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The Bible and COVID-19

Rick Rouse

There are many people who are prone to point the finger at God during a time of crisis. The age old questions seem to resurface: “Why did God do this?” and “Why is there suffering?” Without being overly simplistic, I’d like to engage the reader in some theological reflection on the issue by posing four similar questions in light of the Biblical story.

Did God send the coronavirus to punish us?

Unlike some self-proclaimed prophets and preachers who are eager to claim the virus is God’s judgment on a particular part of the population, it is important to note that God did not create the virus. And certainly not to work his wrath on certain individuals—as everyone is vulnerable and susceptible. Worldwide thus far, we have witnessed over 4 million cases and 300,000+ deaths due to the pandemic. This is not some Old Testament plague that God has sent. In the New Testament, Jesus and the disciples proclaimed a God who was eager to love, not punish humankind. (See John 3:16-17) The message of the cross is that God does not delight in our misfortune but rather weeps with us in times of suffering and sorrow.

Where does the idea of a vengeful God come from?

A medieval doctrine was drawn up by the Church in the fourteenth century called substitutionary atonement. It interpreted plagues and suffering of the day as clear signs of God’s anger with humanity, claiming that because of humanity’s many sins, we owe God a debt we can never repay. That is why Jesus—by dying on a cross—offers himself as a sacrifice to satisfy the wrath of God the Father. This theology evolved into a belief in an angry and vengeful God who visited humanity with events to punish them. The mystic, Julian of Norwich, sought to counter this kind of thinking by suggesting there is no anger in God and directs us to look at ways in which we project our own bitterness, anger, and vengeance upon God—trying to make God in our image. Julian seeks to correct our notion or image of God by referring to God as our friend, our mother, and our father. Her message echoes that of the Apostle John that “God is love” (1 John 4:7-16).

Is God trying to teach any lessons through this health crisis?

While I don’t believe that the pandemic is of God, there are certainly lessons to be learned. Could this be a call to repentance for a number of human failures—be it economic inequality, abuse of the environment, poverty in the midst of abundance, or a lack of justice for many people on this planet? This may be the first pandemic that spread to a significant extent from the affluent to the lowly—agitating class grievances in some of the world’s most unequal societies. Is this an opportunity for world leaders and citizens of every political stripe to unite in making this world a better place for all?

How might the Bible speak to the current pandemic?

The Jewish-Christian scriptures offer words of comfort and hope in times of difficulty and crisis. For example, here are a few select passages:

“For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for your harm, to give you a future with hope.” --Jeremiah 29:11 (NRSV)

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” –John 14:27 (NRSV)

“So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble will be enough for today.” --Matthew 6:34 (NRSV)