Joanne Lee Wong
RESPONDING TO COVID-19 WITH THE NOAH STORY
Updated: Mar 16, 2020
WHEN my husband asked me to pray for the Covid-19 situation last night, I froze.
He had asked me in the first place because he knew I had been reading the latest news all day for the past few days while convalescing in bed from my fractured ribs. Whenever he came home from work, I would pester him with the news of the day in my usual melodramatic way and persuade him to agree with me that the situation abroad was especially terrible.
The World Health Organization says certain countries are not taking the Covid-19 outbreak seriously enough. You know which countries the director-general was hinting at, right darling?
Good grief, not only does Donald Trump think the coronavirus will miraculously go away in April with the warmer weather, he doesn’t want to let the Grand Princess cruise ship with 3,500 passengers stuck off the California coast dock because he actually says he doesn’t want the US case numbers to double! Can you believe that? He says that ship isn’t America’s fault. Obviously because he’s more interested in his re-election campaign. Pfffffft.
Arg, I’m so mad. Mike Pompeo is insisting on calling it the Wuhan Virus even though Beijing and the World Health Organization have pleaded with him not to. More Chinese people are going to get targeted in the West, I tell you, like that poor Singaporean guy on Oxford Street in London. Do you know more Asian Americans are buying guns to protect themselves in the US because of all this racial prejudice caused by the coronavirus?
Darling! They’re locking down the whole of Northern Italy. That includes Milan and Venice, you know? 16 million people! They’re even talking about suspending Serie A football altogether. Really!
12 new cases in Singapore today, darling. Including another imported case. I tell you, we are going to see a lot more imported cases the way these Western countries are so unprepared to contain the virus. It’s so frustrating!
Yes, dear readers. My poor husband really has to put up with me badgering him with news updates like that every day. Especially now that all I can do is either sleep when my medication compels me to, or continue to feed my news junkie obsession when I’m awake since my medication affords me a short attention span so I don’t have the energy to distract myself with proper books or Netflix episodes.
So when my husband asked me to pray for the Covid-19 situation last night, he did so as he thought I needed to get a lot off my chest. But I froze because, once I was done praying for the wider world situation, I thought about the individuals that had been diagnosed or who were facing certain death, and I choked up.
“Dear Lord, for those who are sick and know they are dying, surround them with Your love and comfort them with Your peace. Be with their family members also in this incredibly difficult time. I just want to pray for... I just... oh I don’t know. I don’t what to say!”
“What’s bothering you, darling?”
“Those who are unbelievers won’t exactly be able to recognise God’s love nor His comfort, would they? So how do we pray for them?”
“Well, we pray exactly that. That they, and their family members, will experience God’s love and that they will recognise it.”
“And if they don’t and they die unbelievers?”
“You know what I think.”
Of course I do. And I believe the same too.
Why was I getting so worked up? I’ve been to enough of Norman’s sermons and bible studies to know what he believes when it comes to unbelievers dying before they get to hear the gospel or before they make the decision to accept Jesus as their saviour.
Let me start the discourse with this: Yes, we are in a pandemic - a modern word for plague, really - and some are saying it’s God’s judgement on a sinful, perverse generation. But, whether you believe that Covid-19 is divinely intended or not, it wouldn’t be the first time God has destroyed creation.
Genesis 6:5-6 tells us:
“The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled.”
We all know what happened next. He sent the great flood to wipe out humanity - all save for Noah and his family. (And some animals.)
But surely not everyone was wicked? Surely there were some good people? What about the children and the babies? They can’t also be evil? What a cruel story Noah’s Ark is if indeed this was the end of the story.
It’s one of my favourite of Norman’s sermons that he preaches from time to time: that the Noah story does not end in Genesis. It continues in 1 Peter 3:19-20:
“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits - to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.”
What does Peter mean when he wrote that Jesus “made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits”? It is safe to interpret that to mean Christ went to Hell to preach to those who perished in the great flood. After all, as Christians, we recite the Apostles’ Creed which says “I believe in Jesus Christ... who was... crucified, died and was buried; he descended to the dead.” So we can conclude that Jesus went to Hell to give those who had perished as disobedient unbelievers a second chance!
The Noah story, therefore, does not end as a sad, brutal story if you continue its second installment in 1 Peter 3:18-20. The imprisoned spirits in Hell got a second chance. What a wonderful denouement.
This message is reinforced in the next chapter, 1 Peter 4:5-6:
“But they will have to give account to Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to human standards in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit.”
The gospel is preached to those who are dead. The dead indeed get a second chance to hear the good news of Jesus’ salvation and it’s up to them to respond.
And if you think Norman is piecing together bits and bobs to make a fairytale ending for the Noah story, listen to Jesus’ own words in John 5:25, 28, 29:
“Very truly I tell you, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live.
Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear His voice and come out - those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned.”
All who are in their graves! Jesus himself says everyone who has died - believer or unbeliever - will get to hear His voice, and will get a second chance at eternal life if they respond to His calling.
So we do not have to worry about those who die in pandemics as unbelievers. In fact, and this might upset some more conservative Christians, we might not even need to worry about those who die as a matter of course as unbelievers - for they will hear Jesus’ voice when they are dead and it will be up to them to respond when that happens.
(Of course, this doesn’t mean we ignore Jesus’ great commission: that we go make disciples of all nations. I believe He still wants us to live our lives to be good witnesses for Him and to be disciples of His teachings. But that is another pondering for another day.)
Do you have a loved one who does not seem open to hearing the gospel for generational, cultural or personal reasons? Do not fret. They will get a second chance when they hear and get to respond to His very own voice. Jesus says so Himself.
So how can we pray for those individuals suffering from Covid-19? That God will relieve their suffering and that they receive His peace and comfort. The rest we can calmly leave to God because He plans to reveal Himself to them even after death.
What an amazing relief this is, wouldn’t you agree?
Joanne Lee Wong is a writer, wife and corgi mum. She’s not a bible scholar, teacher nor church leader - just a former journalist and member of a Methodist congregation who struggles reconciling her faith with everyday experiences. All views expressed are her own.