Thursday 19 March 2020

COVID-19 – What does the Bible say about epidemics? Some uncomfortable truths

There have been many excellent prayers spoken and sermons preached on the COVID-19 pandemic in the last few weeks.

They have emphasised such themes as the sovereignty of God, the frailty of man and the call for Christians not to fear but rather to be good citizens, voices of calm and agents of compassion in the crisis.

As the Bible tells us we need to keep things in an eternal perspective through these ‘light and momentary troubles’ (2 Corinthians 4:17) and remember that our true treasure is in heaven not on earth. (Matthew 6:19-21)

This is not easy to hear for those of us who are sitting in our self-isolation bunkers watching 20 years of savings disappearing in two weeks and wondering if the company which employs us will even exist in two months’ time.

It’s not just the physical threat of the virus but the fact that this is hitting a world which, even before this pandemic surfaced, was already mired in debt (global debt is now a record 322% of GDP) and had already used all its fiscal ammunition.

Most of us have never encountered an event causing such widespread social and financial devastation before.

This is why it is essential that as Christians we keep our cool and act as the agents of Christ in what we say and do.

After all, we know that God will never leave us or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5) and that nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38, 39). To live is Christ and to die is gain, as the Apostle said. (Philippians 1:21)

But we also need to do some hard thinking about our global predicament – perhaps starting with asking what the Bible teaches about epidemics.

We know from science that epidemics are caused by infective agents (bacteria and viruses) that are passed from one person to another and from history that they are not uncommon occurrences.

Wikipedia documents hundreds that have occurred throughout history – resulting in hundreds to millions of death. This history of epidemics page illustrates this graphically. Epidemics are nothing new.

Just how deadly they are will depend on a variety of factors – the severity of the illness they cause, the infectiousness of the agent, the level of immunity in the population and the existence of vaccines and treatments.

Coronavirus is neither the worst nor the least we have encountered. But it is nonetheless very serious.

It causes an illness that requires hospitalisation in about 20% of people, of whom about a quarter will require ventilation. Its mortality cannot be known with certainly yet but is probably somewhere between 1 and 4%. 

It is moderately infectious (as easy as Ebola to catch) and there is no pre-existing immunity in the human population and as yet no vaccine. Nor is there any specific curative treatment – just symptomatic treatments like pain relief (if you can find any paracetamol in the shops) and supportive treatments like oxygen and ventilation/ECMO. It has a particular predilection for the old and infirm.

Thus far it has killed over 10,000 people worldwide, but the numbers are rising rapidly as we all know. 

However, it still ranks far below the worst epidemics in history listed below, all of which killed over one million people.

As you can see, the four worst epidemics in history in terms of lives lost were the Plague of Justinian, the Black Death, the Spanish Flu and the AIDS Epidemic, all of which claimed over 20 million lives. 

So we have quite some way to go yet.

So what does the Bible teach us about epidemics? And how should this shape our response as believers?

To understand this we need to look past viruses and bacteria to the spiritual realities that lie beyond.

We know that God is utterly sovereign over everything that happens in the universe. As the book of Daniel reminds us, Kings cannot rule, lions cannot bite and fire cannot burn without his permission.

God is sovereign over all things human, biological and physical and especially the rise and fall of nations (Daniel 2:21, 4:25, 5:21).

God was the author of the plagues of Egypt in Exodus 7-12 and is equally the author of the plagues described in the book of Revelation.

God is our Saviour but he is also our judge and his judgement is played out not just at the end of time but during the course of history.

Through the prophet Ezekiel God speaks of his ‘four dreadful judgements’ (14:21) – sword, famine, wild beasts and plague – which he sends both against Jerusalem (14:21) and ‘any country’ which sins against him (14:13).

Deuteronomy 28 lists the curses of disobedience which the Lord warns will strike Israel if she falls into apostasy and these include infectious diseases (28:21-22, 58-63).

