The gospel in open display during this COVID-19 pandemic

While queuing at our local supermarket this morning, these thoughts crossed my mind…

During this COVID-19 pandemic, we see the Christian gospel of grace in open display.

Here’s how.

Governments across the world are putting up strong measures to combat the spread of the virus and help the poor, needy, elderly, sick, and the most vulnerable in their societies.

Medical professionals are on the front lines, laying down their lives for the sick. With some getting infected and losing their lives. Global news networks are reporting that more than 50 doctors in Italy have reportedly died due to complications from coronavirus as the country continues to struggle with the massive impact caused by the pandemic. I wrote this post on Facebook a few weeks ago and since then, the numbers have significantly gone up. Most recently, two medical professionals committed suicide.

The wealthier in our societies are giving up some of their wealth (at least here in South Africa), to help small businesses, employers, and employees. In South Africa, three prominent wealthy families have so far pledged 1 billion rands each.

Simply put, the strong are restricting themselves—giving up their rights for the weak and vulnerable. This is the Christian gospel of grace in open display. The Christian gospel of grace teaches Jesus, the strong one, laid down his life for us, and we should follow in the same example. So, during this pandemic, even atheists are living out the Christian gospel of grace unbeknownst to them. 

Jesus the strong one, laid down his life for us, and we follow in the same example.

It is disheartening, to say the least when an American woman who lives in a nation which claims was founded on Judeo-Christian values lifted up a sign that read “Sacrifice the Weak – Reopen TN”. A number of high profile Americans have commented the virus should be allowed to spread, to cull the weak – the elderly and those with serious health issues. Staunch atheists roiled in horror and had to do the unthinkable—defend a Christian position. The truth is this—this is not Christianity. This is the law of the jungle. This is survival of the fittest. These are human beings without God and a moral compass. 

In his book, The Triumph of Christianity, historian Rodney Stark makes a forceful case why in the first to fourth centuries, the Christian faith grew as paganism diminished in size and influence. As two plagues swept through the then Roman Empire and killed millions, the elite and pagan worshippers abandoned the sick and ran for their lives, but Christians moved in and took care of the sick—at the cost of their own lives. Here are a few excerpts from Stark’s book

In the year 165, during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, a devastating epidemic swept through the Roman Empire. Some medical historians suspect this was the first appearance of smallpox in the West. Whatever the actual disease, it was lethal—as many contagious diseases are when they strike a previously unexposed population. During the fifteen-year duration of the epidemic, a quarter to a third of the population probably died of it. At the height of the epidemic, mortality was so great in many cities that the emperor Marcus Aurelius (who subsequently died of the disease) wrote of caravans of carts and wagons hauling out the dead. Then, a century later came another great plague. Once again the Greco-Roman world trembled as, on all sides, family, friends, and neighbors died horribly. No one knew how to treat the stricken. Nor did most people try. During the first plague, the famous classical physician Galen fled Rome for his country estate where he stayed until the danger subsided. But for those who could not flee, the typical response was to try to avoid any contact with the afflicted, since it was understood that the disease was contagious. Hence, when their first symptom appeared, victims often were thrown into the streets, where the dead and dying lay in piles. In a pastoral letter written during the second epidemic (ca. 251), Bishop Dionysius described events in Alexandria: “At the first onset of the disease, they [pagans] pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treated unburied corpses as dirt, hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease; but do what they might, they found it difficult to escape.

Christians of the first to fourth centuries reacted counterintuitively. Whilst the elite, priests, and pagan worshippers pushed the sufferers away and treated unburied corpses as dirt, Christians took action. Stark continues

As for action, Christians met the obligation to care for the sick rather than desert them, and thereby saved enormous numbers of lives! Toward the end of the second plague, Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria wrote a pastoral letter to his members, extolling those who had nursed the sick and especially especially those who had given their lives in doing so: Most of our brothers showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead…. The best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of presbyters, deacons, and laymen winning high commendation so that in death in this form, the result of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal to martyrdom.53 Should we believe the bishop? Certainly, given that he was writing to his local members who had independent knowledge of the events. But what difference could it really have made? A huge reduction in the death rate! As William H. McNeill pointed out in his celebrated Plagues and Peoples, under the circumstances prevailing in this era, even “quite elementary nursing will greatly reduce mortality. Simple provision of food and water, for instance, will allow persons who are temporarily too weak to cope for themselves to recover instead of perishing miserably.”54 It is entirely plausible that Christian nursing would have reduced mortality by as much as two-thirds! The fact that most stricken Christians survived did not go unnoticed, lending immense credibility to Christian “miracle working.” Indeed, the miracles often included pagan neighbors and relatives. This surely must have produced some conversions, especially by those who were nursed back to health. In addition, while Christians did nurse some pagans, being so outnumbered, obviously they could not have cared for most of them, while all, or nearly all, Christians would have been nursed. Hence Christians as a group would have enjoyed a far superior survival rate, and, on these grounds alone, the percentage of Christians in the population would have increased substantially as a result of both plagues. What went on during the epidemics was only an intensification of what went on every day among Christians. Because theirs were communities of mercy and self-help, Christians did have longer, better lives. This was apparent and must have been extremely appealing. Indeed, the impact of Christian mercy was so evident that in the fourth century when the emperor Julian attempted to restore paganism, he exhorted the pagan priesthood to compete with the Christian charities. In a letter to the high priest of Galatia, Julian urged the distribution of grain and wine to the poor, noting that “the impious Galileans [Christians], in addition their own, support ours, [and] it is shameful that our poor should be wanting our aid.”55 But there was little or no response to Julian’s proposals because there were no doctrines and no traditional practices for the pagan priests to build upon. It was not that the Romans knew nothing of charity, but for them it was not based on service to the gods. Since pagan gods required only propitiation and beyond that had no interest in what humans did, a pagan priest could not preach that those persons lacking in the spirit of charity risked their salvation. There was no salvation! The gods did not offer any escape from mortality. We must keep that in mind when we compare the reactions of Christians and pagans in the shadow of death. Christians believed in life everlasting. At most, pagans believed in an unattractive existence in the underworld. Thus, for Galen to have remained in Rome to treat the afflicted during the first great plague would have required far greater bravery than was needed by Christian deacons and presbyters to do so. Faith mattered.

At this point in world history, COVID-19 is giving the world a front-row view of the uniqueness of the Christian faith and its influence on our societies. What makes the Christian faith unique is the story of a man who experienced the ultimate plague – the ultimate COVID-19. The prophet Isaiah writes, men made sport of him, turning away from him; he was a man of sorrows, marked by disease; and like one from whom men’s faces are turned away, he was looked down on, and we put no value on him. But it was our pain he took, and our diseases were put on him: while to us, he seemed as one diseased, on whom God’s punishment had come. Isaiah 53:3-4 (BBE)

Because our diseases were put on Jesus, Christians are able to move into the world and take care of the sick. We will not push away the sick nor will we abandon the dead on the streets. We will lay down our lives for the good of others—even if it means losing our lives. 

That’s what grace looks like.

Stark, Rodney. The Triumph of Christianity (pp. 114-115). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

Stark, Rodney. The Triumph of Christianity (pp. 117-120). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

Photo by Ben Mater on Unsplash


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