A Pandemic, Science, and Faith
Questions concerning the relevance of God in a pandemic, or quite simply where God can be found in a pandemic, cannot be avoided. The questions that have gripped me in this pandemic, however, concern the role of science in combatting the ravages created by an out-of-control virus.
The dimensions of a pandemic are different from other catastrophes with which we are acquainted, with their threat to destroy people and communities, and the most we can do is employ what seem like primitive methods to keep people apart, locked down, and caged. What tools do we have to combat this threat? Will prayer hold it back? Will public health measures hold it back? What are the options for Christians, who contend that God is in control and that he will never leave us nor forsake us? I have no problem with these reminders of biblical truths, but is there anything else that Christians should be acknowledging? Alongside praying, should they be advocating for public health measures as marks of God’s providential care of human beings? These are fundamental science-faith duopolies, which bring into the open the way in which Christians think about science and its place in God’s world.
Plagues of the Past
Christians, and everyone else, have been here before. COVID-19 is far from unique in the annals of plagues. In the year 166 CE, when the Roman Empire was at its height, it was ravaged by the Antonine Plague. One of the most famous physicians of the time, Galen (beloved of anatomists for his early anatomical work), found himself in the midst of the outbreak. Over a period of twenty-three years, the plague devastated both the military and civilian populations, with a mortality rate of up to 13 to 15 percent. The cause of the outbreak is not clear, although it is likely that one or two strains of smallpox were involved. Roman society turned to the divine, restoring the temples and shrines of Roman deities, while Christianity coalesced and spread rapidly through the empire.
The Roman Empire was again devastated over the years 251 to 266 CE, by what became known as the Plague of Cyprian. It was probably due to smallpox, although measles is also a possibility. At its height, it is said to have killed 5,000 people a day. What stands out were the actions of the Christians, who were willing to minister to the sick even at the cost of their own lives. For them, God was sovereign over death, and these actions were in striking contrast to the actions of the general population. Although a despised minority, the Christians showed love towards those who did not love them; they did good to those around them and not merely to those of the household of faith. The result was the exponential growth of the church, as those who survived the ravages of the plagues, in part due to the care of their Christian neighbours, became followers of Christ.
Subsequent plagues of one variety or another devastated numerous countries and continents throughout much of human history, with the bubonic plague travelling from one European port to another from the fourteenth century onwards. In the absence of any scientific knowledge regarding the causation of these devastating diseases, people searched for reasons behind them, and this led to the spectre of divine punishment as a major contributory factor.
In August 1519, the plague that was to wipe out a third of the population of Zurich in Switzerland, made its appearance. Zurich was the base of Ulrich Zwingli, the leader of the Reformation in Switzerland, who at the time was on holiday. Yet, unlike many who were fleeing from the city, Zwingli chose to return to continue his pastoral duties, and to care for and comfort the sick. Zwingli was neither reckless nor selfish in the face of sickness and death, but his faith and Christian hope filled him with courage and gave him the freedom to seek to meet the needs of others.
In August 1527, a plague struck Wittenberg in Germany, the hometown of Martin Luther. Fearing for the safety of Luther and the other professors at the university, the Elector of Saxony ordered Luther to leave for Jena. Despite this order, Luther remained to minister to the sick and the frightened, even as he was surrounded by dying people. He and his pregnant wife opened their house as a ward for the sick. Once again, Luther’s refusal to leave Wittenberg stands in marked contrast to those around him who, not unexpectedly, were fleeing for their lives.
In response to criticism at his decision Luther wrote a now famous letter: Whether One May Flee From a Deadly Plague. The bottom line for him was caring for one’s neighbour, the community, and taking all necessary steps to protect others. Underlying these was the giftedness of serving. Even though he accepted that it was not necessarily wrong to flee from death, the first considerations were one’s community and family responsibilities. For Luther, we are bound to each other in such a way that no one may forsake the other in their distress, leading to an obligation to assist and help others as he himself would like to be helped. In this vein, Luther urged people to take medicine, to disinfect their homes, and if at all possible, to avoid people and places in an effort not to spread the disease. He also recognised the benefit of hospitals, and of public cemeteries outside the town centre as a way of respecting the dead and avoiding infections from corpses. In all these things, he was far ahead of his time and was remarkably in tune with efforts today.
