A deadly, global pandemic like Covid-19 brings to the surface the big questions of life, death and the meaning of existence. This article seeks to answer the following: what is a virus, how did we end up in a global pandemic, what is the role of God and Satan, and what is an appropriate Christian response?
What is a virus?
In his book Where is God in a Coronavirus World?, Oxford emeritus professor of mathematics, John Lennox, points out that most viruses are benign and are essential to life. They are prolific and miniscule — over 100 million in less than a teaspoon of water. They’re not living organisms, just bits of genetic DNA or RNA material that behave like parasites, latching into the replicating metabolism of host cells to release hundreds of additional viruses. Viruses play an essential role in recycling nutrients through food webs.
The 21 malignant viral types that are harmful to their hosts are a tiny fraction (far less than 1%) of the 100 million viral types on earth. Covid-19 is one of a family of coronaviruses that are responsible for the common cold, influenza, pneumonia and other respiratory diseases.
How did this Covid pandemic start, and when will we recover?
Evidence suggests that the Covid-19 virus originated in wet markets in Wuhan, China. Animals captured from various places in the wild and transported over large distances crammed together in cages, are stressed with immune systems that are compromised and vulnerable to infection. People in contact with the body fluids of slaughtered animals in wet markets are exposed to new pathogens in an ideal environment for new diseases to emerge.
China initially suppressed reports of a potentially devastating new virus first detected on December 8th 2019. Dr. Li Wenliang raised the alarm but was silenced by Chinese authorities and died two months later from the infection. China conceded six weeks later on January 21st 2020, that there was human-to-human transmission, but by then valuable time had been lost that may have helped reduce the risk of a global pandemic.
What followed was a dystopian lockdown of countries and cities with empty streets, churches and shelves; major economies were disrupted at lightning speed and at a scale not seen in living memory; unemployment rates exploded, and people were left feeling anxious about their health, family, friends, and essential supplies.
Research organization Deo Volente indicates that the global economy is headed for a deep recession, with an estimated 7% of the world’s population (half a billion people) being thrust into poverty. In the USA the unemployment rate is expected to reach between 15-20%. Six percent of churches and parachurch ministries are not expected to survive. Economic recovery may take years.
The Importance of Perspective
At time of writing, almost 400,000 people worldwide have died from Covid-19. Though the growing numbers are alarming, comparisons help us put Covid-19 deaths into perspective:
- Number of road deaths in the world in 2019: 1.35 million.
- Number who die of hunger & hunger-related diseases each year: 9 million.
- Number held in modern slavery each year (human trafficking): 30 million.
This kind of perspective offers no comfort, but it brings home the reality that the Covid pandemic is just one aspect of suffering which is with us all the time. John Lennox provides the following review of previous pandemics and the numbers of people who died:
- The plague of Galen 165-180 AD: 5 million deaths.
- The bubonic plague of Justinian (541-542): 25 million deaths.
- The Black Death (1346-1353): 70-100 m — a 20% reduction in world population.
- The 1918-20 flu pandemic: 20-50 million.
- The Asian flu (1956-58): 2 million.
- The 1968-69 Hong Kong flu 1 million.
- The HIV pandemic: 32 million.
How do we explain this kind of suffering? A Biblical Perspective.
We learn in Genesis how the created order, before the Fall, was perfect. Adam and Eve lived in perfect harmony with God, with themselves, with each other. In Genesis 3 we learn of the Fall — a Satanically-inspired rebellion on the part of Adam and Eve against God, with devastating and universal consequences. As a result of sin, God cursed the ground and sent the first humans out of Eden to a life that would henceforth include pain, conflict, sweat and death — including Covid-19. God put the physical world under a curse so that we could see in the physical horrors around us the devastating nature of the sin in which we all, tragically, participate. We have made a mess of the planet and our lives and the lives of others.
