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Christians have been a force for good in the midst of historical plagues and pandemics. As believers have cared for the sick, it's caused others to become interested in their faith, argues Dr Peter Harris
The transmission of coronavirus is a global crisis. The pandemic has caused entire nations to go into lockdown. Over 3 million people have been infected and over 200,000 have sadly died. The consequences are also mental as people suffer bereavement, anxiety and PTSD. Acute, prolonged suffering for many people might constitute a compelling reason to reject belief in God. However, paradoxically pandemics have led to many people converting to Christianity. The question is why?
To deal with a crisis of suffering, a worldview that enables you to respond effectively is indispensable. Of all worldviews, Christianity provides the most robust response. Unlike Buddhism, Christianity regards suffering as real. Contrary to Hinduism, Christianity treats suffering as something to be alleviated rather than as karmafor the crimes of a previous incarnation. Christianity has retained the Jewish idea of a God of love who has made humans in his image (Genesis 1:26, 27). Jesus summed up the Jewish Law with two commands, one of which was to love one’s neighbour as oneself (Matthew 19:19). Humans are therefore loved by God and inherently valuable, and so they deserve help. Christianity believes in a God who incarnated as a suffering servant. Our God is not impervious to suffering. He is a God who grieves over our tragedies.
The readiness of Christians to help others during pandemics is vividly presented in ancient accounts. Historians have long cogitated over the reasons why Christianity became the official Roman religion in 380 AD. One reason was Christian altruism. The Antonine Plague afflicted the Roman Empire from 165 to 180 AD. Some historians have speculated that the disease was smallpox or measles. It is estimated the disease caused 5 million deaths. The economist Lyman Stone notes that many pagans converted to Christianity because of the readiness of Christians to nurse anyone who was sick or dying, sometimes at the cost of their own lives. Survivors were so impressed by the Christians’ valorous love that they saw it as evidence of God’s existence and converted.
The same thing happened during the Plague of Cyprian, named after Bishop Cyprian of Carthage whose sermons described the symptoms. Reckoned by some historians to have been an outbreak of Ebola, it afflicted the Roman Empire from 249 to 262 AD. So severe was this pandemic, it is estimated that 5,000 people a day died in Rome. As with the Antonine Plague, this plague triggered an explosive growth of Christianity. Urged on by Cyprian’s sermons, Christians came to the aid of the sick. Presented with such an example of selfless, indiscriminate love, people converted to Christianity.
It is notable that Christians have a tradition of helping whether people convert or not. The misnamed ‘Spanish’ Flu, which struck in 1918 killing between 20 and 50 million people worldwide, did not lead to mass conversions. After 1918, church attendance declined. Yet there are many stories of selfless Christian responses to the sick. One example is that of the nuns of Philadelphia. By the autumn of 1918, the virus had struck the city hard, killing 700 on 16 October alone. As the First World War was still being fought, many American nurses were staffing military hospitals and there was a grave shortage of nurses back home. In response, 2,000 nuns from across Philadelphia’s diocese volunteered to work in the city’s hospitals. They cared for people of all ethnicities and creeds, working 12 hour shifts in overcrowded wards. 23 nuns died. So impressed was the Mayor of Philadelphia that he declared he had never before seen such self-sacrifice.
Just over a hundred years later, Christians are playing their part again in a pandemic. Although church buildings are closed and the care of patients is in the hands of medical professionals (many of whom are Christians), Christians are still finding ways of assisting.
No pandemic is a good thing of itself, but God can bring good out of evil and in the case of the coronavirus, this is happening: there is currently a long-prayed-for revival of interest in Christianity underway. Though some may be struggling with the question as to why a loving God would permit pandemics (and any other kind of evil), there is much online data that reveal that people across the world are engaging with Christianity much more since the lockdown was imposed. In a time of fear and vulnerability, people are searching for a new source of stability. There's been a sudden increase in Bibles sales. Google’s data for online searches reveal that the number of people using the word Christianity as their search word has increased dramatically. The Christian bookshop Eden reported in April a 55% increase in Bible sales. Holy Trinity Brompton’s online Alpha course has seen the number of participants double. With fewer distractions, people are faced with questions about the meaning of life and the fact of their mortality.
Will all this interest lead to many people coming to Jesus? It is hard to tell. Once life resumes as normal, or as normal as it can be, perhaps many people’s spiritual interest will subside. However, Christians should never underestimate the spiritual hunger that people can feel, despite the secular declaration that the West is post-Christian. Moreover, let us be prepared to answer questions people are asking about Christianity. By doing so, we will be taking the paradoxical opportunity this pandemic has given us to bring forth life from death. And we will be obeying what we have been told to do for some 2,000 years: to give a reason for the hope that is within us (1 Peter 3:15).
Dr Peter Harris is the author of The Rage Against the Light: Why Christopher Hitchens was Wrong and Do You Believe It? A Guide to a Reasonable Faith.
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