Luther stands out as someone who had found that elusive middle ground between panicking and being foolhardy. He was ruthless in his condemnation of those who, in his view, were tempting God by refusing medicine and sensible precautions. He encouraged people who were ill or infected to self-quarantine until they were completely well, but he chastised as murderers those who knew they were sick and yet exposed others to their illness. On the other hand, he advocated being gentle with, and praying for, those who were afraid and had fled their civic duties.
Luther’s pragmatism is amazing when it is realised that he had none of the epidemiological and public health knowledge available today. In his response, he was driven by his theology and biblical insights. His insistence that we have a duty towards our neighbour, even at the expense of our own health, came from the fact that we are all bound up together as Christ’s Body. He argued that, if Christ or his mother were ill, we would rush to care for them, heedless of danger. Since Christ lives in every one of our neighbours, we should be motivated to care for the sick and continue in our vocations for the good of our neighbour, even when there may be risk to ourselves. There is no way in which Luther could have been driven by scientific considerations—none were available to him—and yet his biblically-based actions reveal that they align remarkably well with the scientifically-based measures underlying public health policies.
The examples of Christian leaders 500 years ago speak of the strength of their faith in Christ, a hope that extended beyond this life, and their commitment to helping those around them, giving comfort and sustenance whenever and wherever possible. They do not appear to have indulged in much theologising as to whether God had purposes for the bubonic plague and whether it flowed from the eternal counsel of God. Their pragmatism did not allow for extremes: neither trust in the Lord and he will care for you regardless of how you act, nor escape when you can and self-protect at all costs. Their earthly lives were of value, and yet they were not of ultimate value. They were not to be thrown away or cast aside on pointless ventures, but neither were they to be protected at all costs.
Control Over the Natural World
The COVID-19 pandemic should not have come as a surprise, since pandemics are a constant feature of human life, even though they have played little part in the thinking of the church in the West. This is all the more remarkable when one considers their frequency over the past century, dominated by the 1918–1920 “Spanish” flu, that may have affected as many as one third of the world’s population, and resulted in the death of anything of the order of fifty million people. Others of more recent vintage include Ebola, Zika, SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome), and the 2009, the H1N1 influenza pandemic.
Most societies failed to benefit from the lessons of these: the dangers of wildlife markets that facilitate the transfer of animal viruses to the human population, the critical importance of widespread testing and contact tracing, physical isolation, adequate preparedness of medical facilities, and relevant ongoing viral research. These are responsibilities given to humans by God, and their neglect is a manifestation of sin, as other activities and interests were given greater priority than human health and wellbeing.
Unfortunately, we have forgotten how vulnerable we are, and have been tempted to act as though we are indestructible. All too easily, we consider ourselves to be omnipotent; our lifestyles reflect this dangerous assertion, and we overlook our mortality. It is against this background that COVID-19 with its unwelcome and unacceptable intrusion has to be viewed. It exposes the vulnerability of our bodies, and our coexistence with viruses and bacteria, all of which are integral parts of God’s world.
A pandemic reiterates the fragility of human lives and of the world as a whole, and we fear unavoidable, inscrutable death; we are psychologically and culturally ill-equipped for a dangerous virus. Our pretension to control the world is shattered. It is one of the illusions of some scientists that complete control is feasible, and that death will be vanquished. Christians are tempted to inadvertently buy into this prospect, and hence are fearful when it fails to eventuate. COVID-19 brings this fear to a head, and yet it is not the fear of the Lord, because it destroys our dreams and hopes, and takes us away from the Lord. It diminishes us and leads to self-preservation rather than encouraging us to be prepared to sacrifice our comforts, and even lose our lives, for the sake of our neighbours (John 15:13).
Western Christians have become addicted to control over the natural world, so that when that control falters, they are left stranded and feel let down. But let down by whom or by what? The temptation is to think they have been let down by God, and yet, up to now, they have been blessed because the God-bestowed human creativity in exploring the world and developing means of controlling it has benefitted them through the development of vaccines and numerous other agents. God has been at work in and through medical technology and the numerous blessings it bestows upon human beings. And God is still at work, as laboratories throughout the world seek to define the genetic characteristics of this particular virus and find ways of combatting its ill-effects in human beings.
