Our newsfeeds are full of encouraging results in trials of potential vaccines for COVID-19. I need to start this countercultural article by saying I really hope we get an effective vaccine. I hope we get it soon. I hope it can be rolled out, not only in my own country, but all over the world.
The upsides are clear and rich. Most obviously, it will save lives. Life is a good thing; saving lives is a desirable aim. It may also offer some relief for the many enduring mental-health problems due to lockdowns and COVID restrictions, a way of escape for those suffering the hidden miseries of domestic abuse, the chance of restored education for millions of schoolchildren and college students, and a better prospect of jobs for so many whose work hopes have been blighted. How we long for these miseries to be alleviated. I feel especially for the young people who are paying—and probably will continue to pay—so much of the cost of all this suffering.
It will be such a joy to again be able to meet freely with brothers and sisters in Christ, to sing God’s praises together, and to do all the “one another” things the New Testament encourages. Such a joy. A secular society cannot begin to understand the depth of the grief that our current restrictions cause to our souls. If a vaccine enables all this to restart: hallelujah!
And then there is the ability to see precious family, to spend time with friends, to restart hospitality in our homes. So of course we all long for a successful vaccine, and soon.
As I’ve meditated about this, it seems that the Bible warns of three dangers that might accompany a successful vaccine—and therefore three spiritual warnings. These, I suspect, are not so obvious. They’re certainly not in our newsfeeds.
1. We may not let God’s kindness lead us to repentance.
A pandemic is, I take it, yet another warning from God that there is a judgment to come, that we live in a world by which the pure, holy, and righteous God is rightly angered. That doesn’t mean getting a horrible disease is always personal punishment for a particular sin; Jesus firmly corrected those who thought it was (e.g., John 9:1–3). But it is a warning to all of us that, unless we repent, we too will perish (Luke 13:1–4). The terrible refrain in the book of Revelation (e.g., Rev. 16:9, 11) of people suffering anticipations of final judgment but not repenting ought to warn us to repent. That God does not immediately punish all our sins is a kindness that ought to lead us to repentance (Rom. 2:4). A pandemic is, to use C. S. Lewis’s memorable phrase, a “severe mercy,” because it warns us of worse to come and therefore of the urgent need to turn to God.
A pandemic is a ‘severe mercy,’ because it warns us of worse to come and therefore of the urgent need to turn to God.
Writing of a disaster in Sicily in the 18th century, the Christian poet William Cowper reflected:
God may choose his mark,
May punish, if he please, the less, to warn
The more malignant. If he spared not them,
Tremble and be amazed at thine escape,
Far guiltier England, lest he spare not thee!
In my country, I see little sign of a society moved by COVID-19 to a penitent fear of God. I see little sign of it in the churches. And, worst of all, I find little of this in my own self-righteous, complacent heart. As I write this, I say to myself: Christopher, you need daily to repent of your sins and flee afresh to Christ for mercy. My first reaction, all too often—and I say this to my shame—is to grumble, to criticize governments, to wallow in self-pity. May God have mercy and move me, and move our churches, and move our nations, to a deep and widespread repentance.
2. It may feed our pride so that we neglect to thank God.
How extraordinarily clever are the scientists in the pharmaceutical industry! The skill, ingenuity, hard work, perseverance, and mind-boggling brilliance of those who develop a vaccine is a matter of wonder and amazement. It is an extraordinary thing to watch the whole process as it develops with such speed and—as it seems at the moment—likely success.
And yet—and this too we won’t learn from our newsfeeds—every iota of skill, every ounce of energy, every whisper of wisdom they possess comes entirely from their Creator by his common grace. Like the proud Corinthians, they need to learn that they have nothing they did not receive (cf. 1 Cor. 4:7). How good it will be if, as well as praying prayers of fresh repentance, we give thanks to God for his great mercy in giving the gifts and resources to scientists to make a vaccine.
3. It may give us a false sense of security for the future.
There’s a widespread sentiment that, when a vaccine is rolled out, we can happily return to normal. Sure, some things will probably change; there may be a lot more remote working, big-city business districts may be changed, that sort of thing. But, in the big picture, surely we’ll be able to pick up where we left off, won’t we? We will be safe again, right?
What dangerous nonsense! Of course we won’t be safe. It reminds me of the beast whose mortal wound was healed, and everyone marveled (Rev. 13:3); and yet it was still a beast, still under the judgment of God. Commenting on Psalm 42:7, John Calvin put it with bracing sobriety: “If it should please God to rain with violence upon us, as soon as he shall have opened his sluices or waterspouts, there will be no termination to our miseries till he is appeased; for he has in his power means marvelous and unknown for executing his vengeance against us.”
We may be safe from one virus (unless it mutates), but God “has in his power means marvelous and unknown” to execute his judgment against sinful humanity. So let’s not get our hopes out of proportion. If a successful vaccine is rolled out, it will be a signal mercy of God. But let’s not think we will then be exempt from his judgment. Only the death and resurrection of Christ can bring the wonderful assurance that “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).
If a successful vaccine is rolled out, it will be a signal mercy of God. But let’s not think we will then be exempt from his judgment.
All three of these warnings need to be heard whenever God shows his kindness to us in any way. When any of us is wonderfully cured of an illness, we can fall into these traps. When medics develop a cure for any disease, we should heed these warnings. But perhaps the COVID-19 pandemic and the prospect of a vaccine has given unusual publicity to these dangers?
So I do hope the vaccine project is successful. I really, really do. Still, though, I want to pray that God’s kindness will lead us to fresh repentance, that his gifts will move us to gratitude, and that a temporary reprieve won’t stop us from fleeing to Christ from the wrath to come—and urging others to do the same.