The fourth webinar held by the Evangelical Fellowship of India Theological Commission explored “Biblical Resources in approaching Pandemics”.
It was led by Dr Finny Philip, Principal of the Filadelphia Graduate School of Theology in Udaipur, North India. He holds a doctorate from the University of Durham and is editor of the South Asia Biblical Commentary.
In examining diseases, disasters and afflictions in the Bible and the response of God and his people, he noted that the modern term pandemic is not found in the Bible but that the coronavirus is similar to biblical plagues.
Giving an overview of the scripture as a whole, such afflictions were for punishment, teaching or correction. Not all the natural calamities that Israel experienced were God’s judgement on their sinfulness. Hindu culture sees them as part of the cycle of life and influenced by supernatural forces. Some very heavenly minded Christians have focused at this time on heaven and see them as a judgement on the world. This has not been helped by only meeting their own kind by zoom.
Biblical examples of suffering
Suffering not linked to sinfulness was the suffering of Job and Jesus' rejection of the notion in Luke 13 (“Do you think they were worse sinners?”), and in John 9 (“Neither this man nor his parents sinned”). The illness of Paul’s co-workers was not attributed to sin. Yet suffering is a judgement on Pharoah’s Egypt, the Philistines and Israel’s unfaithfulness. God punishes David’s census, Zechariah’s unbelief, Ananias and Saphira’s deception and Elymas the sorcerer’s opposition to Paul. These show that Jahweh alone wounds and also heals: He strikes Israel’s enemies, punishes its unfaithfulness and binds up their wounds. God uses these for the spread of the gospel and, with Paul’s thorn in the flesh, for sanctification.
Disease and death came after sin entered the world in the Genesis narrative, as affirmed in Romans 5 12-21. Prosperity is often the reward of faithfulness. Suffering can be the result of oppression by others, such as Abel’s murder by Cain, and the pestilence in Jerusalem as a result of the siege (Jer. 21-5-6). Some suffering is part of the created order: loneliness, temptation, the limitations of life, the finiteness of creation, its diversity which can trigger conflict, anxiety and desire. Through suffering Job learned that creation is a mystery beyond human comprehension.
God’s response is often to intervene to redeem as with Noah, Abraham, the Exodus and Jesus' passion and death. Both God’s alien and proper work come out of love as Jesus took our sin so that we might possess righteousness by faith. God did not look on as Jesus suffered, but acted and suffered in himself. The Father suffers the death of the Son and the death of his own Fatherhood. There is no suffering or death that is not also God’s.
The early church and suffering
Post-apostolic theologians of the second to fourth centuries, Tertullian, Cyprian of Carthage and Augustine wrote not about mission strategy but of a theology of patience - the Pauline attitude of the noble soul choosing to endure difficulties. Such an attitude of powerlessness is rooted in God’s character revealed when Jesus faced Herod and Pilate and refused to call on twelve legions of angels (Matthew 26:53). Such patience does not seek human control but lives at a pace given by God. It was for them the highest virtue and the heart of being Christian. It is unconventional, non-violent and gives religious freedom. In hope it entrusts the future to God. Cyprian encouraged believers to mark their lives by a habitus of trusting in God while unable to control the situation. So during epidemics Christian networks were marked by giving elementary nursing care, faith in the resurrection, and love for others. Their numbers experienced a marked increase.
Discussants appreciated Dr Philip’s presentation of a theology of presence by which God takes part in all of our lives and how persecution led to patience because of hope. This patience, a gift of the Spirit, came from experiencing the grace of God in their lives.
Those who attend conventions looking for a miracle ignore the reality of pain and the biblical picture that suffering is part of life and of the created order. Jesus was the lamb of God, slain before the foundation of the world who also carries the marks of his suffering in heaven. Thus suffering is not an absolute evil or life’s worst possible experience.
The question of the place of divine sovereignty is about the relation of power to suffering. Jesus told Pilate that his sovereignty and kingdom was not of this world. This was the church’s position until Constantine. The theologians noted that colonial based mission was mission from the powerful, bringing a Christianity of the superpowers. The Non-western churches had developed a Christianity of suffering. Western Theology started from logic and rationality to come to knowledge which it then applied to experience. South Asian Christians, like the post-apostolic theologians, began with experience and then came to a knowledge of God.
Church of England Newspaper September 11.