The shutdowns are worth it, said New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, at a recent press conference. “And if everything we do saves just one life, I’ll be happy.” Bringing New York City to a grinding halt and risking national economic turmoil more severe than the Great Depression is all worthwhile, Cuomo argued, if it lowers the death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic even a little.
In an immediately controversial essay at First Things, the journal’s editor R. R. Reno roundly rejected Cuomo’s claim. “This statement reflects a disastrous sentimentalism,” he wrote. “There are many things more precious than life.” Anticipating allegations of hypocrisy citing his advocacy against abortion, Reno insisted these are dissimilar concerns. The “pro-life cause concerns the battle against killing,” he said, “not an ill-conceived crusade against human finitude and the dolorous reality of death.”
The germ of this argument is clearly in the air. Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, a Republican, argued that elderly people like himself should be willing to die of COVID-19 so their grandchildren can keep “the America that all America loves.” Radio host Glenn Beck made the same proposal. And in conversations with Christian family members about the value of social distancing, I keep running into similar logic.
“None of us gets out of life alive,” they say, or, “The Lord will take me when he takes me.” Physical death is not something Christians need fear, they argue, because Christ conquered death itself (1 Cor. 15:54–57; 2 Tim. 1:9–10). Dramatic measures to control the deadly spread of COVID-19 aren’t a good thing. State mandates to stay at home are causing enormous economic and social disruption—not the least precluding in-person church services—and are a greater ill than the illness they seek to curb.
This perspective is compelling because it is built on a measure of truth. This shutdown is deeply frightening. We will live with its deleterious effects for years, maybe decades, to come.
Moreover, physical death isn’t the end for Christians, nor is it the worst that can happen to us. Death is better than apostasy or the service of evil. Revelation 12:11 lauds the saints who “did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.” The Apostle Paul—who would himself be martyred—longs in 2 Corinthians 5:8 to “be away from the body and at home with the Lord.”
The Christian attitude toward death should be distinctive: We needn’t grieve fellow believers like those “who have no hope,” for they and we will be with the Lord forever (1 Thess. 4:13–18). And because Christ broke death’s power, Hebrews 2:14-15 teaches, we have been freed from the “fear of death.” These invisible realities should shape how we think about death, our health care choices included. Prolonging physical life by any means does not always honor God or the very life we seek to preserve.
Yet despite all this, the conclusion drawn by Reno and his camp goes far awry. Its theology of physical death is incomplete and, as a result, profoundly unchristian. Jesus entered a world where death from illness was commonplace and waged what I suspect Reno, were he a contemporary of Christ, might have dubbed “an ill-conceived crusade against human finitude and the dolorous reality of death.” Jesus preached a lot, certainly, but he spent at least as much time healing the sick, casting out demons, and raising the dead. The gospels describe marathon healing sessions where crowds pressed close, desperate for relief (consider Mark 3:10).
The effects of his healing were temporary, of course; every person Jesus healed or raised later died. Most likely suffered other illnesses. Jesus knew this, but he healed and raised anyway.
Jesus’ raising of Lazarus, recounted in John 11, seems particularly instructive here. Jesus knew Lazarus would live and die and live again, but still he wept over this death—and undid it. That this miracle could not unmake “the dolorous reality of death” gave him no pause.
Similarly, consider the curious story in Mark 5 where Jesus, after delivering a demonized man of his legion of demons, permitted the legion to enter a nearby herd of pigs, which then ran into the sea and drowned. Every time I read this, my attention is riveted to the pigs. Who owned them? Why does Jesus let the demons rob the owners of this valuable asset? Were the owners Galilean peasants now bankrupt? Mark doesn’t say. What Mark does say, however, is that Jesus restored the life of a man who had been chained and tortured, driven out of society, deprived of his own mind. This is a wondrous thing!—and I’m stuck on pigs.
It’s not wrong to wonder about the pigs. God cares about animals (Matt. 10:29). And God fiercely cares for the poor (Isa. 3:14–15, James 1:27). But to fixate on the economics at the expense of the miracle evinces myopia. What matters more than the economic and social distress caused by 2,000 pigs dying is the one life saved. Tragically, the people of that community begged Jesus to leave their region. Only when the healed man told everyone “how much the Lord had done” did they marvel (Mark 5:17–20).
Likewise, when the church acts like Christ—staving off and sometimes reversing death through healing—its testimony proves strong. Hospitals as we know them are a creation of Christianity, and the early church provided health care in an age when the sick and elderly could be abandoned in economic self-defense. “It was not uncommon for the chronically ill to be shunned … because they posed too great an economic burden,” notes historian Gary B. Ferngren in Medicine and Health Care in Early Christianity.
The early church shouldered that burden and the risk of contagion, too, even during pandemics and plagues. Can we follow their faithfulness? This does not mean accepting any and every policy response without scrutiny—some may well do more harm than good. But it does entail renouncing any idea that economic and social sacrifice for the sake of lifesaving is mere “sentimentalism.” We can seek to imitate Christ and the saints who have gone before us, foolish by worldly standards (1 Cor. 3:18–20), in our cross-marked fight for life.
Bonnie Kristian is a new columnist at Christianity Today,a contributing editor at The Week, a fellow at Defense Priorities, and the author of A Flexible Faith: Rethinking What It Means to Follow Jesus Today (Hachette).