March 2020 Credo

Covid-19 has been a cause of fear for many people recently. News of church members being infected have been reported in the headlines. On the other hand, messages of some pastors claiming that ‘No virus can come near you’ have gone viral in social media. How then are we to make sense of the fact that Christians have been infected? Do they not have enough faith or spiritual understanding, or are they not truly Christians?

There is a third possibility. While those pastors may have preached out of good intentions, they have misinterpreted the Bible. One passage that they often cite is Psalm 91, but they have often ignored the context which is full of figurative language. For example, verse 13 says ‘you will tread upon the lion and cobra.’ I have not seen those pastors interpret this verse literally and go to the zoo and try stepping on those creatures. Nor have they interpreted ‘the snare of the fowler’ (v.3), the wings of God (v.4), the faithfulness of God is a shield (v.4) or the arrow that flies by day (v.5) literally.

Most scholars throughout history have understood the lion and the cobra to be symbolic of demon forces and Psalm 91 to be a statement of divine protection from demons.[1] In particular, the ancient Jewish translators of the LXX (the Greek translation of the Old Testament produced in the second century BC) did not interpret the pestilence (Hebrew deber) mentioned in Psalm 91 literally. They translated deber in verse 3 as troublesome matter’, and verse 6 ‘of the pestilence (deber) that stalks in darkness, or of the destruction that lays waste at noon’ as ‘of the thing that walks in darkness; of calamity, and the evil spirit at noon-day.’ They translated ‘plague’ (Hebrew nega) in verse 10 as ‘scourge’.[2] The LXX is the Bible translation used by the divinely inspired New Testament authors. Brennan notes that ‘In the New Testament, Jesus refers to Psalm 91 in his reaction to the testimony of the seventy disciples sent ahead of him that they had power over demons’[3] (Luke 10:17-20). Jesus interpreted the serpent figuratively as demons (‘I have given you authority to tread on serpents…Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven’ Luke 10:19-20). The gospels cite Psalm 91 (verses 11-12) during Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness (Matt 4:6//Luke 4:10). ‘Ironically, it is the devil himself who quotes this anti-demonic psalm, but Jesus responds by rejecting its magical use (Matt 4:7//Luke 4:12).’

When we read Psalm 91 together with the New Testament, the interpretation of the LXX translators makes very good sense. ‘Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring LION, seeking someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8). ‘The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your FEET’ (Romans 16:20). ‘You will TREAD upon the LION and cobra’ (Psalm 91:13). In short, the context of Psalm 91 indicates that it is the devil whom God will protect us against and gives us victory over.

There is a very important lesson here: If we dwell in the shelter of the Most High (Psalm 91:1), God will protect us against the attacks of the devil and help us overcome him. However, if we do not draw near to God we will be at risk of the attacks of the devil, which is worse than Covid-19.

In any case, given that there are various plausible interpretations of this Psalm, we should not be dogmatic in claiming that it literally implies ‘No virus can come near you.’[4]

Those who insist on claiming that ‘No virus can come near you’ might reply that pestilences are due to demonic attack, thus protection against demons would imply protection against pestilence. However, there is no passage in the Bible which claims that all kinds of pestilence are due to demonic attack. Thus it is invalid to interpret Psalm 91 as a guarantee against all kinds of pestilence, including Covid-19. On the other hand, while the Bible portrays God using or allowing pestilence as a judgment on certain people in Exodus 9 (verse 14) and other passages (Amos 4:10, Revelation 6:8, etc.), it is invalid to assume that all sufferers of pestilence are being judged by God. Just as it is invalid to assume (as Job’s friends did) that the sufferings of Job—including the boils that he suffered from, which is also portrayed as a divine judgement in Exodus 9 (verse 10)—were due to divine judgement (Analogy: the fact that Covid-19 has caused certain cases of pneumonia does not imply that all cases of pneumonia are due to Covid-19).

Even if the reference to pestilence in Psalm 91 is literal, it should be noted that the original audiences of Psalm 91 were Old Testament Israelites who were under a different covenant from New Testament believers (Hebrews 8:7-13). While those pastors often claim those old covenant promises for themselves, such as freedom from the diseases which affected the Egyptians (Exodus 15:26) and abundant prosperity (Deuteronomy 28:11), I have not seen them claim Deuteronomy 28:7 ‘The Lord will grant that the enemies who rise up against you will be defeated before you’ and go and fight ISIS terrorists who have risen against Christians.

