There have been many excellent prayers spoken and sermons preached on the COVID-19 pandemic in the last few weeks.

They have emphasised such themes as the sovereignty of God, the frailty of man and the call for Christians not to fear but rather to be good citizens, voices of calm and agents of compassion in the crisis.

As the Bible tells us we need to keep things in an eternal perspective through these ‘light and momentary troubles’ (2 Corinthians 4:17) and remember that our true treasure is in heaven not on earth. (Matthew 6:19-21)

This is not easy to hear for those of us who are sitting in our self-isolation bunkers watching 20 years of savings disappearing in two weeks and wondering if the company which employs us will even exist in two months’ time.

It’s not just the physical threat of the virus but the fact that this is hitting a world which, even before this pandemic surfaced, was already mired in debt (global debt is now a record 322% of GDP) and had already used all its fiscal ammunition.

Most of us have never encountered an event causing such widespread social and financial devastation before.

This is why it is essential that as Christians we keep our cool and act as the agents of Christ in what we say and do.

After all, we know that God will never leave us or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5) and that nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38, 39). To live is Christ and to die is gain, as the Apostle said. (Philippians 1:21)

But we also need to do some hard thinking about our global predicament – perhaps starting with asking what the Bible teaches about epidemics.
We know from science that epidemics are caused by infective agents (bacteria and viruses) that are passed from one person to another and from history that they are not uncommon occurrences.

Wikipedia documents hundreds that have occurred throughout history – resulting in hundreds to millions of death. This history of epidemics page illustrates this graphically. Epidemics are nothing new.

Just how deadly they are will depend on a variety of factors – the severity of the illness they cause, the infectiousness of the agent, the level of immunity in the population and the existence of vaccines and treatments.

Coronavirus is neither the worst nor the least we have encountered. But it is nonetheless very serious.

It causes an illness that requires hospitalisation in about 20% of people, of whom about a quarter will require ventilation. Its mortality cannot be known with certainly yet but is probably somewhere between 1 and 4%. 

It is moderately infectious (as easy as Ebola to catch) and there is no pre-existing immunity in the human population and as yet no vaccine. Nor is there any specific curative treatment – just symptomatic treatments like pain relief (if you can find any paracetamol in the shops) and supportive treatments like oxygen and ventilation/ECMO. It has a particular predilection for the old and infirm.

Thus far it has killed over 10,000 people worldwide, but the numbers are rising rapidly as we all know. 

However, it still ranks far below the worst epidemics in history listed below, all of which killed over one million people.

Year (s)DescriptionLocationInfective AgentDeaths
165–180Antonine PlagueRoman EmpirePossibly smallpox5–10 million
541–542Plague of JustinianEurope, Egypt and West AsiaPlague25–50 million
1331–1353Black DeathEurope, Asia and North AfricaPlague50–200 million
1520Smallpox EpidemicMexicoSmallpox5-8 million
1545–1548Cocoliztli EpidemicMexicoPossibly Salmonella5–15 million
1576–1580Cocoliztli epidemicMexicoPossibly Salmonella2–2.5 million
1772Persian PlaguePersiaPlague>2 million
1852–1860Third cholera pandemicRussiaCholera1 million
1889–1890Flu EpidemicWorldwideInfluenza1 million
1915–1926Sleeping SicknessworldwideEncephalitis lethargica1.5 million
1918–1920Spanish fluworldwide Influenza A 2-50 million
1957–1958Asian fluworldwide Influenza A 2 million
1968–1969Hong Kong fluworldwideInfluenza A1 million
1920–presentHIV/AIDS EpidemicworldwideHIV/> 32 million

As you can see, the four worst epidemics in history in terms of lives lost were the Plague of Justinian, the Black Death, the Spanish Flu and the AIDS Epidemic, all of which claimed over 20 million lives. 

So we have quite some way to go yet.

So what does the Bible teach us about epidemics? And how should this shape our response as believers?

To understand this we need to look past viruses and bacteria to the spiritual realities that lie beyond.

We know that God is utterly sovereign over everything that happens in the universe. As the book of Daniel reminds us, Kings cannot rule, lions cannot bite and fire cannot burn without his permission.

God is sovereign over all things human, biological and physical and especially the rise and fall of nations (Daniel 2:21, 4:25, 5:21).

God was the author of the plagues of Egypt in Exodus 7-12 and is equally the author of the plagues described in the book of Revelation.