The books of the Prophets in the Old Testament outline in great detail what will happen to each nation and empire in the course of history as a result of societal sin (yes nations, as well as individuals, will be judged) and in passages like Amos 4 God makes it very clear that he himself was the source of the famine, drought, blight, locusts and plague (4:10) which Israel had suffered. God is sovereign.

‘When disaster comes to a city has not the Lord caused it?’ (Amos 3:6)

When Solomon prays to the Lord in 2 Chronicles 6:12-42 asking him to deliver Israel from war, drought, famine and plague (28-31) God in his reply (7:13) makes it very clear that he himself is the author of these afflictions:

‘When I shut up the sky so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people…’ (2 Chronicles 7:13)

Jesus makes it very clear that the time between his first and second comings will be characterised by war, earthquakes, famines and also ‘pestilences’ (Luke 21;10-11).

The fourth horse of the apocalypse and its rider, named Death and Hades, were given power ‘to kill by sword, famine and plague and by wild beasts of the earth’. (Revelation 6:8)

All four horses of the apocalypse and indeed all the plagues described in the book of Revelation are released by Jesus Christ himself. It is the Lamb of God himself, who opens the seven seals (Revelation 6:1), orders the blowing of the seven trumpets (8:1,2) and orders the pouring out of the seven bowls of God’s wrath (16:1).

Many Christians today prefer to blame human beings or Satan for these kinds of cosmic events – but whilst they are most definitely involved – it is God himself who is both author and judge. Satan has to ask God’s permission to afflict Job (Job 2:4-8) or to sift Peter (Luke 22:31) – he is like a dog on a leash.

So it should not surprise us when we look at the epidemics described in the Bible - those events which seem most likely to be caused by infective agents like viruses and bacteria – that it is God, or one of his angels, who invariably is named as the active agent.

I have listed below seven major plagues described in the Old Testament. You will observe that in each case God or the Angel of the Lord is described as the active agent. Furthermore, in five of the seven it is Israel which is the object of judgement. The Assyrians and Philistines fill the other two slots.

Furthermore, each plague constitutes retribution for some specific national sin – be it insubordination, sexual immorality, idolatry or something else.

So, how should we respond as Christians to the coronavirus?

We must pray of course for the Lord's wisdom: for faith to see God's plan through it all, for hope in our security in Christ Jesus, and for strength to be the body of Christ in ministering to those in need.

There are great opportunities to show compassion to those who are suffering and many churches are already leading the way in this.  

But if we fail to see that God is also sovereign over this event – that he has not only allowed it but also caused it and that this ‘plague’ is an act of judgement and a mark of our sin as nations – we will have badly misunderstood.

‘I am the Lord, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things.’ (Isaiah 45:6,7)

Yes, God is our healer. He will bind us up. He is loving and compassionate. But he is also the ultimate author of human suffering because he is also our judge and uses it to wake us up from our spiritual slumber. As CS Lewis said:

‘We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.’

How are we deaf? It is interesting that this epidemic seems to be hurting rich Western countries the most. That, in general terms the oldest and most wealthy of us on the planet are currently being hit the hardest.

This virus threatens to outsmart us and overwhelm even our incomparably vast medical, financial and social resources. We are fighting it with all our wealth, ingenuity and scientific knowledge – and it is right to do so – but we are ultimately in God’s hands. It is he who by a subtle turn of the screw can choose to contain it or let it loose. We are putty, or dust, in his hands.

And so alongside all the good things we are doing and must do to contain, mitigate and turn back this virus, we need to ask what God might be saying to us as the wealthy and profligate post-Christian West – an end-stage culture which has turned its back on God and gone its own way.

It was Ezekiel who said of his own people many centuries ago:

‘Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore, I did away with them as you have seen.’ (Ezekiel 16:49,50)

These words could equally well describe the Western world today.

One of the most interesting of the plague accounts listed above is that surrounding the census, described in 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21.

