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The Pandemic and the Wrath of God

In dark moments, I have sometimes wondered whether, when disaster struck, I might lose my faith. Perhaps my God of unbounded kindness would fall away in the face of crisis—shown to be phantom conjured up by an over-hopeful imagination—sand leave me alone in the universe. Yet as it has turned out, the real danger was of this God morphing into a god of wrath, his face twisting into stern, unfamiliar expressions. In this midst of a pandemic, I do not fear losing God, but I am learning what it is to feel the fear of God.

Before the virus, the language of plague and deadly pestilence belonged to the world of the Leviathan, of burning sulphur falling from the sky, of the Nile turning to blood. Now, for all the great leaps forward in medicine and technology, we find ourselves in that world again, afraid of the miasma that fills our supermarkets. Meanwhile, a plague of locusts afflicts East Africa and South Asia, and an outbreak of African swine fever has killed 40% of the pigs in China.[1] In Britain, children place rainbows in their windows: ‘When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth,’ said the Lord.[2] Yet still the waters rise.

To blame natural crises on the wrath of God has often seemed, in the modern age, to be the preserve of fundamentalist charlatans. The televangelist launches a tirade against gays, or abortion, or feminism, for having caused the earthquake, and the only serious theological question is whether we should consider this response demonic or merely idiotic. Yet in recent years, the Christian left has also flirted with the language of divine retribution with regard to the climate crisis: the conjunction of rising seas, famines, and wildfires with the scientific consensus that these are caused by humanity’s rapacious disregard for God’s creation has made a theology of wrath irresistible. Some have swiftly re-applied to the present health crisis the language designed for the climate catastrophe. Liberation theologian Leonardo Boff, for example, has called the coronavirus ‘a reprisal of Gaia for the offences that we continuously inflict on her.’[3]

The notion that pandemics are a consequence of God’s anger recurs throughout the Christian tradition, with a consensus that the proper response to pestilence is repentance and penance, so that God may relent. It comes to its most graphic manifestation in the reaction to the Black Death, which saw fanatical bands of flagellants roam through towns lashing their bleeding backs to atone for the sins of the world. A more typical, less gruesome, expression of penitence is encapsulated in a prayer to be used ‘In the time of any common Plague or Sickness’ from the Book of Common Prayer:

O Almighty God, who in thy wrath didst send a plague upon thine own people in the wilderness, for their obstinate rebellion against Moses and Aaron; and also, in the time of king David, didst slay with the plague of pestilence threescore and ten thousand, and yet remembering thy mercy didst save the rest: Have pity upon us miserable sinners, who now are visited with great sickness and mortality; that like as thou didst then accept of an atonement, and didst command the destroying Angel to cease from punishing, so it may now please thee to withdraw from us this plague and grievous sickness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Cranmer recalls the fact that we worship the same Almighty God who sent plagues on his people in the times of Moses and David. If we are to acknowledge some common identity between our God and the God of the Israelites—the only alternative being Marcionism—we must reckon with these stories.

Old Testament plague and disaster accounts function, in part, as theodicy. The Hebrew Bible was composed and compiled across a history of intense suffering for the Israelites: war, exile, and no doubt many disasters, famines and plagues. How, in view of this suffering, could they substantiate their claim that they were the chosen people of a loving and mighty God? One response—one so primal that theists have always reached for it instinctively—is that suffering is a punishment for sin. Exile and war and pestilence are divine retribution for idolatry, the neglect of the poor, or rebellion against the commandments of God. God is loving but also just, and suffering is explicable in these terms. By telling stories which closely associate natural disaster with identifiable sin—the destruction of Sodom as a response to the brazen sexual violence of every man in the city—we make sense of the catastrophes humanity faces. Such sense-making is a basic aspect of human religiosity.

Yet there is also a second strand in the Hebrew Bible, which sees painfully well the inadequacy of such a theodicy. This voice speaks in the Book of Job, in Psalm 73:1-14, and in Ecclesiastes 7:15:

In this meaningless life of mine I have seen both of these:

the righteous perishing in their righteousness,

and the wicked living long in their wickedness.[4]

In such moments, we are confronted with the truth that suffering is very often senseless. Jesus’ preaching in Luke 13:1-9 sits well in this tradition:

Those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.

Jesus rejects the assumption that suffering is explicable in terms of the sinfulness of the sufferer. All are in mortal need of repentance, but he firmly denies any necessary connection between the level of a person’s sinfulness and the suffering they face. Of course we know this—we know holy, kind, amazing people afflicted with the virus—but, so strong is the religious propensity towards sense-making, we should remind ourselves of it often.

It can be profoundly important to face up to the meaninglessness and randomness of evil. David Bentley Hart writes:

There is no more liberating knowledge given us by the gospel—and none in which we should find more comfort—than the knowledge that suffering and death, considered in themselves, have no ultimate meaning at all.[5]

This acknowledgment is a refusal to indulge the religious instinct to make sense of suffering, and especially to make sense of it by attributing it to divine wrath. Good Friday elicits this refusal: Jesus is without sin, and is brutally executed. Before we attempt to make sense of this death—piling on doctrines until we can call the thing ‘good’—we must acknowledge is utter senselessness.

