During a recent medical visit, my physician, a nice young foreign-born guy, asked me what this quarter-inch round scar was on my upper left arm. “Smallpox vaccination,” I said. His question took me aback, but I later realized how distant in time the “Avenging Angel” of smallpox is in our collective past.
Meanwhile, you can always count on preachers like Franklin Graham to declare that our current pandemic came about because the world “has turned its back on God.” So, is it God’s avenging angels who brought the Coronavirus, or perhaps instead Satan’s minions? Inquiring minds want to know. 
Much of the world still talks about existential threats like Coronavirus in “God language” terms rather than with scientific and mathematical rationality. This is understandable; religious language is at the heart of human culture going back perhaps 100,000 years. And it is likely deeply rooted in your childhood learning and language as well. The “Grim Reaper” and other manifestations of the “angel of death” had been less visible in our country for quite some time now. But they are back “with a vengeance” in the Coronavirus pandemic.
There is a very palpable “Fear with a capital F” around my community and age group these days. The theology of mortal dread really starts ginning up in the middle of the night when that dry cough keeps you up. Is this cough the beginning of my end, or is it just acid reflux? Is this old digital thermometer really working?
The probability of getting hit by a truck
Sure, the probability of unexpected death has always been there, but we usually think of fatal traffic crashes and gun violence, and even seasonal flu deaths, as happening to someone else. The mathematical odds of one of these events happening to me can be as low as winning the lottery. A key difference is that traffic accidents and guns have killed at a fairly constant rate from year to year, while Coronavirus cases and deaths are growing exponentially (albeit at abating rates, but still growing). We have become enured to traffic deaths, and unfortunately, to gun deaths as well. But this virus is a whole new ballgame.
Coronavirus has many more of the characteristics of those past dreaded diseases than do traffic accidents. The “R-naught,” the number of additional people an average person infects, is much higher than the seasonal flu, and that is scary enough. But an estimated case fatality rate (CFR) of perhaps 2% or more puts this threat into a different league. And if you are over 60 years old or have underlying health conditions, you can add another zero onto that CFR.
I know statistics pretty well, but “math language” has limitations. I doubt that, at my funeral, anyone one will say, “Well, he had an 80% chance of survival, but the math didn’t work out.” Instead, even my most rational friends will be quoting the language of Scripture and Hallmark cards. Yes, I know the math, but I find little emotional solace in it. It just is. Buddhism’s concept of dukka, which is the acceptance of life’s impermanence, is about as close to that reality as you can get with theological language.
Smallpox, Polio and AIDS
By the time of my childhood in the 1950s, smallpox was on its way out thanks to mass inoculations, although leaving that scar on many of us. The family story is that my maternal grandfather (he of “fecundity” fame) survived smallpox as a child before World War I. Still, in those post-WWII years a generation later, iron lungs were very much a reality because of poliomyelitis. My generation dutifully received the first rounds of the new Salk polio vaccine while in elementary school, lined up to receive those first shots.
It is hard to recall how much we children really understood the threat of polio, but I sure do remember those iron lung pictures. I am positive that my mother prayed mightily that her children would be spared from polio.
When AIDS first hit the news in the early 1980s, and before most of us understood the science of HIV, there was a lot of preacher talk of “God’s punishment” on those who contracted this “death sentence” (as it surely was in those first years). This ignorance and fear spread out even to prey upon children who were infected via blood transfusions. Fortunately, medical science, compassionate theologies and human decency have largely driven out ignorant ideologies and bigotry here. But not completely.
Coronavirus and fear
The daily death count from COVID-19 kept a relentless near-30% daily growth rate pace through March nationwide, although at this writing the last seven-day rate had dropped below a 20% daily growth rate, which is nothing to sneeze at. Deaths are still doubling every four days at this writing.
What makes this threat unique is that most churches, which have been traditional sources of communal comfort and “meaning of life” conversation for Americans, have been emptied except for the extreme fringe of denialists. A key emotional/spiritual outlet for “the faithful” has been diverted to online services due to “social distancing.” Ironically, as South Korea demonstrated, large religious gatherings are often the worst place to be during a biological threat like this one, both because of transmission and the age-skewed demographics of many American churches.
Unfortunately, as theologian Garry Wills has noted, a major strain of U.S. Christianity is now more of a political ideology than it is a traditional religion. Anti-science in its worldview, it also sees all this virus hoopla as political staging. Fear itself is being portrayed as demonic and a denial of faith. Says Kenneth Copeland, “Fear is a spiritual force…It is sin.”
Reverend Copeland, let me shake your hand. Pardon my dry cough and warm, sweaty palm. The combination of these beliefs not only impacts their own congregations, but also the rest of us if they spread the virus further.
The Theodicy of Coronavirus
I have written several times in the past about this word theodicy, which few people know but most religious people do practice when in crisis. The short definition of this word in this case is, “Why is God letting this virus kill us?”
Christians in particular have had a confusing history of preaching how closely these “Avenging Angels” are tied to “the Will of God.” In very early Judaic tradition, the “blameless and upright” man named Job saw his wife and children die, lost his house, and was himself infected with painful boils. Oddly, this appears to be the result of a wager between God and Satan, although Satan is painted very differently here from his later portrayal. 
