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‘In the midst of life, we are in death’ – theological reflections on the coronavirus pandemic. Part


This is the second and final instalment of the authorized abridged version of the original post by Martin B. Davie. To see the full article click here.


Part II. Theological lessons from the pandemic.

What God is doing in our world, and why he is doing it, is something that for the most part we do not understand. In this world, as Paul says, we ‘know in part.’ It is only in the world to come that we shall ‘understand fully’ (1 Corinthians 13:12).


The coronavirus pandemic fits into this general pattern. We do not know why he wished it to take place, what precisely he is doing in the midst of it, or what form(s) of good he will bring out of it. Proper Christian humility means admitting that we know none of these things. One day we will, but now we do not.


There are two important lessons we can take away from the pandemic. However, before we move on to these, it is important to emphasise that we cannot take away from the pandemic the idea that all disease and death is a direct punishment for sin.


In Scripture God does on occasion inflict disease and death as a direct punishment for sin. The paradigmatic example of this is the ten plagues visited by God upon Egypt in response to Pharaoh’s refusal to ‘let the people of Israel go out of his land’ (Exodus 7:14-12-26).


However, in the Old Testament the entire Book of Job is an extended argument against the idea that one can make a simplistic equation between someone suffering from disease and disaster and their being punished by God for sin. This is what Job’s three ‘comforters’ argue at length and God’s reply to them is to say: ‘you have not spoken of me what is right’ (Job 42:7).


If we turn to the New Testament we find that Jesus never identifies the deaths he reverses, and the diseases and handicaps he cures, as punishments for sin, and specifically denies that this is the case in the story of the man who was blind from birth. (See John 9:1-3).


As I have already said, we simply do not know in detail what God is doing in the coronavirus pandemic and since in Scripture disease, and death as result of disease, is not either always or generally said to be a direct punishment for a person’s sin, we cannot say that this is the case during the present pandemic.


It follows that if someone asks us ‘Why did God allow X or Y to get sick or die?’ the only honest answer we can give is that while there will have been a reason we do not what that reason was. Unlike Job’s comforters, we must not make the mistake of claiming a knowledge that we do not possess. ‘The secret things belong to the Lord out God’ (Deuteronomy 29:29) and we are not God.

Lesson 1: We need to care for our neighbours whilst also protecting ourselves and others.

We have an obligation to aid our neighbour and we also have an obligation to take proper precautions to protect ourselves and others when we do so. Both these points are well made by Martin Luther in a treatise he wrote in 1527 on the issue of ‘Whether one may flee from a deadly plague.’


According to Luther it is never legitimate to simply abandon our neighbours when they need our help because it is the service that we offer (or fail to offer) to our neighbours that is the acid test of our willingness to serve Christ. [9] Yet, Luther insists, we can also fall into sin if we do not also take the necessary steps to protect ourselves and others.[10] Furthermore, he suggests that the same principle also applies to those who have been sick and have recovered, he said: ‘Moreover, he who has contracted the disease and recovered should keep away from others and not admit them into his presence unless it be necessary. Though one should aid him in his time of need, as previously pointed out, he in turn should, after his recovery, so act toward others that no one becomes unnecessarily endangered on his account and so cause another’s death…’ [11]

What all this means for us today is that caring for our neighbours while obeying the government’s injunctions to ‘Stay at home – Protect the NHS – Save lives’ is not just a legal obligation, but from a theological perspective is an integral part of what having a God-fearing faith means in our current situation.

Lesson 2: In the midst of life we are in death.

Set out in ‘The Order for the Burial of the Dead’ in the Book of Common Prayer, lies our second lesson. In this service the Priest says at the graveside:

‘Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay. In the midst of life, we are in death: of whom may we seek for succour, but of thee, O Lord, who for our sins art justly displeased?’

The opening words in this quotation are taken from Job 14:1 and they are then summarised by the words that follow, ‘in the midst of life we are in death.’

The important thing to note here is that these words are not just referring to life in a time of pandemic. They are referring to what is generally true for all human beings at all times and everywhere.

