Over the centuries, plague has been understood variously as a purely natural phenomenon, astrological fatalism, the judgment of God, or, most perplexing, a manifestation of divine mercy. Since plague is one of those natural disasters whose origin cannot be assigned to human agency, it can pose seemingly insoluble moral problems. If, for example, plague is understood as God’s judgment upon sinful humanity, why does that judgment seem to fall equally upon the guilty and the innocent? And if such indiscriminate suffering can be understood as an “act of God,” does God in fact directly will that suffering, or does he merely permit it? And is there a difference?

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, plague rarely caused widespread or enduring doubt about either the goodness of God’s providence or about His existence. In the modern era, doubt itself has become pandemic. Atheism, or at least virulent agnosticism, has become our default response to human suffering, and even as medical science kept plague at bay, it remains the most emblematic of those afflictions which arouse in us a spirit of revolt against the very idea of a divine providential order.

In the Islamic world, plague was sometimes seen as divine punishment, but was also regarded as an occasion of divine mercy—a mercy because it afforded the opportunity for martyrdom for those who accepted it with pious gratitude. As American scholar Michael W. Dols argued some years ago, this view of plague as at once mercy and martyrdom “may have been both comforting and confounding for the distressed Muslim.”

He further asserts that the Muslim view of plague as an occasion of divine mercy was “unique,” and that it contrasted with the Christian understanding of plague as an expression of divine anger and punishment for sin, as if God’s mercy, in the Christian perspective, were somehow eclipsed by His wrath. Certainly, it is true that the Christian understanding of plague emphasized punishment and expiation, but there can be no expiation without hope of God’s mercy, as hundreds of Christian prayers in times of plague testify. Moreover, for Christians, the advent of plague was widely understood as an occasion for the faithful to demonstrate God’s mercy, to become its willing vessels by caring for the sick.

During the Antonine Plague that struck the Roman Empire in AD 165 and continued its ravages for 15 years, and then again during the Plague of Cyprian (AD 249 to 262), pagan society was thrown into massive disorder and panic. Sociologist Rodney Stark has shown that the Christian response to both plagues may have been the single most important factor in drawing millions of pagans into the Christian fold and transforming the status of the Church in the waning days of the Empire.

One observer of the latter of these plagues, Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria, recorded that at its onset, the pagans “pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treated unburied corpses as dirt, hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease.” By contrast, Christians believed it was a holy obligation to remain and minister to the suffering. “[W]hat sublimity,” wrote St. Cyprian, “to stand erect amidst the ruins of the human race and not to lie prostrate with those who have no hope in God, and to rejoice rather and embrace the gift of the occasion….”

image of a plague doctor—frontispiece from Jean-Jacques Manget’s Traité de la peste, 1721 (public domain)Given the sheer magnitude of loss and horror, especially during the Black Death, it is remarkable that we have so little evidence of believers who renounced the faith. Of course, it might be argued that fear of punishment by authorities prevented public professions of doubt or disbelief. Or it may be that the thousands who reacted to the plague with fatalistic hedonism were, in effect, repudiating whatever faith they possessed.

Today, after several centuries of subsequent revolt against the dominance of religion in public life, and the rise of an aggressive secularity which has, in a manner of speaking, quarantined Christian believers (as if faith itself were a kind of contagion), most of us, even if we are Christians, recoil almost viscerally from public proclamations of God’s righteous anger. Mainstream clergy, even if they may privately believe that plague can be a manifestation of God’s judgment upon a sinful world, avoid making such statements from the pulpit. We moderns have no stomach for that sort of thing, and most religious folk have largely internalized the view that plague is simply a nasty but natural occurrence. To suggest that plague might also be an instance of God’s mercy…well, try that one out on your co-workers and see what kind of reaction you get.

Of course, the last century has been largely free of plague (with one or two notable exceptions), especially in the medically advanced sectors of the Western world. But with the global shockwaves produced by COVID-19, perhaps some of us may be more receptive to the traditional theological perspective. Albert Camus’s The Plague (1947) is, for this reason, more timely now than it has been for many decades. It is not that Camus asks his readers to accept a theological view of plague, but rather that he so brilliantly dramatizes the conflict between the secular and theological understandings.

At the center of this tale is Bernard Rieux, a physician in the Algerian port of Oran, who ministers with priestly devotion to the sick and dying after plague strikes the town in the years just after World War II. He is one (to recall the words of St. Cyprian) who stands erect amidst “the ruin of the human race,” yet is also one of those “who have no hope in God.” Dr. Rieux is the quintessential literary image of the noble atheist, the sort of man whom our secular culture adores. Are such men and women not proof that non-believers lead exemplary, moral lives just as often, if not more often, than theists? Indeed, Rieux surrounds himself with a cadre of devoted companions who appear to be equally without faith, but together they selflessly battle the plague. Rieux persuades them, largely by example, that it is nobler to remain than to flee.

Though Rieux is an admirable character, it would be wrong to assume (as many do) that he speaks exclusively for Camus, who was not himself an atheist, as is often erroneously claimed. In his early years Camus studied Augustine, and on more than one occasion, he insisted he was simply agnostic. What is unquestionable is that he was drawn to the moral vision of Christianity, apparent in the powerful characterization of Fr. Paneloux, the Jesuit priest who might be called Rieux’s foil.

