Reflection on Chinese Christians’ Three Responses to COVID-19: Is the Pandemic a Punishment from God?

A health worker, the coronavirus, and a church.
A health worker, the coronavirus, and a church.
By Yan YileJuly 24th, 2020

At present, the COVID-19 pandemic is still rampant in the world. Some countries still face serious situations. Yet, in China, the raging pandemic has been tightly controlled and the NPC and CPPCC Sessions were smoothly held. The resumption of businesses and schools in China is orderly underway and people have basically returned to normal life.

Although there was an outbreak last month at the Xinfa Food Market in Beijing – a similarly serious case in Wuhan around the beginning of 2020 – which led to an escalation of the tension level, it was soon effectively controlled. Strict controls on inbound infected cases is the primary task in China. In addition, countries which were seriously impacted such South Korea, Japan, and Italy have now gotten the disease significantly under control. The general trend looks good.

There are three types of responses to the current outbreak among Chinese Christians.

Recalling the time around the Spring Festival of 2020 when the infection rate was skyrocketing, especially after Wuhan’s lockdown, it almost caused the whole country to come to a standstill and seriously impacted social life. This situation has aroused wide concern and reflection in the Chinese Christian community.

There have been some weird suggestions, such as in America where COVID patients were told they would be healed by watching TV programmes in which pastors perform healings  (odd perhaps because it could be done without the laying on of hands--translator’s note) Some South Korean pastors believed in God's protection of His believers so therefore encouraged congregations not to fear infection and therefore continued having on-site gatherings. Apart from that, there have been various responses to the outbreak by the Chinese Christian media (including some so-called Christian marketing platforms). The responses can be categorized into three main types:

The first type is the belief that the virus was brought on by the violation of the dietary laws and regulations in the Old Testament. People casually ate wild meat and have therefore caused the pandemic. At the beginning of the outbreak, there were news reports that bats might have been the carriers of the virus. So some Christians referred to the following scriptures in the Old Testament, arguing for a return to the old Covenant's dietary regulations. the plague could be avoided by strictly adhering to it:

"These are the birds you are to detest and not eat because they are detestable: the eagle, the vulture, the black vulture, the red kite, any kind of black kite, the horned owl, the screech owl, the gull, any kind of hawk, any kind of raven, the little owl, the cormorant, the great owl, the white owl, the desert owl, the osprey, the stork, any kind of heron, the hoopoe and the bat." (Levi's 11:13-19)

The second type of response is the association of the outbreak with the "apocalypse" and the view of it as a great "sign" of Christ’s return. For instance, a famous overseas Chinese pastor explained part of the book of Revelation in association with the pandemic. In his explanation, he simply declared that the world had entered the "fourth horse" era. From the Scriptures, he referred to Revelation 6:8 which reads, "I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth." According to the pastor, the disease meant the arrival of the apocalypse which was a prelude to Christ's return.

Another example was an article entitled "Is the Novel Pneumonia--the End of the World?" published on a Christian website. Part of the book of Revelation was quoted. Here is an extract of the article:

"Revelation Chapter 9 lets us see that in the face of plague, war, and disaster, people still do not repent and continue to worship idols and commit sins. They are becoming increasingly eviler. Yet another voice will be heard from the Church which is about when Christ will come back. The Bible tells us that the time of the Lord’s return is kept secret by God. No one knows the day of Christ's return. But before His return, disasters in the world will increase more and more. How should Christians respond to disasters? "Eat" the Bible. That is, read the word of God, and preach the gospel to the many peoples, countries, and authorities."

The third type of response to the outbreak is that it is God's punishment of sinners, a manifestation of God's wrath. Thus, some evangelical writers and media have denounced sins, standing high above as if they were prophets. They urged people that, in order to have hope, they must confess and repent before God. Therefore, in line with this type of response, some people were expecting miracles.

