There’s been a lot of talk online about how the advent of COVID-19 is an act of God specifically aimed at judging wicked people. While there’s no passage of Scripture that refers to the coronavirus (really … there isn’t), there is an interesting passage in the gospels that reveals the approach of Jesus to whether natural disasters should be parsed as direct judgments on sinful people. Given that there is such a passage, and given that it’s often neglected (I’ve certainly never heard a sermon on it), I thought it would be relevant for some brief examination with respect to the current course of events. To do so, I’ll be enlisting the help of a favorite New Testament scholar, Dr. Darrell Bock. I’ll be referencing vol. 2 of his massive two-volume exegetical commentary on Luke throughout this post.
The passage in view is Luke 13:1-5 (most specifically, vv. 4-5):
1 There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. 4 Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
Verse 1 begins with some unnamed people telling Jesus about the unjust death of some Galileans at the hand of Pontius Pilate. The immediately preceding context in Luke 12 saw Jesus discussing signs of the times (Luke 12:54-56) and settling debts owed (Luke 12:57-59). Bock writes of the way Luke 13 begins:
Perhaps Jesus’ previous remarks about the signs of the time caused the next topic to be raised by some in the crowd (Arndt 1956: 327). Is this a time of special judgment? Some people mention a recent incident in which some Galileans were put to death as they offered (or prepared to offer) their sacrifice. Neither the exact location of the attack nor the number who lost their lives is given. It need not have been in the temple proper, but more likely took place near the temple, as people approached with their sacrifices in hand. Pilate, the Roman administrator, used force, and death resulted. . . . The massacre may well have been associated with Passover, which is the only time that the laity slaughtered their own animals. Galileans most likely would be engaged in sacrifices during the feast. (Bock)
Bock goes on to discuss five events mentioned by Josephus that might be the incident to which Luke 13:1 refers. The candidates don’t concern us here. Rather, what is interesting is that Jesus responds with a question. Bock writes:
Jesus responds with a question. As he begins to comment, Jesus raises the question of theodicy, rather than focusing on politics. Did these events occur because of God’s judgment? Did these people suffer (πεπόνθασιν, peponthasin) because they were worse sinners than other Galileans? Had they received “measure for measure” for what they had given? Some seem to have reached this conclusion, which was a common Jewish reaction to such tragedy (Strack and Billerbeck 2:193–97). Jesus raises what would be the typical conclusion, only to reject it in his response. (Bock)
In other words, in Luke 13:2 Jesus raises the question he discerned was ultimately behind bringing the issue up. He answers it directly in v. 3: “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” The first part of that is clear—No, the tragedy that happened to those Galileans didn’t happen because they were more wicked than other people. But the second part is a little obtuse to our ears. Bock explains Jesus’ point:
Jesus rejects the common answer with a simple negative: this did not happen because the Galileans were more horrible sinners. Even more, Jesus does not pick up the question; rather he uses the occasion to give an additional warning about a more fundamental issue: the threat of a tragic end is present for all. . . . The issue is not when death will happen or why, but avoiding a terminal fate with even greater consequences. Only repentance will prevent the death that lasts (Luke 3:8; 6:24–26; 10:13; 12:58–59; 15:7). (Bock)
Jesus thus tells his audience they’re wrong to think about the tragedy in the way many of them were thinking. What each person within the sound of his voice (or reading Luke 13!) should be thinking is how to avoid everlasting death. That’s far more important.
This brings us to the natural disaster I alluded to at the start. Jesus adds another layer to the discussion by reminding them of another incident: “Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” Bock writes:
In a second example, Jesus mentions an otherwise unknown incident involving the collapse of a tower at Siloam (also known as Shiloah). Siloam, a reservoir for Jerusalem, was located near the intersection of the south and east walls of the city (Isa. 8:6). The structural failure of what may have been nothing more than scaffolding killed eighteen people. Were those who perished worse sinners than others who lived in Jerusalem? (Bock)
The answer Jesus gives to the question he raised (” do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem?”) is the same as his earlier one: No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” Bock unpacks the implication once again:
Jesus’ response to this second situation matches the first one. He rejects the assertion that worse sin was the cause of the tragedy and again issues the warning to repent. . . . Failure to repent definitely leaves one exposed to death. Thus, it is imperative that everyone repent. Jesus will close with a parable to stress the immediate danger in which the audience stands. There is need for a quick response. The threat, as in 13:3, is not Jerusalem’s fall, but not being able to stand before God.
In another commentary on Luke, also written by Bock, his summary of the passage reads this way:
In the discussion of the two tragedies in verses 1–5, the question emerges whether a worse level of sin causes a person to suffer a special judgment, either in being the victim in a series of events or in being the victim of a natural catastrophe. The temple massacre of the Galileans whose blood Pilate mixed with Jewish sacrifices raised the question whether God was exercising a special act of judgment against them. The collapse of a tower at Siloam that killed eighteen was a natural catastrophe—one of those things that just happens. But here the question also becomes, “Did God judge them for excessive sin?” In both cases the question is the same: Is God giving back to people what they deserved?
Jesus responds by changing the import of the question. The reason such events are so tragic is that they expose our mortality. Death exists in a fallen world, and nothing exposes our mortality more than when death comes suddenly and unexpectedly, cutting short a life that had the potential to be much fuller. Jesus argues that what should be contemplated is not the cutting short of these particular lives, but the fact that life terminates. This raises an even more basic question, what comes after that? How does one prevent the end from being the ultimate end? Jesus has taken a question about mortality and made it a question about the possibility of eternal punishment, which Scripture later calls the “second death” (Rev. 20:11–15). So he urges the people to repent, without which all will perish—only in a death that is more than a mere loss of mortality. His point is that with death comes a decisive encounter with God, one that does deal with sin. Whether one is a little sinner or a big one, repentance now is the only way to survive that coming encounter. (Bock)
I hope the application to the current situation is obvious. We have no biblical right to claim that the current pandemic was sent by God to punish sinful humanity. What believers ought to be fixated on is not infusing the hearts of unbelievers with fear and dread (or anger), but with hope–the hope of the gospel. That’s what readies us all for the everlasting life or death. What a difference it would make if Christians stopped wasting time online over-claiming the cause of this tragedy and instead engaged people in such a way that the gospel would gain a hearing and traction in hearts. Maybe if people took the time they’d otherwise invest in deducing some conspiratorial catalyst to all this and instead were kind to neighbors (“pre-evangelism”) so that the good reputation of Jesus could be restored in the culture, we could look at the pandemic as an opportunity. Even if you figured it all out (!) your mission doesn’t and won’t change. It’s the Great Commission.
Honestly, if you want to know how Christians should be behaving at this time, here’s an example — straight from Wuhan, China (transcribed with English translation).