On plagues and God’s sovereignty

Adapted from Ian Paul’s blog ‘Psephizo’ on March 30th

Is God using the Covid-19 virus and the ensuing crisis to punish people and bring them to repentance? Many voices we hear in Christian media are quite clear that the answer is ‘Yes’. The God portrayed is often a God who is absolutely and totally sovereign over everything. This is sometimes termed ‘meticulous control’ theology. Not a sparrow falls to the ground without His knowledge and His say-so. Weather is completely under His control, as is disease and sickness. If we are to ever give thanks that someone survived safely during an earthquake or hurricane, or a flood missed our church, we must accept God was in control of every aspect of the earthquake, hurricane, or flood.

There is nothing new about the idea that God uses natural disasters to punish sinners. The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 took place on All Saints’ Day, which meant that many people were gathered in churches, and many more died as a result of church buildings collapsing on them. Was this God’s will? In the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918–19, the Bishop of Zamora in Spain called
people to defy health warnings, and pray and attend mass for nine days ‘to placate God’s legitimate anger’. This included kissing a relic of Saint Rocco (the saint of plague and pestilence) leading to massive cross-infection, and it resulted in the highest mortality rate in Spain (12.1% compared with 3.8%). Was this God’s will?
An example of this position is articulated by Peter Saunders in a CMF blog post. Saunders looks at the plagues described in the Old Testament and notes that they are described as being caused by God. He then extrapolates from that to infer that all disasters must therefore be directly inflicted by God, and for the purpose of punishment and calling to repentance.

What I find strange is the lack of attention to what the rest of Scripture says about the relationship between events in the real world and the will of God—and for the biblical writers, as much as for us, this was a taxing subject with which they constantly wrestled.

The Scriptures do not always connect sickness to specific personal or corporate transgressions. For example, the great prophet Elisha who raised the Shunammite’s son and healed Naaman of leprosy himself fell sick with a terminal illness (2 Kings 13:14). In the New Testament (NT), Jesus corrects his disciples’ neat-and-tidy causeand-effect reasoning that ties physical sufferings to personal sins (Luke 13:1–5; John 9:1–3). But we can go further: there is a massive theme within the biblical text that wrestle with the question of why the world is not the way God intends it to be: I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from common human burdens; they are not plagued by human ills. (Ps 73.3–5) Alternatively, if we look at Psalm 37, we are offered an answer—but the answer is not that God exercises meticulous, detailed control over all events, it is that God exercises ultimate control. His intention will be exercised and fulfilled, at some point in the future, and human mortality ultimately brings judgement to us all. Thus our response to this disparity is to wait in patience for God’s will to be revealed.

The ultimate example of this is the Book of Job, relating to us the theological and philosophical wrestlings of a man who was righteous and yet afflicted, apparently by God. It is Job’s comforters, who offered a direct connection between Job’s sin and his suffering, who are rebuked by God specifically because they had not spoken truly. Yet, frustratingly, the story of Job doesn’t offer a neat resolution, and we are left with a mystery.

Scripture does tell us some things quite clearly, but that doesn’t mean it offers us packaged answers to these difficult questions. I don’t think we need to conclude that Scripture is contradictory here either; there are different theological traditions within Scripture which sit together, and as we form our understanding of biblical theology, we need to take all these strands together reading with the whole of scripture in view.

Holding these themes together raises some big theological issues. One is the question of the ‘openness’ of God to events in the world. Does God predetermine everything, and exercise meticulous control over everything that happens? Or is God relationally engaged in the world and human affairs, and working with us to determine its course?

In his provocatively-titled article, ‘God is not in control’, Tim Gombis expounds the New Testament understanding well: While God remains sovereign king, God’s sovereign kingship is not being manifested in Creation, because his image-bearers (i.e. humankind) are not manifesting it.

As Paul says in Romans 8, creation has been subjected to futility in the hope that it will also be released from the slavery of corruption when God also transforms his people into complete image-bears that manifest his rule. Until then, creation groans and suffers pain (Rom 8:20-22). And we do, too.

