COVID-19 and the problem of evil - Maryknoll Lay Missioners
Home » Faith Formation and Pastoral Care » COVID-19 and the problem of evil

Crucifixion from the Stations of the Cross by Charles S. Ndege at the Immaculate Heart Sisters of Africa in Musoma, Tanzania.

Theologians have wrestled with various problems over the centuries—some interesting and some not so. “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” has never has kept me up at night. Perhaps it did Duns Scotus. But what is called “the problem of evil” is troubling and, for me, does not have a completely satisfactory answer. I venture a guess that this question may be in the front of minds of believers more than ever before thanks to COVID-19, especially those most affected by the virus.

What is the problem of evil? In short, disasters like the coronavirus appear to be unexplainable in light of the attributes we believe about God. God is omniscient: God knows all—what we see as the past, present and future—so surely, God saw this virus coming. God is omnipotent, all powerful: God, we believe, can do anything, so surely, it is in God’s power to have prevented or to stop the virus’s destruction. God is omnibenevolent: God loves us through and through, beyond our imagining, and therefore God would not wish us to suffer with this virus. Believing these things together, it is difficult for us to understand what might be called a “natural evil” like COVID-19.

The most satisfactory explanation I have heard asserts that we must see God’s omnipotence differently. Theologians profess that we do not understand the way that God works in the world. God does not work as we would have it.

But in these current circumstances, I’m not interested in Augustine or Aquinas or Bonhoeffer’s answers to the problem of evil. I’m interested in the Cross, the Cross to which we turn our eyes in a special way today, on Good Friday.

Someone lying in an ICU, struggling for breath, may understand well the last words of Christ: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” Those words encompass the problem of evil and, uttered from Christ, are mysterious in the extreme.

But what followed the Cross? What came next? The Resurrection, obviously. Christ conquered death and restored our relationship with God.

And then what? Discipleship—the spreading of the Good News. The ragtag band of followers of Christ, enlivened by the Holy Spirit, went out into the world. They transformed it. The world would never be the same.

So here we are.

Perhaps we cannot solve the riddle of the problem of evil: “Why the virus?” But we can ask and struggle together to answer the question, “What will emerge after this virus passes?” Our world has been rocked. Clearly. Something fundamental, something foundational has changed. Then what will we be? How will we be? What relationship(s) will be restored? Relationships between nations? Among our friends and family? Our connection with the Earth?

This, like it was for Christ’s followers, is up to us.



Maria Montello
A Maryknoll lay missioner since 2011, Maria Montello teaches philosophy and critical thinking at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and the Catholic Major Seminary there.