How are we supposed to think biblically about the coronavirus crisis? Is it a sign of the end of the world? Is it a call for repentance? Is God judging the world? What should be our approach drawing on Scripture, Christian history, and the way of living, thinking, and praying revealed to us by Jesus?
Bible Gateway interviewed N.T. Wright (@profntwright) about his book, God and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and its Aftermath (Zondervan, 2020). (Some answers below are reflective of his interview provided by the Jesus Creed blog.)
You wrote a short article on COVID-19 for TIME magazine, the title of which was “Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus. It’s Not Supposed To.”
N.T. Wright: That was the TIME editor’s title. It wasn’t inaccurate, in that I was saying that Christianity does NOT say ‘This proves the Rapture is imminent’ or ‘this shows that we need to repent of [fill in your pet peeve]. Those were the ‘answers’ people were offering, and I was saying ‘no, we don’t get that kind of thing.’ But clearly the editor was being provocative.
Your call to lament was not one untethered to hope, but rather to guard against hoping for the wrong sort of things. Is that accurate?
N.T. Wright: To guard against hoping for the wrong sort of things, yes: and to guard against a knee-jerk reaction as to ‘what God must be doing/saying in all this.’ Actually, I think it’s a modern rationalistic thing to suppose that we ought to be able to decode ‘what God is saying’ in any and all circumstances: the over-confident modernist western assumption that we should be able to ‘explain’ everything, especially if we believe in God. The trouble is . . . which God do we believe in? Jesus’ closest followers were ‘hoping for the wrong thing’—witness the two on the road to Emmaus. Perhaps we will often be in that position.
Your closing words in your TIME article are: “In fact, it is part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain—and to lament instead. As the Spirit laments within us, so we become, even in our self-isolation, small shrines where the presence and healing love of God can dwell. And out of that there can emerge new possibilities, new acts of kindness, new scientific understanding, new hope.” Explain the idea of having a biblically grounded hope.
N.T. Wright: What I was doing, of course, was drawing attention to that remarkable passage in Romans 8—which I expound in detail in God and the Pandemic—where Paul talks about lament and sees that as the very moment when the Spirit is lamenting within us—and we’re fulfilling a key aspect of our vocation.
What are a few of the most egregious errors you hear people making when it comes to this present pandemic crisis?
N.T. Wright: (a) This is a sign of the second coming. Answer: no it isn’t: Jesus pointed out that there would be wars, famines, earthquakes, etc., and ‘the end is not yet,’ but that the eventual end would come ‘like a thief in the night,’ in ordinary times, with no great ‘signs.’
(b) This is a call to repent. Answer: that’s the stock pagan response to ‘bad things happening.’ In the Old Testament it’s a very specific point in relation to God’s covenant with Israel; but that’s tempered with the Psalms of lament where the sufferer is innocent (I’m thinking of Psalms 22, 42, 43, 44, 88 and others) and of course with the book of Job, where it’s Job’s pseudo-comforters who say ‘Ah, this shows you’ve been secretly sinning all along.’
(c) This is a great opportunity for evangelism. Answer: well, good luck with that one. If non-Christians think you’re just using the pandemic as a stick to beat them with (‘Hey! Wake up! You might die!’) it may be counter-productive. Sensible people know they might die any day. If we wait for a pandemic to have an excuse to evangelize, we were obviously asleep on the job.
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You write that Jesus weeping at Lazarus’s tomb “could be the clue to a great deal of wisdom.” What do you mean?
N.T. Wright: Some theologians have sometimes seen Jesus’ ‘miracles’ as the sign of his ‘divinity’ and his tears, and his death, as the signs of his humanity. That’s shallow and crass. John doesn’t divide Jesus up. It’s God incarnate who weeps at the tomb of his friend.
What does it mean that ‘God is in control’ or that ‘God’s kingdom is breaking in’? It means, as Jesus explains to James and John in Mark 10 (and as Paul sees so clearly in 2 Corinthians), that God’s power works through weakness and suffering.
