We’ve Done Plagues

Church History as a Guide to the Coronavirus

Every day this month, coronavirus cases and deaths have escalated, safety measures have been instituted and even mandated, and people worldwide are consistently responding with anxiety and self-protection. With recommendations of self-isolation and self-quarantine across the United States, Christians here have been forced to grapple with the appropriate response to the pandemic. It can be easy, even for a church that is called to be a non-anxious presence in a world of fear, to be caught up in the mania and uncertainty of the COVID-19 outbreak without pausing to reflect on the courageous ways our faithful Christian ancestors responded to epidemics and plagues throughout history. 

This is not the first pandemic the world has seen, and comparatively is quite minor to those that came before us. The Spanish flu took millions of lives following the First World War, and centuries before then, the Black Death killed an astonishing two-thirds of Europe. Before that there was the Antonine Plague of the 2nd Century which severely threatened the Roman Empire. 

What all these awful outbreaks have in common is the profound care Christians showed for the sick and dying. Their ministry was so vital that scholars have pointed out that such plagues may have played a tremendous role in the explosive growth of Christianity. Rodney Stark, a sociologist of religion, writes, “Had classical society not been disrupted and demoralized by these catastrophes, Christianity might never have become so dominant a faith.”1 The historical narrative of the Gospel response to plague shows us that Christians were committed to “keeping their post” and ministering to the sick even if it cost them their own lives. This kind of self-sacrifice saved many lives which would have otherwise been abandoned to illness. Martin Luther extolled this Christlike sacrifice during the Bubonic Plague in Wittenberg in the 16th century; it showed a timeless spirit of fearless goodwill amid a people wishing only to protect themselves.

The Christians’ courage in times of crisis was underlined by a radically different way of seeing the world and its condition in light of eternity. In a Foreign Policy article, Lyman Stone remarks, “Christians cared for the sick and offered a spiritual model whereby plagues were not the work of angry and capricious deities but the product of a broken Creation in revolt against a loving God” (italics mine).2 Christianity accepts the world as good and created by God, but recognizes that it’s been corrupted by evil forces which attempt to subvert God’s intentions for life and love. We currently live in the period after the Empty Tomb but before the final restoration when the Resurrection of Jesus will be made manifest in all creation. In this place of tension, Christians can acknowledge the realities of illness and corruption and ultimately place their identity and hope in a deeper, truer reality. We hope for eternal life with God. 

In a cultural moment when the fear of mortality is dominating the minds and hearts of so many, Christians again can herald a better hope by the way they respond. Already, courageous men and women are putting their lives on the line to help curb the coronavirus and heal the sick and comfort the dying. Christians can take encouragement, hope, and joy from those who have gone before us and offer a helping hand where we can, with wisdom, discernment, necessary caution, and always with a sure hope for a future and better kingdom in which “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4, Revised Standard Version)

1. Stark, Rodney. The Rise of Christianity. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ. 1996. p. 74.
2. Stone, Lyman. “Christianity Has Been Handling Epidemics for 2,000 Years.” Foreign Policy. March 2020.

Peter Biles is the author of Hillbilly Hymn and Keep and Other Stories. He graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois in 2019 and holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. He has also written stories and essays for a variety of publications, including Plough, Dappled Things, The Gospel Coalition, Salvo, and Breaking Ground.

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