King David takes a census of the fighting men of Israel contrary to God’s command. As a result, God sends an angel to bring a plague upon Israel. 70,000 people die throughout the length and breadth of the country – from Dan to Beersheba (2 Samuel 24:15).

But when the angel is about to destroy Jerusalem itself God calls a halt, and says ‘Enough! Withdraw your hand’. (24:16)

David sees the angel who is at that time at the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite and asks that God punishes him instead of the people (given that the census was his fault).

God’s response is to ask David to build an altar on the site, which he then purchases for 50 shekels, and sacrifices burnt offerings, fellowship offerings and prayers which leads God to call off the plague.

The place where these events happen is deeply significant.  We are told in 2 Chronicles 3:1-2 that the threshing floor of Araunah was on Mount Moriah – the place where God provided a ram substitute to Abraham for his son Isaac and where David’s son Solomon would later build the Temple. We know it as the Temple Mount today.

On Mount Moriah a ram dies in place of Isaac. On the threshing floor of Araunah animals are sacrificed in place of the people of Jerusalem. On the Temple Mount sheep and goats are later sacrificed in place of the people of Israel. Each substitutionary death averts the wrath of God.

All of these three events point forward prophetically to Jesus’ death on the cross for our sins, taking the punishment that we deserved.

The Lamb of God – Jesus Christ - becomes our Saviour dying in our place.

What will happen with the coronavirus epidemic is in God’s hands. We do not know at this point how many lives it will claim and if we will personally be included in that number.

But we need to remember that the Lamb who gave his life in order that we might stand before God with confidence on the day of judgement, is the same Lamb who pulls off the seals of judgement in the book of Revelation to unleash the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

We know that, regardless of how serious it is and how many people die, the coronavirus plague will eventually pass and become just another event in history. But are we reading the signs?

Sadly, in the context of Revelation most people on earth missed the signs. We are told that in the face of these warnings they failed to repent:

The rest of mankind who were not killed by these plagues still did not repent of the work of their hands; they did not stop worshiping demons, and idols of gold, silver, bronze, stone and wood—idols that cannot see or hear or walk. Nor did they repent of their murders, their magic arts, their sexual immorality or their thefts.’ (Revelation 9:20,21)

Murders, magic arts, sexual immorality and thefts. It is not difficult to see how these descriptions might apply today in our post-Christian West in the shadow of the sexual revolution and all its societal consequences.

Not only did they fail to repent but later, when things got worse, they like the Egyptians before them, ‘cursed the name of God, who had control over these plagues’. (Revelation 16:9)

Yes, we must do all we can humanly do to constrain and mitigate this epidemic (see my recent blog post on how fundamental proper virus testing is to this) but if we do this without reading this event as a warning from God we will have missed the point. We need to see it through the eyes of Scripture as well as through the eyes of science.

God’s words to Solomon were very clear:

‘When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.’ (2 Chronicles 7:13,14)

That is what we need to do as a church and as a nation – humble ourselves, pray, seek the face of God and turn from our sins. We are living in an end-stage culture and this is only the beginning of what will befall us if we close our ears and eyes to the signs. It is not too late but we need to act now before it is.

In Matthew’s Gospel we are told, that Jesus began to preach with the words, ‘Repent for the Kingdom of heaven is near.’ It has never been nearer than now. It is time to repent.


  1. Thank you so much for this; wonderfully clear and balanced. I've been reading many Christian comments on the Coronavirus pandemic and have noticed how frequently Psalm 106:28-30, 2 Chronicles 7:14 and 1 Kings 8:37-40 are quoted. How we need to hear what God is saying to us as we pray. And how we need to pray. Richard.

