Apr 20th 2020

The Theology of Pandemics

by Sam Ben-Meir

Sam Ben-Meir is professor of philosophy and world religions at Mercy Collage in New York.



Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film The Seventh Seal is set in medieval Sweden, as the bubonic plague ravages the countryside. In one famous scene, a procession of zombie-like flagellants enters a village and interrupts a comic stage-show. The townspeople are present to hear the procession’s leader, a bombastic preacher who proclaims that death is coming for them all: they are full of sin – lustful and gluttonous – and the plague is God’s punishment for their wicked ways. That scene is not without historical merit: the flagellants were indeed a very real phenomenon, and with the plague, the movement grew and spread throughout Europe.

For most of us, public self-mutilation and penance is a particularly extreme and repulsive form of religious fanaticism. But in the West, we still have ways of lashing ourselves, and each other, in the face of plague, pestilence and the terror they sow; and pandemics still invariably prompt a religious explanation. During the AIDS epidemic, we were told that God was punishing homosexuals and illicit drug users. In 1992, 36 percent of Americans admitted that AIDS might be God’s punishment for sexual immorality.

The interesting question is: What is the temptation to view a catastrophe like the plague as divine punishment as opposed to a brute fact of nature? Surely at least one reason we are tempted to do so is because, if it is heavenly retribution, then the hardship still has some meaning; we still live in a world with an underlying moral structure. Indeed, to many, the idea that such a great calamity is nothing more than a brute act of nature is far more painful to contemplate than an account by which God cares enough about us to punish us.

In case you think the coronavirus is any different, it is not. On March 8, 2020, the Times of Israel reported that Rabbi Meir Mazuz “claimed the spread of the deadly coronavirus in Israel and around the world is divine retribution for gay pride parades.” By some ironic twist, the rabbi is basically in agreement with Rick Wiles, a Florida pastor who said the spread of coronavirus in synagogues is a punishment of the Jewish people. The Jerusalem Post quotes Wiles as saying, “It’s spreading in Israel through the synagogues. God is spreading it in your synagogues! You are under judgment because you oppose his son, Jesus Christ. That is why you have a plague in your synagogues. Repent and believe on the name of Jesus Christ, and the plague will stop.”

The temptation to view catastrophes as divine punishment is nothing to scoff or smirk at: it is entirely legitimate to want to construct a narrative out of what has occurred – to find a pattern, to derive some meaning that redeems the suffering, hardship and death. What is unfortunate is the tendency to point to some perceived wickedness of which others are purportedly guilty as the justification for God’s wrath. Both the rabbi and the pastor are the same: both talk like Job’s notorious companions, those so-called friends of the unfortunate and innocent Job, who insist that he must be guilty, that he must have sinned for God to assail him with such fury. Of course, at the end of the poem, God tells the companions that they were wrong: Job was right – his suffering was not punishment for any sin he had committed. Indeed, the Bible teaches that God often sees fit to test precisely those that are good and righteous. Sadly, the pastor and rabbi entirely disregard that biblical lesson.

If a pandemic is divine punishment, then in a sense we can be at peace – inasmuch as we have provided the scourge with a theodicy, that is, a justification of God’s ways to man. Whenever we are faced with human tragedy, we cannot but question how an omnibenevolent and omnipotent deity would permit so much suffering to occur. A plague sharpens the concerns that lie at the heart of the theological problem of evil – the problem of reconciling a loving God with the reality and ubiquity of human and animal suffering. Thankfully, most religious leaders are unwilling to cast the burden of guilt on any particular group of which they may disapprove. Instead, they take a page from Job and underscore the impenetrable mystery of suffering – taking their inspiration perhaps from God’s speech to Job from out of the whirlwind, where He begins with one of the famous queries of the Bible: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?” And He continues with withering sarcasm, “Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!” In short, do not attempt to sound the depths of God’s inscrutable purpose.

For every pandemic there is a theology; by their nature, they call forth notions of guilt, sin and responsibility. It is almost as if we cannot but view them through theological categories. Each pandemic begins with a kind of “fall,” or original sin, which we attempt to retrace with our search for “patient zero,” the individual representing the source of the calamity, the one who kicked us out of paradise as it were. The writers of the 2011 film Contagion clearly had as much in mind when they decided that their story’s patient zero (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) should also be an adulteress.

