Recently I was asked to comment on whether COVID-19 restrictions on churches could be a sign of God’s judgment on the western institutional church, given that many churches have had to limit or cease usual Sunday services. In relation to this, 1 Peter 4:17 was referenced:
For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? (NASB)
This is an important question. There is no doubt these are unprecedented times on the earth and life as we knew it, for many of us, has transformed rapidly into life as we have never experienced it. And while there have been plagues and pestilences throughout history, it is doubtful the effects of previous pandemics have ever been as far-reaching on humanity as COVID-19 is proving to be.
So, could this virus be God’s way of visiting judgment on the western church, at least in part? The short answer, in my opinion, is no. Here’s why:
Firstly, COVID-19 has affected multitudes of people worldwide regardless of religion, economic status, or nation. While many western churches have experienced inconvenient limitations in ministry and services due to various lockdowns by governments, most have found ways around these restrictions through technology and other means. The tragic effects of the virus have negatively impacted other social groups far more than the western church, not least the aged population, the poor, the disabled and the homeless. And while I’m aware some Christian leaders are crying ‘persecution’ on government restrictions, there’s a very big difference between inconvenience and persecution. Persecution is not being unable to sit in your favourite pew on Sunday, or missing out on live worship, or reduced offerings being taken due to smaller attendance numbers. It means genuine suffering, and historically whenever the Christian community has genuinely been persecuted it has gone underground and thrived without the buildings and trappings enjoyed by many modern day churches. Enough said.
Secondly, we need to be clear what we are talking about when we use the word ‘judgment’ in a Biblical sense. Remember our New Testaments are translated from Greek. The original New Testament Greek has multiple words for ‘judgment’ and ‘judge’, all with slightly different inferences, but when we read our English translations we mostly just see the word ‘judgment’ without those subtle differences. As a result, our understanding of how, why and who God judges is often confused or vague.
Four of those Greek words, which all appear in our English New Testaments, are krima, krisis, krino and katadikazo.¹
- Krima means a legal decision or decree, and carries the inference of a final sentence or verdict – it is often translated ‘condemnation’ or ‘damnation’ in older English versions.
- Krisis is closely related to krima and has the meaning of the process undertaken in arriving at krima (i.e. a trial).
- Krino carries the meaning of thoughtfully investigating and evaluating a matter, of forming a personal opinion and coming to a decision about a situation or person.
- Katadikazo refers to handing down a negative judgment, i.e. guilt requiring punishment. (It’s what we do when we presume to take the place of God in His role as Righteous Judge.)
Here are just a handful of New Testament examples:
For with what judgment (krima) you judge (krino), you will be judged (krino); and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. Matt. 7:1,2
Do not judge (krino), and you will not be judged (krino); and do not condemn (katadikazo), and you will not be condemned (katadikazo); pardon, and you will be pardoned. Luke 6:37
For not even the Father judges (krino) anyone, but He has given all judgment (krisis) to the Son. (Jn. 5:22,23)
Can you see the subtle differences here?
In addition, the Bible also speaks of a coming Day of Judgment (krisis): Matt. 10:15; 11:22-24; Matt. 12:36; 2 Pe 2:9; 3:7;1 Jn. 4:17; Jde.1:6
My point is that we often have a very generic concept of biblical judgment as simply God displaying His wrath in some form or another, but the Bible differentiates between different levels and kinds of judgment. One thing the New Testament makes clear, however, is that born-again followers of Christ will never be subject to God’s wrath. We may be rebuked, chastised, experience trials and tribulations, or have our faith tested, and all believers will face examination of our works at the judgment (bema) seat of Christ (2 Cor. 5:10) – but only those who have rejected God’s free offer of salvation through Christ will be subject to His wrath (Jn. 3:36). Let me say that again – God’s children, those who believe in and sincerely follow Jesus Christ, are not subject to His wrath:
Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment (G. krisis), but has passed out of death into life (Jn. 5:24). See also Acts 17:30-31; Rom. 5:9, 1 Th. 1:10, 1 Th. 5:9; 1 Jn. 4:15-17.
So, returning to our original question, what could Peter have been referring to when he wrote this:
For it is time for judgment (krima) to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And if it is with difficulty that the righteous is saved, what will become of the godless man and the sinner? (1 Peter 4:17,18)
Can this passage be reasonably applied to today’s institutional church and the COVID-19 situation? And how does it align with Peter’s much different statement in his second epistle that entrance into the Kingdom of God will be abundantly supplied to believers (2 Peter 1:11), which is hardly a picture of a people just scraping through by the skin of their teeth?
