Plagues and pandemics have been a cause of human misery throughout recorded history. In the Christian era alone, over 200 million deaths have been caused by viral outbreaks, from the Antonine Plague (A.D. 165) to the current Coronavirus (COVID-19).
These scourges are no respecter of persons, taking the lives of the young, old, rich, poor, religious, and unreligious, alike, while creating social and economic upheaval up to and including the fall of empires. For some people, they are evidence that we are alone in a hostile, unsupervised universe. For others, they are enduring sources of doubt in the omnipotence and omnibenevolence of God. For the Church, they are opportunities to be the Body, in profession and practice, to a world in distress physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
The apostle Paul spent what were, perhaps, his last written words exhorting his spiritual son, Timothy, to “Preach the Word,” and to be prepared to do so “in season and out of season”—or, as we might say, “in good times and bad.” During an “out of season” time of persecution in the early Church, the apostle Peter urged believers to have a ready answer for why the Gospel and its promises are reasonable.
Peter’s exhortation applies equally to the Church today. For in this “out of season” time of COVID-19, the question on the minds, if not lips, of people of all religious affiliations is, “Why, in a world created by an all-powerful, all-good God, are pandemics and other natural disasters, which cause so much devastation on His creation, permitted to exist?”
While it can be easy to draw a cause-and-effect relationship between man’s moral choices and much of human suffering related to health, death, poverty, violence, war, and the like, man’s culpability for pandemics (as well as other natural disasters) is less than apparent.
Over the last several decades, one of the most striking discoveries in science is the integrated complexity of the universe. The array of physical constants and relationships that give structure to the cosmos are so precise and interdependent that if any were varied but a smidgeon, life as we know it would not exist.
Even atheist and theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg has admitted that the host of delicately-balanced parameters is “far beyond what you could imagine just having to accept as a mere accident.” The evidence for intention is unsettling to scientific materialists like Weinberg—so unsettling that they have conjured up stories of parallel worlds and multiverses to keep their materialism from collapsing like a dying star.
By all appearances, earth is a place thoughtfully designed for us, except for those sporadic hostilities of nature. But maybe those hostilities were not part of the original creation.
St. Paul writes that we groan, yearning for the “redemption of our bodies” so that mortality “may be swallowed up in life.” The universal human desire to transcend the limitations of the present world is a sign that the present world is not what it once was, nor one day will be.
In the biblical record, at each stage of creation God pronounced what he had made as “good.” The divine utterance suggests that, in its original state, the world was a hospitable place for man and that nature was responsive to man’s nurturing touch.
But after the Fall, the world became less hospitable and nature less responsive. According to the account in Genesis, man’s sin led not only to his removal from God’s presence, but to an accursed ground. As the apostle Paul later put it, “the creation was subjected to frustration.”
For a creation destined for eternity, that “frustration” was a new limitation: entropy, the universal constraint on matter and energy that puts everything on an inescapable path from order to disorder. You could say that entropy is the “winding down” of a well-tuned universe. As a result, every system, no matter how well-designed and engineered, is on the downward spiral of dysfunction, decay, and “death.”
So how does that apply to viral diseases and pandemics?
A virus, like COVID-19, is a microscopic organism that lacks the cellular machinery to harness and metabolize energy necessary for life. It is dysfunctional in that, if left to its own, a virus will decay and die within minutes to days. Only by parasitically invading a host and hijacking its cellular processes can a virus survive to replicate and further infect other hosts.
Although no one knows for sure where viruses came from originally, a leading theory is that they were once functional, self-sufficient organisms that, over time, lost genes necessary for life and reproduction. In other words, they are vestigial products of life forms subjected to the inexorable law of entropy.
Looking at it biblically, viruses are not Darwinian happenstances of a godless universe; they are the result of the limitation imposed on creation at the Fall; likewise, the sickness and disease they cause are not evolutionary consequences of Nature “red in tooth and claw,” but the wails of creation awaiting its redemption and longing to be “liberated from its bondage to decay.”
