The Didactic Plague

A New York City Fire Department Emergency Medical Technician wearing protective gear helps a sick patient to a waiting ambulance during the outbreak of the coronavirus in New York City, April 1, 2020. (Stefan Jeremiah/Reuters)The moral lesson that I have taken from reading the Bible is that God’s sense of justice, fitness, and proportionality is at odds with my own, but He still gets to be God.

There are two Christian concepts on my mind on this Palm Sunday. One is theodicy, the other is the sin of presumption.

“Theodicy” means “the vindication of God,” referring to a seeming conundrum that has vexed Christian thinkers since the beginning: How can evil coexist with an all-good, all-loving, all-powerful God?

Christians conceive of God as a father, which occasionally places us in the role of resentful adolescents: If God really cares about us, why did He let my friend die? If God really cares about us, why did He let that earthquake kill all those innocent people? I never asked to be born! There is a philosophically sophisticated version of that line of questioning, but the underlying dynamic is the same. Many Christian theologians consider the problem of evil to be the most persuasive intellectual challenge to the idea of God as Christians understand Him, and so theodicy has been a very hot topic for a couple of millennia now.

One common answer to the problem of evil is the “free will theodicy,” the proposal that among the good things God wants to give mankind are “freedom goods” as T. Ryan Byerly of Sheffield University calls them, morally valuable developments that can be had only under free-will conditions. Mankind cannot have the blessing of choosing the good without also having the opportunity to reject the good, hence evil and its product, suffering, are inevitable byproducts of God’s desire for us to enjoy a rarefied blessing unavailable to automatons.

One of the shortcomings of that line of argument is that, if we are to take Scripture seriously, God Himself often is the one who chooses suffering for us — and even chooses sin for us. The plagues that God unleashes on Egypt might be understood as the divinely ordained punishment for Pharaoh’s refusal to accept Moses’s command and let God’s people go, but God has stacked the deck: “The Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh,” the Scripture says. Pharaoh may have been a hard man, but he did not choose to have as hard a heart as God gave him. He plays the role of the masterful tyrant, but he is only an instrument, not even lord of his own heart.

The plagues that beset the Egyptians are not merely punitive but didactic — they are sent to teach the Egyptians and the Israelites, and subsequent readers, a lesson. The plagues are not random horrifying afflictions but a systematic assault on the economic, religious, and monarchical infrastructure of the Egyptian kingdom, not only sickening and killing the Egyptians but mocking them and, specifically, mocking their deities, beginning with the fertility deities associated with the Nile and with frogs and ending with the killing of the firstborn.

It is difficult not to think of that in the context of the epidemic that is at the moment inflicting death and suffering on the guilty and the innocent alike around the world. As with the plagues that were visited upon Egypt, there is sickness but also economic and political damage. More than 6 million Americans filed new unemployment claims last week. Confidence in our institutions is low — and, if we are to believe the evidence of our own eyes, it deserves to be low.

And here, spare a minute for the sin of presumption and its twin, the sin of despair. Presumption, in its narrowest sense, is a perversion of hope — it is the belief that God’s mercy will embrace us irrespective of our own course, with no need for repentance or acts of reconciliation on our part. It is the mirror image of the sin of despair, the belief that our depravity is so deep and so wild that it is beyond God’s salvific powers. What presumption and despair have in common is the mistaken belief that God’s mind is knowable by such creatures as us, that He can be hemmed in by our narrow ethical prejudices, that he is an algebraic God who may be approached formulaically, as an equation to be balanced. To be presumptuous is to speak on God’s behalf with unwarranted confidence and foundationless certitude. It is what, for example, Pat Robertson was engaged in when he took the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, as God’s judgment on all the homosexuals and feminists in New York City. That Robertson was engaged in oafish jackassery was almost universally understood, a minor illustration of the fact that a sin can be its own punishment.

I do not know if God “sent” this epidemic to teach us a lesson. I am not much of a theologian. The moral lesson that I have taken from reading the Bible is that God’s sense of justice, fitness, and proportionality is at odds with my own, but He still gets to be God. I trust, but do not presume, that He will forgive my occasional irritation at those famous “mysterious ways” of His.

But there are lessons to be learned from this plague in any case: that our mighty edifices of technology and capital are frailer than they seem, that cooperation is necessary for our survival, that the ethical character of our leadership matters not abstractly but in immediate and practical ways, that many of us, beginning with me, have taken too much for granted, have been excessively presumptuous and insufficiently grateful for too many things.

“Lord, make us truly grateful” the prayer goes. And so He has, and it is excruciating. Mysterious ways, indeed.

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