Additionally, passages in the Bible should not be interpreted as magical formulas, but should be interpreted within the framework of the sovereignty of God. While Jesus said ‘all things for which you pray and ask, believe that you have received them, and they will be granted you’ (Mark 11:24), this should be understood within the context of ‘yet not what I will, but what You will’ (Mark 14: 36). As noted earlier, Jesus himself rejected the magical use of Psalm 91 (Matt 4:7//Luke 4:12). The Lord did not give what Paul asked for in 2 Corinthians 12:9, but said ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’ Some pastors have claimed that it is always God’s will to heal because it has been paid for by the atonement. However, they have misinterpreted Isaiah 53 and other passages (see this excellent article http://www.ukapologetics.net/09/healing2.htm ).

Messages such as ‘No virus can come near you’ might lead some people to infer that ‘God will definitely protect and heal you so there is no need to take precautions or take medications when you are sick.’ Indeed, when I was working as a medical doctor I encountered a patient who stubbornly held to such views and refused treatment. The patient eventually died from an illness which could have been cured by medication. The fake theology of this patient which fails to recognize medications as given by the common grace of God is more dangerous and harmful than the fake news and fake cures which have been circulating online, such as the claim that drinking a bowl of boiled garlic water can cure Covid-19 infection.[5]

Preachers of the ‘health-and-wealth gospel’ are repeating the mistakes of the 18th century optimistic European proponents of a postmillennial Utopia who had been inclined to suppose that the spread of the gospel would eradicate volcanoes and earthquakes.[6] Such ‘positive thinking’ messages may be very ‘encouraging’ and draw a lot of people to churches initially, but the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 shattered their dreams and caused many Europeans to lose their ‘faith’ which was based on false expectations. While many earthquakes had happened earlier in history, the Lisbon Earthquake was particularly damaging to Christianity in Europe largely because of the acceptance of false theology that preceded it. It was a major contributing factor to the anti-Christian sentiment of the Enlightenment and the subsequent decline of Christianity in Europe.[7]

Those proponents of a postmillennial Utopia and modern day preachers of the ‘health-and-wealth gospel’ should have realized and emphasized that in this life Christians will suffer alongside non-Christians, but we have the promises of God’s presence in Christ which brings peace and joy even in the midst of suffering, the power to go through suffering (not freedom from suffering), as well as eternal life which is based on the factuality of God’s existence and Christ’s resurrection.[8]

With these promises we do not need to live in fear in the face of Covid-19, even as we take the necessary precautions as faithful stewards of Christ. We can pray for protection and healing, and we know that God can protect and heal (a book published in 2012 by Harvard University Press notes a survey which indicates that 73% of US medical doctors think that miraculous healing occurs today and documents cases of tumours disappearing, blind healed etc. after prayer in Jesus’ name).[9] God honors faith and He wants us to focus on Him and not on our problems, to realize that He loves us and is concerned about every aspect of our lives, and to understand and experience His incomparably great power for us who believe (Ephesians 1:18-19). However, God also wants us to know that He sometimes allows suffering for a good purpose, one of which might be to make people realize that ‘the health-and-wealth gospel’ is a false gospel, that we should learn how to ‘consider it all joy’ when we encounter various trials (James 1:2), and that the grounds of our devotion should not be because God has blessed us with health and wealth (Job 1:8-10) but because God is God. No matter what happens, we know that He loves us and is with us forever and that our lives are within His best will if we humbly trust and obey Him, and He will work all things out for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28). We will never walk alone.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Brennan Breed, ‘Reception of the Psalms: The Example of Psalm 91,’ in The Oxford Handbook of the Psalms edited by William P. Brown (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

[2] https://biblehub.com/sep/psalms/91.htm .

[3] Ibid.

[4] I thank Jacob Tan Jie Te for this point.

[5] https://www.factcheck.org/2020/02/fake-coronavirus-cures-part-2-garlic-isnt-a-cure/ .

[6] N.T. Wright, History and Eschatology (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2019), p. 6.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Andrew Loke, God and Ultimate Origins: A Novel Cosmological Argument, Palgrave Frontiers in Philosophy of Religion Series (Cham, Switzerland: Springer Nature, 2017); The Origins of Divine Christology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017); Investigating the Resurrection of Jesus Christ (London: Routledge, 2020 forthcoming).

[9] Candy Gunther Brown. Testing Prayer: Science and Healing (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012).


Dr Andrew Loke is Associate Professor in the Department of Religion and Philosophy at Hong Kong Baptist University. He did his PhD at King’s College London which covered the disciplines of systematic theology, analytic philosophy of religion, and historical-critical studies. He is the author of The Origins of Divine Christology (Cambridge University Press), God and Ultimate Origins (Springer Nature), A Kryptic Model of the Incarnation (Routledge), and Investigating the Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Routledge, forthcoming).