Christians and Pandemics through the Ages (260, 1347, 1665, …2020)

The ‘coronavirus’ (COVID-19) has put the world into a panic. It is clearly extremely contagious and a significant threat to many lives. Nobody knows how long it will last or what its ultimate effects will be. Amidst the uncertainty, most people are unsure how to respond or what to expect.

In this post I want to lay out some historical and theological perspectives that I think help us think more clearly about this challenging issue.

A Bit of Perspective

Until the rise of modern medicine, western civilisation experienced pandemics very regularly. The best-known example is the notorious ‘Black Death’, a strain of bubonic plague that swept through Europe between 1347-1351, killing about a third of the continent’s inhabitants in the process.

More modest outbreaks of plague hit cities and towns regularly. It was practically a seasonal event in early-modern London: today we have ‘flu season’ whereas they had ‘plague season’. But particularly devastating bouts of the disease occurred far too often… 1563, 1593, 1603, 1625, 1636… and most memorably in 1665. At its peak, the Great London Plague of 1665 saw about 7000 people die each week. It’s hard to even imagine the practicalities of dealing with that many corpses! By the time it had run its course, the outbreak had killed about a hundred thousand people: a quarter of London’s population.

I don’t mean to imply that coronavirus is similar to bubonic plague. It isn’t. What I am trying to highlight is that our normal experience of life is radically different to that of every generation prior to the twentieth century. In God’s kindness, we live in an era of medical and biological expertise by which we generally (and quite reasonably) expect that effective vaccines and cures will be readily available. Prior generations knew nothing of that expectation. They endured all their pains and illnesses without medicines to offer healing or relief of symptoms. Until the advent of vaccinations and modern medicine, the threat of infectious and deadly disease was a prominent feature of ordinary human life.

Our present experience has brought us one step towards that of previous generations. It’s only one step, and a very small one. Our quality of life remains incomparably better than theirs. Yet this experience has been an unwelcome jolt to many. It has forced us to face some harsh realities of life that we aren’t used to facing anymore.

Shock that We Still Live Under the Shadow of Death

We have mostly succeeded in banishing death to the margins of our society. Today death, severe illness, and end-of-life matters are mostly managed within institutions of various sorts, away from society’s gaze. We have hidden sickness and death out of sight and out of mind, and this has allowed us to live a fantasy. Now the threat of death shocks us whenever it appears; it isn’t part of our daily lives as it was for our ancestors.

Yet little has really changed. The death rate is still 100%. All of us are still destined to die once and after that to face judgement (Hebrews 9:27). We still live in the era between Christ’s victory over sin and death, and his final application of that victory to his people and to creation. Death remains the final enemy to be defeated, and we still await that upon Christ’s return (1 Corinthians 15:26). Sickness (including coronavirus) is Death’s ugly little henchman: always at his side and only able to be defeated alongside his master.

Coronavirus reminds us that we still live under the shadow of death. We remain extremely vulnerable to the spread of contagious illness, and so also to the spread of contagious fear, panic, and self-centered desperation.

Shock at our Human Frailty & Helplessness

Modern medicine is part of what gives us control over our lives and over our world. And yet, times like this show that we are not really in control at all. We are still the same frail, helpless beings that we have always been.

Worse: our self-deceived idea that we are in control prevents us from relying upon the God who truly is in control. Our society’s health and prosperity covers us in a veneer of self-confidence. Then, when difficulty arises, everyone tries to regain ‘control’ of their lives by panic-buying too much toilet paper.

One writer sums up the attitude of medieval society prior to the Great Plague:

The plague shook the wealthy, relatively well-populated, confident, even arrogant society of mid-fourteenth century Western Europe to its foundations.

Norman F. Cantor, In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death & the World it Made.
(New York: Free Press, 2001), p.25.

I dare say that our society’s arrogance is greater than that of fourteenth century Europe. When normal life resumes, most people will get back to pretending that they are in control of their lives. They will live as though they aren’t actually frail or helpless after all. They will live as if they don’t need God.

The Power of the Gospel

Christians know that God is the ruler of history. Not only that, but God is a loving Father to his children and rules history for our good (Romans 8:28; Matthew 28:18). Christians know that Jesus has saved us from our sins, that our future in his Kingdom is certain, and that every day until then is an opportunity to serve him. This gospel drives Christians out of themselves and their own personal interests in order to serve others in gratitude to God for all that he has done for us in Christ.

This gospel has radically shaped the way that Christians have faced pandemics and disasters throughout the centuries. It should change the way that we face challenging times too. Let me give two brief case studies.

Plague reaches Roman Society (2nd & 3rd centuries)

When Christianity was only a young faith, the Roman Empire was hit by two massive outbreaks of the plague: the ‘Antonine Plague’ (165-180) and ‘the Plague of Cyprian’ (249-262). These devastated the empire, eventually killing up to a quarter of its inhabitants and contributing to the decline of the Roman Empire as a whole.

Eusebius of Caesarea’s Ecclesiastical History (c.326) preserves many otherwise-lost sources from the church’s first centuries. Among these is a letter of Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria (c.200-264) which describes the Christian response to the pandemic:

Most of our brethren were unsparing in their exceeding love and brotherly kindness. They held fast to each other and visited the sick fearlessly, and ministered to them continually, serving them in Christ. And they died with them most joyfully, taking the affliction of others, and drawing the sickness from their neighbours to themselves and willingly receiving their pains. And many who cared for the sick and gave strength to others died themselves having transferred to themselves their death.

Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History VII.22.7.

