One of our associates was asked by a relative who had not previously shown interest in spiritual things, “Is there any religious meaning in this pandemic?” Indeed, millions of people around the world are groping for some sort of answer to questions like this.
As Christians, we confess that we do not have all the answers, but we do believe that God has given us enough guidance to understand at least part of what is going on and, more importantly, how we can navigate these very troubled waters.
No easy answers
First, we must admit that we don’t completely understand this pandemic – its origins, its multiple consequences, its potential trajectory, and a great deal more. From the beginning, some of the finest minds on the planet have grappled with what still seems to be a little-understood virus and how best to deal with it.
We do know, and fully face, the multiple faces of evil that we see in the rapid and devastating spread of the new virus. Millions have been sickened and hundreds of thousands have died very painful deaths. Hundreds of millions have lost their jobs. Businesses have permanently closed their doors. Economies have collapsed. Governments have assumed debts that can never be repaid. Health systems have buckled under the unprecedented strain. Confined to their homes, too many people have expressed their frustration and rage in violent attacks on family members. Churches have stopped meeting for worship in person. Depression and suicides are rampant. The list is endless.
Our entire world is groaning in sorrow, anger, confusion, and fear, with no end in sight. Indeed, these may be just the beginning of our woes; few dare to predict better times soon. In fact, we may be facing years of pandemics, economic depression, financial failure, social unrest, political upheaval and then dictatorial control, international conflict, and war, Truly, as Thomas Paine wrote long ago, “These are the times that try men’s souls.”
Second, Christians should not claim to understand evil in general. Wars, famines, earthquakes, droughts, illness, and plagues like the one that now ravages our globe are beyond our ability to comprehend fully.
Christians accept the Bible as the revelation of God’s ways and his will for us. In the Bible, we find no explanation for why evil came into the world. We know how it came: Satan tempted Adam and Eve to disobey God, and they did, thus ushering into what had been a perfect environment all the troubles we now commonly face, including family strife, frustration at work, material want, pain in childbirth and everything connected with sexuality, sickness, and death.
We do not, however, know why God allowed all this to happen. He simply does not tell us. Those who presume to have discovered the reason for sin and all its attendant miseries never go deep enough. Some say that it’s because God has chosen to give us free will, and we have chosen to do things that generate pain and suffering. That answer still does not explain why God allowed Satan into the world, or allowed Adam and Eve to sin. The Lord could have prevented the Fall, but he did not. We don’t know why.
Many helpful truths
On the other hand, the Bible does give us many extremely helpful teachings about God, his ways and his will. By holding to these, we can find wisdom and strength to encounter evils like this pandemic, and even to thrive emotionally and spiritually.
Here’s a brief sample of some of what the Scriptures tell us; much more could be said:
He is on his throne, ruling the world with justice and faithfulness (Psalm 95:3; 97:1; 99:1; 103:19; 115:3).
God is so powerful that he can turn even the worst events and deeds to benefit his people. As Joseph said to his brothers, who had sold him into slavery in Egypt, “You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:21). The apostle Paul boldly asserts that “all things work together for good for those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose,” which is their ultimate salvation, including their conformity to the moral and physical image of the risen Christ (Romans 8:28-20).
The Lord Jesus has been raised from the dead and seated at the right hand of God the Father, “far above all rule and authority, and power and dominion,” and God has “put all things under His feet,” and given Him “to be head over all things to the church” (Ephesians 1:2-22). That means that Christ is governing all things for the benefit of all who believe in him.
When terrible trials assault us, therefore, we can rest assured that God can turn these into means of spiritual benefit for us and other followers of Christ.
The real problem is human sin.
Regardless of where the virus originated, we know that local officials took too long to tell their superiors that something very serious was happening in Wuhan. National leaders have admitted that they, too, delayed informing the public so that they would not disturb the “happy vibes” of Chinese New Year celebrations.
WHO officials waited several weeks before alerting the world, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control assured us that the virus posed no threat to the American people. Later, they urged us not to wear masks, for the sole reason that they feared that there wouldn’t be enough for health workers. When they finally reversed course and begged us to don face coverings, their guideline was both too late and ineffectual. More than 100,000 had died, the virus had spread irrecoverably among the population, and Americans, obsessed as they are with personal freedom and convenience, refused in large numbers to practice social distancing or to put on face masks to prevent infecting others.
Government leaders failed us, too. The mayor of New York told his citizens to go about business and play as usual, until the epidemic imposed a death lock on his city. The governor of New York consigned thousands of older people to death by ordering sick ones back to their nursing homes. Other governors are accused of not imposing strong enough measures, or of opening up businesses too soon. Many fault President Trump for his response (though others defend him). No political party had a monopoly on destructive folly, though all seem unwilling to admit mistakes.
The same could be said of many other nations. Only a handful, including Taiwan and South Korea, have handled the crisis well.
Human sin and folly did not originate with this pandemic, however. More than any virus, sin is endemic. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). We have not worshiped our Creator, but have worshiped and served created beings and things. We have all failed to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. In God’s holy eyes, “there is none righteous; no, not one” (Romans 3:10, quoting Psalm 14:1).
Plagues as God’s righteous judgment and discipline
A former student of mine, now a distinguished New Testament scholar, said to me, “I have made a study of the word ‘plague’ in the Bible. In every case, plagues come as a form of God’s judgment upon unrepentant sinners.” He is right.
