Online Conversation | Where is God in a Coronavirus World?
On Friday, May 29, 2020 The Trinity Forum was honored to welcome Oxford mathematician, prolific author, and Trinity Forum Senior Fellow, John Lennox. In this conversation John shares insights from his latest book, Where is God in a Coronavirus World?
Special thanks to this event’s sponsors: Arne and Debra Christenson, and Keith Skogen.
The painting is Tageszeitenzyklus: Der Abend by Caspar David Friedrich, 1822
Special thanks to this event’s sponsors:
and Arne Christenson
Transcript of Where is God in a Coronavirus World? with John Lennox
Cherie Harder: For all of us, all around the world, this has certainly been an uncertain and often fearful time. In some places such as Italy, Spain, and New York City, the scale and the density of the misery is hard to fathom. For many people, the severity of the suffering has felt like too much to bear, and it all makes us wonder, “Where is God in all of this?” Our guest today, Dr. John Lennox, has tackled that question quite directly in a deeply thoughtful new book entitled “Where is God in a Coronavirus World?”, which has already been translated into more than 20 different languages and disseminated worldwide, and which we’ve invited him here today to discuss with us. Dr. John Lennox is a professor of mathematics at Oxford University and an internationally-renowned speaker on the relationship between science, philosophy, and religion. He is also an incredibly prolific author and public intellectual, and the author of such books as “God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?”, “God and Stephen Hawking,” “Seven Days that Divide the World,” and, among many others, “Can Science Explain Everything?” In addition to his books, he has published more than 70 different mathematical treatises and is the co-author of two different research-level texts in algebra as part of the Oxford Mathematical Monograph series. And, I am very proud to say, he is also a Senior Fellow of the Trinity Forum. Dr. Lennox, welcome.
John Lennox: Thank you very much. I’m honored and delighted to be part of this. Good evening, afternoon, or morning to all of you.
Cherie Harder: We’re really glad to have you here. Your book was clearly a labor of love, but also a labor of real urgency. You have written this, published this, and gotten it translated to more than 20 different languages since the start of the pandemic. Why did you feel so compelled to write it?
John Lennox: Partly because I’m a mathematician. When I saw that this was going to grow exponentially (and mathematicians tend to know about exponential growth), I felt impelled to think about doing something about it. I’m old. I’m in my mid-70s. My wife and I are locked down as vulnerable adults. And I thought, “Can I do anything? Because I can’t go out.” So I simply sat down on a Monday morning and thought, “Can I speak into this?” Not offering simplistic answers, because there aren’t any, but perhaps trying in a modest way to help people think about the big questions that COVID-19 raises. So I wrote furiously all day long for a week, and on Saturday evening I sent it off to a publisher who hadn’t seen it before. By the following Wednesday, it was printed. And so it went on from there with a language being added every day or so. So I’m very thrilled with this. In a lot of countries, of course, it’s been put on free of charge as an e-book, so hundreds of thousands of them have gone, even into Chinese and Russian and languages like that. So, yes, I just felt that perhaps there was something worth saying in the name of Christianity.
Cherie Harder: This is a broad question, but we are living in a fearful time. We face a virus for which there is no known cure or vaccine, and which is highly contagious and easily transmitted, often lethal in its course. It’s also exposed in many ways both our insufficiencies as people and the shortcomings of our governments. How do we live faithfully amidst unavoidable fear?
John Lennox: That is, as we all know, a very difficult question. To live in scary situations, you’ve got to have inner resources and you’ve got to have some sort of dimension to get a grip of that’s outside yourself. This is where Christianity comes right into the center. It doesn’t offer to take the disease away, except in the hands of competent doctors and all the rest of it. And I admire them immensely, risking their lives for the rest of us. But what it does offer is a relationship, if we understand it correctly: the relationship of Christ, through trusting Him and His death and particularly [His] resurrection. COVID-19 can’t touch that. I mean that quite sincerely. I might die of COVID-19 on a shopping trip. I might catch it, and because of underlying health problems, it would probably kill me. But what helps me to face it – not understand it all, not solve all the problems, and we’ll talk about those later – but what helps me face it is the confidence that I have a relationship that actually transcends death. And this is a very big thing.
Cherie Harder: Throughout your book, you repeatedly mention that we as Christians worship a God who suffers. Why is that so significant and important?
