Like so many other social institutions in lieu of the outbreak of COVID-19, churches have decided to suspend their services indefinitely. However, churches are part of something that itself is more than just a social institution, for most members of most churches are also members of the Body of Christ, which is the Church.
As the Church then, a transtemporal, transcultural and transcendent community, this global pandemic presents each of us with a serious question: to what extent do we allow the fear of the reality of death shape our decisions in life? The apostle James had something to say about man’s plans in light of death, and that in a time when the experience of death, and death from disease, was much more commonplace, and much more difficult to prevent:
13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— 14 yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. 15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. 17 So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin. (Jas 4:13-17)
Clearly, life and death can seem at times very ephemeral, even arbitrary. After all, what decides who dies, at what time, and under what circumstances? If God is not providentially in control over the course of human affairs, then there are perhaps two options for what determines life or death: either chance, or the human will. But, in a time of viral pandemic, clearly the human will plays a limited role in such a decision. For, as James points out, while we may intend this or that, or plan for “x” or “y,” there seems to be forces at work that are simply beyond man’s control; we can neither facilitate a positive outcome, nor avoid a negative one, despite all our best efforts. When it comes to natural forces, we are struck by our own frailty. When it comes to viruses, or tsunamis, we are out of control.
Either it is in the Lord’s hands, or in no hands at all.
So, that leaves chance. And, if chance is the ultimate arbiter of things, then the age-old philosophical question remains: is it better to exist, or not to exist? Shakespeare put it this way in his play Hamlet:
To be, or not to be, that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles And by opposing end them.
Hamlet’s inquiry rings eternally true: Do we resign to passive suffering and inaction, or do we “wage war” against the tyranny of chance? Can we will pain and suffering out of our daily experience? Can we eliminate it through meticulous planning, positive thinking, and an endless, political process aimed at perfecting the world’s brokenness?
However, both of these options, passive resignation and defiant effort, often end in their own tragedy, and often have ended in great human atrocity, especially if the ultimate purpose of human existence has been gradually forgotten, or expressly rejected. The razor’s edge of balancing virtuous action with maniacal control, presents itself poignantly in times like these. For, if we passively resign to the evil in the world, even the natural evil of disease and disaster, then we sacrifice what we all take to be a fundamental good, namely, the value of life itself. To resign to do nothing in the face of crisis may have a certain mystical or stoic attraction, but all thing equal just seems outright inhuman to give up when there is a real chance to live, and even live well! To lie down and die, is not the answer. Virtue requires some kind of positive action, some response to pain, some alleviation of suffering.
Yet, if we overreact, and try to exert our will over all manner of brokenness and decay in this finite world, we easily fall prey to acting in ways themselves destructive, manipulative, and life-inhibiting. We can become so fearful of death itself, so anxious about crossing over into that distant land, that we engage in tyrannical behavior, enacting draconian measures to prevent death at all costs!
As C.S. Lewis put it so wisely during one of mankind’s most horrible man-made tragedies (World War II), we must see that the greatest evil is not death, but sin and human corruption:
The doctrine that war is always a greater evil seems to imply a materialist ethic, a belief that death and pain are the greatest evils. But I do not think they are. I think the suppression of a higher religion by a lower, or a higher secular culture by a lower, a much greater evil. Nor am I greatly moved by the fact that many of the individuals we strike down in war are innocent. That seems, in a way, to make war not worse but better. All men die, and most men miserably. That two soldiers on opposite sides, each believing his own country to be in the right, each at the moment when his selfishness is most in abeyance and his will to sacrifice in the ascendant, should kill [each] other in plain battle seems to me by no means one of the most terrible things in this very terrible world.
(C.S. Lewis, Why I Am Not A Pacifist)
In this time of great crises, albeit one not a man-made one like war, but due to an illness that is part of the very fabric of a fallen, natural world, Christians must give an answer that walks the fine-line between these two, despairing views of death: one that says we must simply succumb to nature “red in tooth and claw,” and the other that says “we must protect physical existence, even to the point of vicious and tyrannical behavior.” For historical crises like this one, will inevitably raise the questions in all of us: “for what reason ultimately am I here?,” and “in what, or in whom, do I put my faith and hope for the future?”
As the Church, we must then cry out in prophetic overtures that even this virus, COVID-19, is but part of God’s providential plan over all of human affairs, and that it, COVID-19, is subject to the Divine Will, and subordinate to the Goodness of that Will. That Will, the One that determines all things, neither expects us to roll over and die in the face of tragedy, nor does it expect us to solve the problem of death on our own. What that Divine Will wills for us is first repentance, then action; action in faith, and action in love.
For we should fear, but not death, rather we should fear the one who has the power over life and death!
Thus we recognize, as the authors of scripture did, that Death can have no victory, neither in its actual occurrence, nor in its psychological hold, if we are true believers in Jesus Christ. For death, as Lewis reminds us, is not the worst thing. Far worse than death is sin. Far worse indeed; for sin is eternal death, and that is a death not limited to what takes place only after our hearts fail, and our brains cease to function. That death is occurring every day, COVID-19, or no COVID-19.
In sum, let us as the Church not hesitate to do what we can to fight against this outbreak, to do everything within reason to combat illness, and save human life. However, let us also not put so much faith in our own efforts, and that out of a fear of pain and death, that we engage in sin and vice, in order to prevent that which is inevitable to all of us, us miserable men, and women, who are destined to die. The real question then remains, unto what or unto whom will we die? Unto death, or unto eternal life?
55 “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.