Running Towards the Plague
When preaching on Romans 5 last year I referenced the Spanish flu. In 1918 this virus infected 500 million people (at a time when the global population was below two billion) and killed between 50 and 100 million. Imagine, I said, a similar virus appearing somewhere in China today, and then spreading out and impacting the whole world.
The current global crisis caused by the coronavirus is a helpful illustration of what Paul is describing in Romans 5. We can read Paul’s description of sin entering the world through one man, and death through sin, bringing death to all, and wonder, ‘What’s Adam got to do with me? Why am I guilty too?’ As we see the spread of the virus and its impact on everyone we get an insight into what Paul means. You can have the virus without realising it. You can be free of the virus but still impacted by travel restrictions, or the economic impact, or a shortage of toilet paper. In that sense, everyone has the coronavirus – it has spread to us all, even if we always wash our hands, cough into our elbows and have never eaten a bat or a pangolin. It’s the same with sin.
The outbreak of Covid-19 might be helpful to us Christians in reminding us of the reality of death. It’s easy to live as if death is something imagined: something that doesn’t really happen, or only to other people. But death comes to us all, and our mandate is to call people into a relationship with Christ that saves them – our ‘duty of care’ is to see people saved from an eternal death by stepping into ‘eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord’ (Rom.5:21).
We should also recognise just how bad we are at accurately measuring risk. We tend to worry too much about things we shouldn’t and not enough about things we should. If we were truly rational we would pay close attention to aircraft safety briefings and carefully study the emergency information card in the seat pocket – but barely any of us do. When it comes to the coronavirus it is unlikely to be as deadly as some of the other things we are dying of. This year in the UK we can expect around 20,000 to die from mental and behavioural disorders; 25,000 from digestive diseases; 70,000 from respiratory diseases; 140,000 from cancer; and 160,000 from heart disease. Death really is very deadly.
Covid-19 is as yet a long way from being the killer that some of the other things that kill us are, but even if it became as serious as the influenza of 1918 Christians would be called to not give into fear but to be good witnesses to our faith in Jesus Christ.
I was helped in this by an article by Eric Metaxas:
Between 250 and 270 A.D. a terrible plague, believed to be measles or smallpox, devastated the Roman Empire. At the height of what came to be known as the Plague of Cyprian, after the bishop St. Cyprian who chronicled what was happening, 5,000 people died every day in Rome alone.
The plague coincided with the first empire-wide persecution of Christians under the emperor Decius. Not surprisingly, Decius and other enemies of the Church blamed Christians for the plague. That claim was, however, undermined by two inconvenient facts: Christians died from the plague like everybody else and, unlike everybody else, they cared for the victims of the plague, including their pagan neighbours.
This wasn’t new—Christians had done the same thing during the Antonine Plague a century earlier. As Rodney Stark wrote in “The Rise of Christianity,” Christians stayed in the afflicted cities when pagan leaders, including physicians, fled.
Candida Moss, a professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Notre Dame, notes that an “epidemic that seemed like the end of the world actually promoted the spread of Christianity.” By their actions in the face of possible death, Christians showed their neighbours that “Christianity is worth dying for.”
Rather than, on the one hand, panic buying loo rolls and pasta, or on the other, unconcerned indifference, we need to be people who ‘run towards the plague’. The present crisis will give us many opportunities to display ‘the abundant provision of grace’ that is ours in Christ. We have a solid hope and good news to tell. Death is deadly, but we are in the life-saving business.