briefing, Albert Mohler

Monday, March 23, 2020

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Monday, March 23, 2020. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

The Human Response to the COVID-19 Crisis: Why Does a Pandemic Bring Out the Best and the Worst in Human Moral Behavior?

The world continues urgently to be concerned primarily about COVID-19, the Coronavirus and the global crisis that has come with the deadly virus. The epicenter worldwide right now is Europe, and at the center Italy, where deaths has surpassed even the deaths that took place in China, a nation with a far larger population. The epicenter in the United States, indeed for all of North America, is New York state and New York City, in particular. As of last night, there were at least 15,000 cases in New York and over half of them were in New York City.

But as we continue to think about this, as Christians, we need to think in theological terms. And a distinction that we regularly make on The Briefing about evil comes down to the necessary distinction between natural evil and moral evil. In the philosophical world, that can often be a nearly absolute distinction, but as we shall see, in the Christian worldview based in Scripture, it is not so neat and clean.

We clearly do understand the separate categories of natural evil that is evil that takes place in nature and is not attributed to any specific human sin after the sin of Adam, and moral evil that is the demonstration of corrupted, sinful humanity in the moral decisions and the actions we make as human moral agents. We understand the distinction between naturally evil, say an earthquake, and moral evil, say a kidnapping. Those are two very different moral categories. But because when you are talking about human beings, even involved in a moral crisis of natural evil, you come to understand that there is moral evil that is involved as well.

And that’s why we’re going to turn to TIME Magazine and a very important article that ran in recent days with the headline, “The Greater Good.” The subhead: “Disease quarantines force us to weigh the needs of others against our own and the outcome can be ugly.” Jeffrey Kluger is the author of the article. And even as this article appeared, you had shelter in place orders, or the equivalent, put in place by governors in states such as California and Illinois and New York, also by governments and state by state across the nation, also city governments.

The shelter in place, quarantine, isolation, and restricted movement orders are at this point policed mostly by a kind of social restriction, or at least a kind of moral influence, neighbor by neighbor and person by person. Most Americans are not looking out the window and seeing troops on the street or police outside the door, as might be the case in other nations, such as the one-party state of China under the rule of the communist party.

In modern Western democracies, it’s a very different picture, but that also means that the morality up in ways that might be more acute than elsewhere. For instance, there are reports of teenagers in parks throughout much of California, of people who are still out. When you have governors restricting activity to only essential activity, it’s amazing how many people believe that whatever their activity is, it by virtue of the fact it’s theirs means it is essential.

You had the headline on Saturday telling us that businesses are clamoring to be identified as essential, and of course, many of them are, and economic activities essential for human flourishing. But nonetheless, business by business, the definition of essential might be something that’s a bit slippery. But more than anything else, the big concern is that people will not obey these shelter in place orders and will instead find some excuse, any excuse, to take themselves into danger and, of course, to take the exposure to the virus back to others.

The mathematical charts are absolutely convincing. When you look at an epidemiological tree, as it’s called, and you come to understand that those contexts, singular contexts, that then become multiplied, then become exponentially expanded. That’s why you have a root that grows into a trunk that grows into a massive tree. That is, unless the chain of exposure, the branching out of exposure is not checked. The shelter in place orders and similar restricted movement orders are intended to stop the tree from growing larger. And all you have to do is picture a tree to understand that in its outward growth, that growth is indeed exponential. It’s not just a growth of a factor, it’s a growth of multiple factors. That’s the real danger here.

The human moral behavior is demonstrated in the fact that in the context of this kind of crisis, you see human beings rising to the very best we can imagine in moral activity and the very worst. You have doctors and nurses and others on the medical front lines endangering themselves in order to treat others. You see sacrificial activities. You see people continuing to deliver groceries and to put them on the shelves. You see all kinds of activities that genuinely are essential continuing.

But at the same time you see bad behavior. You see a demonstration of human moral evil. Jeffery Kluger’s article at TIME goes to one of the leading moral authorities of the secular academy, Jonathan Haidt, who is professor of ethical leadership at New York University Stern School of Business. Haidt is an extremely insightful observer of human behavior. He says, “I think these quarantine issues are going to put many people in a moral conundrum.”

As TIME says, he can speak with particular authority because when he gave the interview to TIME Magazine, he was himself in the sixth day of his own 14-day quarantine, because he was exposed to the coronavirus by an infected individual when he was giving a talk about his new book, The Coddling of the American Mind.

When he speaks of the moral impulse behind his own obedience and respect for the quarantine order, Dr. Haidt said this, “We all do care about the welfare of other people, though inconsistently. We also all care about our reputations very consistently. I would truly feel guilty,” said Dr. Haidt, “if I passed the virus on to anybody else. I would feel great shame that people knew that it was me who broke the quarantine.”

