What does the Bible say about a major disaster like COVID-19?
The disease COVID-19 is spreading rapidly across the world. By 11 April 2020 over 103,500 deaths have been attributed to the virus and secondary pneumonia.
What does the Bible say about a global pandemic like COVID-19?
This post is based on an article by the US theologian and author, John Piper.
God is in control
On Sunday 26 December 2004, over 200,000 people were killed by a tsunami in the Indian Ocean, including whole churches gathered for worship. That sort of thing has happened to Christians, as long as there have been Christians. The Bible says, “even the wind and the sea obey Him [Jesus]” (Mk. 4:41NIV). That is as true today as it was then. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8).
So, put those two facts together — the historical fact and the biblical fact — and you get this truth: Jesus could have stopped the natural disaster, and He did not in 2004. Since He always does what is wise and right and just and good, therefore, He had wise and good purposes in that deadly disaster.
I would say the same thing, therefore, about the coronavirus. Jesus has all knowledge and all authority over the natural and supernatural forces of this world. He knows exactly where the virus started, and where it’s going next. He has complete power to restrain it or not. And that’s what’s happening. Neither sin, nor Satan, nor sickness, nor sabotage is stronger than Jesus. He’s never backed into a corner; He is never forced to tolerate what He does not will. “The plans of the Lord stand firm forever, the purposes of His heart through all generations.” (Ps. 33:11).
“I know that You [God] can do all things” Job says in his repentance, and that “no purpose of Yours [God’s] can be thwarted” (Job 42:2). So the question is not whether Jesus is overseeing, limiting, guiding, governing all the disasters and all the diseases of the world, including all their sinful and satanic dimensions. He is. The question is, how are we to understand this? Can we make sense out of it?
Here are four biblical realities that we can use as building blocks in our effort to understand and make sense of it.
- Sickness as part of the fall
When sin entered the world through Adam and Eve, God ordained that the created order, including our physical bodies, as persons created in His image, would experience God’s curse (Gen. 3:17) and decay, and that all living things would die.
Christians, by being saved through the gospel of God’s grace, do not escape this physical decay and death. The basis of this point is Romans 8:20–23:
“the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the One [God] who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves [believers], who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.”
The day is coming when all creation will be set free from its bondage to disease and disaster and death, and inherit the freedom of the glory of the children of God. Until then, Christians groan with all creation, sharing in the decay and disease and disasters and death, as we wait with groaning for the redemption of our bodies (that happens at the resurrection).
The difference for Christians, who trust Christ, is that our experience of this curse and decay is not condemnation. “Therefore, there is now no condemnation” (Rom. 8:1). The pain for us is purifying, not punitive. “God did not appoint us to suffer wrath” (1 Th. 5:9). We die of disease like all people, not necessarily because of any particular sin — that’s really important. We die of disease like all people because of the fall. But for those who are in Christ, the sting of death is removed (1 Cor. 15:55). “To die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). To depart is to “be with Christ” (Phil. 1:23). That’s building block number one for understanding what’s going on.
- Sickness as judgment
God sometimes uses disease to bring particular judgments upon those who reject Him and give themselves over to sin. For example, in Acts 12, Herod the king exalted himself in being called a god. “Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died” (Acts 12:23). God can do that with all who exalt themselves. Which means we should be amazed that more of our rulers do not drop dead every day because of their arrogance before God and humanity. God’s restraint is a great mercy.
Another example is the sin of homosexual intercourse. In Romans 1:27, it says, “In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error”. Now, that’s an example of the wrath of God in Romans 1:18, where it says, “The wrath of God is being revealed [now] from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness”. Therefore, while not all suffering is a specific judgment for specific sins, some is. That’s building block number two, that God can use illnesses to bring judgment upon those who reject Him and His way.
- Sickness as mercy
God sometimes inflicts sickness on His people as a purifying and rescuing judgment, which is not a condemnation, but an act of mercy for His saving purposes. And that point is based on 1 Corinthians 11:29–32. That text deals with misusing the Lord’s Supper, but the principle is broader. Here it is:
“those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves [this is referring to Christians at the Lord’s Supper]. That is why many among you [Christians] are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep [died]. But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined [like a child] so that we will not be finally condemned with the world.”