The role of Satan
As he was in the fall, so today: Satan, the god and ruler of this world (2 Cor. 4:4; John 12:31) and “a murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44) is heavily involved in our global misery, binding, oppressing and harassing people with diseases (Luke 13:16; Acts 10:38; 2 Cor 12:7). But Satan is on a leash in God’s hands — he acts only with permission and within limitations (Job 1:12; 2:6; Luke 22:31). In the final analysis it is God who decides how much damage Satan can wreak. Satan is not separate from God’s judgment, but he unwittingly serves it. We can say to Satan what Joseph said to his brothers (who had sold him into slavery but later as prime minister of Egypt saved many from famine): “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20). Such is the inscrutable providence of God.
God’s Purposes in Covid-19
The prophet Joel referred to a locust plague as a warning of the coming judgement for those who rejected God. If a localized locust plague was used by Joel to warn people of coming judgement, how much more a plague of global proportions? In Coronavirus and Christ, Theologian John Piper suggests the following in response to the question, “What is God doing through this pandemic?”.
- Picturing moral horror. God is giving a physical picture of the moral horror and spiritual ugliness of God-belittling sin.
- Sending divine judgement. God is sending judgment because of our sinful attitudes and actions.
- Awakening us for the Second Coming. God is giving us a wake-up call to be ready for the second coming of Christ.
- Realigning us with Christ. God is calling us to repent and realign our lives with the infinite worth of Christ.
- Creating good works in danger. God is calling His people to overcome self-pity and fear, and do with courageous joy good works of love that glorify God.
- Refocusing people on the Great Commission. God is shaking Christians worldwide out of their complacency for renewed urgency to share the gospel with the unreached peoples of the world.
Christ offers hope for the world. Peter quoted the prophet Joel at Pentecost, warning of the coming day of the Lord, concluding his sermon with a strong appeal to accept Christ, for ‘everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved’ (Acts 2:16-21). In John Piper’s words, Covid-19 is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world. The Covid-19 pandemic induces us to look again at the God we have ignored, and who wore a crown of thorns to bring us back into relationship with Him. If the pandemic draws our attention back to God then it will have served a purpose consistent with Romans 8:28 “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
At the heart of the Christian message is the crucifixion of Jesus. God has himself experienced human pain and suffering. A Christian is not someone who can explain the problem of pain, suffering and Covid-19, so much as one who has come to love a God who has Himself suffered for His people, in order to bring resurrection life, and ultimately a new heaven and new world where suffering and death will be no more (Rev. 21:4).
The Christian Response to the Pandemic
The coronavirus was sent by God. God ordained it, governs it, and will end it. God has given us freedom to take responsibility for our own responses to Covid-19 and to each other. So how should Christians respond to the pandemic? Here are some suggestions:
- Confess sin, and turn to God who promises healing to a humble and repentant people, and to their land (2 Chronicles 7:14)
- Ask God for wisdom (James 1:5). Search out the counsel of wise men who understand the times and know what to do (1 Chronicles 12:32)
- Heed the best medical advice. God can protect and heal us, but he expects us to be wise and use all the resources he has given us, including medicine.
- Social distancing. Quarantining has Biblical roots (see Leviticus 13:1-14). Loving one’s neighbor means doing what we can to protect them — especially the elderly and those with underlying heart or respiratory conditions.
- Help those most at risk. Those least at risk should help the most vulnerable (e.g. shopping for them, or providing godly counsel and comfort, and helping them network, find jobs and get back to work).
Sacrificial care has always been a hallmark of Christianity
The world’s goal is preserving one’s physical life at all costs. But that is not the highest goal for a Christian, whose soul and spirit, at the moment of death, go immediately into the presence of God and into a state of perfect happiness with Him. Therefore, Paul was always ready to die for the cause of Christ (Acts 21:13), and considered being at home with the Lord as being infinitely preferable to life on earth (2 Cor 5:8; Phil 1:23). For Christians it is a settled fact that being faithful and obedient to Christ is more important than preserving one’s life. For these reasons, sacrificial care has been a hallmark of Christianity. John Lennox gives two examples.
