Several years ago in Mongolia a pastor told me the story of a young family’s struggle. The husband had been killed in an accident. A year later his daughter also died, leaving his widow with a young son. This was a Christian family, but it was difficult for even Christian families to come around them to support them. Mongolia is a primarily Buddhist country with a belief in karma. Karma says that everything that happens to you is because of some good or bad thing you have done, either in this life or in a prior incarnation. If someone is poor or ill, society can automatically judge that they deserve the hardship they are facing. As a result, showing compassion to the needy is not a high value.
Belief in karma leads to the perspective that suffering is shameful. If you are suffering, you will sense have done something bad that you should be ashamed of. So people do their best to cover up any hardships they face, lest others see their shame. People may be reticent to see a doctor, and particularly fearful of losing face if a medical vehicle were to show up outside their home. While physical illness is seen as a source of shame, mental illness is seen as especially shameful. Those with physical handicaps, learning disabilities or mental illnesses may be kept at home, fearing a loss of face for the entire family if their shameful condition becomes public knowledge.
How did Jesus treat the sick and disabled? Jesus never shamed them. He had no problem rebuking people for adultery, theft, idolatry, injustice and dishonesty. Yet while he healed many sick people, he never once rebuked anyone for being sick.
So why do we face sickness and death? Why in particular are we having a pandemic today? Romans 5:12 gives us an answer: “Just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, in this way death came to all men, because all have sinned.” In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve became mortal because of their sin. One of the many qualities we inherit through their DNA is mortality. Everybody dies because everybody is member of a mortal species. Some die young, some old, but all die. In that respect coronavirus doesn’t change anything at all. The death rate still remains at 100%.
Christians are not exempt. Romans 8:22-23 says, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” The entire universe is groaning. This is the Christian explanation for earthquakes, typhoons, supernovas and the death of plants and animals. People groan too, because we all get sick and die. Paul says that Christians are not exempt—we groan just like everyone else does. The death rate for Christians is 100%, just like for the general public. Many believers have died from coronavirus. That shouldn’t be surprising.
So is coronavirus a judgment for sin? If you mean in the general sense that everyone everywhere dies because we all do bad things, then coronavirus joins heart disease, cancer and other afflictions as one of the sources that brings about our mortality. But if your meaning is that the entire world has done unusually wicked things in 2020 and especially deserves suffering at this time, I cannot say. The entire human race has been self-centered throughout all generations.
Instead of viewing coronavirus as a judgment, I tend to see it as an alarm. Think of it like a police siren or a “bridge out” sign or a bad result from a blood test. These things scream at us and say “Something is wrong! Wake up! Red alert! You need to deal with this RIGHT NOW!” Many of us had peace and prosperity in the years leading up to 2020. Things were good, we were busy with many worthwhile pursuits and felt no urgent need for God. Now we are all aware of our medical and economic frailty. We perceive that we need God.
Far from simply being an act of divine anger, this pandemic is also an act of divine kindness to highlight a crisis more urgent than physical death. “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather be afraid of the one who can destroy both body and soul in hell” (Matthew 10:28). Pandemic or not, we will all be dead in 100 years. If we turn from our evil deeds and follow Christ, we will spend eternity in the joys of heaven. Otherwise we will face the suffering of hell. To die in one’s 30’s of a pulmonary illness is a small price to pay to miss out on millennia of suffering.
Do you believe that God doesn’t care about the pain we face? Do you believe that God stands in heaven pointing an angry finger of judgment at us? Not at all. God handled the problem of global wickedness with a process we could call Reverse Karma. God took the only completely righteous person in human history, Jesus Christ, and poured out on him the punishment due everyone else. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24). Jesus could have stood by and ignored the shame of our suffering. Instead he took on himself both the pain and the shame that should have been ours. By doing this he opened the door that in heaven we can be delivered from all death, pain and wickedness. This is his gracious gift to us.