Is COVID-19 God’s judgment on a sinful world?
While we are still in the midst of the global pandemic, part of me thinks it’s too early to address the question. But among the evangelical world, there are many, even some high-profile pastors and evangelists, who are loudly proclaiming that the coronavirus is an example of God’s wrath on man’s sin, and some are even blaming specific groups of people for it! (No, I’m not linking to them here. You can find the easily enough if you want to.)
With a question like this – with any question, really – we need to be sure that our answers and our thinking are carefully based on Scripture. So what does the Bible say on the issue?
A quick review shows that God has used sickness as a judgment on both individuals (like Elisha’s servant in 2 Kings 5) and nations (like Israel in Exodus 32). The time will come when God will use widespread as judgment on widespread wickedness (like in Revelation 16). The same is true of other calamities, such as natural disasters, political unrest, or invasions. In short, God has used and will use a wide variety of calamities as judgment on a wide variety of people or people groups.
If this is all the information we had to work with, then we would be justified in claiming that COVID-19 and other calamities are indeed God’s judgment on a sinful world. But the fact is that there is much more to consider than the simple view outlined above. So let’s dig a little deeper on the subject.
The first thing that complicates the issue is how we use the word “judgment.” It’s not a simple word, so let’s be sure we understand what we mean by “judgment” and related terms. (Just to be clear: this is how I’m using these terms; these are not necessarily dictionary definitions.)
- “Punishment” is pain or harm visited on a person or group of people in order to uphold justice. A classic example is found in Revelation 16:5-6, where an angel proclaims, “Just are you, O Holy One, who is and who was, for you brought these judgments. For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and you have given them blood to drink. It is what they deserve!”
- “Consequences” are the natural effects of our actions, on ourselves or on other people. This may be the personal consequence of our own sin, such as developing lung cancer after having smoked for years; the consequence of other’s sin, such as developing lung cancer because of second-hand smoke; or the consequence of sin in general, such as developing lung cancer after never having smoked (or done anything else to cause it).
- “Discipline” is any pain or harm that God causes or allows in order to strengthen or purify His people, or to bring the unsaved to repentance. While we may think of God’s discipline as His correction for our personal errors, the biblical picture of God’s discipline is much broader. Even persecution is discipline – Hebrews 12 contains a classic passage on God’s discipline, but the general context is that of persecution. Chapter 11 ends with a description of the Old Testament saints being tortured, beaten, imprisoned, killed, or banished, and in 12:4, the passage on discipline opens with the statement, “You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.” Paul’s thorn in the flesh is a form of discipline, to keep him humble (2 Corinthians 2:17).
- “Judgment” as used in the Bible combines the ideas of punishment and discipline. At times punishment comes to the fore (as in Revelation 16:5-6, above), while other times the idea of discipline is primary (1 Peter 4:17). And God’s judgment may be enacted by His removing His protection, thus allowing people to reap the consequences of their sin (Hosea 8:7). So any specific instance of “judgment” may fit into two or even all three of these categories. For example, separation from God is both the consequence (Isaiah 59:2) and the punishment (2 Thessalonians 1:9) for sin. Malachi presents the Lord’s coming as a time of both discipline (3:2-3) and punishment (3:5).
One of the great examples of judgment in the Bible is when the Babylonian army captured Jerusalem. God made it clear that this was punishment for Judah’s sins (Jeremiah 11:9-11a). One of the ways that punishment was carried out was God’s refusal to intervene on Judah’s behalf (Jeremiah 11:11b-15), allowing Judah to experience the consequences of their sin. Finally, Daniel was caught in the middle of that judgment on Jerusalem, but for him, it became a time of discipline, not of punishment (Daniel 1).
A Question of Ages
A second complicating factor is the difference between the Old and New Testament times. When talking about whether disaster is judgment for sin, it’s pretty common to point out that in New Testament times, Christ took the punishment for sin. But the fact is that Christ died for all sin of all people throughout all history, so that is not an OT/NT difference. But even in the OT, punishment was never solely punitive – it was always disciplinary. The intent was that either guilty party or others looking on, or both, might be warned to repent and turn to God.
Just as is clearly demonstrated in the book of Job, Jesus taught that personal suffering is not the result of personal sin (John 9:2-3). He healed many people, but never did He stop to reprove the victim about their sin first, and with one exception (John 5:14), He did not reprove them afterward either – and that is not so much a reproof as a warning not to presume on God’s grace. Jesus also taught that tragedy (like a tower collapsing and killing numerous people) or political oppression (like Pilate’s soldiers slaughtering people at the Temple) were not the result of the victims’ sinfulness (Luke 13:1-5). These tragedies should serve as reminders of God’s wrath against sin – “except you repent, you will all likewise perish” – but not as instances of punishment for sin.