God was not content with this situation so he came into his world, took Sin and Death into himself and broke their enslaving grip over his world. And God has promised that he is bringing about a
future new creation that will be completely free of the devastation and chaos caused by Sin and Death. All those who call upon God in Christ will inhabit that future world and enjoy a reality characterized by shalom and blessing.

We do not have guarantees in this world, except that God will one day transform his creation. There are no guarantees that everything will work out as we want it to. We will experience suffering, pain and loss.
In Hebrews 2:5-9, the writer portrays this situation. Humanity was created with glory and honour—God’s image—and God subjected the creation to humanity. But we do not currently see everything subjected. This means that creation is in a condition that is out of control. Humanity is not fulfilling its charge to subdue creation and to bring about its flourishing.

But in Christ, God has provided a future hope. The future world is one that is purified of Sin and Death because Christ is already ruling over it. That future world is the new creation that this world will one day become. By faith, Christians are to see this reality and hope in it. I think this is exactly what we find in the Book of Revelation.

John is very careful about the way he describes these disasters. God is indeed the sovereign of the world. And so the four horsemen ride, ultimately, at his command. But John is reluctant to describe these as meticulously commanded or controlled by God. They are released when the lamb on the throne breaks a seal on the scroll, and one of the living creatures around the throne calls out ‘Come!’ to summon them. The moment when God does exercise meticulous control is at the time of the coming of the New Jerusalem, in chapter 21, when, without any intermediaries, God ‘wipes every tear’ from our eyes (Rev 21.4). And this tension, between ultimate control and penultimate suffering, is seen throughout the book, and most sharply in the central chapters of Rev 12 and 13. In chapter 12, Jesus wins the decisive victory over Satan, expelling him from heaven and freeing his followers from any accusation or ultimate suffering. And yet in chapter 13, immediately following, Satan stands on the earth, exercising his ‘short time’ of power, and making the beasts who
serve him trample the saints, something that, once again, calls for ‘endurance’.
God is overall sovereign, but he is not yet the fully practising sovereign, in that much of the world does not recognise or submit to his demanding yet gracious rule. That is why Jesus describes Satan as the ‘ruler of this world’ who is ‘cast out’ by Jesus’ death on the cross (John 12.31, using language very similar to Rev 12), and Paul calls him the ‘prince of power of the air’ in Eph 2.2. That is why it is our daily prayer that ‘You name be honoured, your kingdom come, your will be done’. This future orientation to the reign of God, present in our lives, but not yet manifest in the world, is central to Christian discipleship.

So is there any sense in which God is bringing judgement to us, to the world, in the spread of Coronavirus? Yes indeed—as Paul depicts in Romans 1.18, God’s wrath is being revealed in our reaping the consequences of our decisions. The coronavirus raises the question of our own fragility and mortality so that we might consider what is truly important. When life does return to ‘normal’, we will do well to have evaluated which parts of ‘normal’ are worth retaining. Proximity to death always has this judging, sifting and evaluating effect on us. (The NT Greek word for ‘judgement’ is krisis, from which we get our work ‘crisis’.) The proximity of death, and the realisation of our mortality, does indeed provoke in us an existential crisis.

More than 520,000 people die each year in the UK, which is nearly 1,500 a day—and yet we mostly ignore this reality. With the reporting of added Coronavirus deaths, we are being made more aware of our mortality. Will this make us think about ‘the things that do matter’—and even come to trust in the one who has triumphed over death by his resurrection?

Individually, knowledge of our mortality brings judgement to our own personal responses: will we respond with love for neighbour, even if that involves putting ourselves out for the gospel? Or at the other extreme will we abandon others to a lonely death?

In the UK, the virus is forcing us to confront the reality of how much we have valued our health service—and how much we have valued those who provide our essential services of basic medical provision and food supply.

In the West more widely, the pandemic is bringing judgement on our self-centred culture, where our decisions are based on what we want, rather than on social solidarity.

Globally, the virus is bringing judgement on our assumptions of interconnection and the right to travel, despite the cost to the environment. Ironically, it will force us to adopt the measure that climate campaigners have been urging on us which we have listened to with reluctance.

C S Lewis commented on the importance of pain, without attributing to God the cause of our pain: We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.
We would do well to listen.

Ian Paul