A couple of readers have asked for my take on the Pandemic.
1. First of all, practical matters: If you haven't already been told a hundred times already, you should try to avoid going to places with people in them, besides members of your own household (assuming none of them are sick yet!). This is our way of protecting, not only ourselves, but elderly and sick people.
Some have questioned whether shutting down the economy will lead to even worse consequences than the disease itself. Certainly, this is going to lead to suffering for many poor people and small business owners and workers. But while nobody knows all of the effects of such decisions, in the short run suspending the inessential parts of the economy probably actually saves lives on net (even before taking into account stopping the disease!), what with less driving cars, and less pollution.
Maybe we can take this opportunity to remind ourselves that what we call the "economy" often reflects priorities that are not completely healthy and beneficial? Just as an individual can benefit from a period of fasting from inessential luxuries, to learn what is more important, a whole society can benefit from a fast as well.
These days there are services in most places to order groceries online and have them delivered to your door. If you can still find time slots available, that is much safer than going to the grocery store yourself. (There is some chance of getting exposed to the virus from touching surfaces, e.g. food packaging, but people breathing droplets is thought to be the main way it spreads. If you are concerned about viruses on surfaces you can wash the outer packaging in soapy water, as we have been doing.)
If you have frozen or imperishable food stored up, you can also eat that.
You can also order delivery from restaurants, if needed. This is less ideal, but at least this way at most 1 person from outside breathes on you per meal.
If none of those strategies works for you, then you might still have to go to the store, but please do so as infrequently as you can (which means you should try to make each trip count, by buying enough food for say 2 weeks if possible). Wear a mask if you can, or at least cloth over your face.
If you are in a vulnerable demographic, maybe you could get somebody else to go to the store for you? If you are healthy, perhaps you could provide this service for someone who is not?
If you are living in a house with a sick person, of course make sure their needs are met, but do your best to try to minimize your exposure to their germs. Infection is not just a yes/no thing—it turns out that the quantities of virus you are exposed to matter. If you are exposed to only a small number, it takes the viruses longer to reproduce to dangerous numbers, giving your immune system more time to crack their code and build up antibodies.
2. But what about the theological significance? In each generation, there is a temptation for Christians to read too much into the disasters of that time as if they were some unique sign, rather than the way life is in general.
Is the Pandemic a sign of the End Times? Should we expect Jesus to be coming back any moment now? Well, it seems like the Black Death (which killed a lot more people) would have been an even stronger sign, and we know that Jesus didn't come back in the 1300's. Even the Spanish Flu probably killed more people per capita than Covid-19 will.
Let's see what Jesus says, in the beginning of his discourse to his disciples about the End Times, which—going by the chronology of Holy Week in the Gospel of Mark—he probably preached on the Tuesday before he was crucified (so this blog post is 1 day late, sorry!).
While He was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples approached Him privately and said, “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what is the sign of Your coming and of the end of the age?”
Then Jesus replied to them: “Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and they will deceive many: You are going to hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, because these things must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes [and plagues] in various places. All these events are the beginning of birth pains. Then they will hand you over for persecution, and they will kill you. You will be hated by all nations because of My name.”
Note the words I have highlighted here. The words in red involve various types of human conflicts (often leading to bloodshed), the words in blue involve natural disasters (including plagues like Covid-19), and the words in black indicate what Jesus says about both of these categories: Don't panic, this is what happens in each generation, it is not any kind of indicator that you live in the last generation. It is not the end, it is just the beginning.
Jesus does, however, refer to these signs (which manifest to different degrees in every generation of human history), as the "birth pains", so he doesn't entirely reject the idea of looking at them as some sort of "sign".
Actually, Covid-19 is a sign of the End Times, but only in a certain sense. It is not the sort of sign that silly prognosticators are looking for, who—in defiance of Jesus' statement that not even angels, or the Son with respect to his human knows the day or hour, but only the Father—try to predict the time of the End. Rather, it is a sign for the wise, for those who know how to interpret events.
Let's compare it to tooth decay. When I was 28, I had to get my wisdom teeth removed; they had actually grown in perfectly fine, but they were decaying since I hadn't kept them as clean as I should have. The dentist said they'd need to be removed or else crowned, and even that would only hold for another decade or so. So I had them taken out—but that's another story.
Covid-19 is a sign of the mortality of the human existence as a whole, in exactly the same way that tooth decay is a sign of your own mortality. A wise man will learn from such experiences the frailty of his mortal condition, and will recognize from it the inevitability of his eventual physical demise. But, that does not mean that you'll be hit by a bus the moment you walk out of the doctor's office on painkiller, nor does it mean that you can use cavities as a sort of guidepost to predict the year and manner of your death. True, an untreated tooth abscess might well be the thing that kills you, but most likely you'll be done in by something completely different.
3. As I said, many Christians have a temptation to interpret recent historical events as if they were a lucid story where we can read off the plot and say what the moral is. (Scholars sometimes call this sort of tendency, Historicism.) We can be sure that historical events fulfill God's will, but it is hubris to think, in the absence of specific revelation about the matter, that we can give a detailed explanation of how or why they do so.
Let us turn to the favorite book of the prognosticators: the Book of Revelation. Near the beginning of the book, John has a vision of God in heaven, and in that vision he sees a strange sight:
Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it. I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside. (Rev. 5:1-4)
The scroll that is full of writing represents the hidden meaning of God's creation. If there is a Creator, and if he created human beings for a purpose, then this hidden significance has to exist! But it turns out that nobody is worthy—smart enough or good enough or holy enough—to penetrate the depths of this mystery.