The present coronavirus pandemic is serious, frightening, and deeply tragic for those who lose family members and friends. However, it does not represent a fundamental change in the human situation. Death was in the world before the outbreak of the pandemic and it will still be in the world after the pandemic is over. Even if we keep ourselves safe from Covid-19 this does not mean we are safe from death. If we do not die of coronavirus then we will eventually die of something else. The mortality rate is, and always will be, 100%. G. K. Chesterton called it the ‘ultimate statistic’ – 1 out of 1 dies. What the coronavirus pandemic does is focus our minds on this stark reality. To use an image from Lewis, the pandemic is like God using a megaphone to recall us to this basic truth.[12]

However, even if we accept the truth that death stalks every human being this still leaves open the question ‘What’s wrong with death?’ Why is it something for which we should seek succour? Responding to this question from a Christian perspective we turn to Paul’s writings in his second letter to the Corinthians:

‘For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. Here indeed we groan, and long to put on our heavenly dwelling, so that by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we sigh with anxiety; not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.’ (2 Corinthians 5:1-4)


These verses express Paul’s preference that Jesus will return before he dies so that he does not need to endure the nakedness that is a consequence of death but will move directly to a state of resurrection.


‘Nakedness’ here means a disembodied state after death in which the soul exists without a body. Why this is a state which Paul wishes to avoid is because of the nature of the human creatures God has brought into existence. Men and women have been created by God to exist as a microcosm of the universe as a whole by being a combination of both the material and the spiritual parts of the created order. Unlike angels (who are purely spiritual) or rocks (which are purely material), human beings are created by God to be an integrated union of a soul and a body and therefore both spiritual and material at the same time. What is wrong with death is that it sunders this God given union.


Philip Hughes explains these verses in his commentary:

The body, so far from being a dungeon of the soul, is essential, in accordance with the scheme of creation, for the full expression of the personal and potential faculties of humanity. The soul of man is able to express itself adequately only in conjunction with the specially prepared instrument of the body. Without a body, man ceases to be truly and properly man. ‘We are burdened with this corruptible body’ says Augustine; ‘but knowing that the cause of this burdensomeness is not the nature and substance of the body, but its corruption we do not desire to be deprived of the body, but to be to be clothed with its immortality'


... At death the soul is separated from the body, and man’s integral nature is disrupted. This important aspect of the disintegrating character of death explains the apostle’s desire that Christ should return during his lifetime so that he might experience the change into the likeness of Christ’s body of glory (Philippians 3:21) without first having to undergo the experience of ‘nakedness’ which results from the separation of soul and body at death.’[13]

To be put it simply, to live fully as a human being is to live before God as an embodied being. Death renders this impossible. Therefore, death is an enemy (1 Corinthians 15:26) to the good purposes of God for the men and women he has made.

For this reason, death needs to be overcome so that God’s good purposes can be achieved. However, this is not something that humanity can achieve by itself. Medical science can postpone death, but it cannot not abolish it. Medical science can heal bodies, but it cannot not render them immortal. Medical science can even temporarily bring bodies on the brink of death back to life, but it cannot give them eternal life. As mentioned before, death will always win in the end.


Furthermore, humanity faces an additional problem, which the Prayer Book refers to it when it talks about God being ‘justly displeased’ with us. The problem is that, even if our bodies could be freed from corruption and rendered immortal, it would still be impossible for us to live on in the perfect communion with God and all God’s people for which we were created due to the fact that our souls are corrupted by sin.

The soul is the conscious, rational, willing, element of our humanity that decides to act in particular ways. The problem is that, to quote the Prayer Book once again, all of us have decided to act in a way that means:

‘We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us.’

As human beings we have an ineradicable sense that there is good and there is evil, and that good is to be preferred to evil. When we are honest with ourselves, we also know that, as the Prayer Book declares, we have time and again chosen what is evil rather than what is good. We are called to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbours as ourselves (Mark 12:28-34) and we do not do either.


