During the fourteenth century, a succession of famines and plagues ravaged Europe. Depending on which statistics one chooses to cite, between 30% and 60% of the population of western Europe died in a span of about fifty years. The plagues marked the end of the middle ages and, more significantly, the end of a Scriptural image of God.
Until the plagues, God was understood by most people to be gracious and trustworthy. In mainstream medieval theology, God cared so deeply about human nature that God created a new, supernatural destiny for human nature in the resurrection of Jesus. Until the end of the middle ages, believers experienced themselves as having graced lives in a graced world.
As a result of the devastation of the fourteenth century, the conventional image of God changed drastically. From the fourteenth century onward, God was imagined to be a harsh judge, stingy with grace, and frighteningly unpredictable. This image of God as stern and capricious was the result of the terror and uncertainty caused by global health crises. Although the image of God as angry and judgmental is deeply ingrained in the minds of the baptized today, it remains a false image of God. The fearsome God of old-fashioned Catholicism is a reflection of human fear rather than of faith. This false image of God, however, is not limited to post-medieval Christianity.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus’ disciples saw a man who had been born blind. They asked Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was caused to be born blind?” (Jn. 9:2) Like medieval Europeans, the disciples assumed that illness, abnormality, and suffering were divine punishments for sin. Their question was the result of their fear that God shared Don Corleone’s opinion that, “Revenge is a dish that tastes best when it is cold.” (1) Jesus’ reply should not be construed to affirm this false image of God. He said, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; rather, it is so that the will of God might be revealed through him.” (Jn. 9:3)
It is important to note both what Jesus said and what he avoided saying. He did not answer the disciples’ question about the cause of the man’s disability. Instead, his response described how he would use the man’s disability to reveal God’s power at work in his ministry of preaching and healing. (2) Jesus was not saying that a capricious God had caused this man to be born blind so that Jesus could perform a really impressive miracle later in the man’s life. Rather, he was saying that God had sent him (Jesus) into the world to be “light for the world.” (Jn. 9:5) The blind man provided a visible example of faith to those who were spiritually blind. In this sense, the power of God was made visible through the man who was physically blind but spiritually sighted.
The coronavirus pandemic has the capability of causing a resurgence of the false image of God as vengeful and capricious. It is possible that many people will die and that the survivors will interpret the widespread infection as punishment for (someone’s) sin. This will lead both church-goers and the unchurched to look for scapegoats. Fundamentalists will blame those whom they judge to be immoral. Many will blame government or their fellow citizens. Almost everyone will ignore the opportunity to see God more clearly by acknowledging Jesus as light for the world.
The false image of God as causing or permitting human suffering provides a clue about the truth if, like the man born blind, we are willing to be healed of our spiritual blindness.
It is often asked why God causes disasters like pandemics or why God permits evil like illness to exist in the world. The question contains its own answer, despite the fact that the answer is often overlooked. Illness, tragedy, and loss are caused by the unavoidable limitations of the universe. The universe is finite; therefore, the goodness of the universe is finite. The limited nature of created good allows for the existence of a limited amount of evil.
The universe’s finitude is the source of human suffering and the passive agent that allows physical and moral evil to exist. The reason that so many people tend to blame God for their suffering is that they equate God with the universe; their values systems are entirely materialistic and, as a consequence, their image of God is entirely materialistic.
The necessity of the existence of evil remained an unanswered question for the disciples in today’s Gospel reading; it will remain unanswered for us, as well. We do have, however, a satisfactory answer to the question of God’s nature; God is the source of all (and only), goodness.
Goodness remains the truth about God’s existence even when physical or moral evil threaten our happiness and well-being. The power and presence of God can be seen in any event or circumstance in life, but only if we are willing to see the light of Christ and turn a blind eye to the darkness of materialistic values.
What if the current public health crisis is an opportunity to see more clearly Jesus, the light of the world? What would happen if we turned away from our worries and fears in order to be more forgiving, compassionate, and generous? What if we choose not to panic and, instead, to rely on God as our source of security and consolation? That would really be a miracle.
(1) The Godfather, Directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Los Angeles: Paramount Pictures, 1972.
(2) Raymond Brown, SS, “John,” eds. William Foxwell Albright and David Noel Freedman, vol. 29 of The Anchor Bible, 2nd Edition (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1983), 371.