Dr Ruth Valerio and Gideon Heugh explore some of the questions that Christians have been wrestling with during the coronavirus pandemic.
The arrival of a coronavirus vaccine in the UK has sent a ray of hope through what has been at times a very dark year. Yet even as the possibility of an end to the pandemic comes into view, many Christians still have questions about it.
Why did this happen? Is the virus God’s judgement? Does this have something to do with sin? Is the pandemic a sign of the end times? And, how should the church keep responding?
And the church, of course, means all of us. We are one in Christ, and no amount of social distancing can sever that connection. Speaking of which...
Does God protect us from illness?
Having the right theology – our understanding of God’s nature and how he works in the world – can literally save lives.
Since March 2020, most churches around the world have stopped meeting in person – for obvious, sensible and necessary reasons. Even as restrictions began to be lifted in late summer, churches were careful to put every possible safety measure in place. Some, however, did not – or never even closed at all – citing their belief that God would protect them from the virus. This is bad theology, and it probably cost some people their lives.
God does protect. God does heal. Yet we are his hands and feet, and it’s vital that we play our role, listening and acting upon the advice of experts. Many of us will have known fellow Christians who died from the virus: we are not immune to it, or to any other disease.
You can trust God with your health and also try to exercise and eat well. If you break your leg, you can pray for healing – but you should also go and see a doctor.
Trust God, but take action too.
Why is this happening?
To answer this question, we need to go back to the beginning.
God created a world that he declared to be very good (Genesis 1:31) – a world in which everything exists in harmony with God. Relationship with God, with others, with ourselves and with the rest of creation is central to God’s loving purposes.
After those relationships go wrong, the Bible then tells the story of how God works to restore them – a plan that finds its ultimate fulfilment in Jesus.
Poverty, conflict, suffering, climate change and racial injustice – all these are the result of those broken relationships. The Bible is clear that God, people and the natural world are deeply interconnected. If one aspect of that is broken, everything will be impacted.
As hard as it is to hear, the outbreak of coronavirus was not a ‘natural disaster’, like an earthquake. It has been a disaster of our own making. Viruses jump species and get into humans, and environmental destruction makes this more likely to happen as people are brought into closer contact with virus-carrying animals. Deforestation, mining, animal trafficking and unsustainable farming practices are all likely factors at play.
Is this God’s judgement?
God’s original intention was peace between all things – but this is not how we’re living. He created a world in which everything is connected, and there are natural consequences when those connections are broken.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that God ‘caused’ or ‘willed’ the pandemic – it is to recognise that the brokenness of creation ultimately causes us harm.
In some cultures, misfortune is seen as directly linked to that person’s sin. But biblically, these links are rarely as simple as that. For example, in the story of Job, Job’s suffering is not a result of his sin, but of the existence and work of Satan.
In Luke 13:1-5, Jesus is told about Pilate’s massacre of some Galileans who were in the process of offering sacrifices. He responds by pointing out that those who were killed were not greater sinners than those who were not killed. And he makes the same point about the people who were killed when the tower in Siloam collapsed.
Jesus is clear that the existence of disasters doesn’t mean that those who are affected by them are worse people than anybody else. Such events should never be an invitation to judge others.
Does sin cause illness?
In John 9:1–5 we see Jesus meeting a man who was blind from birth. The disciples ask about the sins that have caused this blindness – was it his sin or that of his parents? But
Jesus is clear that his blindness is not to do with sin. Rather it provides an opportunity, ‘that the works of God might be displayed in him’ (v 3). In Mark 2, Jesus heals the paralysed
man who has been let down through the roof, and he does so by saying, ‘your sins are forgiven’.
Given what we have just seen Jesus saying above, we must be wary of seeing this as Jesus linking the man’s paralysis with his individual sin. Jesus does not say that explicitly, and it may simply be that Jesus knew the bigger need the man had was for forgiveness of sins rather than physical healing (it needs to be noted that nowhere else does Jesus heal by saying ‘your sins are forgiven’).
That is not to say that there are no links between spiritual and physical healing. As we have seen above, the Bible does present links between sin and suffering in the world: our
physical suffering is part of that whole chain of sin from Genesis 3 onwards. And there are lifestyle choices we can make that either promote or neglect our health and well-being.
