(Painting: "Christ Healing the Blind," by El Greco, 1570s, oil on canvas)
48.) Healings in Jesus’ Ministry - Christ’s miracles of healing were a very prominent part of his ministry. It is evident, through Christ’s example, that God’s intent for humanity is a condition in which we are not ultimately bound to suffering and decay. God clearly cares about our suffering as a result of natural evils and wishes (ultimately) to free us from that suffering. Classically within Christian theology, natural evils like disease have been thought of as part of the effect of humanity’s Fall. However, given the history of the natural world as we now know it, it becomes clear that the natural world was full of pain and suffering as an integral part of the freedom-in-development allowed to it by its Creator; and, further, this suffering seems to be a core element of the nature of the created order—it is part of the soul-making, value-adding process of God's developmental creation. The bacterial and viral vectors of disease are themselves a “good” part of creation, having developed through participation in the freedom given to all created things to choose their own way. Diseases also serve as part of the matrix that allows us to develop the virtues of patience, compassion, self-sacrifice, courage, and endurance, which simply would not be possible without suffering. However, even though the suffering caused by such things does seem to be integral to this stage of our creaturely development, the Gospels make it clear that that is not God's ultimate goal for his creation: Christ’s healings marked the Kingdom as a place of compassion and deliverance, and through the ministry of mercy, the invention of hospitals, and the pursuit of better cures, Christian civilization has followed in its Savior’s footsteps in seeking to make a world free of the suffering of disease.
49.) Case Study: A Theodicy of Disease - One particular historical example of disease, though, has always vexed me: why would God have allowed the course of history to progress in such a way that contact between the Old World and New World civilizations—contact that would have been necessitated by the fulfillment of the Christian mission—why should this contact, which occurred at the turn of the 16th century, have destroyed around 90% of the New World population through devastating plagues? Why should the completion of God’s own mission necessarily wreak such terrible pain? There are no full answers to such a question. But it occurs to me that several things can be said, even if they can’t completely address the issue in all its devastating force: first, we don’t know that God wouldn’t have intervened to halt just such a plague if the Old World contacts had been primarily made as part of the Christian mission (as it happened, Christian mission was more of a tagalong to a wave of economic exploitation); second, the same problem is not unknown in other areas of the world, including, of course, Christian Europe in the Middle Ages; in fact, the same scenario occurs in reverse in Africa, where the vast majority of American and European missionaries succumbed to disease very quickly (but at least they had made the volitional choice towards self-sacrifice); third, the historical circumstances of the Old World invading the New may actually have made the plagues a mercy—it is almost without doubt that the Old World civilizations, with a higher level of combat technology, would have mercilessly and systematically purged the New World of its native peoples in unbelievable bloodshed over the course of several centuries—the plagues, while tragic, brought the story of many of these people to completion while still in possession of their lands, culture, and dignity, and prevented a multitude of additional sins from accruing on the heads of the wayward Old World invaders (though of course they already carried a multitude nonetheless); fourth, that this evil too, though unbearably tragic in its scope from our present vantage, will one day be made well in the restoration of all things.