Too many articles were like this. The titles of these kinds of articles were a mere reflection of such responses. For example, in the article, I reviewed entitled, "Now is Like in the Days of Noah", "the days of Noah" mentioned in the Bible, and were seen as being now: "So how are the days now? Are not all days now about materialism? Is it only now that there are physical pleasures? Are these not also days of unrestrained ethics? Are these also not days of neglecting the Truth? Are these also not days of waiting for God’s judgment? Are these also not days of complete numbness to and disregard for what is happening around us? This is the case. People at this time no longer worry about food or clothing. They have gradually moved from the original concern of daily finding enough to eat to the worries of how to eat, where to eat, and with whom to eat. In these times, moral-ethical values have disintegrated. There is no longer a moral-ethical standard..."

There are edited videos available on some self-made media platforms that show believers from countries such as Brazil and Italy kneeling to pray and crying in the street. However, the videos’ authenticity is yet to be verified. Perhaps it was done with special editing. Yet, they are extremely popular amongst the  Chinese online Christian community and have received a very large number of hits. There was even a famous overseas Chinese protestant pastor who simply declared that the outbreak in China had been caused by persecuting a certain pastor.

Here is my reflection and evaluation of the above three responses.

(1) Can the plague be avoided as long as the Old Testament diet regulations are observed?

Regarding the first response, the idea that eating wild animals is the main or even the only cause of the plague is one-sided and inconsistent with historical facts. It is also wishful thinking that as long as Bible regulations on diet are closely practiced, the plague will certainly be put to an end.

Many plagues in history were not caused by eating wild animals. Even some plagues that occurred in the Old Testament were not caused because of the eating of wild animals (including pork) but rather by the anger of the Lord on account of the sins of men.

If this is the crux of this argument in preventing the plague, does it mean that we Christians must go back to the Old Testament and follow again the Old Testament dietary instructions? In fact, as long as we carefully examine the New Testament, we will understand that Jesus fulfilled the law in the Old Testament and that the New Testament also supersedes the Old Testament. Therefore, Christians living in the New Testament are not obliged to follow the rituals of the Old Covenant, including its dietary regulations. For instance, Seventh-day Adventists fail to see that Jesus' crucifixion has accomplished all. They fail to see that the Law of the Old Testament was nothing more than an image of the coming Christ. As a result, they moved backwards in history, trying to bring believers back to the Old Testament system.

(2) Will the plague automatically retreat as long as men confess their sins?

Regarding the second and third responses, they can be summed up by applying a common cliche, "the punishment from God." This phrase is no stranger to the masses as some non-Christian scholars also use it as an explanation for the cause of current natural and man-made disasters.

It is nothing more than the phrase having been given a new form and context within the Christian community. It can be simply be summed up by the following "spiritual formula": people's sins →God's wrath →God brings about plagues to punish; people's repentance →God’s forgiveness →God retracts plagues.

There was indeed a pattern like the above formula in the Old Testament in which the Israelites committed sins and were punished by God through plagues. They finally were set free from the plague by confessing and providing atonement. The Lord heard the confession, received the atonement, and retracted the plagues. The following Scriptures are typical of such examples: …and the LORD said to Moses, "Get away from this assembly so I can put an end to them at once." And they fell facedown. Then Moses said to Aaron, "Take your censer and put incense in it, along with fire from the altar, and hurry to the assembly to make atonement for them. Wrath has come out from the LORD; the plague has started." So Aaron did as Moses said, and ran into the midst of the assembly. The plague had already started among the people, but Aaron offered the incense and made atonement for them. He stood between the living and the dead, and the plague stopped. (Numbers 16: 44 – 48)

However, there is a serious issue to be addressed here. the exclusion of the historical context in the Scriptures. Can some of the Old Testament’s verses be simply and directly applied to today's situation? Is it appropriate in dealing with disasters by appealing to this black-and-white dualism of "punishment from God" for both mankind and the individual?

First of all, this "punishment from God" theory advocates for a black-and-white dualistic formula. The complexity of the whole world is reduced to a linear, cause-and-effect, "spiritual formula": sin leads to plagues and confession leads to plagues' retreat. With this kind of reasoning, when facing a plague, people do not need to take any measures such as quarantine, medical treatment, or improving medical care. It is enough to just repent.