Back to Romans 8 again: God works all things together for good with and through those who love him, who are called for his purpose—the purpose, as in the previous verses, of being the place where God the Spirit is lamenting too deeply for words at the heart of the world’s pain. Thus, if we don’t see lament—sharing the tears of Jesus—as a central part of our vocation in the world the way it is, we’re failing in our discipleship. Of course, sometimes we only realize in retrospect that the bitter lament we were expressing has in fact been taken up into the lament of God himself.
How well prepared is the church, especially in Western cultures, for addressing the new landscape of a post-COVID-19 world?
N.T. Wright: Western churches for the last few generations have been failing in living and announcing God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven. The churches of late western modernity—including ‘conservative’ late western modernity—have been captive to a Platonic gospel of ‘going to heaven when you die’ which the younger generation has seen right through as the escapist nonsense it is. Fortunately the Bible offers something far more robust.
‘Institutional Christianity’ means very different things. As soon as you say ‘institutional,’ some of today’s generation will be put off—until they grow up a bit and realize that institutions are necessary for real life (and of course that they constantly need reforming and refreshing). Some younger people are drawn back to more traditional types of ‘institutional Christianity’—like meditative liturgical music, or Cathedral-style worship—because it gives the worshipers space to ponder and grow, without thrusting obvious and one-dimensional teachings at them all the time.
My anxiety then is that there may be a time-lag before our churches wake up to the truly biblical message, which is not that God wants us to go and live with him but that he wants to come and live with us, transforming, healing, and renewing the whole creation—and that he has decisively begun that in Jesus and is implementing it by his Spirit until Jesus comes again to complete the work. In that time-lag a generation may be lost.
In particular, the western churches have cheerfully colluded with multiple divisions, so that Paul’s constant insistence on church unity is not even noticed, let alone preached on, let alone acted upon. If our churches even tried to be a bit more multi-cultural, multi-lingual, multi-generational, multi-colored, then more young people might just glimpse that this was always God’s intention for the church—to be a small working model of what God wants to do for the whole creation.
This, by the way, is simply an exposition of Ephesians 1—3. If the church had majored on Ephesians rather than Romans and Galatians (both of which of course I love to bits, and both of which do in fact say the same) we might not have had this problem in the first place.
How can the book of Psalms help us through the COVID-19 pandemic?
N.T. Wright: By providing both the model and some actual starting points for serious lament, whether personal or liturgical.
How should this pandemic be viewed in light of Jesus’ second coming?
N.T. Wright: Jesus commented that with great ‘disasters’ ‘the end is not yet.’ There have been many epidemics and the like throughout history.
How should Christians talk about God in all of the world’s current sufferings and uncertainties?
N.T. Wright: We should always go back to the cross: the fact of the cross as God himself coming to be at the heart of the world’s suffering and to take the full weight of it upon himself. The question about ‘God and suffering/evil’ only became the kind of question we now perceive it to be in the 18th century, when people had split ‘God’ off from ‘Jesus’ and had split ‘natural evil’ off from ‘moral evil’ as though ‘God’ had to deal with the first and Jesus with the second. (See my book Evil and the Justice of God, and, more fully, History and Eschatology.)
God and the Pandemic is published by HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc., the parent company of Bible Gateway.
Bio: N.T. Wright, one of the world’s leading Bible scholars, is the chair of New Testament and Early Christianity at the School of Divinity at the University of St. Andrews. Featured on ABC News, The Colbert Report, Dateline, and Fresh Air, he is the award-winning bestselling author of many books, including Simply Good News, Simply Jesus, Simply Christian, Surprised By Hope, How God Became King, Scripture and the Authority of God, Surprised by Scripture, and The Case for the Psalms, as well as the translation of the New Testament The Kingdom New Testament (read it on Bible Gateway) and the much heralded series Christian Origins and the Question of God.
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