Biblically, what Can and Can’t We Say about COVID-19?2
One of the tremendous benefits of a crisis is that it forces people to think. We have a strong tendency when things are good to go on “autopilot,” become absorbed with our routine, live for frivolous pleasures, and distract ourselves to death. But when business as usual suddenly comes to a halt, the game is up, at least for a season–which means that now, perhaps more than ever in our lifetimes, people are asking questions. They want to know why COVID-19 exists in the world. “What should I be living for?” “What happens when I die?"
Now is the time for Bible-believing Christians to step up to the plate. We have the right answers, and nobody else does! It may seem arrogant to say it that way, but the Bible says this is true.
However, there is a danger here. In seeking to shine light on current events, Christians can easily go too far and say more than Scripture allows! When that happens, we damage not only our own reputation, but also that of the church and of God! More than that, we displease our Lord. Whether He is dealing with unhealthy speculation (Job 42:7-9), those who would add to the Bible (Deut 4:2; 12:32; Rev 22:18), or all-out false prophecy (Jer 23:9-40; 2 Peter 2:12-17; Jude 1:12-19), God doesn’t have nice things to say about those who put words in His mouth.
So what can and can’t we say about COVID-19?
We Can Say that God Sent It.
That may seem like a strong statement at first, but hear me out. The Bible is clear that God is sovereign over what theologians call “natural evil.” This category would include events like pandemics. Ecclesiastes 7:13-14 says that when things are crooked, it is He who has made them so. God sends adversity as well as prosperity. Amos 3:6 asks a rhetorical question: “If there is calamity in a city, will not the LORD have done it?” The understood answer, of course, is yes! Isaiah 45:5-7 teaches that one of the implications of monotheism is that God not only “makes peace,” but also “creates calamity.” And Lamentations 3:37-38 affirms that it is “from the mouth of the Most High that woe and well-being proceed.” If you look up the Hebrew word for “pestilence,” you will find that every single time it is mentioned, God is the one who sent it.
Of course, we do not believe natural evil was a part of God the creator’s original good design. Prior to Adam and Eve’s sin, there was no evil of any kind in the world. Earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, sicknesses, etc. all came about as a result of God’s curse, which was His response to man’s sin (Gen 3:14-21). 1 Corinthians 15:21 says that “by man came death” (c.f. Rom 5:12-21). We are to blame for this mess, not God! However, that does not in any way diminish the fact that God is sovereign over all things, including natural evil.
We Cannot Say that We Know Why God Sent It.
We may claim to know some of the reasons why God might have sent COVID-19, but that is a lot different than saying that we know why He sent it. The Bible is clear that God’s providence is ultimately inscrutable. That means that we as finite human beings cannot totally understand why He does what He does, especially while He is doing it!
How many Bible stories do you know in which God’s inscrutable providence is a major part of the plot? Is not that the case in the stories of Abraham offering up Isaac, Joseph in Egypt, Esther, and Job? In each case, the characters knew (or at least should have known) enough to trust God in what He was doing. But in no case did they totally understand what He was doing, otherwise faith would not be called “faith” (2 Cor 5:7)!
When the Bible embarks on theodicy (the defense of God in relation to evil), it ultimately ends the discussion with a celebration of God’s unfathomable wisdom. This is what Job 38-41 is all about, and it’s also how Paul concluded his discussion about Israel’s apostasy in Romans 9-11 in 11:33-36.
The fact is that based on the mind-boggling inter-connectedness of God’s intricate plan and the world-wide scope of COVID-19, God must be using this virus to accomplish billions of different things—if not more! We would be raging lunatics to think that we can or could ever understand all of that!
We Can Say that God Is Using It to Deal with Sin, but We Cannot Get More Specific than That.
Is it really possible, given the world-wide nature of this virus, to think that God isn’t using this circumstance to deal with sin? No! God is certainly using it for that purpose! However, we must tread very lightly here.
We know that not all suffering is connected to personal sin. In John 9:1-4, Christ refuted His disciples’ retribution theology by stating that the blind man in question wasn’t suffering as a direct result of anyone’s sin–whether his or his parents’. He was born that way so that God’s works could be shown in him.