In the case of a contemporary "Christian nation" such as the United States, in order to combat the spreading pandemic, President Donald Trump declared earlier this year that March 15 would be the National Day of Prayer. By convention, the National Day of Prayer is usually on the first Thursday of May. However, this year has been a special case. Trump, therefore, brought the National Prayer Day forward to March, calling on the nation to pray for God to reach out to stop the pandemic.

When Chinese mainland Christians heard this news, they became excited, expecting miracles to happen. Some evangelical platforms published articles about this. Others associated it with the 2017 American National Day of Prayer. In late August 2017, an unprecedented hurricane hit many parts of the United States causing heavy casualties. On September 1, U.S. President Donald Trump signed a proclamation, declaring September 3rd as National Prayer Day for hurricane victims. After these prayers, the hurricane was said to have "automatically" stopped.

In the minds of many Christians, Trump is a "contemporary Cyrus the Great", a great instrument of God to save American Christianity. Mr. Trump has now come forward again and called on the nation to pray so that the outbreak would soon cease in the US.

However, nearly four months have now passed and the outbreak in the US has shown no signs of stopping. It is instead spreading more intensely. The number of deaths caused by the disease has exceeded the total number of American soldiers who died in World War I. Obviously, it's not a simple confessional prayer that can "cure the disease." The world is much more complicated than we think!

Secondly, the old covenant model was based on the theology in Deuteronomy. In Deuteronomy Chapter 28, the Lord declared to Israelites the terms of blessings and curses. It simply said that the people would be blessed as long as they obeyed the Lord’s Law. They would be punished as long as they violated it. Israel's history in the Old Testament had always been governed according to the instructions of the Law.

However, this Deuteronomical model of a simple black-and-white dualism only explains and responds to suffering (which includes famine, disease, plague, and war). It is not a total summary of all matters in the world. I recently re-read the two books on the issue of suffering, "Where is God When It Hurts" and "Disappointment with God", by the American Christian writer Philip Yancey. 

Yancey points out that the pattern in Deuteronomy of ‘reward (kindness) and punishment (evil)’ was not the only model used to explain suffering. At least one book in the Old Testament, the book of "Job", provides another model. The Bible highly esteems Job who was a righteous man. However such a righteous man tragically almost lost his entire family.

Job's three scholarly friends came to see him, having learned of his tragedy. They talked a lot and were firmly convinced that Job must have committed some unspeakable evil to deserve such a situation. So, Job's friends kept urging him to confess his guilt in order to regain God’s blessings. However, when the Lord finally appeared to them, God did not reveal what sin Job had committed but rather rebuked the three friends.

In spite of this, the views of the three friends have been deeply rooted in the minds of the Jews. The story of Jesus meeting a blind man is documented in Chapter 9 of the Gospel of John: As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" "Neither this man nor his parents sinned," said Jesus, "but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life." (John 9: 1 – 3)

Jesus' disciples held to typical Deuteronomical theology and so believed that it must have been the consequence of sin that resulted in this man having been born blind. What suffering it was! It was due either to the person concerned having committed some kind of sin or other parties such as the person’s parents having done so. The disciples threw this question at Jesus, asking him to judge the case. However, the Lord Jesus fundamentally denied that there was any pattern of darkness and silenced the disciples' judgment by saying: "Neither this man nor his parents sinned ". The Lord further drew to the disciple's attention, God's action: "but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life."

Thirdly, according to the old covenant model, a plague is God's punishment for sin committed and it will automatically retreat as long as people repent. However, we hardly see any record of rescue or relief from disaster in the Old Testament. It was as if as soon as a confession was made, the plague would end automatically. No prevention or measures taken were needed. However, we cannot ignore the historical context of the Scriptures and simply apply them directly to today's situation. That is to say, although the Old Testament records events as such, it does not mean that human beings can only "wait to die" or resign themselves to fate in the face of disasters.

