How should Christians respond to the coronavirus pandemic?
Dr. Brian A. DeVries is the President of Mukhanyo Theological College in South Africa. He has planted three churches in Pretoria, South Africa, and serves as a visiting professor of missions at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, USA. He and his wife Lanae parent four children.
Apprehension, anxiety, and alarm – these are common responses to COVID-19. This new strain of the coronavirus is now a global pandemic. And it is the underlying cause of much global uncertainty and disruption and even fear.
Many people around the world have responded in fear. This fear is due to the real possibility of death, the highly contagious form of this disease, and the lack of a known cure. Responding with fear, in such cases, is a natural human reaction.
How should we as Christians respond to COVID-19? We know that it is good and necessary to take precautions. We, of course, try to follow all the advice of medical experts and our community leaders. We make every effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and do all in our power to contain and limit the problem.
But let’s also consider COVID-19 within the bigger picture of what God is doing in the world. What does the Bible say about this pandemic? How should Christians think about COVID-19, and how should we live in response?
Our God is still in control
We confess that God is our Creator, and that He made a perfect universe – a world without disease and death. We also confess what the Bible teaches about sin and its consequences: the world is cursed because of human sin (Rom. 8:20-22), and this world – now under the curse – is decaying and swiftly approaching its final destruction (2 Pet. 3:10-12). To use an analogy, all people are infected by the spiritual virus of sin, and the death rate of this virus is 100%.
We also confess that God is sovereign: nothing that happens in this world is outside of His total control. He even allows sickness and suffering and destruction (Isa. 45:8, Amos 3:6). Throughout history, God has allowed terrible plagues to cause much suffering and death. These pandemics are, in God’s all-wise providence, part of His ultimately good purposes in human history (Gen. 50:20, Rom. 8:28). For example, the plagues of Egypt were used by God to deliver His people who were suffering in slavery (Ex. 7:3-5).
God has, at times, allowed pandemics. For example, the Great Bubonic Plague around 1350 was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 75 to 200 million people in Asia and Europe. Or the Spanish Flu in 1918 infected about a half billion people globally, causing more than 20 million deaths.
So while COVID-19 is novel (new) to us in 2020, such global pandemics are not new in human history. And certainly COVID-19 is not unknown to our sovereign God or somehow outside of His total control.
Pandemics are the consequence of human sin
God had warned Adam in Paradise that death would be the outcome of his disobedience. But Adam sinned against God, and so “death passed upon all [humans] for that all have sinned” (Rom. 5:12). Sickness in the world today is part of the beginning of God’s judgment on sin.
So COVID-19 is part of God’s judgement upon human sinfulness. Like all other sickness and death in world history, it is the consequence of human sin. Note carefully, however, that there is not necessarily a direct connection between those who get sick and those who are worse sinners (see Jesus’ wise teaching in Luke 13:1-5). We all have sinned, so we all will eventually die from one cause or another.
We must be clear: it is incorrect and unwise to say that COVID-19 is God’s judgement upon a particular person or group of people. But as with other plagues in world history, Christians should see this present pandemic as a consequence of decay and death in this world. As a Christian, I confess that I am a sinner by nature and, therefore, like all other humans, I deserve God’s judgements because of my sinfulness.
God’s judgments will increase
We, who study God’s Word and who know world history, are not entirely surprised by COVID-19. We grieve the suffering caused by such tragedies, and we work faithfully to circumvent and contain them. But we are not surprised, because God warned that calamities will come.
The Book of Revelation speaks about judgments that God is pouring out upon a wicked world – upon a world living in rebellion against Him and His righteous laws. Many of the seven seals and seven trumpets describe major global disruptions that occur as the final coming of Christ approaches (Rev 6 and 8-9). Then the seven bowls of God’s wrath describe massive global judgments that bring staggering destruction to the whole earth (Rev. 15-16).
As punishments for wickedness in the world, these judgments are also loud warnings: God’s time of mercy is soon coming to an end and eternal punishment looms closer. God in grace gives undeniable warnings to the wicked of pending death, so that they might repent of their rebellion against Him. God, in His forbearance, is still giving time for human sinners to plead for mercy.
