As an unseen virus is threatening our very existence and as people strongly disagree on how best to respond to it, people throw around the word “unprecedented” a little too easily. COVID is new, but people are not. We’ve been here before, if we care to remember.

In the fall of 1755, a terrible earthquake hit Lisbon, Portugal, with a magnitude of 8.4. Its effects were terrible across the board — tens of thousands were killed, the city was in ruins, the economy was devastated, and the earthquake had a major effect on the cultural consciousness of Europe. The world was shaken not just geologically but philosophically. Lives were destroyed, but so was a collective sense of certainty.

To cope with the Lisbon earthquake, people accused each other left and right. Catholics blamed the earthquake on the sins of the Portuguese, saying that it was God’s righteous wrath on wicked people. Meanwhile, Protestants blamed the earthquake on the Portuguese simply because the Portuguese were Catholic. Rousseau blamed architects and city planners. I’m sure the Portuguese appreciated everyone’s synopsis.

Amid the name-calling, the French philosopher Voltaire wrote Poem on the Lisbon Disaster. Rather than electing a scapegoat, Voltaire wept with those who wept:

Seeing this mass of victims, will you say, ‘God is avenged. Their death is the price of their crimes’? Did fallen Lisbon indulge in more vices than London or Paris, which live in pleasure? Lisbon is no more, but they dance in Paris.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the spectrum, people simply shrugged their shoulders. A popular maxim that arose from the rubble of Lisbon earthquake was “What is, is right,” meaning that God had ordained this earthquake and that people would be best to accept it and move on. Just as he spoke to those who pointed fingers amidst collective suffering, Voltaire speaks to those who were living in denial:

Come philosophers who cry, ‘All is well,’ And contemplate the ruins of this world. You shout, ‘All is well’ — The universe contradicts you, and your heart refutes your mind’s error a hundred times over. One day, all will be well — this is our hope. All is well today — that is the illusion.

Voltaire recognized that rationalizations — even divine ones — for the disaster amounted to a disregard for suffering itself. Even in the chaos and destruction of the Lisbon disaster, he refrained from saying, “It is what it is,” or “It’s all good,” or today’s more unfortunate maxim, “Weird times,” which is how every conversation seems to end these days.

In the age of COVID there is no shortage in the cycle of blame and denial, just as accusation inevitably leads to defensiveness. They are the opposite ends of the spectrum, with little understanding and less sympathy. While the infamous Florida beach-goers seemingly err on the side of claiming that all is well and that the risk is overblown (i.e. denial), the envious detractors hunkered in their houses err on the side of imagining that all would be well if all the beach goers all just went away (i.e. blame). The righteous thumb their masked noses at the indignant masses who’ve grown weary of their backyards. In such divided times as these, we shrug our shoulders or point our fingers.

Is there a third option for this world of denial and blame? Voltaire chose to throw his arms up in surrender to God. He argues that to make sense of life is absurd. Without being able to find certainty on his own terms, he writes this:

The wise deceived me; God alone has reason. Humble in my sighs, submitting in my suffering, I do not raise myself against Providence. With manners taught by old age, sharing in the frailty of humanity, in the midst of the dark night while seeking clarity, I know only suffering, but I won’t complain.

Voltaire was sixty-one when he wrote Poem on the Lisbon Disaster, old enough to realize that the soul survives its adventures, that every episode of suffering is not the final chapter of one’s life. Older people have typically lived long enough to know that God can get them through anything because He’s already gotten them through everything.

Perhaps this is what allowed Voltaire to quit the games of both blame and denial. A sense of hope tends to undermine both. If the solution lies outside of human hands, any human action besides faith and hope is inconceivable. The poem closes with the scene of a king on his deathbed praying to God. The king says, “’I bring thee that, which in your immensity, you lack — faults, regrets, pain, and ignorance.’ But he could have added — hope.” It’s no accident that the last word of this poem, a poem about an unspeakable disaster, is “hope.”

While he may have fallen short of naming the hope he has, Voltaire was willing to hold two things — suffering and hope — in one hand at the same time. He holds on tightly to the apparent paradox that all is not well and that all will be well. In the aftermath of the Great Lisbon earthquake, it is the only solid ground left on which to stand.

To go even further than Voltaire, the Christian hope is something to which you can cling with all your might because it is none other than the presence of God clinging to you. Christian hope undermines the blame game because it orients a person outside of their circumstance to another future. It also undermines false optimism because it is a real promise vowed by a faithful God. In a world that has been shaken, it is solid ground.