Why attempting to control COVID is not an idolatrous attempt to conquer death

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A narrative is emerging from some quarters of the church that measures to deal with the pandemic represent state and societal hubris, a humanistic confidence in our ability to defeat death. If this was the case, then we would be dealing with idolatry. Of course, as Christians we should not be surprised to see evidence of idolatry in society and there will be examples throughout the response to COVID of this.

However, as I explained in a recent article, we have got to make sure that we don’t leap in to attack positions that people simply don’t hold.  From what I have seen so far, there hasn’t been a hubristic attempt to defeat death. Those making this claim have misunderstood the position of those they seek to challenge.

At the same time, we also need to be careful that we don’t misunderstand Scripture.  In an earlier article I argued that it is not hubristic to seek to control COVID-19 or indeed to believe that this is possible.[1]  In Genesis 1:28, we are told

And God blessed them (man and woman). And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” 

In Genesis 2:15 we are told

“The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it”

This is developing the theme from Genesis 1. Adam now has a context in which to start to fulfil the mandate to subdue the earth.  He also has methods. He is to tend the garden, look after it and guard it.  I personally believe that this sets up men as providers and protectors. Adam fails in his duties when the serpent is allowed to come in and bring death.

This leads to God’s judgement in Genesis 3. Note that it effects two areas. First of all, in God’s words to the woman, we see the work of filling the earth subjected to the curse.  This results in danger to health.

I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing;
    in pain you shall bring forth children.
Your desire shall be contrary to[f] your husband,
    but he shall rule over you.”

Then in speaking to the man, God makes it clear that the work of subduing the earth will also become  a struggle. Again, there is an affect on his health.

Because you have listened to the voice of your wife
    and have eaten of the tree
of which I commanded you,
    ‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
    in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
    and you shall eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your face
    you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
    for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
    and to dust you shall return.”[3]

Now, I’m sure that throughout history, you will be able to find examples of people who have said that this means that we just have to accept that childbirth must be painful and dangerous. Similarly, you may find people who believe we just have to accept thorns, thistles and blight.  However, that has not been the overall approach of people. Rather, these things have been seen a s a challenge. Subduing and filling becomes harder but is still possible. Further more by advances in technology and drugs, we have found ways to try and mitigate against the consequences of the curse.

I don’t hear any of the people calling “hubris” suggesting that women should suffer pain in natural child-birth, refuse drugs and risk death. Nor, have I heard them saying that I should not weed my garden or that farmers should not use pesticides or combined harvesters but simply use priminative methods without the aid of tools.

There is therefore an acceptance that people will and indeed should seek to mitigate and overcome these challenges.

So, what is COVID-19? Well it is a part of the created order. It is also part of that order that as a result of the Fall has negative consequences bringing risk to life and health and making our work here harder.

Therefore, there is nothing hubristic or idolatrous in itself of seeking to combat this disease.

[1] It would be hubristic to believe it was guaranteed.

[2] Genesis 3:18.

[3] Genesis 3:17-19.

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