The Pestilence that Stalks in Darkness: God and Covid-19


Is COVID-19 God’s punishment for gay marriage and abortion? Perry Stone, a Cleveland televangelist thinks so. Or maybe, with Billy Prewitt, author of The Coronavirus in Biblical Prophecy, you see the pandemic as God’s response to the persecution of Christians.

A.Q. Siddiqui, a correspondent with the “Times of India” newspaper, says the novel coronavirus shows that God is “unhappy with mankind” in general and religious leaders in particular. Why else, for the first time in history, would all the world’s great places of worship – Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu, be shuttered simultaneously?

Robert Jeffress lured people into First Baptist Church, Dallas, on March 8by publishing in advance this sermon title: “Is Coronavirus a Judgment from God?”

Many popular white evangelical preachers, much like our president, think like carnival barkers; it’s all about putting butts in the seats.

In the case of Jeffress, the actual sermon was a bit of a letdown. The outspoken right-wing preacher fudged on the judgment-from-God question, saying only that every natural disaster is a result of human sin.

Eventually, he even backed away from his plan to defy the city’s social distancing protocol.

“I know our pastor and I know that he knows this is the most important thing,” a church member told the local press, “and God would want us to worship today” (March 8).

Is COVID-19 God’s judgment against the infidel? If so, shouldn’t the faithful gather for worship without fear of infection?

What saith the scriptures?

With few exceptions, the biblical narratives consider all natural occurrences, whether for weal or for woe, as direct expressions of the divine will. When bad things happen – an earthquake, a plague or a military reversal – God did it.

But God has placed a hedge of protection around the faithful. Psalm 91 lays this out in simple terms:

“You will not fear the terror of the night,
nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
nor the destruction that wastes at noonday” (verses 5-6, NRSV).

By now we are all too familiar with “the pestilence that stalks in darkness,” a striking description of COVID-19. You can’t see a virus. It could be anywhere. It could be on your hands this very minute, awaiting transfer to nose or mouth.

But the psalmist tells us not to worry:

“A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand;
but it will not come near you” (verse 7).

Unless it does.

Six centuries before Jesus, the armies of Judah were crushed by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. As the elite population was being dragged off to Babylon the prophets were scrambling for answers.

Not all prophets came to the same conclusion. Seers proclaiming that the disaster would be of short duration found a ready following. Jeremiah, however, had the audacity to voice Yahweh’s response:

“Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes; they speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord. They say continually to those who despise the word of the Lord, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No evil shall come upon you’” (23:16-17).

Jeremiah wasn’t saying that Marduk, the head of the Babylonian pantheon, was more powerful than Judah’s God. The king of Babylon was an unwitting agent of Yahweh, an instrument of God’s anger with his chosen people.

This was the only way prophets like Jeremiah, Isaiah and Ezekiel could make sense of a calamity this enormous. During the period of exile, all the ancient historical traditions of Israel, from the moment of creation to the day Jerusalem fell to Nebuchadnezzar, were edited to fit a simple formula: God blesses the faithful and punishes the faithless.

There is some pushback against this doctrine in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Job’s friends insist that the disasters falling on Job must be the sign of great sin, but Job won’t buy it. And when God finally shows up at the end of the story, the hand of the hapless Job is raised in victory.

Qoheleth, the author of Ecclesiastes, observes that bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people, while death comes for all. Thus, the ways of God are shrouded in mystery.

Another response was simple incomprehension. How could this be happening? Why does God no longer go out with our armies? Has Yahweh fallen asleep?

The psalms of lamentation begin with these questions before returning to the traditional view: Peace and prosperity are God’s reward for covenant faithfulness; drought, famine and military defeat are God’s punishment for sin.

Viewed from this perspective, pandemics can’t be random events. When bad things happen, God is trying to tell us something, and the news isn’t good.

The Christian New Testament was written to account for a different kind of calamity: the brutal death of a would-be Messiah.

Jesus repeatedly warned his followers that his brief career would end badly, but they refused to listen. This could only mean that Jesus was a sinner.

On one occasion, Peter took his Master to task for talking like a loser (Mark 8:31-33). “This must never be,” he said. Glancing at his disciples before responding, Jesus delivered his famous line: “Get thee behind me, Satan.”

Jesus was remembering the close encounter with the Prince of Darkness that immediately preceded his public ministry. Satan dared Jesus to throw himself from the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem because, in Psalm 91, God promised to protect the righteous no matter what.

