As the world reels from the economic and social tolls of the novel coronavirus pandemic, people are trying to understand God’s part in it. Some are going so far as to claim that the pandemic should be viewed as a “judgment from God.” Admittedly, empty streets, stores, and houses of worship sure look like the after-effects of judgment.
But, how should Christians think about the suggestion that COVID-19 is a “judgment from God”?
- God’s judgments on the nation of Israel in the Old Testament were connected to God’s covenant.
The nation of Israel faced foreign invasions, famine, drought, a locust plague, and ultimately deportation and captivity. All of these were consequences for failing to abide by the covenant made with Jehovah at Mt. Sinai.
Deuteronomy 28, the “backbone of the Old Testament,” makes this plain by outlining what Israel could expect if they did not obey “the voice of the LORD [their] God, to keep his commandments and his statutes which he commanded” (Deuteronomy 28:45).
“Thou shalt carry much seed out into the field, and shalt gather but little in; for the locust shall consume it.”Deuteronomy 28:38
“And thy heaven that is over thy head shall be brass, and the earth that is under thee shall be iron.Deuteronomy 28:23-24
The LORD shall make the rain of thy land powder and dust: from heaven shall it come down upon thee, until thou be destroyed.”
“Therefore shalt thou serve thine enemies which the LORD shall send against thee, in hunger, and in thirst, and in nakedness, and in want of all things: and he shall put a yoke of iron upon thy neck, until he have destroyed thee.”Deuteronomy 28:48
If Israel did not obey Jehovah’s stipulations in the covenant (obedience, singular worship, eradication of idols in Canaan, etc.), then Jehovah would respond with judgment (crop failure, drought, bondage and deprivation, etc.). If they did obey, Jehovah would protect them and bless them abundantly. This is the basic concept of covenant in the Old Testament.
This covenant relationship between Israel and Jehovah was one-of-a-kind. No other nation has had such an agreement (see Amos 3:2). Therefore, we should take pause when something like COVID-19 is called God’s “judgment” on a nation. This is not to say that God never judged other nations, but, in addition to the covenant aspect of judgment, there’s another reason to be skeptical about this claim…
- God’s judgments in the Bible are revealed to be God’s judgments.
The prophets of the Old Testament pronounced many judgments: some on Israel, some on gentile nations. As noted above, the judgments on Israel were triggered by a failure to observe the Law given to them at Mt. Sinai. Judgments on gentile nations had a different basis (mostly idolatry, immorality, and cruelty toward their fellow man, including Israel). Regardless, when prophets announced judgment, they were revealing to the people what God was doing.
“Thus saith the LORD; For three transgressions of Damascus, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof; because they have threshed Gilead with threshing instruments of iron:Amos 1:3-4
But I will send a fire into the house of Hazael, which shall devour the palaces of Benhadad.”
Amos declared that the LORD was going to judge Damascus (i.e., Syria) for their brutal violence against the citizens of Israel. The destruction of Syria, Amos reveals, will be God’s doing.
“Lo, I will bring a nation upon you from far, O house of Israel, saith the LORD: it is a mighty nation, it is an ancient nation, a nation whose language thou knowest not, neither understandest what they say.”Jeremiah 5:15
Jeremiah was announcing the coming invasion of Judah (drawing upon the covenant, Deuteronomy 28:49). Despite the fact that this very judgment was an established consequence for disobedience, it is the prophet who is revealing to the people what God was going to do, so that when it happened, they would know Who had done it. God’s judgments were plainly revealed to be judgments from God.
In a recent interview with Ravi Zacharias Ministries, Professor John C. Lennox had this to say in response to the question, “Is COVID-19 God’s judgment?”
“If God tells us in Scripture that a particular plague, or pandemic, indeed was a judgment, then we have His direct word for it. But so far as I know, we don’t have God’s direct word on COVID-19.”John Lennox, https://youtu.be/WvLfuMlAi18
To Lennox’s point, there is no new revelation today; only established revelation (i.e., the Bible). So, whatever conclusions we make about this pandemic needs to be informed by the revelation we possess, not the speculations we imagine.
- God’s judgments in the Bible are rarely personal. When they are, they are miraculous.
Most of the judgments recorded in the Bible are directed at nations, not individuals. Occasionally, however, God judges a single person (or, group of people). When that happens, it is (1) revealed to be from God and (2) it is miraculous (as opposed to providentially brought to pass).
“And upon a set day Herod, arrayed in royal apparel, sat upon his throne, and made an oration unto them.Acts 12:21-23
And the people gave a shout, saying, It is the voice of a god, and not of a man.
And immediately the angel of the Lord smote him, because he gave not God the glory: and he was eaten of worms, and gave up the ghost.”
Notice in this account that (1) Herod’s disease is revealed to be from God and (2) it was miraculous. It is also worthy to note that this event takes place in the Book of Acts which is not a normative book (establishing what should be normally expected): it is narrative (reporting what happened). Another account from the Old Testament bears similar marks:
“And Moses said, Hereby ye shall know that the LORD hath sent me to do all these works; for I have not done them of mine own mind.Numbers 16:28-32
If these men die the common death of all men, or if they be visited after the visitation of all men; then the LORD hath not sent me.
But if the LORD make a new thing, and the earth open her mouth, and swallow them up, with all that appertain unto them, and they go down quick into the pit; then ye shall understand that these men have provoked the LORD.
And it came to pass, as he had made an end of speaking all these words, that the ground clave asunder that was under them:
And the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed them up, and their houses, and all the men that appertained unto Korah, and all their goods.”
This is a (relatively) small group of rebels in the camp of Israel. Korah is the primary ringleader. Notice that (1) the judgment is revealed to be from God and (2) it is miraculous (“…if the LORD do a new thing…”). The judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah would follow the same pattern (Genesis 19), as would the humiliation of King Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 4).
Of course, God’s judgments in the Old Testament do carry valuable lessons for us today (see I Corinthians 10:1-14). It is fair to say that God is still using war, “accidents,” the judicial system, and, yes, even sickness to accomplish His purposes in the world. We recognize this because of the biblical teaching of God’s sovereignty.
Could God be judging a nation (like China or the United States) with the COVID-19 pandemic?
Could God be judging sin (like our greed, idolatry, and immorality) with the COVID-19 pandemic?
Could this be the thing God uses to move us to a one-world government?
No doubt “the most High ruleth in the kingdom of men” (Daniel 4:17, 25, 32). Those questions address actions similar to what we know God has done or will do, but it doesn’t specifically answer the question of particular purpose in events today: that hasn’t been revealed to us.
Of one thing we can be certain: God is in control. Whether a pandemic, or car accident, or miscarriage, or economic depression, He reigns. But, making specific purpose claims about COVID-19 (or any other “tragedy”) is problematic. Part 2 will address the problems that are raised by making them.