Recently, I was interviewed about theological implications of COVID-19 by Pastor Leyton Erickson at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Saskatoon. The discussion starts by asking why God allows suffering and expands to wonder how such a God can be good? We then discuss whether the current COVID-19 pandemic represents the biblical End. I’ve included a link to the video interview here.
Over the next couple weeks, I’ll unpack here some of what I shared (so subscribe to this post if you want to keep up!). Starting with the last discussion first, I’ll begin today by declaring definitively that COVID-19 100% does not indicate the biblical end of existence.
How can I be so cheekily certain?
On one hand, statements about the world’s end occur far less frequently in the Bible than is popularly assumed and with far less detail than they are popularly assigned. Furthermore, many of the statements that do supposedly appear are frequently talking about something else entirely.
Arguably, Jesus does share some thoughts on the world’s end in Mark 13.32-37 and the parallel passage in Matthew 24.36-44. These thoughts, notably, are in addition to his statements about the Jerusalem Temple’s imminent destruction in 70 AD, which is what these passages are mostly about.
I won’t go into great detail unpacking these passages, principally because a) I have nothing original to contribute to the multiplicity of good interpretations already available; and because b) people already committed to bad interpretations won’t be persuaded by good ones that contradict their preconceptions anyway.
What I will contribute is the cheeky conviction that these passages teach that associating COVID-19 with the End is guaranteed to be 100% wrong.
When Jesus talks to his disciples about the End, he always includes the caveat that nobody gets to know when this will occur.
Thus he says: “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matthew 24.36; cf. Mark 13.32). Or post-resurrection: “It’s not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has set by his own authority” (Acts 1.7).
Jesus’ caveats include some irony.
Jesus’ language borrows from the language of Jewish apocalyptic – books like Daniel in the Old Testament and other literature we find in the Dead Sea Scrolls and elsewhere.
One function of apocalyptic literature is to comfort readers in times of calamity by disclosing details about the end. Thus while the world looks outwardly unpredictable, the “inside group” sees how it’s all proceeding according to a divine plan.
But Jesus twists that apocalyptic expectation by saying just the opposite. You don’t get to see the plan, says Jesus. Nobody does!
Instead, Jesus redirects his disciples away from cross-referencing the Bible to world events and focuses them on their behaviour.
It’s not what you know, but how you wait that counts.
Jesus’ point consistently is that because you can’t know when the End is coming, you’d better be found waiting faithfully when it does!
“Keep watch!” he commands, “because you won’t know when the Lord will come” (Matthew 24.42). “Be ready!” he warns, “because it’ll happen when you don’t expect it” (Matthew 24.44).
To illustrate his point, Jesus follows-up with culturally contemporary images of servants found doing what their master wants when their master returns unexpectedly, and of sagacious brides who get their groom because they were wisely prepared (Matthew 24.45-51; 25.1-12).
“Therefore, keep watch,” Jesus concludes, “because you don’t know the day or the hour” (Matthew 25.13).
“Keeping watch” is explicitly not about obsessively predicting the End. Instead, Jesus’ amazingly straightforward point is to influence how you behave, whether the End comes tomorrow or in 10,000 years.
Consequently, I’m prepared to bet it all that COVID-19 is not the End, and I encourage you to gamble similarly alongside me. Go all in – this is easy money.
Because what’s the worst that could happen?
If I’m wrong and somehow this is the End, well, then, so what? At worst, you might suffer a heavenly “I told you so” from some saint who guessed it “right.” But who cares? And if you think about it, any heavenly saints worth their salt will be too holy to inflict you with an “I told you so” anyway. So there’s really no gamble here at all.
But if I’m right and you live as if the End could come today or in 10,000 years, you’ll order your response to this crisis as though your actions will make a difference tomorrow. You’ll plan sagaciously for the future. You’ll be about your master’s business, which includes the long-term care for your neighbours and spreading words of hope and love, not working yourself and others up with fear and, inevitably, embarrassing disappointment. (Incidentally, to date 100% of predictions about the world’s demise have been demonstrably wrong.)
Jesus’ words neither invite nor reward speculation on the timing of the End.
I’ll end with a quote from the late John Stott.
Following his resurrection, Jesus commissioned his disciples to get on about the business of proclaiming his Kingdom to the ends of the earth (Acts 1.8). After his ascension to heaven, Jesus’ disciples stood dumbly staring into the sky after him until two angels appeared to rebuke them, “Men of Galilee, why are you staring up into heaven?” (Acts. 1.11).
John Stott remarks:
“There was something fundamentally anomalous about their gazing up into the sky when they had been commissioned to go to the ends of the earth. It was the earth not the sky which was to be their preoccupation… It is the same for us. Curiosity about heaven and its occupants, speculation about prophecy and its fulfilment, an obsession with ‘times and seasons’ – these are aberrations which distract us from our God-given mission. Christ will come personally, visibly, gloriously. Of that we have been assured. Other details can wait. Meanwhile, we have work to do in the power of the Spirit.”
John Stott, The Spirit, the Church, and the World: The Message of Acts (IVP, 1990), p. 51.
Jeromey Martini, President