Sunday, March 22, 2020

Is COVID-19 God's Judgment?

1. Whenever there is a disaster, it is natural for us to ask why, especially when we believe in a God whose has a defining characteristic of love. We find the same question in the Bible in more than one place. In Luke 13, Jesus addresses some Galileans that Pilate had killed and some people who had a tower fall on them in Siloam (Luke 13:1-5). Was it a punishment for their sin? What about the young man who had been born blind? Had his parents sinned or had he sinned to bring it on (John 9:2)?

The Bible does indicate that events can be a consequence of sin. Israel loses a battle with Ai because of Achan's sin (Joshua 7). The northern and southern kingdoms both meet their demise as a consequence of their sin (2 Kings 17, 24:3). And it is not just the Old Testament. Ananias and Sapphira die in Acts 5 as a result of their sin, and need we merely mention the book of Revelation.

2. It is important to have a "whole Bible" theology of such questions. Once we begin to read the Bible in context, we realize that we get different angles on these questions from different books. I have hypothesized often that there is a growing precision on some subjects in the course of the Bible. The afterlife seems to be an example of this dynamic.

Another example is what we might call Deuteronomistic theology. Deuteronomistic theology gives us a basic principle--obedience to God leads to blessing, disobedience leads to disaster. However, Deuteronomy and the historical books that follow it (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings) only look at this question from the standpoint of this life. Those who teach a prosperity gospel tend to focus on these parts of the Bible while ignoring others.

However, it is clear that not all suffering is a consequence of sin and disobedience. Jesus denies it in John 9 mentioned above. Indeed, Isaiah 53 and Jesus himself illustrate that a righteous person can be persecuted unjustly. Ecclesiastes is rife with the sense that, from all appearances, it often looks like the wicked sometimes prosper and the "good die young."

Ironically, the most righteous king in 2 Kings, Josiah, dies prematurely in battle. The most evil king of Judah, Manasseh, has a long and prosperous reign and dies peacefully in bed. The situation deeply troubled many at the time. The generation that went into captivity felt like they were being punished for the sins of their parents' generation.

Psalm 44:17 captures this lament well: "All this came upon us although we had not forgotten you. We had not been false to your covenant." There was a saying that circulated around Israel: "Our fathers ate sour grapes, but it is our teeth that hurt" (Jer. 31:29; Ezek. 18:2). God says he is going to change the policy. From now on it will be the person who does the sin who will die, not their children or grandchildren (Ezek 18:4).

2. Here is a good illustration of growing precision within the pages of the Old Testament. "God has no grandchildren"--our eternal fate is a matter of our individual relationship to God, not that of our parents. It goes the other way as well--our eternal judgment is not a matter of our parents either.

There are still consequences to sin in this life, of course. If a mother takes drugs while pregnant, God may not intervene to protect the unborn child from the consequences. The child of an alcoholic parent may still have to deal with the psychological consequences of growing up in that environment.

The book of Job brings out the complexity of the situation. Job suffers even though he has not sinned. He never finds out why in the pages of the book. God comes to him at the end and basically tells him that understanding the situation is above his pay grade. Here is the final answer to the problem of suffering. God is in control. God is good and knows what is happening. We will never fully understand. We must simply have faith that "the judge of all the earth will do what is right" (Gen. 18:25).

Of course we know that Satan has made a wager with God from Job 1-2. Job never finds this out. In my Wesleyan theology, this is a good example of the fact that much of the suffering that happens in the world is a matter of God's permissive will rather than his directive will. That is to say, God does not directly order everything that happens.

God is sovereign. Nothing happens without God's permission. God is in control. God signs off on everything. But God gives some degree of freedom to the creation. God gives some degree of freedom to humanity and to the natural order. God knows what will happen, but he does not dictate everything that will happen.

There is of course a competing view, the idea that "everything happens for a reason." There is the Calvinist view that God specifically directs everything that happens. In my view, this makes God the author of evil. It makes the statement that God is love meaningless.

3. An important observation here is that the understanding of Satan is not present in the earliest parts of the Old Testament. Satan only appears in Job 1-2, 1 Chronicles 21, and Zechariah 3. It is common to think of Job as one of the earliest books of the Old Testament but in my view this is the common confusion of the subject matter of a book with the circumstances of its writing.

This is another example of growing precision in understanding as we move through the Bible. The earliest parts of the Bible simply ascribe all spiritual activity to God. This is not untrue, since God approves of everything that happens.

But it is not as precise as an awareness of Satan. Does God really directly send evil spirits on King Saul (1 Sam. 16:14)? Does God directly command that a person be born blind or deaf (Exod. 4:11)? These are true but imprecise statements. God signs off on everything that happens. But we now know that Satan is often the more direct instigator.

Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in comparing 2 Samuel 24:1 with 1 Chronicles 21:1 The first says that God tempted David to sin. The second says that Satan did it. If we have no sense of a developing precision in understanding, these two passages will certainly seem to contradict each other. In the end, James gives us the final word: "Let no one say when tempted that God is tempting me. For God is not tempted with evil nor does he tempt anyone" (Jas. 1:13).

4. All of that is background to the question at hand. Is COVID-19 God's judgment in some way?

We can say with certainty that God has allowed COVID-19 to happen. God is in control. But we cannot say with any certainty whether God is judging certain people. That is above our pay grade. We have an urge to speculate on such questions, but Job tells us we must trust that God is in control and resist matters that are beyond our understanding. We are not competent to fish for Leviathan with a fish hook (Job 41:1)!

We can say that Christians will die. Indeed, some American Christians have been very resistant to believe in the current crisis. What if they had died in higher numbers as a result? Even if that had happened, Job would implore us not to conclude that such an eventuality would have been God's judgment on us in some way.

We can conclude that God has and will likely allow people to experience the consequences of their choices. We do not know the intentions or detailed actions of the Chinese government. But God has allowed China and the world to experience the consequences. I do not know whether the United States has mishandled the lead up to the crisis here. But God may very well let the rest of us experience the consequences.

In all this I remember that death is not so powerful in the face of Christ. Death has no victory over us! In my own journey with the problem of evil and suffering, a key conclusion has been that I give too much credit to death and suffering, as if they are a big deal.

God is a big deal. I am only a big deal because God loves me. My death is only a big deal because I am one of the sparrows God watches over.

So I will take precautions. I will be vigilant. I will heed the advice of experts. I will pray for my leaders. I will pray for others.

But in the end, "The LORD is with me. I will not be afraid what a mortal [or a virus] might do to me."


Bob MacDonald said...

Hi Ken, thanks for the review of the many theological parts of this crisis. I like the image of some things being above my pay grade. My thoughts are too big for a comment so I will put up a post later today.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for posting this. Well thought out, and pretty comprehensive.

Tina Goodpaster said...

Thank you for taking the time to write this. It settled some things in my heart and better equipped me with a response in conversations.

Ken Schenck said...

Glad you found it helpful!