NEWS RELEASE – MAY 26, 2020 – ELO held a webinar primarily for its Singapore and southeast Asia supporters on May 25th. The focus was “Marketplace Leadership in the New Post-Pandemic Economy.” The ELO Network offered perspectives from three continents (Asia, Europe and North America). John Lennox, Professor Emeritus, University of Oxford, provided a biblical perspective on how to understand and respond to the Coronavirus pandemic. He recently released a book, being translated into over 20 languages, titled, "Where is God in a Coronavirus world?", YouTube clips featuring Prof Lennox on the Coronavirus pandemic have already been viewed over 200,000 times. Dr. Richard (Rick) J. Goossen, Chairman, ELO, based in Vancouver, provided the perspective of leaders from throughout Canada as to how they are dealing with the present crisis. Dr. Bill Foo, an experienced business, church & nonprofit leader provided a perspective from Singapore. Dr. Goossen and Dr. Foo co-hosted the webinar in dialogue with Dr. Lennox and fielded questions from the listening audience.
Here are some extracts from the questions posed by Rick Goossen and Bill Foo to Prof. Lennox, which have been paraphrased and summarized for brevity. To access a recording of the webinar CLICK HERE.
NOTE: For the exact context of Prof. Lennox’s remarks and a word-for-word record of his comments, please refer to the webinar recording. The below summary is not to be quoted as the exact words of Prof. Lennox. Thank you.
Bill Foo: Many of us from an Asian background, such as from Singapore, might feel that the COVID-19 pandemic is something from nature or some kind of karma and that maybe we should leave it as it is. What are your thoughts?
John Lennox: [Let me refer to a previous situation where I encountered people who were suffering.] I arrived in New Zealand just two or three days after a major earthquake [February 22, 2011]. There is a whole spectrum of responses [to this type of tragedy]. There were the people that said, look this just proves there isn't any God; you just have to face the fact and live with it. Then there were Christians who would say, we hang on to God even if the mountains fall into the sea [Psalm 46:2]. Then other people said, this is a consequence of God's judgment.
A modification of this last response was seen in some of the more Eastern-thinking philosophes where people said to be careful because when people are suffering this is a result of their behaviour in previous lives. It's a question of “working off” their karma. Some people even went to the extent of publicly saying that we shouldn't help those suffering because if you help them you are simply condemning them to an even worse next life when they are reincarnated into another world.
I had to respond to all of those approaches [when I arrived in New Zealand]. I think the idea of karma is certainly one that goes against all our instincts as human beings and particularly if we are Christians. We believe we are made in the image of God, which leads to caring for one another and having a sense of stewardship. An approach rooted in karma is the exact opposite of the Christian reaction which is to love your neighbour as yourself.
I think one of the big considerations for me is a historical one. There have been many plagues in history and some of them far worse than what we're going through. The Black Death, for example, in the 14th Century wiped out at least 20% of Europe, perhaps 70 million lives. That is hard to comprehend. But what is so interesting if you go back even further, one of the earliest plagues is one that the Christians responded to in such a remarkable way that the Roman emperor was amazed. He said these Christians are not only looking after themselves, which he would expect, but they were looking after pagans, too. This led to a spread of Christianity as people like Rodney Stark and Tom Holland have recently written about. The point is that we are in a world where brave doctors and medical people—whom I admire enormously—are out there helping people. Many of them are unaware that hospitals, hospices and nursing facilities are a legacy of the Christian faith. So I do believe that coming from a Christian background we do have something to say into this situation.
Bill Foo: We ask the Lord to deliver us from evil and we ask the Lord to protect us from evil (according to Psalm 91). We also know that the rain falls upon the just and the unjust. But sometimes we find it hard to understand. In Singapore, the first key few cases of the pandemic originated in churches. How do we have a balance to not be discouraged but be trusting at the same time?
John Lennox: I don't think there are any easy answers to that kind of question. It's happened in more than one country that churches, which are normally safe havens for people, due to the very social closeness, has led to this situation. In a sense, you can see a certain inevitability about it. I don't think there's any simple answer to this.
In fact, I would go broader than that. There are no simplistic answers and being able to solve all the problems associated with suffering and evil. The best we can do, and that's one of the reasons I am a Christian, is that we do not have a set of simple philosophical answers—but a person of Christ. He is the real reason to trust with this problem.
The danger would be to jump in and judge those churches. That will not lead anywhere. We're not criticizing the fact that people came together for fellowship. We're realizing such is the nature of the world that this kind of pandemic can exploit that closeness until we get to grips with it and realize what it is that's happening.
