Dr. N. T. Wright: God and the Pandemic

image of N. T. Wright and headline God

What you’ll see in this Logos Live episode

Prolific author and renowned Bible scholar N. T. Wright discusses a different perspective for responding to COVID-19, why it’s important to be rooted in Scripture, and how to carry out the Church’s calling. 

Jump to transcript.

To catch all of our Logos Lives, follow us on Facebook or subscribe on YouTube.

God and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on Coronavirus and Its Aftermath

Discover a different way of seeing and responding to the coronavirus pandemic—an approach drawing on Scripture, Christian history, and the way of living, thinking, and praying revealed to us by Jesus.

Read more

Other books & courses by N. T. Wright

The New Testament in Its World: An Introduction to the History, Literature, and Theology of the First Christians

The New Testament in Its World: An Introduction to the History, Literature, and Theology of the First Christians

Regular price: $47.99

Add to cart
The New Testament in Its World Video Lectures

The New Testament in Its World Video Lectures

Regular price: $71.99

Add to cart
Mobile Ed: TH341 Perspectives on Eschatology: Five Views on the Millennium (4 hour course)

Mobile Ed: TH341 Perspectives on Eschatology: Five Views on the Millennium (4 hour course)

Regular price: $149.99

Add to cart
Colossians and Philemon (Tyndale New Testament Commentary | TNTC)

Colossians and Philemon (Tyndale New Testament Commentary | TNTC)

Regular price: $12.99

Add to cart
New Testament for Everyone Series (20 vols.)

New Testament for Everyone Series (20 vols.)

Regular price: $219.99

Add to cart
Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible

Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible

Regular price: $69.99

Add to cart
Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision

Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision

Regular price: $12.99

Add to cart
The Lord and His Prayer

The Lord and His Prayer

Regular price: $6.99

Add to cart
Surprised by Hope

Surprised by Hope

Regular price: $18.99

Add to cart
Jesus and the Victory of God

Jesus and the Victory of God

Regular price: $27.99

Add to cart
Paul and the Faithfulness of God (2 vols.)

Paul and the Faithfulness of God (2 vols.)

Regular price: $53.99

Add to cart
Galatians (Commentaries for Christian Formation)

Galatians (Commentaries for Christian Formation)

Regular price: $37.99

Add to cart
Christian Origins and the Question of God Series (4 vols.)

Christian Origins and the Question of God Series (4 vols.)

Regular price: $99.99

Add to cart

Interview with N. T. Wright transcript

Scott Lindsey: My name is Scott Lindsey. I’ve been with Faithlife now going on 23 years. My primary role is leading the team of conference speakers. We speak at various conferences around the world, hopefully getting people excited to study the Bible using Logos. But obviously, we are not going to conferences right now, so . . . what do we do?

So we thought, why don’t we introduce people to our great relationships. And so wow, what an honor to spend some time with Dr. Wright today. This is our fourteenth episode, which is amazing because we just started this not too long ago, and we’ve had all kinds of great topics. We’ve talked about pastoral care. We’ve talked about the sovereignty of God. We talked about the unseen realm—demons and so on. Women in ministry was our topic last week. So many, many fascinating topics! But today we’re going to focus on the current global pandemic. Go to faithlife.com where you can find out more about the book. There’s the cover of God and the Pandemic by Dr. Wright, and make sure to go check out the book that we will be discussing now. Also at the end of our interview today, we will have some Q&As, so if you’ve got some questions for Dr. Wright, please go ahead and jot those down in the comments, and we will try to get to those, as many as we can, or just see how much time we have. We’ll try to keep this to about an hour, but let’s go ahead and formally introduce Dr. N. T. Wright.

And honestly, if you don’t know who Dr. Wright is, you might have been practicing your own stay-at-home for the last 20, 30 years, maybe, because I’m not sure, honestly, that he needs any formal introduction. But just in case, Dr. N. T. Wright. Nicholas Thomas Wright. So that might have been worth even joining this Faithlife Live, if you’ve always wondered: What does that stand for? It’s Nicolas Thomas Wright. He is the Chair of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews. Or no, you’re at Oxford now.

