A RESPONSE TO THE CORONAVIRUS
Recent disasters have led to widespread destruction of people’s homes, property and livelihood, and to loss of life. At the time of writing, the coronavirus is the one that is uppermost in people’s minds, but we do not have to think very hard to bring other recent epidemics to mind. Think of:
I am thinking also of other disasters, both natural and manmade. For example
- On Boxing Day 2004 a tsunami happened which killed some 228,000 people in fourteen countries.
- On 11th September 2001 four airliners were hijacked by terrorists who managed to slay some 3000 victims – and we have seen further terrorist murders in Britain, especially Manchester and London.
- In the winter of 2015-6 Britain suffered floods which The Guardian described as “the most extreme on record”, and in February 2020 wind and flooding caused an estimated £425,000,000 of damage, again according to The Guardian, with loss of life, property, and livelihood.
- And what of the recent widespread wildfires in California and Australia?
- And meanwhile countless men, women and children have been driven from their homes and their lives ruined by war in the Middle East, many of them living in poverty and near hopelessness in refugee camps.
- A quick Internet search will produce a list of recent earthquakes, showing magnitude, location, and death toll.
- Meanwhile Yemen, Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria suffer famine, and Oxfam states that “Today, the world stands on the brink of unprecedented famines.”
At such times people naturally ask, Where is God? What is he doing? What is he like? Is there a god at all?
– Is God asleep? Well, no, for the Bible tells us in Psalm 121 that he “will neither slumber nor sleep”.
– Is he unaware of our problems? No again, for Psalm 14 says that “The Lord looks down from heaven upon the children of men.” And Jesus said in Luke 21:9-11, 25-6:
And when you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be terrified … Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences. And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and upon earth distress of nations in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves, men fainting with fear and with foreboding at what is coming on the world.
– Well is he there at all? Yes he is, and the same Psalm tells us that only “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no god.’”
– In that case must we think he is powerless? Well, that doesn’t fit with Jesus’s words, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” nor with John’s description of him in Revelation, “On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, King of kings and Lord of lords.”
– So finally are we driven to the conclusion that an all-powerful, all-known God who allows epidemics, tsunamis, terrorism, floods, destructive winds, wildfires and wars must be at best unconcerned and at worst cruel? As Asaph asks in Psalm 77:
I think of God, and I moan; I meditate, and my spirit faints. I am so troubled that I cannot speak. “Has his steadfast love for ever ceased? Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?” And I say, “It is my grief that the right hand of the Most High has changed.”
Once more, those questions get answer in Psalm 145: “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.”
– So why does a kind all-powerful God allow these things to happen? What is going on? Is it God’s judgement or punishment on people?
People were asking the same questions in Jesus’s day, and he faced questions about two kinds of disaster in Luke 13:1-5. Here he was engaged in conversation about manmade disaster – like terrorism and war – and natural disaster – like floods, famines, and the rest.
Let’s look at the manmade one first. Pontius Pilate had murdered Galileans while they were worshipping. We do not know why. Jesus answered his questioners, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered thus?” He went on to answer that question: “I tell you, no.” What he did not do was tell them why God hadn’t intervened (as he surely could have) and prevented Pilate from committing the murders in the first place.
Then there was the natural disaster. A tower in Siloam, Jerusalem, had collapsed and killed eighteen people. Jesus again asked his questioners, “Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem?” And again, he answers his own question with, “I tell you, no.” But again he does not tell them why God did not ensure that, when the tower fell, the people were not nearby – as he surely could have done.
In short, Jesus offered no answer here to the mystery of why God allows manmade and natural disasters to ruin or end people’s lives. However, he does tell his hearers one thing: they need to take heed and give serious thought to their relationship with God. If that generation did not respond to God’s message through Christ, but rejected him and his words, “you will all likewise perish,” he says – not, I think, speaking of perishing eternally in hell, but of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD and the end of their national life as it was then known. And the sad thing is that they crucified the Saviour; the city was destroyed; national life did end; the Jews were scattered throughout the world.
If they were urged to take warning from natural and manmade disasters, so should we all today. We should take the warnings they point to, make us aware of our insecurity and mortality, examine our relation with God, and make sure we are in a right relationship with him.
