Premier Christian Radio in the UK just sponsored a survey that investigated how the COVID crisis has affected religious beliefs and attitudes. There were three major findings—namely, that 67% of those who characterize themselves as “religious” found their belief in God challenged, that almost a quarter of all those questioned said that the pandemic made them more fearful of death, and that around a third of those surveyed said that their prayer life had been affected by the crisis. Justin Brierley, who hosts the popular program Unbelievable?, commented that he was especially impressed by the substantial number of those who, due to COVID, have experienced difficulty believing in a loving God. I should like to focus on this finding as well.
Of course, in one sense, I understand the problem. An altogether standard objection to belief in God is human suffering, especially when it is visited upon the innocent. The apologist for atheism or naturalism quite readily asks the believer, “How could you possibly assert the existence of a loving God given the Holocaust, school shootings, tsunamis that kill hundreds of thousands of people, pandemics, etc.?” But I must confess that, in another sense, I find this argument from evil utterly unconvincing, and I say this precisely as a Catholic bishop—that is, as someone who holds and teaches the doctrine of God that comes from the Bible. For I don’t think that anyone who reads the Scriptures carefully could ever conclude that belief in a loving God is somehow incompatible with suffering.
There is no question that God loves Noah, and yet he puts Noah through the unspeakably trying ordeal of a flood that wipes out almost all of life on the earth. It is without doubt that God loves Abraham, and yet he asks that patriarch to sacrifice, with his own hand, his beloved son Isaac. More than almost anyone else in the biblical tradition, God loves Moses, and yet he prevents the great liberator from entering into the Promised Land. David is a man after the Lord’s own heart, the sweet singer of the house of Israel, and yet God punishes David for his adultery and his conspiracy to murder. Jeremiah is specially chosen by God to speak the divine word, and yet the prophet ends up rejected and sent into exile. The people Israel is God’s uniquely chosen race, his royal priesthood, and yet God permits Israel to be enslaved, exiled, and brutalized by her enemies. And bringing this dynamic to full expression, God delivers his only-begotten Son to be tortured to death on a cross.