Dr. Wright: It’s both. I took semiretirement from St. Andrews, so I’m still supervising some PhD students, and I’m still working with the team on the new St. Andrews Encyclopedia of Theology, which is an online resource, which is just starting up. Just commissioning articles right now. It’s very exciting. So I’m still doing that for St. Andrews, but I’m now also a senior research fellow at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, which is why I’m living here. We kind of got struck—we moved here, then the pandemic happened, and we’re locked down. We can’t go back to Scotland. We’re not allowed to at the moment. So it’s a little odd. That’s just how it is.

Scott Lindsey: Okay, alright, awesome. Alright, and he’s also the award-winning author, as many of you know, of over 80 books [and] hundreds of articles. He has been called the most prolific biblical scholar in a generation—perhaps right along the lines of C. S. Lewis. We were just talking about C. S. Lewis a couple of moments before I went live. Now his series Christian Origins and the Question of God is probably what he’s best known for, particularly the third volume, The Resurrection of the Son of God. If you remember, a couple of weeks ago, we had Dr. Habermass on. We talked about the resurrection for an hour, and I asked him, “Hey, if there’s a book about the subject, what is it?” And he instantly said, “You have to get a copy of The Resurrection of the Son of God by my friend N. T.” And then, also recently, his fourth volume, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, is probably considered by many to be his magnum opus, just a massive work. And of course, all of these great titles are available in Logos. There’s a little Logos Bible software plug, Dr. Wright.

Scott Lindsey: And quite honestly, of the 14 interviews that I’ve done, this is the one I was most nervous about, Dr. Wright, because I do know who you are. I so respect your scholarship and your work. So it is really, really an honor to be here today with you.

Dr. Wright: Thank you. That’s very kind of you.

Scott Lindsey: Now again, I’ve read the book, and so you really want to go to faithlife.com/live. We have a discount on the book right now. It’s fantastic. I got a prerelease copy. It was an amazing book, and I thought a great way to start today’s discussion on the pandemic was to give us a little context. 

So here are the recent COVID-19 statistics as of this morning: 8.3 million confirmed cases globally and almost a half a million deaths. So this is quite shocking, unparalleled. This is a year that we will remember for as long as we live. So as we start the discussion, I wanted to quote something that you said, Dr. Wright, that I thought would be a fantastic springboard for discussion. But you said: 

Before we can answer questions in anything other than the broadest outline, we need a time of lament, of restraint, of precisely not jumping to solutions. Now, these may come God willing, but unless we retreat from our instant reactions, we may not be able to hear them. If we spend time in the prayers of lament, new light may come rather than simply the repetition of things that we might have wanted to say anyway. 

I thought that was a great kind of summary, if you will, of where we’re gonna go in today’s discussion. So the first question, Dr. Wright, is what is the proper Christian response to the current pandemic?

Dr. Wright: Well, as I said, and as you just quoted, I think the proper initial response is lament. And lament is an interesting phenomenon in the Scriptures because in the Psalms, for instance—but also in some of Paul’s writings, where he’s talking about the prayer [that] goes too deep for words, with the Spirit interceding for us with groanings that cannot be coming into speech—that is also lament. And Paul is drawing on Psalm 44 there, which is one of the psalms of lament. So we can see a rich scriptural tradition coming through here. 

The point about lament is that obviously it means that we are deeply disturbed, distressed, worried, anxious, uncertain. But lament is something we do in the presence of God, and it’s a way of laying out who we currently are before God. It’s humble. It assumes nothing about, “I’ve got the answers, and I’m gonna tell you God what you ought to do.” It assumes nothing about whether I’m to blame or not at the moment. There may be fault, but the point is just to say, “This is not good. We’re in a bad place, and we have no idea why.” 

