Corona QnA: How can I make sense of it? A biblical explanation
In part 1 of this mini-series we applied science, medicine and mathematics in order to try understand what the Coronavirus is and how we should be responding to this pandemic. Christians shouldn’t have an irrational or mystical perspective, but neither should we be content to understand recent events without reference to God. The Bible discusses a number of natural disasters and disease epidemics by giving more attention to the spiritual causes and divine purposes than the material mechanisms. In this article we want to explore this biblical perspective further in order to develop a thoroughly Christian view to recent events.
Pandemics are the result of sin and God’s hatred of it
When God created the world, He repeatedly examined what He had created and concluded that is was very good (Gen 1:10,12,18,21). In God’s original creation there was no disunity, disease or death. As a consequence of Adam and Eve’s rebellion against God’s rule and order, God cursed humankind and the domain over which they were charged to rule (Gen 3:14-19). Ultimately, all disease is a consequence of sin and an expression of God’s hatred of it.
God’s judgements are not without mercy
Three chapters later in the narrative, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen 6:5) and God therefore sent the flood to punish sin and to preserve His creation from it. If God didn’t intervene in some direct way the world would have been completely corrupted and destroyed by sin. So the flood represents both grace and judgment. Although God decisively judged sin, He also provided a remnant, by grace, who would escape his judgment and through whom He would continue to work out His ultimate plan of redemption. This paradigm is maintained throughout the rest of the Scripture – God preserving a remnant in the midst of judgment in order to continue His plan of redemption in the midst of a world destined for destruction.
Pandemics humble humanity, reveal God’s glory and serve His purposes
The Exodus marked another major step in God’s plan of redemption as God recued a people from slavery in Egypt through a series of national disasters. “I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment” (Ex 6:6). The Egyptians faced swarms of flies, frogs, locusts, gnats, boils, the cattle dying, inexplicable darkness and then ultimately the firstborn from every household dying in one night. While there is undoubtedly a material, scientific explanation for each of these epidemics, they are presented, not as “natural disasters,” but as supernatural judgments which were specifically designed to demonstrate God’s power over the Egyptian gods, His authority over Pharaoh and His grace in acting on behalf of His people to rescue them. They are intended as acts of judgment and revelation. “The Egyptians will know that I am the LORD, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring out the people of Israel from among them” (Ex 7:5). Each plague is brought on by the word of Moses and removed by the word of Moses and a distinction is drawn between God’s people and the Egyptians. At every point God is judging Egypt even while rescuing and preserving Israel.
Specific pandemics are sometimes the result of specific sin
God’s holy hatred for sin is expressed in judgments against sinners, which often take the form of earthquakes, famine, war and pestilence. Time and again God judges both individuals, groups and nations for their sin using these material mechanisms.
• When they complained against His provision, “While the meat was yet between their teeth, before it was consumed, the anger of the Lord was kindled against the people, and the Lord struck down the people with a very great plague” (Num 11:33) All were guilty and deserved to die, but some died of the plague while others were preserved because of God’s grace.
• When they doubted God’s ability to bring them into the Promised land, “the men who brought up a bad report of the land—died by plague before the Lord. Of those men who went to spy out the land, only Joshua the son of Nun and Caleb the son of Jephunneh remained alive” (Num 14:37-38). God used a plague to destroy 10 of the men and yet preserved Joshua and Caleb from it because they were not guilty and deserving of judgment in that instance.
• When they rejected God’s appointed leaders, “Get away from the midst of this congregation, that I may consume them in a moment.” And they fell on their faces. And Moses said to Aaron, “Take your censer, and put fire on it from off the altar and lay incense on it and carry it quickly to the congregation and make atonement for them, for wrath has gone out from the Lord; the plague has begun.”” (Num 16:45-46). God’s wrath was averted by the intercession of Moses and Aaron on behalf of those who were guilty and deserving of judgment.
• David sinned by taking a census of the people, “so the Lord sent a pestilence on Israel from the morning until the appointed time. And there died of the people from Dan to Beersheba 70,000 men. And when the angel stretched out his hand toward Jerusalem to destroy it, the Lord relented from the calamity and said to the angel who was working destruction among the people, “It is enough; now stay your hand.” And the angel of the Lord was by the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite. Then David spoke to the Lord when he saw the angel who was striking the people, and said, “Behold, I have sinned, and I have done wickedly. But these sheep, what have they done? Please let your hand be against me and against my father's house.” (2 Sam 24:15-17) In this instance, God’s judgment came upon the nation because of the sin of its leader and judgment was stayed because of the intercession and sacrifice that David goes on to offer as he confessed his sin. God’s judgment takes the form of pestilence, and yet it’s the angel or messenger from God who is directing the spread and progress of the plague at every point, and the plague is stayed at God’s command.
• This pattern continues into the New Testament. Believers at Corinth were making light of the Lord’s supper and were judged by God as a result, “That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.” (1 Cor 11:30-31). These temporal judgements are understood as loving, divine discipline. Some of those who were guilty were afflicted by the Lord so that the rest would be warned and repent and the purity of the church, and its faith were preserved.
How are we to understand the above passages and many more like them? These are instances of sickness and plagues sent in response to particular events, as judgments of particular sins. Along with them God provided revelation, divine commentary, so His people would know why God sent them and what response He was seeking. Even in the biblical narrative, plagues, famine and war sometimes came upon specific communities without any divine commentary or insight as to why. We must be careful not to conclude that because some disease/pandemic/ plague is sent as the result of particular sin, all disease/pandemic/plague is the result of particular sin. Without the insight of biblical revelation we may ever know the specific causes for a particular pandemic or the purposes of God which lie behind them. In such cases “the secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we might obey all the words of this law” (Deut 29:29).
Summary and Conclusion
From the above passages and many more like them, we gain the following important perspectives:
• God humbles people and reveals His glory through pandemics and other such “natural disasters.” They are “natural” in that their material cause and effect can be studied and traced by scientific methods. They are however not at all “natural,” but the result of God’s cursing and judgement of the world in general.
• The timing, location, magnitude and impact of every pandemic is under God’s control. God directs the course and progress of pestilence to accomplish His purposes, often judging sin on a personal or national level and changing the balance of power among nations. Sometimes these purposes have been revealed, but often they are not.
• God is able to preserve, protect and sustain His good purposes in the lives of His people, even in the midst of such judgements. Romans 8 reminds us that while “the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” (vs 22) yet “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (vs28).
The perspective of a pandemic that we get from the pages of Scripture is clearly very different from the perspective we get from the pages of the latest newspaper, tabloid or medical journal. This should not surprise us because godless society is always attempting to make sense of life without reference to God. But how should this biblical perspective inform and direct a believer’s response to this pandemic? God has given us divine insight into His dealings with man so that believers can serve His purposes in our context. So how should we respond? It is to this issue that we will turn in the third part of this mini-series….