Several weeks back I opined that we as evangelicals are deathly afraid of the possibility that God might be better than we think. So many of our most deeply cherished theological constructs are based upon God as the absolute worst possible version of Himself. As a test case, Coronavirus has shown this to be true. In spades.
Actually seen on social media this past week:
I have seen this picture with the highlighted verse out of 2 Chronicles floating around Facebook in a couple of different contexts lately. You have probably seen it too. The one I wish to draw your attention to was a poster who shall remain anonymous, who opined thusly: “The minister in me cannot ignore this Scripture. God allows trials to come our way to get our relationship back in tune with Him in order to keep us from eternal calamity. Evidently, we need to pay attention for He knows what is ahead.”
Let me repeat that once again so it can sink in: “God allows trials to come our way to get our relationship back in tune with Him in order to keep us from eternal calamity.”
FBC Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress, one of the most vociferous and well-liked Donald Trump supporters on the planet, concurs. He preached a sermon entitled “Is the Coronavirus a Judgment From God?” in which he stated, “All natural disasters can ultimately be traced to sin.”
But lest you think this is strictly an evangelical phenomenon, we find that it is not. Catholic historian and author Dr. Roberto de Mattei appears in an article on LifeSite News, in which he calls the coronavirus a “scourge from God”. De Mattei looks at the virus as an economist, a historian, and a theologian of history. As an economist, he states that the world economy simply cannot handle the unique disruptions caused by the coronavirus and will inevitably go to shit, taking government and all the rest of human society down with it, and thereby sounding the death knell of globalization. (Globalization is a liberal modernist construct; as a conservative Catholic pundit, de Mattei is not a fan.) As a historian, he likens the virus to the Spanish Flu of 1918 and, looking back even further, to the Black Death of the 14th century which reduced Europe’s population by a third. As a theologian of history, he opines that it is the Church’s role to judge history but in our modern age we have reversed that and instead see history as judging the Church. He sees coronavirus as God’s judgment against the Church for allowing itself to become captive to the lies of modernity. He quotes St. Bernardine of Siena (1380-1444), who declared thusly: “There are three scourges with which God chastises: war, plague, and famine.” He concurs, stating:
The theology of history tells us that God rewards and punishes not only men but also collectivities and social groups: families, nations, civilizations. But while men have their reward or chastisement, sometimes on earth but always in heaven, nations, which do not have an eternal life, are punished or rewarded only on earth.
God is righteous and rewarding and gives to each what is his due: he not only chastises individual persons but he also sends tribulations to families, cities, and nations for the sins which they commit.
God is the author of nature with its forces and its laws, and he has the power to arrange the mechanism of the forces and laws of nature in such a way as to produce a phenomenon according to the needs of his justice or his mercy.
He ends by noting the spiritual dimension in all of this: Due to coronavirus, all the churches in Italy, all the way up to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, are closed for the foreseeable future. We are approaching Holy Week and the Easter season, the climax of the Church’s liturgical year, and the Church, which ought to be a light for all peoples, has gone dark. For those who hold to the Catholic way of looking at things, the significance is inescapable. He even goes so far as to chastise bishops who do not hold to his view of things and, in effect, accuse them of gross pastoral misconduct. (He is not a fan of Pope Francis, but you probably figured that out already.) Citing a vision of St. John Bosco in 1870: “You, O priests, why do you not run to weep between the vestibule and the altar, begging for the end of the scourges? Why do you not take up the shield of faith and go over the roofs, in the houses, in the streets, in the piazzas, in every inaccessible place, to carry the seed of my word. Do you not know that this is the terrible two-edged sword that strikes down my enemies and that breaks the wrath of God and men?”
Over at Maclean’s, Michael Coren offers a dissenting view:
At a more serious or theological level, this is a reductive and banal spirituality that may satisfy the zealot but is dangerously crass and in fact profoundly ungodly. It depicts a genocidal God, sufficiently cruel to hurt indiscriminately, and too indifferent or impotent to be able to punish only those who have genuinely caused harm. It’s all the product of an ancient, fearful belief system that has nothing to do with the gentle Jewish rabbi of the 1st century who called for love and forgiveness, and so distant and different from the Gospel calls of Jesus to turn the other cheek, embrace our enemies, reach out to the most rejected and marginalized, and work for justice and peace.
If God is speaking to us in all of this, perhaps it is to say that this is our time to step up and be the people of God? To love our neighbors, make sacrificial choices to protect the most vulnerable members of our communities, pray for wisdom for government officials and those on the frontlines of our medical system, and generally proclaim the good news of Jesus to a watching world – a Jesus who has compassion on the sick and binds up the brokenhearted – as opposed to a message of divine judgment?
Hebrews 1 tells us that Jesus is God’s final and greatest word to us. John 1 tells us that the previously unseen God is now seen in Jesus. “War, plague and famine” are not harsh words from God to us but instead the groanings of a broken creation yearning to be put right.
Yet there are those among us who reject that view of God. All evil in our world ultimately traces back to the work of God to punish sin, individually, corporately, and ultimately tracing back to that awful day in the garden of Eden when our ancestors ate the forbidden fruit. God is up in Heaven, watching all of this go down, listening to our cries and pleas for mercy, and saying “Tough shit motherfuckers, you shouldn’t have eaten that forbidden fruit.” Those who don’t hold to that way of looking at things are in effect atheists who disguise their hatred for God as hatred for those who proclaim this view of God.
To which I say: If that is all God is, then that God deserves atheists. If, when I show the kind of sacrificial love for others that this crisis demands of me, I am proving myself better than the God who put us in this mess in the first place because of original sin and total depravity, then that God has lost me.
Allow me to close with this. This is a U2 song which was very poignant for me during a season much like the one we are in now, a time when my panic meter was at an all-time high (and probably yours as well), when our nation was deep in the thick of the post 9/11 war on terror and it seemed that not a day would go by without some awful news from somewhere in Iraq or Afghanistan or some other such place.