God’s judgements are righteous
We all have sinned against God, and all sinners deserve to be punished. It is fitting and fair for God to punish all human sin; His judgements are righteous. But this is the wonder of the gospel: God in His grace proclaims a way for sinners to be saved from the judgments and eternal punishment they deserve.
God the Father gave His own Son to suffer and die in the place of sinners. Jesus Christ bore the wrath of God against sin when He died in immeasurable agony on the cross. Christ died so that we may live; He carried the curse of death so that we in Him will be blessed by God. All who trust in Christ are made alive by the Holy Spirit, and God’s wrath no longer remains on them.
So there are two categories of people in the world today: (1) sinners who have been saved in Christ, and (2) sinners who remain under God’s wrath (John 3:36). Saved sinners respond to God by praising Him for His gracious salvation. Unsaved sinners continue to sin against God, even in the reality of increasing judgements. These two radically different responses to God’s righteous judgments are depicted in the Book of Revelation.
God’s people confess God’s sovereignty
Revelation 15 describes a scene that is located directly before the fullness of God’s wrath against sin begins to be poured out upon the world. Here we see the redeemed saints before the throne of God, the Church in Heaven. Listen to what they are singing: “Great and marvelous are thy works, Lord God Almighty; just and true are thy ways, thou King of [the nations]!” (Rev. 15:3).
The perfected Church in Heaven worships God even while terrible calamities are increasing on earth. They confess God’s righteousness: “true and just are thy judgments!” (Rev. 16:7). Note carefully: they do not get any joy from the pain or suffering increasing on earth; rather the message of their song is focused on praising their sovereign God who is in total control: “all nations shall come and worship before thee; for thy judgments are made manifest.” (Rev. 15:4b).
Sinful people respond with fear and rebellion
But the response of the sinful world is radically different. At first God’s judgments resulted in great fear and even some submission: “And at that hour there was a great earthquake, and a tenth of the city fell. Seven thousand people were killed in the earthquake, and the rest were terrified and gave glory to the God of heaven” (Rev. 11:13). Jesus had predicted this would happen: “Men’s hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth: for the powers of heaven shall be shaken” (Lk. 21:26).
But as God’s judgments intensify, wicked people in the world also intensify their rebellion against God. They do not surrender to God and plead for mercy. No; it is the opposite reaction: They “blasphemed the name of God, which hath power over these plagues: and they repented not to give him glory” (Rev. 16:9). They “repented not of their deeds” (Rev. 16:11b). They “blasphemed God because of the plague…for the plague thereof was exceeding great” (Rev. 16:21b).
Believers learn to respond in faith
Why does the Bible give us this perspective? God, in His mercy, is calling us to live by faith. The Holy Spirit speaks to us through the Bible; He teaches us not to fear when God’s judgments come upon earth with increasing intensity.
The Holy Spirit assures God’s people of His promises in order to calm our fears (Isa. 41:10ff, Ps. 91, etc.). We are encouraged by Christ to live in hope with a faith-filled perspective: “when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh” (Lk. 21:28).
The Spirit gives us faith to respond differently, even in times of great calamity and global pandemic. By God’s grace, we respond with loving service, displaying selfless deeds of compassion for the suffering. Like Christ, we graciously warn the wicked and call them to bow before God in repentance. In the Spirit, we faithfully pray for those who are dying in their rebellion against God, while we do what we can to help all people.
How are you responding to the present pandemic?
We, of course, make every effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and to minimize the problem. But we all will eventually die, whether from one cause or another; and at the end of the world, we all will stand before the final judgment throne of God. The more important matter now is our relationship to the sovereign God.
Our heart-response to COVID-19 is a vital diagnosis of our spiritual health: fear or faith? Fear is a natural human response, because we all are sinners. But God in Christ by His Spirit gives us faith. Christian believers are, by grace, learning to trust Christ even in “the valley of the shadow of death” (Ps. 23:4); they are learning more and more to walk by faith in Christ who saves us from the fast approaching destruction (1 Thes. 1:10).
By faith, we learn to follow Christ in showing compassion to the lost and perishing. By faith, we hope in our gracious God who will soon destroy this wicked world and will create a better world without sickness and death, without tears and suffering. By faith in Christ’s victory over death we overcome our natural fears so that we can proclaim this gospel of hope to dying sinners.
Let’s pray together for grace to respond to COVID-19 with this faith and hope in our sovereign God!