I suggest that medical science is the hand of God at work in a fallen world. God’s purposes on the one hand, and epidemiology and public health advice on the other, complement each other; in no sense are they mutually exclusive. However, even the search for a vaccine can be deceptive because our ultimate hope does not rest in a vaccine but in God’s gracious dealings with us in and through a vaccine. Important as it will be to find a vaccine, our ultimate hope lies in Jesus Christ and in what he offers. Not only this, the next pandemic to come along will, in its turn, require a different vaccine.
Limits to Human Control and Pandemics
Some ask why a loving God, who has the whole world in his hands, allowed this particular virus to mutate and become an unguided missile of biological warfare. There is also the possibility, we are told, that God could cause it to mutate again, and that our immune systems could be enhanced to more effectively protect us. These are well intentioned hopes, but they are looking in the wrong place. We need to be prising open scientific ways forward, in the form of basic genetic analyses, epidemiological modelling, and public health priorities. These are all God-given directions and we ignore them to our detriment.
For Christians, everything that lives and moves has its being in him, so that when we pray we are speaking to a personal God, who holds the universe as a whole and each of its component parts together in love (Col 1:17). This is where Christian faith shines brightly, as it looks to the sovereign work of God in Jesus Christ, and also seeks to assist others as they aim to alleviate natural forces with the potential to overwhelm us and all we hold dear. Christians have a responsibility to all those around them, as outlined so perceptively in Jeremiah: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer 29:7). We seek the welfare of our cities through medical science as one of the means by which God protects both individuals and populations.
Pandemics and epidemics are integral to a fallen world, in which human beings are inextricably linked to all of nature. This is the world in which human beings live, and recognition of this, in no way denigrates our belief that God cares deeply for the world with all its suffering and angst. This was exemplified supremely in the incarnation when God became human to live and suffer along with all other human beings. Viruses and bacteria are indispensable parts of our world and of our human bodies. In this sense, COVID-19 is not a foreign virus, but is endemic to our common nature as human beings. Things go wrong because we are human, and this is the world over which God has ultimate control. Natural disasters occur repeatedly, and the death toll can be catastrophic from the likes of earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanos, but millions also die each year from starvation and eradicable infections. The magnitude of the death toll generally depends upon misguided human decision-making, political ineptitude, and social inequality. In other words, the tragedies are so often made worse by human selfishness, injustice, and overlooking the needs of the poor and vulnerable.
The challenge for Christians is to be active in seeking to demonstrate that we live in a world marked by stability and order, where even a virus is a creation of remarkable complexity that shows forth God’s handiwork. Not only this, human beings have the ability to unlock the secrets of the structure of viruses, how they function, and why they are so toxic to human beings. These capacities are gifts from God and should be welcomed and utilised by people of faith, who have confidence that God is leading them as they explore and dissect this small area within God’s magnificent universe.
We are to find a balance between the assurance that God is in control, and human responsibility to determine how best to overcome the worst effects of a pandemic for which we do not currently have an assured way of preventing its spread. In doing this, we are to be guided by Christ’s overriding commandment to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves (Mark 12:29–30). The service of others as those loved by God is fundamental and leads to altruistic actions on our part. This means laying aside fear and anxiety, knowing that God is in control. This is where belief becomes real, replacing our anxieties with an intimation of joy and serenity even in the midst of substantial uncertainty, in part, because we recognise that the creation groans as it awaits Christ’s coming (Rom 8:18–25). Abiding by public health measures is a crucial way of protecting others as well as ourselves and is an outcome of love for one’s neighbour.
A situation akin to that of COVID-19 is a reminder that those living in the affluent parts of the world are hugely privileged and protected. Most of the population does not usually have to worry about imminent death, apart from accidents, suicide, war, and some congenital conditions. This is not the case in the majority world, where starvation, common and readily treated infections, diarrhoea, and other eminently curable conditions are rife and kill numerous people, children in particular. An out-of-control COVID-19 reveals to everyone what life is like for the majority of our fellow humans. This is a salutary experience that places upon us a burden to assist the underprivileged in whatever ways are open to us.
For Christians, COVID-19 demonstrates that science has to be taken seriously. The biblical writers cannot provide a direct answer that will alleviate the social and health dilemmas surrounding us, but they are core in helping Christians face up to the fear and uncertainty brought about by a viral pandemic. However, physical healing depends upon medical-scientific contributions, from highly skilled staff in intensive care units, subsequent rehabilitation, and potentially, the widespread availability of an effective vaccine.
