At the end of March, Time published an essay by distinguished New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, with the rather brazen title “Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus. It’s Not Supposed To.” The title is wrong, and the essay is strange, to say the least. But it serves as an interesting catalyst for asking what answers the Christian faith does have regarding the present pandemic.
Dr. Wright reflects on the privations we’re experiencing, which are indeed painful – not to mention the many who are sick and have died. He notes that a pandemic makes for an unusually severe Lent, “And this Lent has no fixed Easter to look forward to. We can’t tick off the days.” Then he begins to muse about the Christian response:
No doubt the usual silly suspects will tell us why God is doing this to us. A punishment? A warning? A sign? These are knee-jerk would-be Christian reactions in a culture which, generations back, embraced rationalism: everything must have an explanation. But supposing it doesn’t?
For Wright, those who try to offer explanations are silly, rationalistic, and acting in a pseudo-Christian manner. Now, I don’t doubt that some of those offering explanations for the coronavirus are silly, that some of the motivations for offering answers are pseudo-Christian, and maybe even that rationalism has some onions in the soup. But I hardly think that a charismatic preacher declaring coronavirus is the punishment for x sin is showing heavy rationalistic influence. Nor is it really the case that the desire to explain a pandemic is a sign of the Enlightenment’s footprint; the search for answers is a characteristically human trait, and can be found in similar circumstances in other times and places. Rationalism is an ideological bogey-man in this situation, and Wright’s conjuring of it is significant.
Wright doesn’t think that offering an explanation is the appropriate Christian response; nor does he think that offering concrete hope is: “What if, after all, there are moments such as T.S. Eliot recognized in the early 1940s, when the only advice is to wait without hope, because we’d be hoping for the wrong thing?” Instead, he exhorts Christians to embrace lament, and in the strongest part of the essay, he points to sections of lament in the Psalms. He then turns to theology proper, and is apparently no friend to classical theism and the doctrine of divine impassibility.
Having noted Jesus’ grief at the tomb of Lazarus and the testimony to the Spirit’s groaning, Wright drives home his main point: “It is no part of the Christian vocation, then, to be able to explain what’s happening and why. In fact, it is part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain—and to lament instead.” As the title says, Christianity offers no answers.
Now, there surely are bad ways to offer answers in a time of crisis. People do offer trite and unhelpful words to those who are suffering. People go well beyond what God has revealed, and declare that the disaster is a punishment for x sin, and will go away if people do y. Lament is certainly a part of the Christian response to the suffering of the world, and at times it may be the only response: “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15, NIV). But has the church really no answers, no hope to offer?
The church does not have a specific answer for this specific disease. But the church does have an encompassing answer that applies to this disease as to every disease of this world, the people on it, and our souls: the sufferings of this world are the result of sin. And the church does have a hope, and should “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15). God has provided a wonderful answer to all suffering, the gospel of Jesus Christ: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Is the coronavirus pandemic a punishment? Yes, for our world is in rebellion against God Almighty. Is it a warning? It should be. Every disaster and disease is a memento mori, urging us to remember that we should use this short life to prepare for the life to come. Is it a sign? It signifies that this world is broken, and our time here is short. But does that mean “the only advice is to wait without hope, because we’d be hoping for the wrong thing”? Not if we’re hoping for the Parousia.
T.S. Eliot has good things to say, but I prefer the apostle Paul on this one (1 Thessalonians 4:13, 16-18):
Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope…For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
But in offering these answers, are we manifesting some silly, pseudo-Christian rationalism that has sunk into our bones? This is where the church must correctly reconnoiter the culture. “Generals are always fighting the last war,” the saying goes; rationalism is the last war – or maybe a few wars ago. We are dealing now with a late-modern or post-modern culture that is allergic to truth, answers, and certainty. Indeed – and this is the salient point – Dr. Wright’s essay fits in Time because it offers the message our time wants to hear: “we don’t know any more than you do.” But what our time needs to hear is the Christian message: a pandemic is the result of sin, it should be taken as a memento mori, and there is certain and eternal hope in Jesus Christ.
This harsh ‘Lent’ is bad, and we should lament; but remember Easter.
Joshua Steely is Senior Pastor of Chatham Baptist Church in Chatham, Illinois.