Although less lethal than the ancient plagues, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a global impact on our sense of well-being, and perhaps even our faith. Personally, there is still the little voice in the back of my mind that suggests that the year 2021 may yet have a few difficulties in store for us, and perhaps I am not alone. The Gallup organization reports the highest levels of mental anguish in 20 years in the United States, with similar results in the United Kingdom and Europe. As an ancient history amateur (and an actual participant as I age myself), religions have expanded during periods of extreme stress, a trend that provides grounds for a spiritual rebirth. How can we get there?
Where is God in this pandemic? What do the Scriptures teach us about the reasons for this global crisis? How should we think about God, and how do we recover spiritually? These are questions that are increasingly on our minds as we strive to maintain hope (and some sanity as we wait in the vaccine line), even after loved ones have died from COVID-19.
Addressing these questions is N.T. Wright, Anglican bishop, New Testament scholar, and the chair of New Testament and Early Christianity at the School of Divinity at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. Not only a prolific writer in both the scholarly and popular press, his commentary and observations have been featured on ABC News, NBC’s “Dateline,” and NPR’s “Fresh Air.”
Wright recommends a full portion of humility and common sense — including ways that we can serve others (both now from a distance and, hopefully soon, in a safer future). “God and the Pandemic” is theologically sound, challenging some of the religious ideas that are bubbling up in our mediasphere with predictable regularity. Wright mentions and dismisses a few: The pandemic is a sure sign of the second coming. Answer? No it isn’t; Jesus pointed out that there would be wars, famines, earthquakes, etc., but ‘the end is not yet,’ and that the eventual end would come ‘like a thief in the night,’ in ordinary times, with no great ‘signs’ (sorry, Hollywood).
But there is more: God created the pandemic to cause us to repent. Answer: While repentance seems to always be in short supply, that’s actually a stock pagan response to ‘bad things happening to good people.’ In the Old Testament it’s a very specific point in relation to God’s covenant with Israel; but that’s tempered with the psalms of lament where the sufferer is innocent (see Psalms 22, 42, 43, 44, 88 and others) and of course with the book of Job, where it’s Job’s pseudo-comforters who say “Ah, this shows you’ve been secretly sinning all along.” This idea creeps into the New Testament, with the disciples of Jesus asking “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” in John 9.
If there is evil, there must be sin, and there must be an individual we can pin it on. The Chinese? The CIA? Most of Wright’s little book (which can be read in a few thoughtful hours, and read again, Bible open, in a few more) focuses on this “instant karma” theology that still dominates in certain circles.
The final explanation that Wright challenges is “yes, but this is a great opportunity for evangelism.” Answer: “well, good luck with that one.” Wright observes “if non-Christians think you’re just using the pandemic as a stick to beat them with (‘Hey! Wake up! You might die!’) it may be counter-productive. Sensible people know they might die any day. If we wait for a pandemic to have an excuse to evangelize, we were obviously asleep on the job.”
Some theologians have sometimes seen Jesus’ miracles as the sign of his divinity, with a complementary insight that his tears and suffering are the signs of his humanity. Wright calls that analysis shallow and crass. St. John’s Gospel doesn’t carve up Jesus up neatly. John remembers as no other Gospel writer that it was Jesus, God incarnate, who wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus.
After rejecting some Christian platitudes, “God and The Pandemic” walks through reflections on the imperfections of our world and the duty to serve as we can. First, we must know that God comforts us with His own self-same sorrow. Wright asks “Dare we then say that God the creator, facing his world in melt-down, is himself in tears, even though he remains the God of ultimate Providence? That would be St. John’s answer, if the story of Jesus at Lazarus’s tomb is anything to go by” (p.46). Wright continues the meat of his scriptural sense-making in St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Chapter 8, where his thoughts focus on the frustration of this world and the need for prayer:
We know that the entire creation is groaning together, and going through labor pains together, up until the present time. Not only so: we too, we who have the first fruits of the Spirit’s life within us, are groaning within ourselves, as we eagerly await our adoption, the redemption of our body. We were saved, you see in hope . . . In the same way too, the Spirit comes alongside and helps us in our weakness. We don’t know what to pray for as we out to; but that same Spirit pleads on our behalf, with groanings too deep for words. And the Searcher of hearts knows what the Spirit is thinking, because the Spirit pleads for God’s people according to God’s will. (Romans 8:22-27, author’s translation)
Just when we expect to read that all-explanatory refrain from Romans 8:28 that “all things work together for good to those who love God,” we are blindsided. Seems that’s not the real translation at all. Romans 8:28 is not some Disney-like hoped-for ending (as if millions of somebody’s loved ones dying is going to all work out, Doris Day-like, in a pretty little box of blessing).
N.T. Wright looks at the word “work” in Romans 8:28 and notices (as do a few other scholars), that the word is not the expected word for work (“ergazomai”) that St. Paul often uses, but the word “synergo,” which is translated “work together.” The actors working together do not include God at all (since He is already ‘always working’, as Jesus reminded us in John 5), but the actors are we faithful disciples. In fact, Paul called them “fellow workers” (“synergos,” the cognate noun form) in other places in his writings. In short, the main point in Romans 8:28 is not that God magically makes everything work out well, but “God works all things toward ultimate good with and through those who love him” (entire argument is contained on pp. 41-51).
Wright concludes that “the encouragement and comfort here in Romans 8:28 doesn’t amount to a kind of Stoic resignation. It is a call to recognize the truth of what Paul says elsewhere, that we are called to hard work, knowing that God is at work in us . . . we may not be able to say ‘Why?,” but we may glimpse ‘What: Who is at risk? What can be done? Who shall we send?’ . . . Paul is offering us a Jesus-shaped picture of a suffering, redeeming providence, in which God’s people are themselves not simply spectators, not simply beneficiaries, but active participants.” (p.50).
Wright concludes with thoughts of biblical hope and renewed dedication to rebuilding community, mourning with those who mourn, and getting on with the job of service. We will continue, when it is safe, to visit the prisoners, care for the wounded, welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, and advocate for those in leadership to remember the poor. And we will tend to the sick, just like we have for centuries, day and night, in the Black Death and the Bubonic Plague, in war and peace, in the slums of the city and the isolated houses on the Colorado prairie. The urge to meet the Lord himself in the faces of the needy — in the blessed promised of Matthew 25 — has always been strong among his faithful ones.
We recommend “God and the Pandemic” during this time of testing; may these words and our faithful prayers bear fruit in renewed purpose, service, and hope.