For some people, it's too late. Life, in general, faces us with the fact that one out of one of us is going to die. If there is a God then by definition He allows us to die. Someone said long ago that when we get into eternity we will see the glorious side of the tapestry—but here we see a lot of untied ends and a lot of difficulties and complexities.
I tell you that with all my thinking about this if I die of COVID-19, which is possible, I would go into eternity with all kinds of questions. So I hope that nobody watching thinks that I have a whole set of simple answers. I do not. I'm like everybody else. I'm seeking to understand. The more I seek to understand the more the figure of the person of Christ comes into the centre. Christianity has, at its heart, the story of a God who has not remained distant from suffering and evil but has himself suffered it. As we all know there is a cross at the heart of Christianity. But there's also a resurrection and that's our final hope.
Bill Foo: You see God in mathematics and science. Yet when we talk about viruses where is God and is He in control of this situation?
John Lennox: I do see God in the fact that we can do mathematics and that the universe is mathematically intelligible. I think the only thing that accounts for that is theism. Atheism doesn't because it tells me that the mind that I do mathematics with is the end product of a random and unguided process. I have asked many a scientist, ‘would you trust your computer if you knew it was the end product of a mindless and guided process?’ Every single one of them—including some of the world-class scientists—have said no. So I certainly see evidence for God in the fact we can do science.
Where is God in all of this? The short answer I'm tempted to give is where is God in a Coronavirus world? He's exactly where he was in the world before the Coronavirus. I would like to ask you where was He in your world before the coronavirus? Were you looking for Him? Had you found Him? He's where He's always been. That is offering salvation through Jesus Christ.
The side issue is this. People always ask it and it's very important: why couldn't God have made a world in which this kind of thing didn't happen? I understand that question because I've asked many times myself why couldn't God have made a world in which fire would warm you but didn't burn you? Why didn't God make a world in which there are no earthquakes or viruses?
There is a story that I begin to talk about in my book titled, Where is God in a Coronavirus World?, but I talk about it elsewhere in my book Gunning for God. It seems to me that the central thing biblically is that it all started with human beings rebelling against God and using a wonderful gift sadly to do so. That is the gift of a certain amount of freedom of choice. If we weren't able to choose, if we had no freedom, there would be no love in the universe. There would be no morality. We would simply be robots and automata.
What is so important that people would come to me and say I just wish the world were such that people couldn't do bad things to each other and nothing went wrong. I say to them, “do you realize you're wishing yourself out of existence? That world would not contain you, because you are superbly made in the image of God and you've got the ability to choose.” Then if I get the chance, I tell them the biblical story that when human beings originally disobeyed and God allowed sin into the world. We are told that it had physical consequences. Paul says in Romans that death entered the world through sin and so death passed upon all man. Human death is a consequence of sin. If you go back to the original story you will find that humans were told that work would produce thorns and thistles. So it seems to me at the beginning, natural evil was a consequence of moral evil.
Here's the important thing. I didn't engineer all of that nor did you. It was happening long before we came along and that's why the Gospel is as it is. It's not telling us to do your best to combat this and hope one day God will judge you gently. No, it's far deeper. I'm going to offer salvation which does not depend on you putting it right, that does not depend on your merit. This is the wonder of the Gospel to me. Salvation is a gift that is not of merit. If we are prepared to repent, that is change our minds and face the mess we made of our own lives and those of others, and trust Christ, then instantly we don't have to wait for any judgement. We can receive peace with God and forgiveness. What is more, a life that even COVID-19 cannot destroy and that is the kind of hope that we can bring to people. It doesn't mean they won't die of COVID-19 but it means that they can have something free right now that COVID-19 cannot get at.
Rick Goossen: Can we say that the COVID-19 situation, from a Christian standpoint, is not something to be solved but something to be lived through?
John Lennox: Many years ago I thought that when I get to 30 I would have solved all of life's problems and then I'll start living. A friend of mine, much wiser than I, said, ‘John, solving the problems is living.’ That perspective has helped me enormously. I don't say these things therefor to answer a question as the problem to be solved. Instead, it’s a matter of the way we react in terms of our character, our attitude to others, the emotions we display, the body language we show and how we live in a locked-down situation with people that we may normally be close to but not confined with. All of that can develop our Christian character. Therefore we don't get through it and then live but we live through it in as much as our lives are completely in God's hands. The experience increases our trust in God.