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Covid-19 and the love of God: Is Covid-19 an act of God’s judgment? (Um, No! But keep reading!)

Covid-19 and the love of God: Is Covid-19 an act of God’s judgment? (Um, No! But keep reading!) March 17, 2020

As Covid-19 sweep across the world the question is: Is this an act of God in judgment on the world?

Many Christians wrestle with the depictions of the love of God and His wrath (and if they don’t wrestle with such things they should).

The Old Testament certainly appears to present God as inflicting suffering and wrath upon the nations.

  • He floods the Earth.
  • He punishes Egypt with a series of plagues—including the slaughtering of the firstborn sons of Egypt.
  • He endorses the killing of all the inhabitants of the land of Canaan. The God of Israel appears no better than the gods of the nations.[1]
  • And there is more—but this is a blog and not a book.

Then we get to the New Testament. And we read Jesus.

“Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matt 5:9).

“If anyone slaps you on the right cheek” (Matt 5:39).

“Love your enemies” (Matt 5:44).

Not only does this thinking run through the Gospels but it pervades throughout the New Testament. Paul affirms, “Love is the fulfillment of the law” (Rom 13:10). And, Peter adds, don’t return evil for evil but “give a blessing instead” (1 Pet 3:9).

Love and suffering for the sake of the other is way of the kingdom! This, of course, is the nature of discipleship—as I noted in earlier posts.

The call to love and suffering is not just an interruption in the story (between God’s wrath in the Old Testament and his coming wrath at the end of time). It is the heartbeat of the story. The life of Jesus is the story of how God operates. It is the matrix through which we are to go back and read the Old Testament (OT) story.

Not only that, but as we move forward into the New Testament (NT), we see that Jesus’ life is not the exception but the rule. For, His way of living—namely, cross-bearing—is the very thing He calls us to as well: “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me” (Mark 8:34).

So, we have an apparent conflict: The contrast between a God of wrath in the OT and a God of love in the NT.

So, is God loving? or, wrathful? or, both?

In the second century, a heretical teacher named Marcion was wrestling with these very questions. He concluded that the god of Judaism—yes, sadly, Marcion was intrinsically antisemitic—was a different deity than the God who sent Jesus. Marcion simply had trouble reconciling the God of the OT, as he understood him, and the God of the NT, as He was revealed in Jesus. For Marcion, there was no other option: there must be two different gods.

Tragically, the extreme dualism of Marcion is—though to a far lesser degree—often replicated within parts of evangelicalism.

Most Christians are uneasy with the depictions of violence and wrath, and God’s apparent role in it, throughout the OT. They, instead, prefer to resonate with Jesus and the call to love one’s enemies. Yet, ironically, many still adhere to a view of the last days that suggests that God will bring an end-times barrage of wrath and plagues to judge the world.

(I would even say that this wrath-love-wrath view is very common within Christianity—it may even be a default position among many. I know that I was certainly raised in this sort of tradition.)

There is only one problem. And it’s a big problem. It radically conflicts with everything we know and profess of God!

(now mind you that the way theological constructs work is that when there is an inherent conflict—such as there is here—we work them out. That is, we come up with some rationale to explain away the problem(s). I, personally, have just never been content with the way we have worked this one out. And, I believe, if you really think hard about it you will begin to feel uneasy about it as well)

(NB: I have been processing this for 30+ years. I have been writing a book for the last two years—some of which has already been produced in a series of blog posts titled “What is the Gospel?” and “The Kingdom of God?” and “The Gospel and Mission?”. I have much more to say in the coming months on this topic. I have only recently begun to gain clarity in my own thinking. So, for those of you who have embraced evangelicalism, as I have for my entire life, I do not expect you to fully move to where I am now, just by reading this one blog post. I am only writing this now because it is timely: Covid-19 warrants this post. So, stay tuned: there is much more to be said. I know that I am probably causing more questions to be asked than I am answering them at this time. I just ask that you begin to think deeply along with me!)

Let me set forth here what I think the answer is—knowing that I am raising more questions that will need to be answered at a later time.

There is no conflict.

I agree that there certainly appears to be a conflict! That is undeniable.