God is our Saviour but he is also our judge and his judgement is played out not just at the end of time but during the course of history.

Through the prophet Ezekiel God speaks of his ‘four dreadful judgements’ (14:21) – sword, famine, wild beasts and plague – which he sends both against Jerusalem (14:21) and ‘any country’ which sins against him (14:13).
Deuteronomy 28 lists the curses of disobedience which the Lord warns will strike Israel if she falls into apostasy and these include infectious diseases (28:21-22, 58-63).

The books of the Prophets in the Old Testament outline in great detail what will happen to each nation and empire in the course of history as a result of societal sin (yes nations, as well as individuals, will be judged) and in passages like Amos 4 God makes it very clear that he himself was the source of the famine, drought, blight, locusts and plague (4:10) which Israel had suffered. God is sovereign.

‘When disaster comes to a city has not the Lord caused it?’ (Amos 3:6)

When Solomon prays to the Lord in 2 Chronicles 6:12-42 asking him to deliver Israel from war, drought, famine and plague (28-31) God in his reply (7:13) makes it very clear that he himself is the author of these afflictions:

‘When I shut up the sky so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people…’ (2 Chronicles 7:13)

Jesus makes it very clear that the time between his first and second comings will be characterised by war, earthquakes, famines and also ‘pestilences’ (Luke 21:10-11).

The fourth horse of the apocalypse and its rider, named Death and Hades, were given power ‘to kill by sword, famine and plague and by wild beasts of the earth’. (Revelation 6:8)

All four horses of the apocalypse and indeed all the plagues described in the book of Revelation are released by Jesus Christ himself. It is the Lamb of God who opens the seven seals (Revelation 6:1), orders the blowing of the seven trumpets (8:1,2) and orders the pouring out of the seven bowls of God’s wrath (16:1).

Many Christians today prefer to blame human beings or Satan for these kinds of cosmic events – but whilst they are most definitely involved – it is God himself who is both author and judge. Satan has to ask God’s permission to afflict Job (Job 2:4-8) or to sift Peter (Luke 22:31) – he is like a dog on a leash.

So it should not surprise us when we look at the epidemics described in the Bible – those events which seem most likely to be caused by infective agents like viruses and bacteria – that it is God, or one of his angels, who invariably is named as the active agent.

I have listed below seven major plagues described in the Old Testament. You will observe that in each case God or the Angel of the Lord is described as the active agent. Furthermore, in five of the seven it is Israel which is the object of judgement. The Assyrians and Philistines fill the other two slots.

ReferenceGroupDiseaseReasonAgentDeaths
Exodus 32:35IsraelitesPlagueIdolatryThe Lord
Numbers 11:31-34IsraelitesPlagueComplainingThe Lord
Numbers 16:49IsraelitesPlagueInsuboridnationThe Lord14,700
Numbers 25:9IsraelitesPlagueSexual ImmoralityThe Lord24,000
1 Samuel 5:9PhilistinesTumoursStealing the ArkThe Lord
2 Sam 24 & 1 Ch 22IsraelitesPlagueTaking a CensusAngel70,000
2 Kings 19:35AssyriansUnnamedAttacking IsraelAngel185,000

Furthermore, each plague constitutes retribution for some specific national sin – be it insubordination, sexual immorality, idolatry or something else.
So, how should we respond as Christians to the coronavirus?

We must pray of course for the Lord’s wisdom: for faith to see God’s plan through it all, for hope in our security in Christ Jesus, and for strength to be the body of Christ in ministering to those in need.

There are great opportunities to show compassion to those who are suffering and many churches are already leading the way in this.  
But if we fail to see that God is also sovereign over this event – that he has not only allowed it but also caused it and that this ‘plague’ is an act of judgement and a mark of our sin as nations – we will have badly misunderstood.

‘I am the Lord, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things.’ (Isaiah 45:6,7)

Yes, God is our healer. He will bind us up. He is loving and compassionate. But he is also the ultimate author of human suffering because he is also our judge and uses it to wake us up from our spiritual slumber. As CS Lewis said:

‘We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.’

How are we deaf? It is interesting that this epidemic seems to be hurting rich Western countries the most. That, in general terms the oldest and most wealthy of us on the planet are currently being hit the hardest.

This virus threatens to outsmart us and overwhelm even our incomparably vast medical, financial and social resources. We are fighting it with all our wealth, ingenuity and scientific knowledge – and it is right to do so – but we are ultimately in God’s hands. It is he who by a subtle turn of the screw can choose to contain it or let it loose. We are putty, or dust, in his hands.

