The coronavirus pandemic is an opportunity for the church to rethink its message and reform its behaviour, and we need to take up this challenge urgently. That’s how I see it. So it’s good that John Piper has attempted, within a very brief span, to assimilate the pandemic into his theological paradigm and draw some conclusions.
The book is in two parts. The first part basically states Piper’s conviction that God is sovereign and can be trusted even when appearances are to the contrary. “The secret… is knowing that the same sovereignty that could stop the coronavirus, yet doesn’t, is the very sovereignty that sustains the soul in it.”
In the second part, Piper asks what God is doing through the coronavirus. It’s a good question, and he should be applauded for affirming that “God is not silent about what he is doing in this world”. But I don’t think that the sort of conservative evangelicalism that he represents has the theological resources at its disposal to answer the question satisfactorily. The six answers or “paths” that Piper proposes never find their way out of a maze designed to keep people from having to deal with history and the God of history.
1. God is giving the world in the coronavirus outbreak, as in all other calamities, a physical picture of the moral horror and spiritual ugliness of God-belittling sin.
We begin with the fall. Sin came into the world through one man, and the world “has been broken ever since” (61). The whole of creation is in bondage to decay. Not even God’s own children are exempt from arbitrary suffering. We are all under the judgment of death.
But why? Why does moral sin have physical consequences?
Piper engages in a bit of speculative theologising here. Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s command, and the result was creation-wide corruption and death. He suggests that this was God’s way of getting through our moral obduracy.
Physical pain is God’s trumpet blast to tell us that something is dreadfully wrong in the world. Disease and deformity are God’s pictures in the physical realm of what sin is like in the spiritual realm. (66).
The argument betrays the theological paradigm that controls Piper’s approach. It is focused on the individual person whose existence is divided into two realms. Sin is what a person does in the spiritual realm; disease and deformity happen in the physical realm either because of personal sin or, as Piper conjectures here, to correct personal sin.
So coronavirus is “horrible and ugly”, but theologically speaking it is really only an allegory for something far more dangerous—the moral sin that separates us from God. When Piper says that “something is dreadfully wrong in the world”, sadly he does not mean that humanity is trashing the planet.
2. Some people will be infected with the coronavirus as a specific judgment from God because of their sinful attitudes and actions.
Sometimes suffering and death must be regarded as specific acts of divine judgment against people who have sinner. Piper gives two examples: Herod Agrippa was struck down by an angel of the Lord and was eaten by worms because of his blasphemy (Acts 12:22-23); and homosexual men suffer in themselves the “painful effect” of their unnatural intercourse (Rom. 1:27)—a poor reading of the text, but that’s beside the point.1
On the other hand, Job’s suffering was not the consequence of his “particular sins”; and sometimes even “God’s own people experience many of the physical effects of his judgment”, for the purpose of purification and discipline, not of punishment.
So we have to search our hearts to “discern if our suffering is God’s judgment on the way we live”.
Another element in Piper’s theological paradigm has popped up here. It is 1) individualised, 2) dualistic, and 3) it assumes that the world doesn’t change.
My argument in End of Story is that Paul’s opposition to same-sex sexual behaviour was dependent both on an ancient idea of “nature” and, more importantly, on an eschatology in which homosexuality served as a key marker of Greek-Roman decadence and a sign of the coming destruction of this deeply idolatrous civilisation.
We now have a very different understanding of nature and a very different eschatology. Our horizon is not the overthrow of the pagan oikoumenē and the confession of Jesus as Lord by the nations but the increasing likelihood of ecological disaster and massive social disorder.
So the question of whether coronavirus is God’s judgment on “the way we live” now has very different parameters. Piper is not living in this world. He is living in the past, when it mattered greatly that the early communities of eschatological witness to the coming rule of Jesus over the nations did not exhibit the hallmarks of a culture destined for the rubbish bin of history.
We have to ask the same question, but we should expect a different answer. What are now the outstanding hallmarks of a global culture that is destined for the rubbish bin of history? Not faithful, loving same-sex relationships, clearly.
I would suggest that coronavirus is God’s trumpet call to the church and to the whole world to change the way we live, to repent of those practices that are pushing us to the brink of catastrophe.
3. The coronavirus is a God-given wake-up call to be ready for the second coming of Christ.
Piper is careful not to say that the end is nigh, but he seems to think that the pandemic belongs to the “birth pains” that precede the second coming of Christ and the arrival of a new world (Matt. 24:7-8). Paul, he notes, refers to all the “groanings of this age” as birth pains (Rom. 8:22). “He pictured us in our diseases as part of the labor pains of the world.”
The message is to stay awake and alert because the Son of Man is coming “at an hour you do not expect” (Matt. 24:44). Coronavirus is a “merciful wake-up call to be ready”.
