As I’m writing this, the novel coronavirus has brought the world to a standstill. Nearly half of humanity is confined within their homes and apartments; streets and public places are empty, businesses have been shuttered for weeks; and governments are trying to cope with medical and economic disaster. So far, COVID-19 has claimed the lives of about 70,000 people. It appears that tens of thousands more will ultimately be left in its fatal wake. This virus is obviously designed to spread, and there is no stopping it.
Although it may seem like little consolation, about 156,000 people die on our planet from some cause every 24 hours. So while COVID-19 has killed 70,000 people worldwide over the past four months, during the same time period other causes have killed almost 19 million people. During those same four months when COVID-19 has killed 10,000 Americans, 216,000 Americans died of heart disease, and 202,000 died of cancer. From that perspective, it is certainly interesting how the slight increase in the chances of imminent death has put the world into a tailspin. And it is extremely interesting when you consider the fact that everyone is going to die eventually.
In last month’s e-teaching, I did my best to explain the biblical reason for death. Although God’s original intent was that people would live forever, death entered the world through sin, and “death spread to all men, because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12). Although Jesus’ death makes forgiveness of sin and eternal life a possibility for everyone, it doesn’t exempt anyone from physical death (with the exception of believers who are alive at Jesus’ return). So, most of us are going to die, sooner or later. And generally speaking, death occurs because of a physical cause, whether it be heart disease, cancer, diabetes, being struck by lightning, or the coronavirus. Most likely, there will be some “cause of death” listed on your death certificate. (Although I’m planning of dying of acute happiness…check for the smile on my face at my funeral!)
So in relation to the deaths caused by the coronavirus as well as all other deaths, is it God or the devil who is doing the killing? Not all Christians agree on the answer. Let’s consider the evidence.
First, it does make good sense to simply blame ourselves, since sin is the root cause of death (see Rom. 5:12). Looking at it from that perspective, we’re all guilty of committing slow suicide by means of our sin. After you and I sinned for the first time, there was no escaping eventual death.
When people jump off of cliffs, we don’t blame gravity for their deaths. We blame them. Similarly, when we sin, we make a foolish decision to disobey our Creator. Unfortunately, we don’t often think about how offensive sin actually is to God. But think about it: Adam and Eve did nothing more than take a forbidden bite of fruit, and for that seemingly small act, they were kicked out of paradise and eventually died. I think if I told a guest he could eat anything in my refrigerator except the mint chocolate chip ice cream, and I later discovered he secretly ate some, I probably wouldn’t kick him out of my house. Nor would I wait a few years and then kill him for his act. Hopefully, I would have totally forgotten about it within a few days. (OK, maybe a few weeks… Alright, probably a few months…)
But by saying that, am I finding fault with God? Oh my, certainly not. There are some major differences between me and God (to put it mildly). First, I didn’t speak the universe into existence. That sort of puts me in a slightly lower class of beings. Second, neither did I create everyone who has ever lived (I did, however, play a small part in creating three awesome kids). Third, I don’t have all knowledge and power (even though my kids, for a little while, thought I did).
To compare me to God is somewhat like comparing a single-cell salmonella bacterium to a human being. But even that is a very inadequate comparison, as the differences between myself and God border on the infinite.
I should also mention that I’ve snuck into the refrigerators of other people to abscond with food that I didn’t have permission to take. (True confessions now.) So I’d be hypocritical to find fault with anyone who eats my forbidden ice cream. God, however, never takes what doesn’t belong to Him. (That would actually be impossible, since He owns everything.)
For all those reasons, and many more, we should not be bothered by God’s reaction to Adam and Eve’s sin, or God’s reaction to your and my sin, namely, a death sentence. What we should be surprised about, however, is God’s incredible mercy towards us who have sinned. Adam and Eve disobeyed their Creator and deserved instant death, at bare minimum. But they didn’t die physically until hundreds of years later. That is mercy! And although you and I probably won’t live to be 930 as did Adam, it is amazing, in light of our rebellion against our Creator, that any of us will live as long as we do. Our sin is going to kill us all, but if you are reading this, God’s mercy has delayed what you deserve. You might as well say, “Amen!” you old sinner!
