The following books are reviewed in this article:
Pandemic Theology by Jamela Camat, et al. (Golden Meteorite Press, 2020, pgs. 138).
Corona Crisis: Plagues, Pandemics, and the Coming Apocalypse by Mark Hitchcock, (Thomas Nelson, 2020, pgs. 158).
God and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and Its Aftermath by N. T. Wright, (Zondervan, 2020, pgs. 88)
Although books about the current COVID-19 pandemic are already multiplying, not much has as yet been written about the religious impact of the global crisis that struck our planet just a little over a year ago. Many comments may be found on countless websites, but I have seen almost no book-length treatments of how the pandemic has affected people around the world in their religious experience and convictions. No doubt, in the near future we will see in-depth treatments of this aspect, written from various angles. What these angles will be, may possibly already be postulated from a few small books, which did appear in recent months.
I have selected three recent titles which I will review briefly, while adding some comments which may be relevant with regard to how the coronavirus pandemic is experienced and interpreted within my own faith community: the Seventh-day Adventist Church. My tentative conclusion is that these books reflect, at least to some extent, the various directions future authors on this topic will also pursue.
In Pandemic Theology, Camat and her five co-authors approach the subject mainly from a historical perspective. They deal with the COVID-19 pandemic as the last in a long series of health disasters that have claimed millions of victims throughout history, focusing especially on a few disasters in antiquity, the Black Death in the 14th century, the “Spanish” Flu of 1918-19, HIV/AIDS in the last decades of the past century, and the current COVID-19 pandemic. They mention some general features of the diseases which are known, or suspected, to have caused the pandemics, provide estimates of the number of victims these calamities claimed, and comment on some of the societal consequences.
When dealing with the religious responses, the authors largely ignore non-Christian reactions, and they describe the Christian responses mainly from a Roman-Catholic perspective. Their emphasis is not on questions of theodicy, which inevitably emerge when large numbers of people succumb to a “plague,” but on how, and to what extent, the Christian vocation to love and heal has been has been realized (25ff). The book points to the tendency in times of pandemics to seek scapegoats who can be blamed (e.g., the Jews were blamed at the time of the Black Death).
Another common element that accompanies all plagues of the past is the idea that pandemics are caused by the extraordinary sins of the people, as in particular happened in the early phases of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, when many pointed to homosexuality as the heinous sin committed by the gay community which was disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic it is noted that various conspiracy theories have found wide acceptance, but it is yet too early to tell how COVID-19 has impacted religion and the church in any long-term way.
The Christian vocation of love was manifested in the early Christian centuries. It is thought to have been a major factor in facilitating the spread of Christianity — with reference to Rodney Stark’s book: The Rise of Christianity (Princeton University Press, 1996,) — and the Christian faith still has the power to do it again (44, 134).
The book is interesting and, in some instances, quite insightful, but there are a few major deficiencies. I noted several typos and a certain sloppiness as, for instance, two of the chapter titles in the Table of Contents differ from the actual chapter headings. It would also have been helpful to get a little information about the background of the authors (which is totally missing). The readability of the quotations in the text and of the bibliographical information could have been improved upon by using a different typography.
The book by Mark Hitchcock, Corona Crisis: Plagues, Pandemics, and the Coming Apocalypse, has a totally different character. The author is a professor at the conservative Dallas Theological Seminary. He is a prolific writer on prophecy and represents the dominant evangelical end-time view, which believes in the “rapture,” when God’s people are suddenly taken from this earth, followed by a seven-year “tribulation” before the Second Coming happens. During the tribulation the state of Israel plays a key role, as does the Antichrist, the coming world ruler.
This is the background for Hitchcock’s reply to the question of whether COVID-19 must be seen as a sign of the times. His answer is a qualified “no.” He believes that the signs of the times relate to the short period of the “tribulation” prior to the Second Coming, and not to anything that happens in the period that leads up to the sudden rapture of the believers (21). The COVID-19 crisis might be better characterized as “an early warning that something bigger is coming” (46).
Many Christians in the past have believed that pandemics are judgments of God, and many today also see COVID-19 in that light. Hitchcock argues that indeed, disasters may be related to individual or corporate sin, but we cannot tell whether this is the case unless we have a divine revelation that informs us it is so (54).
Hitchcock maintains that the vision of the four horsemen in Revelation 6 is important in this connection. The pandemic portrayed by the symbolism of the “pale” rider is not the current COVID-19 crisis, as some are suggesting. However, “the coronavirus is a faint, yet frightening foreshadow or preview of what is coming” (74). The fourth rider inflicts, according to Revelation 6:8, its misery by “the sword, famine and plague,” but also by “wild beasts.” The author thinks it is a strong probability that this hints at future catastrophic zoonotic pandemics (96-101).
How convincing a reader may find the argument that is put forward in this book will largely depend on one’s theological milieu. Those who have accepted the theory of the “rapture” and what follows will probably buy into the thesis of this book, but those who believe in another end-time scenario will probably find its conclusions built on various false premises. Yet, the book represents the vast group of conservative (and often fundamentalist) biblical interpreters who attempt to place the current pandemic at a particular point in their apocalyptic calendar.
