Covid-19, Easter And The Question Of Pain And Evil In Our World
Today, since 2017, I spent the Easter service with my family at home. I spent much of the day responding to some comments that my Facebook posts had generated, and also reading. But, in the course of my reading, I started reflecting over a question someone raised about the fairness of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. For many critiques, God cannot deploy unfairness to redeem the world. This, according to them and rightly so, is that God is a just God who abhors all forms of injustices – social, political, economic, and possibly religious (Genesis 18:25). So, how could God use the injustice done Jesus Christ to save the world?
As a Christian, I am aware that the legal proceedings that resulted in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ were nothing short of truncation of justice. It was an inversion of justice, indeed. For Jesus to have died, in the first instance, was itself an “injustice” on the part of God and humanity. In law, we are told that one is innocent until proven guilty. The issue of justice is so central to law that Voltaire said, “It is better to risk saving a guilty man than to condemn an innocent one.” In the case of the judicial proceedings about Jesus Christ, we note that while he was declared innocent (Luke 23:4), He was still hanged on the cross. Also, He was without sin and so, why was He crucified?
But it is precisely because of His sinlessness that made Him the perfect sacrificial lamb for the elect of God. Through the readings of the Old Testament, we learn that the animal to be sacrificed should be without blemish and deformity. The animal should also be whole (Leviticus 22:19). In most cultures of the world that continue to practice all forms of sacrifices, the animal for the sacrifice must be clean and without any deformity. The Bible declares that Jesus was without sin (2 Corinthians 5:21). His opponent even after they had crucified Him realised that, indeed, they had killed an innocent soul (Matthew 27:54).
The other issue about injustice is that sacrifices of all shades are based on some form of injustice – why should an innocent animal be killed for the sins of others? Why should innocent girls be held in captive for the real or putative sins of their parents or relatives? In the history of the consolidation of the Asante Kingdom, we read that it took the voluntary sacrifice of Tweneboa Kodua and two others to free Asante from the rule of the Denkyira. Under the command of Komfo Anokye, Tweneboa Kodua and the two others, put their lives on the line to redeem Asante. In the case of Agya Ahor of the Fante, his sacrifice led to the redemption of the Fante people from an epidemic that ravaged them. This explains why most Fante communities celebrate Ahorba festival. In the case of Tweneboa Koduah, there is a cult that is built around him in Ashanti Region.
It must be mentioned, however, whether voluntarily or not, sacrifices of all forms is an infringement of the right of people and animals to life. In either way, life is destroyed for constructive purposes – the redemption of a people. In other words, in the rubrics of sacrifices, common sense and rationality do not apply. Because if one applied common sense, sacrifices would be nonsense. Given that all sacrifices constitute a body of rituals, they do not conform to the normative way of thinking. Certainly, sacrifices are what they are because they do not follow the normative pattern of life – hence, they are irrational. But irrationality and irrelevance are not the same. I cannot make sense of how an aeroplane flies in the air without falling – defeating the low of gravity and also how communication is transmitted via my cell phone (defeating special and vocal gaps) – they don’t make sense to me. But they are relevant to my life, in terms of enhanced means of travelling and communication.
So, Jesus’ crucifixion is an inversion of justice and common sense. But it is necessary and sufficient for the redemption of the elect of God (Hebrews 9:22). The question that is usually asked is why couldn’t God command our salvation into existence? After all, He created the world simply by commanding it into existence. This answer is important. But it separates the means of salvation in Christianity from other religions. In all other religions, God orders salvation into effect through devotees’ keeping of laws and observance of rituals. In all other religions, God keeps a distance from his creation. He does not participate in the mundane things of life – such as eating, drinking, going through pain, and most importantly, sharing the ultimate pain of death. The gods of all other religions attempt to offer salvation from a distance.
Over the centuries, one question that has intrigued the minds of philosophers and ordinary people is the reconciliation of an all-powerful God and the existential reality of evil. This question is so real because we all experience pain or evil in one way or the other. Many religions and philosophers have attempted an answer. Some religions like Hinduism and Buddhism argue for the demolition of ego. They believe that it is the concentration of ego that leads to the perpetuation of pain and evil. They, therefore, advocate all forms of meditation to keep the mind from ego. In other religions, like the Christian Science, considered a cult of Christianity, founded by Mary Barker Eddy, pain is just an illusion. For some philosophers, like Epicurus, the presence of evil implies the absence of God.
