In the Bible, plagues are an instrument of God’s wrath, a punishment for unrighteousness. Think here of the plagues visited on Egypt when Pharaoh refused to let the Hebrews worship God in the desert, or the outbreak of tumors among the Philistines after they captured the Ark of the Covenant.
Plagues touched God’s people as well as pagans, individuals as well as tribes. When the Israelites grumbled against God during their 40-year desert sojourn, God sent venomous snakes as punishment. When Job was stricken with boils as part of his many trials, his companions interpreted them as more evidence that he had sinned and was cursed by God.
Interpretation of plagues as a judgment or warning to repent did not disappear in the Christian era. Christians attributed Bubonic plague in medieval Europe to a range of religious infractions, including the popes’ departure to Avignon from Rome (it was also an excuse for widespread scapegoating and persecution of European Jews).
Europeans carried this view of disease as divine judgment to their American colonies. A seventeenth-century poem titled “God’s Controversy with New England” contains this lament: “Our healthfull dayes are at an end / And sicknesses come on / From yeer to yeer, because our hearts / Away from God are gone… One wave another followeth / And one disease begins / Before another cease, because / We turn not from our sins.”
Across the centuries, theological explanations for plague have remarkable staying power. At the onset of the influenza epidemic of 1918, the germ theory of disease was relatively well-established, and consequently fewer sought a religious explanation. Yet decades later, further advances in medical science and public health did not stop pastors from declaring AIDS God’s punishment for homosexuality. So in 2020, no one should be surprised that some people of faith now ask whether COVID-19 is also a sign of God’s judgment.
In the theological account of disease drawn primarily from the Hebrew Bible, the cure for the plague is not medical but spiritual: repent of sin and return to God. In the Gospels, Jesus’ healing power takes on both spiritual and physical manifestations. James later declares that mercy triumphs over judgment, so healing rather than plague becomes the paradigmatic demonstration of God’s power.
Yet plague reappears at the end of the Christian Bible in a context much closer to the Hebrew Bible’s accounts. In the book of Revelation, plagues return as signs of the apocalypse, heralding the promised end of the world. Unlike earlier plagues, no repentance will stave off this final judgment.
Historically speaking, Revelation’s prediction of apocalyptic plagues has proven true. Outbreaks of the Black Death in Europe, smallpox and measles among indigenous peoples in North America, and malaria and yellow fever globally ended the worlds they invaded, upending social and political structures and making new societies possible.
John’s Apocalypse is revelatory in another sense. While Christians often interpret it as a prophecy about the future, it can also be read as a veiled account of the current age. Though first-century CE Rome may have appeared indomitable to persecuted followers of Christ, John’s vision assured his readers that it was no match for the resurrected Lion of Judah. In the world of John’s revelation (apokalypsis in the Greek), what seems incontrovertible and immovable is shown to be fleeting and temporary.
What then might a modern-day plague mean for an almost-chosen nation? A theological lens on COVID-19 should prompt us to consider two questions: First, what does this plague reveal about ourselves, our nation, and our contemporary world? Second, when we see things as they truly are, what might we need to repent of—even as, imitating Jesus’ healing ministry, we do all we can to stop the spread of this disease?
We will not know the final lessons of this plague until after the coronavirus has finished its grim work. Already, however, it has made several things plain about the contemporary United States.
Formal Equality Masks Disparate Demographic Outcomes
There is a democratic element to COVID-19: riches, education, or power do not shield from the virus—in fact, the virus spread first through the global jet set. But as more people fall ill, it is clear that in the US infection rates and deaths are higher among the poor and minority populations, particularly African-Americans. With the notable exception of healthcare professionals, higher-income workers are also more insulated from the secondary effects of the pandemic. They are more able to work from home, more likely to have health insurance, and more likely to have paid sick leave than low-income individuals, who are more at risk medically and financially. In measurable ways, we are not all in this together.
Our Public Discourse Rests on Faulty Assumptions
We have justified our economic arrangements through beliefs that markets are the best means to allocate resources, that “unskilled” workers in service occupations are disposable, and that the cost of healthcare is best seen as an individual responsibility. The pandemic has revealed all of these beliefs to be partial truths at best, and pernicious falsehoods at worst. Through bitter experience, we now see that market fundamentalism led to serious vulnerability in supply chains, “unskilled” workers are the lifeblood of our economy, and making healthcare a commodity is dangerous to public health. We must summon the moral and intellectual courage to move beyond partisan campaign slogans and recover a political discourse centered on the common good.
We Depend on Each Other
In local responses around the country, we see examples of people pulling together to protect each other and their communities—from the doctors and nurses who heroically put themselves in harms’ way, to the business leaders who donate their own salaries to their employees, to people across industries retooling to manufacture needed medical supplies. In these community responses, we see the promise of e pluribus unum realized. At the same time, the interruption of the daily rhythms of the well-off reveals the extent to which their comforts and conveniences rely upon an array of low-wage service workers, whose precarious existence is usually hidden. In a pandemic, self-sufficiency is revealed for the myth that it is. If we can come together during this time of being apart, we may yet see a renewal of the social contract on which our democratic republic is built.
Governments and Nations Are Essential to the Common Good
An effective pandemic response requires coordination on a scale that only a national government can provide. Unfortunately, the truth of this claim is most glaring in the areas where the federal government failed in its coordinating role, or when leaders acted uncommendably. Likewise, while international cooperation is essential in a global pandemic, the closing of national borders around the world shows that, for all the goods of globalization, only nations can generate the kind of solidarity needed to endure the hardships and sacrifices that arresting the pandemic requires. Pandemic responses must harness the strengths and account for the weaknesses of each society, use culturally appropriate measures to ensure the greatest compliance, and work with the legal, economic, and medical resources available. Moreover, as Francis Fukuyama suggests, trust in government is essential to successfully contain COVID-19. Trust in government starts with belief in its necessity and utility.
America Is Still Indispensable on the World Stage
This is another truth most conspicuous in its absence. Compare the US’ current response to the global pandemic, in which it outbids poorer countries for medical equipment on the international market and depends on China for information and supplies, with the American-led international response to Ebola, a much deadlier disease that was effectively contained in a small number of African nations. The coronavirus pandemic highlights that even now, when the US steps back from global leadership, there is no one better to replace it. As its factories come back on line, China is sending medical supplies around the world, but as its Belt and Road Initiative illustrates, its generosity often comes with strings. Evidence also suggests that the Chinese government suppressed information about the pandemic (particularly its severity), hindering the preparedness of other nations. Like any human institution, the United States is not without fault. However, acknowledging wrongs committed does not negate the political responsibility to do the good that can be done.
Revelations of COVID-19
Not every plague is a judgment, but every plague is a revelation. The revelations of COVID-19 should not surprise Christian realists, who attend both to the transcendent and the facts on the ground. The more pertinent question is whether, collectively, we will repent (Greek metanoia, a turning away from) of our willfully false beliefs, our lack of charity, our love of power, and our denial of responsibility that has left the most vulnerable among us out of the prosperity, security, and opportunity afforded by the richest, most powerful nation in the history of the world.
 Michael Wigglesworth, “God’s Controversy with New England,” in Conrad Cherry, ed., God’s New Israel: Religious Interpretations of American Destiny, rev. ed. (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1998), 51. Original spelling retained.