Last time I was saying that one common religious response to strange and difficult times (such as our current Covid-19 situation) is to see them as a sign of the End Times – and that some people even find this strangely comforting. It means God’s in control (and is almost definitely on their side), and it gives an explanation for trials rather than them being random and meaningless.
A similar and even more common religious response is to proclaim that what’s happening has been sent by God as a judgement for human sin – often for some particular sin of society (usually sexual) or of the church (heresy/apostasy). In sending plague and pestilence, in this view, God is both justly punishing sin and mercifully calling people to repentance.
Again, it’s comforting in providing an explanation for what’s going on; and it also offers people something they can do to alleviate the situation – pray, fast, repent or call others to repentance. And best of all it provides us with a scapegoat, someone to blame – ourselves if we have sensitive consciences, or preferably those bad other people who’ve been angering God with their sins.
A quick tour of historical plagues
You can see this response to plagues and pandemics throughout human history.
One of the earliest written examples outside the Bible is in Homer’s Iliad (probably composed around 700BC), where Apollo sends a plague on the Greeks because Agamemnon insults one of the god’s priests. (As an aside, much of the Old Testament may have been written down around 600BC, so maybe a century or so after the Iliad – though of course the oral tradition it’s based on may be much older.)
When plague hit the Roman Empire in 165AD, philosopher-Emperor Marcus Aurelius blamed Christians for angering the Roman gods by refusing to take part in public religious rituals, and so instigated a bout of persecution against them.
400 years on, Pope Gregory the Great responded to the plague of 590AD by decreeing that it was a divine punishment for humanity’s sins and that the required response was public repentance. Unfortunately the resulting penitential processions to the shrine of the Virgin Mary then spread the plague even more.
The medieval Black Death was of course the worst human pandemic ever yet experienced. Reasons offered at the time for God’s sending of the plague included, among myriad other human sins: the failings of the clergy; divine disapproval of tournaments; indecent clothing (such as women dressing as men); and the disobedience of children (see https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=1O_PX2wVD0sC&pg=PA127).
Finally, in the 1665-1666 Great Plague of London, various (I think mostly Puritan/Calvinist) preachers published sermons with titles like ‘God’s Terrible Voice in the City’ and ‘Meditations… occasioned by the present Judgement of the Plague’. These sermons again tended to take the line that the plague was sent by God as a result of human sin – or else perhaps as a trial to be endured by the faithful. They did also seek to offer comfort and counsel to Christians, who could serve Christ by their acts of mercy and who (should it come to that) could look forward to being united with him in death. (You can read these two particular sermons in full at: https://gracegems.org/C/Vincent_Gods_terrible_voice_in_the_city.htm and https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=2hBt5WshlPkC&pg=PA1)
Of course, there are plenty of cases of divinely-sent plague and pestilence in the Old Testament. Most famous are Exodus’s 10 Plagues of Egypt, which Israel’s God YHWH sends to punish Pharaoh for refusing to set the Israelites free. (Though of course God also famously hardens Pharaoh’s heart against setting them free, raising all sorts of questions of free will and fairness – of which more in a minute.)
In 1 Samuel 5-6, YHWH sends a plague of ‘tumours’ upon the Philistines at Ashdod as a punishment for taking captive the holy Ark of the Covenant (fairly mild compared to what happens to its desecrators in Raiders of the Lost Ark). The Philistine priests wisely realise that the plague can only be lifted by restoring YHWH’s Ark to Israel (and also by making some gold tumours and rats for good measure).
But for me the most interesting example is the episode recorded in 2 Samuel 24 (and slightly differently in 1 Chron 21). David orders that all his fighting men be counted, which is apparently a grievous sin – perhaps because it signals pride or reliance on human/physical strength rather than faith in God’s protection. As a result, God (via a prophet) directly offers David a choice of three alternative punishments, of which David chooses three days of divinely-sent disease or plague, which kills 70,000 people.
The biblical account offers at least three alternative reasons for why the plague stops – that God relents rather than destroying his beloved Jerusalem; that David offers a sacrifice on behalf of the people (and also asks to take the punishment just on himself); and also simply that the allotted 3-day span was up. Nonetheless, the account is clear that it’s God who both sends and stops the plague, and that it’s a punishment for sin.