But, if and when people fall ill, we must be extremely wary of linking sickness with a person’s sin, and we must never use that as a basis for stigmatisation and rejection. The
Pharisees did that – Jesus did not. His message was one of acceptance, inclusion and compassion for those who were sick and suffering.
Are these the end times?
A global pandemic. Widespread conflict. A plague of locusts spreading across Africa. Flooding around the world. Surely these are signs of the end times?
If there’s one thing that we can say for certain, it’s that no one can know for certain. If Jesus himself did not know when the end times would be (Matthew 24:36), who are we to try and say?
It is important to keep a wider perspective throughout all of this. Christians have been trying (and failing) to predict the end of the world since the early days of the church. Although the word ‘unprecedented’ has become a well-worn word this past year, this is not the first crisis of this scale – indeed, there have been far, far darker times in human history. The great plague of the 14th century is estimated to have wiped out nearly two thirds of Europe’s population. I’m sure they were convinced that the end times were upon them, too.
War, disease, natural disasters – these are, tragically, nothing new. Jesus said his return would be sudden and unexpected, and he said we were to ignore anyone who thought they knew about specific dates and times, likening people who look for scare-mongering stories to vultures (Matthew 24:28).
The answer is that there is no clear answer, and that we should ignore those who think they have one.
How should the church respond?
The church should be the light of the world (Matthew 5:14). As the shadow of coronavirus has fallen upon the land, the church’s mission has been – and continues to be – to shine as brightly as it can.
We must follow Jesus in showing God’s love, bringing healing to a broken world and responding to people’s needs: economic and emotional, spiritual and physical, both locally and globally.
When Ebola ravaged West Africa in 2014, it was local churches that helped lead the fightback. In Sierra Leone, Christians used video and radio broadcasts to spread vital health messages. Tearfund trained pastors and gave them phones so they could call people suffering with Ebola and pray with them. Churches gave practical help to people in quarantine and church members provided food, water and toiletries.
We have seen the church rising to the challenge of coronavirus in many ways. In communities around the world, it is Christians who have coordinated local care, created neighbourhood WhatsApp groups, dropped off food and toiletries to those who are self-isolating, and were there to provide emotional response.
The Evangelical Alliance reported that more than 90 per cent of their member churches they surveyed were providing support for vulnerable people through the pandemic, and around three quarters of these were working collaboratively with either other churches, charities or local authorities.
And not only in the UK: Tearfund and our local partners have been able to reach more than 1.5 million people in 36 countries with our worldwide response to coronavirus. This includes distributing food parcels, installing water stations, delivering vital training and providing hygiene kits to those in need.
Creating a fairer world
If we lean deeper into God’s love, choosing faith instead of fear, we may find that new opportunities emerge. There is the potential for communities to come out of this crisis stronger than ever before; for families to re-discover themselves; for busy people to slow down and build a rhythm of rest into their lives; for people to reconnect with God and his world; for nations to re-tune into God’s word; for churches to continue using digital technology to enhance ministry; and for us to develop more local, environmentally-friendly economies.
What sort of world do we want there to be on the other side of the pandemic? Can we repent of the world we have created, and instead look to build one without such a huge gap between rich and poor – a world where we live in harmony with creation, in which we understand that the well-being of one is bound up with the well-being of all?
The church has a vital role in shaping a better future – let’s stand together in prayer and action to see a breakthrough. If you want to take specific action, you can sign The Climate Coalition’s declaration calling on the UK government to lead the world in delivering a healthier, greener, fairer recovery.
In Christ, there is always hope. We can let that hope motivate how we live our lives today as we hold on to God our rock. And, with the love of Christ in our hearts, let us continue to work for the flourishing of the natural world, and reach out to our local and global neighbours with compassion and determination.
God of love and light,
In this time of fear, give us your peace.
In this time of isolation, give us your presence.
In this time of sickness, give us your healing.
In this time of uncertainty, give us your wisdom.
In this time of darkness, shine your light upon us all.
In Jesus’ name, amen.
Dr Ruth Valerio is a theologian, environmentalist and author, and leads Tearfund’s global advocacy and influencing work. Gideon Heugh is a poet and is the Senior Copywriter in Tearfund’s communications team.
Tearfund is a Christian charity that partners with churches in more than 50 of the world’s poorest countries. They tackle poverty through sustainable development, responding to disasters, and challenging injustice. Find out more by visiting Tearfund's website.