The following reflection is purposed to provide a biblical framework to understand the predicament the whole human family is experiencing everywhere. There are multifaceted aspects to what came to be designated as the “great controversy.” Taking this framework into our understanding of reality can be helpful to think clearly about God, about human suffering, disease, and death. It builds hope and provides a resilient and sustainable constructive attitude toward the challenges we face.
Most certainly, the current COVID-19 pandemic with its rapid spread of infections and deaths brings questions related to the meaning of human existence. The death toll and suffering offend our sense of worth. Already, the existential disorder and disastrous consequences of conflicts and wars at the international, national, ethnic, and tribal levels challenge our sense of sacredness of human life, and now the pandemic puts to the limits the case for the importance of human life. Some sort of explanations are needed if there is to be meaning to human life. Furthermore, people ask: Is God involved in the suffering of humans? Should we become fatalistic and assume that whatever happens is God’s will? Should we become superstitious assuming that pandemics are God’s interventions to punish humanity, and that it has crossed the boundaries of what it means to be human and humane? Is the current pandemic a distributive justice, a cry from creation for just and caring societies? Should we resort to archaic rituals to appease an angry divinity? How should we think through all these questions?
Devastating pandemics have punctuated the history of our world. In some ways, the book of Ecclesiastes would argue there’s “nothing new under the sun.” If we were to identify the plagues that qualify to be inducted to the hall of infamy,1 we would list the following: the Antonine plague (165 c.e.), the so-called Plague of Justinian during the Byzantine Empire (a.d. 541-542) with a death toll estimated at 25 million. Then came the bubonic plague, mostly known in connection to the fourteen-century black death (1346-1353). It actually began in 1331 in China, but care should be taken not to indiscriminately and unjustly incriminate people of Asian descent. This is misinformed and evil. Along with the civil war of the time, the bubonic plague decimated half of the population of China.2 It was caused by a strain of bacteria. In Europe, one third of the population is estimated to have died from the plague. One could continue the litany of tragedies and mention the seven cholera pandemics, with the deadliest of them having occurred in the nineteenth century. Those bacteria have left their toll of death and suffering on the human family. The flu pandemic right after World War 1 also left its nefarious mark in history, with estimates varying between 20 to 50 million deaths worldwide.
The book of Revelation referring to three plagues that kill one third of humankind does not seem to be farfetched in light of the past pandemics just mentioned (see Rev. 9:18). Plagues or pestilences as “killing machines” are also mentioned in reference to the fifth seal of Revelation (see Rev. 6:7-9).
Wars and pestilences seem to have been woven into the fabric of human existence. But why is this so?
According to the first chapters of the biblical record, human beings, because of free-will graciously given to them, chose their own path and engaged in an experiment to live with the claim of autonomy from God. They were deceived to believe they could exist without God’s sovereignty and dominion in their lives. They let the illusion that they would not die influence their search for independence from God. They were given not only free-will, freedom of conscience, and freedom of choice, they were also entrusted with the responsibility to have dominion over the animal world. The world of beasts and birds, the world of visible creatures, but also, one can legitimately assume, the worlds of tiny microscopic organisms were entrusted to the care of human beings.
Loss of Privileges and Immunities
The pristine choice of our ancestors deprived them of the prerogative of direct and full access to communion with God. This is the ingrained deficit, the nostalgia dormant in all human beings. It can be heard through all our music, read through our poetry expressing a deep longing for fellowship with God. This existential deficit is present as a hole inscribed in the very fabric of our lives. Nothing can fill it or replace it. This is so because we were made for communion with God.
The fatal unenlightened choice of our first parents also had the immediate consequence of depriving them of their ability to have dominion over the animal world. It brought along with it disruption of harmony and hostility. Violence that erupted in heaven, according to Revelation 12, now creeped into our planet.
Tragically, other losses included immunity to suffering. The human race from then on became vulnerable to suffering. In other words, they lost their impassibility. Their choice brought in enmity and animosity, conflict, violence, and even murder, as mentioned in the story of Cain and Abel. Moreover, the human race became subject to sickness, diseases, and maladies. They lost their incorruptibility. Their bodies became battlefields between good cells and infected cells, microbes and bacteria. Although most of them contribute to the good functioning of the human body, a small percentage (1 percent) functions in a destructive way. Pathogens, viruses, and other toxic microorganisms became agents of death at a microcosmic level in the human body.
In essence, by surrendering their dominion in trusting Satan instead of God, human beings created the stage for the intrusion of disorder in the created order. Nature and the whole of creation since groans and mourns, specifies the apostle Paul (Rom. 8:20).
Overarching Thesis: A Multifaceted Controversy
According to Revelation 12, there was a cosmic war in the spiritual realm, between Satan and the angels that followed him and Michael and His angels, according to Revelation 12. The apostle Paul informed us of another conflict. He says the following in Romans 7:21-24 “I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” (NASB).3
In another domain of human sciences, psychoanalytic theories identify what is designated as pulsion of death, death drive, or drive toward death and destruction expressed through aggression, repetition compulsion, and even self-destructiveness. There is something dysfunctional, an inner tension or a war waging in the human mind, between good and evil. Therefore, the importance of moral guidance and moral choices consonant with the promoting life. The inner conflict also manifests itself in the world of mental health. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders(DSM-5) catalogues literally hundreds of disorders.4 From therapeutic perspectives, the so-called transactional analysis and the rational emotive behavior therapy explore the world of inner discourse, where a struggle between rationality and irrationality takes place. With other cognitive-based therapies, they can help “identify self-defeating thoughts and feelings, challenge the rationality of those feelings, and replace them with healthier, more productive beliefs.”5 At this level of human experience and challenges there are also conflicts.
The cosmic controversy that occurs in the spiritual world as stipulated in the Bible also plays out at the social but also at personal, existential, mental, and moral levels. The conflicts in the human mind and at a psychological and emotional levels are expressions of disorders inside human beings. Conflicts occur in the animal world and nature in general. Pandemics show us that there are also conflicts in the world of microorganisms inside the human body.
These multifaceted conflicts will be elaborated in the second part of the article.
Ganoune Diop, Ph.D. is director of the General Conference Public Affairs and Religious Liberty Department, general secretary of the International Religious Liberty Association, and secretary of the Conference of Secretaries of the Christian World Communions.
1Mary E. Fissell, a historian at Johns Hopkins, refers to the so-called three great waves: the plague of Justinian in the sixth century c.e., the medieval epidemic in the fourteenth century, and a pandemic that struck in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In a recent article entitled “Plagues change, human reactions don’t” in Charleston Gazette Mail, she further specifies that “pandemics have been afflicting humans for millennia, probably for as long as we’ve lived in large groups. Outbreaks struck the ancient Greeks, the Byzantines, the Incas, and the Native Americans, among others. A century ago, the so-called Spanish flu, which as you probably know by now didn’t actually originate in Spain, killed about 50 million people, and perhaps many more, around the world.
2See Gina Kolata. “How Pandemics End?” The New York Times, May 10, 2020.
3Scripture quotations marked NASB are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
4Marcia Webb, Toward a Theology of Psychological Disorder (Eugene, Oreg.: Cascade Books, 2017), loc. 152.