God and the nations
How does a crisis challenge the global gods - and what can we learn from the Bible about disasters? The second in a five-part series exploring Christian responses to the Coronavirus pandemic. By Terry Young
Let’s start in tough territory (Revelation 16:8-9, NIV): ‘The fourth angel poured out his bowl on the sun, and the sun was allowed to scorch people with fire. They were seared by the intense heat and they cursed the name of God, who had control over these plagues, but they refused to repent and glorify him.’
While many are clear what this means, they disagree wildly with each other, so it’s a puzzle. It’s a moral predicament, too: how could God do something so terrible? It’s intellectual suicide too, to take these verses seriously, by claiming to hear any communication through the noise of daily events. If there is a message, it’s a soulless one about the wages of overpopulation or the penalties of pollution.
My question is whether there is any way this passage, and others like it, can say anything to the thinking Christian in the light of one global crisis after another?
That means leaving the fourth bowl in Revelation to your pastor or home group leader and stating simply that the Bible teaches that God can direct nature and use disasters. We may not always like where it takes us, but it need not take us to the excesses of some of our Christian forebears. So, let’s move on.
Whatever we make of the stories, God intervenes on earth many times in the Bible: the flood, the tower of Babel (where a world economy is broken up as its communication channels are trashed), and the way the technologically inferior Israelites conquer Canaan, to name a few. The way Scripture analyses the deportations to Assyria and Babylon or the rise and fall of later nations proclaims a plan for the big picture.
Isaiah and Daniel take a global view (as do others) while the gospels and Revelation adopt a cosmic stance, and they all place the incarnation in the context of global and heavenly events.
So, what does the Bible say, in its own terms? Let’s start with Pharaoh’s struggle to keep his Israelite slaves. Moses grew up in the palace and grew old near the bush where God met him, so the story pivots around him as the plagues target the gods of ancient Egypt starting at the Nile in which the Hebrew boys were routinely being drowned. My guess is that we recall how God’s people were protected from the worst plagues as their ghetto became a haven of health and safety, despite the oppression.
Looking for a wider pattern, are such trends evident today? It’s hard to face the gods of our own world, but let’s be brave. What did 9/11 do to the god of business confidence? Is there anything remotely ironic about the god of promiscuity encountering social distancing because of a plague? I’m not saying these are the best questions but finding better ones might introduce us to a more Biblical perspective.
Isaiah has an amusing recipe for getting best value from a tree trunk: first you cut it up. From a large log you carve a god: a good god if your craftsman is skilled. You can prostrate yourself before it and it gives you hope of deliverance from trouble. Meanwhile, you make a fire with the rest, cook on it, feed yourself, and keep warm (Isaiah 44:9-20). I imagine Isaiah, wide-eyed as Louis Theroux, interviewing the optimistic god-makers he met about what made what they worshipped any different from what they consumed: really? Wow! How interesting…
We too are optimistic god-makers. We sacrifice to shape our job or career, we are fed and warmed by it and in the day of trouble we hope it will hold. We have lavished our taxes on global banks to save our economies. Do we sense Isaiah’s ironic gaze as we smash our supply chains to save our health service – the god we believe will beat the virus? Maybe a supply chain god, with test kits to our door, will save us instead. I’m a fan of banks, jobs, supply chains and the NHS: they are great crutches – I’m even a fan of crutches! But they are hungry gods.
Back to Moses and the Israelites who were protected from the worst plagues even during their oppression. Does that happen today? A modest Christian family can be insulated from many conditions that sweep across our society, and the case for living the sort of life Jesus called us to live is stronger than we are often led to believe. That’s a discussion for another day, but there are cases of remarkable salvation in times of peril.
At my Mom’s 90th birthday party last September I sat opposite an Arab Christian, whose mother taught mine Arabic in Lebanon in the ‘50s. Across the Middle East, the Christian community is a minority and suffers disproportionately in conflicts between the main factions. Lebanon, a place where it enjoyed freedom, became a war zone and the cedars have wept since the 70s.
But for Mom’s language teacher, a refugee widow with four daughters, there was protection. Her children and grandchildren have settled around the world, and she died peacefully and well looked after at a grand old age.
Does that say much about God and the nations? It depends what language you speak. When Revelation was first read out, the listeners would have been shocked that those on earth refused to glorify God, despite the clarity of the warnings. The message was heard, the response was defiance. Most people today don’t hear anything: we have lost the language and learned that statistical prediction is the only prophecy there is. So, when the earth is scorched, all heaven is silent, and fists are shaken at the God who isn’t there.
Does God speak through global events? Of course, but differently to different people. Christians hear a call not to fear, others are warned and find faith. At scale, global gods are being tested and, now as in Isaiah’s day, they are fragile saviours.
This is the second blog of a series exploring Christian responses to the Coronavirus pandemic.
Christians in the crisis: introducing the series
God and the nations: how does a crisis challenge the global gods?
Fear not! Reasons to be confident through a crisis.
Hezekiah’s tunnel: the balance between trust and action.
Blessings in disguise: finding the upside of a crisis and using it gratefully.
Image | Artem Beliaikin | Pexels
Terry Young was born to missionary parents working in the Middle East. He has always tried to unify his life of worship and secular missions, and has been part of church leadership teams in Essex, and at Slough Baptist Church. He has written a few books that link worlds, including After the Fishermen, and Jake, Just Learn to Worship.
After a mobile early childhood his family settled in the UK to the northwest of Birmingham, and eventually he studied at the local university. After his doctoral studies he worked for 16 years in Chelmsford undertaking research and business development in the aerospace sector, where his interest was in fibre optics and photonics. In the end he gravitated to healthcare systems and move to Datchet with a position as a university professor
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