This failure is desperately serious because the only thing that makes sense of the human sense of an absolute obligation to do what is good is that that the God who created us is absolutely good. However, as C S Lewis notes, this means that God:

‘…must hate most of what we do. This is the terrible fix we are in. If the universe is not governed by an absolute goodness, then all our efforts are in the long run hopeless. But if it is, then we are making ourselves enemies to that goodness every day and are not in the least likely to do any better to-morrow, and so our case is hopeless again. We cannot do without it, and we cannot do with it. God is the only comfort; he is also the supreme terror: the thing we most need and the thing we most want to hide from. He is our only possible ally, and we have made ourselves his enemies.’ [14]

Human beings, even those who are currently free from coronavirus, therefore face an urgent twofold problem. Our bodies are subject to death and therefore we need God’s help, but we have corrupt souls and therefore God, being absolutely good, must necessarily regard us with extreme displeasure. To put the same two-fold problem another way, ‘the wages of sin is death’ (Romans 6:23) because sin cuts us off from God, the source of all life, whether material or spiritual, and therefore we are subject to a double death, the physical death of the body and the spiritual death of the soul. [15]

Someone may well say. ‘But I thought Christians believe that God is love…’ This is true. Christians do, indeed, believe that ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:16). However, God is both absolutely loving and absolutely good and as Augustine says, reflecting Romans 5:8, this means that: ‘….in in a manner wondrous and divine, he loved us even when he hated us. for he hated us when we were such as he had not made us, and yet because our iniquity had not destroyed his work in every respect, he knew in regard to each one of us, to hate what we had made, and love what he had made.’ [16]

What God has done for us.

The good news which the Christian Church celebrates every year in Holy Week and Easter is that, despite of what we have become, God loves us. Therefore, he came among us in the person of Jesus Christ to free us from the twin forces of sin and death.

Luther in his commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians considers how God saves us from the ‘curse of law’, a biblical term, which is shorthand for being the objects of God’s displeasure because of sin and therefore subject to the double death of the body and the soul. Commenting on Paul’s word in Galatians 3:13 (‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who hangs on a tree’’) Luther explains first of all that in order for us to be saved from the curse our saviour had to be God himself:

And here ye see how necessary a thing it is to believe and confess the article of the divinity of Christ: which when Arius denied, he must needs also deny the article of our redemption. For to overcome the sin of the world, death, the curse, and the wrath of God in himself, is not the work of any creature, but of the divine power. Therefore, he which in himself should overcome these, must needs be truly and naturally God. For against this mighty power of sin, death and the curse (which of itself reigneth throughout the world and in the whole creature), it was necessary to set a more high and mighty power. But besides the sovereign and divine power, no such power can be found. Wherefore, to abolish sin, to destroy death, to take away the curse in himself, and to give righteousness, to bring life to light, and to give the blessing (that is, to reduce these things to nothing and to create these), are the works of the divine power only and alone.’ [17]

However, as Luther goes on to explain, God’s power only became effective for our salvation because in Jesus he took our human nature upon him, identified himself with our sinfulness, and endured the curse which we deserve. [18]

In his Dogmatics in Outline, the Swiss theologian Karl Barth reiterates the point made by Luther. He declares: ‘God Himself, in Jesus Christ His Son, at once true God and true man, takes the place of condemned man. God’s judgement is executed, God’s law takes its course, but in such a way that what man had to suffer is suffered by this One, who as God’s Son stands for all others. Such is the lordship of Jesus Christ, who stands for us before God, by taking upon himself what belongs to us. In Him God makes Himself liable, at the point at which we are accursed and guilty and lost. He it is in His Son, who in the person of this crucified man bears on Golgotha all that ought to be laid on us. And in this way, he makes an end of the curse.’[19]


God crossed the frontier into our world so that by taking our nature upon him and thus identifying himself with us he might bear the curse that our sins deserve. By doing so, he broke the power of sin and death and inaugurated for us the new life of righteousness and everlasting blessedness that is manifested in his resurrection and his subsequent ascension to the right hand of God.

Article XI of the Thirty-Nine Articles points us back to the truth I have just outlined by declaring: ‘We are accounted righteous before God only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, and not for our own works of deservings’. God accounts us righteous in his sight and therefore eternally blessed, because Jesus came to live amongst us, took our sinfulness and consequent double death upon him, and gave us his righteousness instead. When we respond to the gospel in faith, we accept what God has done for us and it thereby becomes ours. In the words of St. Paul ‘since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood to be received by faith’ (Romans 3:23-25).