There is no warning or example of calamity as punishment for sin during the age of the New Testament church. Yes, there are a couple examples of supernatural judgment on individuals, such as Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 or Barjesus in Acts 13:11, and there is the rather unusual passage in 1 Corinthians 11:30 referring to consequences for not “discerning the body of the Lord” during the Lord’s Supper – but these are hardly the same as a general judgment visited on a nation or other group of people for their collective sin. Based on the number and level of warnings of that sort of judgment in the Old Testament, we should expect something similar in the New Testament if God were still working in that way – but what we have is resounding silence on the issue.
So why do we see this apparent change in God’s dealing between the Old Testament and the New? Why did God so often refer to disasters as punishment before Christ came, and not after?
There are two reasons:
- First, throughout the Old Testament, God worked primarily through His people Israel, and that means that He often punished or rewarded on an ethnic or national level. And while He has not and will never cast away the Jewish people, the coming of Christ changed everything. Ever since Pentecost God is working primarily through the church, and in Christ all ethnic and national distinctions are set aside.
- Second, it’s the same reason that God required the Israelites to offer sacrifices before Christ came and not after. The sacrifices were “object lessons” to teach about redemption, and disasters were “object lessons” to teach about God’s wrath, to help people understand the seriousness and penalty for sin. Today, the death of Christ demonstrates God’s wrath against sin, so we no longer need the “object lesson” of visible judgment. Disaster can and should serve as a general reminder of the consequences of sin (Luke 13:3, 5), but they are not specific judgments against sin.
But what about the book of Revelation? There’s the classic example in the New Testament of God using disease and other disasters as judgment. And it’s true – the book of Revelation is full of examples of God bringing judgment through calamities such as earthquakes, plagues, war, etc. But there are two things to keep in mind regarding judgment in Revelation:
- First, in Revelation as in the Old Testament, the point is not just punishment, but discipline (Revelation 9:20). His goal is to bring people to repentance, not to just make them suffer for their sin.
- Second, the bulk of Revelation describes a future time when God will again deal directly with the world. At the present time, He works primarily though us, the church, to offer salvation and call people to repentance (2 Corinthians 5:20). So the judgment/calamities in Revelation are not examples of judgment during the church age: they are examples of God’s more direct dealing with the world at a future time.
Providence and Promises
This brings up the question of how God deals with the world. At creation, God set up the world to work through natural forces. His oversight and control of those forces we call “providence”; “miracles” are when God overrides the natural forces and does something directly supernatural. The majority of the time, God works through providence to accomplish His will – and in this fallen world, rife with the effects of sin, He doesn’t have to specifically create or invent calamities. They just happen, as Ecclesiastes 9:11 points out. But the consistent emphasis of Scripture is on God’s sovereign control, and so Scripture does not make a strong distinction between what God does and what He allows (Isaiah 45:7). In all things, God is in control: directing, allowing, causing and protecting.
Throughout the both Testaments, there are promises that God will keep and deliver His people from trouble. The two ways that God fulfills this promise is demonstrated in the Old Testament and explained in the New Testament: God may either protect His people from calamity or bring them through it.
This can help us understand why it sometimes appears that some prayers are answered while others seem not to be. For example, in September of 2019, Hurricane Dorian made landfall on the Bahamas as a category 5 hurricane – and stalled there, creating the worst natural disaster in Bahamian history. From there it was forecasted to strike Florida, but as Christians throughout Florida prayed, it lessened in intensity and turned north, thus sparing Florida and the other southern states from extensive damage. Believers in Florida were rejoicing that God heard their prayers and turned the storm away from them, while believers in the Bahamas were left to pick up the pieces after one of the worst hurricanes in recorded history.
So why did God spare the believers in Florida, and not those in the Bahamas? Was it a judgment on the Bahamas? Were the Florida believers more spiritual? Were there more of them? Did they pray harder? No, no, no and no. In His providence, God chose to protect some of His children from the storm, while bringing others of His children through it.
In Romans 8, Paul teaches that everything – even disaster – has to work together for the good of believers. That means that, though we may have to endure some of the consequences of sin, by His grace even those consequences work for our good. In fact, whether what we suffer is the consequence of our sin, of others’ sin, or of sin in general, God uses all of it to make us more like Christ. And one of the primary ways that we become more like Christ is by following His example of helping others. Disaster is a chance for the church to show the world what Christ is like by helping to meet people’s immediate, pressing needs, building relationships and opening opportunities to call them to repentance and salvation.
What are you doing today, where you are, to demonstrate what Christ is like?