Covid – Judgement and Mercy
Covid has brought great suffering on humanity. Over 150,000 have died in Britain and over 5.5 million worldwide. There are many grievous tales of personal bereavement. There are also attendant longer term effects on health for some survivors. Large scale economic harm has been done to very many. Leaders of nations have found themselves trying to manage unprecedented circumstances.
There have been three distinct mitigations in the Covid pandemic. The first was that from the outset Covid 19 largely did not affect children. Small numbers with underlying health conditions did suffer but throughout the world humanity’s offspring were spared the virus and its consequences. Imagine the cataclysmic grief if this had not been the case and children had died wholesale as they did in pandemics in previous ages. The second mitigation was the almost miraculously quick discovery and production of vaccines which has allowed mass survival. Imagine the death rates if this had not been the case. The third mitigation is that the effects of the most recent very contagious Omicron variant are much less severe than those of previous variants. Imagine the scale of death and illness if this had not been true. Can the Biblical pattern of judgement and mercy be claimed in relation to Covid?
Christianity has had little to say about the relationship between God and the Covid pandemic. No Christian leader has been willing to decree that it is a punishment for the godlessness of human life and society at this time. Frivolity, absurdity, idolatry, immorality, greed, violence and injustice proliferate throughout the world. God is not acknowledged in western society any more. God has ceased to exist for many.
The Old Testament prophets sought to explain God’s mind in relation to suffering. Generally speaking, they articulated judgement for sin and wrongdoing especially spiritual desertion and apostasy, but at the same time they offered mercy and redemption. In Jeremiah 34 : 1 – 5 we read, ‘While Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon and all his army and all the kingdoms and peoples in the empire he ruled were fighting against Jerusalem and all its surrounding towns, this word came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Go to Zedekiah king of Judah and tell him, ‘This is what the Lord says: I am about to give this city into the hands of the king of Babylon, and he will burn it down. You will not escape from his grasp but will surely be captured and given into his hands. You will see the king of Babylon with your own eyes, and he will speak with you face to face. And you will go to Babylon. “‘Yet hear the Lord’s promise to you, Zedekiah king of Judah. This is what the Lord says concerning you: You will not die by the sword; you will die peacefully. As people made a funeral fire in honour of your predecessors, the kings who ruled before you, so they will make a fire in your honour and lament, “Alas, master!” I myself make this promise, declares the Lord.’”
The Jewish people’s relationship with God was intense. Job said to his nagging wife ‘Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?’ Judaism is not dualistic considering good and evil to be equal in cosmological importance. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is sovereign and good but punishes his people for their sins. An individual example of this is found in Psalm 51 : 1 – 4 where David records his prayer, ‘Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge’.
Collectively and nationally the same dynamic occurs. Zephaniah 3 : 7 – 13 says ‘Of Jerusalem I thought, ‘Surely you will fear me and accept correction!’ Then her place of refuge would not be destroyed, nor all my punishments come upon her. But they were still eager to act corruptly in all they did. Therefore wait for me,” declares the Lord, “for the day I will stand up to testify. I have decided to assemble the nations, to gather the kingdoms and to pour out my wrath on them— all my fierce anger. The whole world will be consumed by the fire of my jealous anger’. But that is not the final judgement or the end. Then I will purify the lips of the peoples, that all of them may call on the name of the Lord and serve him shoulder to shoulder. From beyond the rivers of Cush my worshippers, my scattered people, will bring me offerings. On that day you, Jerusalem, will not be put to shame for all the wrongs you have done to me, because I will remove from you your arrogant boasters. Never again will you be haughty on my holy hill. But I will leave within you the meek and humble. The remnant of Israel will trust in the name of the Lord. They will do no wrong; they will tell no lies. A deceitful tongue will not be found in their mouths. They will eat and lie down and no one will make them afraid’.
