Is the world under judgment? Is COVID-19 the kind of "pestilence" Yahweh warns of when He says, through Jeremiah, that Judah will be plagued by "sword, famine, pestilence"?
It's hard to read it any other way. An individual illness is a trial; a worldwide pandemic is of a different order. A burglary is a test; invasion and plunder are judgments.
It's difficult to read biblical descriptions of cities and nations under judgment without being struck by the resemblance to the world, April 2020.
Our city streets are silent; there is no longer the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, not even the wailing of a funeral dirge (Jeremiah 7:34).
Many merchants have closed their doors, and the shops of many craftsmen have gone quiet. The music of harpists and musicians and flute players has stopped; concert halls and theaters throughout the world are empty (Revelation 18:21-24). Cities are soundscapes, and silent cities are cities under the Lord's discipline.
Churches too are soundscapes, and places of assembly. Now they're empty and still. We should ponder the possibility that the Lord has had enough of our trampling of His courts, and so has put an end to our new moons and feast days (Isaiah 1:10-15).
Some will say the virus didn't do all this. The response to the virus did. There's truth to that, but it doesn't alter the point. The pestilence-and-shutdown have produced a situation that's looks an awful lot like a judgment of biblical proportions.
Yuval Levin has wisely observed that our contemporary politics of catastrophism, where everything is a life-and-death crisis, has disabled us from discerning the difference between the ordinary and the extraordinary. But our inflation of the rhetoric of crisis doesn't mean crises don't happen: "Not every moment is a time of exceptional crisis, but a few moments are." This is one of those moments.
But why? we ask. If this is the Lord's judgment, why is He doing it? What have we done to deserve this? The people of Judah asked the same question (Jeremiah 16:10). We know from Jeremiah's prophecy that Yahweh had plenty of reasons to judge Judah. If we ask the "Why us?" question, are we showing ourselves to be as dull of heart as they?
One part of the answer to the question is to clarify what "judgment" means. Judgment includes punishment for sin, but as my Theopolis colleague Alastair Roberts has pointed out, it also involves unmasking, exposure, testing, and clarification. God judges to uncover what's hidden at the bottom of things.
When harlot Babylon is judged, the city is destroyed but the judgment also exposes the city's secret: the blood of prophets, saints, and all who have been slain on the earth (Revelation 18:24).
Judgment is always apocalyptic in the original sense. As God punishes, He unveils.
We should remember too that punishment is never the end. As N.T. Wright likes to say, God sets the world to rights. He sorts and sifts, casts down and raises up. On the other side of judgment, we hope and pray, is a world that more clearly mirrors the justice of the kingdom.
Clarifications notwithstanding, we still wonder, What could move the Lord to test, or to punish? The answer will differ from place to place across the globe. I can speak only to my home country. In the U.S., I can think of several reasons, ten of them in fact.
1. We have turned from the living God to love, fear, and trust in idols of our own making. We (I) really do love comfort more than faithfulness, and we have organized our world to serve our insatiable desire for cushiness. We have become complacent with myriads of idols and quasi-idols, to which we are so devoted that we sometimes even call them (celebrity, movie, sports) idols. We have broken the First Word.
2. We don't honor the image of God in one another. We leave the homeless unhoused, the naked unclothed, the hungry hungry. We hide ourselves from our own flesh (Isaiah 58:7).
3. Millions upon millions of Christians in the U.S. wear the Triune name, conferred in baptism. Do we bear it with the weight it deserves? We live as if God didn't exist. We're practical idolaters.
4. We know no Sabbath in our 24/7 economy. We give no Sabbath. We break Sabbath by withholding relief from the burdened.
5. One of the heartening things about the pandemic is the constant reminder to protect the elderly from infection. Every news organ in the country gives daily lessons in keeping the Fifth Word. But in many other ways, our social habits and institutions erode the authority of parents, the respect of the young, and the institution of the family.
6. 46 million abortions since 1973, and counting. In many places, killing unborn children is deemed an essential service during the pandemic. How many thousands of strangers have we killed, without warrant of just war, on the other side of the world? "Your hands are covered with innocent blood" (Isaiah 1:15).
7. We defy God's sexual norms, and insist on our Constitutional right to do so. Many mock the very notion of sexual purity.
8. In the midst of a pandemic, we take hope from a rise in stock market. Domestic and foreign policy have long been directed toward the final end of a rising GDP. Labor is good; wealth is good; increasing wealth is good. But we have fashioned God's good gifts into the idol Mammon.
9. Is our public discourse characterized by truthfulness? Do we, as Luther said, put the best construction on the words of ideological opponents? To ask is to answer. We habitually break the Ninth Word.
10. Entire industries are devoted to fostering covetousness. Envy infects our politics. Our hungers and thirsts are not directed toward the righteousness of God's kingdom.
A cynic could, of course, uncover violations of the Ten Words among every people, even the most pious, in every age. True, but our defiance of certain commandments is settled, institutionalized. We don't happen to kill the innocent and pervert sex. We insist on our right to do so, and won't let God or anyone else violate our right. The rot goes deep, yet we are blind enough to boast of the solidity and stability of our foundations.
It might be said, If this is judgment, it's a very comfortable one. It is for some (like myself) who are blessed to have space to roam outside, a beloved family nearby, and the flexibility to work from home.
For those who have lost loved ones, jobs, free mobility, physical contact with friends, for those who are locked up alone or with people they hate, it's anything but an occasion for elegant relaxation.
Besides, if this judgment hasn't pierced all of us to the heart, it's only because of the Lord's mercy. If things bounce back, it's again because the Lord is merciful. But we shouldn't misconstrue relief as God's approval. Our repentance needs to be radical, or soon enough we'll face something else, something worse.
To call the pandemic a judgment is not to slip into fatalism or hopelessness. Quite the opposite. Christians want God to assert Himself as judge. Every time we sing the Psalms, we voice our hope that He will set things right and we rejoice at the prospect: For He comes to judge the earth.
God judges to bring our sin into the light, so we can repent. Failing that, He will judge again, and yet again, perhaps going so far as to demolish our world. Eventually, though, He begins to build something new from the rubble. Judgment is wrenching, truly a death, but God won't leave His world to perish. He is the God of resurrection.
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