“For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” – Philippians 1:21
It is interesting how there are different sides in the response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Here is some history of previous Christian responses to pandemics over the past 2,000 years. These times of plague also helped spread the Gospel.
The Plague of Cyprian, during the middle of the 3rd century A.D., was a lethal pandemic that, at its height, caused upwards of 5,000 deaths a day in Rome. During the plague, Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria, wrote that the Romans "pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treated unburied corpses as dirt ... " During the same time...
"Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead.
"But with the heathen everything was quite otherwise. They deserted those who began to be sick, and fled from their dearest friends. They shunned any participation or fellowship with death; which yet, with all their precautions, it was not easy for them to escape." (Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 7.22.7–10)
Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, wrote of the plague searching them out:
" ... we have begun gladly to seek martyrdom while we are learning not to fear death." Later he wrote, "Heedless of the danger, (followers) took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy ... "
It is very interesting to compare the letter of Emperor Julian a century later to the high priest of Galatia,
“the recent Christian growth was caused by their ‘moral character, even if pretended,’ and by their ‘benevolence toward strangers and care for the graves of the dead.’”
In a letter to another priest Julian wrote, “The impious Galileans (Christians) support not only their poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.” These observations caused Julian to launch a campaign to institute pagan charities but for all that he urged pagan priest to match…Christian practices, there was little or no response because there were no doctrinal bases or traditional practices for them to build upon.
The 14th century was the era of the Black Plague. During this period clergy died at a higher rate than the general population because they were unwilling to forsake parishioners who had fallen sick. In 1527 a plague effected Wittenburg (Germany). Martin Luther and his pregnant wife decided to stay behind and care for the sick citing Matt 25:41-46. This decision cost their daughter, Elizabeth, her life. A tract by Martin Luther at that time addresses the question of "Whether One May Flee From a Deadly Plague." Therein Luther argued that "All of us have the responsibility of warding off this poison to the best of our ability because God has gifted humans with their bodies [and] so too he has gifted the medicines of the earth." Luther’s main point being: We die at our posts. Christian doctors cannot abandon their hospitals, Christian governors cannot flee their districts, Christian pastors cannot abandon their congregations. The plague does not dissolve our duties: It turns them to crosses, on which we must be prepared to die.
Luther, in a letter dated August 19, 1527, also warned that Christians not judge one another for their different decisions and not let self-righteousness invade.
“We are here alone with the deacons, but Christ is present too, that we may not be alone, and he will triumph in us over that old serpent, murderer, and author of sin, however much he may bruise Christ’s heel. Pray for us, and farewell.”
Three hundred years later, Charles Spurgeon, pastor at New Park Street Chapel, London, wrote of the 1854 Cholera outbreak,
“If there ever be a time when the mind is sensitive, it is when death is abroad. I recollect, when first I came to London, how anxiously people listened to the gospel, for the cholera was raging terribly. There was little scoffing then.”
So while pandemics may cause great fear, to the followers of Christ - who understands that the fear of death has been removed (Hebrews 2:15) - these times of great trial also present us with times of great opportunity.