The answer is that God is love! Always has been and always will be. Granted, it might not seem as though this is the case when we read much of the OT.

But if we look at the OT stories carefully, we can see that God didn’t actually do the punishing Himself. Certainly, the OT writers attributed the acts to God. This has to do both with a view to God’s sovereignty and with how they understood how the cosmos operated.

A brief example. The killing of the firstborn in Egypt is clearly depicted as an act of God (Exod 12:12). We learn, however, that the actual killing of the firstborn of Egypt was done by the “destroyer” (some sort of evil entity) whom the Lord would not allow to come “in to your houses to smite you” (Exod 12:23).

Note that Paul picks up this idea in 1 Cor 10:10. Paul attributes the deaths of the Israelites in the wilderness to the “destroyer”—even though the destroyer never appears in the book of Numbers. That is, the book of Numbers attributes the sufferings of the Israelites to the work of God. But Paul says it was the work of the “destroyer” (1 Cor 10:10).

What does this mean?

It appears that even in the OT we see indications that though God is attributed with direct causation for evil, He is not necessarily the one who is actually acting. This means that there is room within the OT itself for concluding that the evils we see in this world are the result of human evil.[2]

I have often noted elsewhere that one of the primary arguments against the existence of God is the problem of evil and suffering. How could a loving God exist and allow all of this evil and suffering? Why has He not done anything about this?

The irony of the question is that we are the ones who made this mess and, yet, we blame Him. The sufferings of war, violence, famine, Covid-19, homelessness, racial inequality, and all forms of social and economic injustices are the result of humanity being in power! Yet, we blame God.

Then we fault God for not doing anything. When He did! The cross is the ultimate answer! God simply doesn’t do power the way we do!

The irony runs even deeper. We don’t like His answer. But His answer actually works. In fact, it is the only answer that works! You see the way the world’s systems work, the way we do power, only leads to more chaos! Violence begets violence!

The solution is the way of Love!

This is what Paul means when he says, “God gave them over” (Rom 1:24, 26, 28). God is not actually doing the act Himself. He is merely allowing the consequences of our sinful ways to run their due course.

There is, of course, room for a prophetic viewpoint that attributes the work to God. But that is what is meant in part by the complex theological construct of God’s sovereignty! This is why throughout the OT, and even in the NT, God is attributed with direct causation for acts of evil.

What does all this mean? This means that we don’t have different faces of God. God doesn’t act one way in the OT, another in the life of Jesus, and then another in the eschaton (end-times).

So, is Covid-19 the wrath of God for our sin? Well, you should be able to see that the answer is no, no, no, yes-kind of, and no. (I hope to address this more in my post next week)

How should the Church respond?

It means that we should step right into the middle of all the Covid-19 mess and show the world what the kingdom of God looks like.

Which indeed means quarantines and all. But it also means shopping for the elderly. And finding ways to take care of those most affected by this crisis. The economic fallout from this crisis may well be catastrophic.

It also means, not forgetting about all the other crises in the world. This one has our attention. And rightfully so. But people are still starving. Refugees are even more stranded.

One of the great problems I have with much of evangelical theology is that a view of God as a wrathful being often promotes a sort of “let’s step back and tell them ‘I told you so’” mentality.

But Jesus enters the story and says: “this is not God’s way.” Your suffering is the result of humanity’s way of doing things. My kingdom is one of mercy and love and compassion.

If that is the nature of Jesus’ kingdom, then we, as kingdom people, should be asking “how can we help?”

Finally, it means that we shouldn’t need an outbreak of Covid-19 to say “here I am.” The church must be in the business of showing what an alternative kingdom looks like. This is the way of the cross!

 

[1] Best read on this subject is Bloody, Brutal, and Barbaric? William Webb and Gordon Oeste. Their answer is emphatic: the Old Testament narratives are clear, when read against the backdrop of the Ancient Near Eastern world, the God of Israel is way better than the gods of the other nations. This, of course, does not eliminate the problem. After all, “way better” does not mean without problems! But we’ll get to this over time.

[2] I highly recommend the podcast “Day of the Lord: Q + R” by the Bible Project. May 18, 2017. Tim Mackie does a fantastic job addressing these questions.


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