Monday, May 11, 2020

Church In The Time Of The Virus (Episode 12): Is COVID-19 A Judgment From God?

When churches suspended their weekly brick and mortar meetings, I decided to take some time to address online what it looks like for the church to be the church in times like this. Thus, The Church In The Time Of The Virus. I began posting this on my church's Facebook page several weeks ago; since then, I have had some thoughtful conversations sparked by some of the issues I addressed. Because of that - and because I like wrestling with important ideas - each post is going to follow this format:
  • Video
  • Transcript
  • Reflections
The beautiful thing about the reflections part is that I can constantly update it, so the conversation can continue! You are welcome to offer helpful comments in the comment section and be a part of this conversation/archival record (as local and modest as it is).

(Read and Watch Episode 1: Introduction)
(Read and Watch Episode 2:Fearless, Not Fearful)
(Read and Watch Episode 3: Bold, But Not Foolhardy)
(Read and Watch Episode 4: Sacrificial Of Self, Not Others)
(Read and Watch Episode 5: Faith-fullness Involves Trust)
(Read and Watch Episode 6: Faithfulness Requires Humble Obedience)
(Read and Watch Episode 7: The Church's History During Plagues)
(Read and Watch Episode 8: Thinking With Both Hands)
(Read and Watch Episode 9: Spurgeon And The Plague Of London)
(Read and Watch Episode 10: Thinking With Both Hands)
(Read and Watch Episode 11: A Few Thoughts Have Been Brewing)
(Read and Watch Episode 13: Romans 12-14 - Coronavirus Version)
(Episode 14: Dear American Christian)
(Episode 15: Civil (Dis)Obedience)

Episode 12: Is COVID-19 A Judgment From God?



“If a kid asks where rain comes from, I think a cute thing to tell him is, ‘God is crying,’ And if he asks why God is crying, another cute thing to tell him is, ‘Probably because of something you did.’” (Jack Handy, Deep Thoughts, 1992)

Any time there is a massive natural disaster – or “act of God,” in insurance company lingo - the inevitable questions resurface in Christian circles: Why is God crying? What is God angry about?  What did we do? I suppose it was inevitable that these questions  surface now. 

Historically, at least in the United States, the apparent target of God’s wrath is a particular situation or people group about which the person claiming clarity happens to feel very strongly:

It’s abortion! 
It’s international policies! 
It’s the Middle East! 
It’s liberal, feminist Marxists! 
It’s same-sex marriage!
It’s the greedy Wall Street 1%! 
It’s evolution in our schools! 
It's the President! 
It's megachurches (yes, I saw that one online)
It's for someone with whom I am displeased!

There’s quite a list that gets generated in times of tragedy. God has lots of options. 

This is not new information. Even Jesus pointed out that the net we cast for sin gathers in quite a large catch. Jesus was once excitedly asked if a tower’s collapse in Siloam – an accident that killed some people - was a judgment from God on a particularly bad group of folks – and it’s worth noting, in the Jewish context, they were a particularly bad group of folks. Jesus’ response is noteworthy: 

“Do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? No! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13:4-5)

In other words, if we are trying to figure out who deserves judgment, everybody does in some fashion, so we should probably start by looking at ourselves. Applying guilt is not hard. Guilt has permeated everybody.  

We Christians have a tendency not to cast the net as widely as Jesus did.  Like those who observed the tower of Siloam fall and assumed God was not pleased with a particular target group, disasters and pandemics clearly mean God is seriously upset with a particular target group, right?  “Thank God it’s not me!” (said all those who lived far enough away from the hurricane or the viral epicenter). This perspective blatantly ignores the perspective of Jesus. If you want to point a finger at judgment-inducing folks, be sure to include yourself. Malcolm Muggeridge was right. When he was asked what the problem with the world was, he famously replied, “I am.”

We have a tendency to look at who is dying when something catastrophic happens. “Oh, New Orleans got hit by a hurricane? That makes sense. That town is terrible.” “Oh, sexually promiscuous people are getting diseases? That figures.”  We tend to assume that a judgment from God will hit the people who deserve it – in fact, we should be able to see who God likes and dislikes based on toll it takes on certain people groups. 

