What does it mean for Adventists, for Christians in general, that the COVID-19 pandemic has killed hundreds of thousands across the globe and deprived millions of their jobs? How should faith guide us in this time of disaster, in which truth was one of the earliest casualties?
When plagues and pandemics struck in ancient times, they often attacked societies whose natural resistance was already weakened by other events, particularly famine and wars. The worst, the Black Death of the fourteenth century, killed 75 to 200 million people. Approximately one European in three died.
By about 1900, however, scientific medicine was discovering the causes, transmission mechanisms, and cures of traditional epidemics such as smallpox and malaria. They were gradually confined mostly to parts of the tropics. Nevertheless, the twentieth-century’s misnamed Spanish flu of 1918-1919 killed 17 to 50 million people, perhaps 3 percent of the world population.
More than 400,000 lives (about 0.05 percent of the world’s population) have been lost during the six months since COVID-19 reportedly struck Wuhan, China. Despite unscientific claims that it is caused by bacteria, science clearly demonstrates that the SARS‑CoV‑2 virus carries the disease. The virus is particularly adept at spreading from one person to another in droplets from coughing, sneezing, singing, even breathing.
Most of those infected suffer mild cases similar to the flu, colds, and allergies, and continue to work or interact with others. Thus they spread the disease to victims—including those weakened by age, asthma, cancer, diabetes, obesity, and certain other conditions—who may have severe or even fatal outcomes. Infected individuals may exhibit no symptoms, but nevertheless spread the virus.
Is there a Christian approach to such fine points as who benefits from a bailout?
Because there is no known vaccine or cure, prevention is humanity’s primary defense. Public health efforts have limited its deadly toll through social distancing, stay-at-home/lockdowns, and testing to identify those who have contracted the disease, tracking their contacts to identify others who may be infected, and isolating those who carry the virus.
In Wuhan the virus initially raged out of control and overwhelmed the hospital system. But strict isolation resulted in a recorded death toll of only about 4,000. By contrast, in New York City tests and tracking were delayed. Nearly 21,000 have died, despite the heroic efforts of medical personnel.
While public health saved lives, the fallout resulted in enormous social and economic costs. Lockdowns or stay-at-home orders closed businesses, schools, entertainment, and churches. The United Kingdom suffered its greatest economic catastrophe of the past 300 years. In the younger United States, unemployment took two months to soar to levels experienced only during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Socially, family gatherings became impossible, weddings were canceled, and stay-in-place orders increased anxieties and domestic violence. Students and teachers had to cope with sometimes-unfamiliar distance education. As Jeffrey Cole, a research professor at the University of Southern California, has commented: “Although none of us volunteered or gave permission, we are in the midst of the greatest social science experiment in history.”1
Christians are dramatically divided about the appropriate response to the coronavirus. One survey claimed that 29 percent of the sample believe the crisis is a sign of the last days.2 Other perspectives range from “If you are a believer, God will not allow the virus to touch you!” to the claim that such disasters are God’s punishment of one particularly hated sin or another.
In the Calvinist and Baptist perspective of theologian John Piper, disasters are a “thunderclap of divine mercy” calling sinners to repentance. And, citing the death of Herod in Acts 12, he goes further: “God sometimes uses disease to bring particular judgments upon those who reject him and give themselves over to sin.”3 Taken out of context, such quotes easily support blaming the victim.
More philosophically, R. R. Reno, the conservative Catholic editor of First Things, claims that a “mass shutdown of society” is too high a price just to fight the virus. “The mass shutdown of society to fight the spread of COVID-19 creates a perverse, even demonic atmosphere. . . . Officials insist that death’s power must rule our actions. Religious leaders have accepted this decree, suspending the proclamation of the gospel and the distribution of the Bread of Life. They signal by their actions that they, too, accept death’s dominion.”4 It’s not completely surprising that secular critics point out the absurdity of this position: staunch pro-life advocates anxious to save every fetus from abortion categorically demand an end to lifesaving isolation measures for adults in order to allow normal living and the economy to proceed regardless of the resulting deaths.
At the other end of the spectrum, Christian social activists and liberals express concern for the impacts suffered by society’s have-nots, including refugees, children, vulnerable women, religious minorities, and immigrants. To quote Leonard Gashugi, professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at Loma Linda University, the burdens of the plague are not evenly distributed: some “had the option of working from home and hiding from the virus. Others had no such option but to expose themselves at the cost of their lives, sometimes at low wages.”
Then Gashugi asks, “With whom have Christians cast their lot?” His own response is pointed, instructive, and challenging: “Christ always cast His lot with the afflicted and oppressed. We need to take a good look at ourselves and see if we truly qualify for the label [of Christian]. We have come to live in a society where greed and arrogance dominate and those in authority have done more to entrench it. The Christian church has mostly aligned behind it, and others have chosen silence.
“Where will Adventists stand, individually and collectively?”5
In the United States the great religious liberty topic during the pandemic has been the legitimacy of state orders to close churches, along with public gatherings at movie theaters, concerts, sports events, and restaurants. Most congregations accepted the restrictions and shifted to online services. Indeed, when regulations loosened, many churches chose not to reopen immediately, lest the virus spread and they harm their “neighbors” in the pews. Church closures were more difficult for Catholics, who could not attend Mass, and Pentecostals who believe the Holy Spirit is especially present when the congregation meets.