As Irenaeus famously put it, Jesus ‘became what we are, that we might become what he himself is.’ [20]

Furthermore, when God created human beings, he created us to rule over world as his stewards. That is key part of what it means to be created in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1:26-27). Our sinfulness means that we have not been able to play this role properly and the whole of the created order has failed to achieve its proper goal as a result. The good news is that by saving us, God has made it possible for us to one day fulfil this role properly and so at the end of time not only we ourselves, but the whole of creation will become what we were always meant to be (see Romans 8:18-25).

What we need to be saying today.

The truths that we have looked at here, mean that senior church leaders, and all Christians, as and when they have the opportunity, need to bear witness to five key things in the present crisis, using digital media, traditional print media,[21] and even by talking directly to people when they have the chance.


First, unlike Elvis, God has not left the building. God is still, both de jure and de facto, the king of the world he has made. God has been, is and will always be, in control of all that happens and therefore, however bad things get, we need not despair and think we have been left in the hands of blind fate. The Norns are not in charge. God is.


Secondly, God’s total sovereignty means He is in charge of all aspects of the coronavirus crisis. It has not come as a surprise to him. He knows the good ends he wants to bring out of it, and he will infallibly bring them about.The fact that we cannot understand what he is doing, and why he is doing it, should not cause us concern. It would be foolish to think that as finite mortals we could in this world understand these things. However, our lack of understanding does not mean that we cannot trust that God knows what he is doing.

To use a transport analogy, we are like passengers on a bus driven by someone whose knowledge and expertise we have absolute reason to trust. The fact that he is taking us on a route that we did not expect should not cause us to panic. Because we know the driver, we can trust that he will get us to where we need to go when we need to get there.


Thirdly, although our understanding is limited, what we do know is that it is not right to say or imply that what happens to individuals during the coronavirus pandemic is a direct punishment by God for their sins. That is information known to God alone and it is both uncharitable and presumptuous to act as if it were otherwise.


Fourthly, we need to continue to serve our neighbours in this time of plague as many Christians are already doing. As Luther teaches us, we have a Christian obligation both to care for our neighbours to the greatest extent that we can, both by prayer and other forms of loving action, and also to take the necessary steps to protect ourselves and others when we do so.


Fifthly, the unique and particular responsibility of Christians at this time is to proclaim the truth that the fundamental human situation has not changed because of Covid-19. What we face now and will still face when the current pandemic is over, is the double death of the body and the soul consequent upon our ruptured relationship with God. The efforts of medical science, heroic though they undoubtedly are, are incapable of changing that situation.


Our sins are un-making us and only our Creator, against whom we have sinned, has the power to undo this process. The good news of Holy Week and Easter is that he has undone it through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. By so doing he saved us and, as we have seen, he has also redeemed the world.


It is this good news that we are called to proclaim today just as much as ever. Paul’s words to Timothy therefore apply just as much to us today as they did in the equally plague ridden first century world in which they were first written:

‘I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching’ (2 Timothy 4:2).


As a glimpse at the media coverage of the coronavirus pandemic shows, the national conversation in this country about the pandemic is currently a conversation about the medical and economic dimensions of the matter. What is being discussed is how the pandemic can be addressed through the use of medical science without wrecking the economy in the process. What is being ignored is the spiritual dimension of the pandemic – what it tells us about our relationship with God.


The task of the Church, and particularly its senior leaders, is to seek to bring God into the conversation by being willing to talk publicly about the issues discussed in this essay. The Church and its leaders need to witness to the nation through deeds of love (as is already happening), but deeds alone are not enough. There needs to be a bold and articulate verbal witness as well.

__________________

Martin Davie produces books, articles and regular book reviews which are published by Latimer Trust and by other bodies, in particular the Church of England Evangelical Council for which he is the theological consultant. The current focus of his work is on the debate about human sexuality, bishops and episcopal jurisdiction and the Athanasian Creed. He has a blog called: Reflections of an Anglican theologian and this can be found in mbarratt.davie.wordpress.com


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