And I think to have no idea why is a very good thing . . . The danger is if we think we can instantly give an answer: “Oh, this must be because of A or B or C.” Then the chances are we’re just clutching straws. It’s just a knee-jerk reaction, and when profound things like this happen, just the same as when profound things happen in a family, a tragic death, or whatever, the answer is not immediately to try to analyze it.

Dr. Wright: That’s a modern, almost a modern heresy—the rationalist, Western mind that longs to be able to say, “Ah. We’ve got the mechanics of this all down, so there’s nothing to worry about.” But there probably is still something to worry about, and I think that something to be anxious, depressed, lamenting about is pretty central. And to do that in the presence of God is an act of faith, of hope. But it’s a hope which is hidden for the moment under that lament. And that’s where we have to start, and what comes out of that is up to God and up to the Holy Spirit.

Scott Lindsey: So why do you think that so many people have tried to make a larger case for God’s involvement in a pandemic?

Dr. Wright: Because I think many Christians, particularly in the Western world, have, as I say, kind of a rationalist view that God is sovereign. Therefore, everything that happens, he must either actively will it or at least positively permit it. Therefore, if we believe in the sovereignty of God, we ought to be able to track down and say, “Oh, he’s allowed it for this reason, or he’s obviously wanting to do that with it. And the Bible is full of lines about, “My ways are not your ways and my thoughts are not your thoughts”—and just hang on here! Don’t think that we have an inside track on exactly what God is doing. 

The only inside track that is provided is the person we know as Jesus of Nazareth, who is the living embodiment of the sovereign God of the universe. And when we get to Jesus, and when we really take that seriously, we read the stories in the Gospels, and we find Jesus weeping at the tomb of his friend. We find him weeping again in the garden of Gethsemane. And we find him crying out in the words of Psalm 22, one of the psalms of lament, on the cross.

Dr. Wright: And we say, “That’s what it looks like when God is sovereign?” And you see, older theologians sometimes used to say, “Well, Jesus of Nazareth did all those healing miracles and feeding the world, feeding the multitudes in the wilderness because he was God, and then he wept and suffered and died because he was human.” And that simply pulls Jesus apart. There is only one Jesus, and the Jesus of whom John says, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” this Jesus wept at the tomb of his friend. That tells us something about what it means to talk about the sovereignty of God, which is quite different from what a lot of modern Western theologians and preachers would like to say. And I think one of the problems there is that in much of the Western tradition, we haven’t actually taken the Gospels seriously as the story of who God really is and how God establishes [his] kingdom. We’ve split all those things up, and we’re much the poorer for it.

Scott Lindsey: So why do you think Christians, then, have this tendency to believe that negative current events are repentance calls from God? I just finished a—and this is just not a current thing, this also has some historical precedent—I just finished reading a biography of Jonathan Edwards, and almost every calamity in the early 1700s was viewed in some light of a call to repentance. So, where does this come from? What’s your opinion?

Dr. Wright: It’s tricky. When I was thinking about this, when I first started working on the question of the pandemic, which was several weeks ago, and it was really just getting underway, it was a sense that Jesus gave us this prayer, which we call the Lord’s Prayer. And in the Lord’s Prayer—and I think most Christians, certainly I, pray that prayer every day, sometimes several times a day. We are told to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses.” In other words, every day is a call to repentance. And we need it. I need it every day. It’s a call to repentance, just like those who have said, “Oh, this is a sign that the end is coming, or the rapture is coming, or the kingdom is coming” or something.

 Well, every day is a day when we pray, “Thy kingdom come . . . on earth as in heaven.” So why should we need a pandemic to remind us to pray the Lord’s Prayer? Or to remind us to ask for forgiveness? This ought to be the daily Christian practice. But then I started to notice, as I was thinking this through, that in the book of Acts, when they hit real serious problems, e.g., there’s gonna be a mega famine spreading over the whole of their known world.

