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God and the plague

If you are not a Christian, but would like to know what sense Christianity makes of the Coronavirus pandemic; or if you are a Christian, but are a little unsure of how to understand it from a faith perspective, do please read the following article.  If you are not familiar with the Bible, just skip over the references to Biblical texts and pick up the general flow of the argument!

A medieval procession during a time of plague, seeking relief from God

IMAGE: A medieval procession during a time of plague, seeking relief from God.

Curious about Coronavirus and Christianity?

Many of us have found our lives shaken to a greater or lesser degree by the current outbreak of Coronavirus. Some of the certainties – or at least, things we took for granted – have become a whole lot less certain: jobs, income, home, holidays, family life & relationships; the ready availability of a doctor or dentist; the accessibility of shops, and what they stock. The Government says it will do whatever it takes – but actually, Government can’t promise this, because Government is not God; it has limitations on what it can do: just as my credit card has a maximum limit, so do Government coffers.

So is it time to give faith in God a fresh look?

In our weakened state, should we look to Him for help? Does he know all about Coronavirus – indeed, did he know about it even before it happened? Is he, in some way, able to control it if he wants to? If he has allowed it, does he care about the havoc it is causing in our lives? 

The Bible does have some answers for these questions. They may not be what we were hoping for, and they will not sit comfortably with much of what contemporary society thinks; but they may also offer the best solution – in fact, the only genuine solution – to our predicament. Before you read on, perhaps ask yourself whether you are really open to consider this whole episode from a different perspective, and to allow God to show you something from his testimony to us in the Bible.

First, just as there is nothing new about plagues in history, so also they are part of the Bible’s account of God’s dealings with mankind. Perhaps most famously, in the Book of Exodus, God brings plagues on the Egyptians when Pharaoh refuses to release the Israelites from captivity. However, when he brings the Israelites to Mount Sinai to give them his laws and commandments, God warns even his own people that if they turn away from him, they too can expect judgment in various forms, among them plague (Lev. 26: 21-25; Deut. 28: 58-60). Despite the warning, the Israelites incur God’s anger and suffer from plague when they indulge in sexual immorality with the Moabites in the Book of Numbers (ch. 25); even the Israelite king, David, brought a plague on his own people when he ordered a census of the nation’s fighting men, in what appears to be a sudden fit of hubris on his part (see 2 Sam. 24). Eventually, as Israel continued to sin grievously against God, his patience with the nation came to an end, and he brought disaster on them in the form of a Babylonian invasion. Before Jerusalem fell, however, the siege of the City brings about plague and famine, as God had predicted (Jeremiah 14: 11-12).

So, in the Old Testament, plague was one of the ways in which God brought judgment on sin. This is not the same as saying that God is the source or author of plague. God is in his very essence good; for instance, he is not able to lie (Num. 23: 19); he is good and upright (Ps. 25: 8); he loves righteousness and justice (Ps. 33: 5); he is loving towards all he has made (Ps. 145: 17). Being essentially holy, it is actually impossible for anything evil, or even imperfect, to dwell in his nature. However, as we see from the first two chapters of Job, he does permit suffering, which in Job’s particular case is the result of Satan’s machinations. The Bible does teach us there is such a malevolent personality, who is bent on wickedness – though we must also acknowledge that human beings are also directly responsible for some of the manifestations of evil in our world. We can be reassured, though, that when God allows this, it is always with a positive end in view. The Book of Lamentations, written after the terrible suffering endured during the siege and fall of Jerusalem, tells us that he [that is, God] does not willingly bring affliction or grief to the children of men (Lam. 3: 33). This was certainly the case for Job – and even for the Egyptians and Israelites it is a case of ‘last resort’, because sometimes pain is the only thing that we will respond to! The Christian writer C S Lewis put it like this: 

God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains; it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world. 

I wonder whether this is something we are willing to accept in our present crisis? 

Not only does the Old Testament tell us that God does not desire suffering, but it also shows us that he had provided a way out of it. At the completion of the temple in 1 Kings 8: 37-40, Solomon, King David’s son and successor to the throne of Israel, utters these words:

“When famine or plague comes to the land, or blight or mildew, locusts or grasshoppers, or when an enemy besieges them in any of their cities, whatever disaster or disease may come, and when a prayer or plea is made by anyone among your people Israel—being aware of the afflictions of their own hearts, and spreading out their hands toward this temple— then hear from heaven, your dwelling place. Forgive and act; deal with everyone according to all they do, since you know their hearts (for you alone know every human heart), so that they will fear you all the time they live in the land you gave our ancestors.”