The third book takes a very different approach. It is written by prominent British New Testament scholar, N. T. Wright, who has many imposing theological works to his name, including his monumental study of the resurrection, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress Press, 2003). The subtitle of his book on the pandemic, God and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and Its Aftermath does justice to what Wright seeks to do. As always, his writing is not only precise and stimulating in its content but also refreshing in its language and style.
The author is highly critical of the approach of those evangelical authors who “construct a horror movie scenario out of bits and pieces of the Bible, strung together with the string of fundamentalistic piety” (5). He first takes us through a number of Old Testament passages. While recognizing there is often a link between disaster and punishment for rebellion against God, he especially emphasizes the many passages that focus on the lamentations of God’s people in the face of suffering (also a prominent feature in the Psalms). Turning to the New Testament, he points the reader to instances where Jesus declined to establish a direct link between specific sins and misfortune, and where he refused to provide the people with “signs.” Rather than constantly speaking about external signs, he identifies himself as the ultimate sign (15) and refers (notably in the fourth gospel) to the signs of the new future — his kingdom — that he has inaugurated and performed before the very eyes of his contemporaries (16). There may be other signs. After all, “if [God] wants to draw things to people’s attention in a special way, that is up to him” (23). But “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” (21).
The fact that Jesus is already reigning “must colour all our attempts to understand or interpret current events.” It must also determine our grasp of what it means that God is sovereign and is in full control. This may never be viewed in detachment from Jesus’ death on the cross (25). And reading the rest of the New Testament must always happen “in the light of his death and resurrection” (29).
When the prophet Agabus foretold the people that a great famine would come over the world, the reaction of his audience is a model of how Christ’s followers should react in the face of disaster. The people asked “three simple questions: Who is going to be at special risk when this happens? What can we do to help? And who shall we send?” (33). This element is foundational to the whole of Wright’s book: It was not the question why the famine was occurring but what was to be done to help those affected?
This kind of reaction characterizes how God’s kingdom is established, namely by God working with and through his people. Moreover, the apostle Paul does not emphasize how disasters might push people to repent, but how “God is calling all people everywhere to repent through the events concerning Jesus” (36). His message in Romans 8 is also significant: the creation (including Paul himself) is “groaning” in expectation of the full realization of the divine kingdom. And Jesus himself “groans” with us. We must dare to say that the Creator, “facing his world in melt-down, is himself in tears; even though he remains the God of ultimate Providence” (46).
In the fifth and final chapter the question is asked: Where do we go from here? Firstly, the Christian response to the current pandemic should “embrace lament.” The Lord’s Prayer is our “norm”: “Are we looking for sudden signs of the End? No: we pray every day: Thy kingdom come on earth as in heaven” (52). “We live in a time for lament. For admitting there are no easy answers… The initial calling of the Church… is to take our place humbly among the mourners” (54). Rather than playing the blame game, we must realize that God has delegated the running of many aspect of the world to human beings, knowing the risks involved. However, he also is counting on the believers to work with him in providing healing for the sick, food for the hungry, shelter for the homeless, etc. (64). In so doing we, together with others, can put up “signs of God’s kingdom that can emerge from the creative, healing, restorative work of” the church. And this must go beyond words but be articulated in concrete actions. Throughout the book Wright urges us not to concentrate on the WHY question — Why do pandemics, such as COVID-19, happen? — but rather on the WHAT question — What can be done to alleviate the suffering we see around us?
What might be a Seventh-day Adventist response to these three books? Adventists would find little to criticize in the first book by Camat and her co-authors. That book takes a somewhat detached view and looks mostly through the lens of history, in order to learn about the present. One could perhaps argue that Adventists have often, in facing the present, failed to learn enough lessons from the past. Whether or not this applies to the Adventist dealings with the coronavirus situation remains to a large extent yet to be seen.
I would hope that the Adventist viewpoint regarding the religious meaning of the current pandemic reflects to a greater extent the thoughts of N. T. Wright than the interpretations of Mark Hitchcock. Unfortunately, some individuals and groups in the Adventist Church are especially focused on the why-question and want to know how the COVID-19 plague fits exactly in their end-time scenario, without reflecting on some of the very valuable insights put forward by Wright. However, Wright’s views are perhaps somewhat unbalanced as he does not, in my view, give sufficient attention to the biblical concept of the signs of the times as signals along the road toward the Second Coming. However, his point is well taken that we must always look at current events from the perspective of Calvary and the Lord’s resurrection. Signs of the times may never be detached from the ultimate sign of our crucified and risen Lord!
Reinder Bruinsma is a native of the Netherlands who retired in 2007 after a long career in pastoral, editorial, teaching, and church leadership assignments in Europe, the United States, and West Africa. After receiving a Bachelor’s degree from Newbold College and a Master’s degree from Andrews University, he earned a Bachelor of Divinity with honors and a doctorate in church history from the University of London. He recently interrupted his retirement to serve as the president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Belgium and Luxemburg. He has authored more than twenty books, in Dutch and English, and a large number of articles. He has also translated various theological books from Dutch into English.
Book cover images courtesy of the respective publishers.
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