The orders to close churches split public opinion along the nation’s liberal-conservative political divide: despite evidence that specific gatherings by Protestant, Catholic, ultra-Orthodox Jewish, and Muslim worshippers had increased the spread of COVID-19 among worshippers, their families, and friends, some conservative pastors and Catholic priests discerned the closures not as common sense, but as radical measures of anti-religious politicians. With support from evangelicals, who sometimes distrust science and believe the mainstream media produces fake news, they challenged church closures as a violation of the religious exercise clause of the constitution’s First Amendment.
After lower-court judges issued conflicting decisions and the president called for churches to open, an appeal from California reached the Supreme Court. The chief justice wrote the majority opinion, stating that the closures supported the First Amendment, because, unlike grocery stores, churches were classified with activities in which large groups of people gathered for an extended period.
Christian Faith: Do Pandemics Actually Strengthen It?
Across the centuries, religious believers have responded to plagues and other disasters with both greater faith and increasing doubt. When death smote relatives and friends, many hurried to put both their material and spiritual affairs in order. Others, however, blamed God for ignoring human suffering, and turned to drink and sexual immorality.
Today the response is strongly one-sided. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, 35 percent of American Christians (and 46 percent who attend services at least monthly) agree that the pandemic has strengthened their faith. Only 2 percent think their faith was weakened.6 Evangelical and especially historically Black Christians reported higher rates of strengthening, compared to Catholics and mainline Protestants. Apparently, church closures have done little harm to believers’ faith.
Even if a safe and effective vaccine is discovered in the next year or two, Adventists and other Christians will suffer from the economic effects of the great 2020 shutdown. With businesses slowly reopening, firms filing for bankruptcy, millions unemployed, and stock markets gyrating, both Christians and their secular neighbors are suffering financially. Nearly all Americans are poorer than we were just six months ago—even if we were not laid off, and even if we are retirees on fixed incomes who actually received a stimulus check.
The reason is simple: massive federal spending of nearly $4 trillion (and more to come), along with falling tax receipts and the existing deficit of $1 trillion, will drive the 2020 deficit to about $5 trillion, equal to $63,000 per American. High debt affects behaviors of families, businesses, and governments. Debts of this magnitude will cost further billions in interest payments, take decades to repay, and cost further billions in interest payments. Meanwhile, governments will impose higher taxes on citizens, or provide lower government benefits. Nearly every country faces enormous financial challenges.
The pandemic also impacted specific types of businesses. Meat packing plants, restaurants, hotels, airlines, mass entertainment, and the cruise industry have suffered the worst. One wonders: should that fact affect the careful Christian’s employment plans or investments?
Regardless of the direction of events, our lives will be guided by the promise of a trustworthy God.
As for politics, the impacts of the debt are divisive. While fiscal conservatives attempt to cut government spending, the progressive left will argue that to prevent other disasters, governments should tackle poor housing, inadequate health care, and other social issues. So great is the pandemic’s economic catastrophe that political ideologies fail to provide good answers to many questions. For example, should a free-market government do nothing when a major airline faces bankruptcy, knowing the result could be greater monopoly power in the future?
I ask again: is there a Christian approach to such fine points as who benefits from a bailout?
Three months after the shutdown many congregations already face tough financial difficulties. Donations in the weekly offering basket ceased. Even with online giving, many members’ tithes and offerings have fallen because of lost income. More broadly, the appeal of online speakers and the convenience of scheduling them may encourage some members—even many—to catch what religion they want from the web, rather than live as faithful members of a spiritual community.
Will congregations that flourish in postpandemic years attract and hold their members through activities that build a sense of community as much as attending a sermon? The follow-on effects for Adventist organizations—from local conferences to the General Conference—seem vast, and merit a separate analysis.
Today secular humans across the globe feel greater levels of uncertainty about the future than at any time since the Cold War, with its threat of nuclear annihilation. But as Adventists, to quote the song, “we have this faith” in God’s presence and guidance despite the coronavirus and economic turmoil. Nevertheless, our Christian lives may change.
Those whose living is at least moderately well-to-do may be forced to postpone some cherished purchases. Safe travel will become less frequent, even impossible.
But there is more that is impossible: ignoring the plight of others—the plight of thousands who lack the clean water or soap to wash the virus off their hands; the thousands of our Christian brothers and sisters who work in dangerous professions; the millions more who live in poverty, poorly housed, badly fed, and suffering dangerous illnesses.
With eyes open to these realities, Adventists and other Christians may respond to life’s possibilities, including pandemics, with enlightened perspectives. Our positions will be grounded in truth, both the gospel truth and scientific discoveries, rather than rumor and popular opinion. Regardless of the direction of events, our lives will be guided by the promise of a trustworthy God: “Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand” (Isa. 41:10, NLT).7
Raised by missionaries in Beirut, Malcolm Russell taught economics and honors at Andrews University, and retired from Union College as academic vice president.