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How to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

Biblical scholar says that COVID-19 is not an “act of God”. Is he right?

In a Seven Minute Seminary video on the will of God and natural disasters Ben Witherington, who is a very good biblical scholar, argues emphatically that COVID-19 is not an “act of God”.

One of the main tasks of Jesus’ earthly ministry, he says, was to get rid of disease, decay, and death so it is “hardly likely that we should predicate of God something that Jesus came to correct.” God is not the author of disease decay and death, we are, all the way back to Adam and Eve. Natural disasters are part of the fallen world. Disease, decay and death are what God wishes to overcome; the last enemy to be overcome is death. So we should be “extremely wary of suggesting that, well, God sent all of this to us” as punishment. Besides, if that really were the case, we would have to say that God doesn’t have a very good aim, killing Christians and non-Christians alike.

An Old Testament story serves to illustrates the point, Witherington suggests. On Mount Horeb Elijah discovers that God is not in the wind, fire and earthquake—the mayhem happening as a result of all the natural causes. The only way to discern God’s will was from his word—from listening to his “still, small voice”. In other words, you cannot read the will of God from natural disasters. They’re just a consequence of that the fact that we are living in a fallen world.

So is he right?

Jesus healed Israel’s diseases and pronounced the forgiveness of Israel’s sins in fulfilment, Matthew says, of Isaiah 53:4 (Matt. 8:17). But why was Israel sick and in need of forgiveness? Because the nation had been punished by YHWH for its transgressions. The sicknesses that Jesus healed were not merely the arbitrary consequence of a fallen creation; they were directly attributable to God’s anger against his people and were, in effect, a sign of the devastating judgment that would befall Israel at the end of the age of second temple Judaism. Likewise, the presence of the demonic was a sign of a much greater collective madness to come. So yes, paradoxically, it is biblically correct to “predicate of God something that Jesus came to correct.”

It is not after all, the church but public health services that now do what Jesus did and rightly get the credit for it—and here precisely is the problem: the hermeneutic is enervating.

Witherington’s highly selective appeal to the story of Elijah on Mount Horeb is disappointing. The wind, earthquake and fire are caused by the Lord passing by, even though YHWH is not revealed in the mayhem (1 Kgs. 19:11). No one is harmed by these natural disasters. God speaks to Elijah in a “low whisper”, which of course is striking, but what does he say? He instructs Elijah to appoint Hazael, Jehu and Elisha to put the worshippers of Baal to death (1 Kgs. 19:15-18). Witherington overlooked that detail.

It’s worth noting also that Mount Horeb is Mount Sinai, and when God first descended on the mountain to meet with his people, his presence was revealed in storm, fire and earth tremors (Exod. 19:16-19). In the later story, God meets not with his people but with a single prophet, who complains that “the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away” (1 Kgs. 19:14). The context makes all the difference.

In the Old Testament natural disasters are often regarded as “acts of God”. Some examples:

  • The flood was God’s punishment of sinful humanity.
  • If Israel suffers famine, drought, disease, blight, “madness and blindness and confusion of mind”, etc., it is likely to be because the nation has not obeyed the voice of the Lord God and has not been careful to keep the commandments (Deut. 28:15-68).
  • When Moses accuses Korah of sedition, he says: “if the LORD creates something new, and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, then you shall know that these men have despised the LORD” (Num. 16:30). That is indeed what happens. Korah and his family are killed by a “natural disaster” from the Lord.
  • Why does the child born to David and Bathsheba die? Not simply because they were living in a fallen world. The prophet Nathan explains: “because by this deed you have utterly scorned the LORD, the child who is born to you shall die” (2 Sam. 12:14). The boy dies because his parents sinned. It’s wretched, but God is entangled in the story.
  • YHWH leads an army of locusts against Israel—on a day of the Lord—either as punishment or as a portent of a military invasion to come (Joel 2:1-11). In view of this, God urges his people to repent and return to the Lord, “for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster” (Joel 2:13).