So, who is dying from COVID-19? The elderly. The immuno-compromised. The already weakened are at the most risk. If you are a bruised reed, this might break you (Isaiah 42:3). This sounds like a Darwinian judgment, not a judgment Yahweh would send. 

If God supernaturally sent this plague to punish sin, it should remind us that we all deserved it. Do we really think they were more guilty than we are? I’m going with Jesus on this one. So, no. If one deserves a divine punishment, we all do. And considering who is dying, its hard to see what we could or should take away from this.

But there in another question that needs to be addressed: Is that even what’s happening? Does God use natural disasters to punish the world?

I think it’s worth considering different types of judgment in the Bible. (I first ran across these distinctions in an article by Ralph Drollinger). 

1. Eternal Judgment: this is the ultimate judgment as we begin our existence in the world to come.
“But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. God will give to each person according to what he has done. To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger." (Romans 2:5-8) 
It cements the trajectory of our lives: toward God or away from God. We will move fully into His presence (in what is typically associated with heaven), or fully away from it (in what is typically associated with hell). This only happen when the history of the 1st heaven and earth wrap up, and the 2nd heaven and earth begin. God has yet to exercise this judgment. 

2. Consequential Judgment: Sowing & Reaping (Galatians 6:7). It’s simply the judgment of consequences. If you want to eat Tide Pods, buckle up. Same with gluttony, and greed, and exploitation, and slander….the list goes on. You harvest what you plant. This has happened throughout all of history, beginning in Genesis. When God says to Adam, “What have you done?” I think it’s best translated as, “Oh, Adam. Do you realize what you have done?”  He broke it. If you break something, it will do what broken stuff does. 

Humanity broke the world; viruses are one of the many ways creation groans as it awaits redemption. We’ve gotten so used to living in this cause and effect world that a divine judge instituted as a just recompense that we forget, in that sense, we are constantly experiencing the judgment of God. We are the fish who don’t realize how wet the water really is. We’ll get used to wearing masks and cleaning everything. We proven ourselves good at getting comfortable in broken places. 

3. Forsaking Judgment: when God “removes” himself from someone’s life. People keep begging God to withdraw himself, and in a sense God does just that by removing the common graces that have functioned as a bulwark between a person and the evil around them. At some point, God gives people over to themselves so that they get what they think they want. Psalm 81:11–12, “But My people did not listen to My voice, and Israel did not obey Me. So I gave them over to the stubbornness of their heart, to walk in their own devices.” 

4. Cataclysmic or National Judgment: The Flood; nations who are judged for extreme wickedness (think Sodom or the Amalekites or Babylon). Let me explain what I mean by extreme wickedness. The apparently general outcry to God against the inhabitants of Sodom was described in Genesis as uniquely great. There were no “children of God” at that time, so it’s just people in the world. If the Jewish Midrash is correct, the people of Sodom were monstrous by any standard of the time: they starved travelers and beggars, killed the wealthy who helped the poor, and forced the bodies of guests to fit the length of their beds by stretching them or cutting off their legs. Additionally, the biblical record makes clear in Genesis that the men of Sodom were seeking to rape the angelic visitors at Lot's house (Jude describes the city as being filled with gross immorality and unnatural desires).  

These were bad, bad people who did bad, bad things. Apparently, everybody not in Sodom wanted judgment on Sodom. By any common standard in the cultures of the ANE, they deserved judgment. No wonder the world cried out to God. Somebody needed to stop them. I suspect this was the case before the Flood as well. This national judgment even included Israel, God’s people, at times. These judgments were specifically because Israel had broken their covenant with God. More on that in a minute.

5. Sign Judgment. I’m not sure what else to call these incidents. There is probably a better title. There are a few cases in the Bible where individuals are stricken with sickness or death as a sign – Annanias and Saphira, Elymus (Acts 13), Herod, or Paul being struck with blindness. These are judgments to individuals intended to send a clear message about a very particular issue.

* * * * *  

The idea of national judgment is the one I think people are wrestling with now: is the coronavirus a national or even global judgment from God? So, let’s explore this. I’ve done work on this but I know this is not definitive. It is not complete. It will be imperfect, because I am imperfect. Walk into this with me. Let’s study and learn like good Bereans and build each other up with truth and grace.  