Age% of population% of infectedFatality
0-912.0%0.9%0 as of now
10-1911.6%1.2%0.2%
20-2913.5%8.1%0.2%
30-3915.6%17.0%0.2%
40-4915.6%19.2%0.4%
50-5915.0%22.4%1.3%
60-6910.4%19.2%3.6%
70-704.7%8.8%8.0%
80+1.8%3.2%14.6%


And so alongside all the good things we are doing and must do to contain, mitigate and turn back this virus, we need to ask what God might be saying to us as the wealthy and profligate post-Christian West – an end-stage culture which has turned its back on God and gone its own way.

It was Ezekiel who said of his own people many centuries ago:

‘Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore, I did away with them as you have seen.’ (Ezekiel 16:49,50)

These words could equally well describe the Western world today.
One of the most interesting of the plague accounts listed above is that surrounding the census, described in 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21.

King David takes a census of the fighting men of Israel contrary to God’s command. As a result, God sends an angel to bring a plague upon Israel. 70,000 people die throughout the length and breadth of the country – from Dan to Beersheba (2 Samuel 24:15).

But when the angel is about to destroy Jerusalem itself God calls a halt, and says ‘Enough! Withdraw your hand’. (24:16)

David sees the angel who is at that time at the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite and asks that God punishes him instead of the people (given that the census was his fault).

God’s response is to ask David to build an altar on the site, which he then purchases for 50 shekels, and sacrifices burnt offerings, fellowship offerings and prayers which leads God to call off the plague.

The place where these events happen is deeply significant.  We are told in 2 Chronicles 3:1-2 that the threshing floor of Araunah was on Mount Moriah – the place where God provided a ram substitute to Abraham for his son Isaac and where David’s son Solomon would later build the Temple. We know it as the Temple Mount today.

On Mount Moriah a ram dies in place of Isaac. On the threshing floor of Araunah animals are sacrificed in place of the people of Jerusalem. On the Temple Mount sheep and goats are later sacrificed in place of the people of Israel. Each substitutionary death averts the wrath of God.

All of these three events point forward prophetically to Jesus’ death on the cross for our sins, taking the punishment that we deserved.

The Lamb of God – Jesus Christ – becomes our Saviour dying in our place.
What will happen with the coronavirus epidemic is in God’s hands. We do not know at this point how many lives it will claim and if we will personally be included in that number.

But we need to remember that the Lamb who gave his life in order that we might stand before God with confidence on the day of judgement, is the same Lamb who pulls off the seals of judgement in the book of Revelation to unleash the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

We know that, regardless of how serious it is and how many people die, the coronavirus plague will eventually pass and become just another event in history. But are we reading the signs?

Sadly, in the context of Revelation most people on earth missed the signs. We are told that in the face of these warnings they failed to repent:

The rest of mankind who were not killed by these plagues still did not repent of the work of their hands; they did not stop worshiping demons, and idols of gold, silver, bronze, stone and wood—idols that cannot see or hear or walk. Nor did they repent of their murders, their magic arts, their sexual immorality or their thefts.’ (Revelation 9:20,21)

Murders, magic arts, sexual immorality and thefts. It is not difficult to see how these descriptions might apply today in our post-Christian West in the shadow of the sexual revolution and all its societal consequences.

Not only did they fail to repent but later, when things got worse, they like the Egyptians before them, ‘cursed the name of God, who had control over these plagues’. (Revelation 16:9)

Yes, we must do all we can humanly do to constrain and mitigate this epidemic (see my recent blog post on how fundamental proper virus testing is to this) but if we do this without reading this event as a warning from God we will have missed the point. We need to see it through the eyes of Scripture as well as through the eyes of science.

God’s words to Solomon were very clear:

‘When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.’ (2 Chronicles 7:13,14)

That is what we need to do as a church and as a nation – humble ourselves, pray, seek the face of God and turn from our sins. We are living in an end-stage culture and this is only the beginning of what will befall us if we close our ears and eyes to the signs. It is not too late but we need to act now before it is.

In Matthew’s Gospel we are told, that Jesus began to preach with the words, ‘Repent for the Kingdom of heaven is near.’ It has never been nearer than now. It is time to repent.

