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The Judgment of God and the COVID-19 Virus

The Judgment of God and the COVID-19 Virus
Painting is by Barbra Atkinson

By Bruce E. Atkinson, PhD
Special to VIRTUEONLINE
www.virtueonline.org
March 26, 2020

MANY religious people are interpreting the COVID-19 virus epidemic as the judgment of God. Depending on what each person sees as the worst sins of mankind, all kinds of bad behaviors have been blamed. For example, in their desire to punish climate change deniers, some liberals have even blamed anthropogenic climate change and the lack of a proper response by governments and corporations for why we are globally suffering this coronavirus. I think this way of thinking is more than a little extreme.

Conservative Christians are more likely to assume that the finger of God is pointed toward such things as the abortion holocaust, moral relativism, cultural Marxism, and the immoral sexual revolution (pansexualism, transgenderism, and the libertine acceptance of all sexual activity outside of male-female marriage.) That the human world deserves judgment, we cannot deny. Rod Dreher, without directly referring to God's role, put it this way: "We moderns think we control nature, and have beaten death back to the margins. Nature -- and history -- would like to have a word with us." In other words, human pride and hubris from time to time needs a whack of humility upside the ego. There is nothing like an out-of-our-control force of nature to accomplish this task.

From a biblical perspective, how likely is this explanation of divine judgment? Some current opinions from religious leaders are interesting, and of course we must examine the scriptural evidence. From a recent article on lifesitenews, we hear of a pro-life Catholic leader, John Smeaton, suggesting that the "coronavirus pandemic is chastisement for the sin of abortion." Let me share some words from this article:

Smeaton explained how abortion has killed "between one to two billion" people in the world in the last 50 years. "That's more people killed than all the people killed in all the wars in the whole of recorded human history."

Another point mentioned was the promotion of the LGBT agenda in schools, "not least by individual Catholic bishops and by, for example, the entire Conference of Catholic Bishops of England and Wales." Smeaton called this "a sin that's even worse than abortion and might well provoke God's anger in a terrible chastisement."

As far as historical precedents for chastisements are concerned, Smeaton pointed to remarks made by Italian historian Roberto de Mattei. He observed parallels between the 21st century and the 14th century, which was ravaged by famine, plagues, and war all over Europe. "Saint Bernardine of Siena (1380-1444) admonished:..there are three scourges with which God chastises: war, plague, and famine," de Mattei said. [Many saints] have warned throughout history that natural disasters have always accompanied the infidelities and apostasy of nations."

The following quote came from the British media, of all places: "This is a strong and definite judgment because the world has been arrogant in going its own way. We are reaping the consequences of our moral degradation, as well as the environmental damage that we have caused. We are in serious moral trouble because every type of [immoral] lifestyle is now regarded as legitimate. Our government has been playing the role of God in saying that people are free to act as they want. The Sexual Orientation Regulations [which came into force in April 2007] are part of a general scene of permissiveness. We are in a situation where we are liable for God's judgment, which is intended to call us to repentance." (The Telegraph).

The Meat of the Matter

I have to admit that God knows what He is doing but I cannot know the mind of God on any specific catastrophe. I try to keep my own perspective as balanced as I can on this issue of judgment. The question is still worth asking, "Where is God in this situation?"

My preliminary answer is this: God is in the same place He has always been. God is sovereign, just, gracious, and wise. Biblical history is full of instances of the judgment of God on peoples of the earth, and also many examples of His mercy. First, we have the Garden of Eden--the original sin and the expulsion of the original sinners. Then we hear about the Great Flood: The LORD saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. The LORD regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. So the LORD said, "I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created-- and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground--for I regret that I have made them." But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD. (Genesis 6:5-8)

We also have the amazing example of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as revealed in Genesis 18-19. It is interesting that Abraham interceded for Sodom, but it turned out that there were not even 10 righteous men in the city. God did rescue Abraham and his relative Lot, but all the rest were destroyed by fire and brimstone.

The point to these stories is that God is just and is willing to execute severe judgment against sinful peoples -- and that He has done so in history. So we cannot dismiss this possibility out of hand today. But note that in both of these cases God ended up saving a few (not so evil) people, and note further that God was even open to negotiation. In other words, keep praying folks.

Let me direct our attention to Jesus' teaching in Luke 13. I like the summary of this chapter in the gotquestions website and I will quote much of it here:

"Some people told Jesus about a group of Galileans who had come to the temple to sacrifice, and Pontius Pilate slaughtered them, probably due to a public disturbance the Galileans were causing (Luke 13:1). The men who related this story to Jesus may have been trying to lure Him into taking sides, either for or against Pilate, or they may have simply been curious about Jesus' reaction to the massacre. Whatever their motivation, Jesus' response is sobering: "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish" (verses 2--3). Jesus continues the conversation by mentioning another current event, this one involving the tower of Siloam: "Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them--do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish" (Luke 13:4--5).

The same lessons are drawn from each event. First, Jesus warned His audience not to assume that the victims of those tragedies had been judged for their great evil. It's always a temptation to assign sudden, unexplainable deaths to the judgment of God in response to secret (or open) sin. Jesus says [in essence] not so fast; it is a mistake to automatically attribute such tragedies to the vengeance of God. Whether it is a man-made tragedy (Pilate's slaughter of the Galileans) or a naturally caused tragedy (the fall of the tower of Siloam), it is wrong to assume that the victims are somehow worse sinners than everyone else and thus deserved to die.

The second point Jesus made concerning both events is that everyone needs to repent. Repentance is a change of mind that results in a change of action. Jesus highlights the importance of repentance twice in this passage: repent or perish, He says; turn or burn. Instead of conjecturing on the Galileans' sin, focus on your own sin. Rather than assigning wickedness to those killed by the tower of Siloam, examine your own heart.