So Witherington, like Tom Wright, thinks that God is not in the pandemic. What we need to do is avoid spreading the disease and pray for the vulnerable, the sick, and medical personnel, and that the crisis will soon be over. We should live self-sacrificially, not selfishly. We should follow the lead of Jesus, the great physician, who worked to counteract disease, decay and death.

This moderate hermeneutic accords well both with modern values and the marginalisation of the church. It is not, after all, the church but public health services that now do what Jesus did and rightly get the credit for it—and here precisely is the problem: the hermeneutic is enervating.

We are left with a very one-sided understanding of the biblical narrative. All the way through scripture, including the New Testament, God judges by means of natural disasters and military action, and often the two overlap. Jesus prophesied that there would be earthquakes and famines in the period leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by Rome (Mk. 13:8). We may have good reasons to feel uncomfortable with that, but nothing is gained—and a great deal is probably lost—by erasing it from the story,

The hermeneutic keeps God out of history. We allow him access to our hearts, and we speak in fine-sounding but mostly vacuous terms about all things being put right in the end. But evangelicalism has no way to speak intelligently, realistically and biblically about large scale historical developments—the momentous reality of the here and now. The God of history is shut out of history.

Therefore, we have no compelling or distinctive theological discourse available to speak about the much greater environmental crisis that looms over us, for which the current pandemic, bad as it is, is probably a harbinger, a foretaste, a rehearsal.

Then, finally, we have no theological ground on which to call for repentance and change. Repentance in scripture nearly always happens—and more often doesn’t happen—as part of a large-scale narrative about societies, nations or civilisations that have departed from God’s ways, and invariably impending catastrophe is in view. Jonah is sent to Nineveh, for example, to say that the city will be overthrown in 40 days. From the top down they repent and turn from evil and violence, and God “relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them” (Jon. 3:1-10).

Nothing in Witherington’s theological analysis or his list of pious, palliative measures locates us in this sort of narrative. Nothing prompts us to ask how the living God, who made us, might feel about the evil that must surely, by now, have come up before him (cf. Jon. 1:2). Nothing encourages the church to repent of its complicity in humanity’s exploitation of the natural order, put its own house in order, and then speak a word of God to the world.

Comments

I like Witherington a lot; as a single example, I found his essay on the identity of “the beloved disciple” to be thought-provoking an persuasive.

“When a city is overthrown, the righteous perish along with the wicked” – his argument for his interpretation of the pandemic would appear to exclude Divine involvement or intention in any collective catastrophe that is large enough to involve people he reckons to be “on the right side”– kind of a “Deism for crowds; theism for individuals only” posture.

But what if the people “on the right side” have been, individually and collectively, abusing their stewardship, not much different than the people “on the wrong side”, and over long periods of time have been defying the call to “wisdom”, which if heeded would save them?

And what is his theory of causation within the natural order? Is DIvine “providence” running on autopilot or is the Deity somehow more intimately involved in the goings on of the natural order? My sense is that the world-view of the biblical writers (one may disagree with it, but one ought not to disregard it) sees the Deity as being pervasively present as well as “high and exalted”. (full disclosure, I lean toward “occasionalism”; now I suppose I must go off and quarantine myself in the metaphysics equivalent of a lepers’ camp. Can’t have that meme progating among the susceptible population)

It’ll be hard to ask this without coming across as a challenge–I’m asking because I’m genuinely curious how you would interpret, in light of this theology, the passage in John 9 where Jesus tells the disciples, after they’ve asked who sinned that the blind man was born blind, that sin was not a cause but he was blind so God’s power could be observed.

Was he made to be born blind for that moment of healing so everyone could see the works of God displayed in him? Or was he born blind because of some genetic fault and Jesus used the opportunity to do a good work?

I guess I’m wondering if this particular instance falls in the ‘God punishing Israel with sickness’ or in the ‘arbitrary consequence of fallen nature.’ Or neither. Or both.

Hope that makes sense.

Nothing wrong with a challenge, Eric. I’m pretty stubborn, but I do try to learn from disagreements and criticism!