John Lennox: Well, watch the reactions of people – I watch them very carefully, I was first introduced to this kind of thing on a smaller scale, but it meant a lot to the people who were involved. I arrived in New Zealand just a couple of days after the Christchurch earthquake, and all the people wanted to talk about was, “Earthquakes, why?” I had to face these questions, and I noticed that there are two distinct sets of questions. There are the intellectual questions, which are often but not always asked by people who are watching the suffering. But then there are the people who are actually experiencing the suffering. Very often their questions are relational, they’re emotional. They have deep pastoral needs. They want a touch, they want a hug, and so on. One of the things that has really moved me in recent days is the story of that tiny family, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, that John’s gospel tells us about. [Lazarus] got some disease, and the sisters who knew Jesus wrote a letter and said, “The one you love is ill.” And of course they expected Him to come. He didn’t come, and they watch their brother die. Here’s where it becomes very relevant to our current situation. He stayed at a distance, and that raises a deep question: Is God in quarantine? Is He isolating Himself? Is He maintaining a social distance? Or does He just not exist? But when Jesus eventually came, sister Martha met Him and said, “Lord, if you’d been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.” They had no question about His power. The question was about His willingness, which is another question we hear about today. Jesus looked at her and said, “Martha, your brother will rise again.” “Oh, yes,” she said, “I know that. At the last day.” And they started on a pretty deep theological discussion about the resurrection. But then Mary came, and she said exactly the same words: “Lord, if you’d been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.” And then she burst out crying. Jesus didn’t start a discussion with her. He wept, too. I really think that this teaches us the breadth of the heart of God: that Jesus was prepared to talk and answer the big questions, but He was also prepared to weep. Of course, a cynic would say, “Aren’t those crocodile tears?” No, because He was about to go to the cross for them. You ask about suffering at the heart of Christianity, and it is at the heart of Christianity. I’ve often said to people, “If Jesus really is the Son of God, then what’s God doing on a cross?” – to put it fairly crudely. It certainly is telling me that God does not remain distant from human suffering. He’s become part of it. Now, that is a window in that doesn’t solve anything, but it reveals the heart of God. And I want to follow that, because if that is what God is like, then perhaps there is in the end some way of getting to grips with this that doesn’t let go of the love of God and His compassion.
Cherie Harder: One of the cruelest aspects of corona is the way that it isolates, and isolation is its own form of suffering. In many ways, the people who are the most sick and the most fearful are those who are most cut off – perhaps from the perception of God’s love, but also from the reality of other human contact. I’m confident we have some of those folks watching today who have corona and are isolated. What would you say to them?
John Lennox: One of the things that I have found challenging about this is precisely that. A couple of weeks ago, I thought, “Look, you’re locked in, but you have a telephone and you have the Internet. Why don’t you sit and carefully think of people that you haven’t talked to for years and who might welcome a visit in that way?” It was actually quite embarrassing, because the first person I phoned up said, “Why are you contacting me after all these years?” And I apologized. But at the end of the conversation, he said, “Look, this has really made my day. Thank you so much for thinking of me.” And I think something that we can do if we’re fit and well is to reach out to people, particularly those people who we think or we know are suffering, are threatened with this, and talk to them and speak to them and perhaps do a Skype call so that they can see us. Many other people are doing this and they are massively encouraging people. It doesn’t cure people, but it certainly gives a human presence. One of the things that’s encouraged me about the response of people of all faiths (and none) is the increase in neighborliness and offering to help. We’ve been very impressed with neighbors who said, “You want your shopping done? You shouldn’t risk going to a shop,” and all this. Now, that’s only a little thing to say to people that are suffering. But there, again, I would want in that sense for them to be like either Martha or Mary. Go back to some of the Scriptures that have encouraged people. It’s no accident that through the centuries people have derived huge comfort from the Psalms of David, often written from depths of deep trouble. “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” Some of you I’m talking to may be doing that. “You are with me, your rod and your staff they comfort me.” [We are] to remind ourselves if we’re Christians particularly – and if we’re not, to think about it – that Jesus offers to be the Shepherd who will guide us not only in the wonderful places, but in the very difficult and shadowy and dark places.
Cherie Harder: One of the things I really appreciate about your book, Dr. Lennox, is that you did tackle some of those difficult intellectual questions that you mentioned earlier. You waded right into theodicy, and in some ways engaged the most difficult parts of theodicy. It’s easy enough to basically draw a line between man’s wrongdoing and the evil consequences that result. It seems much harder to grapple with natural evils: the predations and dark cruelties that seem to be baked into the natural order. The fact that corona isolates as it suffocates; the wasp that lays its eggs inside the moth and the larvae [that] basically eat their way out as they hatch. How are we to understand the love of a Creator God when so much cruelty and seeming ugliness is baked into the heart of the natural world?