- Christians cared for the sick during the Antonine plague which killed a quarter of the population of the Roman Empire in the second century AD. During a later plague, bishop Cyprian encouraged Christians not to focus on plague victims (who live in heaven) but to redouble efforts to care for the living. It is estimated that the death rate in cities with Christian communities was half that in other cities, and Christianity grew explosively.
- In 1527, the bubonic plague struck Wittenburg, Germany. Martin Luther refused to flee and protect himself. Instead, he stayed to minister to the sick, in the process losing his daughter, Elizabeth. Said Luther, “We die at our posts. Christian doctors cannot abandon their hospitals, Christian governors cannot abandon their districts, Christian pastors cannot abandon their congregations. The plague does not dissolve our duties, it turns them into crosses, on which we must be prepared to die.”
Early Christians created the first hospitals in Europe to provide care in time of plague. This is what it meant to love your neighbor, and that is how God loved every Christian in the person of His Son, dying for them on the Cross.
Love Casts Out Fear
Jesus teaches that there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18)
Christian writer and lay theologian C.S. Lewis shared this pithy critique against self-focused fear in an essay “On Living in an Atomic Age”: “It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because [of the possibility of] premature death [in a world in which death is a certainty]. If we are all going to be destroyed [let us be found] doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep…”
Hysterical fear and selfish hoarding of food and basic necessities that leads to empty stores and others doing without, is not loving your neighbor.
God’s Presence and Promises
Early Christians lived out the Great Commandment (Mt. 22:36-40), sacrificially contributing to the well-being of others, while knowing they had a real and living hope that goes beyond the grave. The joys of heaven immeasurably outweigh the suffering on this earth.
The sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us…We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose…(Rom. 8:18, 28)
Where is God in a pandemic? He is with us, and will see us safely through death. For…neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom. 8:38).
It’s not about us.
As John Piper points out, Christians get swept away in tsunamis. Christians are killed in terrorist attacks. Christians get the coronavirus. Suffering is not about us, it is about God who gives us the strength to endure. We approach suffering and death knowing that this is not the end. We die of disease and disaster like all humans. But for those who are in Christ, the “sting” of death has been removed (1 Cor. 15:55). “To die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). To depart is to “be with Christ” (Phil. 1:23).
How should we pray in this pandemic?
The following, from John Piper’s prayer, is helpful and instructive:
Father, We sense, deep down, that this pandemic is appointed, in your wisdom, for good and necessary purposes. Do quickly the painful, just, and merciful work you have resolved to do. Do not linger in judgment. Do not delay your compassion. Remember the poor, O Lord, according to your mercy. Do not forget the cry of the afflicted.
Grant a cure. Deliver us from these sorrows, we pray. Purify your people from preoccupation with barren materialism and Christless entertainment. Put our mouths out of taste with the bait of Satan. Cut from us the roots and remnant of pride and hate and unjust ways. Grant us capacities of outrage at our own belittling of your glory. Open the eyes of our hearts to see and savor the beauty of Christ. Incline our hearts to your word, your Son, and your way.
Fill us with compassionate courage. And make a name for yourself in the way your people serve. Stretch forth your hand in great awakening for the sake of this perishing world. Let the terrible words of Revelation not be spoken over this generation: “Yet still they did not repent.” As you have stricken bodies, strike now the slumbering souls. Forbid that they would remain asleep in the darkness of pride and unbelief. In your great mercy, say to these bones, “Live!” And bring the hearts and lives of millions into alignment with the infinite worth of Jesus.
In Jesus’s name, Amen.
Grudem, W. Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith. Zondervan, 1999.
Holcombe, L., et. al. Covid-19: The Effects on Ministry Giving. Deo Volente, 2020.
Lennox, J.C. Where is God in a Coronavirus World? The Good Book Company, 2020.
Lewis, C.S. Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays. Harper Collins, 1986.
Piper, J. Coronavirus and Christ. Crossway, 2020.
The article was written by Warwick Alcock, Director of Strategic Operations, Village Schools of the Bible.