When tragedies strike... it's natural for people to start asking why. Thoughts creep in such as maybe the victims deserved it somehow. Maybe they were bad people, and that's why bad things happened to them. But then sometimes it really seems like the people affected by tragedies are good. Especially when the victims are children. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do bad things happen at all? [See my articles:
www.virtueonline.org/apologetic-theodicy-why-there-so-much-suffering
www.virtueonline.org/pastoral-theodicy-discovering-purpose-suffering-bruce-atkinson ]

In Luke 13, Jesus negates four assumptions that people often make:
1) Suffering is proportional to sinfulness.
2) Tragedy is a sure sign of God's judgment.
3) Bad things happen only to bad people.
4) We have the right to make such judgments.

To each of these assumptions, Jesus says no. When we read of a tragedy in the headlines, we should resist the temptation to assign guilt to the victims, as if they had received God's judgment. Rather, Jesus bids us look to the sin within us and take the headline as a warning to repent. The sudden death of someone should not be an occasion for blame but for self-examination -- the fact is you are under God's judgment unless you repent and have faith in Jesus."

The reality is that no one on earth knows exactly what God is doing (Isaiah 55:8-9) in allowing the COVID-19; nor do we know God's purposes (if any) with other natural disasters (hurricanes, floods, tornados, etc.). It is all supposition and guesswork. But if we believe the Old Testament record, we cannot deny that God has used such things in the past for judgmental punishment on peoples. However, it is more than interesting that except for a few apocalyptic passages about the end times, the New Testament does not contain warnings for specific governments or cultures due to their sinful behavior. Even Rome was not specifically cursed, although the Jews (and first Jewish Christians) very much wanted Rome to fall.

Instead, God's response to human sin in the church age is to spread the good news of the gospel of Christ. God's reaction to large scale sin seems now to be rather passive. As Paul indicated in Romans 1:24-27, "Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie... For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. In other words, they are subconsciously suicidal and God does not need some largescale catastrophe to take care of business. Individuals kill themselves off by their self-destructive behaviors. https://www.virtueonline.org/stages-moral-regression-bruce-atkinson.

Finally, apostolic theology is helpful for believers to gain a proper perspective on judgment and punishment. Two theological principles which are easily found in the scriptures are able to comfort Christians and provide inner peace:

A. The Cross: God's final punitive judgment on all who believe in Christ has already been paid by the death of Jesus. Even our own death is only a doorway to a larger eternal life: "Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life." (John 5:24, cf. John 3:16).

B. Discipline: Individuals are sometimes judged in this life, but for Christians, all judgments are disciplinary, not destructive. Discipline can be painful, it is true: "For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it" (Hebrews 12:11, cf. Proverbs 3:11-12). "And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope" (Romans 5:2b-4)

As for further excellent teaching about divine discipline, I refer you to Bill Muehlenburg 's excellent article (https://billmuehlenberg.com/2018/02/18/suffering-divine-discipline/).

Conclusion

Jesus did tell us that bad things would happen-- "These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world." (John 16:33). In other words, we are still in a spiritual war zone in a fallen world, but this situation is temporary and God will put it all right in the end. Physical death is not the worst that can happen to God's children because we have heaven and the Resurrection coming. The worst that can happen is to lose our faith.

God IS love but He is also wise beyond our capacity to perceive. "Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!" (Romans 11:33, cf. Isaiah 55:8-9). He knows what will benefit people for all time, not only what will benefit a few for the present. God is into the 'long haul' perspective of things. He is patient with us, but His patience does have its limits. When people keep asking for judgment, eventually He will let them self-destruct.

In summary, here is how I see God working in this Church Age:

1) God is allowing unbelievers do their own thing and reap the consequences (rather than judging whole nations, all of which contain some believers).

2) God is disciplining Christians, teaching them truths that they do not yet know and teaching truths that many churches have forgotten. (See B. above.)

3) God is providing opportunities for people to examine their priorities and turn to Him in repentance. The story of Jonah and Nineveh (Jonah 3) reminds us that God does withhold His judgment when people repent. See also 2 Chronicles 7:14.

So what should we do? In my field of psychological healing, there is a maxim: "Why waste a valuable trauma?" Although we cannot change the past, we can learn lessons from it that will protect our future. In this case, I have never seen the entire world go to war against a common enemy like they are right now. Surely some good will come from this global united front. Christians should be on the front lines as an example; the opportunities for service and evangelism are abundantly available.

While we all need to be prudent and cautious, heeding our medical experts and leaders, we also need to get some perspective and fight off any paranoia. Far more people have died of ordinary flu or pneumonia since we learned of COVID-19 than have contracted this virus. And more people have died of drug overdoses and traffic accidents... and no one is in a panic about these things.

As a Christian psychotherapist, I must ask, how many will suffer from worry and anxiety unnecessarily? People with cardiovascular problems do die from anxiety and panic attacks. And how much financial damage will be done to billions of people and industries due to the fear? While subtle lies are Satan's first and most powerful weapon, his second weapon is fear. But, thank God, truth and faith in Christ can completely disable these weapons which are being used against us.

Note that in the Christian tradition, people of faith are not supposed to worry or have anxiety about anything (Isaiah 41:10, Matthew 6:34ff, John 14:27, 1 Peter 5:10, and especially Philippians 4:6-7), not even about death (Hebrews 2:14-15, 1 Corinthians 15:22, Romans 8:38-39). So please, let us be prudent and prayerful...but never paranoid! This COVID-19 too shall pass.

Dr. Bruce Atkinson is a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary with a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and an M.A. in theology. He also has an M.S. in research psychology from Illinois State U. and a B.A. from Beloit College. He is a member of the Anglican Church in North America and is Moderator at VirtueOnline

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