First, when God brought judgment to a situation in the Bible, there was a general pattern that stands out: people were engaged in known, obvious wickedness (usually violent exploitation) that they knew was wrong through the revelation of general or specific moral codes. By general I mean moral codes accepted by other nations  - see the Code of Hammurabi and other ancient law texts. After WWII, the Nuremberg Trials functioned a bit in this way. These nations had issues, but they ALL agreed there were something the gods would not tolerate. 

When we see God’s judgment on nations outside of Israel, as far as I can tell, this was always the case. Sometimes, it was revealed by prophets (read the book of Isaiah and see who all he warned); when prophets were on the scene, they gave a clear “heads up,” and the people were given an opportunity to avoid judgment, such as what happened in Ninevah.  In Israel, coming judgment was always revealed and explained by the prophets. The prophet Amos once wrote that when it comes to impending judgment, “God…does nothing
without first telling his prophets the whole story.” (Amos 3:7).  

Why does the reason need to be known? Because a punishment without a known reason accomplishes nothing. Analogies are always imperfect, so work with me on this one. If my dad had given me the most thorough spanking of my life –and that would have been an event, let me tell you – and never told me why, what good would it have done?  There’s three ways I can think of that I could know why – my conscience would already have convicted me, my friends had said, “Man, you are going to get it when your dad gets home,” or Dad could tell me. One of the three is necessary, or the judgment accomplishes nothing because I could not learn from it. 

If God is sending a cataclysmic judgment to send a message to the world or to a particular nation, we will know why either from our conscience, our peers, or because God himself gets the message to us. If we aren’t sure it’s a cataclysmic judgment, it probably isn’t. If we’re not sure what the message is, let’s not make up one. 

Frankly, we don’t need anything other than the Bible to tell us what pleases or displeases God. We already know. If we haven’t listened to Moses and the prophets, we wouldn’t get the message even if someone rose from the dead. (Luke 16:19-31)

Second, if this coronavirus is a cataclysmic judgment, who would God be judging? Why not start with introspection? Judgment, after all, begins in the house of God (1 Peter 4:17).  So let’s go back to the previous point. It is not clear what sin in the church around the world or in one particular nation displeases God. There’s a lot to choose from, I suppose.  IF GOD SENT THIS, the church would know it was because of “this” in the church. This would seem to be unique to every country in a global pandemic. I’m not seeing a global response in the church of entire nations saying, “This is it. It is this of which we need to repent.” If biblical precedent counts for anything, I think we would know the whole story.

Plus, as a global pandemic, it’s hitting everybody. Biblically, God’s judgment of His people did not spill out onto other people. If this actually is about the church, I believe it would only impact the church. It’s not impacting only the church. I don’t see a record of God judging those who are not his people for the sins of his people.

So it’s hard for me to see how this is a cataclysmic judgment on the church.  

In the same way, if it were something in the world bringing this judgment, we ought to be able to easily extrapolate what particular sin God has in mind based on how badly nations are hit. That was the idea from the disciples, right? “That tower fell on them, so we know they were bad.”

If that’s the case, the USA, Spain, Italy, UK, France and Germany are the worst offenders, in that order (if you go by death tolls at the time of this writing). If it’s deaths per million, and you don't count really small nation where the numbers get terrible skewed, then add Belgium, Sweden the Netherlands and Ireland, but drop Germany. This judgment seems to favor the Western democracies, particularly in heavily populated areas. Hmmm…
“Do you think those over there are more guilty than all the others living here? No! If this is a judgment, you all deserve it. Settle down.”
In his famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus noted, “[God] causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). I suspect viruses are no less discriminatory. COVID-19 is virusing on the just and the unjust. Maybe, as Jesus noted then, trying to figure out who is being judged why misses the point entirely. Maybe catastrophes like this are supposed to be reminders that, when we think of who deserves judgment, we need to be sure to include ourselves – and that should motivate us to move toward the cross. 

