The Gospel through the lens of COVID-19, Quarantine & Vaccines

The novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, emerged in China towards the end of 2019.  Now just a few months later it is raging around the world, having infected over 240 000 people, killing over 10 000, wreaking havoc on cruise ships, and spreading to over 140 countries.

The lightning fast and unpredictable spread of COVID-19 has created fear around the world.  People are unsure what to do with this worldwide infectious disease outbreak.  But medical professionals are telling us that success in containing COVID-19 hangs on one overarching strategy – quarantine. This has caused political authorities in China, Italy and countries around the world to set lockdown and isolation rules.  In many places now people cannot meet in large groups, must keep at least one meter distance from others – and if you have been in contact with someone who tests positive for the coronavirus then you must completely isolate yourself from contact with others.  Italy has imposed a country-wide lockdown, a ban on travel and meeting together as had been done in Wuhan China, and officials are advising against cruise ship travel.

Simultaneously, medical researchers are racing to find a vaccine.  Once a vaccine is developed it can be injected into people so that their bodies can develop resistance to the coronavirus. 

These thorough and drastic procedures to isolate, quarantine and develop a coronavirus vaccine provide a tangible illustration of another, often misunderstood, procedure to treat a different virus – a spiritual one.  That procedure is at the heart of the mission of Jesus and his Gospel.  If the coronavirus and other outbreaks such as the flu, influenza, H1N1, swine flu and SARS, is of concern such that societies across the planet are taking drastic steps to understand the coronavirus and protect the physical well-being of its citizens, then perhaps it is worthwhile to also understand this spiritual counterpart, so that we are not caught unaware by this threat.  The COVID-19 pandemic is instructive in understanding the gospel along several lines of thought.  First as infectious disease…

A Deadly & Contagious Infection.

Just as COVID-19 is not pleasant to think about but unavoidable in this outbreak, the Bible talks a great deal about sin and its consequences – another topic we prefer not to think about. One image that the Bible uses to describe sin is that of an infectious disease that has spread across, and is killing, the human race.

Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned. 

Romans 5:12

All of us have become like one who is unclean,
    and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;
we all shrivel up like a leaf,
    and like the wind our sins sweep us away. 

Isaiah 64:6

Epidemics are diseases but are not the root of the disease. For example, AIDS is the disease; HIV is the virus that causes the disease. SARS is the disease; SARS Coronavirus-1 is the virus that causes the disease. The current disease is called COVID-19 and the virus is called SARS Coronavirus-2. In the same way, the Bible says that sins (plural) are a spiritual disease; sin (singular) is its root, and it results in death.

A Bible story connecting disease and death, which Jesus later linked to his mission is the account of snakes infesting the Israelite camp in the time of Moses. A cure was needed before death overwhelmed them. 

They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”

Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.

The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived. 

Numbers 21:4-9

Throughout the Old Testament one became unclean either by infectious disease, by touching dead bodies, or by sin.  These three things were associated with one another.  The New Testament sums it up in this way.

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.

Ephesians 2: 1-2

Death in the Bible means ‘separation’ and involves both a physical death (soul separates from the body) and a spiritual death (soul separated from God).  Like a virus inside us, sin causes immediate spiritual death, leading to a certain physical death.

Not a pleasant thought, but since the Bible treats sin as real and as deadly as COVID-19 it emphasizes the theme, yet it also points to the vaccine…

The Vaccine – Through the death of the Seed

From its very beginning, the Bible developed a theme of a coming seed.  A seed is essentially a packet of DNA that can unfurl and develop into new life.  The DNA in a seed is specific information from which large molecules of specific shapes (proteins) are made.  In this sense it is similar to a vaccine, which is essentially large molecules (called antigens) of a specific shape.  This coming seed promised from the beginning would solve the problem of sin and death.

And I will put enmity
Between you and the woman,
And between your seed and her seed;
He shall bruise you on the head,
And you shall bruise him on the heel.”

Genesis 3:15

See here for details on the woman and her seed.  The seed was later specified to come through Abraham to go to all nations.

In your (Abraham’s) seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.

Genesis 22:18

Note the seed is singular.  A ‘he’, not a ‘they’ or an ‘it’, was to come.

In the Gospel, Jesus is revealed as the promised seed – but with a twist – the seed would die.  

Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.

John 12:23-24

His death was on behalf of everyone.

But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

Hebrews 2:9

Some types of vaccines are called Inactivated Vaccines where the virus is killed and then injected into our bodies so that our bodies can learn how to produce the necessary antibodies.  Our immune system can thus defend our bodies from the virus.  In a similar way the death of Jesus for us all enables that seed to now indwell us so we can develop an immune defence against that spiritual virus – sin.

No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.

1 John 3:9

Without an adequate vaccine our only option (as with COVID-19 since no vaccine has yet been developed for the Coronavirus) is quarantine.  This is also true in the spiritual realm.  That quarantine is more commonly known as Hell.

How is this so?

Quarantine

Jesus taught of the eventual arrival of the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’. When we think of ‘heaven’ we often think in terms of its situation or milieu – those ‘streets of gold’.  But the greater hope of the Kingdom that Jesus will bring about is a society composed of citizens of exclusively honest and selfless character who therefore won’t pilfer that gold off those streets. Continue down this line of thought and reflect on how much we build into the ‘kingdoms’ here on earth just to protect ourselves from each other. We all have locks on our homes; advanced security systems; we lock our cars; we tell our kids not to speak to strangers. Every city has law enforcement in place.  We vigilantly protect our online data. When you think of all the systems, practices and procedures that we have put in place in our ‘kingdoms on earth’ and realize that they are there simply to protect ourselves from each other then you may get a glimmer of a looming problem of sin in heaven. 

