These Are Not Unprecedented Times

Erwin Lutzer
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God’s apparent silence in the presence of human anguish is one of the greatest mysteries of our existence. When faced with gratuitous human suffering, we are forced to rethink our view of God and His relationship to the suffering on this planet. If He is omnipotent and good, why doesn’t He put an end to this madness? Atheists and skeptics scoff as they ask believers hard questions about the Divine’s apparent indifference to human need.

So, does God actually care about the world, or does He just say that He does?

Many are turning away from God in anger as they face the reality of unanswered prayer, grinding poverty, and the intensified and widespread suffering on this planet. Others are clinging to their faith in God even though they see no special reason to believe He is on their side when faced with a catastrophe.

A pandemic—just like any other disaster—can either strengthen our faith or destroy it; it can either make us seek God or turn away in disgust.

Christians Have Been Here Before

If you have a loved one who died as a result of COVID-19, or if you permanently lost your job and you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, it’s little comfort to be told that pandemics, plagues, wars, and other disasters have been happening with regularity since the beginning of human history. And yet we can’t help but be encouraged by those who have gone before us. They faced the same fears and questions we do, and many of them witnessed to their faith until the very end.

Plagues and disasters of various kinds have bedeviled this world ever since the debacle in the garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve’s disobedience let sin enter the world. Just type “plagues” into any search engine, and you’ll find some of the major ones: the Black Death, smallpox, and the Spanish flu, in countries from ancient Babylon to modern-day America . . . the list is long. And the same is happening in many countries today amid food shortages, endless wars, and displaced peoples. The world has always been hurting, in some place more than others, but pain and loss have been the legacy of humankind.

“Does God actually care about the world, or does He just say that He does?”

Many Christians have often displayed unusual courage in the midst of a widespread pandemic. When plagues swept through the Roman Empire and 20 percent of the population died, the pagans took note of how the Christians suffered with hope. The pagans said with incredulity, “They carry their dead as if in triumph!”

When Marcus Aurelius spoke of caravans of wagons filled with bodies making their way through the streets of Roman cities, it was the Christians who distinguished themselves from the world around them. Indeed, some historians believe that Christianity might not have become the dominant religion of Rome were it not for these massive epidemics that gave believers the opportunity to prove the triumph of the Christian faith.

We Have Hope

Consider: If you were a pagan and a plague swept through your city killing a third of the population, you would be terrified by such dark horrors. When your relatives died and their bodies burned, with only your own fears to guide you, you could only vainly hope that you might see them again; but you would not have the slightest assurance that you would be reunited. Nothing but terror. Unending sorrow. Hopelessness.

But Christians accepted these tragedies with hopefulness. William McNeill writes of the Christians:

Even a shattered remnant of survivors who had somehow made it through war or pestilence or both could find warm, immediate healing and consolation in the vision of a heavenly existence for those missing relatives and friends. . . . Christianity was, therefore, a system of thought and feeling thoroughly adapted to a time of troubles in which hardship, disease, and violent death commonly prevailed.[1]

A system of thought and feeling thoroughly adapted to a time of troubles! Not only did the Christians accept the death of their friends with a note of triumph, but they were willing to risk their own lives to help others. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, seems almost to have welcomed the great epidemic of his time. Writing in AD 251, he claimed that only non-Christians had to fear the plague:

How suitable, how necessary it is that this plague and pestilence, which seems horrible and deadly, searches out the justice of each and every one and examines the minds of the human race; whether the well care for the sick, whether relatives dutifully love their kinsmen as they should, whether masters show compassion for their ailing slaves, whether physicians do not desert the afflicted . . . . Although this mortality has contributed nothing else, it has especially accomplished this for Christians and servants of God, that we have begun gladly to seek martyrdom while we are learning not to fear death.

How should believers respond to those who have died? Cyprian continues:

Our brethren who have been freed from the world by the summons of the Lord should not be mourned, since we know that they are not lost but sent before; that in departing they lead the way; that as travellers, as voyagers are wont to be, they should be longed for, not lamented . . . and that no occasion should be given to pagans to censure us deservedly and justly, on the ground that we grieve for those who we say are living.[2]

Why grieve for those who were in the presence of Christ? Earth was transitory; heaven was a reality. They thought of how fortunate it was for their relatives and friends to go before them into heaven where Christ was waiting for them. With the apostle Paul they could say, “To live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). Such was the confident witness of the early Christians that multitudes of pagans embraced the Christian faith.

“The Bible presents both the reality of human suffering and death along with hope for a better future.”

We Lay Down Our Lives for Others

Martin Luther, when confronted with the question of whether Christians should help the sick and dying when the plague came to Wittenberg in 1537, said that each individual would have to answer the question for himself. He believed that the epidemic was spread by evil spirits, but “Nevertheless, this is God’s decree and punishment to which we must patiently submit and serve our neighbor, risking our lives in this manner as St. John teaches, ‘If Christ laid down his life for us, we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren’ (1 John 3:16).”[3] Again he writes:

If it be God’s will that evil come upon us and destroy us, none of our precautions will help us. Everybody must take this to heart: first of all, if he feels bound to remain where death rages in order to serve his neighbor, let him commend himself to God and say, “Lord, I am in thy hands; thou hast kept me here; thy will be done. I am thy lowly creature. Thou canst kill me or preserve me in the pestilence in the same way as if I were in fire, water, drought or any other danger.”[4]

He and his wife, Katie, took sick friends into their own home and cared for them. Yes, the plague may have been “God’s decree,” but yes, we must do what we can to save the lives of the sick and minister to the dying. And if one dies while helping others, let the will of God be done. Tragedies of all kinds give us the opportunity of serving the living and the dying. Luther would tell us that through the tragedies of others, we have the opportunity to be pried away from our comfortable lifestyles and enter the suffering of the world.

Jesus did not stay in heaven but entered this hurting world. He came to die a cruel death that we might be redeemed. Rather than isolating Himself from human suffering, He voluntarily “suffered . . . the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). Early Christians believed that they should be willing to sacrifice themselves for others just as their Savior did.

The Bible presents both the reality of human suffering and death along with hope for a better future.

A Call to Prayer

As war continues to devastate Ukraine and its citizens, let’s pray in some specific ways:

  • Ask God to deliver as many Ukrainians as possible to safety and out of harm’s way.
  • Pray that God would work in the heart of Vladimir Putin and lead him to give up his murderous attempt to take over Ukraine.
  • Pray that more people come to know Christ through the compassion of relief workers and other countries who accept those who are fleeing Ukraine.

This is part of a series of resources we have provided from Dr. Erwin Lutzer to help us process and pray about the war in Ukraine. Here are the other resources in the series:

C. S. Lewis on Death and Wartime

How Do We Believe in God Amid Suffering?

[1] William H. McNeill, Plagues and Peoples (New York: Anchor Books, 1976), 122.

[2] Quoted in Rodney Stark, Exploring the Religious Life (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), 37.

[3] Timothy F. Lull, ed., Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings (Minne- apolis: Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1989), 744.

[4] Ibid., 742.

For Further Reading:

Pandemics, Plagues, and Natural Disasters

by Erwin Lutzer

Where is God When We Suffer? God’s silence in the midst of human suffering is a great mystery of our existence. Faced with mass...

book cover for Pandemics, Plagues, and Natural Disasters