The Bible has several examples of God punishing and educating nations through plagues, so we should seriously consider the possibility of judgement or warning whenever a natural disaster happens. But how do we decide whether this is true of Covid-19?
In the Bible, God’s plagues and other disasters were targeted, predicted and had a clear purpose. Prophets and preachers didn’t claim after the plague or disaster happened that it was a message from God – they warned people of God’s intended action before it happened. And they left no doubt about his purpose in it.
Old Testament plagues
The most detailed plagues in the Bible are the ten aimed at Egypt when God told Pharaoh through Moses to “Let my people go” (see Exodus 7-11). He instructed Moses first to ask Pharaoh, then to warn Pharaoh what would happen if he refused, and finally to bring about the plague by waving his staff as a visible sign of his prayer to God to send it.
These Egyptian plagues were not just accurately predicted; they were specifically targeted. Those beginning in Pharaoh’s palace spread to the whole country except Goshen, the area where the Israelites lived (Exodus 8:22; 9:26). And the warnings beforehand were not only clearly stated, but evident from their progressive intensity: horrible (a stinking red river), nasty (gnats and boils), financial (ruined crops, dead livestock and locusts), dangerous (giant hail), and finally, catastrophic tragedy – the death of the eldest son of each family. We tend to think of these firstborn sons as infants, but the vast majority would have been young men – a specific target that must have decimated Pharaoh’s army.
On another occasion, babies were targeted when God punished Abimelech, the king of Gerar, for taking Abraham’s wife (Genesis 20). No babies were harmed, but suddenly there were no pregnancies or births in his whole extended household. This must have involved a very large group of people – perhaps his whole clan – because otherwise it would take a very long time to notice the lack of new pregnancies. We aren’t told how this happened – perhaps through a mosquito-borne virus like Zika. This was potentially a much greater disaster than anything that Pharaoh faced, because within a couple of decades his whole dynasty would be gone.
This curse was targeted at a specific group of people and its purpose was clear – as Abraham realised. He had to admit his own part in leading Abimelech into sin and, after both men repented, God answered Abraham’s prayer to heal Abimelech’s people.
A drought caused a famine in Elijah’s day, which he attributed to God’s judgement on the Israelites because of their Baal worship. This link was clear to everyone because Baal was the god of thunder, and prayers to him for rain had failed spectacularly. Sadly, there were no doubt innocent victims, but Israel’s faithlessness was immense – 950 priests of Baal and Asherah implies a very large number of worshippers! Israel turned back to God en masse when Elijah won the rain-making competition on Mt Carmel (1 Kings 18).
A dramatically deadly plague was also targeted at the Assyrian army led by Sennacherib (2 Kings 19). He was besieging Jerusalem, which contained an increasingly desperate people and a king, Hezekiah, who was sensible enough to pray for help. Isaiah (also trapped in the city) foretold God’s actions and presented the purpose clearly. This plague (or whatever the angel brought in v35) killed 185,000 Assyrian soldiers in one night. Sennacherib appeared to escape, only to then be killed in his palace as Isaiah predicted. No civilians died.
New Testament plagues
Not all disasters, however, are punishments from God. Many more calamities occurred in millennia of ancient Near East history, but the Bible only highlights those few that God used as signs.
In AD 54/55 worldwide crop failures (which we only know about through extra-biblical sources), caused minor famines throughout the Roman world. This led to severe food shortages in Palestine a couple of years later. This was predictable because the next year was a Sabbath Year when no crops were planted in Israel. With no stores of food at the start of the year and no harvest either, Israel alone would suffer a greater famine in AD 56/57. Everybody would have expected and dreaded it.
Because it was so obviously going to happen, Christian prophets and preachers could have declared it as God’s punishment on Israel for rejecting their Messiah – but they didn’t. Instead, Paul organised a collection from his Gentile churches throughout the Roman world to show their concern for the Jerusalem Church (2 Corinthians 8). Then he risked his own freedom by delivering it personally (he was captured and taken prisoner to Rome). This collection arguably healed the first serious Church rift, between the Gentile and Jerusalem churches.
Occasionally God’s prophets will predict and explain a message of anger from him that is proved by a targeted disaster. More often, like Paul, God’s people can use these events as an opportunity to illustrate his message of love by bringing aid to victims of disasters that occur simply because creation is fallen.
Using these biblical principles, we have to conclude that Covid-19 is not a warning or a judgement from God, as it wasn’t predicted and it isn’t targeted at the guilty. Instead of declaring a message of God’s anger, we can deliver God’s message of love wrapped up in food parcels, friendship, comfort and financial support.