John Lennox: This is the hardest question that anybody faces, whatever their worldview. We all face it, because we all see two things. We see beauty, on one hand. I looked at the Orion Nebula through my telescope the other night – spectacular. And then I come in and the news is on, and it’s an intensive care ward with the camera turned away because people are choking to death. And you’re absolutely right: this is the central hard question. You’re also right, and it’s perceptive to note, that somehow we find it easier to deal with moral evil than we do with natural evil – which is almost an oxymoron, because evil is a moral concept. But I’ll come to that in a moment. It is very difficult to cope with, especially when you realize that the things that are causing the trouble are generically vital to human life. What I mean by that is, there are millions of viruses, and we need them! Very few are pathogenic. They’re essential to life. I met this in New Zealand, because I discovered, reading up on plate tectonics and earthquakes, that the plate tectonics (the motion of those great plates on which the continents sit) is essential to give us oxygen in the atmosphere. Without them, we wouldn’t exist. And similarly with viruses. The thing is that something fractures not only moral nature, but also physical nature. Now, people make different things of the biblical story, but I often say it’s worth listening to it to see if it makes any sense. Very briefly – we can’t go into the vast detail of it, but it doesn’t matter, because the point can be made simply. What Scripture says is [that] right at the beginning there was a connection between moral evil and physical damage. Human beings [have] the wonderful gift that God has given all of us: the ability to choose. That enables us to make relationships, it means we’re in a moral universe, and all the rest of it. And if I could just pause there, many people say to me, “Why didn’t God make a world in which there was no good and no evil?” “Well,” I say, “Of course, He could have done that. In fact, you could make a world like that, full of robots and automata that are neither good nor evil. But why do you want to wish yourself out of existence?” And they say to me, “What?” I say, “Yes, you’re wishing yourself out of existence, because the world you want to live in wouldn’t have you in it. Because you are a wonderful human being made in the image of God, capable of making relationships.” The problem with that is, as Lewis pointed out a long time ago, that if you’re capable of love, you’re capable of hate. Human beings rebelled against God. They didn’t believe in His word. They introduced sin and rebellion into the world. What happened through that had a physical consequence. The deepest one was human death. Paul puts it this way: “As through one man’s sin entered into the world a death through sin…” And so death passed upon all human beings. But then, if you read the story carefully, you will see that God told them what the consequence would be. There would be grain, there would be food, but also thorns and thistles. And I suspect it could have included earthquakes and COVID-19. There’s a connection – a fracture in human nature that has led to a fracture in physical nature. Now, this raises questions about the nature of God, which you have said. How I look at it is perhaps a little too simplistic: I didn’t engineer it. It’s not my fault that the world’s in this mess, and it’s not yours either. It started millennia before we were born. Now, if God turned round and said, “OK, you’re expected to put it right by yourself,” then I would begin to complain seriously. But here I see a way of understanding the Christian message that begins to get our sense of proportion right. Because the Christian good news is that precisely because this thing is much bigger than you are, started long before you existed, that God has decided to do something to put it right. The whole message is not of humans trying desperately to merit acceptance by God, but of God reaching down to us and coming into our world and doing something whereby we can receive His forgiveness, peace with God, new life, and a new power to live – not through our merit, but simply as a gift of grace. And so the problem is balanced by the nature of the solution. Now, that deserves unpacking in a lot of detail, but that’s roughly how I begin to tackle it. I know there are all kinds of side questions, but that would be the start.
Cherie Harder: I have a feeling we’ll be getting some of those side questions in the Q&A.
John Lennox: I think we will.
Cherie Harder: But let me ask you as well: I think, unfortunately, it is fair to say that the public perception of Christians’ and the church’s response to COVID, at least in the United States, wouldn’t be primarily characterized as that of extending hope, at least in terms of the way it’s portrayed. You hear much more about churches that refuse to close, pastors who claim that God will protect them shortly before becoming infected, and the like. What should the church do to extend hope? And what should we as individuals do to show the love of God to neighbor?