All I have suggested so far I already held before the pandemic broke out. I still hold to it, as tightly as I can. Yet the virus has stirred in me an impulse to say something else, something perhaps more dangerous. I want to stand valiantly against the heresy of making sense out of suffering, to rail against the gods of vengeance as idols and demons. Yet when I read of God flooding the earth, sending plagues on the Egyptians, smiting rebellious Israelites, it strikes a freshly familiar note. Those stories feel frighteningly real at the moment. The words of the Book of Common Prayer—have pity upon us miserable sinners, who now are visited with great sickness and mortality—feel resonant today. I feel moved to pray not that I might recognise the senselessness of suffering, but that God might have mercy and relent. What if God, seeing our worship of Mammon, our reckless disregard for his creation, our cynical and inhumane governments, has seen fit to bring the whole thing down? What if God, in his wrath, has decided to crash the economy, ground the aeroplanes to a halt, let every social and political norm dissolve, and push the reset button?

To think in these terms is to think of God as a god. This is exactly how gods behave: they are angered by humanity’s behaviour, and so inflict great disasters upon us, which will cease if we appease them. The god of the ancient Israelites is most certainly no exception here, and there is no reason he should be. The Bible, by virtue of its divine inspiration, is the most deeply human book ever written. And one of humanity’s most inescapable instincts is to believe in gods: gods who demand appeasement and sacrifice, who reward the good and punish the evil, who send down famines and thunderbolts and pandemics. We cannot neatly assign this instinct to our sinful nature, since it appears—via the words of the Psalmist—on the lips of our Lord: ‘my god, my god, why have you forsaken me?’.[6] It is perhaps notable that ‘my god’ here is not Abba or Yahweh but Eloi, from El, the generic Semitic word for ‘god’. It is used frequently to refer to Yahweh, but also to any other Ancient Near Eastern deity. When Jesus speaks here, he echoes humanity’s cries to all our gods, those inscrutable cosmic rulers from whom we demand answers but so rarely get them. He is asking the question we always ask in times of anguish. Why are you doing this to me? What could I have possibly done to deserve this? Jesus takes no solace in ‘the knowledge that suffering and death, considered in themselves, have no ultimate meaning at all’,[7] but seeks—in vain—for an explanation. He, like all human beings, is religious, and so cannot relinquish the excruciating instinct to search for meaning in our pain.

With Christ we cry out in bafflement to our god: Why have you sent this pandemic upon us? Why, supposing this plague is some kind of judgment on our social order, should it be that shop workers, homeless people, and refugees suffer most? Why have you forsaken them? Perhaps there is also a place within this muddle for that other primal response to divine wrath: repentance. It is, it bears repeating again, fundamentally anti-Christian to suggest that those who are ill in any way deserve this. Still, we have sinned. Because it is a respiratory disease, the virus’ threat to life is increased in areas of greater air pollution, where our abuse of creation has made our cities less inhabitable.[8] Lord, have mercy. The present plague of locusts in East Africa and South Asia is likely linked to climate change.[9] Christ, have mercy. The horror in our hospitals has been aggravated by a systemic underfunding and devaluing of our healthcare system. Lord, have mercy. In Luke 13:1-9, Christ denies a relationship between an individual’s suffering and their sin, but in the same breath calls all of us to repent, lest we should perish.

So I turn to my god, torn between penitence and baffled indignation, and beg for deliverance. In doing so, I do what human beings have always done when faced with a pandemic. Yet the Gospel opens up something new. ‘Our Lord is above all gods’ because our God has been crucified.[10] He knows the anguish of senseless suffering. He has felt the wrath of our god from our side. Therefore, on the cross, the logic of the relation between god and creature upon which all sacrificial religion depends is totally subverted. The atonement is made, but it is God himself who provides the lamb.[11] Here is a sacrifice to end all sacrifice, so that—our sins forever forgiven—‘there is no longer any offering for sin.’[12] The spectre of the vengeful, bloodthirsty god dissolves, revealing a triune God of boundless grace. A new relationship between humanity and God bursts forth from the empty tomb. ‘There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.’[13]

Nevertheless, this side of the eschaton, I am not sure that humanity—and least of all the Church—will ever leave behind the god of wrath. Nor, necessarily, should we. Instead, we are caught in the oscillation between mere theism and Christianity, between retribution and grace. This dialectic is close to the heart of the Gospel, and forms the foundation of the sacrament of reconciliation. Over and over again, we fall into sin, experience God’s furious anger, come before him in penitence, and receive his forgiveness, and in all this God never changes in the least. All the movement is on our side, in the changing expressions we project onto the face of Christ, in being brought once again to the foot of the cross and the mouth of the empty tomb.

Ultimately, the juxtaposition between the god of wrath and the God of Jesus Christ must fall away. The God we cry to in confusion and rage, who we come before in penitence and beg for deliverance, is the same God who—as the human being Jesus of Nazareth—was tortured and died at Calvary, who ‘has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases.’[14] In the early sixteenth century Matthias Grünewald painted the Isenheim Altarpiece, which depicts the crucified Christ afflicted with the sores of a victim of plague. Today, he is struck with fever on the cross, and struggles for breath as the inflammation in his lungs worsens.

‘There is none like you among the gods, O Lord, nor are there any works like yours.’[15]

Biography

Sam is currently training for ordination in the Anglican Church at the College of the Resurrection in Mirfield, in the North of England. He holds a B.A. in Theology and Religion from the University of Oxford. In addition to theology, he enjoys writing and reading poetry, especially the poetry of R.S. Thomas and Gerard Manley Hopkins.


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