A Punishment from God?

Is COVID-19 a punishment?

The question comes around as often as a new disease or tragedy makes its way into the headlines. “Is this a judgment from God?” No surprise, then, that I am hearing it again from folks worried that COVID-19 is a plague sent by God to judge an unbelieving world. 

Answering the question is not so simple since the biblical witness is itself not simple. Some passages in both testaments of the Bible reveal that God has used disaster—wrought by natural events and human agents—to judge individuals and nations. Yet, other passages, especially the Gospels, reveal God as the One who heals the sick, raises the dead, and turns the other cheek against enemies. This doesn’t give us a clear, once for all, way for understanding God’s responsibility or role in the spread of disease.

What are we to do? Hundreds of books have been written about this. All I want to do in this post is provide a short, Christ-centered reflection on the question. 

TL;DR

In Deuteronomy 28, God promises to curse those who are unfaithful, revealing that God is free to use diseases as judgment. But, in Galatians 3, Christ takes those curses upon himself. This seems to lead us to assume that, whenever disaster strikes, God is with us and for us, rather than apart from us and against us.

Jesus healing his friend, Lazarus.

Divine Curses and the Divine Curse

Deuteronomy 28 offers an unsettling experience for the reader. What begins as a lovely chapter on blessing turns into a demoralizing litany of curses. Ellen Davis notes that the long list of curses gives the reader the sense that they are inescapable. If the people are unfaithful, a deluge of destruction will come upon them. Among the destroyers: disease. This is especially relevant for our current situation, given the ongoing pandemic and some loud voices who claim God is punishing the world with COVID-19. This chapter provides these clamoring tongues an apparently solid biblical basis for their view of what’s happening in the world.

What might silence these tongues? Nothing less than God made flesh, as Malcolm Guite puts it, “the love that dances at the heart of things.” Arguing for God’s perfect grace, Paul makes what is to my mind one of the most astonishing Christological claims.

For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because “the righteous will live by faith.” The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, it says, “The person who does these things will live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.” He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.

Galatians 3:10-14

Paul here is working out a theology of what Christ’s death accomplished. When Jesus died, he sufficiently fulfilled the bit in the Law which promised curses, including plagues, upon those who do not obey the Lord’s commands. Notably, in the passage above, Paul’s first quotation comes from Deuteronomy 27. So, for Paul, it seems the curses assumed by Christ, who himself became a curse, include at the least that very detailed and extensive list expounded in Deuteronomy 28.

Let me try to spell out what I mean. Deuteronomy 28 shows that God would use disease, along with other curses, as a judgment against the Israelites for their unfaithfulness. Indeed, throughout the Old Testament, we see God using sicknesses to judge Israel (and others). So, a worldview shaped by this passage would, by default, assume that a ferociously spreading disease was a judgment from the Lord. But! Paul’s understanding of Jesus’s death turns this worldview upside down. When Paul says Jesus “became a curse,” he is effectively announcing that Christ absorbed both God’s judgment and the curses through which God intended to use for judgment. Paul’s theological reflections lead us to suspect that while God may permit disease and disaster, in general, God is not using them to punish us.

Paul’s theological reflections lead us to suspect that while God may permit disease and disaster, in general, God is not using them to punish us.

All of this is strengthened by the fact that Paul is especially interested in showing how Jesus relates to God’s promises to Abraham. What was the first promise made to Abraham? Listen:

I will make you into a great nation,
    and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
    and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
    and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
    will be blessed through you.

Genesis 12:2-3

Abraham is blessed to become a blessing who blesses. The curse that is mentioned in this particular passage, against those who curse Abraham, is itself qualified by the fact that “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (If that’s not a good enough qualification for you, perhaps Christ’s call to “bless those who curse you” will do.) In some sense, this passage describes the “right-side-up” worldview. God’s default, as revealed in this promise, is not to curse and judge but to bless. Paul’s argument in Galatians is that Christ is the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham. As such, Christ teaches us that God’s default toward us is to bless us. This means that when a disease like COVID-19 comes around, it is good and right for us to assume first and foremost that God is with us and for us rather than apart from us and against us.

A Different Question

My friend, Kyle Metzger, shared with me a conversation he had with one of his trusted seminary professors. Kyle asked about a passage similar to Deuteronomy 28. The professor responded to Kyle’s question by offering this encouragement: “I am certain that God is with us, in pain with us, empowering us to birth something new out of this.” And this reframes our question altogether. Rather than asking “Is God punishing us?” what if we asked “How is God’s lovingkindness present with us in this?” 

And this seems good and right to me. Does God call us to repent of sin and to live anew? Of course. Will God ultimately judge the souls of all humankind, both the quick and the dead, as the creed says? Of course. Is God still free to do what God deems right and just? Of course. But our worldview, as revealed by Christ, is that God’s default is to love and to bless us, to be with us in and to bear with us that which we suffer. That is the good news.

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