John Lennox: Well, I’m speaking to you from the United Kingdom. What we’ve noticed here is something that we last saw in wartime, and that is that the virtual churches are packed full of people. They reckoned last week that 25 percent of the nation here turned and listened to a church service. That’s amazing, because we’ve only got about 5 percent of church attendance. You have a lot more than that in the United States. It’s difficult for me, because not living there, I don’t experience those kinds of reactions. What I do experience: the pastors I know and the church ministers are making every effort to reach out. They’re having services every day and they’re trying to answer the big questions. And they’re reporting an absolutely marvelous response. I know in some places there are problems, because sometimes professing Christians can be very judgmental and they react to this whole thing by saying, “God’s judging us, or judging this nation, or judging those people.” I don’t know whether you want me to speak about that, because I think it’s quite important. Would you like me to say something about that?
Cherie Harder: Sure.
John Lennox: There’s an incident in the New Testament that is very helpful. I’m very cautious on this business of judgment, and I’ll tell you why. Jesus was once on the Temple Mount, where the temple was in Jerusalem. Somebody in the crowd said, “This is the very place, Lord, where Pilate came and massacred with his soldiers a group of worshipers.” (That’s moral evil.) “Yes,” He said. “And do you think they were worse than anybody else? I tell you, they weren’t.” And then, very interestingly, He introduced another incident that happened elsewhere in Jerusalem. He said, “What about the 18 people that the Tower of Siloam fell on? You think they were worse than anybody else in Jerusalem at the time? I tell you, they were not.” Here we have what the theologians call a “dominical utterance” about victims of catastrophes. I know only 18 were killed, but the principle is exactly the same. I think the message is very clear: when you see a tragedy, large or small, whether it’s moral evil or natural evil, don’t think that the victims are necessarily worse than anybody else. This is a very important thing to learn. But Jesus didn’t finish there. Turning to the crowd, He said, “Except you all repent, you shall likewise perish.” Of course, He didn’t mean that you have a choice of the way to die – either you’ll be massacred in church or a tower will fall on you. But I think what He meant was that these things act (and I’m quoting Lewis now) like God’s megaphone: “Wake up!” Here we are in Europe. We’ve neglected God increasingly for centuries. The word “God” doesn’t appear in our Constitution of the European Union. This is acting as a wake-up call, because you can’t see death on this scale without thinking about death, and you can’t think about death without thinking about eternity, about God. It raises all the big questions. I think there’s a connection. People are turning to listen and watch and hear things about God in the virtual world because they want an answer to the big question. So that’s the first thing: be very careful with judgment. Of course, God sent plagues. People say, “He sent plagues in the Old Testament. There you are, that’s His judgment.” Again, I say, “Careful.” We have Scripture telling us what those were. So far as I know, there’s no Scripture about COVID-19 or pandemics in the modern world. And the final point I’d make is this: that we’d been here before on a far worse scale, but most people don’t know it. Some people reckon The Black Death of the 14th century killed 200 million people. [It] wiped out a large percentage of Europe. But the most interesting one, perhaps, is one of the earliest ones, where the emperor was amazed at the Christian response. Why? Because they not only looked after their own people, the Christians; they went at great risk to themselves and they looked after pagan people. This is a legacy that we need to focus on, because, of course, that was the beginning of hospices and hospitals. They’re all a Christian legacy, as people like Rodney Stark have pointed out and others in recent years. It’s very important to factor that in: the response of Christians to that kind of need. And I think that goes some way to redressing the balance. But not the whole way.
Cherie Harder: You mentioned death a little bit earlier. One of the one of the challenges of corona is that it not only reveals our vulnerabilities, but it also reveals our own mortality. Over a hundred thousand people in the United States have already died. In the course of doing a little bit of research for our conversation, I read that you had a narrow brush with death about a decade ago. I wanted to ask you, for people who are fearful and for people who may be possibly facing death: how did you prepare for death? How does one prepare for death?
