COVID-19 and Theology: An Interview with Brian G. Mattson

Theology is vital, especially in times of social crisis. Brian G. Mattson is a public theologian, in fact, Senior Scholar of Public Theology for the Center for Cultural Leadership as well as an adjunct professor at Westminster Theological Seminary. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Aberdeen, has written several books, and lectures on theology and culture. We thought his theological insights would be valuable at this time.

 (This interview is the third in a series. The first was COVID-19 and Legality: An Interview with Jeffery J. Ventrella and the second was COVID-19 and Economics: An Interview with David L. Bahnsen).

Brian’s theological answers are below:

PAS: Brian, thank you so much for responding. What is the (or at least a) Christian theological framework for understanding contagion crises in general, and COVID-19 in particular? Is there such a framework?

BGM: Thanks for the questions, Andrew.

When we speak of “understanding” contagions we should ask what we mean by “understanding.” There are many different dimensions: are we wanting to “understand” the science of the thing (how it works, is transmitted, etc.)? Surely, yes. But I suspect most people want to “understand” in the sense of what is the meaning of this pestilence? Is there a message in all of this? Is there something we should be learning about ourselves and the world we inhabit? And that right there is a distinctly Christian framework! We believe the universe is personal, not abstract and random. God is a speaking — “communicative” — God, and as his image bearers we intuitively know and yearn for… a word, and interpretation, a meaning behind it all. As Christians, we affirm that there is, in fact, meaning in historical events even if we “see through a glass dimly” (1 Cor. 13:12) and cannot comprehensively understand God’s grander purposes. But we do know that for believers, suffering produces the fruits of perseverance, character, and hope (Rom. 5:3-4).

Christian theology is of inestimable value in another way. The Bible teaches us to understand that creation is under a curse — it “groans” (Rom.8) as it awaits its destiny in the world to come. Creation is not working perfectly as designed, and that is a result of Adam and Eve’s (and our —Rom. 5:12ff) primal sin (Gen. 3). Disease and pestilence are not, therefore, random and meaningless “bad things happen,” or things inherent in the way the world is. And that really is a meaningful difference between a Christian framework and other alternatives. Because pestilence is something of a (mysterious) intrusion into God’s created order, it means that it can also someday be removed. And that is exactly what God promises fully in the end (Rev. 21:4). And we know that this is the heart of God because that is exactly what he began to do when he first appeared! In our current situation, who cannot be moved by Mark’s account, in the very first chapter of his gospel, describing the immense crowds of afflicted people flocking to Jesus for healing? He has come to overturn sin, the curse, and death, and the message of Mark 1 is directly pertinent for people today: be just like those crowds. Flee to Jesus! He is our ultimate healing, for he will rescue us from death itself.

Many world religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, Gnosticism, “Christian” Science, etc.) view the natural world as little more than a death trap: the “wheel of existence” with its endless pain and suffering. In these religions, the world is something to be spiritually transcended. This place is a lost cause, and we’re trying to check out any way we can. Christianity is, by contrast, a world-affirming religion: God created it “very good,” and promises, through the work of our resurrected Lord, its restoration from the wreckage human beings have made of it (Rom. 8:18-21).

PAS: Is there a distinctly Christian way of viewing this crisis? Or should Christians view it basically as non-Christians do?

BGM: Well, I’ve already begun to answer that. But I’ll answer again, and then say a bit more. Yes. There is a distinctly Christian way of viewing this crisis.

A non-Christian perspective can view this crisis as random and meaningless, which produces fear and panic. Or it can view this crisis as some kind of mechanical inevitability, like cosmic karma paying us in full for our sins (non-believers believe in judgment, too — only it is something like “Mother Earth” meting it out), which produces despair. Moreover, many secular perspectives view this world and this life as all there is, so the fear of loss of life is an ultimate existential fear.

Christians, on the other hand, are equipped to understand that God has purposes (it isn’t random); that he is not a cold, distant, silent, and mute machine dispensing what we’ve got coming, but a merciful Father who calls us to cry out to him in our need; and that in Christ Jesus we have no ultimate existential fear of death. I think that is quite a distinct way of viewing this crisis.

PAS: This is not the first time Christianity has been forced to deal with such crises. Is there anything in the Christian reaction to past contagion crises that can guide us in the present one?

BGM: Yes, with some caveats. Roman Christians in early centuries were noted (literally: contemporary people wrote about it!) for their selfless behavior during times of pestilence. While the elite nobility all fled the city for the countryside, Christians remained and fearlessly nursed the afflicted back to health. In Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity he points out that many sufferers simply needed basic nursing care, and the help of Christian believers led to survival rates far above what they would have been otherwise.