A pandemic also highlights an inescapable function of all significant human action – namely, that our actions always outrun our intentions. Everything we do has consequences that we never anticipated, wanted or even imagined. We like to think that we are not responsible for everything our actions may cause – but the reality is that we cannot dodge or entirely relinquish our responsibility even for those things we never intended. Perhaps like nothing else, a pandemic reveals the burden of human action, our infinite liability; indeed, our indeclinable responsibility.

There is a theology accompanying every plague because there is a very human need to make sense of such colossal suffering. That theology may take the form of a conspiracy theory, but it is a theology all the same. One example is the persistent speculation that the coronavirus originated in some kind of bio-weapons laboratory in Wuhan, China. This explanation, regardless of its lack of evidentiary merit, is a temptation because it offers us a story, which is but a secularized version of the fall. The essential features are there: to say that human beings deliberately created the virus is to say that this pandemic is the result of human transgression; that human hubris introduced this uncontrollable element that upset the order of things.

The current pandemic has left fear and death, loneliness and stagnation in its wake. We must start asking ourselves what it has all been for. Eventually this great tide of suffering will ebb, life will resume, the economy will reopen and pick up steam, and the coronavirus will slowly fade from our immediate view – at that point, when we think of all those many tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands who died, alone, what will we be able to point to as their legacy? What did they die for? Undoubtedly many will say only that their deaths were unfortunate – all we can do to honor their sacrifice is return to life as it was, prosper and grow the economy at two percent annually. If we allow that to happen, then we will have failed, completely and utterly.

If we do not seize this crisis as a moment for transformation, then we will have lost the war. If doing so requires reviving notions of collective guilt and responsibility – including the admittedly uncomfortable view that every one of us is infinitely responsible, then so be it; as long we do not morally cop out by blaming some group as the true bearers of sin, guilt, and God’s heavy judgment. A pandemic clarifies the nature of action: that with our every act we answer to each other. In that light, we have a duty to seize this public crisis as an opportunity to reframe our mutual responsibility to one another and the world.



Sam Ben-Meir is a professor of philosophy and world religions at Mercy College in New York City.