I tend to think that John’s Gospel exists in its own separate narrative domain. It doesn’t really engage with the prophetic-apocalyptic story about Israel. John makes the story of the healing of the blind man a parable for recognising that Jesus is the Son of Man (Jn. 9:35-41), but we do not have the larger perspective that the identification has in the Synoptic tradition, where the Son of Man is clearly part of a story of Israel’s sin, impending divine judgment, and eventual vindication of the righteous. So we’re dealing with something a bit different to Matthew’s appeal to Isaiah 53 to explain Jesus’ healings.

That said, the man’s blindness still carries meaning—you basically answer the question yourself. Jesus does not say that his blindness is a consequence of the fall. He says—or seems to say—that he was born blind “that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3). Jesus still dares to interpret the man’s condition, the natural misfortune that has befallen him. So he becomes a symbol—and of course, a rebuke to the Jews—of what it means to see that Jesus is the light of the world. This takes us back to the narrative of the prologue: the true light was in the world, but his own people did not receive him, etc.

It is not now the biblical scholars who are saying that this novel coronavirus is a sign of humanity’s “sin” (OK, not many people are using the word “sin”, but that’s what it amounts to) and a warning of further catastrophe to come.

We will not attribute the death of any individual victim of COVID-19 to his or her (or their parents’) sin, but we may still say, I think, that the personal tragedies are symptomatic (?) of failure at the social level, and in biblical terms the proper response to that sort of failure, surely, is repentance and change.

Were Jeremiah and Ezekiel wrong about God using “the sword, famine and disease” as His weapons?

That would depend on the yardstick, wouldn’t it? Nothing in the canon gives us reason to think they were wrong. I doubt Jesus would have disagreed with them. We, however, live in a culture that strongly deprecates the use of violence even to achieve good ends, which leaves us with a historical dilemma—how do we maintain continuity with a story worked out under very different cultural conditions without compromising either historical integrity or our theological values? Tricky.

What do you think?

Your last question (how do we maintain…?) is the definitive hermeneutical question for our times.

Andrew, you asked, “How do we maintain continuity with a story worked out under very different cultural conditions without compromising either historical integrity or our theological values?”

Is there a reason we must try to maintain continuity with ancient Jewish writings? As you know, C.S. Lewis wrote in some of his letters that he believed some stories in the Bible were fictitious and not historically true. So even if ancient Jews believed Yahweh was behind every disaster, must we, thousands of years later, maintain that view and say Yahweh is somehow using COVID-19 as a judgment?

It seems to me that Christianity has far less in common with the teachings of Christ than Judaism, so if Christians want to move away from the biblical model of divine blessings/retributive justice toward something based more on free will and natural consequences, I find that refreshing. (In this respect, I think that in trying to be more biblical, those on the Reformed side of things are perpetuating a faulty world view.)

Thanks, Peter. Two things here:

1. It might be better to say that the church today as a story-telling community needs to be in continuity with the ancient story-telling communities that produced our scriptures. That doesn’t prejudge the factual truth of the narratives, and it puts the emphasis on the historical existence of the community.

2. This narrative and historical continuity also allows us to factor in the immense differences in worldview between that of the ancient Jews and our own. We cannot help but think and value as moderns. My primary concern is that we read the scriptures on their own terms, as ancient texts—we will understand them better. But we can only narrate our experience of being a priestly-prophetic people serving the creator God, under the lordship of Christ, if we do so on our own terms. The likelihood is that our worldview is as faulty, in its own way, as that of first century Jews. But I agree that there are problems in trying artificially to perpetuate an ancient worldview.

I was able to follow your historical views easy enough, but I really struggle to see what you are trying to do moving forward. It seems as though you are trying to figure out how the Church should engage with the world now and in the near future so that it doesn’t become completely irrelevant, which if true, appears to be a noble cause, but the whole thing seems off.

I don’t mean any disrespect, and maybe I’m just not understanding your view, but it feels like you are trying to rescue Jesus or at least rescue the Church. But either way, it paints a picture of a weak ruler. If Jesus became Lord almost 2000 years ago but was overthrown by the Enlightenment, is he really king of kings and lord of lords? Or did he abdicate the throne?

