Viral pandemics and the lockdowns which followed in their wake, have caused great angst and suffering across the world. Of course, human suffering and anxiety are nothing new and people have wrestled with trying to understand this for thousands of years. Andy Bannister was invited to speak about this at Jesmond Parish Church, in the heart of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. Sadly, he wasn’t able to travel there in person, because of the restrictions in place, but joined them online from his study in Dundee.
In his talk, Andy noted that the global health crisis of 2020-1, has exposed the fragility of the belief-system that most people use to navigate life. Many people live today with the assumption that reasonable job security, sustained economic growth and personal freedoms are the norm and that as ‘decent people’ they deserve them all. The sudden loss of many of these comforts has lead to a resurfacing of the great questions of life – which as Douglas Murray notes – our society “has left largely unaddressed”. With the unfolding crisis, Bible sales have gone up, spiritual searches on Google have too – and media outlets and commentators from The New Statesman to Russell Brand have commented on the resurgent thirst for spiritual answers.
The fact is that people who reject God do not cease to be worshippers, they simply enshrine at the centre of their lives, substitute ‘gods’ such as money, sex, power, career or family. The crisis of 2020 has done enough to reveal that under pressure these false gods fall short at providing answers to the great questions of “why?”, or resources with which to navigate life’s trials. Secular gods are hollow. Other faiths and worldviews are problematic too. Atheism denies that the great “why questions?” (the asking of which is one of the key things which mark humans as a unique species) even really exist. Naturalism seeks to reduce everything to physical causes and can only describe a world in which things are as they are, and has no genuine space for questions of meaning and purpose. Other faiths wish to suggest that all suffering is the result of judgement or karma, and is essentially blame the victim, which is problematic too.
What then is the unique Christian response to the question of suffering, or to put it in a more contemporary way: Where is God in the Coronavirus World? Andy looked briefly at four things.
- The resurrection of Jesus means that Christian hope is not vague optimism or wish-fulfilment but a real, concrete thing. Andy said, “We can know, with confidence, that death is not a broken world’s last sneering laugh, but that the power of death has been broken because of what Jesus did.”
- The Bible provides a realistic account of the state of the world which makes sense. The brokenness of humanity and creation (stemming back to the ‘fall’) means that the world is not functioning as we all deeply feel it should. As a result Christianity has endured countless wars, plagues and crises – and today is thriving in the world’s most difficult places. Andy noted: “Christians believe that God has a dramatic plan, put into action through Jesus’s death and resurrection, to redeem and renew our world, and to heal and forgive us.”
- Christian hope is a lived-experience because Jesus is present with His people now. Andy noted the way in which the ‘secular gods’ of money, wealth and security have fled in the face of the pandemic. Jesus is the opposite. The solidarity with us that Jesus demonstrated in his incarnation; and his death on our behalf to save us from our sins, is foundational to our relationship to him. That relationship is not now a distant or remote one but a living reality. “Jesus carries us through the darkest times” Andy said.
- Finally, Andy explored the way in which Christian hope animates us in the middle of the sufferings of life. Drawing on his own testimony he said, “it was only the comfort and hope that Jesus brought that carried us through the darkest of days”.
Andy concluded his time with the folks at Jesmond saying, “God hasn’t moved, it’s we who have at times turned our backs—and sometimes it takes something dramatic, like a pandemic to wake us up to the fact that without God, there is no hope, no meaning, and no peace. But with God, there is. In and through Jesus, we can have all of those things. To those of you this morning who are hurting, or struggling, or despairing, or searching, Jesus said: Come to me, all you who are heavy laden, and I will give you peace.”