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Friday, May 15th 2020


Camus, The Plague, and God


The other day, my friend Steve Hays posted the following question on my Facebook timeline:

A while back you said you were reading The Plague in the original French. As we know, Camus poses a dilemma: if a plague is sent by God, is it impious to fight the plague? Are we fighting God by fighting a heaven-sent plague? If you feel up to it, how would you respond to the (false) dilemma?

3 Musketeers

As far as reading in French goes, I'm having fun with it. It's slow going right now. However, I understand that learning or working in a different language is supposed to keep one's brain from aging. I followed up with The Stranger, but got bored with it halfway through. Now I'm amusing myself with Les Trois Mousqetairesand am having a riot with it. Any number of witticisms in French get lost in translations. It's a long book, though ...

The question, like many others touching on the problem of evil, needs two kinds of answers, one confessional and one apologetic, viz. what I believe and why I think that Camus is wrong.

For the first part, the Heidelberg Confession expresses my thoughts rather nicely. I'm not Reformed in the denominational sense, but I agree with a number of their doctrines with regard to the sovereignty of God. Here are questions 27 and 28, as shared by the website of Westminster Theological Seminar

Article 27

Q. What do you understand by the providence of God?

A.God's providence is His almighty and ever present power,[1] whereby, as with His hand, He still upholds heaven and earth and all creatures,[2] and so governs them that leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, food and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty,[3] indeed, all things, come not by chance[4] but by His fatherly hand.[5]

[1] Jer. 23:23, 24; Acts 17:24-28. [2] Heb. 1:3. [3] Jer. 5:24; Acts 14:15-17; John 9:3; Prov. 22:2. [4] Prov. 16:33. [5] Matt. 10:29.

Article 28

Q. What does it benefit us to know that God has created all things and still upholds them by His providence?

A. We can be patient in adversity,[1] thankful in prosperity,[2] and with a view to the future we can have a firm confidence in our faithful God and Father that no creature shall separate us from His love;[3] for all creatures are so completely in His hand that without His will they cannot so much as move.[4]

[1] Job. 1:21, 22; Ps. 39:10; James 1:3. [2] Deut. 8:10; I Thess. 5:18. [3] Ps. 55:22; Rom. 5:3-5; 8:38, 39. [4] Job 1:12; 2:6; Prov. 21:1; Acts 17:24-28.

I cannot believe that God is ever out of control at any time in any place. Let me qualify, though, that you can hold to a view of God being in charge of all things without necessarily expressing it as strongly as Heidelberg.

Undoubtedly, if I stated my view to Camus, he would respond that I'm only aggravating the problem by defending the views expressed by Father Paneloux in theThe Plague.

In his first sermon, the priest interprets the plague as a judgment from God, calling on us to repent from our sins. Camus is surprisingly subtle in his depiction at that point. He pictures Paneloux as stern and dogmatic, but not uncaring. The priest is greatly troubled by the plague but sees the cause in our sins and the cure in our repentance. My reaction to the idea of the plague as judgment is that 1) we find such an interpretation represented in the Bible multiple times, and, thus cannot rule it out, but 2) unless I were to get direct word from God that some catastrophe is meant as a judgment, as the OT prophets did, I would be very, very careful in expressing such a claim.

The Plague

Challenged by Dr. Rieux, Fr. Paneloux joins the team to care for plague sufferers. After he witnesses the death of a young boy, he starts to change his mind. In his second sermon, he still claims that the plague has been sent to us by God, but as a test of our faith, not as a judgment. God's reasons may be mysterious to us, but we must not question him. Our obligation is to have faith in him, regardless of whether we understand his ways.

Dr. Rieux does not accept this view. To be honest, my first reaction to such a blanket objection is not to resort to my arguments concerning the problem of evil, but to shrug my shoulders and say that, if Dr. Rieux doesn't want to believe in God or divine providence, that's his option. I get bored with internet atheists who proclaim that they can no longer believe in God because of all the evil in the world and then resort to irrelevant rabbit trailing, which frequently includes imposing on theists a description of God that neither Jew nor Muslim nor Christian nor any other theist would recognize as the God whom we worship [footnote to Marilyn Adams, Horrendous Evil and the Goodness of God.] If you think that you cant believe in the God of the Bible, then don't. Or, if you care to, listen to some reasons why you should, but don't flaunt childish unbelief as the triumph of rationality, let alone think that other people must stop believing because Camus says we shouldn't.

