The first Lord’s Day since the Covid-19 Coronavirus began to reach our shores has passed. In most fellowships in the UK and Ireland some mention will have been made of it, and perhaps some low key precautions put in place. Along with the ubiquitous hand sanitiser tubs, and the comedic elbow bumps, there has also been opportunity for ordinary Christians to discuss face-to-face their varied responses to the health threat. The same kinds of conversation are increasingly being struck up on Twitter and Facebook. Speaking from my own context, and from other conversations reported to me, there seem to be two broad responses – quiet concerns bounded by faith, and bold declarations of confidence that Christians will be protected from the fallout of Coronavirus. It would be easy to immediately assert that the former is the more rational response, but is it the most biblical? Which view best reflects what the Scriptures say of Christians in the midst of a public crisis? Are we merely promised that we will be sustained through such circumstances, or are we promised that we’ll be protected from them? Are we to expect immunity from an epidemic or not?
A misaligned Psalm?
Part of our issue with such questions is that the biblical testimony can seem to contradict our life experience. Psalm 91 is a favourite proof text of those who believe that absolute protection is theirs. The Christian’s home is advertised as a pestilence free zone (v3), and the Psalmist seems to aver that the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune won’t land near to our door (v7). We seem, then, to have been given our very own Goshen, a territory that is divinely quarantined from the horrors and hardships which befall our fellow men and women. Under such circumstances we could boldly declare that though those around us might fear their falling ill, we need not – God will protect us from all harm, the gospel has given us an invisible, but no less real, hazmat suit.
Protection from and protection in
If such assertions sound too simplistic, that is chiefly owing to the fact that they are. Psalm 91 makes grand and wholesome promises to the Christian, but it is not a vaccine against virus and disaster in our lives. The close of the Psalm gives at least a hint that the protection from harm is more ultimate than immediate, that it is speaking of deliverance through, rather than deliverance from the midst of, tribulation and trial. The Lord will be with the suffering Christian in trouble (v15), and will provide ultimate deliverance.
Ended lives and numbered hairs
These hints help us when horrible things happen. Christians get cancer and Christians get killed, they are mown down through persecution, cut off by accidents, and debilitated by various diseases and genetic conditions. There is no force field around the believer cosseting him or her from what happens to everyone else, and if the gospel promises us anything temporally it is an intensification of sorrows because we belong to Jesus. These facts are not at odds with a song of safety, whose imagery of long life and redirected arrows is deeply suggestive of the redemptive nature of God’s dealings with us in and out of difficulty.
When Jesus was preparing his followers for the suffering that they would endure after his ascension and before his return, he mixed imagery which powerfully summarises their predicament. In Luke 21 believers are informed that they will be apprehended, betrayed by family, arraigned before rulers, and put to death (vv12-16). In their case it seems that not only can evil come near to their door, but that it has its own house key. Into this context of atrocity Jesus then asserts that ‘not a hair of your head will perish’ (v18). This can only be so if these believers can face into the prevailing wind of evil, even seeming to be momentarily overcome by it, knowing that ultimate preservation will be theirs. The destruction of the body now is emblematic of the protection of the believer through death and difficulty, to a state of final security and wholeness in the New Creation. The real antidote for fear is not that everything will be settled now, but that everything will be renewed then. The life and suffering of our Saviour has exemplified this course for us.
All of this should help us as we talk about Coronavirus, or whatever other threat seems to prevail globally. We must be careful not to appear to be at peace with the last enemy yet, we must not over-realise our eschatology to the point where we sound as though we will never contract the illnesses or suffer the injuries that our non-Christian counterparts do. We can face any malady, we can be on the receiving end of atrocity, our bodies can be buffeted, bruised and burned, but our final habitation is sure, and our final hope is solid. So if we are preserved from the current epidemic we can praise God, and if we are struck down by it (even to death) we can praise God and point to an imperishable security that is ours far beyond this vale of tears and stalking terror.