Plagues and suffering individuals–further thoughts on COVID 19

Recently I heard that, because some Christians in a particular nation have died from COVID-19, their fellow believers there have worried that God is judging them. Although God in the Bible uses plagues and other natural disasters as wake-up calls, we should not suppose that every case represents this. In fact, Jesus, in whom we Christians behold the face of God, healed those oppressed by the devil (Acts 10:38; cf. Luke 13:16).

Although the Bible speaks of God sometimes using sickness as discipline (Rev 2:22), or some of God’s blessing for healing being withheld due to corporate disobedience (1 Cor 11:29-31), it is far from true that godly persons never suffer from sickness. Elisha died from sickness (1 Kgs 13:14), yet remained so full of God’s power that a corpse thrown on top his bones revived (13:21). Paul and his associates faced illnesses or physical weaknesses in the course of their ministry travels (Gal 4:14; Phil 2:26-27; 2 Tim 4:20)

Viruses might serve a natural purpose in controlling bacteria populations, and it is natural for viruses to mutate. But we might also envision a demonic purpose behind the form of this particular virus and its effects. The virus now ravaging the world, mutated into its present harmful forms, is evil. Also terrible is the plight of day-laborers in many countries who, because of the virus, currently lack access to food. It’s very important for us to pray for the front-line health care workers and for the scientists working on treatments and cures.

Plagues are terrible. Bubonic plague may have killed more than a third of Europe’s population centuries ago. AIDS has killed millions in recent decades.

In his Plague, Albert Camus may question whether it is logical for believers to seek to work against a plague that they envision as God’s judgment. Most monotheists (including myself) do affirm that God is also at work even above and beyond the level of evil in the world. The giver of life has the right to execute judgments and is compassionate to give us wake-up calls to turn us from greater judgments (for judgments as wakeup opportunities, see e.g., Amos 4:8-11; Rev 9:20-21).

But it’s important, when affirming such points, not to leave the wrong impression regarding what we should believe about those who suffer. Jesus’s ministry shows us God’s heart. Again, Jesus compassionately healed the sick, and his ministry shows us the importance of caring for those who are suffering and investing our resources in alleviating those sufferings.

In the application section on Revelation 6, which lists pestilence as among the judgments on humanity, I wrote this in my NIVAC Revelation (Zondervan) commentary some two decades ago:

“Such plagues are wakeup calls to humanity, but we must remember that they are judgments against societies [or the world], not usually against individuals.  Because innocent sufferers often hear our blanket statements about judgment as personal condemnations, we should always make clear what we already know, that not everyone who suffers is experiencing personal judgment. … We must hear in the world’s suffering not condemnation of suffering individuals but, on a larger scale, God calling for the world’s attention.”

We tend to think in very narrow terms: is the cause of what I am writing a computer? My hands? Muscles moving my hands? Neurons firing in my brain? My social context? Or all of the above and more? In the same way, the Bible sees multiple levels of causation. Some things can be evils that, for greater good for the world overall, God has not stopped from taking their course, and chooses to use for good. In Christ, however, God provides us an ideal model of working against these evils.

Just as rain falls on the just and unjust alike (a blessing for Jesus’s largely agrarian audience in Matt 5:45), so viruses are no respecter of persons, and it is wise to boost our immune responses with healthy living insofar as possible. Viruses, like sin and death, remain part of this fallen world, and remain part of what we who follow our Lord’s model must work against.

The Bible shows us that we can look to God for protection, for healing, and for God to give wisdom for cures, and we can trust God to answer. Let’s pray for all these things. But we dare not treat those who suffer as worse than those who do not; Jesus reached out especially to the hurting. Sometimes those who suffer or have suffered even have special credibility with the suffering.

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