The situation was already a crisis: dangers abroad, a corrupt and weak administration within. The whole state looked ready to topple. And then a pandemic arose on top of it. It was a miracle the state endured.
Does this sound like America in 2020 with COVID-19? It is a description of the Roman Empire in the middle of the third century CE, and the pandemic then, the Plague of Cyprian, was devastating, killing untold thousands. The Plague of Cyprian is now thought to be related to the Ebola virus. Three hundred years later a pandemic of bubonic plague affected the Western world and most likely led to the death of a third to a half of the population, leading to the final end of any hope of centralized Roman authority and inaugurated the Middle Ages. Both of these pandemics can be reasonably understood as judgments of God against the Roman world, a part of the realization of what God prophesied in Revelation.
It would not end there; bubonic plague would afflict Europe for another three hundred years and then again in the famous Black Death of 1348-1349. In terms of sheer numbers, however, no pandemic compares with the H1N1 “Spanish flu” global pandemic of 1918-1920; 500 million were likely infected, and probably around 100 million died.
COVID-19 has caused great disruption for the world economy and grief for the many families who have lost loved ones or who continue to suffer complications from the infection. It is natural and expected for many Christians to wonder what is going on with the COVID-19 pandemic as it relates to their faith: how could God allow for such a thing to take place? Is this some kind of judgment from God? How do we practice the faith in the midst of a pandemic?
As we can tell, pandemics are not a new phenomenon; Christians have been called upon time and again to endure and persevere through waves of pandemic infections. All of the pandemics described above have taken place since Jesus was made Lord and Christ; they wrought profound devastation and loss on many societies and cultures, and for them it certainly felt like the end of the world. In many respects the pandemics did end their worlds.
To this end Christians should be wary about declaring any given pandemic to be a judgment of God against a particular group of people for a specific reason. It was predicted that many disasters would come and go, but it would not be the end (cf. Matthew 24:6-7), and so it has been over and over again. It is certainly possible that God renders judgment through a pandemic, but it would not be for us to understand exactly how and to what end without some kind of direct, specific revelation we have no right to expect between now and the day the Lord returns. We should not assume that COVID-19 will mean the end of the world; COVID-19 might, however, be part of the end of our particular world, the way in which we formerly used to live.
Nevertheless, pandemics, like many other kinds of traumatic experiences, can be “apocalypses,” a revelation or unveiling of the hearts and minds of many. In previous pandemics many hearkened back to God and displayed love toward their fellow man; many others turned away and the ugliness of their hearts and minds were revealed. And so it has been with COVID-19: we have seen the best of humanity and the worst of humanity, both in the world at large and closer to home with family, friends, and associates.
Christians, therefore, have often lived through and endured pandemics. Some have experienced crises of faith because of pandemics; others have come to faith or modeled the faith well in the midst of pandemics. The “Plague of Cyprian” is so named because Cyprian, an early Christian, wrote about it, and testified to how Christians risked their lives to minister and serve those who were ill when many others had long fled the cities and towns of the Roman Empire. Martin Luther lived through a bout of plague; he commended those who served in risky situations, but also recognized the value of displaying love by not rashly exposing people to illness (Whether One May Flee From a Deadly Plague).
Christians do well to look to what God has made known in Jesus for comfort and strength in the days of the COVID-19 pandemic (Romans 15:4). Christians understand the importance of spending time together encouraging one another in the faith (Hebrews 10:25); the pandemic should be ample reason for Christians to consider one another and check in with one another frequently (Romans 12:9-10, 13). If assemblies can be held in such a way as to meet civil standards and maintain appropriate social distance, well and good; if the only way to do so is to meet virtually, we do well to remember that the assembly was made for man, not man for the assembly, and to do the best we can in the sight of and reverence for God (cf. Mark 2:23-28). We ought to pray for God to strengthen, sustain, and heal many; our hope and confidence is in Jesus’ lordship and resurrection, and this is an excellent time to bear witness to the great hope we share in Jesus. Others are grasping for such hope and confidence, and they ought to find in us effective models of Christian faith and charity.
We hope and pray an effective vaccine for COVID-19 will be developed and distributed widely so to bring an end to this pandemic. We hope to be able to resume some semblance of “normal life” in the near future. Yet we should not quickly forget the lessons of COVID-19. We have seen the way people are, and we should not soon forget it. We should remember that everything we take for granted as “normal” can be entirely upset very quickly and all the technology we have developed may not be able to save us. In all things we ought to grow in our faith in God in Christ so we might obtain eternal life in the resurrection in Him!
Ethan R. Longhenry