Steven Pinker, a very secular thinker who’s professor of psychology at Harvard University, agreed with Haidt when he said, “Shame is huge. We carry around in our heads the expectation that anything we do might leak out. It’s that public opprobrium for misbehavior that keeps us in line.” That public judgment against misbehavior, says Pinker and also Jonathan Haidt, is what makes at least some people obey orders that they otherwise might try to disobey. But as Jeffery Kluger of TIME recognizes, given the freedoms found in Western democratic nations, “Yes, you’re under quarantine, but you’re not under surveillance. And if you slip out for dinner, who’s going to spot you?” He concludes, “Acting altruistically takes some moral muscle.”

Doing what might cost us even a kind of pleasure or satisfaction requires that kind of moral muscle that Jeffery Kluger here describes. Jonathan Haidt goes on to describe three sets of circumstances that “tend to drive people and nations towards either selfish or altruistic,” that is, non-selfish behavior.

The first, he says, is a danger from the outside, such as an attack by an enemy in a time of war. Haidt said this, “That makes people band together.” And as the greatest illustration, he gives us Pearl Harbor and the cohesiveness that came to the American people, the sense of unity after the surprise attack upon Pearl Harbor on December the seventh of 1941. Closer to our own historical period and our own moral experience, we look at the kind of unity that came to the United States in the aftermath, especially the immediate aftermath, of 9-11-2001. The terror attacks in New York City and Washington DC, undertaken by Al Qaeda.

But then the Time article tells us, “However, when the attack comes not from a human enemy, but from a virus or other pathogen, moral stress cracks form in the community.” Jonathan Haidt says, “Diseases do not bring us together. They can push us apart because of the nature of contagion.” Well, that becomes very interesting. An earthquake is not like a deadly virus. An earthquake is something that happens and then it’s over. The moral danger that comes in the midst of a viral attack is the fact that it goes on and on. And furthermore, the person coming to us could have altruistic, unselfish motivations, but they might still be the carrier of a disease. Thus, it tends to drive people apart. Just consider the fact that right now we are under a moral mandate of social distancing.

But then the third stressor identified here is deprivation. Especially, we are told, in the case of something like famine or a shortage of human basics. Jonathan Haidt pointed out this scarcity and starvation activate a mindset of deception and dishonesty. Later in the TIME Magazine article, Kluger summarizes, “The novel coronavirus, of course, ticks both the contagion and scarcity boxes, which is one reason people are behaving badly.”

Now, once again, there are many people behaving very, very well, indeed self-sacrificially. But there are some who are behaving badly. All you have to do is look at even just a small amount of the cable news coverage or look at your daily newspaper and you will see examples of people who are disobeying the quarantine orders. They refuse to shelter in place. And some of them are actually actively spreading the virus, if not intentionally by attempting to spread the virus, then intentionally by intentionally breaking the orders and defying the government policies, and taking themselves into contact with others, which can then lead, nonetheless, to the spread of the disease. They may say that they are not intentionally spreading the disease, but it is their intentional behavior that, nonetheless, will have that effect.

And as we’re thinking about the vicissitudes of human moral behavior, TIME Magazine actually has a fascinating sidebar asking the question, why are people hoarding toilet paper? The coronavirus, COVID-19, has no particular gastrointestinal effects, at least they’re not widespread. Furthermore, there was no shortage of toilet paper in the United States when the hoarding began.

Now there are all kinds of explanations offered not only in this article but elsewhere, some of them based in Jungian and Freudian psychology and psychiatry, others simply in the fact that it is, after all, considered in modern society something of a household necessity. But one of the points that needs to be made is that in hoarding toilet paper, in buying it roll by roll far beyond any reasonable expectation, human beings can give themselves a certain kind of moral assurance that they are actually doing something.

And in the face of a natural evil such as this virus, there is the understandable impulse to do something, to be able to look at a stack maybe of boxes or rolls of toilet paper and say, I’ve done something in order to prepare. Something that’s morally meaningful. It’s probably going to turn out that Americans are going to end up with far too much toilet paper, but it does indicate something interesting about us as human beings.

So as we’re thinking about the necessary distinction between natural evil and moral evil, we come to understand the natural evil is the virus itself. The moral evil is human moral behavior, bad behavior in this sense, which takes place in the context of the coronavirus crisis, and which we saw similarly and other acute moments of epidemiology in human history, including the plagues.

