Savvas Costi writes: The coronavirus has destabilised the world we all knew. In these uncertain times, John Lennox has delivered an engaging and accessible little book, Where Is God in a Coronavirus World?, designed to be read within a couple of hours (I did it in two sittings). It’s not meant to be a treatise on the topic of evil and suffering, or the idea of God’s sovereignty. Professor Lennox himself has said he felt compelled to write to offer encouragement and support to those feeling unsettled during the current crisis. Given his lucid style, intellectual prowess and pastoral tone, I would highly recommend this book.
One author recently wrote, ‘we are philosophical heirs even if we don’t realise it. We have inhaled invisible philosophies in the cultural air we breathe.’ Coronavirus is testing the quality of our philosophies. The question now is what philosophy do we hold that is liveable given the current pandemic? As the death toll rises and the economy plummets, how are we going to navigate through these difficult challenges? Lennox writes as someone who knows how it feels to be vulnerable. In his book, he recounts a near brush with death when medical experts successfully averted a major heart attack. Being confronted with his mortality like this brought a new perspective which impacted him deeply. He later writes:
When life seems predictable and under control, it is easy to put off asking the big questions, or to be satisfied with simplistic answers. But life is not that way right now – not for any of us. It is not surprising that, whatever your faith or belief system, the big questions of life are breaking through to the surface, demanding attention.
We live in a hurting world and we are moved when we hear of tragedies, be it our own or those of others. Lennox knows this all too well as he documents the sudden loss of his niece which happens near enough to his near-fatal heart attack. Any reader will appreciate that Lennox is writing as someone who knows how it feels to live through the torrents of difficult times. “Why do we have pain at all?” one might ask. Lennox briefly summarises some of the benefits gained from our experience of pain, namely, how it warns us of danger, aids physical development, contributes to character formation and helps us regain perspective. These are some of the views expressed in the theodicies which defend belief in God in light of evil. However, Lennox’s main aim throughout the book is not to solve the problem of evil, but to provide us with some useful pointers that might help us to get through times of hardship and pain, like living through a global pandemic.
Our worldview, which is our framework for seeing and making sense of the world we live in, affects our attitude. The book highlights how most of us will fall into one of three groups—theist, atheist or pantheist. It’s at this point that Lennox clearly states his position.
It is at this point that the reader can pause to reflect on this statement. What is my current outlook on life, and how is it helping me to live through the challenges of today? And if you’re sceptical about the claims of Christianity, are you willing and open-minded enough to consider the claims coming from one of the world’s most enduring religions? If the sceptic is left wanting to delve deeper and investigate these claims further, then one of the main aims of the book will have been achieved.
It is no surprise that given Lennox’s personal faith, he goes on to present the case that it is Christianity which offers the best resources for gaining peace and hope during times of upheaval. He is aware that for those in the West, the current cultural stream is post-Christian. This would explain why he devotes a short chapter to addressing atheism. If we live in a purely naturalistic world with no God and no overriding sense of meaning and purpose that is incumbent on all of us, then why feel enraged about coronavirus? Why lament the rising death toll that we hear about in the news? We would all agree that it is a natural evil sweeping across the globe, but does atheism really enable us to call it evil? Lennox and others have shown how it doesn’t. When it comes to things that we believe to be absolutely wrong, ‘being able to say so is what we give up if we embrace atheism and are willing to follow its logic.’ Relativism reduces our morality to personal preferences, but are we really willing to follow its logic?
I admire lennox for drawing attention to our willingness to consider these views. Other writers have drawn attention to how much of the modern era has unwittingly absorbed a reductionistic view of how we behave and form our beliefs. We’re treated as if we’re fundamentally thinking things, whereas in actual fact, ‘human beings are first and foremost lovers’ defined not by what we know but by ‘what we desire.’ This helps to dispel the myth of objectivity, that when we are presented with a reasonable case, that we can simply step over the line to modify our views, particularly when they make huge demands upon us. Christianity certainly does this, and my work as a teacher has confirmed this premise on multiple occasions; we are driven more by what we want than what we think. This accounts for why ultimately philosophy is limited when getting someone through the door to Christian theism. I make reference to this as a plea to those who are sceptical of Lennox’s book that we offer our doubts to our biases first before dismissing the beliefs of those whom we disagree with.
After highlighting how atheism is a bankrupt philosophy, Lennox addresses the question: how can there be a coronavirus if there is a loving God? This is a reformulation of the problem of evil which has arguably been the greatest challenge to religious faith. After touching upon ideas relating to free will which incurs the possibility of calamity, and the fall in Genesis chapter 3 which generates disasters like the coronavirus. I’m aware that readers coming from a non-Christian background are likely to pose questions relating to the reliability of the Bible which Lennox understandably scarcely addresses in his little book. It’s not his main aim and there are plenty of other resources available to tackle this. That being said, he does present a reasonable case for why God might create a world where there is the possibility for evil. Not everyone will find his ideas convincing, and Lennox himself is aware of this when he says,
We can debate for ever what a good, loving and all-powerful God should, could or might have done. But experience shows that none of us has ever been satisfied with the outcome of that particular discussion … As a mathematician, I am used to the fact that when we have tried, sometimes for many years, to solve a question without success, we begin to think that we might be better off looking at a different question.