Again, Jesus said in Luke 13:1-5 that the Galileans brutally murdered by Herod in the temple and the eighteen unfortunate souls on whom the tower in Siloam fell did not die because they were worse sinners than anyone else at that time.
And of course, the lives of the prophets, apostles, various martyrs in both the Old and New Testaments–not to mention the entire book of Job–all militate against the view that suffering is always because of sin.
However, Scripture does teach that suffering is sometimes directly tied to specific sin. When Christ spoke to the man he had healed by the pool of Bethesda, He said, “See, you have been made well. Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you” (John 5:14). The implication is that the man was suffering because of his sin and that if he persisted, he would suffer even more!
When you look up the appearances of the Hebrew word for pestilence in the Old Testament, God is always using it either to discipline His people (Ex 5:3; Lev 26:25; Num 14:12; Deut 28:21; 2 Sam 24:13; 1 Kings 8:37-40; 1 Chron 21:12; 2 Chron 6:28-31; 7:13-14; 20:1-12; Jer 14:12; 21:6, 9; 24:10; 27:8, 13; 29:17; 32:34, 36; 34:17; 38:2; 42:17, 22; 44:12; Ezek 5:12, 17; 7:15; 12:16; 14:19, 21; 33:27; Am 4:10) or judge other nations (Ex 9:3, 15; Ps 78:50; Jer 44:13; Ezek 28:23; 38:22; Am 4:10).
God used calamity to judge Sodom and Gomorra as well as the whole world at the time of the flood! In the New Testament, the nations are judged in the book of Revelation (see especially Rev 6:7-8, in which the word for “death” in v. 8 is probably a reference to pestilence).
The New Testament also teaches that God disciplines His children for their sin (Heb 12:3-11). In the case of the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 11:30, He specifically used sickness that got so bad that it killed some of them! James 5:14-16 is another New Testament passage that indicates Christians sometimes get sick because of their sin.
So, given all of that biblical evidence, we can safely assume that God is using COVD-19 to deal with sin in His people, unbelievers, and perhaps even nations. But beyond that, we dare not go. For instance, we cannot know who is being punished and who isn’t. God does not intend for us to use judgment (or lack thereof) as a diagnostic tool (for instance, “Italy must be the most wicked nation on earth.”) Remember what Jesus said in Luke 13! We must not fall into the trap of Job’s friends. The fact is that without the benefit of direct revelation, we simply cannot know for sure what God is doing. Therefore, if we are humble and wise, we will measure our words.
We Can Say that God Is Using It to Get People’s Attention.
C.S. Lewis famously called suffering “God’s megaphone.” He said, “We can rest contentedly in our sins and in our stupidities…. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” He went on to say, “Until the evil man finds evil unmistakably present in his existence, in the form of pain, he is enclosed in illusion…. No doubt pain as God’s megaphone is a terrible instrument; it may lead to final and unrepented rebellion. But it gives the only opportunity the bad man can have for amendment. It removes the veil; it plants the flag of truth within the fortress of a rebel soul.” How many of us have found this to be true in our own lives and ministries? I know I have in mine. And this concept is biblical, too.
God often uses pain or the threat of pain to lead people to repentance. Think of how He used Israel’s enemies to do this over and over again in the book of Judges. Think of how He used Jonah’s message of impending doom to lead to a revival in Nineveh. Why did Jesus spend much of His earthly ministry among people who were sick or poor? Because those were the people who were often most open to hearing His teaching! Suffering has a way of producing humility, which often leads to repentance.
When Christ spoke of the tragedies mentioned in Luke 13:1-5, He said of these events that they should serve as sobering reminders for all to repent, lest they “likewise perish.” We all deserve wrath. When God appoints a different or even apparently more severe fate for some than for others, that is not the time for finger pointing or to puff out your chest. It is a time for sober reflection as to your own standing with God.
We can safely say that God is using COVID-19 to get people’s attention. Let us pray that many of them will listen!
We Can Say that God Is Using It for Good in the Lives of His People.