John Lennox: Well, of course, it’s a very personal thing. If you don’t mind me sharing something personal, I’m happy to do it. I can only say how I responded. I had very little time. I had had a bit of warning with pain in my heart. As it turned out, I was taken into hospital, and they sent me home. They thought it could be cured with medicine. The pain got worse, and suddenly I was rushed in in an ambulance. The next thing I heard was a young doctor saying, “We’re losing him.” They actually ran with me on a trolley to the operating theater. Fortunately, there was a surgeon there. And at the door of the theater, I said goodbye to my wife. I’ve been married over 50 years. I said goodbye to her because it seemed there was absolutely no hope. The door closed behind me, and I went in. They started the operation and the doctor said, “Look, there’s no blood coming through your right coronary artery. Please be quiet. I’m going to have to operate very rapidly.” There was dead silence for 40 minutes. Then he bent over me and he said, “Professor Lennox, I don’t know what to say to you. You should be dead.” Those were his first words. And I said, “Really?” “Yes,” he said. “I don’t understand why you’re not dead, but your heart hasn’t even been damaged. You can go home tomorrow” – which was amazing. Now, what I want to report – and this is just what happened to me – is this: I had complete peace. That was astonishing, because it wasn’t just an intellectual peace. It was a sense of calm, of knowing where I was going, of knowing that the Lord whom I’ve walked with for many years now, since my teen-age, wasn’t going to let me down. So I’m thankful for that. But there’s a codicil to it. You see, at almost the same time, my sister had a lovely daughter of 22, just married to a youth pastor. She got a brain tumor and it killed her. So it’s all very well for me to be thankful that my life was saved. I’ve been given another dozen years that have been very productive. But that wasn’t true for my sister. If we’re going to get these things in a right sense of proportion, I’ve not only got to be thankful for myself; I’ve got to have something to say to people who do lose loved ones in this way or lose their own lives. But all I can say is – well, it’s a very important thing – is that the Lord has promised to be near us when we’re in situations. He hasn’t always promised to tell us everything beforehand. It’s a bit like where he told the disciples that “if the world hates me, it’s going to hate you. But don’t worry what you’re going to say, because in that hour it will be given to you.” Now, He wasn’t giving them an excuse not to prepare a talk. This is when you’re suddenly caught out and you’re put into the court and you don’t really know what to do – “How shall I respond?” He said, “I’m going to meet you in the situation.” And I think that’s what I experienced. And therefore, I would expect that you can generalize that, that the Lord meets us in our need and on the cross. You say, “Where was God in the middle of the suffering?” Well, he was there, suffering. And that is a message for our hearts. We can’t explain it all or rationalize it all. But it has a huge and deep and important comforting, emotional impact that we need.
Cherie Harder: Thanks, Dr. Lennox. During this last half hour of our program, we’re going to take questions from our viewers, and there’s a bunch lined up. As Alyssa said earlier, you can not only ask a question, you can also like a question. The more likes a question has, the more likely it will be asked to our speaker. Our first question comes from Michael Lundy, who quotes some verses from Isaiah and then says, “How can we be less alarmist and more Christian about our inevitable mortality and God’s control of it without being complacent or reckless?”
John Lennox: Again, that’s a difficult and a very good question. We [have] swings and roundabouts. How we react has to a large extent got to do with our temperament. But we live in a society that tries to often play down death. We’re familiar with it in movies. There’s endless death, and we get inured to it. It has no real significance. The goody gets away with and the baddies get killed. At least that’s what it was when I watched cowboys and Indians nearly a century ago. We’re aware that there’s plenty of death, but there’s very little analysis of death. Something that has struck me about this coronavirus is, when we look at the media, we get what? In our country, we have only two kinds of people that appear: politicians and medics. There are no thinkers. There are no philosophers. There are no ethicists. There are no theologians. There are no people speaking into this and saying, “Now look, folks, the medics have told us that we’re mortal. The politicians are trying their best to protect us. But what do these things really mean?” It’s a forensic kind of scientific analysis that goes on the basis of statistics and leaves out all the important questions of meaning. You ask, “How can we avoid being complacent or alarmist?” I think the closer we live to God, and the more we soak our minds in the balance and the health of Scripture, the better we will be equipped to deal with that. And the second thing I would say is this: constant interaction with individuals. I do a lot in public. I speak to large groups of people, particularly in the U.S. over the last few years for the Veritas Forum and the Trinity Forum. It’s one thing to talk to large crowds, but I think whatever little power I’ve got in public comes from engagement in listening to people’s heartbeat. I was told when I was a child that I had two years and one mouth and that I should try to use them in that proportion. I’ve played Socrates all my life, asking people questions and trying to get them to reveal what’s going on. And some of us, we have to battle with our temperament. We can be cockeyed optimists and ride over the feelings of more sensitive people. We need to learn [that] people we’re talking to may have different presuppositions in their background, in their lives. We need to learn to see them as people. The only way to do that is to listen to them. So it’s all bound up with our approach to our fellow human beings. And then we [may] get an opportunity in the public space to translate it and to come across with sympathy. Jesus was often firm with people, but He could be very sensitive and understanding. And I covet that.
