N.T. Wright made headlines in Time Magazine in the past few weeks by asserting that Christianity offers no answers about COVID-19. Anyone who knows me well, knows that I am a thankful admirer of the scholarship of N.T. Wright and that I am fairly well read when it comes to his work. That being said, I was a bit perplexed with his assertion in the Time article.
I understand his assertion that Christianity offers no answers to be a bit of hyperbole to ward off wild speculation about why God may be punishing us—that its the fault of a particular class of sinners and punishment for a specific set of sins. For instance some conservative Catholics seem to think COVID-19 is punishment for Catholics receiving communion in the hand rather than on the tongue. I can think of a lot of other things that may be upsetting God more. But Wright seems to go a bit further to suggest that it would be a “knee-jerk would-be Christian” reaction driven by mere rationalism to suggest this might be a punishment, warning, or sign from God at all. He also referred to those who might suggest such a thing as “silly suspects.” I was disappointed, not least because I probably fall into his insulting category.
I understand it would be wrong to place blame on any particular group or to suggest that this is a specific sign pointing to a particular end-times scenario. I take Jesus seriously when he warned not to assume that a particular group that experiences tragedy is made up of worse sinners than everyone else. Jesus used two smaller-scale tragedies (a slaughter of Galileans at the hands of Pilate and an accident in Jerusalem) to warn about a greater judgment to come that requires the repentance of all people (Luke 13:1-5). I also take the message of Job seriously that in this world the righteous often suffer in spite of their righteousness and not because of any particular sin. Jesus is the perfect case in point. But it is going too far to suggest that Christianity offers no answers at all and that its not supposed to, even if it is hyperbole.
There are some who have made a philosophical move to define God’s goodness in such a way that it necessarily removes any possibility of punishment coming from God. Some go to extremes this way. I used to be one of them. They take the statement that “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5 ESV) to mean that God never does anything that would cause pain and suffering to such an extent that God is relieved of any responsibility for even what the Bible clearly reveals to be his own judgment. John Barclay explains this as taking a concept—in this case God’s goodness—and “perfecting” it by taking it to its extreme definitionally. Often this takes concepts beyond how they could be defined in context biblically and then reads that concept back into scripture. Usually this involves screening out texts that don’t fit the “perfected” concept. Barclay offers Marcion as an extreme example of this biblically unwarranted “perfecting” of the concept of God’s goodness ( John M.G. Barclay, Paul and the Gift, Erdmanns, 2015, p. 71, Kindle).
Not everyone goes to the extremes that Marcion did, but many hold a view of God’s goodness that drives them to downplay God’s judgment almost entirely if not altogether. N.T. Wright is not actually among them. In his book, Evil and the Justice of God, he says, even though we are inclined to find it offensive, sometimes “God has to get his boots muddy and, it seems, to get his hands bloody, to put the world back to rights” (N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God, Intervarsity, 2006, p. 65, Kindle). The use of punishment to restrain evil no more impugns God’s character than it would that of a police officer using force to stop someone from murdering another person. But some will feel the need to protect God’s character by disassociating punishment from God altogether. Others will prefer to use passive language to describe God’s judgment by suggesting that God only allows or permits people to suffer but never causes it directly.
The reality is we can never get away from the fact that God set up the world with consequences to sin built into it, and that the Bible at times clearly depicts God taking an active role in bringing about those consequences. Those who define God’s goodness in such a way as to exclude God’s judgment altogether are following the lead of Plato more so than Moses and the prophets, or Jesus and the apostles. Interestingly, when it comes to natural disasters or plagues, Wright does seem to be somewhat conflicted. He admits that the prophets would be content to attribute them to the judgment of God, but Wright himself is not quite as keen on doing that as they were (Evil and the Justice of God, p. 81).
So, what about COVID-19? Is it a punishment for sin? Is it true that Christianity really provides no answers and was never meant to? When Charles Wesley considered the reason for calamitous earthquakes in his day, he traced their cause back to the fall in Eden and their cure to repentance and faith in Jesus. The least we can and should say about the current pandemic is that it is a reminder of the first pandemic among human beings created in the image of God that got us quarantined from Eden in the first place. The pandemic of sin continues to plague the human race today. And its ramifications in creation remain with us still. Even if you consider that Eden was a specific place on Earth and not the entire Earth itself, the fact remains that God intended the shalom of Eden to multiply and spread with his image bearers around the globe. This was also the intention with the call of Abraham’s family through Isaac and Jacob, and this is the goal of the expanded family of Abraham to include Jews and Gentiles in Christ Jesus.
COVID-19 and all other causes of disease and death among people are a constant reminder of the aborted mission of humanity in Eden because of sin and the judgment of God. Atheists might say it’s just part of the cruel and callous randomness of the natural world, but Christians should not suggest the same. We may not have insight into the particular reasons for it in the present moment, but that doesn’t mean there is no reason at all, or that Christianity doesn’t give us any clue at all. From the Christian perspective we live in a fallen world because of the fall, and the fall was because of sin, and the punishment for sin is death. This is the bad news of the problem that points us to God’s solution in Christ. Easter is the answer to the coronavirus and to all disease and death because Jesus’ death and resurrection solves the problem of the pandemic of sin that is, according to scripture, the cause of all that plagues humanity.
Jesus said he would send the Spirit “to convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8). I’m not sure how that can happen by downplaying the biblical connection between human sin and natural evil or to simply say Christianity provides no answers. To use a line from C.S. Lewis, what good is it for God to shout to us in our pain if he can provide no answers for its cause? Isn’t it normal for people to look for the cause of pain in order to alleviate it? The fact that we don’t have all the answers or the fact that there are some answers that are more problematic than others does not mean Christianity provides no answers. Rather than just calling people to lament over the brokenness of the world, why shouldn’t we also lead people to lament over the cause of the brokenness? Then we could lead people not only to lament, but to repent and to rejoice in the cure found in the gospel of Jesus Christ, who suffered under the curse to redeem us from it. To quote N.T. Wright, “there is no need to shrink back from the radical diagnosis, since the remedy is at hand” (Evil and the Justice of God, p, 100).
If the gospel of Jesus Christ is true, then we believe there are not only answers about the coronavirus, there is also an answer to it and everything else that plagues this fallen world because of the fall. Medical science may discover a solution to COVID-19. We all pray they do! But faith in Jesus is the ultimate answer to the problem of our broken and fallen world, and our sure and certain hope for the complete healing of it. And it is the answer that I know N.T. Wright knows and can explain very well. Maybe I’m just being one of those silly suspects and missing the point, but I think Wright missed an opportunity to present the radical diagnosis and the remedy of the gospel in that Time article.