A Biblical Plague?

Wednesday, March 25th, 2020

Is the Coronavirus a plague? Dictionary-dot-com asked that question a day or two ago. The staff writer, John Kelly, said no, technically it isn’t a plague. By medical definition a virus, even a pandemic virus, is not a plague. But there was more to the article. Unexpectedly, the writer went briefly theological. He includes this line in his article, “More figuratively, plague can mean ‘any widespread calamity or evil’ especially one considered a direct punishment of God.” By that looser, figurative definition the Coronavirus might indeed be a plague. Is it a widespread calamity? Check, definitely yes — widespread and spreading wider everyday. So stay put at home, everybody. Is the Coronavirus a direct punishment of God? Well, that’s a bit trickier to answer. From a practical standpoint, though, it is the question of God’s involvement that interests me. And it ought to interest other Christians, because it may well be the question in the back of our neighbors’ minds these days. 

The question could be restated this way: Is God somehow behind the Coronavirus? Is this God’s will? Is this God’s doing?

To start, these are tricky, mine-field questions without easy, simple answers. If you do answer with a simple, unequivocal “yes, this horrible virus is indeed a punishment from God” or “no, this virus is not a punishment from God” you open up all kinds ensuing theological problems. In short, God comes across either as a big meanie, or not actually, adequately in control of historical events. It’s a real dilemma, a Catch-22. If there is a God, is he mean or a wimp? Umm… let me think on that. Neither? Neither.

A number of Biblical passages speak to calamities like this. An entire book of the Bible is devoted to the question of calamity and unjust suffering. That book is called Job; and in the end, the eponymous protagonist is not given a particularly clear answer. Instead, Job receives an audience with God. Job is given a chance to voice his grievance directly to God, and given a response from God. When he responds, God does not explain why Job was beset with so many unfair calamities. God just asks Job a lot of questions about how much Job actually knows, and just how well Job would do running the Cosmos.           

With regard to the Book of Job, a crucial point to make is that Job was emphatically not being punished. The various calamities that befell him — including his physical ailments — were not punishments. They were instead trials. Job was not being punished by God, but was instead being tried. His loyalty to God and his faith in God were on trial. And Job came oh-so-close to failing the trial. At the heart of the matter was this question, posed by God to Job in 40:8, “Would you really challenge my justice? Would you condemn me to justify yourself?”

But then again, we should not be too quick to dismiss out of hand the possibility that God can and will use calamities like the Coronavirus to judge or punish some people. Sometimes God does punish sin through calamity. Yes, God does so even now, even after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. But even if God does sometimes punish people through calamity, that does not make God a big meanie.         

Is my assertion true? Does God really behave like he did way back in the Old Testament? Is he still a God who strikes sinful people with plague, disease, and catastrophe? Yes, he is. But he takes no pleasure in it. In Matthew 23:37-39, Jesus laments in grief over the city of Jerusalem, for many of its inhabitants had rejected him and his ministry, and were soon to demand his crucifixion. The result of their rejection of him would be the eventual destruction of Jerusalem and its temple. The destruction of Jerusalem would be God’s doing, but not God’s desire. 

The Coronavirus, then, could be used by God both ways. It could be used as a means to try people and to judge people. Indeed, it seems very likely that God will be consistent to the scriptural script and use it both ways. But we need to avoid behaving like Job’s over-confident frenemies. We cannot know when calamity is intended as trial and when it is intended as punishment. Instead, in the midst of this unprecedented season, the Church, as the Body of Christ, has the clear call to love our neighbors, proclaim the Gospel, and intercede for those who suffer.   

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