COVID-19: Sovereignty without resurrection is just opium

Christianity in the Time of Coronavirus
March 25, 2020
Coronavirus: Finding Mercy in a Tyrant’s Reign
April 9, 2020

by Caleb Hutcherson

A mu’azzin calls people to pray at home, rather than coming together to pray. A church cancels its Sunday services, moving to online broadcasts. A seminary pivots to online instruction, temporarily closing in-person classes. In ordinary times, any of these local changes would barely make the news. But these are not ordinary times. The entire world, it seems, is experiencing this coronavirus pandemic together. And we all are struggling to make sense of it.

In my historical theology classes at ABTS, much of what students and I do together involves examining theological impulses we assume are “biblical.” Dusting off ancient beliefs and practices sheds critical light on our inherited assumptions. But in the midst of crises like the one we are all walking through together now, these assumptions are often the first things we reach for to make sense of, and to know what to do about, the “situation.”

For many evangelical Christians, especially those influenced by the Reformed tradition, God’s sovereignty is one of the main ideas with which we make sense of crisis and suffering. We reassure each other that whatever happens, God is sovereign. We need not fear, for God is in control. He orchestrates all the details. And I agree, to a degree.

But these expressions leave out a critical part of the story. In the midst of sickness, suffering, and death, a singular emphasis on the sovereignty of God contributes to what I call “doormat” theology [lahut lsijjade in Arabic]. At best, this theology offers an abstracted assurance. But at its worst, I think doormat theology can muzzle the voices of victims, silence the sharing of real pain and fear, and facilitate various forms of abuse. God is sovereign. End of discussion.

But Christian tradition includes other vitally important ideas in addition to God’s sovereignty. Like the hope of resurrection. All too often, we forget this hope in our response to suffering. This core idea is fundamental to the fullness of the story of God’s sovereignty. Theology of the resurrection [lahut lqiyame in Arabic…rhymes with lahut lsijjade] emphasizes Christ’s physical resurrection from death as the completion of the story of God’s sovereignty. Love defies fear. Hope overcomes despair. Life defeats death.

Sovereignty without resurrection is just opium.

Because of this, Christian praxis through history has not glossed over the hope of resurrection. Examples abound of how people willingly confronted sickness and suffering because of this belief in the reality of Jesus’ resurrection. Resurrection hope helped people make sense of diseases and plagues by transforming crises into occasions calling for the very ministry of Jesus, giving their own lives for the sake of others. Come with me for a quick overview of a few examples. 

We can start in the period of the early church. Christians in the Roman Empire were known for ministering to those affected by the plague instead of abandoning them like pagan priests would do in the Greco-Roman society. They did so even at the risk of themselves becoming sick. Actually, not just facing personal, bodily risk, but expecting to enter into suffering and death along with those ravaged by the plague. They did so because of genuine belief in the power of Christ’s physical resurrection, which gave people like Justin Martyr genuine hope in life beyond death. Faithfulness to this belief for them meant following Christ’s example and willingly giving their own lives for the sake of others.

Jumping forward a handful of centuries and to Europe in the Middle Ages, we find churches playing a major role in the care of sick people by organizing what came to be called “hospitals.” Interestingly, the practice of hospital care was introduced to Europeans in the Middle Ages by Islamic societies in the East that were far more advanced in the application of science and medicine. Of course, patient care looked completely different from the medical treatment offered in modern hospitals. In these medieval hospitals, Christians housed and helped those rejected by society for fear they would infect others. This practice of hospital-ing often meant hosting unwell people in monasteries or buildings attached to cathedrals. The Cluny Abbey is a medieval Benedictine example of hospitality care being brought within the literal walls of the church. They made sense of sickness and death through a theology of resurrection, which led to (and was shaped by) hosting vulnerable and suffering people in “holy” spaces.

In the past weeks, I have seen numerous social media posts pointing to Martin Luther’s pastoral letter, entitled “Whether One May Flee from the Plague,” as an example of how Christians ought to deal with COVID-19. Luther’s detailed instructions took shape in the midst of a local outbreak of the “Black Death” in 1527. People were afraid because of the horrifying collective memory of the bubonic plague that had devastated the world for nearly 200 years. In a now widely read section of this letter, Luther avers that he will pray for God’s mercy, and then do everything possible to clean the spaces around himself and “to avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed.” But this isn’t all that Luther says in this letter.

In the whole of the letter, Luther argues that Christians have a duty to serve and care for others, even to the point of death. To refuse to help those suffering from the plague is to be guilty of their murder. This help included, but was in no way limited to, preventing others from being contaminated. For Luther, this meant not abandoning the sacraments, nor the meeting of the church to partake together.

This likely sounds reckless and even unlawful to our present-day sensibilities. But the trick to deciphering Luther’s seemingly contradictory language is to grasp the significance of the cross in Luther’s thinking. For Luther, the cross is the primary source for knowledge of who God is and how He saves. Christ’s death on a cross demonstrates the fullness of God entering into our suffering and death. Those who would follow Christ, do so even at the risk of death, because of the hope of resurrection after death. Luther’s personal life fills in the details of what he understood that tension to look like in real life.

Luther and his wife, Katherine, took so many sick people into their house to care for them during the plague that their entire household had to be quarantined. For them, fear of the plague was no reason to abandon caring for those in need. And fear of the disease called for doing whatever possible to limit its spreading to others, both quarantining when needed, and caring for those who were affected. But their extreme care for others was not without cost. Their own daughter, Elisabeth, died from the plague. As daddy to two girls and one boy, I cannot imagine a more gut-wrenching toll.