The Old Testament ends with the words ‘The day of the Lord is near for all nations. As you have done, it will be done to you; your deeds will return upon your own head. Just as you drank on my holy hill, so all the nations will drink continually; they will drink and drink and be as if they had never been. But on Mount Zion will be deliverance; it will be holy, and Jacob will possess his inheritance. Jacob will be a fire and Joseph a flame; Esau will be stubble, and they will set him on fire and destroy him. There will be no survivors from Esau.” The Lord has spoken. People from the Negev will occupy the mountains of Esau, and people from the foothills will possess the land of the Philistines. They will occupy the fields of Ephraim and Samaria, and Benjamin will possess Gilead.This company of Israelite exiles who are in Canaan will possess the land as far as Zarephath; the exiles from Jerusalem who are in Sepharad will possess the towns of the Negev. Deliverers will go up on Mount Zion to govern the mountains of Esau. And the kingdom will be the Lord’s’ (Obadiah 4 : 15 – 19).
The Old Testament knows only first causes for natural phenomena and human experience. The story of the rainbow in Genesis 9 : 12 - 16 affirms, ‘And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.”
However today we know about secondary causes for natural phenomena. A rainbow is a multicoloured arc made by light striking water droplets. The most familiar type of rainbow...is produced when sunlight strikes raindrops in front of a viewer at a precise angle. The colours on a primary rainbow are always in order of their wavelength, from longest to shortest: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet. The most familiar type rainbow is produced when sunlight strikes raindrops in front of a viewer at a precise angle (42 degrees). Rainbows can also be viewed around fog, sea spray or waterfalls. A rainbow is an optical illusion—it does not actually exist in a specific spot in the sky. The appearance of a rainbow depends on where you're standing and where the sun (or other source of light) is shining. Light entering a water droplet is refracted. It is then reflected by the back of the droplet. As this reflected light leaves the droplet, it is refracted again, at multiple angles. Rainbows are actually full circles. The antisolar point is the centre of the circle. Viewers in aircraft can sometimes see these circular rainbows. A rainbow shows up as a spectrum of light: a band of familiar colours that include red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet. White light is how our eyes perceive all the colours of the rainbow mixed together. Sunlight appears white. When sunlight hits a rain droplet, some of the light is reflected. The electromagnetic spectrum is made of light with many different wavelengths, and each is reflected at a different angle. Thus, spectrum is separated, producing a rainbow. Red has the longest wavelength of visible light, about 650 nanometres. It usually appears on the outer part of a rainbow's arch. Violet has the shortest wavelength (about 400 nanometres) and it usually appears on the inner arch of the rainbow. (National Geographic).
There is no necessary inconsistency between the rainbow being the result of both a first cause and a secondary cause. The earth and its surroundings are held by Christians to have been made by the One we call God. A rainbow is just part of that production. The spiritual or relational aspect of the appearance of a rainbow to someone who believes in God is that it is specific to that person and to his or her circumstances. Pam Kavanagh gave this a account in the Contact magazine of Dundonald Parish Church in December 2021. ‘A few months after the death of our son, Peter, aged 35, Roy and I were on our way to Portsonachan, overlooking Loch Awe. We stopped for coffee at a garden centre and suddenly Roy became very agitated and said he’d do anything to know that Peter was alright. I tried to reassure him that I knew he was alright as he was with God. The next morning Roy flung back the curtains and immediately gestured to me to join him at the window. We both gazed in awe at a wide, pulsating rainbow of the brightest hues we’d ever seen. We couldn’t speak, its beauty took your breath away. We had never seen such a rainbow. It lasted for several minutes then disappeared suddenly without fading. I said to Roy that that was God’s way of reassuring him that Peter was safe and with Him. At breakfast Roy asked the waitress if she, too, had seen the amazing rainbow. She looked startled and said no, as did the other residents nearby who had overheard. I whispered to Roy that it was for him alone and I had been privileged to share the moments. Roy felt reassured, as had been God’s intention. Three weeks ago we were back in the same room and the unbelievably beautiful rainbow appeared again, early on our first evening, when there was no rain nor sun, just as last time. These were certainly God Moments. We were richly blessed. I thought of Noah and God’s covenant in Genesis Chapter 9. God always brings hope and reassurance and His timing is always perfect’.
