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Bats, viruses, and human beings: a chiropteraphilic theodicy

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 March 2021

Rebecca L. Copeland*
Boston University School of Theology, Boston, MA, USA
*Corresponding author. E-mail:


This project offers an expansive theological understanding of the relationship between suffering and the divine while providing grounds for constructive human responses to suffering. To do this, I use an ecomimetic investigation of bats – selected because of their relationship to the COVID-19 pandemic – to explore the complexity of creaturely suffering in an interdependent world. Next, I offer an explanation of vulnerable suffering that is grounded in God's faithfulness to all of the creation that God called good. Rather than using this explanation to excuse human indifference to suffering, I argue that embracing one's creaturely finitude authorises constructive responses to suffering.

Research Article
Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press

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1 Malcom, Lois, ‘Theodicy’, in McFarland, Ian A., Fergusson, David A. A., Kilby, Karen and Torrance, Iain R. (eds), The Cambridge Dictionary of Christian Theology (Cambridge: CUP, 2011), p. 499Google Scholar.

2 For a detailed argument for why I am avoiding the traditional language of ‘evil’, see McFarland, Ian A., ‘The Problem with Evil’, Theology Today, 74 (2018), pp. 321–39CrossRefGoogle Scholar. In order to examine the relationship between the divine and suffering, I adopt Ursula Goodenough's definition of biological suffering as encompassing any organism's struggle for existence. See Goodenough, Ursula, ‘The Biological Antecedents of Human Suffering’, in Haag, James W., Peterson, Gregory R. and Spezio, Michael L. (eds), The Routledge Companion to Religion and Science (New York: Routledge, 2011), pp. 233–47Google Scholar.

3 McFague, Sallie, The Body of God: An Ecological Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1993), p. 49Google Scholar.

4 Ibid., p. 50.

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6 Super Bat, directed by David Korn-Brzoza (MagellanTV, 2008).

7 Copeland, Rebecca, ‘Ecomimetic Interpretation: Ascertainment, Identification, and Dialogue in Matthew 6:25–34’, Biblical Interpretation 29/1 (February 2021), pp. 6789CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 Howell, Nancy R., ‘Homo Sapiens and Other Animals’, in Clayton, Philip and Simpson, Zachary (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science (Oxford: OUP, 2006), p. 947Google Scholar.

9 Thomas Nagel, ‘What is it Like to Be a Bat?’, Philosophical Review 83/4 (Oct. 1974), p. 438.

11 Ibid., p. 439.

12 For a discussion of these limitations in philosophy, pastoral care and theology, see Capretto, Peter, ‘Empathy and Silence in Pastoral Care for Traumatic Grief and Loss’, Journal of Religious Health 54 (2015), pp. 339–57CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed; and McCarthy, Marie, ‘Empathy: A Bridge between’, Journal of Pastoral Care 46 (1992), pp. 119–28CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

13 Howell, ‘Homo Sapiens and Other Animals’, p. 948.

14 Even Nagel concedes the possibility of some connection, noting that ‘The distance between oneself and other persons and other species can fall anywhere on a continuum … The imagination is remarkably flexible.’ Nagel, ‘What is it Like to Be a Bat?’, p. 442.

15 Altringham, John D., Bats: From Evolution to Conservation, 2nd edn (Oxford: OUP, 2011), p. xiCrossRefGoogle Scholar.

16 Boyles, Justin G., Sole, Catherine L., Cryan, Paul M. and McCracken, Gary F., ‘On Estimating the Economic Value of Insectivorous Bats: Prospects and Priorities for Biologists’, in Adams, Rick A. and Pederson, Scott C. (eds), Bat Evolution, Ecology, and Conservation (New York: Spring, 2013), p. 502Google Scholar.

17 Altringham, Bats, p. 123.

18 L. Liang, X. Luo, Z. Liu, et al., ‘Habitat Selection and Prediction of the Spatial Distribution of the Chinese Horseshoe Bat (R. sinicus) in the Wuling Mountains’, Environmental Monitoring and Assessment 191 (2019).

19 Altringham, Bats, p. 22.

20 University of Bristol, ‘Rhinolophus sinicus: Chinese rufous Horseshoe Bat’,, accessed May 2020; Stoffberg, Samantha, Jacobs, David S., Mackie, Iain J. and Matthee, Conrad A., ‘Molecular Phylogenetics and Historical Biogeography of Rhinolophus Bats’, Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 54 (2010), pp. 19CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

21 Altringham, Bats, p. 68.

22 Li, Y., Wang, J., Metzner, W., et al. , ‘Behavioral Responses to Echolocation Calls from Sympatric Heterospecific Bats: Implications for Interspecific Competition’, Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 68 (2014), pp. 657–67CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

23 Ying Liu, Jiang Feng and Walter Metzner, ‘Different Auditory Feedback Control for Echolocation and Communication in Horseshoe Bats’, PLoS One, 24 Apr. 2013,

24 Altringham, Bats, p. 124.

25 Ibid., p. 47.

27 Ibid., pp. 98–9.

28 Ibid., pp. 138–9.

29 Ibid., p. 138; and Smith, Andrew T. and Xie, Yan, Mammals of China (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), p. 232CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