One of the greatest promises in all of Scripture is found in Romans 8:28: “[A]ll things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” Let’s be clear that the context of this promise is suffering (v. 18). The context is “tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword” (v. 35). And the extent of the promise is “all things,” which means the bad as well as the good. (In fact, in light of the context, it especially means the bad!) Finally, the nature of the promise is sovereign goodness: God takes bad events and circumstances and turns them into good for His people.
This is what He did with Joseph in the Old Testament, which is why Joseph could so confidently say to his brothers, “But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive” (Gen 50:20). It is also the story of Christ on the cross. The murder of Jesus is the ultimate example of God working evil together for good!
How does God turn evil into good in the lives of His people? He certainly does so in countless ways, but the primary “good” that God is working in us is Christlikeness. Romans 8:29 spells that out very clearly. “For whom He foreknew, he also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son….” Christlikeness is the essence of God’s good plan for your life. He is constantly working to make you more like Jesus, and His work won’t be done until you are glorified (Rom 8:30).
God also uses pain in the lives of His people to make them more effective servants. 2 Corinthians 1:3-7 teaches that sometimes God allows suffering in the lives of believers so that they are better equipped to comfort others who are suffering. In 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, God refused to remove Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” in order to keep him humble so that God’s power would continue to flow through Him.
Given these passages and many more like them, we can say with confidence that God is using COVID-19 to conform His children to Christ and to make them more effective servants. What an encouraging thought!
We Can Say that God Is Using it to Glorify Himself.
If the chief end of man (as the Westminster Catechism so memorably states) is “to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever,” then the chief end of God is His glory. In the Bible, God created us for His glory (Isa 43:6-7; Rev 4:11); He worked in Israel for His glory (Num 14:11-24; 1 Sam 12:22; Ps 106:7-8; Ezek 20:14; 36:22-23, 32); He punished the nations for His glory (Ezek 38:18-23; 39:21); He raised up kings for His glory (Isa 45:1-6); and He sent Christ to the cross His glory (John 12:27-28; 13:31-32; 17:1). God saved us for His glory (Eph 1:6, 14), and is coming again for His glory (2 Thess 1:9-10). God tells us to live for His glory (Mat 5:16; 1 Cor 6:20; 10:31; Philip 1:9-11; 1 Pet 2:12; 4:11); and He wants us to declare His glory among all the nations (Ps 57:9; 96; 108:3; c.f. John 4:23-24).
Given that backdrop, we can know for certain that God sent COVID-19 for His glory. In a million different ways, this crisis will magnify Him. How exciting!
Bottom Line: We Can Say that God Is Using It for a Greater Good.
Whether that good is to punish sin, purify His people, warn the lost, sanctify His sheep, make us better servants, or simply to glorify Himself, we know that our wise and loving Father sent COVID-19 for good reasons. He is never vindictive or sinful. Christians get into trouble when they try to speculate about the details, but we understand the basic categories. More than that, we know the character of our God. We can rest assured that He knows best.
One of the more beloved passages in all of the Bible is Ecclesiastes 3:1-8.
To everything there is a season,
A time for every purpose under heaven:
A time to be born,
And a time to die;
A time to plant,
And a time to pluck what is planted;
A time to kill,
And a time to heal;
A time to break down,
And a time to build up;
A time to weep,
And a time to laugh;
A time to mourn,
And a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones,
And a time to gather stones;
A time to embrace,
And a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to gain,
And a time to lose;
A time to keep,
And a time to throw away;
A time to tear,
And a time to sew;
A time to keep silence,
And a time to speak;
A time to love,
And a time to hate;
A time of war,
And a time of peace.
In the past several weeks, God has given us “a time to weep,” “a time to lose,” “a time to refrain from embracing,” and even “a time to die.”
In Solomon’s application of his poem in v. 11b, he says that “no one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end.” There are questions having to do with the nature and purposes of God that we will never understand—not just because we are sinners, but because we are human.
However, the encouraging thing is that, according to v. 11a, “He has made everything beautiful in its time.” When we finally see the grand tapestry of human history, including all of its darkest moments, we will without hesitation pronounce it “beautiful.” That’s what we can say.
 C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, chapter 3 (see https://gutenberg.ca/ebooks/lewiscs-problemofpain/lewiscs-problemofpain-00-h.html)