The Gospel & COVID-19: Part 4, The Judgment of God

There's been a lot of discussion and debate about if COVID-19 is an act of God's judgment. Did God send the plague to punish us, to teach us something, to call us to repentance?

The camps in the debate fall along the predictable lines. Conservative Christians, especially the Neo-Reformed, are willing to consider or claim that COVID-19 is God's judgment. Progressive Christians, by contrast, resist that conclusion.

As progressive Christian, I don't think God sent COVID-19. I hold pretty strongly to a Christological hermeneutic when reading Scripture. Jesus is "the image of the invisible God" (Col. 1.15) and "the exact imprint of God's nature" (Heb. 1.3). And it's pretty hard for me to imagine Jesus sending a plague.

And yet, I'm enough of post-progressive Christian to not leave this issue so neat and tidy.

I'm wrestling with two issues.

First, I sometimes worry if my Christological hermeneutic is Marcionite.

Marcion was an early heretic who claimed that the god of the Old Testament, who created the world, was an evil, wicked god, different from the good, loving God revealed to us by Jesus. Obviously, the church rejected Marcionism.

But the ghost of Marcion still haunts us whenever we try to reconcile the God we find in the Old Testament with the God revealed to us in Jesus. Of course, we don't posit two different gods as Marcion did. But theologians worry that when our moral characterizations of God in the Old and  New Testaments become so different that they become discontinuous we wind up, functionally, talking about two different gods. The sharper and cleaner the moral break between the Old and the New Testament the greater the threat of Marcionism.

But you don't need to accuse me of Marcionism. I worry about it all on my own. (Why? "I guess I'm just a worrier. That's why my friends call me whiskers.") God sent many plagues in the Old Testament, so it's not theologically outrageous to think God could send another one.

Again, I don't think the God revealed to us in Jesus would send COVID-19. So I recoil at the suggestion. But I'm self-aware enough to worry about how I relate to the Old Testament. I work hard to embrace and be challenged by the whole of Scripture, and God sends plagues in the Old Testament. So with COVID-19 I sort of land in this weird place: Did God send COVID-19? I don't think so, but who knows?

The other thing I'm thinking about during this season has to do with the goodness of pondering our mortality.

As I wrote about during Ash Wednesday, progressive Christians flocked to the imposition of ashes sharing that day how it was good for us to "contemplate our mortality." Ashes we are and to ashes we shall return. We are all marked by death. So it is good, it seems, to contemplate and embrace our mortality. And I agree. As it says in Ecclesiastes 7:2, "It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart."

Then COVID-19 arrived. Suddenly, we really are facing our mortality. This isn't an Ash Wednesday practice drill, this is the real deal.

So, is all this heightened mortality awareness a good thing? We said it was on Ash Wednesday, but do we really believe it?

Here's what I've been pondering. We blather on and on on Ash Wednesday how good it is to embrace our mortality, our finitude and limitations, how we are marked by death. But we forget that our mortality is the judgment of God upon human sin. So progressive Christians seem deeply confused. We claim that embracing our mortality is a good thing, while at the same time recoiling in horror at the suggestion that our mortality is the judgment of God. This strange ambivalence is what sits behind our knee-jerk rejection of any suggestion that God might act in history to bring our mortality to mind.

Again, I recoil at any suggestion that God "sent" COVID-19. But I also realize that I'm trying to have my theological cake and eat it too. Mortality is a good thing to embrace, like we all said on Ash Wednesday, until, well, our mortality becomes real. I'm allowed to contemplate my mortality with ashes on my head, but God can't act in history to bring that mortality to mind. Because if God is involved in mortality then that God is a monster. So which is it, people? Is mortality a good thing or a bad thing?

Here's what I think. I think there was a lot of hypocrisy on Ash Wednesday. There we were, insulated by our affluence and the wonders of modern medicine, sharing on Twitter how good it was to contemplate our mortality. Then shit got real and we collectively freaked out. Apparently, all our mortality awareness was a bit of a show, a lot of theological virtue signalling on Twitter.

Does that mean I think God sent COVID-19? No, but I do think that death is the destiny of everyone and that the living should take that to heart. I think under the Curse and Judgment of God, waves of death roll over the earth, and will continue to do so until the New Heavens and the New Earth. And during those seasons we will groan and lament with all of creation, longing for our redemption. But I also think these seasons humble and chasten a sinful humanity. Ash Wednesday is exactly right: embracing our mortality as God's judgment upon sin is a good thing. The vanity, pride, triviality, silliness, and self-absorption are burned away like chaff. The liturgy was a scrimmage, and now it's game time.

Did God sent COVID-19? I don't think so, but I don't really know. I am but dust, too feeble of mind and heart to pronounce upon the ways of the Almighty. But I can share with you where my heart and mind have been during these days:
Psalm 90

Lord, you have been our dwelling place
in all generations.

Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

You return man to dust
and say, “Return, O children of man!”

For a thousand years in your sight
are but as yesterday when it is past,
or as a watch in the night.

You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream,
like grass that is renewed in the morning:

in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers.

For we are brought to an end by your anger;
by your wrath we are dismayed.

You have set our iniquities before you,
our secret sins in the light of your presence.

For all our days pass away under your wrath;
we bring our years to an end like a sigh.

The years of our life are seventy,
or even by reason of strength eighty;
yet their span is but toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.

Who considers the power of your anger,
and your wrath according to the fear of you?

So teach us to number our days
that we may get a heart of wisdom.

Return, O Lord! How long?
Have pity on your servants!

Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.

Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
and for as many years as we have seen evil.

Let your work be shown to your servants,
and your glorious power to their children.

Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
and establish the work of our hands upon us;
yes, establish the work of our hands!
Death is the destiny of everyone. The living should take this to heart.

So teach us, O Lord, to number our days, that we might gain a heart of wisdom.

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