It’s amazing how quickly one crisis can arise, catch us unawares and come to dominate our lives. I remember staying at a caravan site in Cornwall last July. The owner of the park had just bought a fancy Harley Davidson motorbike. As he revelled in his new purchase, he smiled and explained that business was good. If I had been able to read the future, can you imagine his reaction if I’d told him that within eight months a virus would sweep the world that might put his whole business at risk? He’d have thought me some kind of a nutter who watched too many films with apocalyptic themes! But economic meltdown is exactly where we are at the moment. Fear and panic are gripping the world; many shelves are empty in my local supermarket, something I’d only seen in Zimbabwe previously; shares are in freefall; aeroplanes are being grounded; people over 70 are being confined to their homes for 12 weeks; our own city, Liverpool, is remarkably quiet; sports events are being cancelled. My wife and I keep saying to each other that we’ve never witnessed a moment like this in our lifetimes. And how fast all this has occurred. I remember arriving in Thailand in mid-January and reading on my phone about the onset of a virus in China. Then it was the fifth item down on the list of news stories. Not any longer!
At times like this, Christians need to think through the issues confronting us. We ought to be watching and praying more than ever, in contrast to the panic and fear found in our nations. Beyond noting the actions of governments to contain the virus and all the human and economic impact identified by the media, we must formulate a Biblical worldview response. This is doubly important at the moment, because it’s in crises like these that the secular worldview fails us so badly; it simply doesn’t have the insights to read the times properly nor give us hope when we need it most. Here are a few thoughts that have come to my mind during recent days.
(1) Total security is a myth of the modern world
The World War 2 generation is fast dying out, but in my younger years growing up in England I remember meeting many people who’d lived through an existential threat. As Nazi forces assembled on the other side of the English Channel and then unleased the Luftwaffe onto Britain’s cities, a whole generation looked into the abyss and wondered whether they would survive. Such experiences did something to our grandparents; for the most part they became tough realists about the world and its challenges. How different things are now. Eight decades of relative peace and prosperity – that we largely take for granted – have lulled us into believing that safety and stability are normal for this world. The reality is far more complex, and this virus shows us why. Our interlocking world is highly vulnerable to a whole range of threats and the control that we think we possess with all our science and technology is often illusionary. At the moment we are at the mercy of a microscopic virus that we can do very little about. In one sense then, Corona virus is little more than a monstrous dose of reality and if it helps us to focus on our own mortality, that’s a good thing.
(2) We need waking up
As I look out on Western society through a Biblical lens, I see a society asleep. False philosophies, materialism and entertainment are sedatives that have numbed and blinded us to what existence is really about: a Triune Holy God; a created universe; a created race; sin and salvation through Christ; success as the service of others. In the providence of God this virus should be seen as a means to shake the fake worldview of our lands and create conditions necessary for a return to the living God. We should be praying for that end. Anything that helps arrest people in their tracks before they sleepily pass into a lost eternity must be viewed as a mercy upon our society, even a deadly virus.
CS Lewis’ famous quote is highly instructive to us in these turbulent days:
“Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
(3) Repent or perish
One of the most pertinent Biblical passages for us to reflect on during these days is found in Luke 13: 1-5:
There were present at that season some who told Him [Jesus] about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 And Jesus answered and said to them, “Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things? 3 I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. 4 Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. NKJV
These are shocking words to a generation that has long since jettisoned the first building block of wisdom, a healthy fear of the Lord. Here, Jesus asks people if the Galileans who’d died (most likely during a riot) were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered and died in the way that they did. His answer is emphatic, ‘No’. They weren’t any worse sinners than other Galileans, but he adds, ‘Unless you repent, you too will perish’. Jesus then brings up another case; this time not death by human action, except perhaps the result of shoddy construction work. A tower has collapsed in Siloam and 18 people have been killed. Jesus asks the same question again: ‘Were those who died worse sinners than all the others living in Jerusalem? ‘No’ he says, and again adds, unless you repent, you too will perish’.
