Is coronavirus a punishment from God?
A blog from special guest star John-Paul Aranzulla, a pastor in Bologna, Italy, lovingly stolen by Mark (with permission)
Is the coronavirus a punishment from God? A punishment spreading inexorably across the world, beginning in China and now ravaging Europe and America, before extending who knows where? Those who propose such ideas are not the first in history to reason in these terms: it happens whenever personal, family or even national suffering and tragedy is connected directly to sin, as if God were punishing the nations of the earth for living lives far from Him. Attempting to defend such a view by extrapolating texts such as, ‘if you are not careful to obey all the words of this law, which are written in this scroll…He will bring wondrous plagues on you and your descendants, severe and lasting plagues, and terrible and chronic sicknesses’ (Deuteronomy 28:58-59).
The story of a blind man
The choice is perhaps surprising, but let’s turn to a meeting Jesus had with a blind man. When His disciples saw the man born blind from birth, they had to ask, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ (John 9:2). In other words, there exists an implicitly indissoluble link between human sin, a denying of life’s moral fabric and the disasters that accompany such a choice; some kind of direct relationship between ‘sin’ and ‘punishment’. Assuming the premise this man was born blind, God must have foreseen he would lead a life full of transgression. Or at least he was inheriting a guilt ascribed to his parents; in either case, there was a definite direct, even hereditary link. According to this logic, the coronavirus would be the punishment of God on whole continents, for billions living lives far from His decrees.
A direct relationship?
Although it is true the Bible does recognize an existing relationship between sin and punishment, it is not one that is simply linear. It would be simplistic to read such relationship in terms of mere direct correlation. We should instead keep three aspects in mind:
a) There are times when there is a clear direct relationship between human behavior and suffering; the outworking of a created established divine order to life. If I treat my neighbour badly, I may end up being treated badly myself. If I am regularly angry with friends, I risk losing them. If I fill my body with harmful substances, I’ll be exposed to health problems. If I drive on the roads drunk, I may well cause a road accident. If I choose to evade taxes, I won’t have cause for complaint when a letter comes years later from the tax office. ‘The wicked is one thrown down by his own sin, but the righteous one has a refuge in his death’ (Proverbs 14:32).
b) Far more often however the relationship between actions and consequences is not evident. The Christian view is one of a world that is broken, fallen from its original state of innocence; a world now overrun by human sin and error, alongside the groaning of creation itself. All these elements make life at times appear a ‘lottery’, a cauldron of familial, social, national and international relationships in which we contribute and create problems for others, whilst at the same time suffering the consequences of others’ sin. Put simply whilst living in this fallen world, sometimes we are the perpetrators of harm to others, at other times we are those harmed by others. All of this remains under the sovereign hand of God! That’s to say, there does exist real relationship between sin and suffering, but it’s not perceptibly ‘direct’. It persists within a series of complicated connecting relationships which make up the global village we inhabit. Just consider how choices made in places far from us have had huge impact on the world’s climate!
c) As a result, it’s very difficult establishing with certainty a strong direct link between sin and ‘punishment’. All the more so in the case of the coronavirus, which could prompt many ‘if only…’ questions. Such as ‘if only the Chinese authorities had averted the international community earlier regarding the virus?’ Or ‘if only the world was not so interdependent in its transport and trade links!’ Or ‘if only the measures undertaken in Italy had been applied two months earlier!’ Or ‘if only every citizen had respected the national measures imposed from the start’! There’s no limit to the questions we could ask.
The wrong question
But in the final analysis we don’t believe the inhabitants of Codogno, Bergamo and Brescia (Lombardy) were worse sinners than those in Bologna. It’s impossible to understand the reason for certain events, if not to remember these are things that can happen, and in truth have already happened in human history enslaved to a world immersed in sin. The Bible does not pose the question, ‘what have we done to deserve this coronavirus?’ But rather ‘why do we somehow believe we ought to be exempt from it?’ I admit these words may sound harsh in a time of unbridled progress in fields of science and technology, in which we claim to know how best to manage the many uncertainties of life. But in truth there remain questions to which we cannot give an answer. I’m not penning these words as one safely untouched in an ivory tower; as I write, I risk losing to the virus a dear friend and brother in the faith, on the edge of life and in a coma.
