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Spiritual Lessons From Covid-19 and the Black Death

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Spiritual Lessons From Covid-19 and the Black Death

Bentley C.F. Chan
May 30, 2021


In this article I discuss two pandemics—Covid-19 and the Black Death—not for the sake of visiting history or science, but to glean a few spiritual or biblical lessons that are meaningful to Christians in the current pandemic.

But first I would like to express my deepest concern for our sister churches in India (Chennai) and Nepal (Kathmandu) in the hope that the Covid situation in your respective countries will find a speedy resolution, and that you may experience God’s mercy and deliverance. My own father in Canada came down with Covid-19 last year at the age of 88 from a covid outbreak in his seniors home that killed half its residents. Thank God my father has recovered.

The Black Death—the bubonic plague—is the greatest and deadliest calamity in the entire history of the past few thousand years.

Note: In preparing this article, I read two books on the plague. For an easy book on this topic, I would suggest, “The Black Death: A Captivating Guide to the Deadliest Pandemic in Medieval Europe and Human History,” which I credit in advance as the source of all my information on the plague in this article. But I won’t cite the sources for Covid-19 information since it has already been widely reported in the news.

Most of us have vague impressions of the Black Death, but few have a clear picture of its horrifying dimensions and how it scarred the collective psyche of Europe for centuries after.

The Black Death—the plaque—ravaged the world outside of the Americas. In Europe it raged on for seven years, from 1346 to 1353. But even before it reached Europe, the people there had already heard of a ghastly plague that was killing vast populations in foreign lands. But they dismissed it as an isolated incident, believing that God was pouring his wrath on the “heathen” nations whereas Europe will be spared because of her Christian faith and heritage, a view that was promoted by the church.

But that fantasy was brutally shattered when the people saw that even the elite of European society—kings and queens, merchants, church officials—were dying of a fast-spreading disease that would sometimes result in partially black corpses as might be evoked by the term “Black Death,” though the common term at the time was “the pestilence” or “the great pestilence”.

The people of medieval Europe did not know what the root causes of the plague were. But one man, a traveller, observed that the disease would often be introduced to healthy towns by infected travelers, so he started the first known quarantine to keep a town safe. He also noted that those who survived the plague were not susceptible to it later on.

Another writer, Giovanni Boccaccio, wrote a first-hand account of the ghastly plague in his book, The Decameron. Here are a few quotations:

  • “Dead bodies filled every corner.”
  • “With the help of porters, the people carried the bodies out of the houses and laid them at the doors.”
  • “Such was the magnitude of the corpses brought to the church every day and every hour, that there was not enough room to bury them. The cemeteries were full, so they had to dig deep trenches to bury the bodies by the hundreds.”
  • “The mass graves themselves contributed to the spread of the disease, for rodents and other scavengers were attracted to the stench and carried fleas farther from the source.”

Here are some technical facts about the plague:

  • The bacterium that causes the plague is Yersinia pestis, which has an incubation period of between a day and a week. It is spread by fleas which are infected with the bacterium and which are carried by hosts, mainly rats but also human beings. The plague is also airborne.
  • The plague has never disappeared, and has reemerged in more recent times. The third pandemic which ended in 1959 killed 15 million in India alone.
  • We are familiar with the term “bubonic plague,” but there are actually three types of plague: the bubonic plague, the septicemic plague, and the pneumonic plague.
  • The least lethal of these is the bubonic plague, but its true danger is that it would often result in the other two types. Its bacterium attacks the lymph nodes, creating swollen nodes around the body called buboes, hence the word bubonic.
  • The septicemic plague is far deadlier, and travels through the bloodstream, resulting in bleeding under the skin and the blackening of the body extremities (fingers, toes, nose).
  • The third type—the pneumonic plague—is airborne and attacks the lungs. It is always fatal if left untreated.
  • Unlike Covid-19 which is a viral disease, the plague is a bacterial disease for which there is no effective vaccine (vaccines are generally for viral infections). The standard treatment for the plague is antibiotics.

The plague entered Europe through various channels, but initially through the port cities of the Mediterranean. For example, in October 1347, a dozen ships arrived at Messina, a port city of Sicily. These ships would later be dubbed “the death ships”. Most of the sailors on board were already dead on arrival, with their corpses showing the horrific signs of the disease. Those who were still alive were covered in buboes oozing with pus and blood.

The port authorities ordered the immediate eviction of the ships, with no sailor allowed to get off, but this simply spread the disease to other port cities. The inspectors who boarded the ships may themselves have been infected by the airborne plague released by the burst buboes and uncontrolled coughing. So even without rats jumping to shore, the plague soon engulfed Europe.

Is Covid-19 an End-Time Plague of Revelation?

The plague came in several waves. Many historians say that the first wave of 1346–1353 killed one third—even one half by some estimates—of the population of Europe. This reminds us of Revelation 9:15: “So the four angels, who had been prepared for the hour, the day, the month, and the year, were released to kill a third of mankind.”

If we take this statement in Revelation as an end-time prophecy, it could not possibly refer to the Black Death which happened some seven centuries ago, though the stark parallels can hardly be ignored.

What about Covid-19? Is it an end-time plague of Revelation? Not quite or not yet. In terms of death rate, Covid-19 does not quality as a genuine apocalyptic calamity. At this time of writing, May 30, 2021, Covid-19 has infected 171,234,489 and killed 3,561,018 globally. Experts say that these enormous numbers are vastly undercounted. But even if we triple the latter figure to 10 million deaths, that would yield a death rate of “only” 0.13% against a world population of 7.8 billion—far below the rate of one in three in medieval Europe from the plague. On the other hand, pure numbers do not tell the whole story; there is no doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic has been the greatest global cataclysm since World War II. Even if it is not one of the plagues in Revelation, it is certainly, at the very least, a foreshadowing or precursor to one.