The temple referred to here was not just a building, but represented a whole sacrificial system by which Israel could find forgiveness with God, and plague (as well as other disasters) could be turned away. This was not just mechanistic – there needed to be heartfelt repentance as well, of course (as you can see from the reference to forgiveness above). But the purpose and intent of God is clear – he wants his people to enjoy his blessing by avoiding sin, and turning to him in repentance when they find they have sinned.

So are things any different in the New Testament? The answer is ‘Yes’ – to an extent. Jesus comes as God in human flesh, and shows us that God’s desire is to heal us from all our diseases and sicknesses. We read at the start of his ministry (Matt. 4: 23) that Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people (the phrase in bold is repeated twice more in Matthew’s gospel: 9: 35 and 10: 1).

More than this, Jesus comes as the Servant of God, which is the role that Israel was supposed to fulfil in the Old Testament. Therefore he is the One who represents Israel (and indeed all mankind) before God, and on whom the blessings and curses of God’s law now fall – and it is God’s will (which Jesus willingly accepts) that the punishment for our sin will fall on him. So we read that he took up our infirmities and carried our diseases (Matt. 8: 17). Eventually, this meant that Jesus was crucified as a sacrifice for our sin on the cross, so that we could be free of the punishment that sin demands. So does this mean that those who put their faith in Jesus should be free of disease and sickness?

Ultimately, yes! Jesus is able to speak to us with God’s authority on these matters, and he tells us that for those who repent of their sin, there is a glorious new world awaiting, where disease and sickness are no more (see Revelation 21-22). The thief on the cross was promised he would be in paradise with Jesus! But while we live in this world, Jesus tells us that we will continue to experience trouble (John 16:33) – alongside the rest of humanity. Jesus tells us that his Father in heaven causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous (Matt. 5: 45). There is no special exemption for believers!  

So when disasters occur today, we cannot necessarily infer that the people concerned are being punished for a particular sin they have committed; we cannot say, for instance, that in our present crisis, Brazilians are worse sinners than Australians, just because the virus is more rampant in Brazil than in Australia. 

However, we can say that all such manifestations of evil stem from a world that is corrupted by human sin, and serve as warnings for us of a greater danger we face, unless we repent. The gospel writer Luke records this incident when Jesus was asked about two incidents of suffering in his time (Luke 13: 1-5):

A depiction of plague during the time of the Roman EmpireNow there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.

So we can see from this that those who are currently suffering from the Coronavirus pandemic are not more guilty of sin than anyone else; but all of us should heed the warning that this virus represents – something far worse will overtake us if we do not repent before God. Towards the end of his earthly life, Jesus spoke about what we could expect as this age draws to its close. This is part of what he said:

"Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven." (Luke 21: 10-11)

So this present pandemic should not take us by surprise, for Jesus warned us that this and similar ‘fearful events’ will take place before the close of history. We see this also in the Book of Revelation, which gives us a vivid portrayal of human history from a spiritual perspective. Parts of it are taken up with accounts of terrible suffering – which is an accurate reflection of much of human experience over the ages. Chapter 9 is one such example, and it concludes with these words (vv20-21):

The rest of mankind who were not killed by these plagues still did not repent of the work of their hands; they did not stop worshiping demons, and idols of gold, silver, bronze, stone and wood—idols that cannot see or hear or walk. Nor did they repent of their murders, their magic arts, their sexual immorality or their thefts.

So this is what Christianity has to say about our current predicament: yes, God has allowed it to happen – but ultimately for our good, because he wants us to turn to him in repentance and find the complete healing from sin that Jesus offers, so that one day – perhaps sooner than we expect – we may enjoy a new existence in a world where such things have been banished forever. This is the great hope that is held out to us, which the Apostle Paul describes in the Book of Romans:

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. (Rom. 8: 18-21)

Jesus’s resurrection in a new, incorruptible, body is the evidence and guarantee of this. It is the best and only hope humanity has, and Jesus urges us to take hold of it while there is still time!

If you have been chastened by the events of the last few months, and are prepared to accept God’s diagnosis of our problem (which is our sin) and act on it (which is to repent), please do get in touch with us to find out more about this gospel of salvation, to receive the forgiveness that God offers, and to enjoy the assurance of heaven which is the birthright of all his children! 

Lee N Emerson

Pastor, Scott Drive Church,  Exmouth

If you would like to watch a series of four talks on ‘God and Covid-19’ by Vaughan Roberts, Rector of St Ebbe’s Church, Oxford, please click on the following link:

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