Read Part I here.
Don’t you feel like you were living on planet Earth and one day you woke up and looked out and found that you were no longer on Earth, but on planet COVID? There are many things about this new planet which are familiar. Our family is here, most of our jobs are still recognizable, and the day is still twenty-four hours long. But, the rules of engagement are all different and everything around us feels toxic and we are trying to adjust to this new planet. In the same way, we are accustomed to walking through Holy Week with certain standard protocols. Maybe it is the stations of the cross, or the beautiful and moving Tenebrae service, or the Easter morning church-wide pancake breakfast. Suddenly, everything is changed. This is how we need to reflect more deeply on the COVID-19 virus, because it has been disruptive and has caused us to think more deeply about the problem of evil.
The church, in reflecting on natural disasters, whether a collapsed tower, a bridge that falls, or a virus that spreads across the world tends to inhabit two different mind-sets. On the one hand, there are Christians who emphasize that every day is a fresh gift from God and we have no claim on tomorrow. So, right out of the chute, this view points out that we can never say things like “their life was cut short” or they died an “untimely death,” because God only gives us our lives one day at time, there is no promise for tomorrow, and, therefore, you have not been robbed if you don’t live to see tomorrow. If you read the classic collection of the prayers of the Puritans known as The Valley of Vision, you will readily see this perspective. They faced intense persecution and martyrdom for their non-conformist faith. They regularly experienced, like all people before the days of modern medicine, the natural disaster of a very high birth mortality rate. In the face of this, they regularly remember in their prayers that each day is a gift from God and it is God’s prerogative to call any of us home on any given day. On the other hand, there are Christians who have emphasized the power of God to providentially protect Christians from harm and to preserve their life in the midst of these kinds of disasters. In its most extreme forms, this view holds that if we have sufficient faith, then God will protect us and any untimely death is robbing us of the full inheritance of life that is ours. This view is reflected in a wide range of popular Christian movements around the world and has been powerfully documented by Kate Bowler in her book Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel. This theology is not only found in the United States, but in a wide range of movements throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Many of the proponents of this view have enjoyed a wide dissemination of their views through the medium of television.
The Wesleyan perspective on this, as I understand it, sees some truth in both views, but also offers a significant critique of both. On the one hand, however distorted and sometimes misguided the prosperity gospel can be, it is a reaction to a God-is-distant-and-remote view, which functions as kind of practical deism. This is a true error that also inflicts the church, but is often not so readily named. In fact, God does protect his people, and our bodies are part of the atonement covered by Christ. God can and does heal people in response to prayer. We can and should pray for the healing of those who are ill, including cancer, those who have contracted COVID-19 and any other ailment that may inflict us. We should not be passive or, in its worst form, fatalistic about life. Belief in the sovereignty of God should never be translated into some kind of raw determinism about your life. It is true that James exhorts us to not say, “today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money” (James 4:13). This is one of the texts which does emphasize that we have no guarantee for tomorrow. We also recall Jesus’ parable about the Rich Fool (Luke 12:15–21) who foolishly believed that his wealth would guarantee him prosperity and security. But, James does not say that we should not go to a city and spend a year there and try to make money. The text goes on to say that if we do make plans we should make them with the important addition “if God wills.” In other words, we are not to inhabit the world of Islam—en shallah—“if Allah wills,” but understood as an expression of fatalism. This is not the Christian view. We are encouraged to joyfully and actively engage the world, make plans, establish goals, pursue dreams, but always do everything within the larger frame of God’s purposes and will. God may call me home today, but, in the meantime, if God wills, I am to joyfully engage in my life as president of Asbury Theological Seminary.
I plan on being present at Asbury’s 100th anniversary in 2023, if God wills. My body has been secured by the atonement, and my healing and wholeness has been purchased by the atonement of Christ, but (and this is the fatal flaw of the prosperity gospel) his promise is mysteriously embedded in both the present and the future. He may choose to heal me today. But, even if he does not, I know, and every Christian should know, that there is no disease in the new creation. There is no coronavirus in the presence of God. Someday, he will raise up all of our bodies and give us resurrection bodies. So, yes, God heals. But, some he heals instantly or gradually in the present, but even if he does not heal us in this life, we will all be healed in the resurrection. So, speaking theologically, the error of the prosperity gospel is not in their confidence in the healing power of God; it is in an overly realized eschatology that insists that the only true sign of that power, or our faith, is if God heals us right now in this present world.