A few paragraphs earlier I quoted Jesus from Luke 21. But that is not all he said in that speech. There is much more:
– In verses 18-19 he assures Christians that they will not ultimately perish: “Not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives.” Let us keep our faith till the end, and we know we hold the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through him.
– Such events should also make us think, not only of our danger and mortality, but of our eternal promises and destiny. “Now when these things begin to take place, look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” The Bible sometimes uses the word ‘redemption’ to describe that event when Christians will hear the sound of the Last Trumpet and be called forth from their graves to resurrection and God’s eternal kingdom. Therefore, verse 36, “watch at all times,” and be prepared “to stand before the Son of man” (who is Jesus) when he appears in glory.
– The future God has planned, to include all his people, is secure and cannot be undone: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (verse 33). Our future is secure.
– Meanwhile, as Hebrews Chapter 13 says, we have a God, Father, Saviour and indwelling Holy Spirit, who has said “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” We do not have all the answers to our own or other people’s questions; God has simply not given them; but we do have the presence and comfort of God always, whatever times of distress we may be called to pass through. Even if some of us die of these disasters, we will find that his rod and his staff comfort us as we walk through the valley of the shadow. Our eternal destiny is secure.
Hebrews 12:28 exhorts Christians thus: “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe.”
But what about if you are not a Christian? Well, you are not excluded from all these matters, for the same Letter to the Hebrews has a call for you also:
See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less shall we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. … for our God is a consuming fire.”
So for believers and unbelievers who may be reading these words of mine, I shall close with the illustration that men who manage moorland burn off the heather across swathes of the moors, to remove what would hinder good growth in the next season, as in my picture.
IS THE CORONAVIRUS EPIDEMIC
A JUDGEMENT FROM GOD?
I expect at this time (October 2020), when the coronavirus pandemic has been active for ten months or more, that many people have asked the question, “Is the pandemic a judgement from God?” There have been suicides, domestic violence, unemployment, confinement to home, cancellation of usual pleasures like holidays, days out, time spent in pubs or restaurants; visits to or from friends and even family are forbidden; there is loneliness, and doubtless much else. Is God judging mankind for some reason or reasons? Is the pandemic a judgement from God upon a violent, immoral, unbelieving, greedy, earth-destroying generation that has forgotten God?
Christians certainly thought along such lines in such times in the past. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer contains a prayer for “the time of any common Plague or Sickness”:
O ALMIGHTY God, who in thy wrath didst send a plague upon thine own people in the wilderness, for their obstinate rebellion against Moses and Aaron; and also, in the time of king David, didst slay with the plague of pestilence threescore and ten thousand, and yet remembering thy mercy didst save the rest: Have pity upon us miserable sinners, who now are visited with great sickness and mortality; that like as thou didst then accept of an atonement, and didst command the destroying Angel to cease from punishing, so it may now please thee to withdraw from us this plague and grievous sickness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
It is a question I expect many people have asked, and are asking, and we shall consider it from a number of angles:
- Are such epidemics outside God’s knowledge or control?
- Are they at least sometimes a judgement from God?
- Whom does God judge in this world?
- Is this plague God’s judgement?
Are such epidemics outside God’s knowledge or control?
The answer to this simple question is a resounding No! Such plagues are never outside God’s control! Jesus well knew such things were to come: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences” (Luke 21:10-11). The New Testament warns further of such times: “I saw, and behold, a pale horse, and its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him; and they were given power over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence” (Revelation 6:8). So we move on to the second question:
Are such epidemics sometimes a judgement from God?
This time we have to answer with a resounding Yes! We need refer only to one of the examples cited in the Book of Common Prayer which took place in the time of King David and is recorded in 2 Samuel 24: “Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel … So the Lord sent a pestilence upon Israel from the morning until the appointed time; and there died of the people from Dan to Beer-sheba seventy thousand men.” So we see that God is in control of pestilences and plagues, and that they are at least sometimes a judgement from him. Our next question therefore must be:
Whom does God judge in this world?
We know, of course, that all people will give account of their lives to God at the Day of Judgement, but that lies beyond this age. It is not primarily what our question is about. If God sends judgement in this age, before the ‘eschaton’, that is, before the end of the world, whom does he judge?