Given the importance of evil and pain, like the current crisis of COVID-19, we are faced with the question: where is God? Why did He allow this? In response, some Christians appeal to dualism – a Zoroastrian philosophy that endorses the existence of two equal powers – good and evil. Ahura Mazda, the good god is in charge of all good things that happen, whereas Angra Mainyu is in charge of all evil. In the whirlwind of the contest, each of this god is seeking to topple the other. This is not different from ancient Greek or Egyptian gods who fought over control of the universe. Thus, for these religions that had a predilection towards dualistic theology, it is easy to explain evil and to excuse God. This topic generated a heated debate in my philosophy class (logic) at the University of Cape Coast in 2006.
The challenge to the question of evil and pain lies deeply with a monotheistic religion like Christianity. The Christian monotheism is unlike other religions. In the case of Christianity, God exists as one in nature, but multiple in persons. In other words, while God is ontologically one, he is multiple in persons (three persons) – [Isaiah 48: 12-16]. He is absolutely a good God. He is the uncreated creator. He rules the universe alone. He does not have any competitor. All forces in the universe abide under His sufferance. If these are true – and, indeed, they are according to the Christian Bible, how do Christians explain evil, particularly the case of COVID-19? The Christian response is that while God is the creator of all things, whatever He allows, including evil He redeems it (Acts 4:28). While we may be sure that He redeems whatever He allows, we do not always know how He redeems what He allows. In some cases, His redemption of evil may be for us to die – which leads to greater glory (Philippians 1:21). Here, I am comforted by John Wesley’s assertion that, “God kills His servants and keeps His work going.”
But in the case of the ultimate question of evil, the incarnation of Jesus answers the riddle of life. I have already established that God could have commanded our salvation into being. But instead, He entered into history to identify with us. The Bible repeatedly affirms this assertion (2 Corinthians 4:1, 16; Ephesians 3:13; Hebrews 12:5; Revelation 2:3). God walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23:4). He weeps as we weep (John 11:35). Jesus experienced every temptation and pain we feel (Hebrews 4:15). He is present with us now in the sufferings of life (Deuteronomy 20:1; Psalm 34:18; Isaiah 43:2; Daniel 3:24–25, 12:6–7; Acts 16:25–26). God promises us: “’The mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,’ says the Lord, who has compassion on you” (Isaiah 54:10). He assures us, “I am with you and will keep you wherever you go” (Genesis 28:15).
In 2019, a friend who was going for haemorrhage surgery met me and asked about haemorrhage. Since I had had three surgeries while studying at the Makerere University in Uganda (where I began my PhD in January 2014), he was so sure that I would be better informed than the surgeon who possibly had no experience about the pains associated with haemorrhage. The doctor might have learned all the theories about haemorrhage. He might have passed exams and even performed successful surgeries on the ailment, but if he does not have any personal experience with haemorrhage, he would still not be able to fully identify with his patients. So, when my friend met me and I told him all about what to expect, he was so excited that he gladly went into the theatre with confidence. His confidence was bolstered precisely because I had survived a similar surgery. Later when he was healing, he asked about what to expect. Because I had personal experiences with haemorrhage, I was able to guide him through. While the Lord goes beyond experience with pain to help us, His identification with our pains makes Him the best person to save us.
Most importantly, He survived the greatest challenge of the human race – death. In addition to the empathy He shares with us when we go through pain, He resurrected to assure us that when we die in Him, we shall also resurrect with Him. This is the difference Christianity makes in terms of dealing with the issue of evil and pain. It also speaks volumes in terms of the difference between Komfo Anokye, Tweneboaa, and Agya Ahor. None of these persons, whether they died or not did experience resurrection – to live forever. In the Bible, persons like Elijah and Enoch did not taste death. But these persons are not our true guide, because they did not have the experience of death to share with us. Our Lord died and so is the best person to tell us about death. Not just that, he experienced death and also resurrected and so, He can assure us of redemption from death. He is called the first fruit of the resurrection (I Corinthians 15:20).
None of the religious leaders or figures, including Enoch and Elijah, promised us that when we die in them we shall live. It is only Jesus Christ who has assured us that when we die in Him, we shall live with Him (John 11:26). I have already written elsewhere that the worst scenario of COVID-19 is death. But if you are in the Lord, do not worry. Death in the Lord means new life in eternal bliss (Revelation 14:13).
As we celebrated and reenacted the resurrection of Jesus Christ today, know that you will be resurrected when you die in the Lord. Jesus makes a difference and by trusting Him, you enter eternal bliss.
Charles Prempeh ([email protected]), African University College of Communications, Accra.
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