6 Comments

  1. Leo Hacking on March 21, 2020 at 5:17 pm

    Thank you for writting this helpful article Peter

  2. Ben Seed on March 24, 2020 at 5:08 pm

    Hi Peter,

    I’m Ben, I’m studying theology and I have a lot of thoughts too regarding how we as Christians should be interpreting this crisis theologically.

    I agree with everything you’ve said – that it’s God’s will for this virus to spread, in order to incite Christians to repentance, particularly in areas of wealth inequality – sharing what we have with those in need (Luke 3:11). I also think it’s a call to obey Jesus’ command to preach the Gospel the world. Those two things go hand in hand, living and preaching the Gospel. I believe this virus has created many more opportunities to be doing those things.

    However, I think it’s also really important to emphasise how God’s love fits into all this. Everything God does comes out of his love – because God is love (1 John 4:8).

    I believe that God loves everyone – as Scripture says, the Lord is “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” 2 Peter 3:9. And God “relents from sending calamity” (Joel 2:13).

    So yes, I think it is an act of God’s judgement, but he does this because He loves the world – and I think we can be certain that this is, tragically, the only way God can get his people to repent and to wake up to Jesus’ calling, with the least amount of suffering possible (and that is clearly still an enormous amount – but we can also see God’s grace in that the percentages are not higher).

    I also believe that God walks with us, as Christians, in these things. He loves us no less when we fall short because we are in Christ – we have already been “sealed for the day of redemption” (Ephesians 4:30).

    But yes, now is absolutely the time to humble ourselves, seek God’s face and repent – and proclaim his Salvation to the world.

    • Peter Saunders on March 25, 2020 at 12:25 pm

      Thanks for these helpful comments Ben. You are of course right about the love of God but my intention here was to make the key point about God’s sovereignty over this event and the need for Christians especially in the West to repent.

      We are generally very good at speaking about God’s love but I’m not sure that we always understand it biblically given how often we doubt his love when trouble strikes.

      The Bible’s most famous verse John 3:16 explains how God’s love is shown – in sending his Son so that through faith in him we might not perish but have eternal life.

      In other words, God’s love enables us to obtain eternal life and escape hell and damnation in the next life rather than maximise pleasure and escape pain and suffering in this one.

      I agree heartily that this is a time to preach the Gospel but without the reality of judgment and the need for repentance the Gospel does not make sense.

      I think we are very good today at preaching a ‘therapeutic Gospel’ that is primarily about God wanting us to enjoy success and avoid suffering in this life.

      When Christians understand the Gospel in this way they will find it much harder to cope with times such as these and are more likely to fall by the wayside.

      I agree also that we see God’s mercy in this epidemic – it is very serious but it could have been so much worse – imagine a virus with the virulence of Ebola and the infectiousness of measles or chickenpox. But hell is of course far worse than that and the pattern we see in Scripture is of escalating warnings. This is only the beginning of what is coming.

      Yes, God wants no one to perish and so delays his return (2 Peter 3:9) but we know that many will indeed perish on the day of judgement which is why it is so important that we heed his warnings.

      We must not show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience as God’s kindness is intended to lead us to repentance (Romans 2:4).

  3. Daniel Ojuka on March 26, 2020 at 2:02 pm

    Thanks Peter and Ben. Good discussion. I believe suffering and pain is more complex and covers both Gods sovereignty and passibility- that he demonstrated that in his sacrificial death for us. It does have the ideas of Gods sovereignty and our choices as well.
    Revelation has the plagues but the way I read it is that it was written to a suffering church to encourage them that whatever difficulty they go through, God is in charge and in the end Gods love overcome.
    The reason why I think demonstration of Gods love is better at this point is just the point Peter makes, that even in Revelation people refused to repent. Unless we show them that love, the message will be lost in the pain .

  4. Aiobhean Brown on March 28, 2020 at 12:42 pm

    We are given free will. We are therefore, each of us, accountable to God.

  5. Brian on March 28, 2020 at 6:31 pm

    God is first of all holy. We, human kind have separated ourselves from Him and given up His glory by means of sin (for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God).
    I agree with Peter, that we need to repent ourselves. Then we need to preach The Gospel Of The Kingdom. This phrase means preaching the gospel in the light of the return of our Lord Jesus Christ to “judge the quick and the dead” as He commanded us.
    If someone is not aware they are in a burning building and they need them to get out quick you need to give them the facts of the issue and the consequences to motivate them to save themselves in time.

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