Review: John Piper, Coronavirus and Christ

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.

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.

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.

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Submitted by toddh on  Wed, 05/20/2020 - 05:50

I really, really appreciate this post. Great critique of the book. I’m glad you read it so I don’t have to. I don’t think I could be quite as generous as you were. I appreciate the application of the narrative-historical hermeneutic to the pandemic.

Submitted by Scott on  Wed, 05/20/2020 - 20:06

You remarked something similar to this in an earlier post:

“But here’s the problem that the church faces: what are the good deedsthat 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.”

As I was in a text message dialogue with some church leader friends, it was offered to me how people were now using social media (and we can add Zoom in there) for meetings, discipleship, reaching others, etc. But this still seems a more individualistic vision: what one person here is doing with a handful of people they know and what another individual over there is doing with the people they know. It seemed to lack a collective vision of what God would/could be doing in our day. I’m ok with personal mission, but I think it pales in comparison to a cooperative effort from local churches.

Also, because of the bad taste left in our mouths following the televangelist craze of proclaiming doom at every naughty Hollywood movie or recent natural disaster, it is difficult to proclaim the coronavirus as a judgment of sorts. I most definitely believe those in the biblical story would see it as such—God would judge via intruding armies, pestilence, etc. Coronavirus fits into that paradigm. But the vision offered in much of the deconstructionist, post-modern, emerging setting is that God is not capricious. He does not treat us as the ancients imagined. I can be drawn to a nonviolent, Anabaptist vision of God, as championed by the likes of Greg Boyd. Jesus, as the embodiment of God, shows us what God is truly like. The ancients believed in a capricious, vindictive God—but Jesus corrects that vision and shows us that God is not a retributive God, but rather we are a retributive people inflicting our own evil upon ourselves (even upon Jesus at the cross). The earth will react to the way we treat it, no doubt, but this is not God “getting back at us.” Still, I have a renewed understanding of God’s judgments in history, and I am ok to speak of judgment (though not from the rooftops at this moment). Yet, it is a very difficult line to walk with so much baggage around this issue.

Yes, the lack of vision is troubling. The church is not saying anything about God that would challenge, disturb, or inspire our societies in the way that the ancient proclamation about the lordship of Christ challenged, disturbed, and inspired the Greek-Roman world.

And I agree that it is very difficult to speak about divine judgment, though largely for reasons of our own making—in our different contexts. We don’t here have quite the same cultural baggage as the American church, but that’s probably just because we are further down the road of death and rebirth. Hopefully.

I’m not sure about your Anabaptist Jesus, though. It seems to me rather difficult to disentangle him from a narrative of judgment or retribution (with a long prehistory, which Jesus does not disown) that culminated in extreme violence against his own people. That’s where the Old Testament story ends, not with the crucifixion. I think your distinction between the “capricious, vindictive God” of the ancients (ancient Israel?) and the nonviolent God of Jesus is probably too sharply drawn and anachronistic. But I’ll admit to not having read Boyd’s book yet.

“I’m not sure about your Anabaptist Jesus, though. It seems to me rather difficult to disentangle him from a narrative of judgment or retribution (with a long prehistory, which Jesus does not disown) that culminated in extreme violence against his own people.”

On some level, Jesus is re-evaluating Torah, i.e., in the Sermon on the Mount. “You’ve heard that it was said … but I tell you … ” He is giving a better, clearer understanding of the God of Israel and his ways. Perhaps this re-evaluation could fall under ‘trajectory theology,’ in that we are moving along a trajectory from the Old to New Testament. The NT gives that better, clearer view, yet, the trajectory the NT was on was not the great stopping point. It is still moving forward and we needed/need discernment as to where it is ultimately headed. In a sense, I think the narrative-historical hermeneutic falls within some kind of trajectory theology perspective.

Anyways, with all the gobbledygook, could we consider that the understanding of the one true God is still on a continuing trajectory following the close of the NT historical setting? Jesus is the great revelation of God, but it’s still being fleshed out of all that means and there is some sense of needing to understand where this finally lands in the future (i.e., what William Webb offered regarding slavery & women, though I know you’d disagree on some of his approach, especially regarding same-sex relationships).

So, the vindictive image of God may have still been part of the backdrop of Jesus, though it surely has taken on some differing shape from the OT. But there is enough difference that Jesus and the NT begin to offer that it asks us to continue to think about the nature of God as we move past the NT paradigm. Is God the one who truly allows his Messiah to die on behalf of his people and does truly love his enemy, which is why he calls us to do the same? We may now discern that the judgments experienced in history are more our own doing, a natural result of sinful action, rather than “God getting us for being bad,” if you will. Though, I still do not want to wholly chuck aside God’s inbreaking into specific evil situations with judgment.