Dr. Wright: And in Acts 11, the disciples in Antioch do not say, “Oh, this is a sign that the Lord’s coming back,” nor did they say, “This is a sign that we have to repent of something.” And actually, I’ll tell you something: that is the pagan reaction. If you go to ancient paganism, when there was a plague or a fire or a famine or something, the pagans would say, “The gods must be angry,” and they would go off [to] the priests and say, “What did we do wrong?” And the priest would examine some dead animal or bird and say, “Oh, it’s because you didn’t offer the right sacrifices the last time the festival came around.” 

So you have to do all that stuff to pacify the gods. Early Christians don’t do any of that, faced with trouble. And trouble is universal—plagues and epidemics have hit to the human race, just like volcanoes and earthquakes and tsunamis have hit the human race. And this doesn’t mean something has gone terribly wrong with the sovereignty of God. It means we are part of a creation [that] is not yet complete in the way that the Creator intends to complete it, with the new heavens and new earth. 

We are living between the times of the good creation and of the wonderful restorative, new creation. In that time, stuff happens, and if we thought stuff didn’t happen, then let’s get a grip! Read some history, and read what Jesus says in Mark 13: “You’ll hear of wars and rumors of wars and famines and earthquakes”—and so on.

Dr. Wright: Don’t be alarmed. This doesn’t have any special significance. So I want to say, in the New Testament, we find the concentration on Jesus. Jesus is the reason we have to repent. Jesus is the reason that we believe that God’s kingdom has already arrived on Earth as in heaven—in Jesus’ own person but now by his Spirit. We have to be workers for the kingdom against the day when Jesus makes it complete. 

So to treat any event as “This is the call to repent”—it might be a call to repent, but what this might be a call to repent of is the way that we’ve done food chains in the Western world or indeed the Eastern world, since this seems to have come from China in the first place, and the way that we do modern farming methods. It might be a call to think seriously about that sort of thing. But to think that it’s a call to repent of whether it’s the way we’ve polluted the planet or the way we behave morally or something—well, only in the most general sense. And the fact of Jesus and the fact of the Lord’s prayer ought to be enough to give us that call to repent on a regular basis without somebody having to see half a million people die of the pandemic to make a point.

Scott Lindsey: Again, we’re with Dr. N. T. Wright discussing his book on the pandemic. . . . Dr. Wright, if lament is one of the main proper responses to what we’re going through, you say in the book that “Grief, after all, is part of love. Not to grieve, not to lament, is to slam the door on the same place in the innermost heart from which love itself comes.” There’s many highlighted paragraphs as I went through the book, but that’s one I highlighted and starred and circled. But if lamenting isn’t a regular practice or a normal reaction to calamity for us . . . I read that, and I was like, “I’ve not really lamented maybe the way that I should through this.” How can someone cultivate a lamenting heart of response?

Dr. Wright: That’s a difficult thing. I suspect that most of us in the Western world only really do lament when something major strikes us—a death of someone close to us in the family or whatever, and then it’s like a sickness, that the grief overwhelms us and then we think we’re getting over it, and then it comes back and hits us again. And I am one of the least-bereaved people of my generation that I know, but even so, I’ve lost both my parents in the last 10 years, and I know the waves of grief and the way that that works. And obviously as a pastor, I’ve seen it again and again. 

But we don’t use the seasons of lament. In the church I belong to, the Anglican community, we keep Lent and we keep Advent as seasons of really asking the question: “What’s going on?” This is a time of darkness, and we’re waiting for light. This is a time of sorrow, a time of grief, a time of repentance. And we actually use that as a reminder, as a way—like in a family, you have celebrations. I’s somebody’s birthday. You may not be feeling like celebrating, but hey, it’s their birthday, so you’ve got to get around and do the thing with the cake and the candles and singing and so on, even if you didn’t feel like it.

