Why is our world being ravaged by COVID-19? It’s not a question that’s easily answered. Lots of people are calling it a judgment from God, but what if the judgment isn’t on those we might think?

Such a definition sounds decidedly negative, I know. But from a Biblical perspective, temporal judgments generally have positive elements in the form of lessons to be learned and grace to be received.

The Lesson

In Luke 13, Jesus explains that people were wrong to assume that certain tragedies – a bloodthirsty mass-murder and a deadly tower collapse – happened because the victims were more sinful than other members of the public. That, of course, doesn’t mean that COVID-19 isn’t a judgment; it does mean that it’s wrong to suggest that those that die of it are succumbing because of their personal sin. On the contrary, COVID-19 will take lives indiscriminately. Murderers and rapists may well be taken, as may saints and philanthropists.

But the lesson of COVID-19 comes in the chorus of the passage. Twice, Jesus says to His listeners, ‘unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.’ The message of God to all of us through the Coronavirus is to repent of our sin and rebellion against God, and, in a 180 degree turn, to embrace Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. He is calling us, both personally and corporately, to put Him first.

But, before I develop this further, it is a revealing exercise to examine why it is that we’re interested in the “why” question at all.

Science

From a purely scientific angle, the Telegraph recently suggested that this may have happened because of cross-contamination in a wet market in Wuhan which sold both live and dead animals (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/03/30/what-covid-19-coronavirus-pandemic-virus/). It’s thought that the difficulties involved in maintaining suitable hygiene in such an environment allowed the virus to be transmitted from an animal (which had contracted it from a bat) to a human. And the rest is history in the making, or so we are led to believe. The Chinese government, it’s only fair to say, deny this explanation and, for all we know, they may be right.

Philosophy

It’s becoming increasingly evident, however, that, when a crisis brings much of the world into lock-down, people aren’t satisfied with purely scientific answers. And that’s not just because the science, in this case, is uncertain – even if we knew exactly where COVID-19 had come from and how it had developed, we would still be seeking deeper answers as to why this is happening. Scientific answers are helpful in such instances, but they aren’t sufficient because man has metaphysical needs. In Biblical terms, God has set eternity in the heart of man (Ecclesiastes 3:11) and, as such, we have an intrinsic desire to know the unseen why as well as the observable how.

Herman Bavinck, in his Prolegomena, argued that

 the world of non-material things, the world of values, of good and evil, law and custom, religion and morality, of all that inspires love and hatred in our hearts, lifts us up and comforts us or crushes and grieves us, that whole magnificent invisible world is as much a reality to us as the “real world” that we perceive with our senses. Its impact on our lives and on the history of humankind is still much greater than that of the visible things about us.

As such, the whole scientific endeavour, pre-Enlightenment, accepted that natural science and philosophy had to go hand in hand. As spiritual beings, we bring our presuppositions, whether they be religious in the traditional sense or not, to the cold, hard evidence of science. We interpret the brute facts through the lens of our philosophy. Rationalists will deny this in theory, but not in practice.

This is all important simply because it explains why we are asking the why question. It helps us clarify why we look for deeper meaning at all, if the science is already giving us the facts. The reason is that we need a lens through which to view and analyse our facts, just as an eye needs a retina to see the world. That lens is our philosophy or our religion or our worldview.

Diverse Perspectives

This explains why people have reacted to the current crisis in the way that they have – with metaphysical questions as well as physical questions, with philosophy as well as science. It explains why, when people talk about why this is happening to us, they don’t speak, particularly, of the negligence of the Chinese authorities (or any other authorities) but, rather, of a greater purpose in all of this, and a greater power behind it.

The fact that we are no longer a Christian country in any tangible sense – nor, arguably, have we been for over a century – is evidenced by the fact that the answers to the why question are generally vague and lacking in any substantial content. Bavinck observed that, though the mainstream scientific schools dismissed religion and spiritual knowledge out the front door – because, they argued, it was not empirical (observable) – it is ‘again admitted through the back door, but now frequently in the form of superstition.’