Let’s look at the context: Peter wrote this epistle to believers living in the Roman Empire sometime around AD 64. It was a time of general civil unrest in the Empire and serious upheaval for the church, for the Emperor Nero had come to power and had begun a reign of terror and persecution against Christians. History records that under Nero Christians were rounded up in multitudes, torn apart by wild dogs, burned to death and crucified in large numbers.
The Christians Peter was addressing were about to suffer such persecution, and much of his letter, and indeed the passage we are considering, is devoted to preparing and encouraging them for this coming suffering and persecution, which he calls a ‘fiery ordeal’ (1 Pe 4:12). He goes on to say that there is no service to God in suffering for sinful things such as being a murderer or thief, but ‘if anyone suffer as as a Christian, he is not ashamed but is to glorify God in this name.’ (1 Peter 4:16)
It makes little sense that Peter would go straight from encouraging these believers concerning their imminent persecution for Christ, stating their suffering would glorify God, to declaring God’s judgment on them. And would he have used a Greek word for ‘judgment’ that usually implies ‘condemnation’ in relation to believers?² What kind of judgment was Peter referring to then? Well, the word used is the Greek ‘krima’, which as we have already seen is a strong word meaning a sentence, a verdict, or condemnation.
Could Peter then have been referring to the ‘judgment’ of the Emperor Nero against the Christian population? Some commentators believe so. Others believe the judgment Peter referred to here is that which was predicted by Jesus against the unbelieving Jewish leaders in Matthew 23:13-29 (possibly referred to in verse 17 as ‘they who do not obey the gospel of God’). This theory is highlighted by the fact that just a few years after Peter wrote these words, in AD70, the Romans sacked Jerusalem, cruelly slaughtered most of the Jewish population, and left the city and the temple totally in ruins.
Consider also the phrase ‘the time has come’. New Testament Greek uses two main words for time: chronos (chronological time) and kairos (a specific moment or season within time). The word here is kairos. As such, it is difficult to understand how this specific period of time involving early Christians in the Roman Empire could be applied to the contemporary Western church.
This passage has traditionally been taught as a warning to the Christian church or Christians in general, as ‘the household of God’. But when taken in context there are considerable reasons to question the way we have traditionally understood it.
Now, having said all that, I do believe there is a perspective in which COVID 19 may be – I emphasise may be – a form of God’s judgment. But not directly on the western church.
Many believers agree we are in what is known biblically as the end times. The entity that is the subject of God’s judgment in the end times is Babylon (Rev. 17:1; 18:10). For the record I do not believe that Babylon is either a specific Christian denomination or a specific nation. It is far more wide-reaching than either of those. Babylon is the New Testament name for the man-made system by which the fallen world operates and whose spiritual roots go back to the city of Babel (meaning ‘confusion’) in Genesis 11. Babylon represents all aspects of human life including government, trade, military, commerce, education, culture and religion. Babylon lusts for worldly wealth and power, and makes merchandise of the bodies and souls of humans (Rev. 18:13).
(I know I have readers who hold the view that Babylon in John’s Revelation describes the ancient Roman Empire and believe many of the events described in Revelation have already taken place. I respect your viewpoint. Personally, I believe Biblical prophecy can refer to more than one historical event occurring at different times in history. I don’t wish to major on these things because frankly it’s a waste of time and precious energy to argue over the interpretation of end time events, so please don’t send me all your arguments! No one individual among us yet understands end time events perfectly – they are an unfolding revelation.)
While the international toll from COVID-19 is horrific and tragic, perhaps the more longer lasting effects of the virus will be on the world economy. If so, could it be that COVID-19 is just a pre-curser to the final future judgment of spiritual Babylon? I don’t know, but perhaps. We can only wait and watch.
So, to summarise my response to my friend’s question: no, I don’t believe God is judging the Western church through COVID-19. However, the as yet unknown long-term effects of the virus on worldwide economy may possibly be a foretaste of God’s coming promised judgment on the spiritual entity the New Testament calls Babylon. It follows that inasmuch as any Western church or denomination is entwined with and dependent on the carnal world system, or spiritual Babylon, they will as a result feel the effects of Babylon’s judgment.
¹For a much fuller explanation of all the Greek words translated ‘judge’ or ‘judgment’ in the New Testament, and their meanings, a good resource can be found here: http://www.insearchoftruth.org/articles/word_study_judge.html
²I use a layman’s understanding of Biblical Greek and am not a scholar. I am happy for anyone who has formally studied Biblical Greek to shed further light on the Greek words used in this post, in the comments section.
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