  2. Some great points, thanks. Very balanced. Eyes of Scripture not simply eyes of science. And yes, I believe many of our Western nations are overfed. And what about promising to forgive developing nations' debt? Powerful multinational corporations are also being shaken. And like many of the Egyptian plagues the people of God suffer some of them; yet the hope of the sacrificed Lamb! I'm reminded of that verse in Hebrews 12 about all things being shaken, except the unshakable kingdom of God. What's also interesting is the parallel accounts of the threshing floor of Araunah in 2nd Samuel 24 and 1st Chronicles 21: the former states God was angered by the nation and caused David to take a census, whilst the latter involves Satan inciting David. Combined, the order appears to be national sin, God's anger and moving David, Satan's involvement, David's sin, God's judgment, David's actions, then relief via sacrifice. It also makes better sense of so many dying for David's sin: there were wider issues at stake, and sown into it prophetic hope. Oh the depths of God's unsearchable are his judgements etc! (Roman's 11).

    1. Yes the parallel accounts of the census are fascinating and underline the fact that the devil is not a free agent but acts under the sovereignty of God.

    2. The reference to the census is interestingly because I mentioned the text to my sister a week ago (a week before seeing this thread) but my understanding was different. Just as Good was angry with Israel and caused the king to control (number) them so God's wrath against the people has caused the PM to control (confine) them. The lockdown is a judgement and, in itself, I believe, an evil. The Prophet a.k.a Bob Dylan saw clearly in his song Let me die in my footsteps..

  3. Dear Peter Saunders,
    Unlike the two commentators above, after reading your article, I have an issue or two I wish to discuss here, and I hope you don't mind including my comment in your forum, even if we may disagree.
    I, as a Christian believer living with heart failure and married to my dearest who is still undergoing treatment for cancer, your article does not edify, nor give encouragement or bring any ease to our concerns and of being high-risk should we catch the virus. Instead, it brings us condemnation and fear, making us aware of our sins.
    Yes, I agree that God has allowed this pandemic to develop and spread, but where I disagree with you is where you say that the pandemic was specifically sent by God to punish an apostate nation.
    True enough, Israel did go through disciplinary action during Old Testament times as you described above. But also remember that Israel was God's special chosen people, a nation from whom the Messiah would one day arise.
    And so indeed, Jesus came, and in him, that is, in Jesus Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting men's sins against them, 2 Corinthians 5:19.
    As such, we are living in the time of grace, God showing favour to all mankind, as so well put in John 3:16.
    But there will be a time when God himself will send bad things to the earth, but that time is not now. Let me explain:
    The four horsemen of the Apocalypse are not flying across the heavens at present. They are not, and cannot, for the simple reason that the Church - the universal body of Christian believers - is still here.
    Only after the Church has been taken to heaven, documented in Isaiah 26:19-20, 1 Corinthians 15:51-55, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Revelation 4:1, will God himself will begin to punish the earth at a time when Israel will take centre stage again, and there is an incident recorded in the 5th chapter of Revelation which will usher in this dreadful time at a specific moment. The fact that a whole chapter is devoted to this one issue signifies its importance in human history.
    Here, the Father gives a sealed scroll to the Son, after an appeal is sent out to prove that no other man or angel is worthy to open the scroll. This is quite easy to understand. All lifeforms, angels, men, animals, were created by God and thus unworthy to open the scroll. Since Jesus is the second person of the Trinity and therefore God himself, he is also the Creator, and therefore worthy.
    Only after the scroll is opened is when the four horsemen are released, among other bad things. Only then it can be said that God is punishing mankind directly.
    But not until then.
    This present coronavirus pandemic is a bad thing indeed. On this I don't disagree. But what I do disagree with is your idea that God is purposely punishing us for apostasy an indulging in willful sin. Rather he is merely allowing it to happen, as with all natural and man-made catastrophes which have frequently occurred since the Crucifixion.
    One case in point. The Black Death or bubonic plague occurred around the turn of the 14th Century. It had killed a much higher percentage of the European population than this present virus. Yet the percentage attending church at that time was much higher than we attend at present. Furthermore, it was down to church leadership studying the book of Leviticus and applying it to their time which eventually brought the plague under control.
    My heart cry to God is to send his Holy Spirit into the hearts of a great many, globally, Britain included. Send the Holy Spirit into our hearts and let us turn to you and be saved, and deliver us, o Lord, from this coronavirus pandemic. Amen.