Jesus responded with a biblical citation of his own: “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.”

We tempt God when we place ourselves in harm’s way on the theory that God will bail us out. With “the deadly pestilence” of COVID-19 stalking in darkness, the only faithful, rational and compassionate response is to stay home. When we insist on holding public church services, resuming college classes or curtailing the practice of social distancing on Easter Sunday, we are tempting God.

These rash acts may be motivated by faith in divine providence. It matters not. God will not be tempted.

As Mark’s story continues, Jesus turns to the multitude and issues a stark invitation: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (8:34).

A walk with Jesus takes many intriguing twists and turns, some of them splendid and joyous, but the journey always ends at the cross. Always.

That might not sound like good news, but it is. “For if we have been united with him in a death like his,” Paul assures us, “we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:5).

If it all ends in resurrection glory, we don’t mind the dying part so much.

For most of us, the gospel accounts of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection are too familiar to be dangerous.  To fully appreciate the shocking reversal of the resurrection story we’ve got to feel the heartbreak and Godforsakenness of Good Friday.  And knowing how the story turns out makes this virtually impossible.

I don’t watch Dallas Cowboy football games unless they win, in which case, I’ll check out the highlights on YouTube. That way, when “the boys” fall behind I don’t worry. I know the story ends well.

A true Cowboys fan would be horrified by my lame approach. You can’t appreciate the last-minute heroics unless things look hopeless. But if you have reckoned with certain defeat, a sudden reversal of fortune is exhilarating. It’s why it ain’t over till it’s over. It’s why we watch.

When we know the ending in advance, we forfeit the soul-crushing drama of the Jesus story.

We kneel beside Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. “No worries,” we say. “Everything turns out all right in the end. You wait and see!”

We stand beneath the cross as Mary weeps for her darling boy. “This is hard to watch,” we say, “but the ending will knock your socks off!”

Jesus didn’t have that luxury. 

When he begged God to remove the cup, he wasn’t playing. When he cried, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” he was asking a real question.

Jesus died a godforsaken death. That’s the way it felt. It had to feel that way.

When he was laid to rest in Joseph’s tomb, Jesus wasn’t playing possum. He was stone cold dead.

The women who came to the tomb on Easter morning weren’t there to witness a miracle comeback; they came to anoint the body of a dead man.

We are broken by the brokenness of the world. It feels like lights out. When we break, God disappears so entirely we can’t imagine God was ever there.

That’s what Holy Saturday is all about. No spoiler alerts allowed. Jesus is dead and all is lost. If you don’t feel that way, you don’t understand the story.

And that’s the way it is with COVID-19, the pestilence that stalks in darkness. We don’t see an end game.

When will it be safe to go back to work? When will it be safe to return to worship? When will it be safe for the Boys of Summer to take the field?

A musical interlude from the Strumbellas, a Canadian band I had never heard of until a reader brought them to my attention.

We don’t know.

And if the mounting death count should drop precipitously in a month or two, might it not come roaring back if we drop our guard?

We don’t know.

And if we dodge this bullet, what are we going to do about climate change, that other pestilence stalking in darkness?

We don’t know.

That’s why we tempt God.

When the president predicted overflowing churches and an economy “opened up and raring to go” by Easter Sunday his poll numbers soared.  When he backed away from this implicit promise, his numbers dropped precipitously, so he reverted to vague comments about the need to get the economy going again.

We want to believe that somebody has our backs. We want to believe that, however bleak things might seem on page 189, everything will come out right in the final chapter.

We were tempted to believe that if we just go back to church on Easter Sunday all will be well.  But now Easter is upon us and we don’t know how long it will be before we see the inside of a church sanctuary, a school room, or our favorite restaurant.

Some congregations are gathering in the face of public criticism.  A reporter asked a woman leaving a worship service in Ohio if she wasn’t afraid of being exposed to the corona virus or worried about infecting others.  “No,” she fired back, “I’m covered in Jesus’ blood!  I’m covered in Jesus’ blood!”

We can quote chapter and verse to justify our rash behavior, but we’re really just tempting God.

In this moment, all we can really do is hang onto Jesus with the right hand, grasp our brothers and sisters with the left, and take one bold step into the gathering gloom of Holy Week.

That’s what this holy season of Lent has always been about. That’s what it’s about in the year 2020, amid a global pestilence that stalks in the darkness.