Coronavirus: A Biblical, Historical Perspective

As COVID-19 suspends public life around the world, Austrian Christian Hofreiter reminds us of "the many times in history where the light of Christian charity has shone with dazzling brightness amidst dark times of infectious disease and societal upheaval."

Reverend Dr. Christian Hofreiter is Director of RZIM Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. He lives with his family in Vienna, Austria.

Many if not most of our nations are being violently shaken by the coronavirus outbreak. In Austria, for instance, schools and all non-essential shops are closed from Monday. Restaurants must shut after 3 p.m., and pretty much all public life, including church service, has been suspended. Italy, Switzerland, France, and Spain are hit worse in terms of infections, with hospitals in Italy stretched beyond breaking point and doctors having to decide which patient they will save and who they will let die, because they don’t have enough machines to care for all of them. Many other nations, parts of the US included, may well be headed that way. When, if not now, is the church called to rise and shine?

Coronavirus, Loving Our Neighbour, and Quarantine in the Bible

Already in the Old Testament we find very strict quarantine regulations for those suffering of infectious diseases (see Leviticus 13). So, when Christians follow government and medical advice to, say, drastically reduce all social contacts, this is not an expression of unbelief (as though God did not have the power to protect or heal us). Rather, it is a demand of wisdom and, especially, of neighbourly love. The equation is simple and sobering: The flatter the rate of viral infection progresses, the smaller the number of vulnerable people who will die. Wherever we can contribute to that outcome, we should!

Christians, Epidemics, and Revival

While wisdom, solidarity, and love of neighbour lead us to participate in containing the current epidemic as far as possible, I am reminded of the many times in history where the light of Christian charity has shone with dazzling brightness amidst dark times of infectious disease and societal upheaval. In fact, Christians overcame the impulse to flee to safety and isolate themselves from the suffering of others:

“In 165 a plague swept through the mighty Roman Empire, wiping out one in three of the population. It happened again in 251 when 5,000 people per day were dying in the city of Rome alone. Those infected were abandoned by their families to die in the streets. The government was helpless and the Emperor himself succumbed to the plague. Pagan priests fled their temples where people had flocked for comfort and explanation. People were too weak to help themselves. If the smallpox did not kill you, hunger, thirst and loneliness would. The effect on wider society was catastrophic. Yet following the plagues the good reputation of Christianity was confirmed, and its population grew exponentially. Why is this? Christians did not come armed with intellectual answers to the problem of evil. They did not enjoy a supernatural ability to avoid pain and suffering. What they did have was water and food and their presence. In short, if you knew a Christian you were statistically more likely to survive, and if you survived it was the church that offered you the most loving, stable and social environment. It was not clever apologetics, strategic political organisation or the witness of martyrdom which converted an Empire, so much as it was the simple conviction of normal women and men that what they did for the least of their neighbours they did for Christ.”[1]

Now, of course, we know that thoughtful apologetics did in fact play a very important role in the conversion of the Roman Empire, so it’s not an either or. Ravi Zacharias has said it beautifully, “Love is the greatest apologetic. It is the essential component in reaching the whole person in a fragmented world. The need is vast, but it is also imperative that we be willing to follow the example of Jesus and meet the need.”

Wouldn’t it be wonderful, if in our time, too, we Christians would primarily become known for the generous, selfless love of our neighbours, rather than the many things we oppose and judge?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful, if in our time, too, we Christians would primarily become known for the generous, selfless love of our neighbours, rather than the many things we oppose and judge?

On Dealing with Fear

Uncertain times, societal upheaval, the threat of poverty, sickness and death–all this naturally leads to fear. In situations like these, one of the best things we can do is remember just how great, how good, how strong and mighty, how faithful our God truly is. Through Jesus Christ, each one of us can know Him as our heavenly Father. Personally, I find it most helpful in such situations to meditate on verses of Scripture that I know by heart, that I think through, pray through, feel through, chew through, carry in my heart, and digest inwardly. For example, the 23rd Psalm. Do you know it by heart yet?

  1. Stephen Backhouse quoted in Simon Ponsonby’s Loving Mercy: How to Serve a Tender-Hearted Saviour (Oxford: Monarch Books, 2012), 155.
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The Coronavirus: Choosing Love in a Time of Fear

From Washington State, Nathan Betts writes a challenge to us in the midst of global panic about the coronavirus (COVID-19).

Amidst the rising death toll caused by COVID-19 across the world, the US, and here in Washington State, there is a growing sense of angst and fear. In the greater Seattle area, the first state in the US with a large number of coronavirus cases and deaths, the levels of anxiety and fear are high. I feel it when I talk to friends. I see it in the now-empty offices as workers are being told to stay home with just a hint of cold or flu symptoms, and I see it on the less-than-full airplanes as the fear of a global pandemic decreases the desirability of air travel. Once busy public spaces now vacant and empty evoke an apocalyptic mood.

I spoke to a friend the other day who is making a point to stay at home, not just for work, but as a necessary precaution. Many in her area have been exposed to the coronavirus, and she is wanting to steer clear of it.

At the time of my writing this essay, the South Puget Sound area in which I live has several known cases of COVID-19. The feeling of fear is palpable in conversations when the topic comes up. No one seems to know yet if this virus can be contained. We all wonder whether the news has been overblown, but again, we are confronted by the virus’s rapid spread and fatalities in the Seattle area. The fear of the unknown nags at us.

As I drove home from work yesterday, I began thinking about what it would look like to live out of love instead of fear in this moment. Fear tells me that I should ensure I'm safe and that my family is safe from contracting this virus. Just take care of yourself, says fear.