The pagan Romans completely lacked the theological, social, and moral resources they needed to face the plague. Their ‘gods’ offered no hope or explanation, and their social norms and moral code rejected the sick and justified self-centered behavior. Yet what the pagans lacked, the Christians had in abundance. Theologically, the Christians viewed the plague as trial of their faith in a world lingering under the curse of sin and death. It could not threaten their eternal hope. Socially, the Christians saw themselves as a community of mutual love built upon God’s promises in Christ. They cared for one another and for all who were in need, even to their own harm. Morally, they saw love of neighbor – even of strangers and enemies – as their duty. The poor, weak, sick, and dying were not human waste to be discarded (as pagans believed); they were precious people made in the image of God who were to be honored and served. As the pagan Emperor Julian (330-363) observed in the next century, the Christians ‘support not only their own poor, but ours as well’ (Works of Julian, vol.III, letter 22).

Many Christians died in their efforts to serve others. Yet their efforts reduced deaths overall and powerfully testified to all that God has given them in Christ. Moreover, and to be blunt about it, their generation is long dead now either way. What has lasted is the life that they have in Christ (which they enjoy even now) and the opportunities that they took to imitate the way of their savior.

Plague reaches Eyam (1665)

Eyam is a small town located in the English county of Derbyshire. Its population was about 360 when the plague hit in 1665. Over the next year some 70 people died: about a fifth of the town’s population. Some considered fleeing to try to save themselves. They probably would have done just that, except for the counsel of the town’s two ministers.

Thomas Stanley was a non-conformist Puritan who had recently been ejected from his living when the Church of England was restored in 1662. After 18 years under his ministry the people asked him to stay even if he couldn’t serve as their pastor, and he obliged. William Mompesson was the conforming clergyman appointed to replace him. To their credit, the two men appear to have got on well.

Plague Window, Eyam Parish Church

When the plague arrived, Stanley and Mompesson urged the people to stay. If they fled then it was likely that they would spread the contagion to other towns, and many others would die. Instead they organised to manage the disease within the town. Other nearby towns gratefully left supplies for them on the outskirts of Eyam. Nevertheless, by the time that their self-imposed quarantine ended, three quarters of Eyam’s inhabitants had died.

The Christian gospel is uniquely able to empower people for this kind of selfless love of others. Fear leads people to act selfishly: “I’m not sick – why not flee the contagion?” (And self-centeredness contents itself with worse reasoning than this!) Yet love asks how our actions can best serve the needs of our neighbors. The gospel frees Christians from fear of death so that even our very lives can be offered in the service of others.

Three Christian Practices

I’m not a medical professional, so I won’t pretend to be able to give advice of that sort. But as you seek out the best information on how to respond, read it through the lens of a Christian worldview.

Specifically I want to suggest that Christians should weave three practices into everything we do: Think, Love, Thank. (Yes, I notice that this echoes the “eat-pray-love” thing. The difference is that these practices aren’t selfishness-parading-as-spirituality; they come from the gospel).

1. Think

Fear and panic are enemies of clear-thinking. They are fueled by adrenaline, the flight-or-flight response, the instinct for self-preservation. They doesn’t analyse or evaluate; they just react.

In contrast, the gospel leads us to think, rather than give in to mindless reactivity. Grace leads us away from being ruled by our ‘passions’ and towards self-controlled, godly conduct (Titus 2:12; Romans 12:2).

So breathe. Don’t panic. Don’t fear, for God is with us through difficulty (Isaiah 41:10; Psalm 46:7-11). Take a moment to remember how life really is: God is in charge. Jesus is on the throne. Salvation is won. Sin and death are defeated. History is being governed towards your ultimate good.

Once you are thinking straight (that is, in accordance with the gospel), you are in a position to respond rather than to simply react.

2. Love

Just as fear is the enemy of clear-thinking, it is also the enemy of love. ‘Perfect love drives out fear‘ (1 John 4:18). Panicked self-preservation is blind to the needs of others; it just grabs stuff. But once you are thinking straight you can look to the needs of your neighbors. See to it that their needs are fulfilled, not just your own. Often this will involve giving up our own desires for the sake of others’ well-being. But that’s exactly what Jesus did for us, and to a far greater extent!

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death– even death on a cross!

Philippians 2:3-8

Ask God to make you alert about how you can love and serve others amidst today’s unique challenges.

3. Thank

The gospel gives us endless reasons to be thankful. We should regularly thank God for all that he has done for us in Christ, especially for him coming to bring us salvation.

We should also regularly thank God for the good things we have in life more broadly. This is particularly important when times are difficult. We can still thank God for the daily gifts we have to enjoy: relationships, sunshine, leisure, and the modern comforts of life. God is good to us daily in ways that we so often take for granted.

Whilst not the reason that we should be grateful toward God, the practice of gratitude does have a number of beneficial side-effects. Gratitude is enormously important for psychological health. It cultivates emotional well-being and a positive disposition towards life as a whole. It is an important part of facing difficulty well.

Gratitude also helps put us in a good place to exercise clear thinking and love toward others (points 1&2). Gratitude focuses our attention on what we still have, which helps us think clearly about life. It reinforces that we are people who have received the benefits of God’s love, and it empowers us to love others in return.

These three practices (Think-Love-Thank) mutually reinforce one another. They help us to be people who live godly lives as we wait for the glorious appearing of our savior, when he will triumph over sickness, sin, and death forever (Titus 2:11-14).

This post is now available in Chinese translation: 歷代基督徒和流行病.