So the Lord Jesus takes the life of His loved ones through weakness and illness — the same words are used to describe the weaknesses and illnesses that Jesus heals in His earthly life (Mt. 4:23; 8:17; 14:14) — and brings them to heaven. He brings them to heaven because of the trajectory of their sin that He was cutting off and saving them from. Not to punish them, but to save them.
In other words, some of us die of illnesses “so that we will not be finally condemned with the world” (v. 32). If He can do that to a few of His loved ones in Corinth, He can do it to many, including by the coronavirus. And not just because of abusing the Lord’s Supper, but also for other kinds of sinful trajectories — though not all death is for a particular sin. That’s building block number three.
- Sickness as warning
All natural disasters — whether floods, famines, locusts, tsunamis, or diseases — are a thunderclap of divine mercy in the midst of judgment, calling all people everywhere to repent and realign their lives, by grace, with the infinite worth of the glory of God. And the basis for that building block is Luke 13:1–5. Pilate had slaughtered worshipers in the temple. And the tower in Siloam had collapsed and killed eighteen bystanders. And the crowds want to know from Jesus, “What’s the meaning of this? Was it an act of God’s specific judgment on specific sins?”
Here’s Jesus’s answer in Luke 13:4–5: “Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent [He shifts from them to you], you too will all perish.” He said that the meaning of these disasters is for everyone. And the message is “Repent or perish.” Jesus says, “If you don’t repent, you will meet a judgment like that someday”. The message is that we are all sinners, bound for destruction, and disasters are a gracious summons from God to repent and be saved while there is still time. Stop relying on yourselves and turn to God.
Now, that’s the message of Jesus to the world at this moment in history, under the coronavirus — a message to every single human being. Everyone who hears about this, is receiving a thunderclap message of God, saying, “Repent.” Repent and seek God’s mercy to bring your lives — our lives — into alignment with His infinite worth.
Sickness as a parable of sin
Why did God bring a physical judgment on the world for a moral evil? Adam and Eve defied God. Their hearts turned against God. They preferred their own wisdom to His. They chose independence over trust. This defying and preferring and choosing was a spiritual and moral evil. Although it was expressed physically, it came from an inner decision.
God put the physical world under a curse so that the physical horrors we see around us in diseases and calamities would become a vivid picture of how horrible sin is. In other words, physical evil is a parable, a drama, a signpost pointing to the moral outrage of rebellion against God.
Physical pain is God’s trumpet blast to tell us that something is dreadfully wrong in the world. Disease and deformity are God’s pictures in the physical realm of what sin is like in the spiritual realm.
Calamities are warnings. They are wake-up calls to see the moral horror and spiritual ugliness of sin against God.
God is mercifully shouting to us in these days: Wake up! Sin against God is like this! It is horrible and ugly. And far more dangerous than the coronavirus.
The Bible addresses aspects of a global pandemic like COVID-19. First, God is in control of all that happens in the universe, including pandemics and disasters. So only God has all the answers about the source and purpose of COVID-19. There’s a lot that we don’t know.
Because of our sinful nature inherited from Adam and Eve, we all die (Rom. 3:23; 6:23). For the same reason, everyone is subject to disease and disasters and death. So COVID-19 can affect us all in some way. No one is excluded.
Also because of our sinful nature inherited from Adam and Eve, we can die at any age and from a range of reasons. So, we don’t all get to die of old age. This is dangerous because many people are not ready to die. Jesus said, “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son [Jesus], that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life”. The word “perish” refers to a spiritual death, which is being separated from God forever. It’s also called the “second death” (Rev. 2:11; 20:6). We need to confess our sin to God and trust that Jesus paid the penalty for them when He died for us.
For unbelievers COVID-19 is a warning to repent and seek God’s mercy in order to avoid God’s judgment of sinners. Some may die because God can use illnesses to bring judgment upon those who reject Him and His way. Only God would know if this was the reason for a person’s death.
Some believers can die of illnesses because of the trajectory of their sin. Only God would know if this was the reason for a person’s death.
As the reason for death is always sin, death should always remind us of sin. And sin should remind us of the need for salvation. That’s the message needed during the COVID-19 pandemic. And it’s the message needed at every funeral. If sin is like a virus, then salvation is like the vaccine.
Piper J, 2020, “Coronavirus and Christ”, Crossway, Wheaton, Illinois.
This post is based on an article by the US theologian and author, John Piper
Written, April 2020