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Six myths about pandemics and disease

Now that a pandemic has closed down much of the world, including church gatherings, we might wonder, What is God’s role in the pandemic? While most churches have observed social distancing and canceled their worship gatherings, some have claimed that their faith in God will make them immune to the virus. Some have said that the virus is our punishment for disobeying God.

I will share some myths about God and disease that are, in my opinion, incorrect and sometimes hurtful. It doesn’t mean that anyone holding these opinions is stupid or bad. I simply mean that some views might be more sensible or helpful. I invite you to decide for yourself.

Myth #1. Disease is a punishment from God.

The Bible talks about God punishing people, especially in the Old Testament.

I will punish the world for its evil, (Isaiah 13:11).

If you obey, I will bless you, but if you disobey,

I will even appoint terror over you, wasting disease and fever…. And after all this, if you do not obey Me, then I will punish you seven times more for your sins, (Leviticus 26:16-18; see also Deuteronomy 28:60).

Even though some passages like these say that God sends diseases, other passages make it clear that disease is not from God, but from hell. Everything God does is good: “The Lord is good to all, and His tender mercies are over all His works,” (Psalm 145:9).

The concept of a wrathful God arises from a literal interpretation of the Bible that sees God from a human viewpoint. For example, we assume that the Messiah was punished by God: “He suffered and endured great pain for us, but we thought his suffering was punishment from God,” (Isaiah 53:4 CEV). Seeing God as wrathful is a human view of God (Romans 3:5). We tend to see God in terms of our own character (2 Samuel 22:26), so human weaknesses are often attributed to God.

God has no desire to punish anyone. "I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked," He says in Ezekiel 33:11. When He does tolerate evil it is because He sees that good can come from it. As Joseph said after his brothers betrayed him, "You thought evil against me, but God meant it for good," (Genesis 50:20).

What has seemed to be evidence of God's anger, then, has usually been not from God at all, but from the cruel influence of hell. Job, for example, believed that God caused his disease, but it was actually from Satan who was eager to torture Job. God permitted it reluctantly (Job 1:6-21, 2:1-10, 30:21).

Myth #2. Everything in the Bible should be taken literally.

Many people have noticed apparent contradictions in the Bible. For example, it says that God is Love—kind and good—but also that God is vengeful and punishing. One response to this is to say that both statements are literally true, making God self-contradictory.

Another way of looking at Biblical contradictions is to recognize that many passages speak metaphorically or symbolically about God, as if God had human failings and limitations.

It is known that God uses appearances when He speaks in the Word: for example, the appearance that He is angry, takes revenge, tests people, punishes them, throws them into hell, and damns them. Indeed, the appearance is that He does evil. Nevertheless, He is angry at no one, does not take revenge on, test, or punish anyone, throw anyone into hell, or damn anyone. To do this would be as far from God as hell is from heaven — in fact, infinitely farther. Therefore these are expressions of an appearance. (True Christianity 135.6)

Jesus frequently showed that the Old Testament contained deeper meanings than were first apparent. For example, He told His disciples that the Old Testament contained many prophecies about His own life that they had not understood.

Beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself. (Luke 24:27)

He opened their understanding that they might comprehend the Scriptures. (Luke 24:45)

Jesus showed that stories in the Old Testament were symbolic of His own life, even when the symbolism was not apparent in the literal meaning. For example, He uncovered hidden prophecies in stories about manna (John 6:32), Moses’ brass serpent (John 3:14), Jonah in the whale (Matt 12:40), and the temple in Jerusalem (John 2:19-22).

Paul also encourages us to go beyond the literal meaning of the Old Testament. He asks us to obey the spirit of the law, not just the letter. "We should serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter," (Romans 7:6). "The letter kills, but the spirit gives life," (2 Corinthians 3:6). Along with these warnings, there is no passage in the Bible that asks us to take everything literally.

Paul often points to deeper meanings in the Old Testament.

  • Adam and Eve symbolize Christ and the church (Romans 5:14, Ephesians 5:31, 32).
  • Noah's Flood is a symbol of baptism and regeneration (1 Peter 3:20, 21).
  • The Tabernacle of Israel with its furnishings and rituals pictured Jesus' work of salvation. These earthly things were the "copy and shadow of heavenly things...symbolic for the present time," (Hebrews 8:5, 9:9, Colossians 2:16, 17).

You can read more about why the Bible speaks of God’s anger here, and more about the deeper meaning of the Bible here.

Myth #3. If God were omnipotent He could make a world without disease.

What does it mean that God is omnipotent or all-powerful? To some it means that all the power in the universe originates in God, who has an endless supply. To others it means that God can do anything, even things that are self-contradictory. Some people ask, “Is God able to make a rock so heavy He cannot lift it?” This holds a hidden assumption that God’s omnipotence can act against itself.

If we start with a contradictory idea of God, we can draw all kinds of insane conclusions. Could a loving God could torture people in eternal fire? To believe in such a God is not truly faith in God, but faith in insanity. On the other hand, if we let go of contradictory omnipotence, we can recognize that God is all-powerful, and also all-loving and all-wise. God therefore has infinite power to act in ways that are loving and wise, but not any power to do evil or to act against His own design.

Since God is always loving, He cannot take away our freedom., It is not loving to enslave people. God always wants to empower us to make our own choices. This way we can define their own destiny and cooperate with God. The only way that God can do good, remove evil, or heal us is with our consent and cooperation.

The Divine omnipotence is not without order; God is Himself Order; and all things were created from order, in order, and for order, because they were created from God. There is an order into which human beings were created, namely, that blessing or curse depends for us upon our freedom of choice in spiritual things. For...it is impossible to create a human without freedom of choice. (True Christianity 502)

God cannot suddenly stamp out all evil in the world. To do so would eliminate our freedom, and therefore our humanity, and our possibility of freely loving and cooperating with God.

Myth #4. All you need for healing is faith and prayer

Sometimes Jesus told people that their faith healed them, or that if they prayed and believed they would receive what they prayed for. There is no doubt that God wants us to believe in Him and communicate with Him in prayer, yet prayer and faith alone are not enough.

Faith by itself is useless. It cannot save a person (James 2:14-19). Prayer by itself doesn’t do any good. Prayers are answered only when we also cooperate with God, turning away from evil and doing His will.

We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him. (John 9:31)

In dealing with disease, the Bible invites us to not only pray and believe, but also to do our part. A blind man had to go and wash his eyes in a certain pool (John 9:7). Lepers had to wash, show themselves to a priest, and offer thanks for healing (Leviticus 13, 2 Kings 5, Luke 17:11-19). Often Jesus asked the ill to make an effort: a man with a withered hand had to stand up and stretch out his hand (Matthew 12:9-13, Mark 3:1-5, Luke 6:6-10). A lame man was to pick up his bed and walk (John 5:8-9). The point of prayer and faith is for us to cooperate with the Lord, not to abdicate responsibility.

Myth #5. We should pray for God to intervene

When we see disorder in the world, it is understandable that some might think God lets the world run amok while He steps away, and if we pray He will come back and miraculously set things right. Since most of God’s work is in secret, we may not realize that God is always doing everything possible to bring us closer to Him and to eternal happiness. God’s providence is like the laws of physics: always working on everything to make the world the way it is. Since God is always doing what is wisest, most loving, and most orderly, He cannot change His mind and suddenly do something else. Anything else would be less wise, less loving, and less orderly—less of God.

Some people believe that the purpose of prayer is to change God’s mind. We tend to think of God in human terms, and we humans are susceptible to persuasion. If we ask God for something with enough passion and confidence, will He give in and do what we want?

The purpose of prayer is not to change God’s mind, but to change our own hearts. Prayer opens us up to God, and helps us understand and cooperate with God’s will. Prayer can bring healing not because it turns God towards us, but because it turns us towards God. So instead of praying for God to intervene, we should pray that we ourselves may stop interfering with His will. “Thy will be done” is the heart of every prayer.

Myth #6. This pandemic is a sign that we are in the end times

Jesus’ disciples asked what the signs of the end times would be. He replied, “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars. ...For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places,” (Matthew 24:6-7). Today, with a global pandemic, plagues of locusts in East Africa and Asia, and increasing political tensions, some people wonder if the end is near.

Many people were waiting for Christ when He first came. Yet His coming was different from what most expected. They thought He would be a glorious King--a military hero. They wanted Him to lead the armies of Israel and to establish a new government. Compared to the hurricane they envisioned, however, His coming was like a gentle breath of fresh air. Many people living at the time did not even know anything important had taken place. The reason people were mistaken about His coming is that they interpreted the prophecies in a very literal way.

Jesus did little while He was on earth to change the natural order of things. Kingdoms have continued to rise and fall. There have still been wars, famines, and plagues; births, marriages, and deaths. But on a spiritual level, things were quite different. The power of hell had been overcome. A new era of spiritual freedom began.

Like the first coming of Christ, the second coming is primarily a spiritual event. We needn't be looking for dramatic changes of government or climate, because the Lord's kingdom is not a civil authority or a geographical location. His kingdom is concerned with the government of the human mind--with a life according to divine laws. The signs that He has come again should be the changes in our own hearts. "The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, 'See here!' or 'See there!' For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you," (Luke 17:20,21).

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