As such, in our current crisis, superstitious answers are run of the mill. Some are citing ‘Mother Earth’ as the instigator of COVID-19, seeking revenge for our pollution of the world. Others base their theories on a westernised form of Karma, going about judging and avenging those who’ve done wrong. Those with a nominal Christian background are, while avoiding any uncomfortable details, suggesting that God is in control and, on a vague and ill-informed notion of providence, are confident that this means that all will be well and that no real harm will befall us. These things, we often hear, are sent to try us.

But who is trying us? Who is the God that some believe to be in control? Who is Mother Earth? Who or what is behind Karma? What basis do we have to say that everything will be fine in the end? By what law are we being judged? Tragically, many who are seeking deeper answers to our current crisis have precious little to base either their optimism or pessimism upon, because their philosophies are materially bankrupt. Their lack of content means they have no real answers to give.

What saith the Scriptures?’

Unlike many other religions and worldviews, Christianity is a religion of content – sixty-six books full of it. Through men like Moses, Joshua, Samuel, David, Solomon, Isaiah, Malachi, Matthew, John, Paul and James, God is speaking into diverse historical and cultural contexts and is addressing varied issues and life-situations.

What does the Bible have to say about the outbreak of COVID-19? The Bible, of course, isn’t updated every few minutes with the latest headlines, like BBC News. Its final book, chronologically, was probably penned at the end of the 1st century A.D. In one sense, then, the Bible doesn’t mention the Coronavirus, but in another sense, by speaking into similar historical situations, it speaks into our own situation. The lessons learned are transferable and help us to answer our why questions.

Inevitably, there will be numerous and conflicting interpretations of the Biblical data in this regard. It is notoriously difficult – for both believer and non-believer – to approach the Bible without trying to make it say what we want it to say. As with any science, we bring our own background and worldview to the data at hand and use it as our lens. That is why some are shouting that this is the judgment that we all deserve and that the end is coming, while others appear to think that God is not the judgmental type.

Judgment in the Bible

Judgment is, perhaps unwittingly, the first explanation that the Bible-reading Christian mind thinks of in the face of worldwide catastrophe. It’s, of course, not a popular subject but, regardless, from Genesis to Revelation, the theme of judgment is to the fore. The fact that God is, Himself, infinitely just requires it to be so. The judgment theme is brought to its consummation at the Last Judgment where

we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad. (2 Corinthians 5:10)

It’s also beyond doubt, however, that God, at times, afflicts mankind with temporal judgments. The greatest the Bible records is the worldwide flood in the day of Noah. The reason given for it is that God

saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. (Genesis 6:5)

Similarly, but on a localised scale, Sodom was destroyed because ‘their sin [was] very grievous.’ (Genesis 18:20) Egyptian families lost their firstborn children because Pharaoh would not let Israel go; Joshua’s army was defeated at Ai because Achan kept the spoil from Jericho; Judah was taken into Babylonian captivity because of sustained neglect of their covenant responsibilities before God. These are a small sample of God sending temporal judgments in the Old Testament.

Temporal judgments, however, are also prominent in the New Testament. In the Book of Acts, God smote Herod because, in his blasphemous pride, he ‘gave not God the glory.’ (Acts 12:23) Jesus’ Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24-25) was, in part, fulfilled in the Fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. – a judgment upon Jewry for rejecting their Messiah. Paul warns the Church in Corinth against partaking of the Lord’s Supper unworthily and, thereby, drinking judgment upon themselves. This is how he explains some of the illnesses and deaths in their congregation – as a judgment from God because of their sin. (1 Corinthians 11:29-32) When Christ addressed the Churches in Asia Minor in Revelation 2 and 3, some of the judgments that He threatened were, without doubt, temporal as well as eternal (e.g., Revelation 2:5, 16; 3:3, 10, 16).