Christians in the West need to take seriously Jesus’ comment in response to being asked about those who had been slaughtered by Pilate in the temple. He was categorical—they were not worse sinners than others (Luke 13:1–5). Similarly, those killed when the tower in Siloam fell on them were innocent. For Jesus, the challenge was not to discover where God was in these tragedies, but to repent and seek God’s mercy and follow him. Our gratitude for the science available to us is to be complemented by the significance of lament as outlined in a number of psalms, such as Psalms 10, 13, and 22, and the biblical story of God lamenting.
God’s Providence Demonstrated in Good Leadership
All the resources at our disposal during a pandemic come from the providence of God. That providence, which lay behind the daily supply of manna (Exod 16:1 –36), has been expressed throughout history in human creativity and ingenuity. It is also expressed at times of crisis when the state seeks ways of supporting businesses and securing jobs; but supremely it is manifested in the quality of leadership at all levels.
Good leadership shines through all the more clearly in an extreme situation like a pandemic and is particularly evident at the political level. Poor, uninformed leadership can lead (and has led) to many deaths that could have been avoided if the situation had been better handled. The derision shown in recent years in a number of countries towards “experts” has resulted in a lack of attention being paid to the one group of health experts that matter in this instance—public health specialists and epidemiologists. They do not have all the answers and there are other inputs that have to be taken into account, but when politicians think they can interpret trends better than appropriate experts, trouble is inevitable. This should be of deep concern to Christians.
From a Christian angle, excellent leadership is a mark of God’s providential care of his creation, humans included. We are, therefore, to be grateful to God for good leaders. They do not have to be Christians, but if they act in such a way as to protect and provide for his creation, their leadership is a mark of God’s blessing. On the other hand, if leaders serve their own interests or the interests of certain sections of the public at the expense of the interests of ordinary people, including their health and well-being, they are failing to serve God. If a country or profession is led by good leaders, Christians should be the first to thank God for them.
Good leaders reveal God’s blessing as do good scientists. Why then does neither group usually feature prominently in the prayer concerns of churches? If God is working through society’s leaders and scientists, as I have intimated, they should be acknowledged and supported by God’s people. Their presence within our churches is all the more reason to seek to learn from them and encourage them as Christ’s representatives in a suffering and needy world.
A Medley of Lessons and Challenges
The thrust of this article has been to recognise the contribution of scientists as an integral part of God’s providence. This is not to suggest that every scientific undertaking is valuable or can be justified, since scientists are sinners like the rest of humankind. The church needs to support and encourage health professionals and researchers in their God-given calling of caring for the sick, being truthful, and undertaking good research. Christians are to learn to wonder at the achievements of medical science, even as they temper some of the more extravagant claims of some scientists.
The challenge is to balance a range of opposing narratives. Some degree of control over a pandemic can be achieved by public health measures and ongoing scientific enquiries. These are to be seen as God at work in controlling nature and are integral to his provisions for humankind. As such, they are appropriate matters for prayer as God’s people seek God’s direction and guidance. Science and faith are vital partners in sketching a way forward, not in some outlandish attempt to inappropriately exercise control over nature, but in seeking ways in which faults in natural processes can be healed and a return to wholeness effected.
This may involve a reinterpretation of what it means to trust in the Lord and seek his blessing. We are to be prepared to learn from the past and recognise his hand in what we have frequently interpreted as secular means of healing and restoration. God’s healing is not confined to immediate answers to prayer, but more often than not, involves the use of medical instruments based upon scientific knowledge and expertise. We need to learn to rejoice in his indirect healing and in a pandemic to rejoice in the application of basic public health principles.
God’s control and human control have far more in common than we frequently acknowledge. The temptation is to set the one against the other, as though the spiritual has nothing to do with the scientific. That should be anathema to all who see God as active in the world and as being ultimately in control of the world. A pandemic forces us to work hard at reconciling what all too often are seen as opposites and as irreconcilable foes, rather than as essentials that complement one another.
Gareth Jones is Emeritus Professor of Anatomy, University of Otago. He was Head of Department for many years, after which he served as Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic), and then as Director of the Bioethics Centre. He has written extensively at the science-faith boundary, mainly in biomedical ethics.
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