The nations are in lockdown, our church buildings are closed, and in the UK it seems that in the mainstream media there is very little reflection about the spiritual dimension to all this. The voice of the Church of England as a national institution seems very quiet. This might be because the part of the church represented by the old, established denominations is fearful of the risks of talking about God in the current crisis. After all, people who think God, if he exists at all, is there primarily to make their world run as smoothly as possible could be angry, frightened and disappointed with Him right now. They might react unfavourably to church leaders venturing, however reticently, into the public arena with talk about God. Then there are those religious pundits who appear on American TV and claim detailed knowledge of how God is working to thwart the political enemies of President Trump. They bring the concept of prophetic insight into disrepute.
Some who were disappointed that the Conservative party won the last general election might have been tempted to ascribe Boris Johnson’s hospitalization as ‘karma’. That very few have said this openly, and the majority of non-Conservatives are wishing him well suggests the concept of Christian charity is more deeply rooted in our society than some impersonal law of retribution. Christian doctrine holds that all of us are sinners and deserving of God’s wrath, but that in Christ God offers us all forgiveness, mercy and new life. If some people are victims of war or pestilence, that does not mean we should conclude they are more deserving of suffering than others. Jesus said that when bad things happen in our world, we should all reflect on our need to be right with God. And being right with God involves treating others with mercy and kindness, rather than judgmentalism. Christ taught warm-blooded charity, not cold-blooded karma. We are also called to pray for our leaders, tasked with ruling for our good.
What does authentic biblical Christianity say about the connection between God and pandemics? The first thing to say is that the God of the Bible is the all-powerful creator and sustainer of all things. The idea that God set up the universe to run on its own and is now not personally involved in things like natural disasters or pandemics, which he cannot or will not exercise any control over, is called Deism. This finds no support in the Bible. Deism might remove the possibility of God being blamed for the Coronavirus, but it also removes Him from any engagement with the reality of our lives. The biblical God is, on the other hand, actively involved in His creation, working out His good purposes, as He interacts with human beings who have the dignity of being morally responsible before Him. God’s sovereign power does not mean He can act inconsistently with His very nature, which is Truth and Love. He cannot both give us free will and at the same time deny us our ability to make sinful choices with the consequences that follow. God sorrowfully permits bad things to happen (even if they are not directly related to our sin), all the while working for the good of all those who love Him and are called according to His good purposes. This applies also to those to whom the bad things happen.
Sickness and death are bad things in themselves. But when God sorrowfully allows them, or even sorrowfully ‘sends’ them (as the Bible is honest enough to say), He always has a saving intent. A pandemic such as the Coronavirus is used by God to shake the earth. The prophet Haggai said “This is what the LORD Almighty says, ‘In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. I will shake all nations, and the desired of all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the LORD Almighty.” God shakes the earth as part of the preparation for Jesus (the desired of nations) to return and fill his house (the worldwide church of God) with his glory.
The sin virus, which causes a mortality rate of 100%, is highly contagious and corrupts our very souls, is more terrible than any pandemic. And so anything which sweeps away the false confidence that we do not need God’s salvation can be used by God for good to bring spiritual awakening. For the church, this should be a time of heightened spiritual awareness. People are looking for hope.
Jesus took upon Himself humanity’s ‘sin virus’. This Easter weekend we will celebrate his triumph over sickness, disease and death and encourage one another with the hope we now have.
The apostle Peter said, “Do not be frightened. But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.”
We must witness to God’s sovereign power, his kindness and mercy, his justice and righteousness, in the way we love our neighbours and encourage our brothers and sisters at this time. All of us can pick up the phone and talk to someone who is lonely or post a note through our neighbour’s door asking if they need some help or just someone to chat to.
Martin Kuhrt April 9th 2020