It turns out plenty of things get cancelled in a pandemic. Fortunately, my flights home were not among them. Anyway, flights are a small issue in the big picture. Much graver is the cancellation that brings our term on earth to a halt: death. Mortality will be in many people’s thoughts and feelings due to COVID-19. While death is universal, the way different people think of it is worldviews apart.
God’s revelation in the Bible does not address every curious question, but it accurately covers what is important for us about death, and how death is related to other matters. Death is an enemy and a consequence of sin: ‘sin … gives birth to death.’ (James 1:15) This is a truly integrated worldview, because it connects morality with death—and thus affirms the importance and reality of morality. Christ defeated death (Hebrews 2:14), rising so that we might rise, too. Knowing that Christ came to solve our sin problem (and our related death problem) is the ultimate reassurance that God cares about us: ‘[God] who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?’ (Romans 8:32). Christ’s resurrection is his major confirmation of his authority and deity. So many aspects of the Christian hope—goodness (morality), God’s love, Christ’s identity, and salvation—are linked to a Christian understanding of what death is and means.
As always, doctrine has applications. To briefly cover one application: a Christian view of death, and a Christian hope, grounds an attitude of holding ambitions loosely and putting treasure in heaven. The daily life of faith and obedience can content us—in fact, it is hugely important in God’s sight. When fear distracts us, God lovingly reminds us that he is in control. C. S. Lewis put it well: ‘All schemes of happiness that are centered in this world were always doomed to a final frustration… If we had foolish un-Christian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered.’ On the other hand, there is great value in the simple daily walk of a life ‘humbly offered to God.’
This is from Lewis’ sermon “Learning in War-Time”. In it, he talks about the fear of death and sense of crisis arising from the onset of World War II. He emphasised that the crisis did not change the fundamental realities of death (or of resurrection either). If this wisdom holds for Lewis’ World War II environment, then it holds for other widely-experienced crises, especially a comparatively smaller one like COVID-19. But how is this wisdom, or its Christian foundation, to come out in our speech? (Within the restrictions of whatever alert level is current, of course).
When it comes to speaking about crises, Jesus’ example in Luke 13 sheds some light on the subject. In verses 1 to 5, Jesus spoke of some bone-chilling recent events (“Pilate’s Gruesome Executions in Galilee”, “Tower of Siloam Disaster”). It is worth noting that Jesus had already earned a reputation for compassion. That gave him the mana to make a point about the events without seeming to do so gleefully or sensationally.
The point Jesus made was, ‘Unless you repent, you will perish, too.’ (just like the victims of Pilate etc.) (Luke 13:5). He did not make this point out of the blue, but led up to it:
- First was a grounding in the here-and-now: people were presenting him with a recent event. Jesus often based his teaching in concrete experiences to make them memorable.
- Jesus identified the issue that this event raised: Were these victims ‘worse sinners than all [their neighbours] because they suffered this way?’
- Jesus addressed the issue with the truth and a call to action: ‘Unless you repent, you will perish, too.’ That is to say, the victims are not necessarily extra bad sinners, and we should remember our own vulnerability and state in front of God.
The audience’s attention to the victims in Galilee and Siloam made them more ready to think about the issue in (2). It brought up their current way of understanding the issue. More than that, it put their understanding to the test. Here were disasters—raw, recent, and vivid. Would it be satisfactory to trot out a current view—say, that God must have singled out these people as extra bad, and one should pat oneself on the back for being safe? Or would that fall flat? The time was ripe for Jesus to present the wisdom that ‘you will perish, too.’ It was—and is—a truth that is more comfortable to ignore. And yet, if the topic of death is raised, so can the other parts of the Christian story mentioned above: goodness, God’s love, Christ, resurrection, and salvation. Apologetics comes in along with that. Once we are talking about the Christian hope, we can ‘give a reason’ for it (1 Peter 3:15) when that is helpful.
What does it look like to have a conversation involving the coronavirus, death, and the gospel? It depends on who is having the conversation. God provides us with a range of friendships and opportunities with people at various points on their journeys. However, Jesus’ comments on the Galilee and Siloam disasters can illustrate some general principles, illustrated in the below stages.
1. Be Grounded in the Here and Now
It is fascinating and comforting to swap stories about a massive shared experience like a lock down. You have opinions that you itch to share, and feelings which require comfort. Give others the kindness of being a good listener. My conversations about the virus in Thailand recently covered points like, ‘My son’s school closed!,’ ‘In my home area they’re still more worried about malaria,’ ‘I wonder if my Mum in China will get the virus?’ In New Zealand, there will also be other angles; for example, ‘masks feel like a sinister sign that the public square has turned into a hospital’.
2. Identify Relevant Issues
This article has focused on mortality. The sense of crisis will make people more open to talk about it, or even bring it up themselves. (That is merely a general observation—still try to speak with sensitivity, as always). Here are three possible routes from the topic of COVID-19 to the topic of mortality:
- The elderly are vulnerable, and that is relevant to everyone, whether it means us or our parents/grandparents. What is the hope of an elderly believer?
- No age group is invincible, and ‘Death as an equaliser’ is another classic theme. Kiwis might take to it, since equality in general is a Kiwi value!
- Coping mechanisms, or what you do to help you get through, are the stuff of many conversations (‘I like to do x’ … ‘you should reward yourself with some x’). Cultivate Christ-based ways to cope with things, and then they can come up in conversation.
3. Address the Issues
Hope, for the elderly and for all, is based on God’s promises. The foundation that helps a Christian to cope with life relates to the above-mentioned attitudes like placing a high value on simple daily faith and obedience and recognising God’s control. Those, in turn, are founded on the incarnate Son of God’s victory over sin and death.
Remember that everyone’s current understandings of the issue of mortality could come up in stage two ‘Identify relevant issues’. Worldviews surface … and so do the unsatisfactory points of a worldview that does not fit God’s world. Consider Biblical truth on mortality (or whatever the issue is), and that will give clues for Addressing the Issue (stage 3).
There are many shapes and sizes of crises in the headlines or in our lives, whether in Galilee, Siloam, the UK, or NZ. The God who is able to ultimately heal this world is also able to bring truth to our lives. This truth is meaningful both here and now and also forever. We can learn from Jesus’ example of engaging with a current crisis and pointing to deeper things.