Cherie Harder: Our next question comes from an anonymous attendee who asked, “Is God using the COVID-19 plague as one more warning of severe mercy to call us back to Him?”
John Lennox: Well, that’s certainly a possible interpretation. When I referred earlier to C.S. Lewis, and I did it carefully, I pointed out that this kind of thing appears to act as God’s megaphone. That’s how it functions. We can see that actually happening. I put that together with the incident I referred to on the Temple Mount, the question of the falling of the tower and were these people any worse and so on. Jesus gave a warning on the basis of it: “Except you repent, you shall likewise perish.” So he’s saying, you’re mortal, you’re vulnerable, you’re weak. Look, an invisible, untrackable microbe is killing people. And if that’s not a wake-up to think about God, I don’t know what is. So that is a consequence of this. You see, when you use the words, “Is God using it?”, you need to be careful with what people take from that. Because the next step up is to say [that] this is a deterministic world and God causes it. And I think that denies both the love of God and the way in which He’s constituted us. Of course, God is the Creator. He’s built a universe in which this is possible, so He allows it. But to think that God directly causes it – I think we end up in a moral abyss. In fact, morality disappears.
Cherie Harder: Our next question is also from an anonymous attendee who asked, “How can we be a light to those around us suffering from the mental and emotional effects of COVID-19 and show care for those dealing with increased depression and anxiety?”
John Lennox: I always find generic questions difficult. And so do you all, because every person is an individual and [there’s] a vast variety of responses of depressions. I’m not criticizing the question. It’s a very real question, and my heart goes out to people. But you can only help people that you know, and you can only help them to a certain extent. What I mean by that is this. Sometimes these reactions – traumatic, mental, emotional responses and depressions – sometimes they need medical intervention. And one of the things people who are involved in pastoral ministry learn very early on is how to tell whether a person actually needs medical help as distinct from wise advice. You get examples in Scripture of people that got very depressed. Elijah is the most famous one, perhaps. He saw a huge spiritual victory over the prophets of Baal, and then Jezebel – she must have been absolutely terrifying, because she got after his life and he started to run. He ran, I believe, more than a marathon. Then he sat down under a tree and he said, “I’m the only one left. I’m worse than my fathers,” and he wished to die. He got suicidal. But God spoke to him and said, “Elijah, actually, you’re wrong. You’re not the only one left.” Secondly, He sent an angel who woke the man up and gave him some food and drink, told him to go back to sleep, and then told him to take a holiday. I am caricaturing slightly, but sometimes people get themselves stressed out and what they need to hear is not some gloomy analysis of their depression, but someone to say, “Are you getting enough fresh air? Have you had enough sleep?” A real practical coming-alongside. Perhaps you’re not eating enough. You’ve gotten so worried or you’re so frightened of COVID that you’re not shopping and getting food. Well, perhaps there are other people that can do that. But there’s a vast spectrum of reasons. And so I find the question generically utterly impossible to answer. But if we’re confronted with a single person or family, we can try to explore with them exactly what it is that’s bothering them and worrying them. We can think and pray about it and try to help. We certainly won’t solve the problems of all the world, that’s for sure.
Cherie Harder: Our next question comes from Roger Trigg, who says, “It’s difficult from a scientific point of view to explain a connection between moral evil and natural evil. Could Dr. Lennox say a bit more about this?”
John Lennox: I can give you an example in COVID-19. Now, this depends on top-level medical information coming from the World Health Organization. How did it start? According to some top experts, it started in a food market where wild animals are sold for consumption. Think about that. Why did that happen? Well, when you confine a wild animal away from its habitat and put it into a cage, it gets stressed. Stressed animals excrete, and they excrete vast billions of viruses. And so this virus jumped from animals to humans. At least that’s the theory, and there’s a fair bit of evidence for it. Now, why were those animals taken out of their habitat? Human greed. People wanting to make a lot of money because they’re very expensive, regarded as delicacies. So we have a very complex situation now, because clearly the people that bought those animals and were going to sell them and make a profit – we can’t blame them for infecting the whole world as if it was a deliberate act. But it seems there that moral evil could be connected with a catastrophe at the natural level that followed it. And that happens all the time. People want wood, so they strip the Amazon forest and they sell the wood. That leads to desertification. It can lead to a whole tribe dying out of starvation. So you’ve got the natural disaster following the moral disaster. Therefore, it seems to me that there’s a very close connection. A moment’s thought will show that it’s all over the place.
