As every day passes, the suffering mounts. Around the globe, tens of thousands of innocent lives have already been lost. Hundreds of thousands have endured the fear of life-threatening illness. Millions have lost jobs and businesses. Billions have been confined to their homes for weeks as their finances have eroded. Everybody has had plans and events disrupted. The global pain caused by the current pandemic is profound. It will not ease any time soon.
So the question cannot be evaded: Where is God? Many reasonably regard affliction of this magnitude as a challenge to the notion of a powerful and good God.
Indeed, some find a pandemic of this type harder to comprehend than Auschwitz. Human evil, after all, can be understood as God allowing humans to exercise free will. According to this view, evil is initiated by humans who flout the laws of civilization, and we have the capacity to bring it under control. God will not do this work for us.
But what of a pandemic? Our current catastrophe does not seem to have been unleashed by deliberate human malevolence. Does that mean that God is responsible for it? If not, how should we understand the role of God in all that is happening?
These are not new questions. But the global scale of our present calamity gives these inquiries fresh urgency. Nor are the answers new, but they are as important today as they ever were.
Here is one: Long ago, there was a virtuous man named Job. God allowed Job to be stripped of everything that was precious to him — loved ones, possessions, and health. How could a good God permit such a thing? In the Book of Job, the response is complex but the point that emerges is clear: God’s goodness offers no guarantee that God will shield individuals from suffering.
In fact, the opposite is true: God created a world in which every human being, no matter what our behavior, will inevitably suffer; the only question is, how much? Each of us will lose loved ones, will be confronted with trials and reversals, and will ultimately be subject to sorrow and death.
It is sad but true that in the coronavirus outbreak each individual who dies, becomes sick, or loses everything, is no different from those who die, become sick or lose everything at other times. What makes our contemporary case troubling is its sheer magnitude — we are experiencing a misery that extends to every country on the planet. In actuality, though, the question of why a good God constructed a world in which humans endure indiscriminate desolation is no more problematic when billions are affected than when it impacts thousands, or hundreds, or even one.
Job, then, represents all who suffer from pitiless, unspeakable tragedy. And Job asks God why it is that he, a blameless individual, should be tormented while an all-powerful God does nothing to stop it. God replies with a series of questions: “Where were you when I laid the Earth’s foundations? Speak if you have understanding. Do you know who fixed its dimensions or who measured it with a line?” The message is plain: You are not God, and so you cannot understand God’s design — at least not in this lifetime. Search though you may for the reasons behind such suffering, it will be fruitless; credible explanation will defy you.
Frustration. This is about as unsatisfying an answer as one could imagine. Except for two features that are often overlooked:
First, it is helpful to know that there is order, structure, and coherence behind the human experience, even if it is hidden from our finite comprehension. Such an insight, though, does little to help us now, when distress is all around us and meaning is seemingly out of reach.
Far more important, then, is this: God speaks to Job. God is there when Job cries out. It could, of course, have been otherwise: Job could have posed his tortured questions, only to be met with silence. The fact that God speaks, the fact that God is there, the fact that God cares about the human person is significant.
“Great,” the skeptic might shrug, “how does that aid those who are bereft, stricken, or shattered?” In the following way: God is often likened to a loving, devoted parent. When we suffer, no matter the age, it is comforting to be able to cry on the shoulder of a loving parent; it is cathartic to be able to rail with anger at our parent about the unfairness of it all, while the parent absorbs our despair. Those who have lost loving parents know that confronting life’s trials is harder without them.
God, then, does not cause pandemics, or single out individuals for illness, or loss, or destruction. Could God prevent such suffering? Theoretically, yes. But God’s plan appears to presuppose a world governed by set laws of ethics and nature where God does not intervene in order to save us from anguish and harm.
While God will not prevent our pain, God is nevertheless always there, the omnipresent “shoulder” to cry on, the one to whom we call out in our resentment and our grief, the universal parent. Judaism teaches that we are not alone in a random cosmos; though our lives are fleeting and punctuated by sorrow, we are part of an organized and beautiful universe where light prevails over darkness.
Can a God that does not prevent pandemics really be termed “good”? Can a God that fashioned human existence so that all will experience affliction, really be considered “benevolent”?
Perhaps we should think about it this way: Those who ever contemplated becoming parents were aware that their child would be born into a world where suffering and eventual death could not be avoided. Yet they still went ahead and had a child. And nobody would argue with the goodness or the benevolence of that decision. Why? Because, despite the vast ocean of tears, there is something in us that urges that life, and the world, and the future are, in the end, all truly worth it. Within that internal whisper can be found the still, small, reassuring voice of God. PJC
Rabbi Danny Schiff is the Foundation Scholar at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.