Is Faith Futile In the Face of the Coronavirus?

Everyone is talking about the Coronavirus. And for good reason. I’m sure we can agree that we’ve never seen anything quite like this in our lifetime. Tragedy often drives people to their favorite soapbox. And this is true with this pandemic, as some atheists have used it as evidence that faith is untrue and worthless. 

Here’s an article titled “As Coronavirus Spreads, the Futility of Religion Becomes Obvious“. I’ll quote his main points: 

“Many believers face these choices as the coronavirus spreads. There is no religious response to the pandemic unless we count abandoning religious rules in favor of science and medicine. Faced with these choices, most people accept that religion is pointless, at best, and harmful, at worst. Most are making decisions that appear to be motivated by science and medicine, not scripture and sacred doctrine. 

And this is different…In perhaps the most telling response, even churches are getting in on the science. Catholic churches are draining holy water and shuttering after infected priests passed out slices of their savior’s flesh. Catholic schools are closing. Not just mainline churches but fringe churches are also shutting down. Even — and this is the most telling of all and a glorious admission — faith-healing congregations are halting programming

 Even without this refreshing admission, Osteen, Trump, Pence, and the pope were already proving the point: Religion has nothing to offer in the face of a pandemic. Instead, we must rely on science and medicine.”

So according to Seidel (the author of this article), there’s some sort of war between faith and science. Believers are acting as if there is no God by taking precautions. And these precautions are the verdict of science. 

Is Faith Anti-Medicine?

This strikes me as silly. Unless you’re on the lunatic fringe of Christianity, being pro-faith doesn’t make one anti-science. Nor is Christianity anti-medicine. I mean, one can just Google local hospitals in their area and look at their names. I live in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The two hospitals in the city are St. Luke’s and Mercy Medical Center. Mercy’s logo is a crucifix. And I’ll give you one guess where the name St. Luke originated from. (The Gospel writer of Luke is traditionally believed to be a medical doctor in case you didn’t know.)

In Geoffrey Blainey’s book A Short History of Christianity, we’re told that the Greeks and Romans did not preach a duty to tend to the sick. Also, between 165-180 AD there was an epidemic of smallpox. And in 250 AD there was an outbreak of measles. Blainey tells us that, “in nursing the sick and dying, regardless of religion, the Christians won friends and sympathizers”. These Christians put their lives at risk to tend to the sick and dying. 

“Christianity Planted the Hospital”

Saint Fabiola founded a hospital at Rome around 400 AD.

Furthermore, historian Roy Porter tells us “Christianity planted the hospital”. The church founded a hospital in Rome in 400 AD and the tradition has continued up until now. 

The Roman Catholic Church is the largest non-government provider of health care services in the world. They run 18000 clinics and 5500 hospitals. 2/3rds of them are in developing countries. That’s not including all the hospitals run by Protestants and Orthodox groups. I think that you get the idea.

Paul miraculously healed the sick (Acts 14:7-9, 28:8-9) but he told Timothy to drink wine for the sake of his stomach. (1 Tim. 5:23) He was also thankful for the medical care he received from the Galatian church. (Gal. 4:13) Paul and the Christian church over the last 2000 years apparently didn’t get the memo that faith is anti-medicine. 

Can Science Tell Us What to Value?

But there’s a deeper problem for Seidel here. Science can tell us that hand-washing and social distancing will flatten the curve. Science can tell us that exposure to Coronavirus is especially bad for the elderly. But science doesn’t tell us why we should value human life (including the elderly). We come to science with that background belief. 

Ethicist Peter Singer, an atheist, tells us that “No science is ever going to discover ethical premises inherent in our biological nature, because ethical premises are not the kind of thing discovered by human investigation. We do not find our ethical premises in our biological nature, or under cabbages either.” 

Science gives us facts about the physical world. But no amount of facts can compel us to accept any value or any conclusion about what we ought to do. Why is that? Says philosopher Glenn Peoples:

“The reason is that moral facts have to do, not with the way that things just are in the world, but rather to do with the way that things should be in the world. But if the world is not here for a reason – If unintended nature is all there is – then there simply is no way that things were meant to be.

Natural facts are facts about what is, not facts about the way things should be. We observe animals killing and eating each other and we don’t regard it as a moral atrocity because it is merely a fact of nature. It is that way. But if natural facts are the only kinds of facts, then the same is true of human beings, surely. People maim and torture each other, they rape, exploit and terrorize each other, and that is the way it is.”