So in Luke 13, we find Jesus addressing situations where people die due to some unexpected event and he uses it as a teaching moment. It helps us to know how we should think when we see the sudden death of people, be it from war, an earthquake, a plane crash or mass deaths resulting from a virus like Corona. Let’s put today’s situation as an urgent question to Jesus: ‘Jesus, people are dying from the Corona Virus in our lands and across the world. Are they worse sinners than other people?’ His answer: ‘I tell you no, they are not worse than anyone else, but unless you repent you too will perish.’ So we can say that categorically that people who die in acts of mass murder or towers falling or earthquakes or tsunamis or terrorist outrages are not worse than anyone else and conversely those who don’t die in those ways are no better than anyone else. Dying in some tragedy or not dying in some tragedy says nothing about a person’s moral character according to Jesus. So far so good; our generation would heartily agree. But it’s his conclusion that is massively toxic to this generation, a generation largely ignorant of its own sin and incredulous about judgement: ‘Unless you repent you too will all perish’. These are terrifying words when you think about them.
Here’s Jesus’ point: death by some tragedy doesn’t establish the boundaries of those who are sinners before God and avoiding death by tragedy doesn’t establish innocence before God. Instead, all people in all the world will perish unless they repent because all have sinned and are guilty before God. Or we could put it this way: seeing people die is a reminder that there is a judgement to come and that unless we get right with God there’s a much greater tragedy than death coming to all of us; we will perish in that judgement. The word used in the Greek text for perish is very strong; it really means to be damned. Now, today we might hear someone say, ‘God is our greatest hope’ and that is true, but something else is also true: God is our greatest threat. That’s the main point of this passage. God’s judgement and the reality of hell is a far greater threat than dying from the Corona virus.
The simple fact is that we don’t think enough about a God who is perfectly holy and just and that without the Gospel none of us are good people on our way to heaven, we’re sinners on our way to hell. If you were to ask me what the greatest loss of this generation is, it would be that we’ve lost the Holy fear of God. Too often when people say they believe in God, and we ask them to describe His character, we find that He’s little more than a figment of their imagination, a Teddy Bear character who wouldn’t say boo to a goose. That’s about as big a mistake as you can get. The God who made the world and who inhabits eternity is Holy beyond our description; He hates all sin and is not in the least bit impressed with our self-centred, godless lives. But it’s the fact that He is also our Judge that should worry us most.
Now if God is our Righteous Judge, have we stopped to think about the state of our lands and the danger that we are in? There is no fear of God in view, we sin with impunity. Let me offer a few pointers: (1) We use the Holy Name of God as a swear word continually (2) This creation is the theatre of God’s glory but we choose not to see it and stupidly imagine that universe is an accident (3) We celebrate living as though our lives are the result of some cosmic roll of the dice, just so we can be free to do whatever we want (4) We murder the unborn on the altar of our selfishness; 205,000 unborn babies last year in the UK alone and we call it choice; since when is murder anyone’s choice? (5) There is currently virtually a culture war against the God-appointed categories of masculinity, femininity, fatherhood and motherhood (6) We have national addictions to illicit sex, to money, to pleasure, to entertainment, to pornography, to technology, to drugs, to alcohol, to food, to television, to popularity, to ourselves (7) We’ve endorsed numerous perverted ways of living only to call them lifestyle choices (8) As a nation we mock our Christian heritage, a heritage that’s given us freedom and prosperity and stability (9) In this most arrogant of generations we’ve felt free to attempt to rearrange God’s created order for sexuality and marriage by a mere Act of Parliament (10) We sell high teach weapons to numerous corrupt nations around the world who use them to kill wantonly (11) Greed and selfishness stalk the boardrooms of many of our large corporations.