Old Testament Yahweh was a fierce warrior who could shake the earth, rain fire down from heaven, and wipe out human armies. The Church today lacks an active, powerful deity, which means the human members need to try to prove to the world that they can keep the Church relevant. But it seems to me a Church that runs on human power and goodwill is just another charitable organization competing with United Way, Salvation Army, Red Cross, etc.

Andrew, I very much agree that those within the biblical-historical framework would have more easily seen something like Covid-19 as a judgment of God within history. However, noting the general measure of judgement within the canon – Israel first, then the pagan nations – I wonder how that would work out in this setting in 2020 history?

Perhaps the church (particularly of the west) as the people of God has already been under the judgment of God through the collapse of Christendom and rise of certain worldviews such as humanism, secularlism, etc. I think that is something you have argued as a plausibility. Then, Covid could perhaps end up being a “final blow” (time will only tell). Still, it seems I think we might identify Covid as a more “generalized” judgment, if it is in fact a judgment of God, upon humanity as a whole. There, at this time, seems to be no distinction between judgment upon “the people of God first, then the pagan nations” (to use the Habakkuk framework that Paul then draws upon in Romans). I hope that makes sense.

Still, perhaps our clarity on the judgment aspect will not be crystalized until we are on the other side and some years down the road. Something like prophetic insight ex eventu. And I think this is relatable to the the timings of when Scripture was recorded itself, being well down the line from when the historical events took place. They were not making fore-statements, but rather looking back decades or centuries later upon the plights of Israel and bringing prophetic insight, though speaking as if it were something future to come. Again, hoping that comment makes sense.

Wouldn’t it be better to differentiate between the marginalisation of the church over the last 200 years and the current pandemic? Tomáš Halík sees the emptiness of churches at the moment as a sign of their spiritual emptiness, but that seems incidental. The church is implicated in the pandemic because it is unavoidably implicated in global humanity.

The virus is probably a symptom of human pressure on the environment and a warning sign of worse to come. That is what we are hearing from scientists and politicians. It is not in itself a biblical or theological insight. But it seems to me a gross dereliction of duty if the priestly-prophetic people of the living creator God fails to find something constructive and credible to say about the matter.

Anyway, we could talk about judgment against the church followed by judgment against global humanity. God puts his own house in order, then he reboots a dysfunctional human order? Tricky, I know.

I’m not sure I agree that biblical prophecy is retrospective. I think predictions regarding the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians were genuine—Jeremiah, for example; and I would say the same for Jesus’ predictions about the war against Rome. But then these were perhaps not very difficult predictions to make. There are also those prophecies that were not fulfilled to take into account.

Yes, some of the biblical prophecies are spoken/written prior to them happening. But, at least if some of the critical biblical scholarship is viable (and I think it is), it may be that portions of Isaiah and Daniel are written ex eventu. Of course, the question is were they spoken before and written after - which is most certainly the reality. But I still think there is merit in the ex eventu view of some prophecies.

This is why I think the church needs to be ready to speak about this situation not just now, but also at some point in the future as it looks back on the situation and what God may have been up to.

I have been bothered for some time with the widespread, wholesale rejection of the traditional notion of divine providence. Granted, in the past it has been used in in a way that makes God the direct author of natural and human-made horrors and led to fruitless theories about who God is punishing and why. But, in reaction a lot of Christian thinkers, and it’s not just academics, but it’s filtered down into the rank and file, have bought the popular bumper sticker motto, “Shit happens”. So suddenly we have a God who is not active in history, except, and this is trotted out every time their is a major natural disaster, in the good works of the people who respond to those in need. This, to me, seems to be a kind of capitulation. Humans are the only real actors on the historical stage. Events have no theological meaning. Thanks for re-opening the question.

Very well said. Thank you.

Just found this blog today. It’s interesting. I think I agree with you, Andrew, in all of your critiques and disagree in (almost) all of your assertions! :) Precisely because of that I think there are things I can learn from you so I plan to keep reading, and perhaps asking questions if I have any good ones. This is probably the 5th or 6th post I’ve read, and you are consistent in answering questions. It’s impressive.