Part II

In Evangelical Headlines: Is the Coronavirus a Result of the Fall or Just a Part of God’s Creation? Your Answer to That Question Will Come With Huge Theological Implications

But even as Christians tend to understand moral evil more clearly than natural evil, we understand the evil that is the result of human moral action, decision making, and agency. It is natural evil that also raises some of the biggest questions. And one of those raising that question right now is the new editor in chief of Christianity Today Magazine. Daniel Harrell, who prior to his experience was pastor of the Park Street Church, an historic evangelical congregation in Boston and then a church in Minnesota, he just recently joined Christianity Today as editor in chief, and he evidently intended to spark a discussion with an article that was posted at Christianity Today on the 17th of March.

The headline: “Is the coronavirus evil or is this part of life in the world God made?” He begins the article describing the coronavirus convulsing the planet without immunity. He speaks of efforts to curb the spread of the virus. He summarizes it as, “an effort to somehow contain a pandemic, a viral villain we cannot see.”

He then quotes Karl Barth, the most influential neo-orthodox theologian of the 20th century, saying that at the end of his life, a certain bacillus was besieging Barth’s kidneys. Barth wrote, “This monstrosity does not belong to God’s good creation, but rather has come in as a result of the Fall. It has in common with sin and with the demons also that it cannot simply be done away with, but can be only just despised, combated, and suppressed. The main thing,” wrote Bart, “is the knowledge that God makes no mistakes and that proteus mirabilis,” that is the bacillus, “has no chance against him.”

But all this is just to set up the argument that Daniel Harrell actually wants to make. He wants to argue against Barth that the virus is not the result of the Fall. He wants to argue that a virus is a part of the creation that God has made, the way God made it. He writes, “The theological tendency is to view God’s creation as a good thing gone bad, all due to our avaricious overreach as humans.” He goes on to say,  “Any cursory survey of human history confirms this.” But he writes, “Unless God’s creation defies every characteristic of biological reality, bacteria and viruses are not bitter fruits of the Fall, but among the first fruits of good creation itself.”

He continues, “If the science is right, there would be no life as we know it without them. God makes no mistakes,” argues Harrell, “and bacteria and viruses indeed are mirabilis (from the Latin meaning remarkable, or even amazing or wondrous, adjectives,” he writes, “frequently used to describe creation) and part of the plan from the start.” He concludes the paragraph, “Better to view creation not as something perfect gone awry, but as something begun as very good, only not yet finished.”

Now clearly, this is going to shock many readers. It shocks the historic Christian understanding that does indeed argue that the creation is something perfect gone awry, that God established the garden as the very representation of his creational intention, and in the garden, there was no death, there was no suffering because there was no sin. And where there was no sin and there was no death and there was no suffering, there would have been no deadly viruses.

But Daniel Harrell is arguing that given the insights of contemporary science, especially contemporary biology, it is simply wrong for Christians to try to describe viruses as a natural evil. They’re just a part of nature. But all of this, of course, you’ll recognize by now is part of a far larger theological issue and far bigger theological questions. It’s not just a question about the theological identification of a virus. It has to do with our understanding of how to read the Bible, most particularly how to read Genesis, and how to read biblical theology, even the meta-narrative of Scripture.

Daniel Harrell is arguing that evolution should simply be taken as a fact, and evolution as a fact would demonstrate that viruses are just a part of nature, necessary to the entire engine of evolutionary progression. An interview published in Christianity Today with its new editor in chief, back in January of this year, pointed out that Daniel Harrell is the author of a book entitled, Nature’s Witness: How Evolution Can Inspire Faith.

In that book, Nature’s Witness: How Evolution Can Inspire Faith, published back in 2008, Daniel Harrell argues that Christians should theologically and intellectually just come to terms with evolution. But the terms are very, very stark. As he begins a conversational pattern in the book, he says that he believes the Bible says that God created the heavens and the earth in six days. He also believes, “that rivers clap their hands and that mountains sing because the Bible says that too, but,” he writes, “I don’t think that the Bible means six 24-hour days any more than I believe that the Bible means that rivers have actual hands.”

Now at this point, I simply have to note that I’m in fundamental disagreement even about the issue of biblical interpretation here, because the language about the rivers clapping their hands is clearly metaphorical. That is not the case when it comes to Genesis 1 and the chronological sequence of creation. At page 16 of the book, he writes, “If all truth is God’s truth, to insist on a view of God that contradicts his creation is to imply that God has not revealed himself in his creation. Actually, it’s worse than that,” he writes. “To say that God negates science is to say that God has misleadingly rigged the universe, and to say that is to choose to worship deception rather than truth.”

Now that’s a form of rhetorically stacking the deck. I believe that all truth is God’s truth. I also believe that creation tells the truth concerning the Creator. But as Romans 1 makes clear, it is human sinfulness that clouds our perception, and I have to extend that clouding of perception to the very theory of evolution itself and its alternative account, not only for the origin of the cosmos, but the meaning of the cosmos.