If God setup a kingdom in the paradise of ‘heaven’ and then invited all of us to become its citizens, we would quickly turn it into the hell we have turned this world into. The gold on the streets and the pearls on the gates would vanish in no time. 

It would be even worse if there were just a few who ‘missed’ (the meaning of sin) this perfect standard. Imagine a society where all the citizens were perfectly honest – no lies and no theft. In that society there would be no locks, no need of written contracts (because one’s word would be good enough), no security cameras, no police. But if you then introduce just one citizen who is a liar and thief he would disrupt that society far more than liars and thieves do here. Since there are no built-in precautions this thief and liar can go about his activities with impunity – causing havoc among the citizens of the kingdom of heaven. The only way to keep this from happening is to make sure that not even one such person enters this kingdom – because then it would be ruined.  A permanent quarantine would have to be enforced.

What then for those who are quarantined and denied entry? In this world, those denied entry to a country cannot expect to participate in its resources. For example, Canadian citizens can benefit from programs of its government. Those denied access to Canada cannot expect to somehow receive its welfare, medical treatment etc. – this is arranged for its citizens.  But all in all, people around the world, even terrorists on the run from all countries, enjoy the same basic amenities from nature, such as breathing the same air, seeing the same light as everyone else.

But who made light? The Bible claims that

‘God said, “Let there be light” and there was light’.

Genesis 1:3

If that is true then all light is His – and it turns out that we are just borrowing it now. But with the final establishment of the Kingdom of God, His light will be in His Kingdom. So ‘outside’ will be ‘darkness’ – just as Jesus described Hell in this parable.

“Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 

Matthew 22: 13

If it is true that there is a Creator then most of what we take for granted and assume is ‘ours’ is really His. Starting with such a basic entity as ‘light’, the world around us, and going on to our natural abilities such as thought and speech – we really did nothing to create these abilities – we simply find ourselves able to use them.   When the Kingdom is finalized the Owner will reclaim them.

When COVID-19 breaks out and threatens death and havoc among us all we hear no argument when experts insist on quarantine. So it is no surprise to hear Jesus teach in his parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus that

And besides all this, between us (in Kingdom of God) and you (in Hell) a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.

Luke 16:26

Taking the vaccination shot

Jesus once explained his mission by alluding to the story above about Moses and the serpents.  Think what would have transpired for the people bitten by snakes in that account.

The venom that enters the body is an antigen, similar to a virus infection.  When bitten by a poisonous snake, one tries to suck the venom out, bind the bitten limb tightly so that the blood flow is reduced and the venom will not spread, and reduce activity to lower the heart rate and not pump the venom through the body.  If an antidote is available, it is made up of antibodies generated by another body, from the serum of the blood, and this is injected in you to neutralize the venom. But with the serpents that infected the Israelites they were told to look at the bronze serpent raised on a pole for a cure. 

You might visual this as some infected person rolling out of bed to look at the nearby bronze serpent and then being healed.  In reality there were about 3 million people in the camp (they counted over 600 000 military age men) – the size of a large modern city.  Chances were high that those infected were several kilometers away, and out of sight from, the bronze serpent.  So those bitten by the snakes had to make a choice.  They could take standard precautions of restricting blood flow and spread of the venom.  Or they could trust the remedy announced by Moses and walk several kilometers, raising the blood flow and spread of the venom, to look at the raised bronze serpent.  It would be the trust or lack of trust in the word of Moses that determined each person’s course of action.

Jesus referred to this when he said to Nicodemus

As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; 15 so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.

John 3:14-15

Jesus is saying that our situation is analogous to that story.  The snakes infesting the camp were like sin infesting us and society.  We are in a similar situation as the Israelites were since we are infected with the venom of sin which will result in our death – an eternal one requiring Quarantine from the Kingdom of Heaven.  Jesus then makes the connection that his being lifted up on the cross was to be like the bronze serpent lifted on a pole.  As the bronze serpent could cure the Israelites of their deadly venom so he can cure ours.  The Israelites in the camp had to look at the raised serpent.  But to do that they would have to explicitly trust the solution provided by Moses and act counter-intuitively by raising the heart rate.  It was their trust in what God provided that saved them.  It is the same for us.  We do not physically look at the cross, but we trust in that provision given by God to save us from the deadly infection of sin and death. 

However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness. 

Romans 4:5

We do not trust our ability to fight off the infection, but trust God who made the vaccine in the Seed.  We trust him with the details of the vaccine.  This is why ‘Gospel’ means ‘Good news’.  Anyone who has been infected with a deadly disease but now hears that a vaccine is available and given for free – that is good news. We take the vaccination shot simply by trusting in it.

Come & See

Of course we need a reason to trust both the diagnosis and the vaccine.  We dare not give out our trust naively.  As one of the earliest recorded discussions on this theme records

Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”

46 “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.

“Come and see,” said Philip.

John 1:45-46

The Gospel invites us to come and see, to examine that Seed.  Many articles here do that, working through various questions we may have, including the resurrection, reliability of the Bible, the overall summary of the Gospel, or viewed through a love story.  Come and see like Nathanael did so many years ago.