I recently watched a post-civil war era movie about a soldier whose wife died of illness while he was at war. Toward the end of the movie, he’s reflecting with a friend, years later, about his wife’s death. He seemed certain that her death was “God’s curse” for him, passed along to her as punishment for what he had done in life and in war.
The main character’s friend, on the other hand, suggested that God had nothing to do with the woman’s death. He said: “She just got sick.”
It’s natural, when tragic events occur, for people to assign some role to God. The characters in the movie expressed two views of God’s role in someone’s death: 1. God caused it, and 2. God had nothing to do with it.
Had there been more characters in the scene, more people could have weighed in with other suggestions: the woman’s death was part of God’s bigger plan or greater purpose, God was saving her from something in the earthly future (they could use Isaiah 57:1 to back this idea up), or God was simply “calling her home.” The suggestions of God’s role (or lack of role) in her death could go on and on.
In God and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and Its Aftermath, N.T. Wright provides biblical structure to help readers process the question of God’s role as it relates to the global pandemic. Although vaccines have provided plenty of reason for optimism, thousands still are still dying every day from COVID-19. The virus has hit prisons especially hard. Toward the end of 2020, PBS reported that 1 in 5 incarcerated people in the United States had the virus. At the time of this writing, the virus has killed 2.7 million people worldwide. “Where is God in all of this?” is a fair and natural question.
Wright begins the book by describing many of the common interpretations of God’s involvement in tragic events. Everything from “this is the end” to “this is an opportunity.” The first chapter is a reminder that we can’t box God into one idea of how he responds to or initiates events in the world.
Then, Wright addresses teachings from the Old Testament that show God’s response to crisis. It would be easy to look at any one Old Testament passage alone and draw all of our assumptions about God’s involvement in tragic events from there. But Wright offers a well-rounded view of Old Testament judgment and grace.
The crucial part of Wright’s discussion arrives in the chapter about Jesus. He emphasizes how it’s essential, in a personal or worldwide crisis, to understand the situation through the lens of Jesus’ sovereignty–and to understand Jesus’ sovereignty in light of his own death and resurrection:
A lot of the talk about “What is God doing in the coronavirus pandemic” assumes that God is “sovereign,” and it assumes what that “sovereignty” will mean. Jesus, though, was unveiling a different meaning of divine sovereignty. This is what it looks like, he was saying as he healed a leper, or as he announced forgiveness on his authority to a penitent woman. This is what it looks like, he was saying as he celebrated parties with all the wrong people. This is what it looks like, he was saying as he went up to Jerusalem that last time and solemnly announced God’s final judgement on the city, the system, and the institution – the Temple – that had refused God’s way of peace. This is what it looks like, he said as he broke bread on the last night with his friends. This is what it looks like, he said as he hung on the cross, with the words “King of the Jews” above his head…This is what it looks like, he was saying three days later to his astonished friends in the upper room…God and the Pandemic. Quotes from pages 20-21, 23, and 25.
…Trying to jump from an earthquake, a tsunami, a pandemic or anything else to a conclusion about “what God is saying here” without going through the Gospel story is to make the basic theological mistake of trying to deduce something about God while going behind Jesus’ back…
…The point is this. If you want to know what it means to talk about God being “in charge of ” the world, or being “in control,” then Jesus himself instructs you to rethink the notion of “kingdom,” “control” and “sovereignty” themselves, around his death on the cross.
In the last couple of chapters of his short (76 pages) book, Wright lays out what practical responses are to a crisis for a Christian. He does this in light of Jesus’ teachings and the rest of the New Testament. These chapters will be particularly meaningful to the incarcerated reader who is not only processing the pandemic but the ongoing crisis and trauma of imprisonment as well.
God and Pandemic would be best for a reader who has prior knowledge of the Bible since it’s not meant to be an introduction to scripture.
Q&A with N.T. Wright, author and Senior Research Fellow at Wycliffe Hall at the University of Oxford:
Question: The pandemic has hit some prisons especially hard. What words about God do you have for prisoners who have suffered physically and emotionally (unable to have physical visits from loved ones) due to the pandemic?
Wright: Isolation and sickness are terrifying. God has promised ‘I am with him in trouble; I will deliver him and bring him to honour’ (Ps 91). And Ps 23 is of course always important: even if I walk through the dark valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me. All these come amazingly true in Jesus, who is God-with-us and comes to the darkest place so that God will indeed be with us there.
Question: What story of someone in the Bible who was in prison is most meaningful to you and why?
Wright: The story of Joseph in prison in Genesis is very important: despite the fact that he’s been unjustly treated, Joseph comes through and by the end of the story he appears as the true Wise Human who brings rescue and hope — and, right at the end, reconciliation.
Question: Why should people in prison read scripture on a daily basis?
Wright: Scripture is like food and drink. Without it you lack the energy to face the day with wisdom and courage and hope.
Question: If you met someone in prison who had never read scripture before, where would you suggest they begin?
Wright: I would suggest starting with the four gospels, and Psalms. So many of the Psalms are written from places of real distress. And in the gospels one of the most important characters, John the Baptist, is the primary witness to Jesus and he ends up in prison . . . on death row as it turns out . . . But of course Paul was in prison when writing four of his letters. Of these, perhaps Philippians is the most joyful.