In the last few weeks, our society has been confronted with a pandemic affecting every part of life. Reactions have been multifaceted. The barrage of coverage on the news has created a panic that is palpable. Every continent and hundreds of countries are responding to the Covid-19 virus. Over and over again, we’ve heard politicians, pundits, and even preachers put a positive spin on the situation, “We’ll get through it.” “We’ll come back stronger than ever.” While negative news and panic-inducing content sell stories and buy clicks, I think we all want to gravitate toward the hopeful and positive. But we must be careful that positivity does not equal hubris.
In fact, the hubris that claims we will be victorious is not at all uncommon to human nature. Human history has witnessed individuals who think they are more than they really are. But we are especially prone to humanistic hubris in the 21st century. Overestimating human capabilities while minimizing humanity’s uniqueness is a product of a postmodern worldview.
In his classic, The God Who Is There, Francis Schaeffer correctly points out that modern and postmodern worldviews which reject God also reject moral absolutes. We are living in a world today without moral absolutes and with a misguided view of humanity. In a contemporary view of humanity (derived from evolutionary naturalism), man is merely an evolved animal. While man might be one more rung up the food chain, he does not possess inherent morality. Another misguided notion about man is that he is the pinnacle of existence (humanism). Man is capable of great things—solving pandemics, creating cures, and conquering the world. In this view, man is supremely capable, but when man takes too much credit, he is destined for a fall. See the handwringing and panic present in the reality that we have not solved this pandemic yet.
In a biblical worldview, man is neither an evolved animal nor the pinnacle of existence. Rather, man is an image bearer of God. Indeed, man is uniquely special in creation because we bear God’s image, but we are also depraved and sinful. A biblical perspective on mankind should inform our response to this pandemic.
An interesting source to contrast these postmodern perspectives with a biblical worldview comes from the novel, La Peste (The Plague) written by postmodern philosopher Albert Camus in the mid-twentieth century. The novel describes a fictional account of a European town quarantined by the Bubonic Plague. Camus narrates the story through the lens of Dr. Rieux who spent months caring for the citizens of the town and pronouncing their deaths due to the plague.
The Plague is a timely case study during the Covid-19 pandemic. Thankfully, this current pandemic does not appear to have the same mortality rate as the Bubonic Plague of past centuries. We should also be grateful that modern medicine has not only nearly eradicated the plague, but we have hope that it will do the same with Covid-19. Nevertheless, the story warrants consideration.
Here is an eerily timely quote from the book:
Thus the first thing that plague brought to our town was exile. And the narrator is convinced that he can set down here, as holding good for all, the feeling he personally had and to which many of his friends confessed. It was undoubtedly the feeling of exile, that sensation of a void within which never left us, that irrational longing to hark back to the past or else to speed up the march of time, and those keen shafts of memory that stung like fire. Sometimes we toyed with our imagination, composing ourselves to wait for a ring at the bell announcing somebody’s return, or for the sound of a familiar footstep on the stairs; but, though we might deliberately stay at home at the hour when a traveler coming by the evening train would normally have arrived, and though we might contrive to forget for the moment that no trains were running, that game of make-believe, for obvious reasons, could not last. Always a moment came when we had to face the fact that no trains were coming in. And then we realized that the separation was destined to continue, we had no choice but to come to terms with the days ahead. In short, we returned to our prison-house, we had nothing left us but the past, and even if some were tempted to live in the future, they had speedily to abandon the idea anyhow, as soon as could be, once they felt the wounds that the imagination inflicts on those who yield themselves to it.Albert Camus, La Peste
The story offers a deeply troubling view of man and of God that I believe is instructive for our situation. In my opinion, we have adopted some of the hubris and helplessness highlighted in the novel—to our detriment.
The view of man showing compassion for his neighbors is commendable. We are witnessing that same bent today through acts of generosity, care for the sick, personal sacrifices, and even the simple act of staying home to mitigate the spread of a virus. However in the final analysis, Camus leaves us wanting. Man is helpless in the face of the plague (the many who died in the story). Man is kind to neighbors (Dr. Rieux and many others), yet with a decidedly melancholy outlook. Paneloux, the Catholic preacher in the story, held a different view. He claimed the virus was God’s will, and required a response of total submission to God to the “disdain of our human personality.” Little humility or comfort were displayed in Paneloux’s sermons. The end of the book leaves one feeling depressed at the lack of meaning and explanation for suffering. This is where postmodernism leaves us. Man is either helpless (Rieux) or full of hubris (Paneloux).,
The view of God in the story is more troubling. Rieux, along with other main characters, either avoid discussion of God or admit agnosticism. Paneloux’s God is not merely sovereign, but directing the plague as judgment. While a surface reading might find this view somewhat consistent with Scripture, there is theological difficulty when claiming that God directs human suffering and death. For Paneloux, God willed the plague and thus the individual deaths experienced. The other characters could not stomach this view. And that is the point. God, according to Camus’ interpretation of Christianity is more akin to the controlling Allah in Islam, than the loving Father of biblical Christianity.
Francis Schaeffer evaluated Camus’ arguments.
The Christian never faces the dilemma pose in Camus’ book La Peste. It is simply not true that he either has to side with the doctor against God by fighting the plague or join with the priest on God’s side and thus be much less than human by not fighting the plague. If this were an either-or choice in life, it would indeed be terrible. But the Christian is not confined to such a choice… Jesus, standing in front of the tomb of Lazarus, was angry at death and the abnormality of the world—the destruction and distress caused by sin. In Camus’ words, Christ hated the plague. He claimed to be God, and He could hate the plague without hating Himself as God. A Christian can fight what is wrong in the world with compassion and know that as he hates these things, God hates them too. God hates them to the high price of the death of Christ.Francis Schaeffer, The God Who Is There, 117
So we do not have to remain shackled by the contemporary views of man or God. God is sovereign, yes, but he hates the destructive nature of sin. God hates this virus that is taking lives. He hates not only this virus, but wars, violence, prejudice, drunk-driving, suicide, addiction, and any other form of suffering or evil that robs man of life. We can witness God’s anger at the fallen condition of man at the cross. God weeps with the loved ones who bury their dead.
In a biblical worldview, man is not helpless, but neither is he sovereign. We can do our part. Social distancing may be a passive act, but it may quite literally save lives. And this is pleasing to God who gives life. We may also be active in caring for the sick or in comforting the hurting or in providing support for the economically devastated. This is proper and loving for the Christian.
Postmodernism, as Camus espoused, has birthed many philosophical and theological offshoots. Many of the pundits, politicians, newscasters, and philosophers are bound up in false views of God. Either he does not exist or he does not care, or he cares, but can do nothing. This god is meaningless.
But the One True God is not meaningless. The One True God exists, is sovereign, and loves mankind. God’s grand act of love (for humanity) and hate (for sin) on the cross provides a lens through which the Christian can view this pandemic.
- We should weep with the bereaved.
- We should care for the sick.
- We should pray for a treatment and a cure.
- We should seek wisdom for society’s reopening.
- We should be generous.
- We should love each other.
- We should not think we are in control.
- We should be humble and seek the God who is.
God is now during the pandemic, and he will be when it is over. He will be forevermore. And his existence and love offer us hope at the end of this pandemic: a hope not out of hubris, but out of humility.