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A Theological Reflection On COVID-19

When tragedy strikes in our lives, we often ask ourselves and other people questions like, “Why did this happen?” “Why did God do this?” These questions are natural and normal to ask but we should refrain from always demanding an answer that satisfies what we’re hoping to hear. If we’re not careful, we can let our anger, sadness, despair, and confusion blind us into believing things that are hurtful or even damaging to our souls, or the hearts of others.

A fiction book I really love, To Kill A Mockingbird, centers around the accusation and trial of a black man, Tom, who allegedly raped a young white woman in Alabama in the 1930’s. A local attorney, Atticus, is appointed to defend Tom in the trial, who it turns out was falsely accused. Atticus does his best to defend Tom, pitting him against the white townspeople, leading them to accuse him of being an enemy to white people. The towns people’s bigoted hatred for black people leads them to unsuccessfully lynch, but successfully convict Tom of the alleged rape. Sadly, Tom is imprisoned and is later killed while trying to escape for the crime he didn’t commit.

I see a lot of things in this story that are relevant to our current situation with the COVID- 19 epidemic. COVID-19, unlike the fake crime in To Kill A Mockingbird, is very real, but our natural responses to our tragedy can be misguided just like the responses of the townspeople were in To Kill A Mockingbird. The white townspeople let their fears, prejudices, and emotions rule them, and ultimately an innocent man died because of it. Unfortunately, this is all too real for us right now as hate speech and racial prejudice against Chinese and other eastern-Asian people has risen in the past couple of months.

Right now, we are all looking for answers to questions about the virus and all of the problems it is causing in every facet of our lives. As we desperately look for answers, the ones we want to hear are rarely, if ever, the truth. We want someone or something concrete to blame for this, but we may never really know that answer. Even if we did find an answer, it probably wouldn’t help that much. Even if we aren’t trying to necessarily blame someone, we attempt to justify the disease by saying that we or others deserved this as some form of cosmic or divine judgment. There’s really not much we can do about what’s happening and that doesn’t sit well with our culture and or the way we see the world. We are supposed to be productive, help others, and carry out justice on those who caused this. We are so desperate for satisfying answers that we will ignore the facts, warnings from health officials, and decrees from governmental leaders in order to get them. Whatever the desire, we can all find ways to satisfy our thoughts and feelings right now and completely ignore the truth in the process. Not only would we be living a lie, but we can cause a lot of trouble and damage by doing so. In the midst of all of this, God calls us to be mature; “no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ” (Ephesians 4:14-15 NIV).

Specifically, troubling to me are the claims that this disease is God’s punishment to a sinful and wicked humanity. Now, I understand how someone could make this claim. On the surface, there appears to be numerous relevant precedents in the Bible for God sending disasters against those who are sinful, wicked, or who oppose Him. There’s the flood God sends to destroy the whole earth except for Noah, his family, and a few pairs of every animal; the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; the plagues of Egypt; the annihilation of any wicked tribe in Canaan that refuses to worship and follow the LORD down to the last woman and infant; the two Israelite exiles where God sends first the Assyrians and then the Babylonians to destroy them and take them out of Israel. Then there’s all the other smaller scale examples of God’s wrath and justice being brought against Him and Israel’s enemies. Though these examples may seem like perfect comparisons to our current calamity, there are several important reasons we shouldn’t use these as context for the current crisis from COVID-19.

Firstly, God always gave a warning to before He brought his wrath against people. God was merciful in not only extending warning far in advance of calamity, but also gave them chances to change their ways and follow His ways. God didn’t just give general warnings either, He always specified the sins of the group being warned and explained what would happen if they didn’t comply. Before the flood, all of humanity knew of God and His ways, but only Noah was found to be faithful and obedient to Him (Genesis 6:5–9). The violent and vile men of Sodom and Gomorrah refused to turn away after warnings from Lot and the angels (Genesis 18:20– 19:29). Pharaoh was warned and offered chances repeatedly to let the Hebrews go, but He stubbornly refused (Exodus 7:1–6). The tribes of Canaan and surrounding lands were offered a chance to follow God and join Israel, but they also refused (Deuteronomy 20:10-18). These tribes weren’t just good people minding their own business either. These were people that practiced cultic worship with religious sexual exploitation, child sacrifice, ritual scarring and other bodily mutilation, and more (Leviticus 19:28; Deuteronomy 18:9–12; 23:17; 1 Kings 14:24). God did not desire for any of the people in these cases to perish, they had a choice. Israel was sent prophet after prophet warning them of the calamity that would follow if they turned from God and followed after the same detestable practices as the tribes of Canaan. The northern Israelite tribes abandoned God and His love soon after they were settled in the promised land to seek the deceptive and fleeting pleasures of the pagan Canaanites. Their lust for sexual exploitation of the Canaanites and greed for their treasures lured them into bondage with the detestable practices. Eventually, every tribe of Israel was destroyed and exiled for disobeying God.

Secondly, God always sent a specific person that He had appointed to be His representative, prophet, or messenger on earth to speak God’s word to the people. The flood had Noah, Sodom and Gomorrah had Lot and the angels, the plagues of Egypt had Moses and Aaron, the conquest of Canaan had Joshua, and many prophets warned Israel of exile. God has always desired to work with humanity and elevated humans into places that offered us a chance at reconciliation with God. A prophet of God wielded a lot of potential power and God knew that false prophets would attempt to mislead the Israelites so He gave them measures for ensuring they were listening to His true prophets (Deuteronomy 13:1-5; 18:20-22). The northern tribes of Israel were destroyed and exiled long before the southern tribes partially because they listened to these false prophets and leaders. People today still blindly follow false teachers and doomsayers and refuse to reconcile with God because they reject His Son, Jesus Christ. Everyone who has set their faith in Christ needs not worry or concern themselves with doomsday predictions because at the end of the world as we know it Christ will come without warning and take care of His faithful followers.