Christianity offers a less severe description of sin and judgement. The New Testament emphasises the love and forgiveness of God based on the teaching of Jesus and the grace experienced by the former persecutor of Christians Saul who became Paul. ‘Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, cancelled the debt and let him go. “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’ “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened. “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I cancelled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” (Matthew 18 : 21 – 35)
Paul wrote ‘Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation’. (Romans 5 : 1 – 11)
There is solid judgement in the New Testament also. Luke 21 : 5 -6 tells us, ‘Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.” and in Matthew 24 : 30 – 31 Jesus continues the theme, ‘Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other’. In 1 Corinthians 4 : 1 - 5 Paul reflects this thinking. ‘This, then, is how you ought to regard us: as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed. Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God’. The scary Book of Revelation describes the final judgement thus, ‘Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire’. (Revelation 20 : 11 – 15) It is impossible not to admit the dimension of judgement into the Christian dispensation.
Back to Jews and Judaism. Where was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob during the years 1939 – 1945? Over 6 million Jews perished in Nazi death camps. This was the culmination of centuries of anti-Semitism on the part of the Christianised peoples of Europe. Naziism was itself an anti-Christian ideology but it took roots in Germany, a Christianised nation. Nothing on the scale of the Holocaust was prophesied in the Old Testament. St Paul’s pleas for reconciliation in Romans 9 – 11 were largely ignored in medieval Europe and thereafter. Christian nations did defeat Naziism and Christian nations established a homeland for Jews and it became the State of Israel. This was the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy. ‘Therefore this is what the Lord, who redeemed Abraham, says to the descendants of Jacob: “No longer will Jacob be ashamed; no longer will their faces grow pale. When they see among them their children, the work of my hands, they will keep my name holy; they will acknowledge the holiness of the Holy One of Jacob, and will stand in awe of the God of Israel. Those who are wayward in spirit will gain understanding; those who complain will accept instruction’. (Isaiah 29 : 21 – 24) ‘For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.” (Jeremiah 29 : 11 - 14) ‘Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?’ Was the Holocaust the price paid for the reformation of Israel? Was it worth it? Does Israel’s vocation in the world continue? Are its humanity, democracy, science and medicine light to the world?
Some Christians will suggest or preach even that Covid is a judgement of God on humanity. The majority of Christians however will not blame God for Covid. They will have no real answer. Bereaved may ask ‘Why has this happened to N… to me..to this family’? They will accept the stock answer. God is with us alongside us in our suffering. This does not square the ancient circle however. Is God sovereign? Is God good? Why does God allow this to happen? Jesus was sovereign over illness and elemental enmity. He healed people with diseases. He stilled the Sea of Galilee storm. He was pro-active in love and care. We call him ‘Lord’. But He does not appear to us to be sovereign in our sufferings. He is not as effectively present in the members of His Church as He Himself was on earth. Is it our spiritual sloth, laziness and disinclination to devotion that are the weaknesses in the sovereign process?
Seeking answers from Scripture is helpful but in the context of the 21st century it is also problematic. Covid 19 is a virus. This is its secondary cause. Its origins are still a mystery. If there is a first cause, we do not know it. We make new discoveries in our response. Human life was never perfect. Our environment was never safe. We are meant to reach for the stars. To reach for God. Find God. Through stresses, difficulties and trials. It was so for Jesus and for those who have followed Him. We are impelled forward by adversities. Maybe the release of the Coronavirus was accidental and maybe it was as a result of dangerous experimentation going wrong. Viral warfare is being researched by nations with the scientific capabilities to do so. Guns and tanks and planes and ships and rockets will be unnecessary. Soldiers, sailors and air staff will become redundant. There is a mutually assured destruction in such possibilities. Humans have never failed to use any weapon that they have invented. Princess Diana once said that she would never become Queen but that she could be the queen of people’s hearts. It seems that this is the role of God in Jesus Christ in our world. God is the Lord of those who seek and find Him. Jesus is the Saviour of those who meet Him and who decide to follow and worship Him. The Holy Spirit is the inner guarantor of realised relationship and of eternal hope. But Christians are meant to share in the sovereignty of God and we just do not do so clearly or well enough.