Opinion: Plagues and the Bible
By Timothy Dwyer
Editor’s note—Views expressed in the following op-ed do not necessarily reflect those of Church of God Ministries, Inc., or its affiliates. We publish op-ed features to provoke thought, stimulate healthy discussion, and inspire us to be with Jesus, become like Jesus, and do what Jesus did. We’ve asked to hear from a diverse range of voices across the Church of God movement. This op-ed features one of these voices.
There a number of questions we might ask ourselves about plagues and the Bible. A few are “What does the Bible say about pandemics or plagues?” “Did God bring COVID-19?” “How should the people of God respond to pandemics?” I’d like to explore each of these questions for faithful consideration.
What does the Bible say about pandemics or plagues?
In a number of places in the Bible, there is mention of plagues, pestilence, or pandemics killing people. For example, in Leviticus, when Israel falls into covenant violations, God says, “I will send pestilence among you.” In 2 Chronicles, Solomon says if there is pestilence, famine, or blight, may God hear from the temple the prayers of the people. God also says that if he sends pestilence, the people can pray and humble themselves.
The fourth plague on the Egyptians is pestilence on their livestock, and as a result they all die, as mentioned in Exodus. In 2 Samuel, God sends a pestilence that kills 70,000 Israelites because of David’s ill-conceived census. Both Ezekiel and Jeremiah likewise speak of God sending plagues. Luke records Jesus as saying there will be plagues. Finally, the Revelation states the “Pale Rider” kills a fourth of the earth with the sword, famine, and pestilence.
Evidence abounds that the Bible carries many stories of plagues and pandemics. Even in the midst of all these statements, however, Psalm 91:5–6, a great psalm of protection, says that we will not fear the terror of the night, the arrow of the day, the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that comes at noon.
Did God bring COVID-19?
Let us accept, for the sake of argument, that COVID-19 is really a plague. Of course, some doubt this, noting that the percentage of people who die from the virus is actually quite small compared to the number of those who are diagnosed with it. On the other hand, death tolls in the USA have risen above 170,000. Granted, there are often other health complications involved, but this is a large number, nonetheless.
Historian Walter Scheidel, in his book The Great Leveler, talks about the Black Death of the 1300s, where about twenty-four million died in Europe, and the population of England fell by half. The Greek historian Thucydides tells us about plague in Athens during the Peloponnesian war, and Roman historian Tacitus about plague in Rome during the time of Nero. Our situation may seem mild compared to the Black Death, unless, however, you are the one suffering from its effects. Also, we do not yet know what course things will take in the next few months.
So, did God send this pandemic? Sometimes in the Bible, plagues are said to be directly sent by God for a specific purpose of punishment. In other times, they just come as part of a world where death plays a part. We do not have a prophetic word one way or the other in the current situation to be dogmatic on this particular question.
How should the people of God respond to pandemics?
Thus, how should the people of God respond in this moment to COVID-19? At a base level, there is the “God will be with you, even in trouble” approach. There is also a second level approach: “Here are the skills you need to navigate this.” Both are very limited because of collateral damage, such as job loss or economic collapse of certain industries.
For the person grounded in the Bible, and “rooted and grounded in Christ,” I believe there are several things already built into his or her life. First, we know that we all go back to dust at some time; for some it might be after nine days and for others after ninety years. Death comes to all, sooner or later. As Genesis declares, “From dust you are, and to dust you shall return.”
Second, life is uncertain in the best or worst of times. Ecclesiastes says times might be filled with love or hatred, anything may await us. Proverbs says that a person plans his or her way, but God directs one’s steps. The people in the second World War did not know, at first, that they were in WWII. Would Hitler stop with Poland or France? Could the Soviet Union defeat Germany on their own? No one knew for sure how things would unfold as they developed just as Ecclesiastes reminds us.
Third, our days are ordained by God. There is a time to be born and a time to die, and our days are written in God’s book. Eat cheese fries and live to ninety-nine, if that is appointed for you. Be a vegan and be hit by a truck at twenty-one, if that is appointed for you. This is what has been classically called the “sovereignty of God.”
Fourth, Christians in other generations lived without anxiety medicine, sleeping aids, antidepressants, health insurance, or a pension. They had to trust God, cling to the Word, and be a part of God’s faithful people. They knew that life was hard, and then you die.
So how, then, do we approach this particular coronavirus pandemic crisis? Perhaps we should respond a bit like Paul, who was in a dark, dank, wet cell when he wrote Colossians. From that situation he encouraged the faithful to live:
- with gratitude that the gospel is advancing;
- with prayer;
- with thanks;
- staying firm in the faith and not “deconverting;”
- with the Word of Christ dwelling and planted richly in us;
- asking God for more open doors;
- making the most of our time, and;
- above all, living a Christ-centered, Christ-exalting, Christ-informed life.
About the same time that the great apostle wrote these words in the Colossians’ letter, he also wrote to the Philippians: “To live is Christ, to die is gain.” A Christ-centered and gospel-centered life is undaunted, serious, but joyful, and sees each day as an opportunity to live to the glory of God and make one more disciple. There is no better response to COVID or anything that comes our way.
Learn more about the response of Church of God Ministries to the coronavirus (COVID-19), including resources for you and your church, at www.jesusisthesubject.org/theway.
 Leviticus 26:25
 2 Chronicles 6:28
 2 Chronicles 7:13 and 14
 Exodus 9:3–6
 2 Samuel 24:15
 Ezekiel 14:21 and 33:27, and Jeremiah 21:6, 7 and 9
 Luke 21:11
 Revelation 6:8
 For example, Leviticus 26:25
 2 Chronicles 7:13
 Colossians 2:6–7
 Genesis 3:19
 Ecclesiastes 9:2
 Proverbs 16:9
 Psalm 139:16
 See Colossians in the sequence: 1:3–8; 1:9–11; 1:12; 1:23; 3:16; 4:2–4; 4:5; and, 1:15–20
 Philippians 1:21