30 Altringham, Bats, p. 114.

31 Anderson, Kristen G., Rambaut, Andrew, Lipkin, W. Ian, Holmes, Edward C. and Garry, Robert F., ‘The Proximal Origin of SARS-CoV-2’, Nature Medicine 26 (2020), pp. 450–2CrossRefGoogle Scholar,; and Banerjee, A., Kulcsar, K., Misra, V., Frieman, M. and Mossman, K., ‘Bats and Coronaviruses’, Viruses, 11 (2019), p. 41CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed, doi:10.3390/v11010041; Brooks, Cara E. and Dobson, Andrew P., ‘Bats as “Special” Reservoirs for Emerging Zoonotic Pathogens’, Trends in Microbiology 23 (2015), pp. 172–80CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Baker, Michelle L. and Zhou, Peng, ‘Bat Immunology’, in Wang, Lin-Fa and Cowled, Christopher (eds), Bats and Viruses: A New Frontier of Emerging Infectious Diseases (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Blackwell, 2015), pp. 396419Google Scholar.

32 Brooks and Dobson, ‘Bats as “Special” Reservoirs’, pp. 178–9.

33 Hu, B., Zeng, L.-P., Yang, X.-L., Ge, X.-Y., Zhang, W., Li, B., et al. , ‘Discovery of a Rich Gene Pool of Bat SARS-Related Coronaviruses Provides New Insights into the Origin of SARS Coronavirus’, PLoS Pathogens 13(2017)CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed: e1006698. journal.ppat.1006698.

34 Zhou, P., Yang, X., Wang, X., et al. ‘A Pneumonia Outbreak Associated with a New Coronavirus of Probable Bat OriginNature 579 (2020), pp. 270–3CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed, Although similarities have also been identified to a virus isolated from a pangolin, the direct precursor would need an animal host with ‘a high population density (to allow natural selection to proceed efficiently)’. Andersen, K. G., Rambaut, A., Lipkin, W. I., et al. , ‘The Proximal Origin of SARS-CoV-2’, Nature Medicine 26 (2020), pp. 450–2CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed, Because pangolins are solitary mammals, this makes bats the more likely zoonotic host.

35 Altringham, Bats, p. 254.

36 DeeAnn M. Reeder and Marianne S. Moore, ‘White-Nose Syndrome: A Deadly Emerging Infectious Disease of Hibernating Bats’, in Adams and Pederson 9eds), Bat Evolution, Ecology, and Conservation, pp. 413–34; and Frank, Craig L., Davis, April D., and Herzog, Carl, ‘The Evolution of a Bat Population with White-Nose Syndrome (WNS) Reveals a Shift from an Epizootic to an Enzootic Phase’, Frontiers in Zoology 16 (2019), p. 40CrossRefGoogle Scholar,

37 Frank et al., ‘Evolution’.

38 Altringham, Bats, pp. 252–5.

39 Ibid., pp. 243–65.

40 Ibid., pp. 251–60.

41 Ibid., p. 256.

43 See Schleiermacher's contrast of the relative dependence we experience as creatures in relationship with one another and our absolute dependence on God. Schleiermacher, Friedrich, The Christian Faith: A New Translation and Critical Edition (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), §4.4Google Scholar.

44 This theme is taken up in other biblical writings, including the Psalms, Job and the Gospels, notably Matt 10:29 and Luke 12:6.

45 See Athanasius’ argument that, being called from non-existence, human beings would ‘be everlasting bereft even of being’ if they were separated from God. Athanasius, ‘On the Incarnation’, in Edward R. Hardy (ed.), Christology of the Later Fathers (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006 [1954]), p. 59.

46 This does not exempt living creatures from death, but death is not the same as non-existence. For a fuller discussion of divine faithfulness, see Copeland, Rebecca L., Created Being: Expanding Creedal Christology (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2020), pp. 5762Google Scholar.

47 For a related argument on the perspectival divide between human beings and the divine, see Copeland, Created Being, p. 52.

48 For process critiques, see Cobb, John B. Jr. and Griffin, David Ray, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1976), pp. 9, 52–4Google Scholar; and Hartshorne, Charles, Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1984), pp. 1026Google Scholar.

49 Leibniz, Gottfried, ‘Best of All Possible Worlds’, in Peterson, Michael L. (ed.), The Problem of Evil: Selected Readings, 2nd edn (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 2017), pp. 50–8Google Scholar; and Henry Schuurman's description of the ‘Greater Good Principle’ in ‘Theodicy’, in Paul Barry Clarke and Andrew Linzey (eds), Dictionary of Ethics, Theology, and Society (London: Routledge, 1996), pp. 816–19.

50 The book of Job strongly implies that God midwives the birth of wild animals, mentioning mountain goats and deer in particular. See Job 39:1–9.

51 The two prongs of this approach (understanding the vulnerability of created interdependence and seeking to alleviate suffering when possible) draws on and resonates with F. Powe's tragic-liberation model, although because of my focus on suffering rather than evil this project does not delve into the issues of intra-human violence, justice and liberation that he does. Powe, F. Douglas Jr., ‘A Tragic-Liberation Model: Hurston's Perspective on Life and Systematic Evil’, Black Theology 5 (2007), pp. 8193CrossRefGoogle Scholar.