On COVID-19, Luke 13 came to mind for me right away. Obviously, Jesus has in mind first the coming judgment upon Israel, and is not about me or us at all. Nevertheless, Jesus seems to me to offer a hermeneutic of repentance that seems to fit with the the rest of the Scriptures. Jesus might not have been talking about natural disasters, but the tower of Siloam is falling was probably not just human error but a product of circumstances beyond human control (and certainly part of God’s providence). Certainly, Jesus moves beyond any individual’s sin to let the event be a sign of the evil of the age, the injustice of the people, and the sin of the individual as part of it. “If you do not all repent, you will all likewise perish.” The word of repentance, naming sin and evil, is not an easy word, but it is a necessary one. Jesus speaks of his apostles preaching repentance and forgiveness (Luke 24), but much of modern Christianity has avoided both and just started preaching bland, contemporary love, interpreted according to one’s own desires. Such a bland notion of nicety might fit in the modern Zeitgeist but it just doesn’t work with the Bible.

How can any modern people make sense of this without bringing them into the strange new world of the Bible and a church that tries to live in this world and story?

Thanks, Ted. I appreciate your encouraging remarks. I’m not sure I see the disagreement, though.

I commented in this post on the repentance sayings in Luke 13:1-5, making the point 1) that Jesus was calling Jews to repent because Jerusalem faced destruction, not calling all people to repent because they face going to hell; and 2) that “the passage has some relevance”, nevertheless, for us today:

Today we are confronted with our own particular historical crises, but they are not localised, they are globalised; they do not threaten God’s people alone, they threaten humanity.

Your phrase “hermeneutic of repentance” is exactly right. Much of what I say on this blog is an attempt to refocus on the historical perspective of Jesus and his followers, and that requires quite a disciplined exclusion of modern theological assumptions. But having done that, we are then in a position to come back to our own context on different hermeneutical grounds on the assumption that God is still managing the life and witness of his priestly people in history.

So I completely agree that we have in Luke 13:1-5 a paradigm for the repentance of the church today as long as we keep in view the different historical narratives that frame the two situations.

Your last paragraph, however, is ambiguous:

How can any modern people make sense of this without bringing them into the strange new world of the Bible and a church that tries to live in this world and story?

Yes, we need to recover a sense of the strangeness and remoteness of the biblical world. But what do you mean by “this world and story”? I would argue that the only world we can live in is our world, but we can live in the biblical story provided that we keep telling it as a story about the experience of the people of God in history.

I can see your confusion, Andrew. I was making a clean break in the paragraphs between other things I have read by you in the first paragraph, and this particular post in the second. I did not clearly mark the break with good signaling. A blog comment is not the easiest place to notice all the necessities of structure.

On this post, I think we are largely in agreement. I think you are right with your overall move to go from history to the present, recognizing the place of the church within the story and history of God at work in the world. I think a hermeneutic of repentance fits quite well with Lutheran theology, by the way, considering Luther’s 1st thesis of the 95: When the Lord Jesus said, “repent,” he willed the whole life of the Christian to be a life of repentance. You might disagree with Luther’s short-ciruiting of the logic, but in view of the rest of the Scripture and the church’s place in the history and story of God, he is right on.

In terms of disagreement, I had in mind the deity of Jesus, a strong creator-creature distinction, the degree to which AD 70 is in mind in the eschatology of the New Testament, and the role of theology as a hermeneutical tool in relation to history. Though, I must admit, the last two points are points at which I think I can learn from you. I’m still working on formulating my own thoughts.

On my last paragraph, I used Lindbeckian (and Barthian) categories to ask my question. I agree with you that the external, real world “out there” has to also have a role within theological thinking too. I think Peter Ochs, if you are familiar with him at Virginia, is right to see theology as the hermeneutical interplay, requiring constant repair between the scriptural world on the inside and the real world on the outside. I get concerned with the so-called real world eats up the scriptural one and we fail to see this world as God’s where he is the true real actor and we are all characters in his play, called to follow his script, so to speak.