The principle which is important to grasp is that sin is always judged and punished. That takes place, primarily, at the final judgment. However, the Biblical evidence shows that God’s judgment sometimes protrudes into time. For Christians who have trusted their whole lives to Jesus Christ, their Saviour has stood in their place in the judgment and has borne their punishment on the cross. The fact that they will not be punished for their sin in eternity, however, is no guarantee that they won’t be chastised for their sin or that of their Church, or caught up in the judgment of the world, in this life.

Is this a Judgment?

It is certainly possible, then, for God to send temporal judgments, even today – but are we right to suggest that this is one? COVID-19 certainly conforms to many of the norms of a judgment. It’s hitting us where it hurts – socially, economically and physically. Many millions who won’t get as much as a whiff of the virus itself will be devastated by its imminent impact on their finances, relationships and consciences.

But are we ripe for judgment? Do we deserve this? Arguably, the world is no more sinful today than it ever was. Certainly, there’s nothing new under the sun. Some of today’s sins may not have been practised a thousand years ago, but their seed was certainly present and probably manifested in other ways. Some argue, not without grounds, that even the golden days of Christianity in Scotland, whenever they were, weren’t golden days at all but were marred by many sins that today’s Church would describe as heinous.

What makes 21st century Britain more worthy of judgment than 17th century or 19th century Britain? In a sense, that’s the wrong question. God may have judged these generations with temporal judgments either long-forgotten or condemned to the pages of unread history. Or He may, in His divine wisdom, have chosen to reserve their judgment until they broached the realms of eternity.

The right question, I would suggest, is, are we worthy of judgment? Are Scotland, the UK, and western society worthy that God’s displeasure be displayed against us? Arguably, yes.

The World

I’m not going to go into a detailed list of modern society’s sin – I think they are quite obvious to anyone who knows anything, not even about the Bible, but about historical Christian values. It is clear that God’s Word and authority have been expelled from the public sphere and are, therefore, militated against in public policy, whether that be in our schools, health service, or courts of law. The outworking of this is best recognised and confessed before God by those responsible.

The Church

It’s uncomfortable to realise, however, that most Biblical judgments are exacted upon the Church. If we are to be honest (Pandemics can be good for honesty), we who should have known better, who had Bibles in our hands, who had God’s praise on our lips, must confess that we’ve sinned against the God we professed to serve. We have minored on the majors and, at times, have majored overly on the minors. We have tried (unsuccessfully) to attract the world by becoming virtually indistinct from it. We have loved as they loved and hated as they hated.

We have become lazy in our Church-going and sporadic at our prayer meetings. We have squabbled amongst ourselves, severed as we saw fit, and held grudges against brothers and sisters, sometimes for decades. Privately, we have forgotten about the reality of who God is and have neglected the place of prayer. We have explained away His holiness, normalised His grace, side-lined His law and practised only those parts of His Word which we saw fit to practice.

It would be unwise to be dogmatic on the judgment question. What we cannot doubt is that God has, for one reason or another (or probably for countless reasons), allowed this virus to spread. The Coronavirus is part of the ‘purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will.’ (Ephesians 1:11)

If we do accept that COVID-19 is a judgment, however, perhaps it’s, primarily, not a judgment upon the sins of the world but a chastisement for the Church, that she might be tested in the fire, that what comes through might do so as tried gold. (Zechariah 13:9) It’s easy to blame what’s happening on the world. It’s not as easy to point the finger at ourselves and bear the responsibility for the devastation.

Summary

On Sunday, I heard a minister say that, at the Last Judgment, there will be no arm of mercy extended to those who have lived in defiant unbelief. In this judgment, however, God graciously extends to us an arm and calls us to repent, lest we perish. That invitation to repent goes out to ministers and lay-people, saints and sinners, to Churches and parliaments.

 If, through asking the “why” questions of COVID-19, we see God’s mercy towards us in judging us now and not later; and if, consequently, we re-order our priorities and set Him up as King in our hearts, we will have learned the lesson that He is teaching us and will be eternally grateful for that lesson, sore though it was.

A seasoned Christian said to me a few days ago, ‘as for me, I can’t put the reason for this judgment past myself.’ If we all took that approach, perhaps we would better learn the lessons that God is teaching us.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)