The [corona] of the wise is their wisdom, but folly is the garland of fools (Prov. 14:24).
As the coronavirus convulses a planet without immunity, self-quarantine has become a Lenten imposition even upon the faithless. Churches bar human touch and Communion reverts to self-serve, all in an effort to somehow contain a pandemic, a viral villain we cannot see.
Reportedly, Karl Barth wrote at the end of his life of a certain bacillus besieging his kidneys,
… this monstrosity does not belong to God’s good creation, but rather has come in as a result of the Fall. It has in common with sin and with the demons also that it cannot simply be done away with but can be only just despised, combated, and suppressed. … the main thing is the knowledge that God makes no mistakes and that proteus mirabilis has no chance against him.
The theological tendency is to view God’s creation as a good thing gone bad—all due to our avaricious overreach as humans. Any cursory survey of human history confirms this. “Wars and rumors of wars” (Matt. 24:6), along with every imaginable and unimaginable wickedness, ravage human life as God made it and causes love to “grow cold” (v. 12).
With Barth, the inclination is to ascribe bacteria and viruses and the diseases they cause to Adam’s folly. But unless God’s creation defies every characteristic of biological reality, bacteria and viruses are not bitter fruits of the fall, but among the first fruits of good creation itself. If the science is right, there would be no life as we know it without them. God makes no mistakes, and bacteria and viruses indeed are mirabilis (from the Latin meaning remarkable, or even amazing or wondrous, adjectives frequently used to describe creation) and part of the plan from the start. Death itself is required for organic life to exist. This is true of eternal life too. Christ died for the sake of new life (Rom. 6:9–11). Better to view creation not as something perfect gone awry, but as something begun as very good only not yet finished.
Jesus is the source and fulfillment of all creation—“the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End” (Rev. 22:13). His purpose is love (John 3:16), which by design cannot be coerced. Thus, God factors free will into the system for the sake of genuine relationship. Allowing freedom to love means freedom to reject love. Ergo the rub. In order to have real relationships with people, God permits the possibility of no relationship. Extrapolate this logic to nature (from whence humans are made) and you might deduce, theologically speaking, that nature has been endowed with a similar freedom. The sea that inspires can also flood. The ground that stands firm can also quake and give way. The microscopic organism that serves life can threaten to take it away.
Freedom in Christ applies to the whole cosmos inasmuch as “in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible … all things have been created through him and for him” (Col. 1:16). And yet, Jesus, though he heals many, does not rid the whole world of viral infection any more than he abolishes all disease or disaster. Jesus saves us from our sins but not from our suffering and death. He doesn’t even save himself. Instead, Jesus descends deep into our humanity to share it with us for love’s sake. Our core calling as Christians remains to respond with love to God and to our neighbors as ourselves. Historically we’ve loved best amid life at its worst. Such is the way of the Cross and its glory.
“In this world you will have trouble,” Jesus assured us. “But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). With faith, hope and love, we abide the tension between beginning and end, between anxiety and peace, between what is and what will come.
Practically, to abide the tension means refusing to worry about our lives (Matt. 6:25) and give into the panic. It means resisting the urge to hoard for our own preservation. It means keeping social distance to interrupt the viral chain but breaking the distance to care for the sick in our midst, whether in our families, neighborhoods, or churches. It means serving those in need—the aged, the sick, and the vulnerable—without recourse, whether directly alongside health care workers and protocols or indirectly through our gifts and support of the trained. All the while, we never cease to pray (1 Thess. 5:17). Churches can choose to do rightly.
COVID-19 and the fear it generates must not be exploited as a means to marginalize and mistreat. It is not a “foreign virus” but endemic to our common nature as humans and thus a means of drawing us together for the good of all. It is our opportunity as the people of God in Christ to bear witness to our freedom from fear and our freedom to choose obedience and do good. “These three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13).
Daniel Harrell is Christianity Today’s editor in chief.