This is the third short book-length theological response to the coronavirus pandemic that I’ve read. I’ve also looked at John Piper’s Coronavirus and Christ and Walter Brueggemann’s Virus as a Summons to Faith: Biblical Reflections in a Time of Loss, Grief, and Uncertainty.
Tom Wright’s contribution, God and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and its Aftermath, was written to develop the ideas sketched in his Time magazine article. I was disappointed by what struck me as the rather negative tone of that piece. His aim has been to “resist the knee-jerk reactions that come so readily to mind.” Fair enough, but I think he pays a heavy theological and missiological price for such cautiousness, which after all—arguably—is just the other knee jerking.
The central thesis of the book is easily stated: when the “world is going through great convulsions”, the appropriate Christian response is to lament, groan with creation, pray in the power of the Spirit, and serve—especially to serve the poor and defend their interests.
The positive programme, however, is set out repeatedly and expressly in opposition to what he sees as a rash of dubious prophesying around coronavirus. Yes, Amos said that God would reveal what he was about to do to his servants the prophets (Amos 3:7). “Does disaster come to a city,” God says to him, “unless the Lord has done it?” But Wright thinks that we have had too many prophets and religious conspiracy theorists telling us what the Lord is doing.
These range from the cause-and-effect pragmatists (it’s all because governments didn’t prepare properly for a pandemic) to the strikingly detached moralizers (it’s all because the world needs to repent of sexual sin) to valid but separate concerns (it’s reminding us about the ecological crisis).
His method, therefore, is to develop a reading of scripture that downplays prophecy, suppressing the realistic future orientation of so much of the biblical vision and substituting in its place a safe quietism expressed in lament, prayer, and faithful service.
That bothers me. I rather think that the sort of apocalyptic reading of the New Testament for which Wright is famous (ironically) gives us reason and method for developing a theological response that connects the pandemic and the ecological crisis in a compelling modern narrative about the living creator God, who is the God of history.
The book has chapters examining what Wright regards as key texts in the Old Testament, the Gospels, and the rest of the New Testament. The final chapter asks “Where do we go from here?” There is much that is good and wise in it, but my contention here will be that it misses an opportunity—perhaps the best opportunity that the modern church has been given to regain some “prophetic” traction in our age.
The Old Testament
Wright suggests that the Old Testament speaks on two different levels. In the story of Israel Brueggemann’s covenantal quid pro quo is operative: Israel is disobedient, the punishment of exile kicks in, but ultimately God is gracious and Israel is restored. But in some of the Psalms and in the book of Job “there runs the deeper story of the good creation and the dark power that from the start has tried to destroy God’s good handiwork.” According to this story, when we suffer for no apparent reason, “we are to lament, we are to complain, we are to state the case, and leave it with God.”
In Wright’s view, coronavirus belongs in the second story, not the first: it is not punishment for sin, it is merely symptomatic of the inexplicable brokenness of the world.
The problem I have with this is that these Psalms are still part of the story of the covenant people, they do not constitute a different tradition. No text of lament—certainly not the book of Lamentations—exists in isolation from a narrative which finds God at work in large-scale historical events that have significant outcomes for his people.
Even the book of Job, for all its theological obliqueness, does not really question this. The link between righteousness and well-being is stress-tested in extremis, but the whole point of the book is that the mechanism survives the test. Job did not curse God, and in the end the Lord restored his fortunes and “blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning” (Job. 42:10, 12).
In other words, these two narrative levels cannot be pulled apart quite as easily as Wright suggests. The story of God’s people cannot be disentangled from the thick mesh of stories about nations, empires, and civilisations that makes history—stories of hubris and defiance from Babel, to Babylon, to Babylon the great, to the towering industrial, commercial, and military edifices of the modern world. And vice versa.
Jesus and the prophets
Wright gets the slaughter of the Galileans and the collapse of the tower of Siloam right, though the wrong interpretation would have suited his approach better (Lk. 13:1-5). “Unless the people changed their ways radically, then Roman swords and falling stonework would finish most of them off.” It’s a direct instance of Jesus reading “the signs of the times” (Lk. 12:54-56). “So far, so prophetic. Forty years later, Jesus was proved right.”
But when this evil and adulterous generation came asking for a sign, Wright says, Jesus would only point them to the “sign of the prophet Jonah”—in other words, to himself. Otherwise, his signs were “all about new creation: water into wine, healings, food for the hungry, sight for the blind, life for the dead.”
So Jesus is “standing at a moment of great transition.” Like one of the prophets of old he calls Israel to repent and get off a road that will lead to a catastrophic war against Rome. But at the same time, he points forward to a new world, in which he himself will be the one true sign, and—seemingly—it will no longer be possible or necessary or right to read the signs and ask what we should be repenting of. Jesus says, “Don’t be disturbed; the end is not yet” (Matt. 24:6).