Dr. Wright: In the same way, there are times that we have to lament, even if we are actually feeling quite cheerful. And I find when I read through the Psalms and pray through the Psalms, which I do on a regular day-by-day basis, when I hit one of the psalms of lament, sometimes I am feeling like lamenting too, and then I will weep with that psalm. Other times I’m feeling just fine, but I will think of people that I know, or people I’ve seen on the television, or people who’ve had their homes bombed out or whatever, people who are in dire straits—refugees, people who are suffering big time. And I will pray that prayer as it were reaching out the arms of my heart and embracing those people and lamenting with them. 

And I think that’s part of what Paul means when he says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” We do that on the street with our neighbors, but we also should do it on a worldwide basis. The more we know about what’s going on in the world, the more we ought to want to pray on behalf of the world to pray those psalms of lament.

Scott Lindsey: Amen. What do you think lamenting does personally to us as we grow in the Lord?

Dr. Wright: That’s a good question. I think it opens up chambers, spaces in the heart and the imagination, in the mind, and there is such a thing as good grief. Paul distinguishes two types of grief: ungodly grief, which is hopeless, which is just wailing with no hope; and godly grief, which is genuine grief, but which has the element of hope built into it. And I think that sense of living between the times, living with the knowledge of Jesus’ resurrection and with the power of the Holy Spirit from that but also living in a world [that] appears to be full of death, sorrow, and suffering—and is full of death, and sorrow, and suffering. 

And so learning how to lament and grieve is learning how to live at the overlap of the ages when the new age has been inaugurated but the old age is still rumbling along. And if we don’t feel that, we will sooner or later because there are enemies around who will make sure that if we’re trying to follow Jesus, that stuff will come and hit us. I was talking to one of the church leaders in Britain a few weeks ago about this, and he said to me: “Tom, the trouble is, our church is not good at lament[ing], and our church isn’t terribly good at celebration, either. What we mostly do is complacency.” And I thought, “Ow. Yeah, he’s right.” We trundle along. We’re sort of okay, and we gesture in the direction of lament or celebration. Actually, the first-century church, they would do this stuff. They would go out on the streets, and they would wail or they would go out on the street and they would sing and clap their hands. And we’ve kind of toned it all down, and we are the losers as a result.

Scott Lindsey: Amen. So you referenced . . . a couple of questions about the sovereignty of God. So let’s kind of segway into the issue of God’s sovereignty in the midst of a pandemic. Another amazing quote from the book was this: 

The New Testament insists that we put Jesus at the center of the picture and work outward from there. The minute we find ourselves looking at the world and what he might be doing, but without looking carefully at Jesus, we are in serious danger of forcing through an interpretation [that] might look attractive—it might seem quite spiritual and awe-inspiring—but [that] actually screens Jesus out of the picture. 

That’s one of the things I highlighted. I think I put next to it “Ouch.” So how did Jesus unveil a different viewpoint of the divine sovereignty?

Dr. Wright: This is one of the fascinating things that the modern Western Christian tradition has forgotten: that the Gospels are all about the kingdom of God. Now, that’s partly because people have heard the phrase “kingdom of God,” and they’ve thought of it as a kingdom of heaven—meaning a place called heaven where we go when we die. When Matthew uses the phrase “kingdom of heaven,” that is not what he means. It means the same as “kingdom of God.” And “kingdom of God” means God taking charge—God becoming King on Earth as in heaven. 

And most Christians that I’ve grown up with have simply never read the Gospels like that, and it’s partly that we read one parable at a time and we have a sermon on that, or one miracle and have sermon on that. And it’s as though Jesus is giving us hints and guesses toward various things about the Christian life. But then the main thing is he goes off to the cross and dies so that our sins can be forgiven [and] we can go to heaven. 

And that divorces the proclamation of the kingdom from the meaning of the cross, which the New Testament never does. Our Western traditions have done that, and instead we need to put them together again and say that Jesus’ announcement of God’s kingdom is his announcement.