God Minus Some Mercy
There are some rather disturbing stories in the Bible of when God decided not to show certain individuals much mercy. Perhaps those stories are in the Bible because we tend to take God’s mercy for granted, and so, every once in a while, He gives us a glimpse of what it would be like if He showed no mercy, giving us what we deserve. Let me give you just one example:
Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took their respective firepans, and after putting fire in them, placed incense on it and offered strange fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them. And fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, “It is what the Lord spoke, saying, “By those who come near Me I will be treated as holy, and before all the people I will be honored.” So Aaron, therefore, kept silent (Lev. 10:1-3).
Yikes! Nadab and Abihu were doing something that appeared worshipful, but they used the wrong incense. And they were consumed by fire from God. Again, yikes! But don’t be shocked at how God treated them. That is how you and I deserved to be treated the very first time we sinned and every time thereafter. God has been showing us a WHOLE lot of mercy!
And when folks say silly things like, “Those things only happened under the old covenant,” as if Jesus’ death somehow altered God’s fundamental character, I point them to the story of Ananias and Sapphira in the New Testament. Goodness, those two were giving money to help the poor, but they stretched the truth, and both fell dead in church! If God did that to every one of us who deserve it, the buildings where Christians meet wouldn’t be called churches, they’d be called “morgues.”
So as we circle back to our original question regarding who should be blamed for all the death in the world, let’s be honest and humble and blame ourselves. And let’s admit that whether we die by heart disease, cancer, or the coronavirus, we deserve it, and up until the day of our death, we’re enjoying mercy. And of course, for those who believe in Jesus, the greatest expression of God’s mercy occurs after death, and then continues forever! Praise God!
Blame the Devil?
But who, exactly, is behind the coronavirus? Some Christians claim it is the devil, and they point to verses such as:
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly (John 10:10).
You know of Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit and with power, and how He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him (Acts 10:38).
Some say John 10:10 (quoted above) proves that everything that steals, kills or destroys is from the devil, the “thief.” Yet God takes a lot of credit in the Bible, even in the New Testament, for killing and destroying:
Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell (Matt. 10:28, emphasis added).
But I will warn you whom to fear: fear the One who, after He has killed, has authority to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear Him! (Luke 12:5, emphasis added).
There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy (Jas. 4:12, emphasis added).
Now I desire to remind you…that the Lord, after saving a people out of the land of Egypt, subsequently destroyed those who did not believe (Jude 5, emphasis added).
So we see the danger in using “proof texts” at the expense of biblical context. The truth is, when Jesus warned about the “thief” in John 10:10, He was not referring to the devil, but to false teachers, according to the context (see John 10:1,8).
And Jesus certainly did heal “all who were oppressed by the devil” (Acts 10:38), as Peter once preached. But Peter didn’t believe that the devil could oppress someone without God’s permission. Jesus once told Peter personally:
Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission [a marginal note in my Bible says, “or, obtained by asking”] to sift you like wheat; but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers (Luke 22:31).
Just as the Old Testament story of Job reveals, Satan can’t do anything without God’s permission. The devil is like a junkyard dog on a leash, and God is holding the leash. From reading the book of Job we learn that, if God allows, Satan can cause harm through sickness and disease, foreign invasions, and natural disasters—all things that Scripture often identifies as judgments from God on sin (in Job’s case, however, they were permitted as a test, and not as a judgment).
So when TV preachers “rebuke” the coronavirus, they are rebuking something God has permitted, and obviously permitted for His divine purpose. And what might His divine purpose be? If we read the Bible, we can pretty much narrow it down to two things: God is judging sin and trying to motivate people to repent and escape His eternal wrath.
Imagine the audacity of a human being rebuking something God has sovereignly permitted, and the ignorance of trying to stop something that God is using to wake people up from their spiritual slumber! But take a look at this strange video of Christian TV preacher Kenneth Copeland, who “as a prophet of God” on March 30 “executed judgment on COVID-19 and Satan” and demanded an immediate vaccination against the coronavirus: www.youtube.com/watch?v=OSIrQBGfUtw. Since Copeland “called the coronavirus done, gone, finished and over” that day, after commanding Satan to “come down from his place of authority and to crawl on his belly” and “destroy no more by COVID-19,” thousands of people have been afflicted and died all over the world as the coronavirus continues to spread. Apparently neither God or the devil are listening to prophet Kenneth Copeland. And if only Copeland could also decree an end to all heart disease, cancer, and fatal automobile accidents! Then he’d really have something.
A Strange Story
Before we consider how we should pray regarding the coronavirus, let’s consider one other biblical story that reveals God’s sovereign use of Satan. The story is found in two Old Testament books, and when you read both accounts together, they are very interesting.
