We can’t know for sure why it’s happening or how to stop it. But Scripture calls us to grieve with God’s Spirit and get to work serving others.
Between around-the-clock news reports, interviews with public health experts, and pundits hashing out the pros and cons of different disease-fighting strategies, we’re hardly at a loss for information and perspectives on COVID-19. Yet there are still many questions we struggle to answer with complete confidence: Why has this happened? What should we do in response? And where is God in all of this? In God and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and Its Aftermath, theologian and author N. T. Wright shows how Scripture speaks to our confusion and uncertainty.
When COVID-19 hit, it seemed many of us were taken by surprise. Do you think the Western church has been living with comfort and security for so long that we have forgotten how to deal with darkness, suffering, and crisis?
Absolutely! I was talking to a senior church leader a few weeks ago about this, and he remarked: “You know, Tom, we don’t do lament very well. We’re not used to it. But nor do we celebration terribly well either. What we mostly seem to do is complacency.” And I think he’s right. I keep hearing Christians asking, “Could this be the end of the world?” And I want to remind them that things like this have happened again and again. For example, in 1917–18, there was the great Spanish flu pandemic, during which churches in some parts of the world were shut for a year. We forget that we have been here before.
Furthermore, for my baby boomer generation, which grew up after World War II, we haven’t had a war on our territory. We haven’t had a pandemic. Sure, we’ve had a couple of economic crises, but we’ve managed to weather those, more or less. So we’ve just muddled along and carried on as though nothing too bad is going to happen. We forget about history.
I was fascinated when I recently reread the letters of Martin Luther, one of which I quote in the book. Luther had to cope with this kind of stuff every few years, either for himself or for people in neighbouring towns who cried out, “Help! We’ve got a great epidemic. People are dying. What do we do?” Luther talks about obeying the rules concerning taking medicine, helping practically where you can, and not getting in the way and giving the disease to others if you might be infectious. He was very pragmatic, effectively saying, This is how we cope. Let’s not make a big theological fuss about it.
Your book draws on plenty of Old Testament themes, especially from the Psalms and Job. Concerning the latter, you argue that “part of the point of Job is precisely its unresolved character.” Do you think Christians today seem to struggle with ambiguity because they lack a firmer grounding in the Old Testament?
I think the New Testament has a place for ambiguity as well. There are many places in the New Testament which end with a kind of dot-dot-dot, question mark, because that’s called living by faith.
Overall, I think part of our problem is the rationalism of the last two or three hundred years in the Western world, which has soaked into the church because the rationalist critics of Christianity have said things like: “Aha, look, modern science shows us that Christianity is false!” In response, rationalist Christians have said, “No, let’s show how it is all completely rational!” That can lead to us wanting to have the answer to everything, and so we want to say things like: “Because God is sovereign, he must either have done this deliberately or at least permitted it deliberately.” We think that we should be able to see what he’s up to. But I really don’t think we are given that kind of access.
One of my favourite moments in the New Testament is in Paul’s letter to Philemon about the slave Onesimus. He writes, ‘Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever” (1:15). In other words, Paul thinks that perhaps he might be able to see what God was up to in this situation. But he’s not going to say so definitively.
There’s a humility here that we need. Now that could spill over backwards into an attitude of “We know nothing, so who cares?” That wouldn’t be wise either, because we are given guidelines. But knowing all the details is, as the saying goes, above our pay grade. It’s God’s job. Our job, when God lets us know what we have to do in this particular situation, is to get on with it.
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