Dr. Wright: This is what it looks like when God becomes King. People in the first century were hoping that God would come in somehow, sweep all before him, drive the Romans out, establish a free Jewish state there in and around Jerusalem, and that somehow, everything in the world would be transformed and would be lovely. 

And Jesus is saying two things. He’s saying, “Yes, this is the kingdom of God happening, but no, it doesn’t look like you thought it would.” Well, what does it look like? Well, hang on, what was Jesus doing? He was going around healing people. He was going around having parties with all the wrong folk. He was talking about forgiveness of sins, which is a major kingdom emphasis coming through from the Old Testament. And he was embodying—and the early Church looked back at this with kind of awe and astonishment—he was embodying the return, the personal return, of Israel’s God to his people. But the problem was that in order to be able to do that, for God to become sovereign, the force that had usurped God’s sovereignty—call it the devil, call it sin, call it the dark power, whatever—had to be overcome and defeated. And this is where awe and trembling should fall upon us as we read the narratives because we look at Jesus going to the cross and saying things like, “This is how the ruler of this world is going to be cast out.”

Dr. Wright: John 12. Have we thought how that works? How that works is then through Jesus taking the place of the sinners. It isn’t either Christus Victor theology or substitutionary atonmenet—it’s both, and they are mutually informative. Until we get the eyes around that, we will never understand what the Gospels are saying, so that then, Jesus weeping at the tomb of Lazarus is part of what it means: that the sovereign God is taking charge of his world. That involves the godly grief at the present state of the world, including the death of Jesus’ friend Lazarus. It includes Gethsemane—that is Jesus anguished about “Is this the way?” 

Somehow we have to hold on to those things. The whole story of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John is about what it looks like that God is becoming King. And so the Sermon on the Mount isn’t about “Oh, here’s some rules for how to be a good Christian.” Well, of course they are, but that’s not the point. The point is, when God becomes King, he doesn’t send in the tax; he sends in the mornings and the meek and the pure in heart, and the “hungry for justice people.” And by the time the bullies and the bad guys and the powers of evil have woken up to what’s going on, the meek and the “hungry for justice” people and the peacemakers—and so on—have built hospitals and schools and are looking after the poor and spreading a message of unforeseen love, and communities get transformed.

Dr. Wright: People’s lives get transformed. This is what it looks like when God becomes king on Earth as in heaven. And until we read the Gospels like that, we are simply playing around with them. And there are many people who claim to believe in the full inspiration—authority of—Scripture who simply do not take the Gospels seriously. Let the reader understand.

Scott Lindsey: So lamenting and sovereignty are not diametrically opposed.

Dr. Wright: Of course not. The Psalms are full of lament, but of course, they also believe in the sovereignty of God, and they pray that God will come and do whatever he’s going to do. But they expect and know that this will involve them being caught up in processes [that] involve lament and sorrow.

Scott Lindsey: Amen. So let’s talk about our mouths—how we should respond with our tongues in times like these. Probably if I had to pick my favorite paragraph in the whole book—I think I went around my whole house; I told you how many kids I’ve got, and so I literally would just read it to him—and in light of not only the pandemic but even in light of what we’re going through in the United States right now, here’s the quote: 

The danger with speaking confident words into a world out of joint is that we fit the words to the distortion and so speak distorted words all to protect a vision of divinity who cannot be other than in control, all the time. 

That was very convicting to me. So again, how should Christians—in light of the pandemic—how do we use our mouths? Because especially in the age of social media, just everybody’s got an opinion, and we just instantly throw that out there. So I’d love you to speak into that a little bit.

Dr. Wright: Yeah, it’s really about the problem of evil and so on. And I remember years ago, when I was first teaching as a young professor in Oxford, there was an examination question set by the systematic theologians: “Would it be immoral to try to solve the problem of evil?” 