This is the theology I spoke of a moment ago put into action. As Christians, we believe God has good purposes, sickness is a remnant of the old order of sin and death that Christ has overcome, and that we need not fear death. Therefore, we are called and equipped to move toward the crisis, not away from it!

The caveat is that we know much more about these contagions than did our Christian forebears, and so our “moving toward” the crisis looks a bit different. Since we know all about viral transmission, our engagement in the current time might look like … non-engagement. That is, staying away from our neighbors! Now, that’s counterintuitive, to be sure. But I would point out that one of the reasons that is an ethical Christian response is because we have a robust system of medical provision in our society. Hospitals themselves began as uniquely Christian institutions (Christians essentially invented them), and we should think of it as such: we have successfully outsourced our moral impulse and expertise to our medical institutions. Our job is certainly to help people get the help they need when they need it, but also to get out of the way of those who have taken up the noble calling as medical professionals! In short, shelter-in-place is a directive with real moral weight.

PAS: Reactions from Christian theologians have ranged from (in essence), “It’s indisputably God’s judgment” (Joseph Pipa) to “There’s no theodicy here, but we can privately lament” (N. T. Wright). Is either of these views correct? If not, are there other valid options?

BGM: The answer is, of course, “Yes.” Always beware of the false dichotomy! We have already seen how pestilence is a judgment of God dating all the way back to Genesis 3 — it is the result of human sin and the resulting curse and “fallenness” of creation (c.f., Rom. 5:12ff). More than that, the Bible has many examples of God’s using plague and pestilence as particular judgments against particular people (e.g., the plagues of Egypt, snakes in the wilderness, etc.).

However, I would point out that those instances are recorded and interpreted for us in the Bible; that is, God has disclosed to us his particular reasons for those particular judgments. In our post-Apostolic age, we have no such direct knowledge of God’s mind, and it is presumptuous to dogmatically say, “This (and not that) is why.”

I personally would like to confidently make something of the “coincidence” that this pestilence arose right around the time that China finally imprisoned Pastor Wang Yi for his fearless proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Could this be God’s judgment for that injustice? Certainly. Can I make dogmatic declarations of that kind? No. Likewise with those tying this contagion, say, to abortion-on-demand and a myriad of other injustices.

Jesus himself teaches us how to interpret disasters of this sort. We read in Luke 13:1-5:

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower of Siloam fell on them — do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.

The conclusion here is that, yes, these things are judgments (note that the action-item in both cases is repentance) but the very last thing one may do is use it to self-righteously point at “those people.” As in, “Those people deserved it.” “God is angry with those people.” Jesus clearly teaches that contagions of this sort should prompt self-examination and repentance. C.S. Lewis had it right, I think, when he said that pain is “God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” And, I’m sorry to burst any bubbles: we’re deaf, too.

So, yes. It is indisputably a judgment of God (at the least, we know, in the general sense because of Genesis 3, even if we do not know the particular purpose in this moment), and yes, the solution is for YOU to turn to the Lord in repentance. Again, Mark would tell us: flee to Jesus!

And the other option you mention is correct as well. We are called to lament — by which I charitably take Professor Wright to mean what I am saying immediately above, that we do not know the particulars of what has prompted this plague and thus cannot give any dogmatic “explanation” for our suffering — and to cry out to God. That’s precisely what Jesus calls us to do: repent. That means turning to him. Setting our minds and our hearts and our affections and our afflictions and our burdens and our pleas on God. And I’m grateful that N.T. Wright has pointed us again to the Psalms, which give us a language and vocabulary by which to do precisely that.

PAS: Finally, Brian, what counsel, as a public theologian, would offer Christians navigating this crisis?

BGM: In addition to meditating and thinking on the things I’ve discussed here, I would counsel people to take advantage of their social distancing to do what Jesus calls us to do: turn to God in reading and prayer. Additionally, be sober-minded; resist the perennial urge to jump to premature conclusions (you, nor I, are likely experts in epidemiology and there is no shortage of armchair experts) and — worst of all — to use current events as a useful tool for particular political agendas. This might take tuning out of Twitter for awhile. People are suffering and dying, and I caution you that not everything is about who occupies the White House.

Everything is about Him who sits on the throne above, however — He who conquered sin and death in his cross and resurrection. May your (unusual) celebration of Holy Week give you the perspective needed to persevere, and to build up your character and hope (Rom. 5:3-4).

Author: P. Andrew Sandlin

I am founder & president of the Center for Cultural Leadership, core faculty of the H. Evan Runner International Academy for Cultural Leadership and De Yong Distinguished Visiting Professor of Culture and Theology, Edinburg Theological Seminary, and an ordained minister in the Fellowship of Mere Christianity. I am happily married to Sharon Lynn Sandlin (nee Habedank) and have five adult children and four grandchildren.

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