As Ecclesiastes says: "He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end." This mystery, represented here by the "seven seals", is a problem for those who try to defend God by constructing plausible theodicies.
True, any idiot can see that it is sometimes true that suffering builds character, that freedom requires the possibility of bad choices, and that great good can sometimes come out of terrible evil. And if there is an afterlife, we cannot expect that our final fulfillment will come in this life, but rather we are being prepared for another (and unimaginable) state of existence.
But for precisely this reason, those who seek to come up with facile philosophical explanations of exactly why God allowed this war or that disease, in a way that is supposed to be more satisfying then repeating such obvious platitudes, are fooling themselves. As Housman wrote:
"Malt does more than Milton can
To justify God's ways to man."
Does that mean that there is no way to understand the purpose of Creation? Not quite, since there is one who knows:
Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”
Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. The Lamb had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. He went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people. And they sang a new song, saying:
“You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
and with your blood you purchased for God
persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.
You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign on the earth.” (v. 5:5-10)
The slain Lamb, of course, represents Jesus, and his sacrifice on the Cross. At the Cross, and only at the Cross, God's hidden purpose for human suffering and agony become apparent. Hence, only the risen Jesus is fully worthy to interpret the meaning of human history, and in particular whatever suffering the sick may be experiencing right now.
To the extent that we can have a glimmer of this now, as a person other than the Savior, it can only be to the extent that we meditate on the Cruciform love of God that was revealed there, and let it permeate our thoughts and character. This is nothing more nor less nor other than the call to fully become a saint. To become a saint is to have a satisfactory resolution to the Problem of Evil, in a particular life. But the gate is open for that person only. The next person to come along will not be able to grasp the explanation, unless they too are on the road to holiness.
As the Lamb begins to open the Seals one by one, John sees the famous "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse"—but originally the term "Apocalypse" just meant the four Horsemen that appear in the Apocalypse of John, i.e. the Book of Revelation. (Although, they were first seen by the Prophet Zechariah.) The woes they bring are the same as the ones that Jesus described at the start of the Olivet discourse, and which have characterized every era of human history: conquest, war, famine, and pestilence.
I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals. Then I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.
In the 20th century alone, about 100-200 million people were killed as a more or less direct consequence of government policy (e.g. genocide and deliberate starvation), not counting military deaths. (This is based on old notes for a Sunday school class; I'm not going to try to find all my sources again.)
When the Lamb opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make people kill each other. To him was given a large sword.
About 40 million people were killed in battle in the 20th century.
When the Lamb opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand. Then I heard what sounded like a voice among the four living creatures, saying, “Two pounds of wheat for a day’s wages,and six pounds of barley for a day’s wages, and do not damage the oil and the wine!”
Famine was responsible for the deaths of about 70 million in the 20th century.
When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth. (v. 6:1-7)
Death seems somewhat redundant with the effects of the previous Horsemen. Indeed, Death seems to get pretty much everyone eventually. Even if we only focus on the new element of infectious disease, this one is actually MUCH bigger than the other 3. In the 20th century, around 200 million people were killed by smallpox alone, and that was just one of many deadly scourges.
Most of the deaths by plague in the 20th century came near the start. As a result of vaccines and better medical care, death by infectious disease dropped in developed countries (e.g. the USA) to only about a 10% the rate it had before. Even with the novel coronavirus running rampant, we live in very sheltered times compared to every other era in human history!
The 5th Seal is also something common through many eras:
When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers were killed just as they had been.
In the 20th century there were, depending on how you count, somewhere around 45 million Christian martyrs.
Only when we reach the 6th Seal to we seem to get imagery that corresponds to the actual End Times, and it seems to comes in a huge spectacle all at once:
I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.
Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can withstand it?”
I expect that this provides us with a picture of the Second Coming which is at least as literal as the Book's depiction of the body of Jesus (a Lamb with 7 eyes and 7 horns). Yes, Christ will return to Earth just as he has promised, but John's vision was not given to him to satisfy all of our curiosity about exactly how it will happen.
In my opinion it is more profitable to meditate on the deep irony inherent in the strange and paradoxical phrase "Wrath of the Lamb". This is a rather astonishing juxtaposition. A lamb is not an animal that most people would associate with apocalyptic rage and judgement. What can this mean?
It means that when God arrives to forcibly overthrow all the powers of the world, he will do so with the same body that suffered on Earth as a meek, innocent victim of torture and execution. A person who—although he was very far from being a physical or verbal doormat—told his disciples not to resist their persecutors, and who willingly forgave his tormenters. That person, and nobody else, is going to finally end all violence and disease, and economic exploitation, and religious oppression. Not by beating them in a fair fight on their own terms, but rather by the sheer power and glory and worthiness of his unveiled and crucified divinity.
This blog post will not attempt to interpret the strange Sabbath rest of the 7th Seal. Nor will I attempt to give an interpretation of the Trumpets and Bowls which follow the Seals in the text (although this does not necessarily imply anything about their chronological order) except to note the obvious fact, that depending on how the future unfolds, the human race could easily face severe ecological devastation as a result of human sin and mismanagement of the Earth.
The main purpose of these visions and teachings is not to show us what we have to suffer—there has always been plenty of that on Earth, even without special Tribulations and Persecutions—but rather to show us who suffered along side us.
Those of us who persist in reading the Scriptures, or the events of our lives, with the goal of finding Jesus there, will not I think find them to be without meaning.