An earthquake in Lisbon
by Ned Moerbe
In 1755, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of Lisbon, Portugal, on All Saints’ Day, terrorizing the city of 250,000. Churches were full when the first tremor struck. Many perished in collapsing churches. Fires broke out across the city and were fed by strange and howling winds. Many people fled to the harbor hoping to escape on ships, only to see the harbor sucked dry before a monstrous wall of water devastated the city. It is estimated that up to 60,000 people died in the disaster.
The Lisbon earthquake was a turning point in the thinking of Western civilization. Prominent Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire questioned how God could allow such a tragedy. People questioned whether or not God was good and almighty if He let such horrific things happen. Philosophers and skeptics demanded that God justify Himself to them.
In the end, Western thinkers found God’s answer in the cross of Christ to be insufficient, and they sought out a new deity: Science. She was held up as more worthy of worship. Science is a cruel mistress, no doubt. She is cold and heartless, but she is also objective and impartial, if not fair. For many, these qualities make her a more desirable deity than one who calls us to deny ourselves, take up our cross and daily die to this world.
The religion of Science
COVID-19 is revealing just how deeply rooted the idol of Science is in our modern worldview. Science is the religion of our day. Even Christians succumb to the temptation to look first to Science for answers to our questions and for help in our time of need. Science entices us with the same allurement that was in the garden. All our needs can be met through Science, or so her prophets claim. Not only can we create paradise, but we can have all knowledge. Thus, the scientist is not just priest in this religion, but he shares something of the goddess. If a scientist says it, it must be true. We look to Science to increase our understanding, to lengthen our lives and lead us to a better life in a better world.
This pandemic is also revealing the unreliability of our idol. We sit in our homes and gripe that Science has not relieved us from our plight. We complain that we aren’t able to get out of the house, that self-isolation is unnecessary and harming the economy. Or we complain that reopening the country too soon will cause more people to die. We complain that first we were told masks don’t help, then that we should wear them to protect others. We were told there is no treatment, then that hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin were the cure we were looking for, while other doctors said the evidence wasn’t clear.
These angry complaints and protests are targeted at various civil and medical leaders, but their root lies in the assumption that whatever our god is, we deserve better from it. The difference between the world before 1755 and today is that prior to the Lisbon quake, man responded to experienced trials and suffering by asking which sin of his or his neighbor brought about this punishment. Christ tells His disciples not to look at affliction as a sign of greater or lesser guilt (e.g., John 9). Yet, He also says that every time we see devastation befall someone, we should repent (Luke 13:1–5). Today, instead of repenting, we assume that we are in the right. Others have failed us. We don’t deserve this. There have been calls for a national day of prayer to end this affliction, but where has been the cry for a national day of repentance?
Could it be that pleas for repentance are unheard today because at heart we are all devotees of Science, and Science doesn’t care about righteousness, sin or guilt? This is the paradox of our mindset. We have insisted that our origin is in chance, chaos and death, yet we also insist that there must be justice and order in the world.
The unreliability of Science
Is not the real source of our frustration in this pandemic that our new goddess is proving unreliable? Science was supposed to lead us with infallible facts. She attracted our devotion with the promise that with her leading, we could accomplish anything. Like all lies, there is a bit of truth in this enticement. Our knowledge of microbiology has drastically altered the way we view and treat viruses. But we want a cure now! If Science is our goddess, if she is the source of all knowledge and power, why can’t she give us what we want when we want it?
Once again, we find ourselves following a god who doesn’t give us what we expect. Science has failed us as an alternative to the God made known in His Son’s obedient death on the cross. She does not provide answers quickly enough. She cannot be relied on when it counts. She is supposed to be cold and objective, nothing but the facts, yet the facts seem to change. Newton’s physics was replaced by relativity, which is being replaced by quantum physics. We get mad at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for changing advice on masks, for revising statements on how COVID-19 is spread and how many people are expected to be infected, hospitalized or die. In reality, we do not have a problem with the CDC; we have a problem with Science. Science has failed us.
COVID-19 probably won’t be the Lisbon moment that demolishes the idolatry of the Enlightenment. Collectively, we don’t have the honesty or the memory for that to happen. But God willing, we can be led as individuals to recognize our own idolatry. We have trusted in Science, which in turn has led us to expect our political leaders to handle crises with infallibility. We have looked to the stock market as our highest good.
Science offered heaven on earth. In reality, it offers a life that is merely a step up from what we know now. Scripture offers us perfection in the life to come. But that is not all, nor is that the chief thing. Salvation is not about the easy life, but life with Christ. The malefactor on the cross received a greater promise than paradise when Jesus promised, “You will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43, emphasis added).
Too much for us
This pandemic is too much for us. But life before the pandemic was too much for us. Jesus never promised an end to our struggles in this life. He promised to be with us in these struggles. He was with the Christians crushed by rubble in the crumbling churches of Lisbon. He is with us in our current struggles. We know this because He took up His cross and led the way through suffering and death. While it is proper to save lives and keep the economy going, our ultimate goal is to be with Jesus.
There is an important place for science in our society. But she makes a lousy god. Researchers, doctors and civil leaders can help us make reasonable judgments about how to best love and serve our neighbor. There will be missteps. We will probably find that we could have done things differently and gotten a better result. There will certainly continue to be some Monday morning quarterbacking going on as we move through this crisis. But there is great freedom in knowing that we are not charged with getting everything right. Christ is the One who makes all things new and perfect. With this knowledge we can go forth in love, not fear, and take up our cross and follow Jesus, trusting that He is with us now and in eternity. He is just and the justifier of the ungodly. That will never make sense to our fallen minds, nor do we need it to.
The Rev. Ned Moerbe serves Trinity Lutheran Church, Blackwell, Okla.
 This account of the Lisbon earthquake is summarized from Thomas G. Long’s description in What Shall We Say?: Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011).