    1. Thanks for sharing your concerns. I was very sorry to hear about the challenges you are facing.

      My comments on judgement related to epidemics not chronic illnesses and nations not individuals. Scripture makes it very clear that disease affecting individuals may not at all be due to individual sin (eg. the case of Job, the man born blind or Epaphroditus) and I would be very reluctant in that case to make any judgement that was not supported by the medical facts (eg. smoking leading to lung cancer or sexual immorality to syphilis). But with respect to judgement upon nations I am simply expounding what I believe the Bible teaches and have made the biblical argument above.

      As I make clear above the fact that God stands behind a pandemic does not mean that we shouldn't pray for deliverance from it or do everything in our power humanly to mitigate its effects. We should.

      As to the church being pulled out before the judgement begins I'm afraid I don't share your belief in a pre-tribulation rapture or believe that it is supported by the Scriptures you cite.

  4. At last! An article which places the coronavirus in a biblical setting. C S Lewis wrote: “Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” While we pray with compassion for all who are suffering, let us also pray that a deaf world will hear. Thank you, Dr Saunders

  5. Thank you Peter for this faithful and true word from Scripture. It is a relief - if that's the right word - to hear a proper gospel response to what's going on in the world. I hope many will pick up this kind of message and share it. If a world that, amongst other things, has killed some 1 billion of its own children in the last century won't hear what God is saying to us through a global crisis like this, it is hard to imagine what will grab our attention. May God be pleased to open the eyes of many.

    1. Anyone who has watched a woman smile and relax when they see their guilt of abortion removed at the cross of Christ will long to share that wider.

      Its time Christians were taught of the judgement that comes from innocent bloodshed for abortion, the remedy for this in the sacrifice for us of the Lord Jesus on the cross and the existence of other loving options to unwanted pregnancy - delivered by grace filled churches.

  6. People ask where is the voice of the church in response to the coronavirus. My answer is that since the church can't agree as to whether the coronavirus is a judgement from God or an attack from Satan, we can't possibly have a united voice!

    1. Why can't both be true. Have a look at Amos 4:6-13; Genesis 50:20; Acts 4:27,28 and then compare 2 Samuel 24:1 with 1 Chronicles 21:1.

      God is completely in control - he intended and will use this pandemic for his glory. Satan is no doubt active but he is like a dog on a leash, only able to do what God allows. He has to ask God's permission to test Job and to sift Peter.

    2. Yes I totally agree with you, but presumably most of our national church leaders don't because I am not hearing a united call from them for the nation to repent!

  7. Thanks Peter. Events like this are a powerful reminder that Jesus Christ is coming again and to make that our focus as 2 Peter reminds us 'Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.
    So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him.' Thanks for the reminder that God hates not only sexual immorality but also arrogance, greed and indifference to the poor and needy. As those who look forward to Jesus' coming may we be found blameless and like Jesus in character.
    I also hope this situation can be a wake up call to the church particularly in the West to recover our confidence in the Gospel message and renew a sense of urgency in making Christ known. May God comfort the disturbed- and disturb the comfortable!

  8. Why don't we do this? Because of the economic and financial disruption it would cause. Primarily with scheduled cash flows - wages, rents, coupons, any payments relating to any financial contract whatsoever, where failure to be met could set of a cascade of defaults, bankruptcies etc. Estimates like this should be taken with a sizable grain of salt, as conditions on the ground may change (for better or worse) in the days ahead. But Newspaper Ad Agency in Delhi if this paper is even close to right, the number of cases is forecasted to rise rapidly.

    India also decided to lock down every human being last week in their home to contain and eliminate this risk of virus transmission. This meant that almost entire production system also got locked down. You need human labour to produce goods and services in factories and establishments and to deliver these to the consumers.

  9. Thanks for your words.
    I tried to translate for our site, if you do not mind.


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