Some “plagues” refer to disasters, such as earthquake, locusts, hail, etc., to punish Pharaoh and Egypt for their unwillingness to let his people go (see Exodus 7-11). Others are diseases that God inflicted on his enemies (see Exodus 9:9; 1 Samuel 5; 2 Kings 19:35: Acts 12:21-23) and on his disobedient people (see Deuteronomy 28:21, 22, 27; Jeremiah 21:6, 7, 9; 1 Corinthians 11:29-30).
Jesus made it clear that not all sickness results from sin (John 9:3). On the other hand, when an epidemic strikes a nation, we may safely assume that God is both punishing his unrepentant enemies and disciplining his people.
When an epidemic occurs, therefore, or when we get sick, we should ask God to show us what sins we need to confess and forsake, and we should ask his forgiveness. God has used illness in my life often in this way. God often commands people to turn from their sins, making the warning of coming judgment more persuasive to us by inflicting us with illness.
Plagues as a means of receiving blessing
Though we do not deny the terrible evil that this pandemic has inflicted and will probably bring in the future, we can ask God to help us benefit from it spiritually.
God will cause all things to work together for good for those who love him (Romans 8:28). Suffering reminds us to set our hearts on God in faith, hope, and love, and to look to him for strength to endure hardship and do his will (Hebrews 10:26).
We can also ask for wisdom (James 1:5) to understand what God wants to teach us or to give us through suffering.
During this pandemic, we have already seen some “good” amidst evil. Families have had more time together. People have had to slow down the frantic pace of life. Our addiction to some forms of entertainment has been temporarily broken, or at least frustrated. White-collar workers are discovering the benefits of working at home. Parents are educating their children at home; this is difficult, but has many advantages (I know, because we home-schooled our daughter for her last five years before college).
Health care workers and others have demonstrated great courage and devotion. “Essential” workers have kept the country going even while they are the ones to suffer the most from the lockdowns and the virus.
Old friends have re-united through the Internet. Churches have discovered the advantages of live-streaming to augment in-person meetings. Many believers have spent more time in reading the Bible and prayer.
God has proven himself faithful in the midst of this crisis. Christians have turned to him for comfort, guidance, inner peace, new resources of love for others, and personal revival, and he has not refused their earnest prayers. Even though he has led many through the valley of the shadow of death, and has allowed many of his people endure terrible suffering and grief, he has not forsaken them. Others, alerted afresh to spiritual realities, are beginning to wean themselves a bit from unholy attachments to the world, and have started to seek and find God in new ways.
Plagues as a warning of coming judgment
In 2004, I attended a conference on the then-new discipline of World Christianity. During the last meeting, a young woman asked the distinguished panelists, “What advice would you give to those of us who are younger?” All the others turned to the oldest scholar, Andrew Walls. Taking the microphone, the white-haired Scot said, in a voice of urgency:
“The horrors of the twentieth century are a pale foretaste of what is to come in this century. My advice is, Read the book of Revelation! Read the book of Revelation!” Like everyone else, I was stunned by his emphatic tone and simple message.
I took Professor Walls’s advice seriously and began to read the book of Revelation more often. A quick glance recently turned up at least eleven references to “plagues” of different kinds, including “loathsome sores” (16:2) as well as scorching heat, darkness and pain, waters turning to blood, earthquakes, war, famine, and widespread death, not to mention persecution of Christians.
All these reflect the righteous wrath of God against unrepentant sinners. Jesus, too, warned of “wars, “ “famines, pestilences [plagues] . . . and earthquakes” (Matthew 24:6-7), as well as eternal punishment in hell, with inextinguishable fire (Mark 9:44), as did Paul ( 2Thessalonians 1:8), Jude (Jude 7), and John (Revelation 20:14).
In sort, earthly disasters, including epidemics, are presented in the Scriptures as warnings from God that something worse is coming for those who do not repent of their sins and turn to Christ in faith: an eternity in hell, far from God and all that is good, and full of terrible torments.
One “meaning” of this pandemic, therefore, is that God is trying to get our attention, to turn us from the deadly follies of this dying world and towards the eternal happiness that is found only in Christ for those who trust in him.
This meaning also applies to Christians, for we have all too often participated in the idolatries of our neighbors, with the same lusts, ambitions, cravings, self-serving, self-centered, unloving, and unbelieving attitudes and actions that we sometimes criticize in them. Now is the time for believers to assess our loyalties, forsake our disordered loves, pursue God, and live as if we really believed that this world is not our final destination.
The urgency of evangelism
With so many multitudes facing disease, depression, destitution, and even death, millions are asking the question with which I started: Is there any religious explanation for the pandemic?
In fact, various religions might attempt some answers, but none of them has the full-orbed panoply of essential truths that are given to us in the Bible. Christians have a unique opportunity to offer words of truth, wisdom, love, and hope.
Now is the time to open our hearts and lives to our friends and neighbors, to listen to their doubts and fears, and to present to them the saving message of Christ. We can gently tell them that we must all repent, or face something worse. Then, we assure them that God forgives those who truly turn from their sins and trust in Christ as the one who bore the penalty – the plagues – of our guilt, and that the Lord is happy to receive us as his beloved children.
Our words will lack persuasive power unless our lives match what we say, however.
So, we must first ask God to re-order our priorities; dig deep into his Word; pray without ceasing; find peace and hope in his promises; and live cheerfully in a world of pain. We can cultivate the habit of giving thanks at all times and for all things (1Thessaolinans 5:18), assured that God can bring good out of evil, as he did at the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Perhaps above all, we can fix our hopes entirely on the grace to be brought to us at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:13) and thus exude confidence and calmness, even as we weep with those who weep. Like Paul, we can be “sorrowful, and yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10). We know that this world is not our home, and that we are going to a far better place, where “God will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things [will] have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).