Evert Van de Poll, 4 April 2020
More than three billion people around the world in quarantine, locked up at home: this is absolutely unprecedented, both in its scale and in the light of history. There have always been epidemics, and in each case many people have died. Usually the outbreak was limited to a certain area, sometimes an infectious disease spread over a wider area, such as the pest in 1345-1349 that wiped out one third of the European population, and the Spanish flu in 1918 that killed 20 million people. But never before were so many people in so many countries hit in such an extremely short time as by this coronavirus pandemic.
This epidemic and the imposed quarantine raise all kinds of questions, not in the least among Christians. Some wonder if this is a judgment from God, a punishment for a certain wickedness. I do not think we should make God responsible for the pandemic in this way.
It makes more sense and it is more befitting a believer to ask ourselves what the current situation has to say to us in the light of God’s word. The Bible shows that God is not only the Creator but that He also maintains his creation and that He leads the history of mankind to the fulfilment of his purposes. We call that the Providence of God. He upholds what we call the laws of nature . He has created man in such a way that the vast majority of people affected by the virus survive. Even when a disaster hits and makes many victims, we should recall the words of Jesus: ‘there will be earthquakes, famines and infectious diseases, but that does not mean the end immediately’ (Luke 21:9-11). The end of all things is the end-goal (telos): not the collapse of humanity – as some pessimist scientists and ecologists predict – but a new creation where peace and justice reign.
The providence of God does not preclude bad things from happening, even on a large scale. Instead of looking for an explanation (why?), we’d better ask ourselves what such things have to say to us. What should we learn from what is happening? Then we will reflect and think: how could we end up in this situation? We now know that this virus, like other viruses, affects humans through the consumption of animal species which the Bible calls ‘unclean’, or through contact with animal blood, or through water contaminated by animals (e.g. rats). Humans have not kept the correct distance from the rest of nature. We also know that the corona pandemic has spread at lightning speed as people travel in hordes to the ends of the earth, often just for pleasure, and as products are being dragged all around the globe – with devastating consequences for the environment. This pandemic tells us something about the ‘transport addiction’ of modern consumerist man.
We are not naturally inclined to dwell on fundamental questions like this. Sometimes you literally have to be brought to a standstill, before you’re ready to think. Now that is actually what is happening now. Public life and a large part of the economy are literally stalled, and people are kept indoors. In their confinement, some are grumbling about masks and what not, there is criticism of the government that should have organised this or that in a better way. Others look for amusement through social media. Many can hardly wait for the moment they can go outside again. They are just eager to resume their activities and make up for the ‘damage’ and the ‘loss’ as soon as possible. But in that case, you learn nothing from it. Then all the misery, including the human suffering and the loss of so many lives, will have been to no use of all. Meaningless. Pointless.
We can also experience the forced seclusion of today as an occasion that God allows to help us listen to his voice. All of this comes to pass in the weeks before Easter, which this year almost coincides with the Biblical and Jewish Passover. A special combination of circumstances, which can shed a certain light on what we are going through.
These days we remember that the people of Israel were delivered from oppression in Egypt. But they were led straight to the promised land of milk and honey. Instead, they were first brought in the wilderness of Mount Sinai, where the Lord God would reveal himself to them, and where they would receive his word. God used this time of confinement in an unhospitable area to ‘test what was in their hearts’ (Exodus 20). Like in today’s lock-up homes, there was grumbling, people wanted to get on as soon as possible to the promised land. But there was a blessing for them in store in this desert of isolation. It was precisely there that they entered in a covenant relationship with God. It was there that they were instructed in his divine will as laid down in the Torah, the Law of Moses. How else would they know how to live in the promised land?
Jesus went a similar way. After his baptism, when the voice from heaven spoke, ‘This is my beloved Son,’ He could not begin his public ministry right away. The Spirit of God first ‘drove’ him into the desert, for a time of testing, temptation, prayer, meditation on the Word, and consecration to his heavenly Father.
We may experience our present confinement as a desert, either in a negative way (concentrating on what is lacking and what we are missing out on) or in an instructive way. We may take this as an opportunity that God gives us to reflect on how we live, what we spend our days on. What is most important to us? What do we pay most attention to? Are we grateful for what we have, or do we blindly follow an economy of ‘never enough’ and the pursuit of ‘always more’? Do we respect the limits God has installed in nature? Do we suffer with the people who are struggling with the viral disease, mourn with those who mourn the loss of a loved one, or are we above all, and perhaps only concerned with ourselves?
In the Christian tradition, the forty days before Easter are a time of repentance and prayer. A time of abstinence – eat less, consume less, fast. A time of dying to yourself, because the things that remove you from Christ must be put to death. Then, at Easter, you can really celebrate the resurrection of Christ. Firstly, as a historical event that has ushered in a new era. Secondly, the One who was Raised from the dead, also Raises from the dead those who believe in Him. The resurrection of Christ means an exodus from the domination of death; the door to an everlasting relationship with the Lord God has been opened for those who open their lives for the Risen One – including for those who now suffer from the coronavirus, and who will succumb. ‘The one who believes in me [Jesus] will live, even though they die and whoever lives by believing in me will never die’ (John 11:26).
More than that, the Risen One gives us a share in the power of his resurrection in this life, here and now, so that we can overcome by his strength and his presence the ‘dead things’ of our existence. Even while we are in confinement! This is a time to recognise what we should change or set aside, to appreciate the good things we’ve overlooked, and to arise in a renewed way of life.
When we take this to heart, the pandemic will not only bring hardship, pain and sorrow, but also a blessing.
Nîmes, in the days before Easter 2020.