• Martin B. Davie

‘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 t