What do Creed–reciting Christians have to say about the plague? ? They believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth. How do they relate sudden evils such as we are presently enduring, to God’s almightiness? Many different theological and religious approaches are able to say the same Creed, reflecting the varieties of theism (and deism) extant. Some say that in the Apostles’ Creed we find ‘mere Christianity’, a universal set of Christian beliefs. Others will have met the Creed earlier in life, its importance gradually waning over the tears.
What is surprising is that there has not any bringing together of God Almighty and the Coronavirus plague. Asking the question, what does the common Christian creed say to us about the plague? A least not to my knowledge. (Since writing this I have heard Hugh Palmer, Rector of All Souls, London, "What is God saying through the Virus?" on 22nd March. No doubt there are others by now.)
Of course, perhaps this reluctance is the result of reading endless opinions, written and spoken, on 'the problem of evil', that people have become tired with any implausible answers. Despite this, I thought I would have a try.
There are two types of answer, three if ‘silence’ is a possible answer. The first, let us call it ‘the public problem answer', is to have something positive and intelligible to say to people in general, relating what evils are apparent to the goodness of God. The other is the personal or individual case of evils and God’s goodness. I have a suggestion about each type of answer, relating them to Jesus’s own teaching.
The Public Case
In Luke 13 Christ comments on the fall of the Tower of Siloam, a tower near a reservoir of Jerusalem, whose fall, a contemporary tragedy, which killed eighteen people. What does Jesus say to this ‘hard question’.
Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent , you will all likewise perish. (13.5)
This follows his answer to those Galileans who had been killed by Pilate, who then mixed the shed blood with the blood of a sacrifice, to whom Jesus gave a similar response. Perhaps this was is a case of anti-Semitic action on the part of the occupying Romans, including governor Pilate, and perhaps those who asked Jesus about this did so to try in turn to stir up anti-Roman feeling in Jerusalem. This prompted the following retort of Jesus, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you, but unless you repent, you, unless you repent. You will all likewise perish’. (Luke 9, 1-3)
There are some Creed-repeaters who esteem Jesus for his actions and teaching of the primacy of selfless love and community, will find these words disappointing. The references to sin and guilt and repentance will put them off. But a contemporary Jesus – follower, who values Jesus’s words, should he not value these words? But no one, or scarcely one, of his followers today, quotes them, but shuns them. Jesus is silenced. When there are references, to sin, evil and judgment to come, there is a deafening silence. A person who respects Jesus' words sees the purpose of the Coronavirus plague and other such evils as prompts to reflection and penitence, for Jesus calls all people are called to penitence for their evils even if, outwardly respectable, they convince themselves that they have no such need.
The individual, personal case
The second example is the account of the young man who was born blind, in John 9. Jesus healed him on the Sabbath. This prompted a controversy between Jesus, the man’s neighbours, his parents, and the Pharisees. At the beginning of this encounter, his disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ To which Jesus answered ‘It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him’. So this could be called a theme of Jesus’s ministry, could it not?
Interestingly, the pool of Siloam figures in this also, as Jesus bids the man (or boy, perhaps) go and wash in the pool of Siloam. He did, as an act of faith in Jesus' command, and thereby gained his sight.
The mind set.
There is a common mindset in both examples, that evils occur as God’s punishment for evil. One difference between these stories and (as we are seeing) the reactions of the contemporary liberal and secular mindset, are obvious. Who needs to repent and to come to Christ for forgiveness? We must not forget that the call to repentance was prominent at the beginning of Jesus’, and of John the Baptist’s, ministries. (Matthew 3) For ignorance of the need for repentance is in sharp contrast to that of Jesus attitude. For a modern person, plagues have a cause, of course, but their occurrence seems random. They elicit a response, hundreds of responses, of loss and of fearfulness, as we are seeing, but they are otherwise mute.They are not to affect us spiritually.
For Jesus and those who trust him, like the beggar lad of John 9, the occurrences of evils speak. More precisely, for Jesus they speak, like the tragedy of the fall of the tower of Siloam. And what they say is of importance to him. Somehow, they too, are to elicit faith. The boy, we are not told how, had learned that this rabbi was, ‘Jesus’ (v.11). He was granted the grace of faith in Jesus the Christ. The blindness that had plagued him from birth , immediately vanished. And that remarkable physical change was the sign of a deeper, spiritual change.
His faith in the rabbi aroused various reactions. The Pharisees, not able to deny the evidence, made a legal point. They objected to Jesus’s alleged violation of the Sabbath. They said that Jesus was a ‘sinner’, a Sabbath-breaker. By contrast the boy believed that he was a prophet. (v. 13f). All they knew was what they saw, blindness and then seeing. The boy’s parents, fearing that they would be excommunicated from the synagogue if they opened their mouths in criticism of the Pharisees, were too scared to say anything, so passed on the problem to the boy who was old enough to speak for himself. He seems rather stroppy, ‘I have told you already, and you would not listen….Do you want to be his disciples?’ (v.34) The Pharisees did not pay any sympathy to his story, and alleged that he was illegitimate. That explained his blindness. They cast him out after all.
When a little later Jesus sought him out, having heard of all this, and found him, who was who interested to know more about him, confessed Christ, and worshipped him, perhaps kneeling. Jesus sought the boy and told dim that he was more than a prophet, he was the Son of Man.
Jesus had a final word: ‘For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind’. The judgment was a division, not any more about blindness and sightedness, but the separation between those who are poor and needy, like the young man, and those who were self-sufficient and self-satisfied, like the Pharisees. No more was heard of the boy. The incident ends:
Some of the Pharisees near Jesus got to hear what he had been saying, and asked him. ‘Are we also blind?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would have no guilt: but now that you say, “We see”, your guilt remains’. (40-1). Terrible words.
The current plague
Prompted by the current plague, we have turned to some of the words of Jesus. You’ll find that at such time some emphasise this and that bit of the Bible. Here I have gone to the very words of Christ about affliction and loss, the words of him who was ‘conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Pontius Pilate, was crucified , dead, and buried’. We have looked at two sorts of affliction, public and individual. Jesus did not react as the Puritans, who thought of the occurrence of plagues (including the London plague of 1645), as a society-wide divine punishment.
Here surely they forgot that whatever purpose plagues played in the O.T., we should hold to the fact that now the people of God are no longer ‘slaves’ but ‘sons’ (Gal. 4.3), Jesus taught that evils act as ‘reminders’ or as warnings of human mortality and weakness and need, and of the personal accountability before God of each of us. As we get older, such reminders are gradual, and increasingly persistent, occasional; at other times they are spectacular, as currently. As Paul said when he was in Athens, ‘He will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead’. (Acts 17.31) We should judge that like then, as now, some people will mock, while others reacted like those mentioned by Luke, ‘some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman Damaris and others with them.’ (Acts 17.34)