In 2 Samuel 24:1 we read, “Now again the anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and it incited David against them to say, “Go, number Israel and Judah” (emphasis added). After the numbering, which took more than nine months to accomplish, God gave David three options of judgment, one of which was three days of pestilence. In the end, 70,000 men died from a plague.
The same story is recorded in 1 Chronicles 21:1-27, but the story begins with these words: “Then Satan stood up against Israel and moved David to number Israel” (1 Chron. 21:1, emphasis added).
Why the discrepancy between what is recorded in 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles? Was it the anger of the Lord, or was it Satan that incited/moved David to number Israel? If both accounts are inspired, both must be true, and thus they can be harmonized.
Remember that in the case of Job, it was Satan who challenged God about him, and eventually God said to the devil, “You incited Me against him to ruin him withoutcause” (Job 2:3). So, according to God Himself, Satan incited God to allow him to afflict Job. And it must have been the same case regarding David’s numbering of Israel—if both accounts of that incident are true.
Putting it all together, we have God, who was already angry with all the people of Israel for their sin—but who was showing them mercy by withholding due judgment. It seems God is always experiencing tension between His great love and His just anger which, when you think about it, is something we all experience to some degree. And then we have Satan, who is revealed in Revelation 12:10 as the “accuser of our brethren,” who “accuses them before our God day and night.” Whereas earthly believing intercessors generally pray and request that God would have mercy on those deserving of His judgment—appealing to His great love—Satan practices the exact opposite, and he requests that God judge deserving sinners, appealing to the Lord’s just anger. Satan is an “anti-intercessor.” Of course, there is some mystery to all of this, and we’re stuck with our peanut brains for now. But this is a way to harmonize the apparent disharmony between the two records of this story.
Most interesting is that in both accounts of the story, the spreading plague was ultimately arrested through animal sacrifices made on an altar erected by David, coupled with his intercessory prayer for the people of Israel. Here are the two accounts:
So the Lord sent a pestilence on Israel; 70,000 men of Israel fell. And God sent an angel to Jerusalem to destroy it; but as he was about to destroy it, the Lord saw and was sorry over the calamity, and said to the destroying angel, “It is enough; now relax your hand.” And the angel of the Lord was standing by the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite. Then David lifted up his eyes and saw the angel of the Lord standing between earth and heaven, with his drawn sword in his hand stretched out over Jerusalem….Then David built an altar to the Lord there and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings. And he called to the Lord and He answered him with fire from heaven on the altar of burnt offering. The Lord commanded the angel, and he put his sword back in its sheath (2 Chron. 21:14-16, 26-27).
David built there an altar to the Lord and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings. Thus the Lord was moved by prayer for the land, and the plague was held back from Israel (2 Sam. 24:25).
It is even more interesting that the place where David erected his altar became the exact site where Solomon’s temple would ultimately be built in Jerusalem. That temple was a replica of a very holy place in heaven (Heb. 8:5) where Jesus’ blood would be presented to make atonement for the sins of the world (Heb. 9:11-12).
We know, of course, that “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb. 10:4), and that every Old Testament animal sacrifice served to symbolize the only sacrifice that could actually atone for sin—the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary. Thus the killer plague of David’s time—incited by both Satan’s hatred of Israel and God’s anger against Israel for their sin, administered by a holy angel—was actually arrested through the future sacrifice of Jesus, the Son of God, who died for the world’s sins, and the prayer of an imperfect “man after God’s own heart” (1 Sam. 13:14).
And this informs us about the current plague that is circling the globe. Surely God is angry with everyone, more or less, who is not submitted to Jesus. Yet He loves them all. In hopes of their avoiding His eternal wrath, He is giving the world another small taste of His temporal wrath. Their only hope is to avail to the solitary sacrifice that can save them, by turning from their sins and becoming Jesus’ followers.
If you have become Jesus’ follower, you have nothing to fear. Your God is greater than the coronavirus, and He’s given you many promises in His Word about protection from plagues (see Psalm 91, for example).
And how should those of us who have submitted to Jesus pray during the coronavirus plague? We should pray, like David, that God will have mercy on the world—appealing to His great love—to give sinners more time to repent. That should result in fewer deaths, although the same numbers may still become sick. And we should also pray that God will send laborers into the harvest that is so ripe due to His sovereign work (Luke 10:2). And finally, we should pray, “Here am I, send me!” (Is. 6:8). —David