behavior. It simply is evil – at least, much of the time – and one hardly needs to embark upon a “problem of evil” scenario in considering the impact of a virus because the OT not only depicts a god who routinely commits evil acts but goes to lengths, at points, to underscore just how particularly evil those actions are.

Note, for example, this passage:

“And Moses said, Thus saith the Lord, About midnight will I go out into the midst of Egypt: And all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the first born of Pharaoh that sitteth upon his throne, even unto the firstborn of the maidservant that is behind the mill; and all the firstborn of beasts. And there shall be a great cry throughout all the land of Egypt, such as there was none like it, nor shall be like it any more.”

The point is to cause suffering, and not just to those who are to blame for any particular harm being done to the Israelites. That the murder will be indiscriminate is part of the formula of its terror. That it will strike down innocent children, likewise. If these words are to be taken as seriously as evidently some take a literal reading of the tale of Adam and Eve, then the god responsible for them is undoubtedly behaving in an entirely evil manner, and no amount of distraction or apologetic can change that plain fact. We wouldn’t let such a fellow out of jail, once we figured out what he was made of.

More passages, of course, can be brought to bear – there’s a lot of slaughter, including explicit instruction to slaughter children. But how much does one really need?

Now, a “liberal” theology might discard these things, on any number of grounds. They likely didn’t actually happen, for one. They reflect the moral depravity of the authors of the works in which they occur, and might not therefore be thought of as reflecting upon the nature of god. But a less-liberal theology, which takes it that when the Bible says that god made a man out of the dirt and a woman from his rib, by golly, that’s what god did, does not have these sorts of escape hatches.

And so my question has little to do with the internal merits of the “problem of evil,” and all of the angels-on-pins-counting matches of wits between theologians upon theodicy. This isn’t hard. It’s not complicated. The god depicted in the OT is undoubtedly an odious character. Any attempt by a person to defend it invariably ends with the defender twisting himself in knots and debasing himself in the futile attempt to somehow crank evil around and squint at it until it looks like some sort of good.

Why, then, should anyone bother to puzzle over whether it might design a virus, or whether it might have chosen to allow the Holocaust to happen, or indeed encourage or permit any evil at all? There may be SOME religion which is entitled to assert that its god is the very essence of goodness, and may therefore be entitled to wander into the morass of arguing the problem of evil and worrying about the nature of free will and whatnot; but no version of Christianity which takes the acts of its god as related in the OT to be true can get past the “if god is good, then…” statement of the problem in the first place.

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I’ve also heard this type of teaching. I grew up in a highly-literalistic environment. This bothered me even as a child.

This was also a common argument in my environment. This made more sense to me as a child - the idea that the “Fall of Adam” did irreparable harm to all of creation and was the source of all bad things in this world.

Over the last few decades, I’ve probably developed something more similar to the concept that @Jordan and @RonSewell (via @Eddie) have mentioned. God did not create a world that was perfect. There will be things in it that cannot be categorized as good.

What is REALLY difficult though, are the parts of the Bible that do describe God’s harmful intent. I haven’t read the entire thread in detail, but @Puck_Mendelssohn may have mentioned that at several points during the plagues of Egypt, the Bible says God hardened the Pharaoh’s heart (if I remember correctly, particularly toward the end of the plagues). God nudged/caused Pharaoh to not let the Israelites go, and then killed the firstborn of those unprotected. All I can guess is that there are explanations that I cannot see or understand.


This implies that no evidence, biblical or empirical, would be sufficient to change your view of God. Would you agree? But how was this view formed in the first place, and on what basis can you suppose it’s true?


Yes, and to be clear, that’s all I’m really talking about – I know that the “problem of evil” convinces essentially nobody of anything (except, for some reason, Bart Ehrman) and so it’s of little interest. But, as I’ve said, one doesn’t get there if one can show that the god in question frequently behaves in an intentionally evil manner itself.

One other possibility is that no satisfactory explanation exists.

Another possibility is that “god is good” is a completely unwarranted assumption. Perhaps taken straight from the old man’s press packet?

Now, again: one can just admit that these events probably didn’t actually happen, or at least didn’t happen quite the way they are described, and that they reflect the moral depravity of their authors rather than of “god,” who has merely been drafted in as a character in somebody’s fan-fiction story. I certainly know people who take that line (though they might not like the “fan fiction” term, which I think is really quite apt). It solves a lot of problems, and it even fixes some of the “god is inscrutable/let me tell you exactly what god wants” hypocrisy. The difficulty, for many, is that it renders god less knowable. But who the hell wants to know the god described in the OT?


Possibly… I have not yet seen biblical or empirical evidence that would convince me otherwise.

Arguments raised frequently by ID/YEC are often met with “just because there are still unanswered questions about evolution, the available evidence is more than sufficient to accept evolution and common ancestry.” To me, there are still questions (and often very difficult questions) about God and His relationship with humanity. But just because there are questions I can’t answer doesn’t mean that I should ignore what I do know.

I was raised by Christian parents, both of whom became Christ-followers as adults (so their Christianity wasn’t a product of upbringing as mine arguably would be). There was a transition period in my early adulthood through which my Christian faith developed from something more inherited to something more personalized. Over the last couple of decades, I’ve concluded that my faith rests fundamentally on Jesus Christ, the evidence of His resurrection and His work in my life. I find a lot of similarities between my faith journey and @swamidass’s outlined in one of his early blog entries ( @Zachary_Ardern’s blog post ( also explains, in a lot more detail, several of the aspects of the Resurrection that I find convincing.


Although I do not believe it to be the case, this possibility is unavoidable.

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