Harrell clearly gives the veto to modern science when it comes to explaining the world. He says, “The Bible says six days, but there’s no way that’s right unless astrophysics and geology are patently false.” He also makes this statement, “The scientific evidence is too strong in evolution’s favor to reasonably deny its occurrence. You can refuse to believe it, but that still won’t make it untrue any more than denying God exists proves that he does not exist.” Now that is, again, just to look at the rhetorical structure that he deploys here, this is creating something of a parallelism, if not an equivalence, between the claim that evolution is true and the claim that God exists. But the Christian would step back to say, those are not two claims of equal importance, nor of equal truth assertion.

Part III

What’s at Stake in the Question of Natural Evil? Where Evil Is Found, Sin Is the Ultimate Answer, But Why?

But between pages 49 and 52 in the book, he writes about evolution and death. He says, “You can’t blame sin for the death that evolution causes. The vast amount of dysfunction, excess, and deviancy in the evolutionary process happen before people ever arrived on the scene.” Now here is where we find ourselves in some of the deepest water and some of the most significant controversies that have shaken evangelical Christians for a century and more. As we are looking at the challenge of a naturalistic understanding of the universe and we’re looking at the claims of evolution, there is no way to come to terms with evolution without understanding that it requires billions and billions of years, and also billions and billions of deaths long before evolution can account for the emergence of human beings, of homo sapiens on the world scene.

But then again, this just raises massive questions. Who were Adam and Eve? Were they the first homo sapiens? Well, as you read his book, Daniel Harrell clearly believes that there were hominids before Adam and Eve. He seems to be making that point clearly enough, even given the conversational style that is the structure of the book. On page 87, he says, “Another option might be to have Adam and Eve exist as first among homo sapiens, specially chosen by God, his representatives for a relationship with him. We often speak,” he writes, “theologically of Adam as serving as humanity’s representative in matters of original sin. His sin affects us all (Romans 5:12).” He continues, “So the idea of Adam as representative already exists in Christian theology. Science asserts that evolved brain capacity and function are part of what set homo sapiens apart from previous hominids.”

Now here is a crucial question for Christians: Can you square that kind of argument or option, as Daniel Harrell calls it, with a straightforward reading of Scripture? And it is not just as if you could even say just the hermeneutics and the exegesis involved in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. It is also the entire flow of the book of theology.

Do you believe that Adam and Eve were merely the first homo sapiens, or that they were actually the first hominids? I find it very difficult to imagine how you can find all the billions of years that evolution requires. I find it very difficult to understand how you can place death in the garden of Eden before the Fall. And I find it impossible to understand how you can have hominids without homo sapiens in the flow of the biblical narrative.

But if you are going to look to nature “not as something perfect gone awry, but as something begun as very good but only not yet finished,” then viruses can be just a part of that nature, not natural evil, the result of the Fall. That’s the argument that Daniel Harrell is making at Christianity Today.

But I want it to be clear that I affirm a young earth. I believe that is the most natural reading of the biblical text in Genesis and it sets the most natural reading of the flow of biblical history thereafter. But the issues are far larger and even more important than the age of the earth. It has to do with the origins of human beings and whether or not the Fall is the answer for natural evil. But it’s even bigger than that, because if Daniel Harrell’s argument is right, theologians throughout the history of the Christian Church have actually been wrong to describe natural occurrences as morally significant, as in natural evil.

But I don’t believe that is wrong and I think this is a massively important theological issue. I do look at the COVID-19, coronavirus as a form of evil. Natural evil, yes. Explicable only by the fall, yes. Due to human sin amongst our first parents, yes. Setting loose evil in nature as mayhem and earthquake and tsunami and hurricane and virus and germ and tumor, all that and more.

And yes, I believe that death, all death, is traceable to human moral evil and the great revolt we know as the Fall. I don’t believe that the garden was simply set in God’s creation where hominids and others were already existing and had existed for billions of years. I don’t believe that Adam and Eve were simply selected out of those hominids as representatives and ensouled. I do believe that they were not only the first homo sapiens, but the first hominids. And I do believe that natural evil is an indication of our desperate need for the gospel of Jesus Christ.

And I will close simply by going to Romans 8:19-23, where Paul writes, “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know,” writes Paul, “that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation,” Paul writes, “but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”

And speaking of death, not just spiritual death, but human physical death, Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:26 describes physical death as the last enemy to be defeated. An enemy is evil, and so is COVID-19. We rightly make a distinction between natural evil and moral evil, but what binds them together is evil. And where evil is found, sin is the ultimate answer.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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