The hustle and bustle of 21st century life-as-normal has screeched to a defensive halt in the path of the COVID-19 pandemic. The halls and highways of the world’s infrastructure are eerily empty. Social media is a strange mix of memes about home learning and coronavirus death statistics. It’s not difficult to see that our world is in shock and people are afraid.
Stuck in quarantine, those who are normally too busy to contemplate the deep things of life are faced with a flurry of existential questions: Why? Is there hope? Will I die? Will my family die? What does the future hold? Does God care?
A Netflix binge can do little to mitigate our fear and anxious sorrow. The big questions lurk close to the surface. Endless news headlines are a momento mori for us all.
The world is looking for answers.
A World Without Hope
In these trying times, a few cultural icons had the bright idea to sing “Imagine” with its famous opening words, “Imagine there’s no heaven.” (The reason I know this song so well is that I was asked to sing it in a public school choir. Refusing to do so was a turning point in my early Christian life.) The New York Times responded with an article titled “This ‘Imagine’ Cover Is No Heaven” and a serious tagline: “The actress Gal Gadot assembled celebrities singing John Lennon’s anthem on social media. The result is far from inspiring in a time of crisis.” If you have never heard the song (count yourself lucky), it goes like this:
Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us, only sky
Imagine all the people living for today
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace
The foolishness of “living for today” became clear early in the crisis when Spring-breakers chose beer and sex over social distancing and were shamed on mass media for hitting the beaches.
Weeks later, the world still has no answers.
Lament is Not Hopelessness
Christians are not exempt from wrestling with existential questions. In tough times, it’s easy to turn to “knee-jerk would-be Christian reactions,” as N. T. Wright pointed out in an article for TIMES. Though I think we can say more than Wright chose to say in his controversial piece, his point is well taken: there’s a serious danger in grasping for trite, pat answers. Our first reaction should be to reflect and lament.
In times of crisis, there’s a serious danger in grasping for trite, pat answers. Our first reaction should be to reflect and lament.
Human suffering is horrible and, as someone wisely remarked in recent days, we would do well not to be Job’s foolish friends in this critical moment. We need to lead in lament and mourn with those who mourn (Rom. 12:15). The Psalms are among the best places to which Christians can turn in dark days. Now is a time for prayer and humility.
On the other hand, we need to be careful not to conflate Christian lament with hopelessness. We mourn, but never as others who have no hope. Our choices are not to wait without hope or inevitably settle for misplaced hope. If anyone has answers to the deeper questions that are raised by disasters like the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s Christ-followers.
In his new book Where is God in a Coronavirus World? John Lennox writes,
Nowadays, fewer and fewer people have any God-dimension whatsoever in their lives. Since all over the world churches are being closed in order to limit the spread of the virus, many are asking where God is—that is, if he is there at all. Is he in inaccessible self-quarantine? Where or from whom can we get real solace or hope?
Scripture does not provide all the answers. But it does provide answers. And it certainly has the best answers. The Christian calling is to bring gospel hope to bear on the present situation.
All Creation Groans
Christian Scripture begins by offering the best answer for why creation is groaning in the grips of COVID-19:
20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. (Rom. 8:20-22)
We know this, says Paul. Coronavirus is the most recent groan in a long line of groans. From the Bubonic plague of the 14th century to the Spanish flu of 1918, we have been here before—and the human loss is staggering. In light of the varying projections for COVID-19, it is difficult to know how to pray. In these times, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26).
The world groans. We groan. But that’s not the whole picture. The world can only say, “This is how things are.” Christians can say, “Things are not as they ought to be.”
The Christian calling is to bring gospel hope to bear on the present situation.
We’re not stuck in a purposeless death trap, bound for total annihilation. God created the world “very good.” That means that although things have gone very bad, it’s not the end of the story. He has a plan, and he is working it out even now. Ed Stetzer writes,
This virus is terrible. Christians believe this is part of the fall and its lingering impact of brokenness and evil. But for 2,000 years, Christians have asked the same thing in times of trouble — what does God want us to learn in this crisis? We are exhorted to redeem the time — to see what good God can bring out of the terrible.
God is in Control
God is never taken by surprise. When the waters rage, “The Lord sits enthroned over the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as king forever” (Ps. 29:10). God is truly and fully in control. “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28), and in him we can trust.
1 God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. 2 Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, 3 though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling. Selah (Psalm 46:1-3)
These are earth-giving-way days and mountain-moving moments. Christians lead in hoping “against hope” that the Sovereign Creator God who “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Heb. 1:3) and “with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (Jas. 1:17) will certainly remember that we are dust and give strong support to those who trust in him.
3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
Christian hope is not grounded in mere platitudes or imaginative anthems. It is grounded in the immutable providence of God, and it will not put us to shame.
New Creation is Coming
For a groaning creation, Christianity offers the ultimate answer of God’s plan in Christ to bring about a restored creation in which “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4). The day is fast approaching when the former things, including COVID-19, will have passed away.
For a groaning creation, Christianity offers the ultimate answer of God’s plan in Christ to bring about a restored creation in which the former things, including COVID-19, will have passed away.
Our task is not to wait without hope. It is to turn to the “God of hope” who is able to “fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him” (Rom. 15:3). It is to live as Christians always live, in the strange place between old creation and new creation. Christian lament is always mingled with hope. Our sorrow is not without joy. There is groaning and rejoicing:
23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Rom. 8:23-25)
In this hope, we are saved. As Christians, we can tell our neighbors that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18). There is no better time than now to become members of a new humanity. Things are not as they ought to be, but creation is hoping too: “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (Rom. 8:19).
When are we to share these answers if not now? “For we know,” we know, “that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). COVID-19 is not outside the scope of “all things.” God is not sitting on his hands. He is at work in the church and in the world—and in this, I rejoice.
“For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.”