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Christian leaders don't see coronavirus pandemic as God's way of punishing humankind

St. Stephen's Episcopal Church (copy)

St. Stephen's Episcopal Church on Anson Street has stopped all functions at the church due to the coronavirus pandemic. Brad Nettles/Staff

In the wake of crises, questions often arise in religious circles about God's role in human suffering.

The coronavirus has been no different, as thousands die and leave behind mourning loved ones.

As communities attempt to decipher whether the coronavirus is God's way of punishing humankind for the violence, injustices and other wrongdoings that persist in the world, religious leaders caution against drawing correlations between human sin and undesirable conditions. 

For Christians, ideas about God's role in human pain should attempt to make sense of three truths: God loves humankind, God is all powerful, and evil exists, said R.J. Gore, who serves as Dean of Erskine Theological Seminary.

"Those are the things you have to square," Gore said. "So many different viewpoints deal with the problem by putting one of the three away."

The Christian community is broad, containing various denominations who interpret scripture differently. 

However, most Christian leaders agree one shouldn't draw "cause-and-effect relationships between unhappy outcomes and a person's sin," said Gore, who teaches a course entitled "The Problem of Pain," where seminarians wrestle with how to help people who suffer.

Some might view Old Testament scriptures as precedence for God punishing sin with disasters. In the Old Testament book of Genesis, God causes a flood to drown humans after he says "the earth is filled with violence." He instructs Noah, "a just man," to build an ark that protect him and his family.

But the story also ends with the promise that "seed, time and harvest will continue," Gore said. 

"Until Christ comes, there will be bleak times," he said.

The dean also pointed to a New Testament story told in the Gospel of John, where Jesus gives sight to a blind man. Jesus' disciples question whether the man's blindness was either a result of his sin, or his parents' wrongdoings. Jesus responds, "Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him," according to the New Testament book.

"The Bible encourages us to not draw conclusions between people’s actions and bad things happening," Gore said.

Personal tragedies also can shape one's view regarding God's part in catastrophes. 

The Rev. Adam Shoemaker, rector at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Charleston, struggled while in college as he dealt with losing his mother to leukemia.

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God doesn't desire human suffering — personal or communal — but the Creator is instead with people in challenging situations, Shoemaker said.

“If I believed God took my mother from me in the prime of her life for a purpose, to teach me a lesson, not only would I not be a priest, I probably would have left the church," he said. "My mother was a faithful, warm and kind woman."

So if God isn't using the coronavirus as his wrath and way to punish people, then why would he allow the disease to at all persist?

"I personally have no problem sitting with the mystery of it all," Shoemaker said. "I am skeptical of any human being who would claim to have all the answers. Part of being a faithful and responsible religious leader is demonstrating the humility of standing in the face of moments like this one, and say, ‘There’s a lot of this I don't understand.’ We don't have all the answers.”

The recent outbreak is hardly the first calamity to devastate the world. Plagues, pandemics and natural disasters have often disrupted normalcy, damaged communities, and brought death upon many.

But it's often in moments of despair when people are drawn closer to the divine and can demonstrate God's love, Shoemaker said.

A New York native, he remembers distributing Ash Wednesdays ashes inside St. Paul's Chapel. The New York church remained standing when the Twin Towers fell across the street in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and served as a relief spot for first-responders.

Standing in the house of worship reminded Shoemaker of God's providence in tragedy, he said.

“I see, in that experience, the face of God," he said.

At St. Stephen's, God's love was shown amid the outbreak when the church decided to suspend in-person services prior the Gov. Henry McMaster's mandate to limit crowd gatherings, Shoemaker said. He said the decision was the church's part in helping to bring about healing.

For some, the pandemic is a humble reminder of the mankind's mortality and points people towards the biblical account of Jesus' crucifixion, a story of both death and resurrection. 

COVID-19 was able to penetrate and impact the United States, despite the nation's wealth and power, said the Rev. Laurey Harrell, pastor of Johns Island Presbyterian. 

“The question is not 'why them', or 'why us.' It's 'why not us,'” the pastor said. “Who are we to think we have a body made where viruses can’t get to us, where death can’t happen? That happened to God’s son."

Reach Rickey Dennis at 937-4886. Follow him on Twitter @RCDJunior.

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