Third, let’s do some textual work. 
  • The Greek word for judge, krino, is used 182 times in the New Testament  - and it never refers to judging nations. 
  • The Greek word for repentance, metanoia, is never used to speak of nations. Nations don’t repent in the New Testament. Individuals do.
  • Rome was ripe for judgment. Ripe. Not a single NT writer records a confrontation or word of warning to the Roman Empire –and there was plenty of opportunity.
I think there is an argument to be made that in the Old Testament, under the Old Covenant, we see God dealing with people with a national purpose, because the people in the Ancient Near East found their identity in their nation and in the god of their nation more than we in the Western world today can possibly imagine. Everyone expected corporate blessing and punishment; everyone assumed that the quality, power and goodness of a god were expressed in that god’s people, who were meant to represent their god to the world. Yahweh makes clear that what he expected Israel to do. Of course God dealt with nations. That was what made sense to the world, and God is good at presenting Himself in ways that His audience can understand. 

In the New Testament and New Covenant, our individual identity is found in Christ; our tribe is no longer a nation; it’s a church. The church represents Christ. Now, we make individual disciples in every tribe, nation and tongue. God’s people are global. If nations are being judged or need to repent, it’s apparently of no importance to the New Testament writers. The focus has shifted. 

This makes me think that, if the NT writers didn’t use any space to analyze the judgment and repentance of nations…maybe we shouldn't’ spend too much time worrying about that either.

So where does that leave us? 

If this is a consequential playing out of living in a sin-ravaged, broken world, well, that makes biblical sense to me. I am highly doubtful that God is sending a unique, supernatural punishment on the world because of me – or you. Or that person you were thinking of, or that nation that you really, really think deserves it.

If judgment is associated with disease, we are getting reminders all the time. Every flu season, for example. Every cancer diagnosis, every heart disease, every….the list goes on. A global pandemic may shock out of complacency, but the groaning of a fallen world reaping the whirlwind of our sin-soaked history has been in front of us all the time. We just got numb.

We are experiencing what the world has experienced for thousands of years: the fallout from sin spoiling the garden of the world. As Kenny Wayne Shepherd sings, everything is broken – and even though we weren’t there to break it the first time, our lives have thoroughly proven that we would have to. 

This is a reminder that sin breaks things, a reminder that we contribute to it, a reminder that we have access to the Creator who will one day remake his Creation, a reminder to be a faithful and loving presence while spreading a message of spiritual redemption.  One day this groaning will end, and all can and will be made new. Meanwhile, the sinful brokenness in us can be forgiven, healed, and restored by the same one who will do that to all of creation one day.  Jesus did not come to condemn the world; he came to save it. (John 3:17)

It’s a reminder that now is a good time to get to know the One who can and will make all of this happen.


First, I recommend two thought-provoking podcasts I listened to after writing this:

Another thought. Let's say plagues are a thing God uses to turn people to him: they "call upon the name of the Lord" in the midst of a trial. That might make sense when you can send them to the one nation in covenant with God - say, the nation of Israel in the Old Testament. Yahweh is the God to whom they cried out when in trouble. But a Philistine would call out to Baal; the Greeks would call out to Zeus. If God sent plagues to them as punishments, it seems to me they were punitive, not persuasive.

If the virus is meant to turn the thoughts of the people to God, what happens if it simply turns the thoughts of people to their god? Which is exactly what you see happening around the world. The religious urge is moving people toward the gods of all religions. If there a Christian nation today like Israel was in the Old Testament, I could see a plague that targeted that nation and that nation alone giving a very compelling reason to ask what God is trying to do, and as such bringing about a sorrow that leads to repentance. But that's not what's happening, because there is no nation today that is equivalent to ancient Israel in that it is a nation whose hearts will turn to Yahweh. If we were to go by percentage of the population that claims to be Christian, the order is Congo, Mexico, Philippines, Brazil, USA, Russia, Germany, Ethiopia. As you can see if you look at where the virus has hit, there is no consistency here.

If God is sending something to make us refocus on Him, it would make more contextual biblical sense to me if something hit just the Christian church. A physical plague that hit just church-goers would be both precise and unsettling. But, once again, that's not what's happening. As such, the virus functions like the flu season, or cancer, or losing a job. All reminders of our fallen state ought to remind us of the consequences of sin and move us toward repentance and holiness.

One final thought: as I have perused social media, I don't see Christians taking a posture of somber self-reflection and repentance. I see anger, frustration, a love of conspiracy, and political posturing. If God intended to use this to bring about revival, his purpose is being thwarted. And I don't think that conclusion stands up to theological scrutiny.

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