In a March 24 article at the Intercept, Lee Fang reports disapprovingly of a “Trump cabinet Bible teacher” who talked about the current pandemic in terms of the wrath of God poured out. Certainly in the current environment most people would react vehemently against any person who seeks to frame the pandemic as willed by God. Without a complicated theological explanation, people would assume that kind of statement blames the people who’ve died for their own deaths; it might imply that we’re saying they deserved to die.
I’m going to try to talk a little about the Biblical basis for inferring that a plague might come from God. I should start by saying that I cannot claim to have prophetic knowledge about God’s will with the coronavirus. I have prayed each night about what’s happening, asking God to do His will with us however the present crisis might fit in with His plans. I am not saying I know whether this plague came from God. I am simply offering three different ways a Christian could interpret what’s happening: God’s wrath, God’s providence, or God’s mercy.
Scripture shows us that God uses plagues
As early as Genesis 12 we find mention of God sending plagues to show his displeasure. In Genesis 12:17 God sends “great plagues” upon Pharaoh’s house because the Pharaoh has taken a married woman (Sarah, wife of Abraham) into his court as a wife. We know at this point that God hates adultery. One could interpret the plague in Genesis 12 as an expression of wrath over the fact that adultery is happening.
Alternatively one might interpret the plague neutrally as merely a device God uses to prompt Abraham to leave Egypt and go to Canaan where God has set a holy land for him and his descendants. In this vein one would read events such as plagues as the workings of divine Providence.
Or one can interpret the plague graciously, as a sign of God’s mercy. By sending disease first but not wiping out Egypt the way God wiped out the world in Genesis 6, God showed the Pharaoh and Abraham grace. His warning shot allowed them to correct their mistakes before facing a severe judgment. This fits the way I have usually interpreted the story of Sodom: not as a sign of God’s wrath but of His mercy, because He gave the Sodomites so many chances to repent and rise above their fallen state.
The virus as God’s wrath
There is certainly a case to be made for plagues as a sign of God’s wrath poured out. In Revelation 6:8, plagues come with the last of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. This last horse, described as “pale,” brings pestilence. Jesus also alludes to this in the eschatology of Matthew 24. The last judgement, in which God’s wrath pours out on earth, includes disease.
Remember that in Revelation the entire earth is being swept away to be replaced by a new heaven and a new earth, so the specific people who die from pestilences are not singled out as worse people than all the others. Some who die might be “spared” from the worsening tribulations, so their death is part of a blessing even though the plague does show the wrath of God poured out.
The virus as a providential tool
There is another possibility that involves providence but not necessarily wrath.
We could see the coronavirus neutrally as a sign that God has some plan and the virus is setting in motion a sequence of events that will lead us all to where God wants us to be.
Think, for instance, of the fact that at the end of Genesis Jacob’s family has gone to Egypt for shelter from a famine. Then Exodus begins with his descendants enslaved. God’s plan was for Moses to bring down the fullness of God’s law. God wanted this to happen as the Jews were led out of slavery toward the Holy Land. To carry out God’s plan just the way He wanted it, the unfair suffering imposed on Joseph as he gets sold to slavers, brought to a foreign land, and imprisoned all works for God’s plan. It’s neither God’s punishment of Joseph nor necessarily God’s individual grace offered to Joseph. Sometimes, as Joseph himself explains to his brothers, God uses for good even that which was devised as evil.
Then think of the ailments inflicted on Job, which we know were not meant as a peculiar reward or punishment for something Job did right or wrong. He was being tested and God allowed Satan to torment him in the flesh as part of God’s plan. God appears to Job at the end to explain.
The coronavirus might be a tool that God is using to His purposes. We know from the letter to the Hebrews that God disciplines His people the way a loving father disciplines a child. Aside from discipline, there might be some chain of events we can’t foresee, which will result from the pandemic. Those consequences might advance God’s plan for us.
The strange happenstances surrounding the coronavirus seem to offer us many possibilities of a providential reading of the coronavirus. It has forced people to stay home which might be God’s way of forcing humankind to reconsider the flippant way they have treated family values. It has brought down the stock market which might be part of God’s plan for the future of our trades and wealth. It has prompted a massive stimulus bill and calls for reforms to healthcare which might be part of God’s plan for how we care for each other during sickness, and perhaps even a more charitable use of wealth.
Consider also the fact that the coronavirus has rattled our confidence in intimate contact with other people, which throws the sexual revolution in doubt. It could reflect God’s intent to reinforce humanity’s respect for biblical marriage between a man and a woman.
Lastly, because of the coronavirus millions upon millions of Christians cannot go to church. This could be God’s way of forcing us to look thoughtfully and critically at what our churches have become. Signs abound that many churches have swollen to huge sizes that turn Sunday into entertainment and a glossed over gospel. Other churches have become so dispirited and rote that people feel they’re visiting the dentist once a week. Why wouldn’t God use events to force us to ask, what are we doing when we gather for worship? I could see that perhaps God wants us to return to the small, closely knit home churches of the first century when the memory of martyrdom was fresh in most Christian minds.
The virus as God’s mercy
And then we might ponder whether the coronavirus comes from God as God’s grace and mercy. That might sound offensive but hear me out. Consider the fire and sulfur that consumed Sodom and Gomorrah. Consider the devastated imagery of Lamentations, in which the scriptures paint a picture of Jerusalem after the final fall of Judah. At the end of the book of Jeremiah we saw the temple burned and the people sent into exile. Lamentations begins: “How lonely sits the city that was full of people! How like a widow she has become!” Those words crept into my mind as I drive around Fort Worth earlier today and saw suburban streets so quiet and still, it looked as though the towns had died off.
When there are no people walking around, even animals begin to feel less hesitant to cross into spaces made for people. I saw the news about monkeys in Thailand invading tourist spots. News came to me of coyotes and stray dogs wandering deeper into urban areas as people’s movements have drawn to a halt. That staggered me because I remembered reading the prophecies as a younger man and assuming that the reference to the “wild beasts” haunting once-great cities could only be an antiquated reference holding no meaning for modern times. Guess what. There are literally wild beasts wandering into suburban streets because everything is so still and lifeless due to the quarantines.
Couldn’t it be God’s grace, His all-merciful kindness, that He gave us a pandemic bad enough to force us to take the Bible’s warnings seriously, but not bad enough to kill us? If the coronavirus is grace rather than providence or wrath, then this means we’ve been given another chance by God to right the ills that have kept us away from God.
If we believe that God is almighty and also infinitely just, we should be open to hearing people’s thoughts about what the virus tells us about God’s will. It’s not all bad news, either.