At the end of a recent visit to a Year 10 RE class at our local High School, a student asked me: “did God send the Coronavirus as a warning?”
My instant answer was “no!” But I could not expand upon that because the bell had gone. And this question does need a more fully developed response than a simple “no!”
In different ways, this question has been asked of me a lot: ‘why did God take my son?’ This was from a Mum whose 22 year old son died after a post university round the world gap year. He was about to take up a place at a London law firm. He had his whole future ahead of him.
On the flight from New Zealand he must have developed the deep vein thrombosis which killed him in the night, just a few days after returning home and sharing his amazing adventures with his family.
His Mum blamed God. “I was a good parent. Why did God do this to me, my family? Why not to those parents who don’t bring their children up properly?” She was very, very angry with God. Who else could she blame?
More recently I have heard the same language of God responsibility: “God spared…. God took…..” My response to all of these expressions of what God does, is the same:
This is not God!
Right back to the earliest writings we have about the nature of God, we read that people thought of God in this way. God was the source of all the inexplicable things that happened in the world. Floods, plagues, wars, enslavement, seizures, disease, blindness, death. There was no science to explain natural disasters. There was little understanding of disease. There was little understanding of human psychology and human behaviour.
For everything that went wrong it was the fault of humans who had sinned and therefore God intervened to teach humanity a lesson and put things right. 2,000 years ago Leprosy was thought to be a disease that struck people who had sinned, a punishment from God. Lepers were banished from society and had to live in leper colonies. They had to wear a bell to warn people if they came near. People lived in fear of lepers. It was understood that the disease could be transmitted but that was as far as the science went.
Then came Jesus. Jesus healed lepers. Jesus gave a very different picture of God. Not a wrathful, revengeful, distant God but a Father God, a God of love.
Jesus showed us a God who wants us to love him and love each other by being his hands and his heart. This God does not bring about disasters or plagues or leprosy. This God does not take life but gives it in all its fullness. And it is not just many Christians who believe this. With Jesus, people began to understand God in a very different way. Not a despot but a loving father. A loving father does not kill his children.
This is where we began to grow up! Jesus said, ‘take responsibility!’ If people are hungry, feed them! If they are sick, heal them! If people are suffering, alleviate their suffering! Jesus showed that we must be the heart and hands of God. God does not cause bad things to happen but God is right there in the middle of that pain, suffering with us, and God is right there in the middle of helping to put things right through us.
God gave us all the means by which we can ensure humanity survives, the planet survives. Like Christianity, most world faiths have a fuller understanding of the nature of God than they did in the distant past.
But think back to that first advert for the National Lottery – the pointy finger from heaven and the boomy voice “it could be you!”
This is still, despite our much more sophisticated and civilised 21st Century society, the image so many people have of God. A God who picks and chooses, takes or saves. A God who intervenes to be on someone’s side. Who supports one side in a war “we have God on our side.”
This is a primitive God. A God who people did need thousands of years ago to explain a world where there was little explanation. A God you had to appease by giving gifts to, making sacrifices to.
This was a world view then of a helpless child and a despotic father, that unfortunately still lingers today. No wonder people struggle with God!
Did God send the Coronavirus as a warning? Most definitely not!
The amazing thing about this planet is that it has everything we need for life and we are discovering all the time the complexities of life from micro organisms to us. We now know that without the insect world we cannot survive.
Now we know that Leprosy is caused by a harmful bacteria. We also know that there is good bacteria and we need these to survive. We now know that there are good viruses.
So where and how did COVID-19 start? Dr. Joseph Fair, epidemiologist, virologist and NBC News Science Contributor writes:
”It started in what we call a ‘wet market.’ These are markets typically where you have wildlife, livestock and humans in close proximity together. We know that’s a recipe for a pandemic just from a historical precedence. That’s where SARS came from when it first emerged. That’s most often where Ebola will emerge from in Africa. Those kind of markets, which are very common throughout the world, are breeding grounds for epidemics and pandemics.”
So, God did not send the Coronavirus. It was bred by humans, by us, in harmful conditions and we need to take responsibility, not put it on to God. This is a learning curve for humanity. Now we understand that wet markets breed harmful viruses it is in our hands to put this right.
It is also important to recognise that not all viruses are harmful. Maybe some viruses are here for a reason. We need them. Mario Mietzsch and Mavis Agbandje-McKenna from the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, University of Florida write:
“…we are now finding out, not all viruses are detrimental to human health. In fact, some viruses have beneficial properties for their hosts in a symbiotic relationship, while other natural and laboratory-modified viruses can be used to target and kill cancer cells, to treat a variety of genetic diseases as gene and cell therapy tools, or to serve as vaccines or vaccine delivery agents. The ability to treat diseases using viruses, often referred to as virotherapy, has become the subject of intensive research in recent years.”
We are learning all the time about how the world works and how we can work to make it a safe and flourishing planet for all God’s people. God does not cause bad things to happen.
God has given us the means by which we can learn when things do go wrong and ensure they don’t happen again. It is up to us to live up to the gift we have been given.
It is up to us to live up to the gift we have been given.