A Simple Explanation of the Moral Argument

So despite all the useful facts that science gives us, we need antecedent values. And that’s exactly why Christians throughout the ages have been pro-science and pro-medicine. God values human beings and commands us to value them too. The greatest commandment is to love our neighbor. Jesus clarified who that was in Luke 10:27-37 — it’s the wounded victim, and that involves inconveniencing ourselves to care for them. This law is written on the hearts of all mankind, whether they recognize it coming from God or not. (Romans 2:14-15)

Atheism has difficulty producing an objective source for these antecedent values. If naturalism is true, then there is no moral objective difference between the man who treats the sick and vulnerable in 3rd-world nations or the man who buys thousands of bottles of sanitizer to price gauge people. But the existence of objective moral values and duties is much more at home in the Christian worldview.

No science is ever going to discover ethical premises inherent in our biological nature, because ethical premises are not the kind of thing discovered by human investigation.

Ethicist Peter Singer

Viruses, Therefore God Doesn’t Exist?

Now you might ask – why would a good God allow such horrible stuff like pandemic viruses? That’s a fair question. While I don’t think this will persuade everyone, I’ll try and stick with the Biblical answer.

We suffer and die due to pestilence and diseases that were enabled when the Lord cursed the ground after Adam and Eve sinned. (Gen 3:17-19) Adam was to eat of the tree of life and live forever rather than the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Now due to rebellion, human beings die. Because of sin, the world we live in is cursed. Satan is now the ‘god of this world’ (2 Corinthians 4:4, Ephesians 2:2-3). And the wages of sin is death. (Romans 6:23) It is God’s mercy that keeps us alive for as long as it does.

The Gospels frequently attribute sicknesses to demonic activity. In Luke 13:7-16 says that a woman with a deformed back was under Satanic oppression. Peter said that Jesus “went about doing good, healing all those who were oppressed by the devil”. (Acts 10:38)

You might think that we have natural explanations for sickness and it’s silly to say “the devil did it”. 

Satan and the Problem of Evil

In reply to this, philosopher Greg Boyd writes

“there’s no reason to think that a scientist couldn’t give a perfectly natural explanation for these infirmities that the Bible attributes to Satan and demons. They are, on one level, simply the “natural” results of “natural” processes working in accordance with the laws of nature.

This establishes that there’s no intrinsic incompatibility with attributing infirmities to spirits, on the one hand, and explaining them in natural terms, on the other. This is actually a very important point, since the most common objection to the view that spirits are responsible for some aspects of “natural” evil is that these evils can be accounted for scientifically. 

Second, and closely related to this, if infirmities are the natural result of natural processes operating according to the laws of nature, on the one hand, while also being, at times, the result of demonic activity, on the other, then it seems that the laws of nature as we now find them must to some extent be demonically influenced. In fact, the New Testament says that Satan holds the keys of death (Heb. 2:14). Yet, death is a “natural” result of “natural” processes operating in nature. This should be enough to tell us that natural processes can, in some cases, and to some extent, be satanically influenced.”

You could this answer implausible or just plain weird. But think about it for a second. When we think of many people’s lives being cut short because of sickness, we don’t just call it unfortunate. We think of it as evil. We see it as a deviation from the way things ought to be.

I’m only touching on a couple of Boyd’s arguments here. For a more in-depth treatment of Satan and the corruption of nature, read this article. Boyd explains how this can be even in light of modern science. Also, this isn’t the only way Christians have responded to natural evil, but only one explanation. For another take, go here or here.

You might also think it’s unfair that one man’s sin brought this much destruction. But we’ve all sinned and chosen evil at some point in our lives. We’ve all ratified the same choice Adam made. The good news is now the barrier to the “tree of life” is removed now. We can now choose Jesus and have life. (John 6:35)

And any present suffering can’t be compared to the glory that shall be revealed later. (2 Cor. 4:17, Romans 8:18) Creation one day itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. (Romans 8:21) Jesus’ resurrection guarantees ours. (1 Cor. 15:20-22)

We Can Rely on God and On the Science That He has Given Us

Moreover, God hasn’t left us helpless. Jesus entered into this war-torn, rebellious world to remove the sting of death by tasting it for every man. (Hebrews 2:9) He came to deliver us from Satan’s authority. (Col. 1:13) Now by responding to fear with faith, courage, compassion, prayer, and intelligence, we act like him. We can pray for the sick in faith and we can treat them medically. (James 5:14-16, Luke 10:34)

And one can thumb through Craig Keener’s two-volume set Miracles and see that there are credible cases of the miraculous healing of the sick today. Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever. (Hebrews 13:8)

So Christianity explains why diseases aren’t just unfortunate, but evil. Christianity gives us antecedent value for human beings and an explanation of our duty towards others. It also provides some explanation we should use scientific knowledge for the benefit of others. And that’s been what the Christian church has done the past 2000 years. And it’s my prayer and expectation that the church will continue to shine in the midst of this pandemic. And God does intervene when it comes to healing the sick for various reasons, including in response to faith.

Seidel’s opportunistic medicine vs. faith rant is just ignorant of historic Christianity.

A clip of an interview on modern miracle claims with Craig Keener
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