Neither he nor his parents
What’s essential, returning to the account of the blind man, is not having to explain why certain events happen (something beyond our responsibility), but rather knowing how to respond rightly to the reality of the situation we’re facing. To the disciples’ question Jesus gives the answer, ‘neither this man nor his parents sinned (as a direct cause of their son’s blindness), but it is so that the works of God might be displayed in him’ (John 9:3). That the works of God may be manifest in him! The Christian asks not so much ‘why has this happened?’ but rather ‘how should I respond to this (terrible) unknown, in ways that manifest the works of God’? In ways that bring glory to God? For we know that in the midst of thick darkness, we belong by faith to Him who is the Light of the world (John 9:5). His Light can never be overcome, nor even comprehended, by the darkness (1:5).
Hence the better question is, how can the blind man bring glory to God? How can the works of God be manifest in him? The account itself offers a reply: everything begins (rather than ends!) with the man’s physical healing (vv. 6-7). It is this event that stimulates the blind man to publicly announce the work of Christ (vv. 8-12). He cries out ‘I’m the one; healed by the man called Jesus’! The man finds himself constrained, obliged and empowered to speak of the miracle worked by Christ, even as the religious authorities grow in hostility to his words (vv. 13-17). Whilst his own parents distance themselves for fear of the same religious authorities (vv. 18-23), he continues to grow courageously in clarity and boldness of testimony, to the point of suffering a fair few insults from officials (vv. 24-34). After which he meets personally with Jesus. He sees Him for what He truly is; and in response all he can do is fall to the ground and worship Him, crying out ‘Lord, I believe’! (v. 38).
If any doubts remain on how the works of God are manifest in the blind man, we perceive how the Light of the world gives this man the real gift of sight. It is a spiritual sight, revealing itself in the profound courage of one who must by all means give testimony to the truth of Jesus. And in doing so, he inevitably unmasks the blindness of those who, believing themselves to be those with sight, end up rejecting the Light, and thereby being blinded by that same Light (vv. 39-40). That’s to say, the works of God manifest themselves in the clear and courageous testimony of one who was formerly blind, by means of whom Jesus renders vain the claims of those who consider themselves able to see. Put simply, having ‘sight’ does not mean having all the answers to hand, not even regarding this current pandemic. The gospel of Christ does not promise to unravel the motives for every disaster (why is this man born blind? Why not another)? Rather, it invites us to come to terms with the situation, in such a way as to ‘make manifest the works of God’. Following the example of the blind man, the reply takes the shape of a life centered totally on Jesus, dedicated to giving a courageous public testimony to Him, for which there will be a real price to pay (v. 34). Even after bearing the cost, the enduring note is that of a strong spirit full of thanksgiving and praise (v. 38).
Interceding before God
In summary, we don’t interpret the Coronavirus as a direct expression of Divine punishment. Neither do we dwell on the question of why God has allowed it. Instead we learn from the example of how the blind man responds. Before Christ’s return, there won’t be a shortage of catastrophic world events to ruin many lives (Matthew 24:6-8), including the current pandemic. But an awareness that there will be similar moments, more or less intense than the present one, helps to humble us before His holiness. And whilst we remember that He alone is God, we live as good citizens obeying national regulations, for love of our neighbor and not only to protect ourselves. Above all we want to be counted among those who are zealous in learning, both as individuals and churches, how to intercede before God, that He might gain glory from this situation, in opening the eyes of our own country regarding the fragility of our little lives, and the inescapable inter-dependence in which we all live.
First and foremost, may God reveal to many the natural blindness in which we find ourselves, in which we are born and from which there is no healing or cure, outside of the merciful intervention of Christ, courageously proclaimed from the mouth of those who love Him! May this be so, so that many people in Italy (and beyond…), by means of courageous words announced by His own through these days, might contagiously erupt in expressions of thanksgiving and praise, worshipping Him whom they have come to know personally, in the midst of days of great suffering.