In Times of Crisis, We Need To Inject Reason into Debates over Faith

COVID-19 has temporarily changed many aspects of our lives, sparking a firestorm of criticism about the best way to deal with the current crisis. While there are plenty of claims and decisions to debate, I’m especially interested in those involving matters of faith. I’ll address four that I’ve come across over the last several days.

You don’t have to be worried about the virus if you have faith.

Pain and suffering are part of life. And though some of the fiercest opponents of Christianity cite the problem of pain as a reason for their disbelief, the Christian religion best explains the suffering we experience on a daily basis. Believers, agnostics and atheists—none of us are immune to the harsh realities of life brought about by our own brokenness.

Faith can certainly help us get through bad times, but it is not a guarantee of immortality in this present world. If it were, then the death rate for the human race would not be 100 percent. Therefore, it’s perfectly reasonable to claim that faith alone will not guarantee protection against the deadliness of COVID-19.

You can’t contract the virus when receiving the Eucharist because it is Jesus’ body and blood.

This one is particular to Catholics who believe in transubstantiation. That is, when the priest consecrates the bread and wine, the substance transforms (hence the word transubstantiate) into the real body and blood of Jesus. However, the accidents (or appearances) of the bread and wine don’t change. And because these accidents remain, it’s possible for infectious particles to be present when Catholics receive the sacrament. In other words, one can get sick when receiving the body and blood of Jesus.

For those who might find this to be paradoxical, I would point to Jesus’ own death, which is itself both incredible and ordinary. It was incredible in the sense that the Son of Man died for our salvation, but ordinary in that Jesus’ death was complete after His body stopped functioning.

God is using the virus to punish a sinful world.

In the midst of chaos and panic, people look for answers. In the case of COVID-19, some have suggested (or thought) that this is God’s punishment of a sinful people. My first response to such a claim is, what evidence do you have? And I don’t mean that dismissively. I’m not ruling out the claim as a logical impossibility, but evidence needs to be offered in its favor.

It is true to say God permits everything to happen. However, it doesn’t follow that God wills everything that has happened. And herein lies the distinction between God’s antecedent will and His consequent will. God wills that every person be saved. Theologians would say this is God’s antecedent will. Yet, as a consequence of our free will, we know that not everyone will be saved. We know God did not will the latter (2 Peter 3:9), but He did permit it in His decision to give us the gift of free will.

This same framework for thinking about God’s will can be applied to COVID-19. While it wasn’t God’s antecedent will for the virus to spread, He allowed it as a consequence of our free will and fallen human nature—both of which were on display in China during the early part of the epidemic.

Moreover, as Jesus pointed out in John 9:3, sometimes a person’s sin (or their parents’ sin) plays no role in a person’s suffering, but God permits it so that His works may be manifest in the person who is suffering.

The Pope admitted confession isn’t necessary.

No, he didn’t. What Pope Francis said is if you can’t find a priest to go to confession, go to God. That’s a lot different than the many interpretations I’ve seen on social media. And the reason the pope put it this way is very simple: the Sacrament of Confession is biblical (John 20:23). God gave us this amazing sacrament to grow closer to Him and to free ourselves from the burden of sin.

However, this doesn’t mean God Himself is bound by the sacraments. As the Catholic Church teaches, it is possible for someone to make a “perfect contrition” and be forgiven of all sins if the person does not have recourse to sacramental confession.

Sacramental confession is the ordinary means by which our sins are forgiven. But, if the ordinary means are not available to us, God, being just, will take this into account at the end of our lives, which is why Pope Francis insisted on asking God for forgiveness in the absence of confession.

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