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  • Writer's pictureScott Carr, Jr.

Review: God and the Pandemic by N. T. Wright

The coronavirus pandemic has caused considerable upheaval in our world, causing death indiscriminately, ruining livelihoods, disrupting routines, and creating considerable stress and loneliness. There have been many attempts at Christian responses on social media, in sermons, and in blog posts. However, only N. T. Wright has given a sustained book treatment to the theological and biblical issues to think through during this season in God and the Pandemic. He is not only successful at providing a thoughtful, nuanced, and faithful response to the present moment but produces a work that should be consulted as part of theological reflection on all future crises.

He rejects any attempt to determine which sin God is encouraging us to repent of. Too often, these proposals lead to Christians talking about another group of people who need to repent of their sin, rather than their own [1]. However, it is also not a biblical response. While there are instances in the Old Testament of God punishing sin with a disaster, specifically the Babylonian exile [2], it is not so clear cut throughout the Old Testament. Wright lists multiple examples in the Old Testament of calamities occurring without being the judgment for a particular sin. The most famous example is Job, to whom’s tragedy no answers were ever truly provided for [3].

Wright highlights how Jesus rejected determining which sin brought about which judgment. He does recount moments in which Jesus urged those he had healed not to sin to avoid a worse fate and predicted the destruction of Jerusalem [4], but the clearest picture we have of Jesus’ reaction to disaster is the story in John 9. Jesus rejects that the man was born blind because of a specific sin, but focuses on what He, now, as God is going to do about it [5]. Wright argues that is the main way Jesus works in the face of disaster.

Wright also argues that we do not need signs to call us to repentance. The parable in Mark 12 presents Jesus, the Son, as the final messenger. Jesus Himself is the final sign. There are no other messengers [6]. If we want to know what God is doing now, we must look first to Jesus [7]. It is also only in Jesus’ death and resurrection that we see what it means for God to be in control, the way He works to address evil in the world [8]. He enters the pain and suffering, mourns it, endures it, and transforms it.

Finally, God chooses to work through human beings to enact his purposes in the world. If Christians want to know what God is doing in the world, they are to look at themselves, empowered by the Holy Spirit. He sends us as instruments of Jesus, to show love and care for the world He has given us [9]. Moments of crisis in the created order, such as a virus unleashing destruction, are examples of the fact that God’s good creation is broken. Suffering is par for the course in the world as it is now, but the hope of Christianity is that this world will be renewed. On the last day, this world will not be shuffled off but will be recreated, perfected, and transformed to fulfill God’s full intent for His creation. In the meantime, the creation grows in anticipation of that day. The Church grows with the creation and the Holy Spirit Spirit groans in the Church in the world [10].

So what are Christians called to do in the meantime? First, Christians are called, not to find the specific answers for this particular moment, but to offer prayers of lament, to groan and grieve and deliver the pain of this moment into God’s loving hands, even when the event does not make sense to us [11]. Second, we are to proclaim that while God has entrusted this world to humans, He remains in control. But God’s being in control is “that God overcomes it through Jesus’ death for sinners”. Evil is outside of God’s desire and intent for this world, but He has come to engage with it and ultimately defeat it [12]. Third, Christians are called to find ways to love and care for their neighbors and, without spreading the virus further, be actively engaged in addressing the evils of the virus and caring for our neighbors. In this section, Wright also navigates the issues of church closings during this season. Without offering easy answers, he sets out two poles to consider, namely that God is active out in the world and does not need the church building to be at work, but also that the worship and prayer which occurs in church buildings is a vital, essential endeavor [13]. Finally, Christians are called to speak on policy, holding the failings of leaders in this moment accountable, and seeking to address the injustices in our present political system that have made this crisis particularly painful for the poor. He makes several suggestions which will be frustrating for some who disagree with Wright’s own politics, but the emphasis in these pages is not exactly how these issues should be addressed, but that biblically, Christians are called to stand on behalf of the poor against injustice [14].

I found Wright’s short book to be thoughtful and nuanced, engaging a full range of biblical texts, and presenting a compelling vision for how Christians can respond to this moment and to all crises in the future.

[1] N. T. Wright, God and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and Its Aftermath (Grand Rapids, MI, MI: Zondervan, 2020), p. 6.

[2] Ibid. pp. 7-9.

[3] Ibid. pp. 9-14.

[4] Ibid. pp. 15-16.

[5] Ibid. p. 17.

[6] Ibid. p. 22

[7] Ibid. p. 19.

[8] Ibid. pp. 24-29.

[9] Ibid. pp. 32-38.

[10] Ibid. pp. 38-51.

[11] Ibid. pp. 52-54.

[12] Ibid. pp. 55-59.

[13] Ibid. pp. 59-71.

[14] Ibid. pp. 71-76.

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