I remember being fascinated by that. It wasn’t my subject. I was teaching New Testament, but remember thinking: Wow—that would be a fun essay question to do in the exam. And I detected what the person who set the exam was getting at, that if you think you can say, “Oh, yes! We can see what’s going on here with the Holocaust or with the pandemic or with the tsunami or whatever. It’s obvious that those people in those nations were particularly wicked.” Or that this was God giving people an opportunity for heroism, for acts of great courage and nobility, and so on. 

God allowed this to happen so that these policies could shine out and so on. And I’ve heard theologians say that kind of thing, and I just think “Please don’t go there.” That implies that God made a world—a good world in which he quite deliberately left a little corner or maybe a larger corner called evil/danger/bad things happening in order to spur everyone else to good things. And that [is] almost a childish theology. I think it’s pernicious.

Dr. Wright: And there is a darkness about evil, which I think we’re not meant to understand. And as I read the New Testament, I see them talking about the principalities and powers, and this is kind of arm-waving stuff. They don’t have good, accurate language for exactly what the archai and exousiai  and so on in the Greek are referring to. It’s like when I look back at the twentieth century and I see the origins of the First World War in the great imperial dreams all crashing, and I see the origins of the Second World War in the Weimar Republic and then Hitler’s Germany and then European nations and Japan and so on. And then I see the rise of militant Islam, and then I see 9/11, and I see the AFRA and Ruandar and so on . . . hang on, hang on, hang on. This thing called evil is much bigger than we’ve given it credit for.

And it’s dark, and it’s mean, and it doesn’t fit our categories. So we don’t know what to do about it. And that’s why when 9/11 happened, we have this disastrous moment when my country and your country got together and said, “Oh, there’s some evil going on out there. So what we have to do to go and drop bombs on it, and then that will deal with it.” And some of us said at the time, “No, that’s the most disastrous thing you could do because if you do that, you will scare up a whole new generation of utter extreme Islamic terrorists.” And of course, that’s exactly what’s happened.

Dr. Wright: And so I connect the political naivety about evil with the theological naivety about evil, and if you think, yes, there’s a world there, and this is how we solve it, then I’m sorry, this is a major mistake. And it goes back to the eighteenth century when, after the Lisbon earthquake, people separated out the problem of evil—for example, earthquakes, tsunamis, whatever—from the problem of human sin, which, “Well, Jesus died on the cross to deal with that.” And in fact, somehow, all the stories of evil meet on the cross, and it’s only when we put the cross in the middle of the picture that we could even begin to talk wisely about evil. And when we do, it will probably be with lament, with tears.

Scott Lindsey: Amen. So it obviously matters how we talk about God, but when globally [we] go through something like this, what do you think is the proper place of the mouth of a believer?

Dr. Wright: I think the prayerful use of the Psalms and of some of those great poetic passages, like in the book of a Isaiah, Isaiah 40–55, that will be a wonderful exercise for a church to take on. To be thinking and praying about the pandemic, and then to read Isaiah 40–55 all at once with reaching its climax with the announcement in chapter 52 that God is becoming King. And then in chapter 53, this vision of the servant who is bruised and disfigured beyond human imagination and who was wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities, etcetera. And the sort of sense of God coming into the midst of the story and taking the worst on himself. 

And this is one of the things I think I quote in the book, that wonderful poem by the Cambridge poet, Malcom Gait, where he was talking about Easter and the fact that all the churches were shut at Easter, he said. But Jesus isn’t imprisoned in the church any more than he was in the tomb. Jesus is out and about; he is on the COVID-19 ward; he is catching the disease and dying with those who are suffering and dying and he is ministering help and strength and comfort and so on. And to inhabit through the wise, creative use of Scripture, to inhabit the narrative [that] says, where is God in all this? 

And the answer is: God is not sitting upstairs pressing buttons and pulling levers and making stuff happen in order to teach us certain lessons. The God we know in Jesus Christ is active here and now through the ones in whom his Spirit is active, and no doubt in many other ways, as well, because that the impetus toward healing and hope and confidence, all the rest of it is actually spilled out from the Church. And many people in many traditions now know in their bones that that’s what they ought to be doing as part of the hidden triumph of Christianity, if you like, that the Christian imperative to do that stuff has caught on on a much wider basis.