Thirdly, as mentioned briefly before, God has always desired to resolve His problems with sinful people through peace and reconciliation rather than through judgement. However, He sometimes had to resort to wiping away the wicked in order to uphold His holiness and protect the righteous. He does not enjoy nor author pain and suffering for humanity. He humbled himself from His transcendent status as spirit to become a helpless baby as Jesus, which the early church described as ‘the condescension of God’. Jesus lived a life as we have lived, enjoying and suffering in all the same ways we do as humans. He then sacrificed himself in order to reconcile humanity with Himself, finally providing a way for people to cease their endless rebellion that has caused nothing but destruction and suffering. God’s ultimate plan for us is to live in harmony with Him and the rest of creation. The current influence of Satan over the world is temporary.

The story of Job is an excellent place to look as we struggle with wondering why evil and suffering happen in the world despite God’s love and desire for good for us. Job was a good man, one of the best really. He loved his family and friends, was fair and just, not greedy or deceitful. He cared for others and followed God. Satan knew all this and asked God for a chance to show that Job only worshipped God because his life was so good. If everything Job had was taken from him and made to suffer, he would cease to worship and love God (Job 1:1-12). Notice that this is Satan’s idea, God only allows it. Free will even exists to some extent in heavenly beings, which allowed ones like Satan and his fallen angels to rebel. God could eliminate Satan whenever He wants but He seems to have determined that any pain and suffering free will has caused is worth it for His plans. It’s vital to note that God does not desire or author our suffering. He knew that it would happen though and provided the free gift of salvation through Himself to humanity. He has allowed a degree of autonomy to his creations so that they may act against His desires. Satan sends destruction, plague, and suffering upon Job and his family, yet Job never stops worshipping God. Eventually, Job becomes angry, confused, and disrespectful, which is understandable after all that happens to him. The important part is that He still comes to God and desires to follow Him. God didn’t expect nor require Job to be stoic or even happy about his suffering. Instead, He rewarded Job for his confrontation and eventual acceptance after he gained a new perspective about life and the world far beyond his understanding (Job 42:1–10). As God works with humanity, He does desire a perfect world with us, but He doesn’t expect us to be perfect on our own. That’s why He sent Himself for us, so that we may be unified with Him in the future eternity where all is made new and right.

So no, God almost certainly did not send COVID-19 to punishment humanity, because it’s simply not in His character or personality to do so. We had no warning, no offer to avoid it, and no prophet sent to warn and lead us. This disease, though terrible, is not unprecedented. Unfortunately, it is a small part of the larger problem that affects the whole of creation. In fact, the bible tells us that creation itself groans, in a manner of speaking, for its renewal (Romans 8:20–23). Disease, drought, natural disasters, wildfires, climate problems, and more are all part of the problem humanity was left with after the fall from harmony with God in Eden. We have established that this disease is not something God would send, but let’s also touch on the fact that no nation or other group of humans are held to any set of rules or expectations that when broken, are dealt with by punishing them. The United States is not special or held in any higher or lower regard than any other nation or group on earth. We are deluding ourselves if we think some words on a piece of paper or the words of a leader somehow link us in a unique way to God. That kind of relationship only belonged to the Israelites before Jesus, and that has long passed. The United States, nor any other country on earth today, is not in a covenant relation with God. America’s sins mean no more or less to God than any other country’s sins. Attempts to create and enforce laws that supposedly follow Jesus’ desires may be well intentioned, but they will always be flawed and may even be carried out unjustly. We should acknowledge that we cannot view America as an entity that God sends blessings or curses upon in any kind of collective way. No pastor, bishop, pope, senator, president, or any other leader on earth speaks for any part of humanity to God or for God to humanity. This was the case for the biblical nation of Israel only, and that ended when Jesus Christ fulfilled the law.

God is certainly at work in this world and in our lives in ways we cannot comprehend, but He does not send blessing or calamity to any person or group based upon a simple process like karma. God is not obligated to bless or curse any person regardless of their actions; It is up to God alone how to interact with mankind. As such, we should not attempt to interpret specific events in our lives as God working in the world, especially when it comes to disasters. Personally, even when something good happens to me or around me that I believe to be in line with God’s will and desires, I do not claim to know how, why, or if God desired that it should happen. I simply praise God for the things in this world that are good and pleasing to Him to the best of my knowledge and ability, and then pray for everything else, including for His will to be continually done.

We cannot allow our emotions and limited scope of God and His creation to cause us to abandon sound teachings about God and His character, nor allow it to cause ourselves to act in immature and selfish ways. Instead of finding out who to blame or why it’s happened, we should develop our relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Bring Him your worries, frustrations, fears, prejudices, embarrassments, doubts, weariness, loneliness, joy, love, praise, and everything else you feel and experience. God has graciously given us examples of ways to express these emotions to God through the Psalms (e.g. Psalms 3, 13, 18, 20, 22, 30, 77, 146 & many more). He desires to hear from you and to connect with you. He does not desire that you or anyone else suffer.

Phill Coselli is currently a Teaching and Research Intern at Restore Houston. Phill graduated from Texas A&M University and served as an officer in the U.S. Army. Phill is currently completing his Th.M. from Dallas Theological Seminary and plans to pursue a teaching ministry role upon graduating.