I’ve started a new thing over on my author Facebook page called Theology Thursdays, and in it, I’m taking tricky theology questions and talking about them for five minutes (or less). Usually less. I won’t always have answers, but I’ll always have an opinion.
For the very first video, this question, not surprisingly, ended up being asked:
Is COVID-19 a judgment from God?
Yes, some people are saying this thing. Okay, so they’re probably the same people who’ve said that lots of things were judgments from God, like AIDS, earthquakes, tsunamis, Pierce Brosnan and Russell Crowe’s singing voices…
I’m not, as you know, into conspiracy theories, nor do I like to speak for God and decide when he is or isn’t raining down judgment on people. Particularly since those people who do enjoy doing so, always manage to decide judgment is coming down on those with whom they disagree or find fault.
Let’s look at this seriously though, because it is quite serious, and it is worldwide, so that’s God and theology’s territory.
A couple problems emerge with the idea that COVID-19 is a judgment from God. One, we have to look at who is the hardest hit by this virus. Statistics are telling us that some folks are getting sick and dying in numbers disproportionate to their percent of the population—and who are these people? The poor, urban African Americans, the elderly, the already sick.
Those getting sicker faster are the ones who can’t stay home because they’re working in service industries and getting paid minimum wage to serve you and me, or to clean our hospitals and grocery stores. They’re the ones who have to ride crowded public transit and live in crowded apartment buildings. The ones who have zero say in who comes home from work potentially infected.
To say, then, that this is a judgment from God implies that God is judging these people. That means one of two things:
1) If this is the implication, it appears to be a serious accusation against God’s character that he would judge those he’s really unhappy with by punishing the most vulnerable among us instead. It makes God into a capricious being, choosing to judge not with reason or integrity, but on a whim. This was the picture of the ancient Near East gods to be sure—and this is precisely what God tried to teach his people he was not throughout the Pentateuch.
2) To say this is to devalue those at-risk people. It’s to say that God is somehow against or angry at our most vulnerable humans, and that is unequivocally, absolutely wrong.
In fact, God has special concern for the poor and the oppressed—the Bible says so many, many times. So calling this God’s judgment is not only inaccurate, it’s damaging and dangerous for the most vulnerable people in our society, and it’s an insult to God. It’s actually using his name in vain.
When God commands that we not use his name in vain, he doesn’t mean, “No swearing!” What the words in Exodus mean is that his people are not to ascribe to God things that are not at all in his character. If we do, we’re taking God’s name in vain. For real.
Claiming judgment is to defy those two things Jesus made a pretty big deal of: love your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.
God says in 1 John that he is love. He says in virtually all the prophets that he cares for the vulnerable. Jesus goes around healing, and Jesus is the exact copy of God the Father, according to Hebrews. Here’s a good rule of thumb—if you can’t imagine Jesus doing it, based on what you see of his actions and words, then God the Father wouldn’t do it, either.
No, COVID-19 is not a judgment from God. I can’t speak for God on whether he ever does the judgment from heaven thing. I’m not God—I don’t get a yeah or nay vote on what he can or can’t do. If he chooses, he certainly can. I’m just saying that this isn’t what it looks like if he does.
This is also not to say he cannot and will not work good things from it. This is still true, even in present circumstances:
“And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them” (Romans 8.28).
He can, he will, and he does promise that for those who love him, he is going to work good from even the hardest things.
Photo credit: Jill Richardson