A pandemic by any other name ...
Updated: Apr 1, 2020
By this time I imagine you've observed the oft trotted out line that goes something like this, "You can't tell people that God is in control of something like a pandemic or epidemic!" or maybe it goes like this, "Sometimes an accident or disease is just that - an accident or a disease. God has nothing to do with it." In a recent article the English New Testament scholar N.T. Wright (whom I cannot recommend for his low view of Scripture) went so far as to write that when it comes to large scale sicknesses, such as the Coronavirus-19, Christians don't have anything to say about it and if we try to address it then we're just being "silly". The open theism crowd, with the likes of Greg Boyd, would probably say that, "God is just as surprised as we are by this virus!"
While Scripture doesn't have any word for pandemic or epidemic as we use it, it does have equivalents for it - the terms "pestilence" and in many instances "plague". The word "pestilence" is used in Scripture in fifty-one verses fifty four times and "plague" is used in forty two verses forty four times. There is also another word used in Scripture that some may think would apply in this current crisis - "disease" - but one would be too quick to assume that. The word "disease" is used in sixty six verses eighty three times and almost every time it refers to leprosy, but it is not used of something that is on the scale or type of a pestilence or plague, or an epidemic or pandemic. In the New Testament it is recorded that Christ healed individuals of diseases (again leprosy being chief among them) as a display of His sovereign power that can heal the wasting effects of the Fall of humanity.
What does all of this mean? Well, it means that N.T Wright and the pseudo-apologists are wrong. God is in absolute control of the Bubonic plague, Ebola, SARS, Bird Flu, Swine Flu, Anthrax, seasonal severe outbreaks of Influenza A, the Spanish Flu, and, yes, even the pandemic known as the COVID-19. Christians should confidently, compassionately, and when need be prophetically, testify to such. That begs the next question, doesn't it? If God is in control, then what would be a reasoned and wise biblical assumption for why He would bring such a virus to be? Make no mistake about it because God's Word doesn't apologize for it - He IS in control of plagues, pestilences, pandemics, and epidemics.
In fact, Scripture teaches that nothing exists apart from His will and that all that does exist exists for His glory in one way, shape, or form. All things, and that includes even viruses, cannot hold together apart from His sovereign power (John 1:1-3; Col 1:15-17). It also means that all times and seasons that are the consequence of or are derived from pestilence and plague - such as economic downturns, personal stress, enforced isolation, church closures, etc - have already been evaluated, permitted, and/or actively brought about by God for His holy purposes. All things means ALL things - all times, seasons, births, deaths, wars, peace, embracing, isolating, mending, rock throwing, gathering, sowing, reaping, sickness, health, disease, famine, pain, healing, hope, despair, and on and on - all things that bring these seasons about and all things that result from these things are all a part of the good, wise and inscrutable plan of God from before the ages began (Eccl 3:1-15).
Now, here's where sinful humanity, and sadly some professing Christians, tend to get offended. The only reason Scripture gives that the Creator, the one true Living God brings about a pestilence or plague is as an act of judgment upon sinful humanity. The pattern that Scripture gives us, which is all that we can go on as Christians, is that His purpose for such seasons is to bring about widespread physical judgment and at times use such judgment to bring about widespread soulful repentance. His purposes and plans are too deep and wonderful for us to comprehend (Psalm 40:5; 92:5; 139:17; Isaiah 55:8-9). We must accept what is clearly taught in Scripture and what is taught is that in every occurrence in the Bible plagues and pestilence are a sovereign act of God against sin. Every. Single. Time. This includes those many times where it is an act of the LORD to call His people in, chasten His people, and restore His people to a proper relationship with Himself. Scripture teaches that "...all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose." (Romans 8:18-30) and that most certainly includes His purposes in seasons such as this.
Armed with this information, how should we respond? First, we respond with worship, with awe and reverence at the means that are available to God for the judging of sin, bringing about effectual repentance in the souls of the rebellious, and producing perseverance in the hearts of His people. Second, we respond with mourning. The contemplation of His displeasure should cause to fall upon our knees and confess the sins of the church. We should be brought to remember His great mercy and the price of our rebellion and unfaithfulness. Thirdly, we respond with a plea for the nations. The nations exist, the world and all that is in it continues to exist because God has not completed the building of His church. When that has been accomplished the sky will part and the end will come. Divinely speaking God already knows all that are to be His and of them not a one shall be lost. Humanly speaking we need more time to take the gospel to the nations. There is a tension between those two, but Scripture teaches us that they are not at odds. God uses people to reach people. Times, such as the one we are in, should remind us how fragile that remaining time we have is.
Lastly, and this from my heart as a pastor to my fellow pastors, like Moses and Aaron, we should place ourselves between the sickness and our people and plead to the LORD of the covenant for mercy and forgiveness that the pestilence may chasten us and have it due effect upon our souls. We should lead our churches, denominations, and conventions to confess their waywardness in tolerating the idolatrous ways of the world. We must repent of our willful blindness to what is clearly sin and cast out those false leaders and teachers that we have negligently allowed to poison the Body of Christ with worldly ideologies and poor biblical theologies. We should pray for abundant wisdom for our congregations to understand these things and the calm assurance to act in a timely fashion. If we don't, then as the old saying goes, "It can always get worse."
To those who say this lacks compassion, I beg to differ. Is this compassionate? It most certainly is! The greatest act of compassion that we can have for the church is to call her to purity and holiness and away from the sin that ensnares and enslaves her. The greatest act of mercy that we can have for those that are dead in sin and trespasses, who are in the misery and despair of this life, is not to tell them that they can resurrect themselves with a little moral effort or cultural acceptance, but to alert them to the danger their souls are in before the sight of a holy and all-knowing God. They will make do with Him alone and unaided, or represented by the merit of Another. There are no other options and what waits ahead is far worse than any earthly virus.
If we are intentional about it, if we are humble and submissive to Him, this is a season that could possibly bring about a great reformation of the church. We could see in our days a wondrous turning of the hearts of God's people to the Redeemer who purchased them at great price and away from the idolatry of cultural ideologies, ungodly analytical tools, sexual immorality, and tolerance of sin. We could stand in amazement of how majestic and wise our LORD is when He uses a restored Body to bring many to salvation and eternal hope. We could see those things, but will we? Will we repent or will we make the mistake of missing our window of opportunity? Time will tell if this pestilence will be a wound that heals us and once again kindles the fervency of the church for the glory of His great namesake...