For Luther, God’s sovereignty in that “day of trouble” meant more than an abstract sense of assurance. It was not an opium meant to dull the fear of the masses. Instead, Luther understood God’s sovereignty as emboldening His people to confront the “poison in the fangs” of the devil. Serving God in the midst of a pandemic meant shaping ministry to serve others, rather than seeking to preserve oneself or “the church.” Luther acted in this way because God’s sovereignty was known and made known primarily through Christ’s death and resurrection.

I offer these brief glimpses of Christians’ practices of caring for the sick as examples of ministry shaped by the hope of resurrection. For churches in the Middle East and North African region where perseverance in the public gathering of the faithful has been an existential duty, ministry in the time of COVID-19 is a confusing time. Should we meet or stay home? Stop sharing in communion/eucharist, or persist? Cease meeting with and helping the most vulnerable and poor in our communities, or continue in the midst of real risks for everyone?

A theology of resurrection in the time of COVID-19 does not advocate for foolishness, recklessly ignoring the risks of this virus. Nor does it seek to preserve ourselves by abandoning people who are vulnerable and isolated. Rather, resurrection hope should shape creative and innovative ministries of self-sacrifice. It requires that we diligently protect others by limiting our own freedom or traditions. This may look like self-isolating to protect the vulnerable. Or, it may mean putting ourselves at risk for the sake of the vulnerable. Either way, it absolutely means giving selflessly of ourselves to help those most in need. Even when it costs us everything.

Caleb Hutcherson and his family have lived in Beirut since 2008. He teaches in the area of historical theology at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary.

2 Comments

  1. Charles Costa says:

    Caleb Hutcherson says it well when he relates resurrection to God’s sovereignty. He makes a very compelling case in that regard, although, I think, he builds it on a flawed assumption, “For many evangelical Christians, especially those influenced by the Reformed tradition, God’s sovereignty is one of the main ideas with which we make sense of crisis and suffering. We reassure each other that whatever happens, God is sovereign. We need not fear, for God is in control. He orchestrates all the details.” Interestingly enough, this assumption leads him to, what I believe is, a correct conclusion.

    Although, Caleb, provides an excellent example to buttress his argument, namely Martin Luther, he does not provide us with any example of someone who espouses the basic assumption which he uses as a jumping board, other than to say, “For many evangelical Christians, especially those influenced by the Reformed tradition, etc.”

    Nowhere in Scripture is sovereignty divorced from the total picture of suffering and hope. Otherwise sovereignty becomes fatalism and a belief in a divine dictatorship leading those who believe in it to hopelessness and despair. That is something similar to Moslem and Druze belief in “Al qadar”, fate. A careful reading of passages like Heb. 2:17, 18 clearly show how God’s sovereignty is intertwined with suffering and the resurrection. Heb. 2, leads us to a clear conclusion that the intercessional role of Christ is predicated on his experience as the suffering servant. That experience translates into Christ’s ability to help those who suffer and, dare I say, fulfills one ultimate goal of God’s sovereign will in the life of man.

    Believing in God’s sovereignty is a relief generating point of faith, yet when that is said, we are inherently saying, “the whole sovereign counsel of God,” which clearly includes suffering, death, and resurrection. Having believed in that, then we are able to follow the Master’s example of serving and loving others.

    • caleb says:

      Hi 2asis Charlie, thanks for your comment!

      Inevitably, to touch on this one topic of God’s sovereign control raises all kinds of other questions. And I was already over the word limit I had been given. I absolutely agree with you on the point that Scripture presents a complex picture of God’s sovereign rule. The book of Hebrews portrays this tension starkly. Just a few verses before describing reality as we see it by faith in verse 9 (and 17,18 as you note), the writer also says:

      “Yet at present, we do not see everything subject to him (i.e. Jesus, the true human)” (Heb 2:8b)

      This “already/not yet” tension is woven throughout Scripture. The mini-tyrant named death, whose rule has been exposed as false in Christ’s resurrection, nevertheless still rules our world. Of course, as you point out, by faith we see a different ending to the story. One where God completes his redemption of the world from suffering and death. So I absolutely agree with you that God’s sovereignty must not be separated from suffering, death, nor from hope in death no longer ruling.

      But rather than trying to resolve that tension in an abstract discussion about different layers of will in God’s sovereignty, I was and am concerned by the theology embedded in our practices.

      When I “call out” evangelical Christians influenced by Reformed tradition, I’m thinking of a number of examples (some extreme and some less so) I’ve seen in the past few weeks of us struggling with how we should respond in the midst of this pandemic. And when trouble hits in real life, the expression “God is in control” can influence our imaginations, and lead towards really harmful decisions when understood incompletely.

      In the past few weeks, I’ve seen some pastors disregard government recommendations and continue their church meetings with 1000s of people in attendance because “God is in control, we have nothing to fear.” I’ve seen friends try to calm each other’s anxious feelings by offering “God is in control” as proof that we won’t suffer, or see loved ones die, or lose our retirement funds…for example. This idea of “God is in control” is even being used to then claim that God is judging XYZ group of people because they are hard hit by Covid-19. Or that God especially loves ABC group because they haven’t had as many deaths.

      I intentionally didn’t want to name names, because I recognize we are all struggling to make sense of things. None of us is perfect or has a complete understanding of God. But I am happy to trace and challenge the theological assumptions themselves. Ideas don’t have face that needs saving. Including my own. 😅

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