The coronavirus is carving its place in the history books of world pandemics. It is much too early to know what the full effect of the infectious virus will have on China, the US, and the world beyond. Healthcare messaging is changing with each passing hour.
What repercussions will COVID-19 have on the church in China? Will we look back at the infectious spread of the gospel during this time? The same questions apply to the rest of the world. How is the church handling the development of the coronavirus as it spreads?
Indeed, this is not the first time a pandemic challenged the church. American sociologist of religion, Rodney Stark, in his book The Rise of Christianity describes the influence of the church on the nonbelieving Roman Empire during various plagues within the second and third centuries. He argues that one of the reasons for the significant growth of the church at that time was the way Christians handled disease and suffering.
Of course, COVID-19 does not represent the same kind of imminent threat as these early plagues. Not yet at least. But history provides helpful examples for us today.
A plague is defined as an epidemic disease causing a high rate of mortality. In 165 AD and then again in 251 AD, the Roman Empire suffered catastrophic epidemics that took the lives of nearly a third of its population. The first plague lasted over fifteen years. Regarding the state of the Roman Empire,
…when it came, as though carried by storm clouds, all other things gave way, and men crouched in terror, abandoning all their quarrels, undertaking, and ambitions, until the tempest had blown over. (Stark, p. 74)
The first horror season has been referred to as the “Plague of Galen”, which struck first the Roman army during a campaign before spreading to the general population. Large numbers of bodies pilled on horse dawned carts removed daily the dead. It was noted. . . so many people died that cities and villages in Italy and in provinces were abandoned and fell into ruin. (Stark, p. 76)
When the second plague hit almost a hundred years later, Bishop Cyprian wrote, “many of us are dying” from “this plague and pestilence.” At its peak, five thousand people perished a day in Rome alone. (Stark, p. 77)
Under dark clouds of despair, Stark compares the ways in which the church and nonbelievers responded to the suffering in their community.
Non-believers viewed the plague only through the lens of despair. The Christian, however, believed that such horrific trials had purpose.
Christianity offered a much more satisfactory account of why these terrible times had fallen upon humanity, and it projected a hopeful, even enthusiastic, portrait of the future. (Stark, p.74)
Trouble and pain always test our faith. I saw a similar “response of hope” when pastoring in Oklahoma City during the aftermath of the 1995 bombing. The theology of the city was tested. Gov. Frank Keating and his wife Cathy, both Catholics, organized a worship service attended by over twenty thousand people the weekend following the bombing. The event was attended by President Bill Clinton, then Gov. George Bush, and led by Dr. Billy Graham. It was a statement of hope in a time of great turmoil and suffering.
Some years ago, I attended a small house church in Beijing that could not have been any larger than fifteen people. I remember well what one woman shared regarding her faith in Christ. “I have lived under Communism all my life and it has given me nothing. Jesus, has given me everything.”
I understood her to mean that in every area of life—good and bad—she can trust Jesus. Her gospel hope transformed her view of life even within the context of Communism. She and millions like her are a needed voice of optimism in a nation being ravaged with fear and despair.
It has been well documented that fear, despair, anxiety, anger, and hopelessness became the norm for many in Wuhan. At the time of writing this, the isolation has lasted over two months and is expected to be lifted on April 8.
As one person observed, “More than 50 million people locked down in cities under quarantine are ‘really anxious and bored and their lives have pretty much stopped.’”
A week forcibly locked in your flat unable to work will consume you with uncertainty and despair. Questions like, “How will I pay the rent or mortgage?” or, “How can I buy food and diapers for my daughter?” plague the mind. Such concerns and emotions do not discriminate between Christian and nonbeliever. The gospel message is vital in these times.
One of the Wuhan pastors stated,
It is readily apparent that we are facing a test of our faith, . . . The situation is so critical, yet [we are] trusting in the Lord’s promises, that his thoughts toward us are of peace, and not evil (Jeremiah. 29:11), and that he allows for a time of testing, not to destroy us, but to establish us.
Another difference between the church and nonbelievers during those early pandemics, Dr. Stark argues, was that Christians extended love and service to all.
As a consequence, the believing community was an attractive option for those who were just trying to survive. Nonbelievers, in comparison, were offering nothing but despair, deserting their sick and dying.
What did it look like for Christians to love their suffering community? Dionysius of Alexandria wrote around 260,
Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead. (Stark, p.82)
How did the non-Christians respond? Dionysius continues,
The heathen behaved in the very opposite way. At the first onset of the disease, they pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treated unburied corpses as dirt, hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease . . . (Stark, p.83)
What about the responses from Christians in Wuhan? There is a lot we do not know at this point. New York Times China correspondent Chris Buckley reported Christians in the quarantine city handing our face masks along with gospel leaflets. Others have provided assistance in helping the sick find medication and hospital beds when no one else would. Time will fill in the details of the church’s response.
The coronavirus has infected China and the world for an unknown season. Social distancing has become a universal prescription. The whole world is rightly nervous about the economy and future financial stability. The level of boredom, anxiety, and fear increases day by day. These are only a few of a long list of concerns.
If history really does repeat itself, gospel stories of empathetic listeners praying for and with suffering neighbors will abound. In such a time as this the church will be good stewards of the gospel and its message of hope. A message that needs to be handled in a way that represents the suffering Savior who has entrusted us with it.