Here again we see an eschatology detached from history. For the early church the parousia of Christ—the revelation of Jesus as king to the whole Greek-Roman world—was urgent and meaningful because history pressed upon them. The Son of Man would come while some of his followers were still alive (Matt. 16:27-28; 24:34), at the judgment of this wicked generation of Jews. The doctrine of the second coming of Christ, preserved cryogenically by the church in the hope of being able to revive it millennia after its natural lifetime, is vacuous and arbitrary.
The problem here is not just that the doctrine keeps us from reading the New Testament properly. It stops the church thinking historically. We are left with nothing to say about the God of history.
4. The coronavirus is God’s thunderclap call for all of us to repent and realign our lives with the infinite worth of Christ.
Here Piper looks at the implications of Jesus’ teaching about the killing of some Galileans by Pilate’s soldiers and of eighteen people crushed when the tower of Siloam collapsed (Lk. 13:1-5). He infers that “God has a merciful message in all such disasters”, so if we ask about the people killed in the pandemic, Jesus would tell us to think about our own sin and repent while there’s still time.
The crucial point for interpretation in this passage is the word “likewise”: “unless you repent, you will all likewise (hōsautōs) perish” (Lk. 13:5). Piper paraphrases Jesus’ words: “What you ought to be astonished at is that you were not the ones murdered and crushed. In fact, if you don’t repent, you yourselves will meet a judgment like that someday.” That’s actually pretty good, but he spoils the effect by generalising the teaching. We all deserve to perish, he says, because we have scorned the “infinite value of all that God is for us in Jesus Christ”.
When Jesus says that they will all “meet a judgment like that someday”, he means exactly what he says: Israel as a nation will face a judgment of slaughter by Roman soldiers and destruction of the city and the temple someday within the lifetime of this perverse and rebellious generation.
There’s nothing wrong with calling people to repent and align their lives with the infinite worth of Christ, but repentance for Piper is a matter of prioritising God and Jesus over less important things such as “money and entertainment and friends and family”. Here’s the bourgeois dualism in the paradigm at work again.
John the Baptist and Jesus called the Jews not merely to put God first but to stop doing the things that would bring judgment down on their heads in the form a devastating war against Rome. Israel as a nation—politically, ethically, socially, religiously—was on a broad road leading to destruction. No dualism here.
The same applies today. If coronavirus is a call to repentance, it is a call to change a whole way of life, to be a thoroughgoing new creation people ordered around the presence of the creator God, living as a visible sign—a city set on a hill, a light on a stand—of things to come.
5. The coronavirus is God’s call to his people to overcome self-pity and fear, and with courageous joy, to do the good works of love that glorify God.
So this, I imagine, is how Piper would defend himself against the charge of promoting a privatised religious dualism. Jesus taught his followers to do “good deeds in spite of danger” (Matt. 5:11-16). They do not need to be afraid because, however great the personal cost in this life, they will be “repaid at the resurrection”.
Therefore, one of God’s purposes in the coronavirus is that his people put to death self-pity and fear, and give themselves to good deeds in the presence of danger. Christians lean toward need, not comfort. Toward love, not safety. That’s what our Savior is like. That is what he died for.
Like many apologists in a time of pandemic, Piper reaches for Rodney Stark’s The Triumph of Christianity and notes that over time “Christ-sustained care for the sick and the poor had the effect of winning many people away from the surrounding paganism”.
Some history, at last!
Even better, he quotes Abraham Lincoln’s words about the American Civil War:
Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
So why not draw the obvious conclusion that coronavirus is part of humanity’s losing war against nature, and that we are now paying the price for two hundred and fifty years of unremitting exploitation of the natural world? The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. Absolutely.
But here’s the problem that the church faces: what are the good deeds that we should be doing in order to bring glory to God at this time? We have heroic medical staff to care for the sick. We have scientists and activists to warn us about climate change and eco-collapse. And the churches are closed.
6. In the coronavirus God is loosening the roots of settled Christians, all over the world, to make them free for something new and radical and to send them with the gospel of Christ to the unreached peoples of the world.
In any case, Piper is not much interested in a prophetic mission of social transformation—the sort of mission that Jesus initiated in Jerusalem and Judea, albeit under very different circumstances.
Piper hopes that coronavirus will be the stimulus for a renewal of good old fashioned world evangelisation. That’s what an individualistic, dualistic, a-historical theological paradigm leaves us with.
What this comes down to is how we understand the “gospel”. For Piper it is the means by which 1) individuals repair 2) their spiritual alienation 3) regardless of history.
In the New Testament, however, the gospel was a proclamation about what the God of history was doing in the realistic futures that could be seen from the Mount of Olives or from the Areopagus. He was judging and reforming his own people. He was annexing the Greek-Roman world for Israel’s king.
Before we set off to evangelise today, we must likewise ask what God is doing in our foreseeable future. I suggest that he is judging humanity. That is the good news. He is calling people to repent—not in the abstract, but in real social-economic terms, to change the way in which we live.
- 1. See my book End of Story? Same-Sex Relationships and the Narratives of Evangelical Mission, 87-88.