In fact, in the history of humanity's struggle against plagues, they have gradually figured out some of the most effective ways in dealing with them. For example, quarantine and the advancement of public health and medical standards are such ways. In China's case, had it not been for the substantial investments in medical resources, multiple and regional lockdowns, and public education in wearing masks, etc., the outbreak might have raged out of control.

Therefore, in the face of this plague of the century, our response patterns need to be adjusted.

(3)  What apocalyptic view is appropriate?

In addition to the many supporting quotations from the Old Testament, those advocates of the "punishment from God" theory also quote from the Book of Revelation as the basis for their argument. They repeatedly use these to render the ideas of an apocalyptic reason for disaster and panic.

Earlier this year, there was a popular voice link circulating amongst the online Christian community. The link is entitled "Liyan's Last Cry". It received a large number of hits. This "Sister Liyan" was once well known for her experience in "travelling to and from heaven and hell" and was followed by many believers.

During the outbreak, "Sister Liyan" also came out to "voice." She declared that "a seven-year disaster has begun" and that humanity has entered the apocalyptic mode. Part of her declaration was particularly cold-hearted in that she told believers not to ask God for the outbreak to cease and "to pray for its ceasing" is "to be against God."

According to "Sister Liyan", the apocalypse is equivalent to "disaster theory" and "intimidation". Because the message was full of apocalyptic intimidation, there was no light or hope at all. Even the mainstream congregations felt the "panic". So, in facing every soul who fell into the disaster, this "Sister Liyan" neither showed the love nor the mercy of Christ nor had the way of peace and hope. She just "threw out a cold stone"!

This is the third question to reflect on. What apocalyptic view is appropriate? Is the apocalypse a disaster, intimidation or a curse? Or is it still full of grace, hope, and light?

Whenever there is a flood, earthquake or man-made accident, there are always some Christians who exclaim that the doom's day is near, that God is coming back, that it is his anger against men and sinners who are in trouble. Poor quality platforms in the name of Christianity work with all their power to hype up these ideas.

Apocalyptic theory, which is complex, has been reduced to a "disaster theory" and was further extended to a "destruction theory" or "intimidation theory", claiming that God's anger is coming to the world and will destroy it. Then the souls of believers will ascend to heaven. However, this is not the gospel which Jesus preached.

For the gospel of Jesus doesn’t come from the earth to heaven but from heaven to the earth. The Kingdom of God will come forth to the earth to change and update all things. All nations on the earth will become part of the Kingdom of Christ. The first half of the Lord's Prayer is clear in this aspect: "This, then, is how you should pray: " 'Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven." (Matthew 6:9-10)

(4)  Was it the persecution that caused the pandemic?

This view was put forward by a famous overseas protestant Chinese pastor. I would rather believe the pastor was misled by one-sided information. His view received remarkable support. Many years ago there was a widely circulated article with a very powerful title: "Rome Perished in the Plague after Its Three-century Repression of Christianity". The article was intended to criticize today. In the long article, its author sums up the persecutions of the early Church and systematically reviews the history of the outbreak of a plague in the ancient Roman Empire. However, the methods of argument and conclusion are wrong!

Why? The ancient Roman Empire truly harshly persecuted Christianity, but the persecution was subject to change by the policies of different emperors. There were many plagues in the Roman Empire, but the ancient Rome Empire did fall because of plagues nor because of the "suppression of Christianity".

Therefore, I agree with a brother’s view: "To rigidly associate the persecution of Christians with a plague and therefore form a cause-effect relationship is like not being able to convince your listeners through argument so instead you use intimidation. Otherwise, you can't explain the Black Death of the Middle Ages."

Finally, let's look at two events that happened in the history of the Church. The two are in clear contrast to each other. Earlier this year, a book entitled "The Rise of Christianity – a Sociologist Reconsiders History" and written by Professor Rodney Stark, an American sociologist, drew renewed attention. The book examines the relationship between the number of occurrences of several great plagues during the Roman Empire and the increase in the number of Christian converts. The study finds that after each plague, the number of people entering the church increased significantly. Were there any miracles in this?

