Theology Town Hall: The Coronavirus and the Book of Revelation

The following is taken from Dr. Michael Gorman’s presentation for the virtual #TheologyTownHall held Wednesday, March 25, 2020. [Join us at noon on Wednesdays for Theology Town Halls led out by different members of the EI community.]

sign in bookstore window reading please note the post-apocalyptic fiction section has been moved to current affairs

This sign is from a bookstore in Canada. It seems somewhat appropriate for what Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson calls our “long involuntary lent.” (Image source: https://8bitnerds.com/the-post-apocalyptic-fiction-section-has-been-moved-to-current-affairs/).

For hundreds of years, people who have experienced pestilences have wondered, “Is this or that plague predicted in the book of Revelation?” Once again, some people are understandably asking the same question. One well-known religious group believes that the pale horse of Revelation 6 has been “riding the Earth” since the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, “sow[ing] death through plagues and other ills” (The Washington Post, March 20, 2020).

So is this pandemic the fulfillment of Revelation’s prophecies? I will answer that question with an emphatic “no.”

I do so, not because the current pandemic is insignificant, but because that sort of question  is the wrong question to ask of the book of Revelation. The right sort of question might be one that appears in Revelation itself: “How long?” (Rev 6:10), a phrase we find also in the psalms of lament (e.g., Psalm 6:3).

But Revelation’s images of plagues, other disasters, and beasts are symbols, not depictions or predictions. They are symbols of humanity’s evils, especially the evils that result from the marriage of political and religious powers, and of cosmic evil forces—and, yes, of God’s judgment on those evils. But there is no one-to-one correspondence between, say, one of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse or one of the bowls of judgment and the current pandemic, or (for that matter) any other pandemic, past, present, or future.

As I and others have argued in many places and ways, in times like this the church’s mission—even according to the book of Revelation–is not to look for biblical predictions and make connections that instill fear. Neither is it to say things like, “If this is the beginning of the end, true Christians will be safe because they will be raptured—whisked away.” (Remember, there is no rapture in the book of Revelation!)

Rather, as always, the church’s mission is to bear faithful witness to Christ the Faithful Witness (Revelation 1:5) and to the eternal gospel (Revelation 14:6); to share in the suffering of the world; to call ourselves and everyone else to turn away from evil and toward Jesus Christ; and to offer faith, love, and hope to all by practicing those three theological virtues.

The situation we are facing is clearly unique and requires unique ways of expressing that faith, love, and hope—but the essential call has not changed one iota. What might the book of Revelation have to say about these three theological virtues?

Faith: In Revelation, faith means faithfulness and endurance and obedience. Since today is, for many Christians, the feast of the Annunciation, we may need to heed the example of Mary (who appears in Revelation 12), who said to the angel, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). We certainly need that sort of faith right now.

Love: Revelation tells us that the church in Ephesus “abandoned the love” it had at first (Revelation 2:4). That is certainly a danger today, as we are in various states of isolation. So what does love look like now? It means social distancing, but also more. It means praying for our EI students and their families who are uniquely affected by this situation, for the sick and vulnerable, for the health providers, for those in leadership—from the EI to the UN. It means making contact with people to be sure they are OK. And it may mean expending financial resources in unexpected ways to assist a family member, friend, or neighbor.

Hope: I especially stress the word hope, because no matter what happens, the book of Revelation is a book of hope: it invites us to anticipate the beautiful new heavens and new earth, the dwelling of God among us in the fullest sense and most complete way. And it invites us also, now, to “come” and to “take” or “receive.” As the book of Revelation comes to a close, it reiterates one of its themes—salvation as the satisfaction of our deepest thirsts—by beckoning us: “Let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take [or, better translated, “receive”] the water of life as a gift” (Revelation 22:17). Hope is a divine gift, and a divine gift to pass on to others.

Today the book of Revelation, its author (John), its main character (Jesus), the Spirit, and the bride (the church) offer that invitation to life—abundant life in Christ, abundant life in the company of God’s people. This is a life of faith, love, and hope.

All of which brings us back to Romans 8, Paul’s great chapter about God’s love and faithfulness, and thus our hope. I again stress the word hope.

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? Is it God who justifies?! 34Who will condemn? Is it Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us?! Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are hyper-conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8: 31-39, NRSV, altered)

Paul writes these words for a people and a world that is suffering, but with a promise that sustained the Roman Christians and can sustain us: the certainty of God’s love and the hope of knowing that love in this life and the next. Note how Paul theologizes here: with a series of rhetorical questions. This is the logic and the rhetoric of cruciform resurrection hope grounded in the faithful love of God displayed in the cross and resurrection of Jesus.

This hope does not mean we will avoid suffering. It does not mean we will escape grief. But one of the distinguishing marks of the church, Paul said, is that we do not grieve as others do,  who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Lament, sadness, and even grief can be a form of witness—of proclaiming the gospel of God’s love. At the same time, our daily lives, even in times of difficulty, can be marked with joy—surely, in Paul’s view (the one who rejoiced from a Roman prison), a fourth member of the trinity of theological virtues.

So in this time of uncertainty, may each of us and all of us be certain of God’s love and bear witness to it in word and deed—even with a hint of profound joy. Amen.