To fully understand Camus’s perspective in this novel, it is necessary to see that he speaks through both characters. As the plague nears the point of its greatest intensity and the people of Oran are plunged into despair, the Church declares a Week of Prayer. The highlight of this penitential week is a sermon preached by Fr. Paneloux, itself one of the most memorable passages in Camus’s novels. At the heart of the sermon is the metaphor of the “threshing floor,” an oft-repeated motif in times of plague dating back to the Old Testament: “For the plague,” he intones, “is the flail of God and the world his threshing floor, and implacably He will thresh out his harvest until the wheat is separated from the chaff.” The angel of the pestilence is “hovering” above the roofs of the city, his terrible red spear held ready to strike. The plague is “watchful, ineluctable as the order of the scheme of things….No earthly power…not even the vaunted might of human science…” can avail against it. Yet the suffering caused by the plague is not “the will of God.” God does not will suffering, but sends the plague as a mercy, an act of compassion, the same “divine compassion which has ordained good and evil in everything.” It reveals what can only be revealed “in the dark core of human suffering,” the small “still flame” of eternal radiance.

In the cynical grip of our secularity, we may be tempted to scoff, to declare that Paneloux is, at best, self-deluded, or worse, a demagogic practitioner of delusion. But Camus will not let us dismiss him so easily. In the second half of the novel, Paneloux joins Rieux’s cadre of “sanitary workers”—all of whom face almost certain infection. One night, in the course of their duties, both men watch the death of a plague-stricken child—a scene that Camus presents with almost unbearable detail. Although Rieux is an experienced physician and has witnessed the deaths of many children, this instance renews in him a spirit of revolt against a “creation” that would permit the suffering of an innocent.

Paneloux responds, “That sort of thing is revolting because it passes our human understanding. But perhaps we should love what we cannot understand.” Angrily, Rieux replies, “No, Father, I’ve a very different idea of love. And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture.” Paneloux makes no attempt to argue the point, but extends his hand and says simply that Rieux, too, “is working for man’s salvation.” Rieux claims to know nothing of “salvation.” He does not “aim so high”: “I am concerned with man’s health; and for me his health comes first.” He insists, as they part, that because Paneloux has joined the struggle against the plague, the two of them are bound together: “God himself can’t part us now.”

 Albert Camus, author of The Plague, in 1957 (public domain)Rieux and Paneloux represent the divided halves of Camus’s own internal struggle: the atheist whose moral devotion to the suffering of strangers is unthinkable without the example of Christ; and the theist who is plunged into a “dark night of the soul” by his firsthand contact with the horrors of the plague. Had Camus been a lesser novelist, he might have offered us a priest who renounces his faith. But that is not what happens.

Shortly after, Paneloux preaches another sermon, his answer to Rieux’s great refusal. That he has been shaken to the very core by the death of the child is evident. His tone, in contrast to the first sermon, is gentler, less judgmental. He does not retract his earlier claim that the plague is God’s threshing floor, but he now suggests that the trial it represents is a deeper one. Several times he invokes the deaths of innocent children. This, he insists, is the ultimate test for the believer. Yes, we must believe that God in His wisdom will transform all earthly evil into greater good. And “what a Christian should seek in his hour of trial [is] to discern that good…and how he can best turn it to account.”

Yet, from our limited perspective, he admits, if we are honest, we must agree that no amount of theoretical good can compensate for a single child’s suffering. He refuses to offer his auditors easy consolation by promising them the child will be rewarded by “an eternity of bliss.” There is no way out of this conundrum. All the more reason, he says, why we must cling “to the tortured body of Christ on the Cross.” To do so is to refuse comforting answers.

Perhaps in this moment Fr. Paneloux already senses that he, too, will be one of the plague’s victims, and he offers a stark choice: “My brothers, a time of testing has come for us all. We must believe or deny everything.” Only absolute surrender to God and a willingness to die a martyr’s death can begin to “justify” the suffering of the child.

Within days Fr. Paneloux does die, though whether of the plague or of some “doubtful” cause is left unclear. What is clear is that he had made his choice. But what of Rieux? Does he demonstrate a willingness to “deny everything”? Surely, a consistent atheism would require perfect indifference to the suffering of innocent children. To find one’s “salvation” in the struggle against cruelty and suffering is to pass judgment upon a creation in which such things occur. But upon what grounds can one pass such a judgment? Does it not imply the intuition of a more perfect world, a redeemed world?

Moreover, is there not a trace of secular illusion in Rieux’s fixation upon the “innocence” of the suffering child? Why, in the last analysis, is the suffering of a child more horrific than any other human suffering? Perhaps it is simply that in the face of the child we perceive our own lost innocence, and fail to see that we, too, have some culpability in that child’s suffering. In the end, Rieux refuses to acknowledge that culpability. It is another character, one Tarrou, who comes closest to recognizing this truth, who understands that “each of us has the plague within him; no one, no one on earth, is free from it.” In short, each one of us began as a child, already corrupt in esse, and at the core of our being we are spreaders of the plague that is our fallen condition. God’s mercy may sometimes be hard, indeed.