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.”
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.