However, the account also starts by saying that God incited David to number the fighting men, the reason being that he was already angry with Israel (‘once again the LORD’s anger burned against Israel’), though it doesn’t explain what they’d done to anger him. So the plague sent as punishment for David’s warrior-numbering sin is actually presented as a proxy punishment for unspecified national sins of Israel.
YHWH is utterly sovereign
What we have to remember, for any of this to make sense, is that in much of Old Testament thought the LORD or Yahweh/YHWH was utterly sovereign and almighty (and beyond human understanding). The LORD was the ultimate – and quite often the direct – cause of everything that happened, whether for good or ill, often even extending to individual human decisions and actions. So in this worldview, a plague must have been sent – and stopped – by God, and even David’s choices had to have been ultimately caused or influenced by God.
The same applies to the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. To OT writers there is nothing inconsistent or unfair about this – God is simply sovereign.
And crucially, although they acknowledge that God’s reasons are often beyond our understanding, the OT writers do nonetheless believe he always has just cause for his actions. If God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, Pharaoh must have deserved or needed it.
For though God is in this view the bringer of both good and ill events, he himself is entirely good and therefore any ill he brings must have good cause – most likely as a righteous and merited response to human wickedness and disobedience. And finally God is also merciful and may remove the affliction he sends if we truly repent.
All of which does seem to make perfectly sound logical (and theological) sense, and as we’ve seen it’s been echoed by many religious thinkers over the ensuing millennia whenever plagues have struck humanity. And let’s face it, we humans (particularly other humans) are a pretty dodgy and disobedient lot at the best of times, so we can almost always argue that any given pestilence is merited.
An alternative view
However, I’m always a bit suspicious of overly watertight logic – I find that it doesn’t generally correspond that well to the complexities and messiness of actual human life or of the real world – or indeed of the Bible itself.
And the trouble is it’s all too easy for the message of judgement for sins to be hijacked by those with a particular agenda – often a fairly conservative one (e.g. that God’s judging our society for allowing abortions / gay marriage / women priests / Muslim politicians / Jerry Springer: The Opera, etc …). Such agenda-driven preaching in turn often just drives people who feel attacked or excluded to hate God and the church even more.
It’s also worth noting that other biblical witnesses do present quite a different picture from this theology. Perhaps the most striking example is in the book of Job, thought to be the oldest book in the Bible. Terrible disasters afflict Job and his family (including a kind of plague, of boils), and his ‘friends’ come along preaching the now-familiar and pastorally helpful message that this must all be God’s just judgement on Job for his sins. Yet in the end Job is vindicated and his friends’ logically watertight theology – precisely the same theology we’ve been looking at above – is shown up to be false. Job was righteous and God wasn’t punishing him for his sins. Job never does find out why he suffered – but in the end he is restored and his sufferings are redeemed, sort of.
So in Job we get the alternative idea that our trials may be mysterious and not necessarily merited, but may somehow be ultimately beneficial or redemptive. And we also see behind the scenes that it is not God afflicting Job, but Satan (though the Satan in Job seems barely related to the New Testament Satan).
Another striking case is in the gospels, where Jesus heals a man who had been born blind (John 9). The disciples again assume the familiar theology that all affliction must have been sent by God to punish sins, and so ask Jesus whether it was the man himself or his parents who sinned in order that he be born blind. But Jesus brilliantly turns this theology on its head, saying that no-one sinned – rather the man’s blindness is in order that God’s work might be displayed in him (or perhaps that God’s glory be revealed in him).
So… does God send plague to punish sin?
I realise I can’t hope to answer this question in one post – so far we’ve barely scratched the surface. And I certainly don’t want to say categorically that God would never send plague or that he would never punish sins in such a way. I’m not a prophet and I don’t know all the mind or ways of God. Rather I think we should always pause before making any categorical statements about God’s actions and intents, whether that he does or doesn’t send plagues, that he does or doesn’t act to judge sin, or which specific sins he might be most bothered about.
And I would also say that, though it’s certainly worth considering that any given disaster may have been sent (or allowed) by God, and that one reason for this may be human sin, the whole picture is likely to be far more complex. Even if God is involved, his involvement may not be causal, and he may well have entirely other motives and concerns than the judging of human sins. But maybe we can look at all this a bit more next time…