Since there is so little knowledge of God in our lands, it’s very hard for us to appreciate the hideousness of sin in His eyes. To help us, let me quote the words of JC Ryle (1816-1900), a former Bishop of Liverpool, a man who’d spent long enough in the presence of Almighty God to avoid being captured by the cavalier thinking of many others in his day and generation:
‘Concerning the guilt, vileness and offensiveness of sin in the sight of God, my words will be few. I say “few” advisedly. I do not think, in the nature of things, that mortal man can at all realize the exceeding sinfulness of sin in the sight of that holy and perfect One with whom we have to do…we poor blind creatures, here today and gone tomorrow, born in sin, surrounded by sinners, living in a constant atmosphere of weakness, infirmity and imperfection—can form none but the most inadequate conceptions of the hideousness of evil. We have no line to fathom it and no measure by which to gauge it. The blind man can see no difference between a masterpiece of Rembrandt or Raphael and the Queen’s head on a village signboard. The deaf man cannot distinguish between a penny whistle and a cathedral organ. The very animals whose smell is most offensive to us have no idea that they are offensive and are not offensive to one another. Fallen men and women, I believe, can have no just idea what a vile thing sin is in the sight of that God whose handiwork is absolutely perfect… But let us nevertheless settle it firmly in our minds that sin is “the abominable thing that God hates”; that God “is of purer eyes than to behold iniquity, and cannot look upon that which is evil”; that the least transgression of God’s law makes us “guilty of all”; that “the soul that sins shall die”; that “the wages of sin is death”; that God will “judge the secrets of men”; that “nothing that defiles shall in any wise enter heaven”… These are indeed tremendous words, when we consider that they are written in the book of a most merciful God!’
Let’s come back to our nations and to this moment in history and imagine a policeman who sat by and watched wickedness being committed day after day and does nothing, the very person who is charged with upholding the law. Then imagine God doing the same, ignoring the sins and evils of our lands; we would despise a God like that, One who let evil triumph over justice and righteousness. Fortunately, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus does no such thing. And knowing that should make us collectively tremble.
With the onset of this virus in the world, our folly is seen in the ranking of our fears: we’ve got everything up-side-down. We fear the virus; we fear the recession it’s bringing; we fear our material prosperity being diminished; we fear the impact on the stock market; but we fail to fear the living God, meeting Him in judgement. That’s a mistake of titanic proportions. As we look at our world we say, ‘Jesus, people are dying of this virus. ‘Yes, they are’, he replies, ‘But unless you repent you too will perish’.
So can we go as far as saying that this virus is an act of God’s judgement upon human evil? I for one can’t say whether it is or not; we all need to be careful about thinking that we can read events from God’s perspective. However, Luke 13 gives us strong reason to think that it is a reminder of the fragility and brevity of life, of the limitations of human control and most importantly a warning to get right with God while we can.
(4) God is a terrifying judge but He’s also a gracious Saviour
So how do we escape from perishing? Jesus tells us that the only proper response to seeing people die is repentance. Repentance means to turn, to turn away from something. In the New Testament it means to turn from ourselves and our sin to Jesus Christ, trusting him alone to save us. You see, what we mustn’t miss is that the One who uttered these stern words of warning is also the One who’d come into the world for the very purpose of saving us from coming judgement and damnation. The one who warns us that we will perish, perished for us. So, if you think that sin is powerful, you need to see that the cross of Christ is infinitely more powerful. The fact is that we live in the day of amazing grace and we need to have the courage to introduce people to it. As you look out and ponder this killer virus, see the sin of our lands and yet also see an ocean of grace for sinners and the promise of forgiveness and eternal life.
(5) Finally, here’s the Psalm that is my constant companion during these days:
God is our refuge and strength,
A very present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear,
Even though the earth be removed,
And though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea;
3 Though its waters roar and be troubled,
Though the mountains shake with its swelling. Selah
4 There is a river whose streams shall make glad the city of God,
The holy place of the tabernacle of the Most High.
5 God is in the midst of her, she shall not be moved;
God shall help her, just at the break of dawn.
6 The nations raged, the kingdoms were moved;
He uttered His voice, the earth melted.
7 The Lord of hosts is with us;
The God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah
8 Come, behold the works of the Lord,
Who has made desolations in the earth.
9 He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
He breaks the bow and cuts the spear in two;
He burns the chariot in the fire.
10 Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth!
11 The Lord of hosts is with us;
The God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah