World wars, pandemics and the hand of GodWritten by Subby Szterszky
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Seventy-five years ago, on September 2, 1945, the Second World War ended with the formal surrender of Japan aboard the USS Missouri, parked in Tokyo Bay. It had begun six years plus a day earlier, on September 1, 1939, with the German invasion of Poland. The United Kingdom and France promptly declared war on Germany, and within months the world was embroiled in a global conflict on a scale never seen before or since.
By the time the war ended, it had claimed some 70-85 million dead. This included 20-25 million military who’d died in action or as prisoners of war. It also included 50-60 million civilians who’d perished due to disease, starvation, massacre, genocide (including the Holocaust) and mass bombing (including the nuclear strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki).
Countless tens of millions more had been wounded or maimed. Cities across Europe and Asia had been reduced to rubble. The economies and industries of most major powers outside the United States were in tatters.
Even so, postwar recovery was brisk (especially in developed countries) ushering in an era of peace and prosperity rarely if ever seen before. Succeeding generations (at least in the West) took this shalom for granted, as if a life of comfort and affluence uninterrupted by calamity was the norm.
And then 2020 happened, with its global pandemic, urban chaos and horrific acts of racial injustice caught on camera.
There is nothing new under the sun
“What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9)
Sadly, worldwide disruptions such as the Second World War or the COVID-19 pandemic are nothing new or unique in history. A mere 25 years before the Second World War, there was the First, known in its time simply as the Great War or the war to end all wars. Those titles were rendered obsolete by the far greater scale and death toll of the second conflict. Following on the heels of the First World War – and directly caused by it – came the 1918 influenza pandemic that took at least 50 million lives worldwide.
History is dotted with wars and disasters, natural and man-made, that have brought down civilizations, redrawn maps, and led to sweeping cultural and social changes, some of them for the worse, and many of them surprisingly for the better. From a scriptural perspective, such events are painful hallmarks of living in a fallen world. But they’re also the birth pains of a world awaiting redemption by its Creator (Romans 8:18-25).
God creates well-being and calamity
“I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the Lord, who does all these things.” (Isaiah 45:7)
Catastrophic events make theologians out of everyone. They drive some non-believers to seek God, looking for answers, even while their fellow skeptics double down on their conviction that God cannot exist in light of such suffering. And believers all too often try to justify God by arguing that these events aren’t part of his will, or else that they must be an act of judgment on some specific cultural sin.
But the Scriptures will have none of that. The biblical narrative brims with accounts that attribute wars and disasters to God, whether via human agents, nature (all of which is his to command) or direct divine action. There’s no warrant to expect this to be any different in extra-biblical history. The Lord is clear when he declares through Isaiah that he is the author of well-being and calamity. He’s equally clear that calamities in their various forms are not usually a response to a particular sin (Job 1-2, 38-42; Luke 13:1-5; John 9:1-3).
Such truths may be difficult to hear, but they’re far more comforting than any of the alternatives. What hope is there in a world without God where bad things happen for no reason? What security is there in a God who either can’t or won’t prevent bad things from happening, for whatever reason? How much more reassuring to know that God is sovereign over world wars and global pandemics, ordaining and controlling and limiting them to accomplish his good and wise purposes.
As Tim Keller observed, “If you have a God great and transcendent enough to be mad at because he hasn’t stopped evil and suffering in the world, then you have (at the same moment) a God great and transcendent enough to have good reasons for allowing it to continue that you can’t know.”
Seek the things that are above
“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.” (Colossians 3:1)
God is the source of all good things, which he generously gives us to enjoy (1 Timothy 6:17; James 1:17). His gifts of peace and prosperity are expressions of his kindness and serve as foretastes of the shalom his people will enjoy with him in the new heavens and new earth. At the same time, he repeatedly warns his people not to allow peace and prosperity to turn their hearts from him (Deuteronomy 8:11-20).
Alas, it’s a lesson humanity has been slow to learn throughout history. Rather than praising God for his goodness, affluent cultures follow a pattern of becoming complacent and self-indulgent, embracing the present world while showing little interest in the one to come. It’s only when God withdraws his blessings that people in such cultures begin to pursue him in earnest and seek the things that are above.
The events of 2020 – the pandemic, the social upheavals, the horrible displays of racial hatred that reflect deeper systemic injustice – have shaken the stability Westerners took for granted over decades. For perhaps the first time since the Second World War, there’s broad cultural anxiety and uncertainty about the future. Non-believers are asking questions about God. And believers, with their comforts and certainties disrupted, are drawing closer to God and finding him to draw closer to them (James 4:8).
Do not be troubled or afraid
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” (John 14:27)
The most common command in the Bible is “do not be afraid.” There’s a reason for this: we tend to be afraid. We’re afraid of uncertainty, danger, problems, the unexplained, the future. We’re afraid of God. And it’s futile to deny our fear or push it down by force of will. The way to deal with fear is to trust God, his Son, and his sovereign rule over the world in the midst of trials (Psalm 56:3; John 14:1; John 16:33). We’re invited to bring our anxieties to our loving Father who knows what we need before we ask (Matthew 6:25-34; Philippians 4:6-7).
The world at present is gripped with fear and anxiety that expresses itself through anger and tribalism. It’s been that way for a while, but the events of 2020 have dumped plenty of fuel on those fires. This is an opportunity for followers of Jesus to trust our Lord in the midst of our own anxieties and fears. In addition to honouring God, we can then be a voice of reason and peace amidst all the polarizing rhetoric, instead of being drawn into it ourselves.
Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly
“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)
For the first time in 75 years, a series of events has given rise to palpable existential fear and uncertainty on a global scale. Just like the Second World War, the crises of 2020 have held up a mirror to the heart of humanity. Whether it’s photos of Holocaust victims or videos of George Floyd and Jacob Blake, all of them provide physical evidence of the darkest side of human nature and put a lie to the dream of a secular utopia without God.
On the other hand, these disruptive times show that God has not abandoned his fallen creation. He remains engaged in the hearts and circumstances of his human image-bearers, on an individual as well as a cultural level. There’s a heightened sense of community, compassion and mutual help, a recognition that we’re all in this together. More than that, there’s a fervent desire to right the wrongs of social injustice, to repent and learn and recognize the God-given dignity of all people, in more than just theory.
God’s triple injunction via the prophet Micah has become one of the most beloved verses of Scripture, and rightly so. It’s a beautiful sentiment, but of course it’s far more than that. For followers of Jesus, it’s a manifesto for how to live, not only in times of prosperity and peace, but especially in times of war, pandemic and other calamities.
Sources and further reading
John M. Barry, “How the horrific 1918 flu spread across America,” Smithsonian Magazine, November 2017.
Murray Brewster, “A ‘deafening silence’: Canada still struggles with the Second World War’s legacy, says historian,” CBC News, September 2, 2020.
Hannah Hagemann, “The 1918 flu pandemic was brutal, killing more than 50 million people worldwide,” NPR, April 2, 2020.
Scott Hershberger, “The 1918 flu faded in our collective memory: We might ‘forget’ the coronavirus, too,” Scientific American, August 13, 2020.
Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, Dutton, 2008.
J. Alexander Navarro, “Lessons from the 1918 pandemic: A U.S. city’s past may hold clues,” The Conversation, July 6, 2020.
Madeline Roache and Olivia B. Waxman, “World War II in Europe ended 75 years ago, but the world is still fighting over who gets to say what happened,” Time, May 8, 2020.
Marta Rodriguez Martinez, “How did the Spanish flu pandemic end and what lessons can we learn from a century ago?” Euronews, June 3, 2020.
John Graham Royde-Smith, “World War II: 1939-1945,” Britannica, August 27, 2020.
C.P. Stacey and Richard Foot, “Second World War (WWII),” The Canadian Encyclopedia, May 13, 2015.
Julian Ryall, “Japan marks 75th anniversary of end of World War II,” Deutsche Welle, August 14, 2020.
Alan Taylor, “World War II: The Holocaust,” The Atlantic, October 16, 2011.
Theresa Waldrop, “Here’s what happened when students went to school during the 1918 pandemic,” CNN, August 19, 2020.
“1918 Pandemic (H1N1 virus),” CDC Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, March 20, 2019.
“Second World War: 1939-1945,” Library and Archives Canada, January 30, 2020.
“Second World War (1939-1945),” Veterans Affairs Canada, July 15, 2020.
“The 75th anniversary of V-J Day and the end of the Second World War,” Veterans Affairs Canada, August 14, 2020.
“World War II,” Wikipedia, September 7, 2020.
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2020 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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