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More Essays

Jul 31st 2020
EXTRACT: "From a Kantian standpoint discrimination based on race – or religion, or gender – is fundamentally wrong. It is wrong, first of all, because it is dehumanizing, a denial of human dignity. When I racially discriminate, I am denying the person’s intrinsic self-worth, I am, in fact, denying their very right to exist, whether I know it or not. The moral law demands that I treat every individual as a free person equal to everyone else. If the moral law grants each of us a kind of infinite worth, it does not grant someone greater worth than anyone else."
Jul 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Remember, your wellbeing is extremely important when supporting someone with depression. Take time for self-care so you can model positive behaviours and be replenished enough to provide this crucial support."
Jul 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "--- Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart, for his purity, by definition, is unassailable. --- Author James Baldwin’s words, written in the America of the late 1950s."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Numerous studies have shown that children who grow up in more deprived neighbourhoods tend to have worse physical health as adults compared to those raised in more affluent areas. This is the case even when researchers take into account family income and education, and whether or not parents have major illnesses. In order to address this health disparity, researchers need to understand how those living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods end up with worse health outcomes. Our team’s latest study has highlighted one potential way your childhood neighbourhood may influence your health for years to come. It might do so through changing how the activity of your genes is regulated."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Ruth Poniarski is a painter and the author of Journey of the Self: Memoir of an Artist (Warren Publishing, 2020), in which she tells the story of her decade long struggle with mental illness, a “spiraling malady” which led her into a “pattern of psychosis”. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Poniarski about her life and work, and how she eventually overcame her demons."
Jun 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "I know I’m good in a couple of things, really good in a few things, and that’s enough. My confidence is big enough that I can really let people grow next to me, it’s no problem. I need experts around me. It’s really very important that you are empathetic, that you try to understand the people around you, and that you give real support to the people around you."
Jun 27th 2020
An essay about the "the enormously influential 1940 'Head of Christ' painting by evangelical Warner E. Sallman" pictured below.
Jun 17th 2020
EXTRACT: "The diverse, non-human life forms that live in our guts – known as our microbiome – are crucial to our health. A disrupted balance of these contribute to a range of disorders and diseases, including obesity, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease. It could even affect our mental health..... It’s well known that the microbes living in our guts are altered through diet. For example, including dietary fibre and dairy products in our diets encourages the growth of beneficial bacteria. But mounting evidence suggests that exercise can also modify the types of bacteria that reside within our guts."
Jun 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Bonhoeffer’s life holds an important lesson for us today, regardless of our religious affiliation or lack thereof. And simply put it is this: you are called upon; you are called on behalf of your neighbor. When you are called to be responsible that is not an obligation which you can decline, discharge or acquit yourself of – it is an infinite responsibility, a “forever commitment” as Charles Blow recently put it. And we all must be prepared to make any sacrifice necessary when we are called."
Jun 11th 2020
EXTRACT: "People differ substantially in how much they’re affected by experiences in their lives. Some people seem to be more affected by daily stress, or the loss of someone close to them. On the other hand, some people seem to get through the same experiences relatively unscathed. Similarly, some people benefit strongly from counselling, or having a support system of close family and friends. Others seem better able to manage on their own. But understanding why some people are more sensitive than others isn’t just a question of how they were raised, and the experiences they’ve been through. In fact, previous research has found that some people in general seem more sensitive to what they experience – and some are generally less sensitive."
Jun 7th 2020
EXTRACT: " The root causes of anthropogenic climate change – which has led to the endangering of countless species across the globe – cannot be adequately grasped in isolation from the technological application of modern science. While Swedish activist Greta Thunberg was certainly justified in calling upon American legislators to “unite behind the science,” neither can we overlook the culpability of science in bringing about the environmental crisis. "
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The QAnon movement began in 2017 after someone known only as Q posted a series of conspiracy theories about Trump on the internet forum 4chan. QAnon followers believe global elites are seeking to bring down Trump, whom they see as the world’s only hope to defeat the “deep state.” OKM is part of a network of independent congregations (or ekklesia) called Home Congregations Worldwide (HCW). The organization’s spiritual adviser is Mark Taylor, a self-proclaimed “Trump Prophet” and QAnon influencer with a large social media following on Twitter and YouTube."
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The aim of my research for the Understanding Unbelief programme was to investigate the worldviews of non-believers, since little is known about the diversity of these non-religious beliefs, and what psychological functions they serve. I wanted to explore the idea that while non-believers may not hold religious beliefs, they still hold distinct ontological, epistemological and ethical beliefs about reality, and the idea that these secular beliefs and worldviews provide the non-religious with equivalent sources of meaning, or similar coping mechanisms, as the supernatural beliefs of religious individuals."
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Psalm 91, for example, reassures believers that God will protect them from “the pestilence that walketh in darkness… A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee”.............Luther was a devout believer but insisted that religious faith had to be joined with practical, physical defences against sickness. It was a good Christian’s duty to work to keep themselves and others safe, rather than relying solely on the protection of God. "
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Evidence from this study shows clearly that eating foods rich in flavonoids over your lifetime is significantly linked to reducing Alzheimer’s disease risk. However, their consumption will be even more beneficial alongside other lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, managing a healthy weight and exercising."
May 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "It’s possible that the answers to questions like, “how do I live a virtuous life?” or “how do we build a good society?” are not the same as they were a few weeks ago."
May 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Strangely, those with strong beliefs tend to be admired. The human mind hates uncertainty, so it is comforting to be told what to think, and to form settled opinions. But it is not rational. As the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote: “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”
Apr 21st 2020
Extract: "Humans, Boccaccio seems to be saying, can think of themselves as upstanding and moral – but unawares, they may show indifference to others. We see this in the 10 storytellers themselves: They make a pact to live virtuously in their well-appointed retreats. Yet while they pamper themselves, they indulge in some stories that illustrate brutality, betrayal and exploitation. Boccaccio wanted to challenge his readers, and make them think about their responsibilities to others. “The Decameron” raises the questions: How do the rich relate to the poor during times of widespread suffering? What is the value of a life? In our own pandemic, with millions unemployed due to a virus that has killed thousands, these issues are strikingly relevant.
Apr 20th 2020
Extract: "If we do not seize this crisis as a moment for transformation, then we will have lost the war. If doing so requires reviving notions of collective guilt and responsibility – including the admittedly uncomfortable view that every one of us is infinitely responsible, then so be it; as long we do not morally cop out by blaming some group as the true bearers of sin, guilt, and God’s heavy judgment. A pandemic clarifies the nature of action: that with our every act we answer to each other. In that light, we have a duty to seize this public crisis as an opportunity to reframe our mutual responsibility to one another and the world."
Apr 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Death is the common experience which can make all members of the human race feel their common bonds and their common humanity."