Cherie Harder: This next question comes from Ray Carter, who asked, “Do you feel the church today is less prepared to deal with a pandemic, as far as anxiety and fear go, than [with] pandemics of the past? Have the comforts of Western civilization and the desire to maintain a certain standard of living caused us to be unable to or less likely to suffer well when suffering does come?”
John Lennox: I can imagine that’s true of some people. Again, it’s a generic question. The church is composed of many churches, which are composed of individuals. I don’t have that kind of bird’s-eye overview or helicopter view of all the churches. I couldn’t judge that. But I can see that there is a real danger. Many of us thought that something like this could never happen again. We looked back to the Middle Ages, [to] the bubonic plague, The Black Death, and we discovered that that was carried by rats. We sorted that out, and many of the major plagues have been eradicated. We didn’t think we’d be there again, because medicine has got rid of all those things. And now suddenly, with a bang, we’re right in the middle of it again. If we can imagine what it must have been like to live in the 14th century with wars going on all around, with no anesthetics, as C.S. Lewis once pointed out – living in those conditions was absolute misery compared with the lives that many of us live today. There is a danger in the noise of modern Western swinging life that we don’t hear the still small voice of God, and therefore we’re not as prepared as we should be. We’re not as engaged as we should be. [Regarding] the title of my book, “Where is God in a Coronavirus World?” – depending on who asks me, I sometimes say, “Tell me, where was God in your world before the coronavirus hit? Where was He? Did you know Him? Were you looking for Him? Have you had any experience of Him? Where was He then?” And then I quietly say, “He’s in the coronavirus world exactly where He was before. If you step towards Him, [He is] prepared to offer you His salvation, but He won’t break His way into your life. He’s waiting for you to respond.” So it’s very easy to imagine that the questioner is right. We weren’t prepared. But how do we respond to that? What do I do about it? I think the most important thing these days is that a certain complacency which occurs in some places has introduced another fear, particularly into Christians’ lives: the fear of communicating what they believe in the public space or even in the private space. And indeed, I was so concerned about that (if you don’t mind me making another advertisement) that I wrote a little book last year called “Have No Fear.” It’s [overcoming] the fear of engagement with our neighbors to spread this message that could well have the effect of us being better prepared in the future and much more realistic.
Cherie Harder: Our next question comes from Friedrich Hass of Germany, who says, “Corona has shown us once again how unpredictable a highly analog and digital-networked world has become. The uncertainty and anxiety of this also characterizes many entrepreneurs because all of their forecasting tools no longer work. We’re facing a major recession. How can Christians and churches restore confidence in the public space after faith has often become a purely private affair?”
John Lennox: I’m delighted to hear from somebody in Germany. [Speaks in German.] It’s lovely to hear somebody from a neighboring country, and one that I know very well. This is a huge concern. Job losses and airlines and the travel industry – my own son [is] in a situation where he’s now been furloughed and he doesn’t know what’s going to happen. He’s in sales. So these things hit right at home. We’re not only facing the results of the pandemic. We’re also, in the context of your question, facing the rise of artificial intelligence. Jobs are being replaced at a great speed, where one machine is doing the work of 10 people. That is a very worrying thing, even if we hadn’t the pandemic to be concerned about. But here again, it’s a generic question, and you’ll be very bored hearing me constantly say the same thing. But it’s impossible to give an answer to that. Except that I suspect I’m speaking to quite a few people who are in senior positions. One of the most marvelous things that some of you folks in business and industry are doing is something I’ve never really been able to do myself, and that is to give employment to people. I admire you greatly for doing that. I have been a mathematician and an academic and so was employed by a university. The only people I’ve given employment to are occasional gardeners. Some of you have taken the entrepreneurial risk and created jobs, sometimes for thousands of people. This is a wonderful God-given ability. I think the question is best addressed by captains of industry and so on who live with integrity – they want to give jobs to people, and they find it painful to have to make folks redundant (although they have to do that sometimes). I think those are the people you need to have on a webinar like this to give you real answers from their own experience.
Cherie Harder: Richard Miles asked our next question, which is, “The terms sin and evil are rarely used nowadays with respect to human behavior. Does this contribute to our difficulty in understanding natural evil?”