I have tended to think that history is not a very good place to think of as that “real world” that needs to be negotiated in theology, but that’s where you are rightly challenging me. I’m Lutheran so the theology of the cross is part of my rationale. Having said that, Scripture certainly makes history a place of God’s work in the world. I need to think and work this point out more.

Thanks for the clarification and development. I’ve tried to explain where I’m coming from in this post, but don’t feel obliged to respond.

I like Dr. Michael Heiser’s take on the virus situation - primarily based on Luke 13:1-5 (the passage dealing with Pilate mingling the blood of Galileans with their sacrifices and the tower falling on and killing people). Excerpt:

“In other words, in Luke 13:2 Jesus raises the question he discerned was ultimately behind bringing the issue up. He answers it directly in v. 3: “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” The first part of that is clear—No, the tragedy that happened to those Galileans didn’t happen because they were more wicked than other people…

Jesus thus tells his audience they’re wrong to think about the tragedy in the way many of them were thinking. What each person within the sound of his voice (or reading Luke 13!) should be thinking about is how to avoid everlasting death. That’s far more important…

This brings us to the natural disaster I alluded to at the start. Jesus adds another layer to the discussion by reminding them of another incident: “Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”…

Bock unpacks the implication once again:

‘Jesus’ response to this second situation matches the first one. He rejects the assertion that worse sin was the cause of the tragedy and again issues the warning to repent… . Failure to repent definitely leaves one exposed to death. Thus, it is imperative that everyone repent…’

I hope the application to the current situation is obvious. We have no biblical right to claim that the current pandemic was sent by God to punish sinful humanity. What believers ought to be fixated on is not infusing the hearts of unbelievers with fear and dread (or anger), but with hope–the hope of the gospel. That’s what readies us all for the everlasting life or death. What a difference it would make if Christians stopped wasting time online over-claiming the cause of this tragedy and instead engaged people in such a way that the gospel would gain a hearing and traction in hearts. Maybe if people took the time they’d otherwise invest in deducing some conspiratorial catalyst to all this and instead were kind to neighbors (“pre-evangelism”) so that the good reputation of Jesus could be restored in the culture, we could look at the pandemic as an opportunity. Even if you figured it all out (!) your mission doesn’t and won’t change. It’s the Great Commission.”

https://drmsh.com/jesus-say-coronavirus-deserved-judgment-wicked-people/

Thanks, Rob. Bock and Heiser restate the traditional view, and I think it’s wrong.

Jesus does not differentiate in Luke 13:1-5 between mere physical death and an “everlasting death”. He differentiates between one lot who have already died and another lot who may yet die under similar circumstances.

He says that those who died were not worse sinners than other Galileans or inhabitants of Jerusalem. He also does not say that they were innocent.

His warning is that all Galileans and inhabitants of Jerusalem will “likewise perish” if they do not repent. That is, they will die in the same way (homoiōs, hōsautōs), which cannot possibly be taken to mean that they will perish in a different way.

The statement follows on from his words about casting fire on the land of Israel and his accusation that the Jews do not know how to “interpret the present time” (Lk. 12:54). Immediately after it comes a parable about a man who will cut down the fig tree in his vineyard if it does not bear fruit the next year (Lk. 13:6-9).

Surely, then, Jesus means that they will all perish in the same manner as those killed by Pilate and the falling tower when God punishes his fruitless people—that is, at the point of a Roman sword, under the collapsing masonry of a razed city.

Heiser says, “The threat, as in 13:3, is not Jerusalem’s fall, but not being able to stand before God.” But Jesus says nothing here or anywhere else in the Gospel about standing before God. What the Jews face is simply dying in the same way.

Heiser is an OT scholar (Ancient History & Semitic Languages). He should not be your go to person when it comes to questions about the New Testament.

Sorry, for the rude sounding comment! Obviously, Bock is a highly qualified NT scholar and Heiser’s a good OT scholar.

What I should have said was I’ve noticed Heiser is often not up on current NT scholarship so his arguments are sometimes weak when addressing NT matters.

–For the most part, I agree with Andrew’s take on this passage, but I tend to think the “likewise perish” phrase just means “also perish” i.e. they died and you will also die, unless you repent.