by Dee Lorraine
Was the coronavirus God’s way of calling the world’s people to repentance? How might Christians respond to the COVID-19 crisis? Where is Jesus in this worldwide storm? Professor N.T. Wright explores those questions in God and the Pandemic – A Christian Reflection on The Coronavirus and its Aftermath.
Professor N. T. Wright is a research professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of St Andrews and a senior research fellow at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. A former Bishop of Durham, and renowned theologian, Wright has written over 80 books.
Wright wrote the Preface of God and the Pandemic in April 2020, as the coronavirus took hold of the world. He does not intend “to offer ‘solutions’ to the questions raised by the pandemic, to give any sort of complete analysis of what we might learn from it, or what we ought now to do.” The author’s premise is the opposite: “…that we need to resist the knee-jerk reactions that come so readily to mind.”
Rather than engage in finger-pointing or doom-saying, Wright advocates for Christians to spend “time in the prayer of lament,” from which “new light may come, rather than simply the repetition of things we might have wanted to say anyway.”
Wright begins his five-chapter book with “Where Do We Start?” He moves to “Reading the Old Testament,” “Jesus and the Gospels,” Reading the New Testament,” and ends with “Where Do We Go From Here?” The author’s 84-page book provides a wealth of Biblical and literary references and analysis for readers to unpack and ponder.
“Where Do We Start?” looks at the coronavirus in the context of past plagues and widespread disasters. The author peers through the lenses of three philosophical approaches: the Stoics, the Epicureans, and the Platonists. Wrigt observes proponents of those philosophies (and many Christians) facing the COVID-19 pandemic ask, “Why?”
In contrast, Wright describes with pleasure the attitude of Christians who faced plagues in the early centuries. They don’t ask, “Why?” They ask, “What? What can we do?”
Rather than joining affluent citizens in a literal run for the hills (because the air was cleaner than in the low-lying towns), early Christians risked their lives by staying and nursing those suffering with illness. When asked to explain their actions, their response was they were following Jesus, who died to save them, so that is what they do.
Some believers became infected with the disease and died. This sacrificial attitude was a phenomenon new to the world. “No wonder the Gospel spread,” Wright says.
Many Christians have demonstrated their faith similarly in current times. Wright, who lives in the United Kingdom, notes many of his fellow residents acted like early believers. When the UK government sought volunteers to assist the National Health Service (NHS), 500,000 people stepped up. There were so many the NHS had trouble finding work for them all.
Wright’s recounting of ancient and modern acts of Christian charity reminded me of the fearless service by men and women of Samaritan’s Purse, the evangelical Christian charitable organization led by its president, Rev. Franklin Graham, son of the late evangelist Rev. Billy Graham. The organization set up field hospitals in New York City and Italy, where thousands died daily during the coronavirus medical crisis, in the spring of 2020.
Chapter 1 considers the question posed by the prophet Amos: “Does disaster befall a city unless the Lord has done it?” (Amos 3:6) This verse begs the question of whether God intended the catastrophic event to lead His people to repent from evil (Amos 4:6-11). Wright ends the chapter by asking whether the Old Testament from the 8th century BC can apply to our lives in the 21st century AD.
Chapter 2 explores various passages of Scripture, including Job. Lamentations 5, Daniel 9, and Psalm 37 are examples of prayers for forgiveness and restoration after sin. These pleas arose from believing events such as plagues and famines were God’s punishment for sin. However, the Book of Job says that’s not the point.
In analyzing Job’s plight, reaction, and God’s response, Wright concludes that we might not understand why events occur, such as plagues and injustices, and perhaps it is not our place to do so. When such events happen, we must lament, complain, state the case, and leave it with God. That is what Job did. And that is what Jesus did.
As Wright discusses in Chapter 3, “Jesus and the Gospels,” Jesus made it clear that every disaster or unfortunate event does not mean an individual or a group of people has sinned, and the event is punishment for it. In this chapter, the operative word is “now.” Jesus does not look to the past and what sin might have led to unfortunate events. His focus is on His presence now and the coming of the Kingdom of God.
In John 9:1-3, Jesus tells his disciples that the blind man was not born that way due to sin, but “so that God’s works could be seen in him.” Jesus is not focusing on what happened but on what He will do about it. And what did He do? He gave the man sight. Wright concludes that this “now” time is no time for speculating about previous sins.
The third chapter discusses the Lord’s Prayer and Jesus as God’s last sign and call to repent. Wright’s point is that catastrophic events occurring after Christ, including the COVID-19 pandemic, must be examined in the context of His life, death, and resurrection–in the context of trusting Jesus.
Wright drives his point home with Mark 12:1-12, the parable of the vineyard tenants. (This parable also appears in Matthew 21:33-46 and Luke 20:9-19.) The vineyard tenants in the story beat, abuse, or kill all the servants the vineyard owner sends to them. When the vineyard owner finally sends his only son, whom he loves, the tenants kill him, too. The owner does not send anyone else.
God will not send additional messengers: Jesus was the last. Wright says, “…there can be no other signs, no other warning events, to compare with this one.” While Wright acknowledges God can do whatever He wants to alert people they are going in the wrong direction, he asserts God would do so in a way that is “Jesus-shaped.”
The author gives numerous examples of how Jesus redefines what “sovereignty,” “divine control,” and “kingdom” mean. Wright uses the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the grave to illustrate how we might respond to the current pandemic and the accompanying upheavals.
In Chapter 4, Wright discusses Romans 8. He pays particular attention to Romans 8:28 and the meaning of being “called according to his purpose.” The author concludes God is using the world’s pain to accomplish the work of the Holy Spirit: that “sorrow before the Father creates a context for the multiple works of healing and hope….That is our vocation in the present time.”
The fifth and final chapter expounds on why we must lament. In a discussion that ranges from the Apostle Paul to the poet T.S. Eliot, Wright concludes lamenting is “where we are conformed to the image of the Son.” (p.63) He goes on to assert that “Out of lament must come fresh action.” (p.72) To carry out Jesus’ mandate in Matthew 25, believers must act with the “living presence of Jesus, and the powerful breath of his Spirit. That is what we are promised.”
Wright discusses locked churches, leadership responses, and cautions against returning to “business as usual.” Wright ends his book with Psalm 43:3-5 and urges those who watch and pray for Church and state leaders to use this time of lament as “a time of prayer and hope.”
Why read a book written at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, as the medical crisis and its consequences enter the third year? Readers can consider the COVID-19 pandemic and the Christian response in the context of past and present conditions, as Professor N.T. Wright does so effectively. They can decide whether Christ-followers engaged in the conduct for which Wright hoped and whether it had the desired effect. Most importantly, the book enlightens readers about the power and sovereignty of God in Christ Jesus and what it means to follow Him.
As Solomon wrote in Proverbs 4:7, “Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding.” In clear, simple language, Professor N.T. Wright imparts significant wisdom in God and the Pandemic – A Christian Reflection on The Coronavirus and its Aftermath. Obtaining this wisdom and understanding can change lives and help readers prepare spiritually and naturally for the next catastrophe and the Kingdom of God, both of which are sure to come.
Dee Lorraine writes fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, and is drafting her first novel. Her work appears in Agape Review, Friday Flash Fiction, Midwest Book Review, The Birdseed, and 101 Words. Dee’s YouTube channel “Superfast Stories” features her videos of writers’ 100-word stories; “Provoke Unto Love” promotes a Christ-centered permanent solution to homelessness in the USA.