And although self-care is not a bad thing in and of itself, it can keep me from reaching out to a person who is hurting or in need of a helping hand. In this way, just looking out for myself becomes detrimental. There is a fine line between self-care and self-absorption. From personal experience, fear asks the question, “How do I get out of here?” Love asks, “How can I be a light in this situation?”

Fear asks the question, “How do I get out of here?” Love asks, “How can I be a light in this situation?”

Whether you’re a person of faith like myself or not, the question of living out of love is a real on-the-ground question. This is not mere ivory tower thinking. The historical person of Jesus Christ (around which my faith orbits) not only taught love; Christianity’s provocative claim is that he personified love. He is love (see for instance 1 John 4:7-21).

Perhaps the most beautiful as well as the most difficult thing about Christ’s teaching is that he instructed—actually commanded—his followers to love others. So, while I feel fear’s power in and around me in this moment, I have wondered how a disposition of love would shape how I live. And as much as I do not know the fine-print answer to that question, I know that at least part of the answer requires sacrifice and service.

What might this look like? I think that having the principle of thinking of others before thinking of ourselves could be the most powerful driving force in living out of love. The context will determine how this will look. It could be offering to buy groceries for an elderly couple whose health may be compromised if they enter a public setting.

Is there risk in all of this? Absolutely! Here is where our soft and milky understanding of Christianity is challenged. The early church in the second and third centuries pretty much gave us a handbook on what sacrificial love looks like.

While two epidemics swept through the Roman empire during those centuries, it was the love of Christians that brought hope. These were times when people were afraid to simply visit one another.[1] Sociologist Rodney Stark paints the picture of Christian witness:

"…alien to paganism was the notion that because God loves humanity, Christians cannot please God unless they love one another. Indeed, as God demonstrates his love through sacrifice, humans must demonstrate their love through sacrifice on behalf of one another. Moreover, such responsibilities were to be extended beyond the bonds of family and tribe, indeed to 'all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.'” (1 Cor. 1:2)[2]

“These,” writes Stark, “were revolutionary ideas.”[3]

Far from Christianity ever being safe, it came full of risk.

Loss of life is always sad on this side of heaven, but when we think of the doctors of Wuhan, China, giving up their lives so that others may live, we are moved profoundly. This is the ultimate form of love: giving up one’s life so that others may live. It is precisely the kind of activity Christ embodied.

A word that might help explain my thought process is an ancient word that rock music of the ’60s and ’70s revived and popularized. They brought back its usage but failed to unearth its Hebrew meaning. The word is righteousness. And although the word was often used in the context of “That’s righteous, dude,” I now think that this word has profound relevance to my current dilemma of how I, and maybe we as a community, could live and act in this moment of fear.

I remember listening to my fellow Washingtonian friend and Old Testament scholar, Bruce Waltke explain the meaning behind this word. In one class lecture, he reminded his students that the ancient Hebraic understanding of the word righteousness carries with it the idea of “advantaging others to our disadvantage.” Oppositely, “wickedness is when we try to advantage ourselves to the disadvantaging of others.”[4]

When we ourselves experience suffering, pain, or illness, what do we desire? Do we not want a friend who is willing to come close? Do we not want a person who is willing to risk getting involved in the complexity of our hardship? I wonder if we are actually looking for, and also desire to be, the righteousness of which Waltke speaks: advantaging others even if it comes at the cost of our disadvantage.

So, as we live in this state of emergency, the question I ask myself is one I put to you: What does it look like for us to live out of love and not fear right now? How can we think and act for others instead of looking out merely for ourselves? I’m still figuring out the exact answer, but I believe I have found the compass.

Here are five tips for living from love:

  1. Quiet. It is difficult to live out of love when our minds are anxious. A still mind is a better starting point. Take time daily to be quiet. In this moment, there is so much noise, especially online. If we find our minds and hearts busy, setting aside time daily to simply be quiet can enable our minds to have the quietness we need.
  2. Prayer. Pray often. We live in an age of self-sufficiency. And yet, the coronavirus has exposed how flawed this mindset is. Setting aside different times of the day for prayer to God, calling out to Him for help, reminds us that we cannot do things on our own. We need his help. If we call out to Him, He will answer.
  3. Listening to God. Take time daily to read or listen to the Bible. The Bible shines a spotlight on how God has acted throughout history—in times of hardship, plagues, war, famine, and peace. The Bible helps us know what God is like and how He has acted throughout history. Becoming aware of God’s acting throughout history creates a greater sensitivity to how he might be working today in our lives and in the world.
  4. Understanding. Practice the discipline of understanding. I have found that in order for me to love my neighbor, friend, or family member well, I need to understand them. Understanding is vital to loving. But this takes patience and care. It requires us to ask more questions than to utter statements when we are in conversations.
  5. Thoughtful Care.* Increasing amounts of people are being quarantined during this time. Having the opportunity to express care and kindness can become more challenging. One practical way in which we could express care for our quarantined friends could be to use our phones to actually call our friend. Or we could set up a video call. Hearing a friend’s voice can be hugely meaningful, especially during times of self-isolation. We could send a note of encouragement to a friend by text or video chat. While still maintaining social distancing, making a point to check in on elderly or vulnerable neighbors could be a way of letting them know that they are loved. In this time, we need to become creative in expressing embodied ways of expressing care to others while at the same time not necessarily being physically present with them.

*This was updated on March 16, 2020 to reflect the most recent safety regulations from the CDC.

[1] In his writing of epidemics in the classical world, Thucydides commented that people “were afraid to visit one another.” (This is taken from Rodney Stark’s excellent book, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (San Francisco: HarperOne, 1997), 85.

[2] Ibid., ., 86.

[3] Ibid.

[4] This is taken directly from Waltke’s first lecture on his Proverbs class in the Biblical Training course. The link can be found here:

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