The coronavirus has brought out the apocalyptists, both the restrained and the full-bore. The restrained say that it looks like we’re being punished, and that if so, we deserve it for doing this or that. The full-bore insist we’re being punished, specify the sins for which we’re being punished, and often tie the punishment to some grand eschatological scheme. The Catholic ones sometimes find it in private revelations or Marian apparitions.
Horrible things happen all the time, sometimes to very large numbers of people, like Ebola and famine and the plague of locusts now infesting east Africa. But American Christians don’t usually find them apocalyptic.
The logic by which Americans find some disasters apocalyptic seems to be: it’s natural, not human; it’s really bad and really big; it’s happening to us; therefore, God must have done it specially, either to punish us or to send us a message, or both.
The great problem with apocalyptism is that it redirects attention from the constant possibility of our own death and the present reality of the suffering and death of others, into pointless and useless speculation about what God may be doing. – David Mills
We don’t need Divine intent to explain something really bad and really big, like a worldwide pandemic. They come naturally. They’re the kind of thing nature does. And has done repeatedly through human history. Along with earthquakes, hurricanes, tidal waves, crop blights, locust swarms, other insect infestations, forest fires, vermin-borne plagues, and other natural disasters.
This particular kind of pandemic has been predicted for some time. Decades, at least. The conditions for its creation and spread have existed for many years. Epidemiologists have warned about China, in particular, for a long time. The odds were that we’d suffer such a thing, sometime.
In other words, there is no obvious sign in it to read. The coronavirus is, as far as we can know, just one of those horrors natural to a fallen world. We don’t need direct Divine intent to explain it. If anything, Divine intent might explain why we haven’t suffered such a thing already.
As my friend Christopher Chapman wrote me: “God is communion and is therefore communication. He is very good at it! Punishment, to be effective, must be understood and direct. If sin is its own punishment, as Scripture attests, then what does additional punishment bring if the message is not clear?”
“What matters,” St. Augustine says, “is the nature of the sufferer, not the nature of the sufferings.” The Newman scholar Bud Marr explores this, using what might be called the “You Roman scum” part of The City of God. The Romans failed to see what disaster should have taught them. “Prosperity depraved you; and adversity could not reform you,” he says. “[Y]ou have learned no salutary lesson from calamity; you have become the most wretched, and you have remained the most worthless, of mankind.”
I might be more sympathetic to apocalpytists if they didn’t always find the reason for the punishment in a very narrow set of sins, almost always sexual. Apocalpytism is politics by other means. The apocalyptists condemn what Dorothy Sayers called the “warm-hearted sins” but not the “cold-hearted ones,” which are worse. If they really had insight into the signs of the times, you’d expect they’d be ascribing God’s wrath to a wider range of sins, because as a species, we’re pretty comprehensively awful.
The excuse to blame the people they’re already blaming seems to be much of apocalyptism’s attraction. – David Mills
The great problem with apocalyptism is that it redirects attention from the constant possibility of our own death and the present reality of the suffering and death of others, into pointless and useless speculation about what God may be doing. We don’t know what God intends with this disease – whether he directs it or allows it – but we don’t need to know. We already know that we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, as St. Paul says, and that every pain and loss, ours or others’, calls us to repent.
David Mills is editor of Hour of Our Death and is finishing a book for Sophia Press titled When Catholics Die.
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