I really hope all that made sense. But these are only thoughts to consider on why it may be theologically challenging to declare “God’s judgment” in our own time.

Submitted by Scott on  Mon, 05/25/2020 - 15:32

Andrew, many in the Neo-Anabaptist vein are repudiating this recent article at Desiring God. Ouch!

We continued to pray that the Lord would give our church a reason to be in this neighborhood, and that our neighbors would receive our desire to do them good. Then God answered our prayers by sending COVID-19, and with it, shelter-in laws and severe restrictions against assembling in groups for any reason.

I don’t say this lightly, but that article is trash.

Thank God for COVID-19 because there can’t be any gay pride parades? Ugh.

Submitted by Andrew J Scholes on  Tue, 05/26/2020 - 22:30

Thanks for the stimulating critique of Piper’s book. Appreciated.

I just wanted to respond to one of the points you raise….

“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. “

I see it less as a ‘problem’ and more of an ‘opportunity’ to think creatively about what that may now look like…..

And so what if we’re increasingly marginalised?! Maybe we can speak and serve more authentically from that place?

And yes the church buildings are closed but surely ‘the church’ is still alive? Perhaps just now a bit more ‘spatially distanced’.

Being largely ‘building-less’ hopefully helps us to see that we don’t need to be overly bound to them in order to serve our communities. So a lot of our ‘missional’ endeavours have essentially involved folks ‘coming to our building to have their needs met’ — sometimes both legitimately, and pretty well so I’m not throwing the baby out with the bath water…… but hosting the missional activities in our buildings means it’s still very much on our terms.

We now have the opportunity to consider how we can perhaps serve people appropriately — in God’s name — where they are…..

OK, agreed. It’s an opportunity to recover some sort of authenticity, which is a big deal; and it’s right to question the attractional paradigm.

But I’m curious to know why you define mission as serving our communities. Where does that idea come from? Paul talks on one occasion about doing good to everyone, especially to those who are in the household of faith (Gal. 6:10). But does this really sum up the apostolic mission? I’m not saying it’s unimportant, but I think it’s far from the whole story. After all, lots of people, secular and religious alike, are serving their communities at the moment.

Thanks for responding Andrew.

Yeah, I do recognise that ‘seriving our communities’ is only one strand of a many-stranded ‘thing’….and appreciated the link to your other post too….. I guess I was seeing it as a way of demonstrating in tangible ways so of the values and characteristic of the kingdom of God. I think?!

I’m interested, who or what (other than the Bible) has influenced your thinking when coming to an understanding of what mission is?

Also, I’m sensing that you are drawing on a ‘narrative-theological’ reading of Scripture as the most integrated way to read, interpret and apply it….? I’d certainly be keen to do some further reading around this — any suggestions?

For example, after a bit of a search I recently came across ‘The Promise of Narrative Theology’ by George Stroup. Have you come across it?

Thanks for your continued posts.

….and I guess my thinking is that by ‘serving our communities’ it could be seen as an expression of ‘love for neighbour’?

I agree that serving communities makes the message tangible and visible. The questions are 1) what do we understand by “kingdom of God” and 2) how do we interpret and speak about the practical work that we are doing—what differentiates the social work of churches from the social work of governments, charities , community groups and other religious communities?

I’m interested, who or what (other than the Bible) has influenced your thinking when coming to an understanding of what mission is?

I always find questions like this very difficult to answer. I do a lot with a church-planting organisation, and that context has been formative in many ways. But really my understanding of mission arises out of my understanding of the biblical narrative. This is what I tried to do in my book Re: Mission: Biblical Mission for a Post-Biblical Church. So then my thinking on mission has been influenced by the same range of ancient and scholarly sources that has shaped my narrative-historical reading of the biblical material.

Also, I’m sensing that you are drawing on a ‘narrative-theological’ reading of Scripture as the most integrated way to read, interpret and apply it….?

I use the term “narrative-historical” because I think it is crucial to keep the historical frame of reference in view. I tend to treat history and theology as antithetical categories, which is not entirely fair but it helps preserve clarity. Evangelicals have gone for narrative theology recently as a way of embracing the full scope of scripture but largely for anti-dogmatic reasons. But what has happened is only that personal narratives are now located in a generalised social context. Evangelical narrative theology, generally speaking, has no way of talking about history and the God of history between Pentecost and a second coming at the end of history. My argument is that New Testament “eschatology” is mostly about events expected in normal human history.