The good news is that those wails will be answered. In the long shadow of the Cross awaits a day when all things will be made new, the former things forgotten. Discord, dysfunction, disease, and death will be relegated to the past. Wolves will lie with sheep, lions will feed on grass, and all will be as pets to children delighting in them.
The heartbreaking number of illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths attributable to COVID-19 are only part of the story. Accompanying the direct effects of the pandemic are increases in rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, domestic abuse, and suicide resulting from lockdowns, isolation, job loss, and the vacillating messaging of the State and its medical authorities. It has been suggested that frustrations over the pandemic and its restrictions on public life provided the spark to the civil disorder and criminal behavior accompanying some of the social justice demonstrations over the past year.
However, as convenience stores, liquor stores, Planned Parenthood clinics, and other “essential businesses” remained opened, churches around the country, following the guidance (and in some cases mandates) of the State, closed their doors and moved services online, many for over a year.
Although some churches continued to hold in-person services with masking, distancing, and sanitizing, many didn’t, corroborating the notion that church and, by extension, religion are “non-essential” to the public good. It also signaled capitulation to the erosion of freedom of religion, as a natural right to be protected by the state, to freedom of worship, as a civil right granted by the state and subject to its priorities.
It is no coincidence that by Easter 2021, church membership and religious affiliation fell to their lowest levels in nearly a century, leaving church leaders wondering how many of the millions of worshippers who stayed home during the closures will ever return.
In most cases, the decision to close was driven by “concern for the safety of our members and the vulnerable”—a decision and rationale that would have struck early Christians as strange. In times of persecution, and under grave threat to themselves and community, believers defied the orders of the state and continued to gather together surreptitiously. But it was in times of plague that their elevation of sacrifice over safety stunned the world and led to some unexpected consequences.
In A.D. 165, smallpox raged throughout the Roman Empire, causing the deaths of up to one-third of the populace, according to the estimates of sociologist Rodney Stark. In 251, a second epidemic swept through the empire, claiming as many as five thousand lives a day in the capital city alone.
In response, pagan citizens, priests, and even medical practitioners abandoned the sick and headed for “safe places” outside the city. Dead bodies were thrown to the roadsides or left to decay in the homes of the victims. Christians, on the other hand, remained in the population centers at huge risk to themselves and their families to care for the sick and bury the dead.
Although their ministry of charity resulted in the deaths of many attending Christians, it also led to a paradoxical consequence: growth.
As Stark points out in his book The Rise of Christianity, nursing the sick not only improved the survival of plague victims, it bolstered the immunity of caregivers against future outbreaks. Higher survival and greater immunity caused Christians to become a larger proportion of the wider populace, putting pagans in closer and more frequent contact with Christians, whose lifestyles reflected beliefs that were more compelling than what their religions had to offer.
For the fledgling Church, that created the perfect storm; for between A.D. 150 (fifteen years before the first plague) and A.D. 300 (fifty years after the second), the number of Christians grew over 150-fold—from around forty thousand to over six million!
Over the next seventeen hundred years, Christian ranks continued to swell, making Christianity the world’s largest religion, with a culture-shaping influence on society that has been nothing short of phenomenal.
Christians established the first hospitals, orphanages, and universities, and they formed the vanguard of the Scientific Revolution. The Western rule of law and the great social movements of history—abolition, child labor laws, suffrage, and civil rights—owe their existence to Christian thought.
Such is the legacy of Christians who, throughout the centuries, understood the cost of discipleship (“For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it”) and accepted the cruciform life.
The same goes for Christians today in North Korea, India, and much of the Muslim world who understand that the Church does not exist to save them from adversity but to walk with them through it, guide them in spiritual growth, and equip them for fruitful service in the kingdom.
As the shared values of millennia are being upended, COVID-19 and its variants will continue to challenge the Church in how to embody the Great Commandment while fulfilling the Great Commission and Cultural Commission. However, as the collateral pathologies of the current pandemic suggest, Christian love cannot be streamed, nor can members of the body mature on the weak tea of virtual fellowship.
[Image: Caring for the Sick, from ‘L’Abbaye De Port-Royal’ ca. 1710]