Looking back at the epic history of ancient Christianity, we can see that in the face of frequent plagues, the brothers and sisters in the first generation of Christianity did not emphasize the "punishment from Godhood" idea nor render panic because of the apocalypse idea. Instead, they risked their lives to save lives and help the sick. They cared for their community and neighborhood. Of course, many of them lost their precious lives in doing so. However, their love of neighbour and spirit of self-sacrifice bore good testimony that attracted many pagans to Christ.

Let's take a look at the Great Earthquake of 1755 in Lisbon, Portugal. The Lisbon earthquake struck on the morning of November 1, 1755, after Halloween, and worshippers held a collective religious gathering under the leadership of priests.

The quake, with a magnitude of 9 and its epicenter at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean about 100 kilometers west of Lisbon, had a radius of 200 kilometers and triggered a tsunami 30 meters high. Nearly 100,000 were killed in the earthquake, a third of Lisbon's total population. The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 was said to be the largest in European history and one of the most destructive and deadly earthquakes in human history. What is more puzzling was that the earthquake and the fire that followed it destroyed 40 churches, more than 200 monasteries, and other public buildings across the city. Meanwhile, the city's brothels and the Royal Mint (which at the time had two million gold coins) remained intact.

The Lisbon earthquake attracted many professionals (in addition to priests and theologians, secular thinkers and philosophers also) to give their high-level opinions. The most popular view in the religious world was that it was a "punishment from God", believing that the earthquake was God's warning to the world. It was also a harbinger of doom. The misfortune of the individual also had "universal value". The world could only be saved by confession of sins. In the second year after the earthquake, Gabriel Malagrida, head of the Portuguese Jesuit Society, published his famous work entitled, "A View: The True Cause of the Earthquake" (translator’s version). In his work, he stated that the earthquake was God's punishment, he opposed reconstruction plans, and he insisted that post-disaster reconstruction was a betrayal to God.

His view had a great impact at the time when the Portuguese generally believed that the earthquake marked the end of Lisbon and that any rescue and reconstruction attempt was not only futile but also against God.

However, François-Marie Arouet (pen-named Voltaire), the French Enlightenment thinker, questioned the "punishment from God" theory raised by priests, and he wrote the famous poem "The Disaster of Lisbon": "Do you think their death was a punishment for their sins? Can you say that the bleeding baby who was wrapped in its mother's breasts had any sins? Can you find more sins in this collapsed Lisbon than in drunken Paris? How could the debauchery of Lisbon match the lavishness of London? while the earth was swallowing Lisbon, the light-hearted French men and women continued their unbridled feasts and wild dances..." (Translator’s version)

In the end, the Lisbon earthquake sparked a great debate between the theological and scientific communities. Philosophers such as François-Marie Arouet and Immanuel Kant used the case of the Lisbon Earthquake to challenge the theocratic powers and superstitions of the time, widely renewing the Enlightenment Movement in Europe.

Others who studied earthquakes attempted to explain and explore earthquakes using the laws of nature. Scientists pioneered modern seismology. At the same time, the Jesuits’ constitutional control of power over Portugal was broken and even banished. Portugal embarked on the road to modern reform as it carried out post-disaster reconstruction.

In contrast to the first generation of Christians who saved the people, the priests of Lisbon disputed these ideas and so pushed the apocalyptic theory, having no interest in disaster relief nor post-disaster reconstruction. They even prevented others from doing so.

What a sharp contrast it is! These two events are two paradigms or two routes – a contrast between faith and religion, the practice of Jesus' teachings, and the preservation of the vested interests of the priests!

I would like to conclude my view by quoting Matthew 9:35-36: "Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd."

What is faith? It not only exists in magnificent churches or in all religious activities but in the way of Jesus Christ which breaks through religious barriers and lives a life of grace and truth to serve mankind as Jesus Christ did.

- Translated by Charlie Li

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