It’s at this point that Lennox helpfully suggests that with all the brokenness in our world, is there a God whom we can still trust? If we are unable to solve the problem, is there at least something that can help us through it? It is fitting that I began to write this review over Easter weekend as it is precisely the message of Easter which Lennox draws our attention to next. Christians believe in a God who suffered, who ‘took up our infirmities and bore our diseases.’ This is a unique claim which has sustained many Christians through hard times. It is comforting to know that God does not remain distant but has chosen to enter our world of agonising pain through the life and death of his incarnated Son. He can ‘empathise with our weaknesses,’ and give us hope that a life lost to the coronavirus need not be the end of the story.
The message that set Jerusalem buzzing at the first Easter – the message that riveted the first-century world – was that Jesus conquered death: that he had risen from the dead and would be the final Judge of humanity.
These words are much needed for a hurting world. Where ultimate justice is an illusion to the atheist, a Christian can draw solace in a hope that goes beyond the grave. Moreover, it is naivety to believe as Karl Marx did that religion is merely the opium of the people because of the comfort it brings for those fearful of death. Czeslaw Milosz has rightly argued that, ‘a true opium for the people is a belief in nothingness after death—the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders we are not going to be judged.’ Christianity can’t just be wishful thinking because of the demands it places upon us. Lennox reminds us that because Jesus is appointed Judge of the world, ‘there will eventually be an ultimate answer to the deepest human questions.’ An outlook like this can galvanise us to endure dark days in the belief that the best is yet to come. Of course, this can only work if the resurrection of Jesus really happened.
The final chapter of the book focuses on how Christians should respond to the pandemic. Lennox helpfully encourages us to heed the advice given from government, maintain perspective and be at the forefront of caring for those in need. He closes the book with the line, ‘Peace in a pandemic? Only Jesus can give that.’ The book will be a source of comfort and guidance to believers. For unbelievers, it’s a great introduction to offering some useful reflections to those ‘big questions’ we now find ourselves confronted with. Further thinking and reading will be required, and perhaps more importantly, going for a virtual coffee with a Christian friend via Zoom – or even better, meeting up to discuss this further once lockdown has lifted and the pandemic has passed. I hope this book gains a wide readership during these challenging times for its brevity and style. Who knows, maybe Lennox will have demonstrated how ‘the God who wore a crown of thorns is worth some more of your time and thought.’
 I would highly recommend listening to his 30 minute interview with Justin Brierley here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RNZ-2zFWUuU
 This was taken for James K.A. Smith’s brilliant book, On The Road With Saint Augustine (2019), p20.
 Lennox, Where is God in a Coronavirus World? (2020) p13.
 Lennox doesn’t use this phrase in his book, but he expounds the idea. A post-Christian culture is one that has shunned Christianity whilst seeking to maintain the benefits of the religion. John Mark Comer has likened this to a rebellious teenager who rejects the authority of their parents whilst still seeking to live under them with all the benefits that they bring, like paying the bills, food, shelter, etc. Mark Sayers calls it, “the Kingdom without the King.” For more, I recommend listening to their excellent This Cultural Moment podcast.
 Read Christian Smith’s book, Atheist Overreach (2019) for more on this.
 See James K.A.Smith’s excellent book, You Are What You Love (2016).
 Although I don’t have the source, Blaise Pascal is quoted as having once said, ‘the supreme achievement of reason is to teach us that there is an end to reason.’ Arguments alone will not bring someone to Christian faith. Good and helpful as they might be (See 1 Peter 3:15), ultimately we need revelation.
 I am aware that this also applies to me with my beliefs too! This is where having intellectual humility helps us. For an excellent short clip on intellectual humility, watch this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MW7ItaybXCY
 It’s a common misconception that the Bible’s account of Adam and Eve’s rebellion against God led to the rise of moral evil only but fails to explain natural evil. On page 39, Lennox reminds us that ‘cursed is the ground … it will produce thorns and thistles’ (Genesis 3 v 17-18). This suggests that the curse has fractured nature itself, and offers an explanation for the existence of bad viruses.
 I would commend Amy Orr-Ewing’s, Why Trust The Bible? (2005) as a start.
 The Milosz quote can be found here: https://www.nybooks.com/articles/1998/11/19/discreet-charm-of-nihilism/?fbclid=IwAR3r5UmeEQLAou6S5G_WYUObI_op9jmoUSJEGlqS203BSnoOoHYEKz39p4s
 For an accessible presentation of the arguments that Jesus really did rise from the dead, I would commend chapter 5 of Andrew Wilson’s, If God Then What?(2012) and chapter 13 of Timothy Keller’s, The Reason For God (2008).
 As well as the books listed above, the best book I’ve read on suffering so far has been Timothy Keller’s, Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering (2013).
Savvas Costi is a graduate from the London School of Theology who currently leads the Religion and Philosophy department at a secondary school in East Sussex. He lives with his wife and daughter.
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