Sean McDowell | April 16, 2020

COVID-19 and the Problem of Goodness and Beauty

With the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a lot of discussion lately about the problem of evil and suffering. If God is truly good and all-powerful, why does He allow such hurt and pain?

Fair question.

But in our present moment, there is another question we must consider as well: Why is there good? In his book Evil and the Justice of God, N.T. Wright states the “problem of good” succinctly: “If the world is the chance assembly of accidental phenomena, why is there so much that we want to praise and celebrate? Why is there beauty, love, and laughter?” (p. 19).

Why Is There Goodness and Beauty?

Great question! After all, if there is no God, why is there beauty and objective morality in the first place? We are taken off guard by evil and ugliness, because we expect the world to have goodness and beauty. But why expect the world to be this way? Consider the atheist universe, according to Richard Dawkins:

“In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference. DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.”[1]

In other words, if there is no God, then we live in a universe without objective morality, beauty, and free will. Our world just is.

But if we’re honest, don’t we know better? Think about it:

Beauty: We know there is beauty, which is why we sneak outside of our homes during the quarantine to see the sunset or stars.

Morality: We know there is right and wrong, which is why we condemn the actions of people who have willingly spread COVID-19 without care for others.

Free Will: We know that we make genuine choices about our lives. After all, we can only praise the choices of people, such as this priest who willingly gave up his ventilator to a young patient, and ultimately lost his life to COVID-19, if he made an authentic choice that was not a matter of dancing to his DNA.

In reality, we all know there is both beauty and ugliness. We know the world is not amoral, but that there are both good and evil actions. And we know that the world operates by physical forces and that people make real choices.

According to Dawkins, the atheist worldview can explain physical forces, but not free will. It can account for ugliness, but not beauty (“pitiless indifference”). And the atheist worldview can potentially account for our belief in morality, but not the existence of good and evil.

Here is the bottom line: The atheist worldview cannot explain the dichotomies of beauty and ugliness, good and evil, or free will and physical forces.

Free Will, Morality, and Goodness In the Christian Worldview

But Christianity can. God is a free Being who made us in His image and placed us in a world that operates by physical forces. God is a moral Being who gives us the choice as to whether or not we will enter into a loving relationship with Him and with others. God is a beautiful Being who created a world that reflects His character, but that has been marred by sin.

My point here is not to attempt an answer to the problem of evil and suffering. This is a serious question that requires thoughtful, heartfelt reflection. Nor am I brushing it under the carpet. Dr. Clay Jones and I talk about why God might allow COVID-19 in this video.

Rather, my point is to raise “the problem of good” and the difficulty it raises for any non-theistic worldview. I am a Christian, in part, because I believe it offers a compelling reason for why the world contains the dichotomies beauty and ugliness, good and evil, as well as the existence of free will and physical forces.

Yet as Richard Dawkins notes, the atheist worldview cannot adequately account for any of these dichotomies.

When tragedies like COVID-19 hit, both atheists and Christians rightly raise the problem of evil and suffering. Yet we must not forget the “problems” of goodness, beauty, and free will. Any adequate worldview must account for all of these.

[1] Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (New York: Basic Books, 1995), 133.

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If you are looking for evidence for the historical Jesus, check out the updated Evidence that Demands a Verdict (co-written with Josh McDowell).

Evidence that Demands a Verdict

Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author, popular speaker, and part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell, TikTok, Instagram, and his blog: