I read an article by N T Wright (for whom I have a lot of respect) entitled “Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus. It’s Not Supposed To” (https://time.com/5808495/coronavirus-christianity/). In it he writes “No doubt the usual silly suspects will tell us why God is doing this to us. A punishment? A warning? A sign? These are knee-jerk would-be Christian reactions in a culture which, generations back, embraced rationalism: everything must have an explanation. But supposing it doesn’t? … perhaps what we need more than either is to recover the biblical tradition of lament. Lament is what happens when people ask, “Why?” and don’t get an answer.”
I don’t have a problem with the idea that we do sometimes have to cope with things we can’t understand. That’s part of faith. But Wright goes on to say “It is no part of the Christian vocation, then, to be able to explain what’s happening and why. In fact, it is part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain—and to lament instead.” I believe this statement is mistaken.
Yes, some Christians do jump to naive and embarrassing conclusions about the significance of current events. But, as is often the case, these people are going too far about events which we ought to be seeking to explain sensibly. Extremism is often a valid truth taken to excess. It is baby and bathwater.
It is clear in the New Testament that Jesus does expect us “to be able to explain what’s happening and why” even though we will not be able to explain everything. He tells his disciples to “watch out” for “the beginning of birth pains” (rabbinic language for the sufferings which would precede the coming of Messiah) Matt 24:4-8. These are recurring signs – wars and rumours of wars, famines, earthquakes, persecution, people departing from the faith, false prophets, false messiahs. Luke adds “pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven” (Lk 21:11). No, we cannot predict the time of Jesus’ return, but we should be recognising the significance of the events which are birth pains of the Messiah.
It also seems reasonable to expect that these signs will increase in intensity as the time of the return of Christ approaches. In fact, Jesus goes on to later signs: “There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Lk 21:25-28). There could be literal signs in the heavens. After all NASA is constantly watching out for near-earth asteroids.
The Coronavirus crisis comes at a time when persecution of Christians is worse than ever; when the Western world has largely turned away from its Christian heritage and when the church is abandoning important teaching of God’s Word; when a religion which proclaims a false christ is growing more and more dominant worldwide. It is likely to result in the global economic system being under very serious threat (it doesn’t take much imagination to think it could at some stage collapse in a day as the Book of Revelation describes in chapter 18).
It also comes at a time when there are significant events happening with respect to Israel. Luke records Jesus’ prophecy about the future of the Jewish people “They will fall by the sword and will be taken as prisoners to all the nations. Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (Lk 21:24). It is quite clear that the falling by the sword, being exiled to all nations and Jerusalem being dominated by Gentiles was literally fulfilled. And then in the 20th century Israel was re-established after 2000 years and the Jewish people regained control of Jerusalem. Are we to conclude that we should not “to be able to explain what’s happening and why” with respect to Israel. With 75% of the prophecy clearly fulfilled in history and the State of Israel being re-established after 2000 years, I find it impossible not to see prophetic significance in the re-establishment. It would have to be a massive coincidence if it is not significant (and I’m well aware of the political problems and justice issues, having ministered in Jerusalem for some years).
Jesus clearly doesn’t want his disciples to be surprised by these events but to “be always on the watch” (Lk 21:36). All of these things are matters which Jesus said were signs of the End. Although some of them are early recurring signs, the coinciding of them all is surely intended to make us prepare for his Return, as Jesus taught his disciples.
Since Jesus told us to watch out for pestilences as a “birth pain” of his coming, I think it is, to say the least, strange not to see this massive Coronavirus crisis as relevant and therefore “to be able to explain what’s happening and why.”
However, its significance is not just a sign of the End (which, according to Jesus, it is). We also need to remember that a very important aspect of God’s work over the centuries has been through prophets. Surely the very essence of prophecy is “to be able to explain what’s happening and why.” After all Amos says “Surely the Sovereign Lord does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets” (Am 3:7). God called the prophets to see significance which many other people didn’t see.
God’s usual way of working, including in judgment, is through natural/human events. We need to seek insight into the significance of events and trends. That means we have to make prayerful judgments/assessments, but obviously we are not infallible.
It seems to me that N T Wright is dismissing the whole prophetic ministry which is prominent in Scripture. He is throwing the baby of genuine, prayerful prophetic discernment out with the bathwater of naïve, embarrassing jumping to false ‘prophetic’ conclusions.