A Final Sermon in a Time of Pandemic

What does disease tell us about God?

I gave up on Christianity because it claims too much and explains too little. We know so little about the Cosmos we’re floating in—our home is one solar system among trillions—yet theologians brag and posture about God, as if they had some way of knowing: they claim too much. And when they brag about how good the Christian God is, they can’t tell us—in any even remotely convincing way—why there is colossal human and animal suffering: they explain too little. Even as I served two parishes in the Methodist Church, and plodded along on my PhD program in Biblical Studies, these deficiencies kept haunting me. Finally, I walked away.

The Rational Doubt Blog is the voice of The Clergy Project, which is an online support group for clergy who have become atheists. Linda LaScola oversees the blog, and wondered what kind of sermons could be preached about the pandemic—by clergy at various stages of walking away. She ran the idea by several of the contributing writers, including me, so here is the sermon I would preach today—if it were the last one as I made my exit.

My Farewell Sermon: Unbelief Wins

I suspect most of us can identify with the man who pleaded with Jesus to heal his son, who had suffered violent seizures for years. Jesus responded,

“All things can be done for the one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:23-24)

So much that is contrary to our hopes and wishes can hit us. Life goes off the rails. It’s no wonder that unbelief—at least the temptation to doubt—haunts all of us from time to time, as reluctant as we may be to say so out loud. This man, right in front of Jesus, admitted his doubt.

He was brought to this crisis by sickness, in this case, that of his son. This has been a common reaction to disease throughout history. Why is this happening? So it’s worth asking, isn’t it, “What does disease tell us about God?” Preachers, theologians, and laypeople have wrestled with this question for a long, long time. Many answers have been proposed, commonly to safeguard and preserve the idea that God is good—and cares.

But sometimes disease presents an extreme challenge—on the personal level, for example, when a child dies of cancer. And there have been extreme challenges on a global level—much worse, even, than what we’re now facing. One of the smartest persons I’ve ever come across was Barbara Tuchman, a historian who won two Pulitzer Prizes. In one of her books she described the Black Plague during the 14th century, which killed one-quarter to one-third of the population between India and England. By all accounts, the suffering was horrific. What was the aftermath, the impact of that trauma? In one paragraph especially, Tuchman helps us think about God and disease.

“Survivors of the plague, finding themselves neither destroyed nor improved, could discover no Divine purpose in the pain they had suffered. God’s purposes were usually mysterious, but this scourge had been too terrible to be accepted without questioning.”

“God’s purposes were usually mysterious.” That’s our common fallback, isn’t it—for theologians, preachers, and laypeople alike—when things get really bad. We’re stumped trying to find answers to painful questions, when things seem terribly unfair and just don’t make sense. We hit a brick wall, and sometimes balk at theology. Barbara Tuchman goes on to explain what happens:

“If a disaster of such magnitude, the most lethal ever known, was a mere wanton act of God or perhaps not God’s work at all, then the absolutes of a fixed order were loosed from their moorings. Minds that opened to admit these questions could never again be shut.” (both quotes, p. 129, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century)

“Perhaps not God’s work at all.” Is this such a radical idea? For those of us raised in the Christian tradition, it’s tough to wrap our minds around something as big as the Black Plague, especially that it happened outside God’s supervision. Even worse—and this was suggested at the time—the plague was said to be God’s punishment for human wickedness. But this disease was so cruel, so extreme, so brutal—how does the “goodness of God” survive the idea that he engineered it on purpose? No, that doesn’t work. Hence Tuchman’s suggestion that “the absolutes of a fixed order”—which would certainly include God’s love for creation—“were loosed from their moorings.”

Now, here we are dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic. So it’s still a fair question: what does disease tell us about God? The horrors of the 14th century plague have receded from human memory, so the bedrock Christian belief has endured: that God knows if even a sparrow falls to earth. He’s got the whole world in his hands.

But then reality smacks us. It’s painful to realize—it’s an outrage, actually—that God didn’t let the people in the 14th century know that rats and fleas were spreading the disease. That truth remained unrevealed; clearly, humanity was very much on its own. Today, of course we know about microbes, bacteria, viruses. Researchers are hard at work, twenty-four/seven, trying to figure out Covid-19, and to develop a vaccine. Christians have always believed that God reveals—so this is a legitimate question: why doesn’t God let us in on the secret of the vaccine? Right now, right away?

We get the feeling, again, that humanity is very much on its own. Why does God remain silent? One former Southern Baptist preacher says that, for him, this silence was a deal breaker. In a recent book, Tim Sledge put it this way:

“God had been watching silently for thousands of years by the time Jesus came along. It was late in the game, but couldn’t the Son of God—the one described as the Great Physician—have made a greater contribution to human health than healing a few people while he was on earth? Why didn’t Jesus say anything about germs.”

“Why didn’t the God of the universe—walking among mankind as Jesus—do a sidebar talk on germs?” (Page 46 & page 43, Four Disturbing Questions with One Simple Answer: Breaking the Spell of Christian Belief).

Actually, why didn’t God include a book in the Bible just on hygiene?

Indeed, the more we’ve learned about disease just within the last century—yes, why didn’t God tell us earlier?—the more we realize the truth of Tuchman’s observation: “... the absolutes of a fixed order were loosed from their moorings.” And Tim Sledge has stated the case bluntly. Our questions about God and disease won’t go away.

Of course this is a serious issue, but there’s no harm in lightening up a little. Sometimes humor jolts us with truth. Ogden Nash (1902-1971) was noted for witty short poems, one of which has stuck with me through the years:

“The Lord in His wisdom made the fly,
And then forgot to tell us why.”

But those pests have much lower ranking on the misery scale than mosquitoes, which have been really bad news for humans. Theologian Daniel C. Maguire has driven home this point with humor, puncturing confident theology:

“This ‘nice God’ hypothesis does run into some knotty problems; take mosquitoes for example. What kind of a nice god would create blood-sucking, disease-spreading needles with wings?”

We’re told that God created the world with our well-being in mind—humans and the world have been intelligently designed—but we’ve learned too much to be convinced. Theology takes a hit from these bits of information:

• “Mosquitoes are our apex predator, the deadliest hunter of human beings on the planet. A swarming army of 100 trillion or more mosquitoes patrols nearly every inch of the globe, killing about 700,000 people annually. Researchers suggest that mosquitoes may have killed nearly half of the 108 billion humans who have ever lived across our 200,000-year or more existence.” (Timothy Winegard, 27 July 2019, New York Times)

• “Malaria may have killed half of all the people that ever lived. And more people are now infected than at any point in history. There are up to half a billion cases every year, and about 2 million deaths - half of those are children in sub-Saharan Africa.” (John Whitfield, Nature, 3 October 2002)

So many children, so much death. Humanity seems very much on its own.

Unbelief Wins

I was raised in the Christian tradition of trusting in God. I studied the Bible intensely, to the point, indeed, of making it my vocation; ordination became a mark of my commitment. But information about the world keeps piling on, at such a pace that theology can’t keep up; God-works-in-mysterious-ways just doesn’t cut it anymore. I discovered that my trust in God was misinformed. Retaining my ordination now would be dishonest. It is no longer appropriate for me to lead those who profess trust in God.

At some points along the way I have sympathized with that father who begged Jesus, “Help my unbelief!” But the suffering of humanity engineered mercilessly by nature itself—the suffering of one son multiplied many billions of times—renders trust in God unsustainable.

As they say, “too much information,” right? It’s time to move on.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published in 2016 by Tellectual Press. It was reissued in 2018 with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

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