When the coronavirus outbreak started, a friend of mine suggested that vegetarianism was relevant to the pandemic, a point I will return to. As I have followed the global crisis, I’ve become particularly interested in the theological reflections on it. Some claim that God is behind the pandemic, suggesting that we are undergoing some form of punishment for social sins.
I have thought about how God’s judgments might factor into modern plagues, especially in light of the plagues in the Old Testament. Is this virus a punishment? A warning of impending doom? Is God trying to teach us a lesson? Some have suggested that we are experiencing an end time epidemic, taken right from the pages of the apocalypse. Is this really true? I find this idea grossly misguided because the real purpose of the book of Revelation is not to create fear or exacerbate feelings of uncertainty but to free people from the captivity of fear.
The book of Revelation is not about predicting bad things but telling us something surprising, which is meant to radically alter the pains of human life and the tragedy of evil. We find there some answers to the problems of finite suffering. Revelation speaks to the dragon acting on earth, the unwillingness of evil to repent, and the surprising way in which God chooses to address these problems, which provides perspective on our current crisis.
The New Testament identifies disease and sickness not as results of God’s punishing but of a sin-oppressive reality. Peter summarizes the ministry of Jesus as He went about “doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil” (Acts 10:38, NKJV). I think we must be very careful about attributing things like viruses to God’s punishing activity because doing so leads us to seek blame and victimize others. Especially during times of crisis, we should be concerned about how we are treating one another (Matthew 24:45–51).
The idea that pandemics are God’s retaliation against certain groups of people is concerning. It can lead people to the extreme of persecuting others in God’s name (Matthew 24:9; John 16:2). We have a long history of blaming sickness and disease on God. Job’s sickness is a classic example of religionists’ attributing affliction to divine punishment. Job was stigmatized as a sinner by his miserable comforters, which required God to publicly set the record straight. Such knee-jerk reactions often make us point fingers of blame where they do not belong. One we should never blame is God. Sickness and disease are the product of sin and evil. While we may not find a satisfactory explanation for our current crisis, we can know that self-centeredness and sin lead to suffering and destruction—but not because of God’s arbitrary wrath.
By now, we have learned a lot about the pandemic that has interrupted our lives, and many of us are spending much time protecting ourselves from the invading virus. We may think that we are passive victims and others are to blame, but what if we are overlooking our own culpability? While uncertainty remains about the roots of this deadly pandemic, a likely explanation traces it to a live meat market that sells animals for human consumption. While we should not discount that we can get viruses in many ways, I find it fascinating that many modern deceases come from a class of animals that God told us to avoid.
We are finding that the Old Testament carries some interpretive direction for our current situation. We may have mocked biblical taboos as primitive and archaic, but we are feeling them today as we fear this new disease. We find ourselves in self-quarantine, socially distancing as we thoroughly and repeatedly wash our hands in Leviticus fashion. Scholars suggest that this ritual of purification is about keeping the signs of death and affliction away from God’s dwelling place, but we often forget that this custom also includes respecting the lives of animals and refraining from eating certain types of them, as it also prohibits ordinary slaughter of animals for meat without precautions.
COVID-19 is not the first manifestation of a connection between animals and human disease. While we lack detailed explanations for this outbreak, I recall a much older story of a pandemic based in the early parts of the Bible and revealed in Numbers 11. The Israelites were not far into a journey when they began to complain about their food. The manna they were given was vegetarian, and the meat they had was not a regular part of their diet. They complained about this semi-vegetarian diet, lusting for more meat. God was displeased but provided what they desired by sending them flocks of migrating quail. In their greed, the people killed more birds than they could eat, spreading them around the camp to dry them in the sun. When they started gorging themselves on the flesh, God’s wrath was provoked.
Statements about God’s wrath must be understood within their full context. As I shared in a recent blog post, in its broadest sense, wrath can be defined as a natural human action—a disaster of ones own making. Sometimes God’s judgments are simply a mirror of what people have become. They serve as a critique of ones commitments and reveal what is true about us. The “wasting disease” (Psalm 106:15), for example, that rapidly broke out could have resulted from the Israelites’ gluttony. It would not deny judgment to understand this epidemic as an viral outbreak (Psalm 78:26–31). A testimony of gluttony is in the name of the burial site, the “graves of craving.” Rather than an active judgment of God, might the current COVID-19 pandemic be another example of unintended consequences?
God promised to give the Israelites so much meat that they would become sickened by it, which resulted in death for many. Personal health and quality of life should not be overlooked, but is it possible that sickness is at least related to human insensitivity and greed? Due to human desire and the over consumption of animals, intensive farming practices become incubators for disease. Without infringing on people’s freedoms, how might we encourage greater consideration of health? How seriously should we scrutinize the mass farming of animals for meat and the clear dangers it poses to human health? Would decreasing our intake of meat contribute to eliminating the conditions that potentially give birth to deadly viruses and disease?
The Israelites believed that God was offering a bland diet, so He gave them what their cravings cried out for. When God permits us freedom to follow our desires, it often fixes the problems caused by our cravings. Once we can experience the consequences, we should want to change our direction. Was eating that craved meal really worth it? I wonder if the Israelites returned to the manna with a whole new outlook. Today, we market animals at a scale greater than ever before. It is not only what we are doing to animals that concerns me but what we are doing to each other and to the world because of our greed and selfish desires. What we eat affects us, but what concerns me is much larger than disease and the spread of contagious viruses. What will it take to get us off this self-inflicted path of suffering, cruelty, and death, so we can experience the abundant life and peace that God desires to offer us?
The Israelites’ story creates an interesting paradox. God permitted meat but recognized a problem with the greed of taking the lives of so many animals, something that cannot go on forever if life is to reign on earth (Isaiah 11:6-9; Revelation 21:22). I think this is a sign that not only exposes what is deepest within us but also suggests that the crises we face now—sickness and disease—will change only after God’s ideal is realized on earth. We are often oblivious to the suffering happening around us. All of creation groans and suffers as it longs for a better world, and we now find ourselves groaning within the pains of creation, looking for the renewal of all things (Romans 8:22-24). Rather than trying to find the hand of God behind every pandemic, which only serves to make us unkind to one another and undermine the good news, we should acknowledge that this world is languishing. God laments our languishing and is dedicated to bringing us healing and flourishing as we contribute to creation’s flourishing.
As we enter this Passover and Easter season, may we remember that God holds both the cure and the victory over suffering, sickness, and disease. We may not find an explanation for every pain and sickness we experience, but we can embrace the One who promises to wipe away the pollution that isolates us from Him. In the end, we may not have a precise answer to our current situation, but we do have the continual love of God to give us hope. We may feel isolated now, but we are never alone.
Craig Ashton Jr.