Coronavirus. Covid-19. SARS. Pandemic. Many people are troubled by events that are unprecedented in their lifetime, with unfamiliar names and obscure terminology just making things more puzzling. Some will naturally turn to the Bible looking for answers, as well as comfort and guidance.
”What does the Bible say about Coronavirus?” is a question that is trending on Google. A number of websites claim to provide answers to this question. As a biblical scholar I am dismayed by much of what I am seeing online and in the media.
Have the people asking what the Bible says about Coronavirus not noticed that the Bible says nothing about viruses, period? Nothing about bacteria. Nothing about germs. No advice to avoid sneezing on others or cover your mouth when you cough or anything like that, either. While there are instructions about washing, they relate to ritual purity rather than health and hygiene in the modern sense.
Why is that? There is a simple explanation. The authors of the biblical texts lived at a time before any human being understood the causes of illness in those terms. They lived in a prescientific age, and we should not expect them to address our precise concerns, much less do so in our terms.
That’s not to say that ancient people did not notice some of the visible aspects of illness. They saw that plagues spread along lines of human contact, and made attempts at quarantine and social distancing. Sometimes they did so even for ailments that are not contagious, such as eczema and other skin diseases that are often mistranslated as “leprosy” in English Bibles.
I can understand the temptation to try to fit the Bible and modern medicine or science together. I used to do so myself, when I was younger. But the results are rarely if ever satisfactory, and sometimes they are downright appalling. Think for instance of those who say that illnesses such as these are “a result of the Fall,” i.e. of the sin of Adam. What do they actually mean by that? If you press them whether they mean that God invented diseases and introduced them into the world as punishment (presumably continuing to guide their evolution so that new deadly strains emerge to plague generation after generation of human beings), they will likely say no. But do they really want to suggest that Adam was some sort of genetic engineer, or that his sin somehow had the power to manipulate the DNA of other organisms? You won’t find those kinds of ideas in the Bible, either. Why not? Because, as I said earlier, the biblical authors were writing in a prescientific age, and so they not only don’t use those terms, they do not think in those terms.
Sometimes this kind of message can be disheartening for people who desperately want something to latch onto in a time of distress. But think about those who, just over a century ago, looked at the flu pandemic that killed so many back then, and pointed to it as fulfillment of the Book of Revelation. If they claimed that it was a harbinger of the end of the world, they have almost certainly since died without that coming true. They may have shipwrecked their own faith in the process, and done the same to others.
If you hitch your faith to finding Coronavirus in the Bible, you may deceive yourself into momentary illusions that bring false comfort. You will pay the price later when the broader claims prove false, as they have time and time again when religious people have done what you’re trying to do. You’ll be making a serious crisis worse by adding, on top of the illness itself, a long-term negative effect on your own faith and that of others.
I would encourage you to stop looking for specific predictions about Coronavirus in the Bible and “finding” them where they don’t really exist, and instead to focus on the Bible’s more central and far clearer teachings. Among them is trust in God not because we find a specific prediction about something in scripture, but precisely because as human beings with limited understanding we need to rely on God as one unspeakably greater than ourselves.
But that still represent a self-centered approach. The Bible also emphasizes self-sacrificial love for others. If you really want to discern the will of God in this context, you should think about what the kindest things you can do are. My suggestion is that you try to be supportive of others – from a safe distance, in keeping with the advice of medical and health experts. Because there is nothing loving or kind about recklessly risking being a transmitter of a dangerous pathogen. Even if your immune system is strong enough to fend off the worst effects of Covid-19, that of others you come in contact with might not be.
So where is the Coronavirus in the Bible? It is covered by the teaching of Jesus to love your neighbor as yourself, and to do to others what you would want them to do to you.