Well, we have already seen from the two biblical examples referred to in the Prayer Book that he judges his own people. The Apostle Peter tells us (1 Peter 4:17) that “the time has come for judgement to begin with the household of God,” and Jesus addresses the church in Ephesus in these words: “repent, and do the works you did at first. if not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent” (Revelation 2:5).
But does God also send judgement upon outsiders, upon those who are not his people? Yes he does. You have only to think of the famous example of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19 to realise that – though other biblical examples could easily be given.
When God sends judgement, who is affected by it? who suffers from it? is it only the offenders, the worst people? I wrote back in September to a local Methodist minister, and here is what I wrote:
Some months ago (at a Local Preachers’ meeting, I think) you replied to a comment you had read on the Internet: the comment was that coronavirus is a judgement from God upon a sinful world, and you said it is not, and your reason was that it is too blunt an instrument, as it crushes both the good and the evil, or perhaps both the faithful and the unbelievers. I have pondered your words on and off ever since.
The minister is right: pestilences make the good and the bad, the best and the worst of us, suffer and perhaps die. In that sense, it is, as he said, “a blunt instrument”. But we need to remember that Jesus said, as recorded in Matthew 5, that “your Father who is in heaven … makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.” When a society is judged, the judgement affects both the just and the unjust.
We see, then, that epidemics are not outside God’s foreknowledge and control; they are at least sometimes a judgement from God; and when a society falls under judgement it touches the best people and the worst, the God-fearing and the God-hating. So we reach our next question:
Is this plague God’s judgement?
In Jesus’s his day there were “Galileans whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices” and there was a tower that collapsed, killing eighteen victims, and people told Jesus about these events. In reply, Jesus asked them whether they thought this was God’s judgement on those who were killed by Pilate or by the fall of the tower (Luke 13:1-5). You could re-word their question like this: Were these tragedies judgements from God? And that is what we are asking – and I suspect many are asking – about the disease known as Covid-19, that is, about the spread and effects of the coronavirus. Is it a judgement from God?
Jesus told his listeners on this occasion that in both these events the tragedies did not occur because “they were worse sinners than all the other Galileans” or “were worse offenders than all the others”. What he did say was “I tell you … unless you repent you will all likewise perish” – which I take to mean that if the Jewish people of his day did not repent of their sin, unbelief and rejection of Jesus as their Messiah sent from God, the time would soon come when the Romans would shed their blood (as Pilate had done to those Galileans) and destroy their nation (as the disaster had done to their tower) – as happened some forty years after Jesus’s death. And that implies that in that case it would be God’s judgement, because it would come because of their refusal to repent.
So his comment seems to me to have been a sort of no followed by a sort of yes. And that, I think, is where we must remain in the same question we are asking about the current epidemic. God does not specifically tell us: we know God knows all about it and that it is not beyond his control; we know it could be a judgement, but it might not be. Beyond that, we do not know, for we have not been told the answer to our question.
We have however been told something much more important, which will affect our eternal future, for joy or remorse. And what we have been told can be deduced from Jesus’s words in reply to the question about the tower and the slaughter of those worshippers: we need to take heed to our own relationship with God! That is what we should be thinking about and acting on. We need to put away known and deliberate sin; we need to ask forgiveness for past sin, maybe in the words of Charles Wesley who wrote, “My trespass was grown up to heaven” – an unmeasurable mountain of past wrongdoing that cannot be undone. Turning from those things, we need to trust that the same Jesus who predicted that whose of his day would “all likewise perish” at the hands of the Romans – this same Jesus, not long after, went to the Cross and died there for them, bearing the very punishment of their sin and unrepentance – and that he did the same for us.
Coronavirus may be a judgement from God upon a violent, immoral, unbelieving, greedy, earth-destroying generation which has forgotten God: or it may not be. But the important question for you and me is: have I turned to God in sorrow for my sin, in trust in Jesus’s sacrifice for me on the Cross at Calvary, and in a determination with his help to live a true and godly life until the day I die? If so, then the much greater, more significant, and lasting judgement which will unavoidably come upon all mankind after this life’s end, at the Day of Judgement, need bring us no trembling anxiety. As the hymn says:
Jesus paid it all –
All to him I owe;
Sin had left a crimson stain;
He washed it white as snow.