John Lennox: Oh, I think it does. People will avoid sin like the plague, if you don’t mind me putting it that way (and I’m not trying to be facetious). They will do anything but use the word sin. They’ll say, “I made a mistake,” or “I got it wrong,” and all this. But sin is not only a moral term; it’s really a theological term. All have sinned and come short of the glory of God. It’s very interesting: if you mention sin in a conversation, I’ll bet that people instantly think about the God question. I remember hearing a lecture at which a student stood up in a very famous university and asked the speaker (who will remain nameless; it wasn’t me), “I have no idea what sin is.” And the speaker looked up at him and looked at the audience and said, “Here’s a man that doesn’t know what sin is. Have you ever met one before?” Of course, it brought the house down. Everybody knows what it is, but they don’t like to bring the implications. Therefore, I do believe that although it’s difficult to put these concepts across from the position of Christianity, because they’re so unfamiliar, we have a job to educate people. In every field of endeavor there are words that you have to learn. In mathematics, many of them; in medicine, even more. In all disciplines, we have to learn words. So when it comes to dealing with God, there are terms we need to learn about: sin, repentance, and so on. But they need to be unpacked and explained. The difficulty is, we can easily develop a jargon mentality where we live in our own little ghetto and we use words that people outside don’t understand. We need to explain them.
Cherie Harder: We’ll try to get in two more questions. The next comes from Nick Buckner, who asked, “How does the dull and drawn-out nature of this crisis change how we endure it and ultimately find meaning in it?”
John Lennox: Whether you find meaning in it is a moot point. To find meaning through it, and to find meaning while we’re in it, is another matter altogether. I’m finding a lot of meaning while I’m going through it, but it’s not meaning in it. It’s meaning in all the things that I’ve been given time to reflect about, including the Christian response to it. Again, it’s so hard for me to speak. I don’t know you as an individual or what your circumstance is, although I have every sympathy with the question. I would want to ask, what are you doing to have a meaningful day-by-day existence in spite of what is happening? If we spend all our time, as many young people are sadly doing, playing video games or watching television – well, we can get some interesting knowledge from TV. But do something creative! Some people haven’t read books for years. To read a few books, to think about things, to contact people, to discuss these matters, to read famous literature that deals with this kind of a problem – that would be one way. But you’re not necessarily find meaning in it. The question is, “Can I find meaning while I am enduring it?”
Cherie Harder: This last question comes from Alessandro Totaro, who said, “A friend said to me, ‘My mother was a Christian. She loved Jesus. And now she is dead because of corona.’ The family could not go visit her in the hospital. She was only 60 years old. Why didn’t God help her? Is this the justice of God? Mr. Lennox, what would you answer to his question?”
John Lennox: I would say, of course, I don’t know what is behind what God does. But that question can be asked of every death. My sister losing her daughter of 22 – she was a lot less than 60. And for all those years, she’s had to ask that big question. She’s come through it and she’s accepted that for some inscrutable reason – you see, if I believed that death was the end, then I would have nothing to say to you. Absolutely nothing. But there was a lady that loved Jesus. I suspect if you could see her now, you wouldn’t ask the question anymore, in the sense that what she is enjoying in the presence of God now [is] infinitely more glorious. Now, you are suffering the loss, and I appreciate that. I remember losing my dad and my mum. Those are very real events. But the thing that I cling onto is, whatever age they were, I’m going to see them again because we are one in Christ. So take that loss, that sense of loss, and take it to the Lord. You’ll find that with time, as you work through it, you may be able to be a huge comfort to other people, because there are many people going through the same thing. Their parents [maybe] didn’t live to 60; they may have died much younger. I know this is hard. I suspect the person was right who said [that] when we get to glory and look back at the other side of the tapestry that our lives had been weaving, we’ll see things in a totally different light. You see, I’ve written a book, “Where is God in a Coronavirus World?” My answers aren’t exhaustive, and I have huge numbers of questions, folks. If I were to die in the next few weeks of COVID-19, I would go into eternity with masses of questions. There’s lots of stuff I don’t know. But I know someone who is the answer. And I’ve seen enough evidence in Him and what He’s done that I can trust Him with the things I don’t completely understand. The last word in my book was suggested to me by a doctor, and it’s attributed to the great 19th century preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon: “God is too good to be unkind and He is too wise to be mistaken. And when we cannot trace His hand, we must trust His heart.”
Cherie Harder: John, thank you so much. Thank you to all of you for joining us for this past hour. Have a great weekend.