In the recently celebrated Passover story depicted in Exodus, the Jewish nation is delivered from the evil Egyptian Pharaoh after “the Lord” (although in tradition it is via a “Destroying Angel”) kills all of the “firstborn” Egyptian sons. They had no problem putting death and destruction “into God’s hands” directly, even when it was their own nation being defeated in war, as frequently happened in Old Testament recountings.
After the Babylonian Exile of around 600 BCE, Judaism, and later emerging Christianity, tended to less directly “blame God” for misfortune. Instead they changed Satan into the personification of all evil forces in opposition to God. Many scholars have attributed this “war of good versus evil” dualism to exposure to Persian Zoroastrianism about this time.
The “persona” of Satan continued to evolve throughout early Christian history. Still today in popular culture we often see “Evil” personified by the 15th century artists’ depictions of Satan in a red suit with horns on his head, ruling over the underworld and unleashing evil forces over the Earth.
Hal Lindsey’s 1977 best-seller The Late Great Planet Earth had Christians of all stripes looking for signs of an end-times Satan as supposedly foretold in the New Testament book of Revelation. In contrast, the new book by renown historian Bart Erhman, Heaven and Hell: a History of the Afterlife, details how early Christians vacillated between attributing tragedies to a punishing God or alternatively to an opposing demonic force. 
Swiss theologian John Calvin (1509–1564) brought the “blame” for bad things happening squarely back on “the One Almighty God.” In the most conservative reading of Calvin’s controversial writings on predestination, an “all-knowing God” surely must know from the beginning of time not only which people would go to Heaven, but also which would go to Hell. God must “see into the future” who would live and die a peaceful life, and who would see tragedy and pain. This “double predestination” debate continued to split denominations in the heavily Dutch Calvinist western Michigan community of my youth. 
It seems to be human nature that the evil “death angel” who visits humankind must be personified onto some human “other” in order to cast blame. During the “Black Death” bubonic plague era of 14th century Europe, Jews were often the target of this kind of bigotry, dying in widespread “pogroms” of violent, deadly revenge enacted upon innocent people.
We haven’t changed all that much. As noted above, LGBTQ people were often blamed by “good Christians” for the AIDS crisis and even for recent hurricanes. We have now seen violence against Chinese people in our personification of this Coronavirus threat.
My theodicy: Why did this happen?
Start by blaming basic biology. Ever since strands of RNA and DNA, which are made up of intricate carbon-connected chains of atoms, appeared on this Earth, they have mutated into new forms and replicated at exponential rates until something stopped them. Each of our cells is infused with remnants of virus infections past, right into our genes, most of that from many generations past. We are the literal survivors of viral warfare spanning back millions of years. If you believe in a “Creator God,” then surely God (however defined) “created” organic chemistry as well.
Blame the math. Exponential growth rates turn millionaires into billionaires and turn random virus mutations into worldwide pandemics. As the old camp song goes, “two and two and fifty make a million.” Then there are the basic statistics principles of random selection and probability. Who have you been in contact with? Every face you encounter is a crap shoot, although sometimes the odds are worse than others. Most college students are convinced that the Devil created statistics.
Blame human volition. Volition, also called “choice” or “free will,” is the often-mysterious process by which we “zig to the right” or “zag to the left,” just like the gazelle does to avoid being eaten by the lion. Hopefully, humans have more brain power applied to that choice, but sometimes we really should have known better, and we “zag” right into the lion’s path. Or sometimes we listen to ignorant news readers and science-illiterate religious leaders. This is “the culling of the herd.”
And so, God tells me to use social distancing to stymie the natural exponential growth math of the virus. Wash your hands and take other steps to minimize the mathematical probability of accidental contact. Finally, use your best critical thinking skills in choosing who to listen to. And then pray if that gives you comfort. But do the other stuff first.
- To be fair, Mr. Graham is making a literal reading of Genesis 3, in which a talking snake convinces Eve to eat a forbidden fruit, an act from which all “sin” and pain (including childbirth) originates in fundamentalist Christian tradition. See this post on the “fightin’ word” of allegory.
- Because of its theological differences with much of the Old Testament, many Biblical scholars see Job as a very old non-Jewish writing introduced later into the scriptural canon.
- Ehrman, Bart D. Heaven and Hell: a History of the Afterlife. Simon & Schuster, 2020.
- From a recent conservative Calvinist church newsletter: “These worldwide afflictions not only reveal that the holy God of heaven judges sinful man on earth, but they are also harbingers of the second coming of Christ and the final judgment.”
Rick, this was right on the mark!
Thanks, Tony. There are few times when people’s anti-science beliefs really cause trouble. Believing in Noah’s Ark will usually just cost you money at the Kentucky “reconstructed” boat. But here, people’s lives are at stake based on what YOU believe about this thing.
Thanks once again Rich for your insight, your education, your humor and most of all, your wonderful perspective on our lives and probability. I think I would have enjoyed having you for one of my professors!
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