To Ask “Where Is God in This Pandemic?” Is to Acknowledge that God Exists

Many ask: Where is God in this pandemic? This problem of theodicy is real, of course. We don’t always know or understand God’s ways.

But we should understand that the question “Where is God in this pandemic?” presupposes God’s existence. To see how, consider a world in which He didn’t exist. Without a Creator, there would be no objective moral standard — no standard of good or evil — that we could apply to this suffering. It would not be “wrong” in any objective moral sense for countless thousands of people to suffer and die. 

In a Godless world it would be unpleasant for those who suffer, of course, but there would be nothing morally wrong or morally perplexing in such suffering. If the universe is not under objective moral law, we have no warrant to ask “why” we or anyone suffers, any more than a machine has a warrant to ask why parts break. Parts of a machine may corrode or snap, but gadgets don’t suffer and there is no moral issue at stake.

Meaningless, Literally

Suffering in a universe without God and thus without objective good or evil is meaningless, literally. Richard Dawkins expressed the atheist perspective quite well:

The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.

But we are part of the universe, and we are not at all piteously indifferent. The intense sense we have of suffering — our suffering and the suffering of our families and neighbors and of humanity — implicitly points to an objective law of good and evil outside of ourselves. If suffering is wrong and evil, then there necessarily exists a moral framework that transcends material reality. Good and evil presuppose a Source of moral law. 

Natural Selection on an Industrial Scale

I don’t know why God allows pandemics. But I know that my — and Richard Dawkins’s — moral objection to human suffering is an implicit acknowledgement of God’s existence. I know that the suffering of innocents is evil, and is not merely unpleasant. That would not be the case if there were no moral Lawgiver outside of my own opinions. Heck, if I were a mere vehicle for selfish genes evolved wholly by natural selection, I would love mass death, as long as my own genes weren’t deleted. Coronavirus is efficient — natural selection on an industrial scale. Those of us who are alive are the winners. 

I would not know or care about good or evil unless there were a standard of good and evil independent of me. But we care a lot, and millions risk their own lives to save strangers. There is a Source of Good, of which evil is a privation. I ask Him why innocents suffer, and He hasn’t told me, or told anyone, as far as I know. 

My sense is that suffering on this scale is the working out of things far beyond human understanding. Perhaps theologian David Bentley Hart was right when he said, concerning the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004, that suffering on this scale is not morally intelligible, and that it would be far more terrible if were.  

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.