Ooh, that's harsh.

So, I'll go to chapter 7 of No Doubt About It and try to explain to M. Camus that if God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, then the most plausible explanation for the present evil and suffering in this world is that God is in the process of eliminating it, and that this process is necessary because it brings about a higher good than would be possible without evil. I won't bother here with the lengthier argument to that effect because Camus does not really accept my supposition that God is o & o & o. If God truly possesses all of the properties that a genuine theist attributes to him, then the most reasonable conclusion is the one I mentioned above. God is in control and will abolish suffering in line with his goal for all of creation. It doesn't make any sense to invent a description of God, tell theists that they must accept that description, and then criticize the theist for holding an unsound belief.

However, Camus and many other people, will label my position as naïve, if not downright wicked, because it allegedly misleads people. Still, Camus does not follow the atheist's route of affirming the non-existence of God. He questions my affirmation that an o&o&o God has a good reason for allowing evil. As far as he is concerned if there is a God, then he is not good, and human beings must fight against this God who is robbing us of our freedom. He elaborated on this position in L'omme Revolté, but in doing so, Camus argues himself into a corner.

If God's allowing the plague entails that God is evil, then any sane person would presumably fight the plague as sent by God and in the process visualize himself as fighting God. Of course, what the person is doing is actually no more than fighting the plague. If he wants to imagine himself as fighting God in the process, there's nothing to stop him, except that he is endowing his work with futility. Assuming that God would still be omniscient and omnipotent, neither Camus nor his followers would have any chance to succeed, and the human's task would, indeed, be as non-productive as that of Sisyphus.

Albert Camus

The question rears its head as to whether the thing that Camus wishes to fight is still reasonably called "God." God, as believers think of him, is good and trustworthy. The idea of an entity that has all of the attributes of God other than goodness, whether it be deemed evil or just uncaring does not respond to what a theist would call "God." Camus and a few others who deny God's goodness may have created a "Super-Satan," and undoubtedly everyone should resist him, or, as the Bible tells us, to flee him.

So, there's an equivocation at work in considering God as not good. The term "God" does not include an evil nature. In order to conceptualize the kind of God Camus proposes for us to accept, we would have to revise our vocabulary. But there would be no motivation for doing so unless there were no plausible answer as to why an o&o&o being would permit evil. I'm quite sure that there is (again please see ch. 7 of NDAI for an elaboration).

Let us think for a moment about a specific evil, such as the plague. It comes to us, as Heidelberg summarizes, by God's fatherly hands. How can a loving heavenly father send (or permit, if you want to soften things a bit), a plague? Let me make sure we understand each other here: I do not consider a plague to be a good thing.

And neither does God.

A theist (and I'm most qualified to speak as a Christian), whether embracing Heidelberg or not, knows that God has given us the ability to recognize evil for what it is. We do not share the conclusion frequently expressed by atheists that there is no such thing as objective morality. A question that Camus never could answer if why some things are evil and others aren't. In the final analysis, he did not promote an existentialism as his friend Sartre did--not that Sartre really had a better answers--but he ultimately resorted to a rather weak and unconvincing humanism [Walter Kaufmann, Existentialism, Religion and Death(New York: Signet, 1967), pp. 205 ff]. Nevertheless, Camus was convinced that we should fight evil (and I'm not sure how, or even if, he actually personally fought against evil other than by joining various groups and signing petitions).

So, if God permits a plague, what are we supposed to do? There's no question here for us because, in contrast to Camus, we do have a basis for an objective morality.

We're supposed to fight the plague, right alongside Dr. Rieux with his foreclosed attitude. But we're not fighting against God; we're doing what he has called us to do. And if it is God who has called us to do something, we can have confidence that, no matter how far from us the result may appear, God will bring it to a perfect end.

1 Corinthians 15:58: Therefore, my dear brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the Lord's work, knowing that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.
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