March 6, 2020

The Plague

As each newscast has brought more vivid and alarming accounts of the advance of the coronavirus, complete with mounting statistics and ghastly human suffering and loss, the fear of another pandemic grips the heart. Disquieting news arrives hourly of the effort to prevent the spread of this disease to every reach of the world.

Just recently, bringing the threat more symbolically closer to home, the Adventist Review reported the first death of an Adventist from the coronavirus in China, the ground zero of this plague, and the infection of at least five other church members there. By the time of this reading, there will almost certainly be further such reports.

It isn’t as if fears of such a global threat come out of nowhere. As anyone who has even the most casual memory of history knows, almost exactly a century ago the flu epidemic of 1918 “swept the world in 1918 [and] killed an estimated 50 million people. One fifth of the world’s population was attacked by this deadly virus. Within months, it had killed more people than any other illness in recorded history.”

Today’s growing menace of the coronavirus raises a kind of fear among humanity that has, in fact, recurred throughout history. Students of literature cannot escape awareness of the almost grim fascination with which authors have drawn on pestilence in history. In “The Masque of the Red Death,” Edgar Allan Poe (who else?) recounts a fictional story of an attempt by a wealthy nobility to quarantine itself in a masquerade in an abbey, only to be infected, room by room by an uninvited guest disguised as a victim of the Red Death.

Elsewhere in literature, reading a great deal like unsettling news reports heard in today’s media, Samuel Pepys’ diary entries for several years in the mid-1660s—and this is no fictional writing—include observations of “great talke of the Dutch preparing of sixty sayle of ships. The plague grows mightily among them, both at sea and land.”

Albert Camus came to international prominence with the publication of his novel La Peste (The Plague) in 1947, in which an epidemic of bubonic plague in Oran, Algeria, provides the bleak setting for his commentary on society. When the entire city has been placed under strict quarantine, each gate guarded rigidly to prevent any ingress or egress, Camus describes a soul-searing Sunday morning sermon by a Catholic priest in a service that has attracted a noticeably larger attendance than usual: “‘The first time this scourge appears in history,’ the priest intoned, ‘it was wielded to strike down the enemies of God. Pharaoh set himself up against the divine will, and the plague beat him to his knees. Thus from the dawn of recorded history the scourge of God has humbled the proud of heart and laid low those who hardened themselves against Him. Ponder this well, my friends, and fall on your knees. . . . No earthly power, nay, not even, mark me well, the vaunted might of human science can avail you to avert that hand once it is stretched toward you. And winnowed like corn on the blood-stained threshing-floor of suffering, you will be cast away with the chaff.’”

Can anyone with any awareness of the pestilences of Egypt in the Old Testament, and its ten plagues, not be struck with the idea of impending judgment? The Nile River, the very source of life and health to the Egyptians, curdled into blood. Then a succession of three disturbing waves of infestation—frogs, lice, and flies. Followed by an epidemic striking domestic animals—cattle, horses, donkeys, sheep, goats, camels. Then the mass infliction of boils on all animals, including humans themselves. Yet another wave of insects, this time crop-destroying locusts. Three days of darkness, blotting out the sun itself, the very god of the Egyptians. Throughout all this, Pharaoh refused to bow, to give in to unmistakable power.

Through all this, the utter fear of the Egyptian people surely grew itself like a plague. Powerless against the obstinate stubbornness of the leader of their people, they were yet to endure one last dreadful night. As the sun went down that evening, cries echoed through the night, in which every firstborn—child and adult—including the firstborn son of the Pharaoh himself, was lost.

The heart-stopping message of Camus’ priest in Oran, Algeria, may well arise in the mind today as hourly media reports come of the global scientific effort to contain the coronavirus, to quarantine the Chinese city of Wuhan, the epicenter of this frightful threat to humankind—to prevent the virus’s appearance in other countries around the planet. There are, after all, those seven plagues predicted in the biblical book of Revelation. Is this not surely God’s visitation on a world gone so terribly wrong?

Most of the rest of the world, hearing of the potential peril—of algorithmic predictions of just how cataclysmic this could be—nervously dismiss it and try not to think about it. Others shrug their shoulders fatalistically. After all, that flu epidemic about a century ago affected only one out of five of the world’s population overall. There seems to be little thinking, however, that it’s all just fake news.

But the priest’s sermon still reminds that in moments like these, a great many come face to face with one of the greatest of existential questions in the human existence: What is the meaning of death? Is that all there is?

For the people of Israel back there in Egypt, under complete bondage at the pleasure of the Pharaoh, there was at least the promise—the hope—of deliverance from that last, fateful, tenth plague. The painting of blood on the doorposts was more than a scientific preventative act. There was also in it a public declaration of acceptance of the blood of a Savior as the only true hope beyond mortality itself.

The scientific response—the painting of the global doorpost—to the coronavirus must by all means be made. But the ultimate deliverance from the greater spiritual virus that has infected humankind for these several thousand years may also be received through the acceptance of blood, Christ’s blood 2,000 years ago.

Gary B. Swanson is editor of Perspective Digest.

1) www.adventistreview.org/church-news/story14489-coronavirus-claims-first-adventist.

2) www.archives.gov/exhibits/influenza-epidemic/

3) June 22, 1664, www.pepys.info/1665/plague.html. 

4) Albert Camus, The Plague, Kindle edition, pp. 94–97.

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