New Testament scholar N.T. Wright has weighed in on what the Christian response to the coronavirus should be and identified problematic “knee-jerk” reactions many believers have when tragedies occur.
In a conversation with BioLogos founder Francis Collins and host Jim Stump, Wright, professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews, said it’s both “fascinating and worrying” the Christian church in the United States is wary of the scientific perspective on the coronavirus.
“The idea that science equals Darwin and Darwin equals unbelief — this is just trivial,” he said. “We need to be able to get way beyond that.”
Addressing the science-faith conflict, Wright argued that the United States is experiencing the effects of the 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial,” which centered on a Tennessee science teacher who was accused of violating a state law banning the teaching of evolution.
“You’re still reaping the whirlwind from [the trial] in terms of people saying, ‘We of faith have to ignore [science] and go somewhere else,’ which is right now, crazy,” he said.
Collins, who heads the United States’ biomedical research, said he and other health officials have been insisting that people wear masks “with very little success.” Noting that “probably 40-50% new cases are caused” by asymptomatic persons, it’s everyone’s responsibility to wear a mask so as to not unknowingly spread the coronavirus, he stressed.
With many cities reopening, the U.S. is currently on a “steep upward slope” of coronavirus cases, he lamented. The U.S. now has over 3.5 million cases and more than 138,000 have died. While the death rate had gone down the last couple months, it recently began to increase.
Collins said he has heard “disturbing examples” of Christians not following safety guidelines with arguments such as “the devil can’t get into my church so I’m safe” or “Jesus is my vaccine so I don’t need to worry.”
Wright agreed that such attitudes are “irresponsible” and pointed out that caring for the sick is “deep in the Christian tradition,” as is the “responsibility to act wisely while a plague or pandemic is going on.”
He admitted that while attending worship services held over Zoom or other streaming platforms is “quite depressing,” he would “much rather have that than more sad funerals which people can’t attend in great numbers, of people who shouldn’t have died.”
“We have such short memories as modern-day Christians. We forget that our forebearers of the faith have faced this before,” Wright said. “We can learn from them.”
The theologian, who addresses the Christian response to COVID-19 in his book God and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and Its Aftermath, identified “knee-jerk” reactions many Christians have when devastating world events occur, such as passing blame or viewing tragedies as a “call to repentance,” a sign of Christ’s return, or an opportunity to share the Gospel with a watching world.
“Again, I want to say, ‘Every moment is a moment to tell people about Jesus,’” he said. “If you waited for a pandemic to come along to nudge you into doing so, well shame on you. What’s more, if people outside of the family of faith think we’re using this as a cheap opportunity to get at them, that may well be counterproductive.”
Wright suggested the pandemic is instead an opportunity to carefully read the Bible and delve into Christian history, adding that instead of asking, “Why did this happen?” Christians should be asking, “What can I do?”
“The Christian response is not to come up with the great theoretical reasons why this is happening and breast-beating about somebody has sinned," he stressed. "It’s to say, this world is a strange place, as Paul says, it’s growing in labor pains at the moment. Our task is to ... be there, being professional, skilled at seeing whether people are most at risk and what on earth we can do to help.”
The Bible doesn’t give us “nice easy packaged answers” for tragedies because if it did, it would mean there was a “logical and rational and God-given place for evil within God’s good creation," the bestselling author argued.
“I think it’s simply not the case,” he said, adding that the virus is “anti-Creation” and designed to “spoil and destroy and kill.”
“Jesus has defeated them on the cross,” Wright emphasized. “His resurrection is the beginning of the launch of the new creation: Heaven and earth coming together. That is really all we know about the dark powers, is they’re trying to stop that, and they’re still trying to stop it now. But the new creation has begun, and by the Spirit is continuing.”
Christians are called to “lament” in response to the coronavirus, not offer answers for why it is occurring, according to Wright.
“The Spirit is groaning and grieving, and we should … realize it’s our vocation to be there, too,” he said.
During the talk, Collins also mentioned the current status on the development of treatments and a vaccine.
He noted that hydroxychloroquine “was not the answer” to COVID-19. Two drugs — remdesivir and dexamethasone — have been shown in randomized, controlled, rigorous trials to benefit people who are hospitalized.
While developing a vaccine typically takes five to six years, Collins said they are aiming to roll out with one by the end of this year. “We are on the brink of starting what's called a ‘phase three trial’ of the first vaccine getting out of the gate, which will start enrolling patients later this month,” he explained.
The goal is to have 100 million doses of a vaccine by the end of 2020, Collins said, adding that if there are a limited amount of vaccines, most will go to “high-risk” groups. These include people with chronic illnesses, the elderly, and individuals who for other reasons are at high-risk because of the inability to protect themselves from exposure.
He assured that the vaccine will be “safe” before it’s administered.
“We will not allow a vaccine that’s not proven to be safe and effective to be put out there just because you want to say you did something,” he stressed.