Surely not! The saying belongs to the narrative of the build up to the catastrophic war against Rome. The end is not yet: there will be war, hunger, earthquakes; the community of disciples will come under intense strain because of their witness to the coming reign of Christ; the good news of what YHWH is doing in Israel will be proclaimed to the nations… and then the end will come! There is no comfort for us in this. It’s all of a piece. Indeed, this is exactly the point that Wright makes in Jesus and the Victory of God (346-48).
In much the same fashion, he takes the Lord’s prayer out of its historical context, arguing that he expected them to pray it every day, “not just when a sudden global crisis occurs.” I think Jesus taught them to pray in this way precisely because Israel faced a national crisis. He took his own immediate historical circumstances much more seriously than Wright—of all people!—seems to think. The prayer is that God would act decisively and soon to repair the damage done to his reputation in the ancient world by Israel’s shocking behaviour, and that the disciples would play their part in this “judgment” well.
Wright is so anxious to forestall the modern apocalypticists that he refuses to allow Jesus a positive apocalyptic vision of his own future. He argues that the New Testament focuses everything on the death and resurrection of Jesus and that we must simply work outwards from there.
But that’s not what Jesus did. Jesus’ vision was centred not on his death and resurrection but on the future judgment and vindication signified by the symbolism of a son of man figure coming on the clouds of heaven. His answer to Caiaphas was not that the Council would see him raised from the dead but that before this corrupt generation of Jews disappeared from history (Matt. 10:23; 16:28; 23:36; 24:34, and parallels), they would see him seated at the right hand of Power and coming with the clouds of heaven.
My point is that we cannot separate Jesus from the concrete moment and the looming historical crisis. If we are going to appeal to the Gospels to make sense of the pandemic, we cannot carelessly present Jesus as a universal abstraction—even representing the renewal of creation—and say that history doesn’t matter.
The famine in the days of Claudius
Wright’s ideal pattern for Christian behaviour is illustrated by the story of the response of the church in Antioch to the prospect of a great famine (Acts 11:27-30). They do not interpret it as a sign that the Lord is coming back. They do not use it as an opportunity to call people to repentance. They don’t start a blame game. “They ask three simple questions: Who is going to be at special risk when this happens? What can we do to help? And who shall we send?” This is what the church is all about. The Spirit was given to empower a diverse community of very ordinary people to go about the work of new creation.
That’s fine, but what prompted this pragmatism in the first place? Prophets came from Jerusalem to Antioch, and one of them, Agabus, predicted that there would be a severe famine across the whole oikoumenē. The natural disaster was not assimilated into any apocalyptic timeline, but God was involved because Agabus spoke “by the Spirit.”
What I think we should consider today is the possibility that interpretation of coronavirus as a warning of the much greater catastrophe of climate change and environmental collapse may likewise be inspired by the Spirit. It’s a wake-up call, a chance for the world to sober up and face reality. It’s not the second coming of Jesus, it’s not the end of the world, but it’s eschatology as it appears from our perspective, and it’s beginning to look like a rather grim “day of the Lord” for humanity. The sad thing is, the prophets are to be found among the scientists and activists, the politicians and even business leaders, not in the church.
Wright likes to say, as in this book, that “As Jesus was to Israel, so the Church is to the world.” I would qualify that: as Jesus was to Israel, so the early church was to the Greek-Roman oikoumenē (more on this in a moment), and now the modern church is to the whole planet.
Why should that not include prophecy? Jesus prophesied to Israel about the coming judgment and restoration. The early apostolic church prophesied to Rome about régime change. But the modern church has lost the nerve, it lacks the vision, wisdom, and language to prophecy meaningfully to the planet. Brueggemann, at least, I feel, moves us in that direction.
Paul’s preaching in Athens
Wright thinks that Paul’s preaching in Athens underlines the point that the message of the New Testament is all about Jesus and not about history. Paul “simply refers to the one great sign: God is calling all people everywhere to repent through the events concerning Jesus. Jesus himself is the One Great Sign.” The argument hinges, Wright says, “not on any independent events, not on some big crisis that’s just occurred, but on the facts concerning Jesus himself.”
He makes the same mistake here as he does with Jesus. Paul calls the men of Athens to repent of their idolatry because God’s patience has run out and he has “fixed a day on which he will judge the oikoumenē in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed” (Acts 17:30-31). In Luke’s writings the oikoumenē is the classical pagan sphere or the Greek-Roman world or the Roman empire (Lk. 2:1; 4:5; 21:26; Acts 17:6; 19:27; 24:5). It’s the region that suffered famine in the days of Claudius (Acts 11:28). This is not a judgment of all humanity. It is judgment of a section of humanity in history. Paul doesn’t even name Jesus at this point. He merely backs up his assertion that their world will be turned on its head by saying that God has raised this man from the dead.
We should also note here Paul’s summary of the faith of the Thessalonian believers, who did precisely what he would call the men of Athens to do: they abandoned their idols, turned to the living God, and waited for his Son from heaven who would deliver them from the judgment to come (1 Thess. 1:9-10). For these believers the real significance of Jesus lay ahead of them, not behind them.
The New Testament does not allow us to take Jesus out of history. He is inextricably part of an unfolding past, present and future.
Worthy is the Lamb (to open the scroll of judgment)
What about the book of Revelation? Again Wright goes out of his way to stifle the prophetic dimension. It is “full of fantastic imagery which is certainly not meant to be taken literally as a video-transcript of ‘what is going to happen.’” It’s just a rather elaborate way of “drawing out the significance of the primary revelation, which is of Jesus himself.” The suffering of the followers of the Lamb simply manifests to the world the suffering of Jesus himself.
This is sheer obfuscation. The whole point of the apocalyptic genre was to assure downtrodden communities that God would fix things in the not-too-distant future—judge wickedness in Israel, end oppression of the righteous, overthrow the pagan nations, and establish his own rule in the midst of them. The “revelation of Jesus Christ” is the revelation given to the exalted Jesus by God “to show to his servants the things that must soon take place”; it ends with the assurance that Jesus is “coming” soon (Rev. 1:1; 22:20). When he is revealed as the Lamb who was slain, it is because he must open the scroll that will unleash judgment, first on Israel, then on Rome. The whole thing climaxes in the fall of the great city which was corrupting the nations.
I understand the need to discourage modern apocalyptic fantasists, but the solution is not to pretend that John had no interest in future events. The solution is to recognise that his future was historical, just as our future is historical, and God is always the God of history.
The groaning of creation
This is the big New Testament theme in the book. In Romans 8 Paul describes the exodus journey that believers are on, led by the Spirit, towards their “inheritance”, which is the renewal of creation. But we cannot make this journey without sharing in the suffering of the Messiah, and when, as now, the world is going through convulsions, we must groan in the Spirit (Rom. 8:26). The followers of Jesus are called not to yell “you’re all sinners” from the sidelines, Wright says, or announce that “the End is near,” but to be “people of prayer at the place where the world is in pain” (italics removed).
This is not very different from Brueggemann’s reading of this passage. I think that both of these great scholars have missed the real point of Paul’s argument here, which is 1) that a particular community of witness is being conformed more or less literally to the pattern of Christ’s suffering and vindication; and 2) that the foreseen outcome is not the renewal of creation but the establishment of kingdom.
But Brueggemann at least keeps our real world in view. The virus is God’s way of telling us that the narratives of consumerism and globalism will fail because “such practices contradict the given reality of creation and the will of the creator.”
Being a people of prayer when the world is in pain is not wrong. But why is Wright so determined to have us locked down in our small rooms of lament? Why is he so reluctant to attribute to the living God any more dynamic emotion than grief, any more constructive intention than to remain silent? Humanity is approaching the greatest crisis in its history, with the possible exception of the flood, and we have a God who has nothing useful to say about it?
Dare we then say that God the creator, facing his world in melt-down, is himself in tears, even though he remains the God of ultimate Providence? That would be John’s answer, if the story of Jesus at Lazarus’s tomb is anything to go by. Might we then say that God the creator, whose Word brought all things into being and pronounced it ‘very good’, has no appropriate words to say to the misery when creation is out of joint? Paul’s answer, from this present passage, seems to point in that direction. The danger with speaking confident words into a world out of joint is that we fit the words to the distortion and so speak distorted words—all to protect a vision of a divinity who cannot be other than ‘in control’ all the time.
Isn’t this a false antithesis—between a divinity who must be in control all the time and a divinity who must remain speechless? Jesus didn’t just weep at the tomb of Lazarus. His intention was always to “awaken him” in order to make a point about resurrection and life (Jn. 11:11, 25). He was clearly “in control” of the situation. The apostles were groaning not because creation was out of joint but because their witness to the future rule of God’s messiah over the nations of the Greek-Roman world was so vehemently opposed by Jews and pagans. But they had no doubt that God was “in control” of this slow, long-term historical process (Rom. 8:31-39).
A narrative of accountability
We, as the church, do not have to single out any particular group for blame, though we might want to start by admitting our own complicity in the crisis. It is the whole global progressive-consumerist system that is at fault. We should not confuse it with the apocalyptic scenarios envisaged in scripture; if anything, it is far more serious. We should certainly lament, in the way that the prophets lamented, both before and after catastrophe. We should do all the good things that Wright urges us to do in chapter five, though I think he rather overestimates the relevance of the church in the modern world.
But the biblical witness encourages us explicitly to frame the lament and the prayer and the service in narrative-historical terms.
Jesus told Pilate that his authority was from God and that God would hold to account those who had handed him over to him (Jn. 19:11). Wright infers from this that “we need proper investigation and accountability for whatever it was that caused the virus to leak out, and for the lesser ways in which various countries and governments have, or have not, dealt wisely in preparing for a pandemic and then handling it when it rushed upon us.”
Very sensible and practical (now who’s the “cause-and-effect pragmatist”!), but myopic surely.
I think we must seriously consider the possibility that the virus is a warning that God will hold modern humanity accountable for its greed and folly.
The world is going through convulsions—environmental, economic, and social. The church is having to learn quickly how to speak on behalf of the living God with intelligence, discernment, clarity, and conviction.