Although Covid-19 has not yet reached the scale of an apocalyptic event like the seven seals or the seven trumpets in Revelation, we cannot rule out such a possibility because Covid variants are proliferating.

At this time of writing, pandemic experts have raised the alarm over the “delta” covid variant (from the B.1.617 family) which is more transmissible and causes more severe symptoms than the other variants. It is believed to be around 50% more transmissible than the B.1.1.7 “UK” variant which in turn is more infectious than the original SARS-CoV-2. The delta variant has reached 60 countries, including my country Canada. The world’s covid future will depend on whether the current vaccines are effective against the variants, and how soon the world will attain full vaccination.

Does God Protect Christians From Covid-19?

In medieval Europe, most people lacked a formal education, so they would get their knowledge about the world from the church clergy, who were educated. But Europe was unprepared for the plague when it came, partly because her people were taught that God would protect them on account of their Christian faith. But when they saw that the church was helpless against the tide of disease, some lost their confidence in the church, and felt that the end of the world was coming.

Even today, some people believe that their Christian faith will make them invulnerable to Covid-19. Last August in Montreal, I was taking a walk with my wife Sylvia when I saw a man rolling a heavy cross in front of Complexe Desjardins. I walked up to him and chatted with him, and got permission to take a few photos of him. His name is Normand, a warm and friendly brother who is passionate about preaching the gospel. He noticed my mask, and said I wouldn’t need to wear it if I put my faith in Jesus Christ.

Are Christians protected from Covid-19 because of their faith or religion? Didn’t Moses say to the Israelites, “Yahweh will remove all sicknesses from you; he will not put on you all the terrible diseases of Egypt that you know about, but will inflict them on all who hate you” (Dt.7:15)? But this promise was given in a different historical setting, and was conditional on covenantal obedience.

In real life, there is no medical evidence that Jews and Christians today enjoy special protection from cancer, Alzheimer’s, Covid-19, and so on, though I do believe in special cases of divine healing, and that God will often give us strength, both physical and spiritual, in time of need.

On the contrary, I know of servants of God who came down with Covid-19, yet triumphed by preaching the gospel in their sickness. Click here for a testimony of sister Ighid, one of our church leaders in Indonesia who nearly died of Covid-19, yet was able to share the gospel with others in hospital.

Does a Pandemic Lead to Repentance?

God intends that the plagues in the book of Revelation should bring humankind to repentance. Yet the consistent comment is that they will not repent:

The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands nor give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk, nor did they repent of their murders or their sorceries or their sexual immorality or their thefts. (Revelation 9:20–21, ESV)

Similarly Revelation 16:9–11 says “they did not repent and give God glory” and “they did not repent of their deeds”.

Because of these statements in Revelation, I have been keeping an eye on the world in the past 14 months, to see if the pandemic might draw humankind to repentance and a closer walk with God. So far I haven’t seen any evidence of this, though my observations are limited and anecdotal.

On the contrary, I sense an increasing indifference to God. I am not alone in making this observation. An article in National Post, a Canadian newspaper, appeared last week with the title, “Covid may have hastened Christianity’s decline in Canada”. It says that Christianity in Canada had been declining even before the pandemic, but now Covid-19 is accelerating the decline.

My own guess is that even after the virus has been vanquished, and normalcy has been restored in society, many people may still avoid going to church out of covid hesitancy, but also because Zoom meetings have become a new normal.

Social behavior took a different turn in the Black Death, with people responding to the pandemic with religious fervor, though not necessarily in ways that worked for the better.

During the Black Death, the church had been telling the people that they were being punished by the vengeful God of the Old Testament for their sins, but if they should repent, God will lift the pestilence.

The people responded by living more religiously and with greater self-examination. But when that did not ease the pandemic, some took fanatical measures to appease God. In 1348, some started whipping themselves (self-flagellation) to express the sincerity of their repentance. In some cases, men called Flagellants would be hired to carry out flagellation on the repentant, a practice that was perceived by the church to be a direct challenge to her authority. But flagellation soon dropped out of favor when the number of deaths declined.

Yet positively, in the midst of the horrific scourge aptly called the Black Death, many gave their lives to help society. Many doctors died in their service for society, often by performing autopsies or issuing death reports. And because of their high mortality rate, many doctors were treated as pariahs or social outcasts.

Priests were called to perform the last rites on the dying, and some died after being exposed to infected people.

Two Lessons for Covid-19

I would like to suggest two things to learn in the Covid-19 pandemic.

First, Covid-19 has exposed our human mortality, so let us number our days. Psalm 90:12 says, “So teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” At first glance, numbering our days may seem to be a trivial exercise. But the Psalmist, who is believed to be Moses (“A prayer of Moses, the man of God”), pleads to be taught by God to do this, indicating that numbering our days has deep spiritual dimensions, and goes beyond merely estimating our longevity or acknowledging our mortality. It involves numbering our days—living our lives—according to God’s will, God’s plan, and God’s wisdom.

Second, let us take to heart Psalm 103:8–13:

Yahweh is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He does not always accuse, nor keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. As a father shows compassion to his children, so Yahweh shows compassion to those who fear him.

What we can learn from this passage is not only that God is merciful to us, but also that we can imitate God by being “slow to anger”. The Covid-19 pandemic has created deep tensions in society. In the past year, I have seen several people—male and female, white and black—speaking angrily to some imaginary person, especially in subway stations. We can learn to control our anger in this world, to speak a gracious word to those in need of God’s light.

(c) 2021 Christian Disciples Church