Dr. Wright: Hallelujah, that’s amazing. But at the heart of it, there should be Christian people praying those stories, and then reading the Gospels as God coming to the place of pain to take it upon himself and then reading the Romans 8 passage, which you’re probably going to get to, I don’t know, which is about the Spirit enabling us to be the people of prayer at the place where the world is in pain. It’s one of those profound things in all of Paul. That’s the way we should talk—not just talk about God but talk to God, and, if you like, talk with God, including the wordless prayer of intercession that Paul talks about in Romans 8.

Scott Lindsey: Alright, so let’s talk about the mission of the Church during this pandemic. I thought it was very powerful how you illustrated that the beginning of the Church’s mission, according to John 20, started with these three things: tears, locked doors, and doubt. I was like, wow! Hello! What are we doing right now, right? How do you hope people turn away or turn from the why of the coronavirus to the question of what? And then secondly, what do you believe is the best thing for people of faith to do right now?

Dr. Wright: Right, right. I mean, the turning from the why to the what. I think that was for me Acts 11 and various other passages where they don’t start saying, “Why is this famine coming?” If there’s a family, sooner or later, if God wants to reveal why this happened, God will reveal it to us. But that’s not our business right now, which is like Jesus in John chapter 9: “Was it this man who sinned or his parents that he was born blind?” No, that’s not the question. 

The question is so that the works of God might be revealed in him. There are other passages when it looks as though Jesus is saying, “This produces that—so watch out!” (Luke 13; John 5.) But the normal response is, “Where are we going forward from this? What is there to do?” And of course, people will always ask why, especially when really bad, tragic, unexpected, nasty things happen. Why, why why? We are not usually given the answer to that, except in terms of, well, the car’s brakes failed or whatever it may be—the comparatively trivial but perhaps accurate answer. But the answer is, “What do we do now?” 

And that’s where the Church’s mission comes in, that Jesus says to his followers, “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” And then we look back over the mission of Jesus and we see him feasting with sinners. We see him being available to small children, elderly people suffering from sickness, and a father desperate about this child who is about to die. Whatever it is, we see Jesus being there with and for people in pain and also confronting the powers that be.

Dr. Wright: And we’re told in John 16 that this is what the Spirit is going do when the Spirit is given, which is what happens in John 20. Jesus breathed on his followers and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” In other words, Jesus said, “When the Spirit comes, the Spirit will convict the world of sin and righteousness and judgment. The Spirit will hold the world to account, and the people of God, by being the people of God—not [the] least [of which] by being the people of tears, the people whose doubts are resolved by getting to know Jesus, the people who may be locked in at the moment but into whose midst Jesus comes. 

By being the new community in Jesus. We are to hold the world to account by being the healing community, being the uniting community, being the prayerful, lamenting, and celebrating community. We are to be assigned to the world of who the true God is, that he’s not a celestial bureaucrat who is in control in that trivial sense of pulling the levers and making stuff happen. The control [that] he has is the control of utter self-giving love, and that’s what Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are displaying on every page.

Scott Lindsey: Amen. Again, we’re here with Dr. N. T. Wright discussing his new book, God in the Pandemic. We’re right at the spot where we’re going to open the floor, if you will, to some Q&As. Again, you can go to faithlife.com/live and get your copy of God in the Pandemic special discount for the next few days. And then also, we have a free gift for those that have attended the live stream. So again, make sure you go to the website, faithlife.com/live. We have a lot of questions, Dr. Wright. So I’ll have to, I don’t know, randomly pick a few here and there. But let’s start with—David [says]: “Godly grief leads to repentance. So if we are going to lament, we need to repent. Is this how you see it?”

Dr. Wright: When Paul says godly grief leads to repentance, he’s talking about a very specific situation in the church in Corinth where he had rebuked them in 1 Corinthians. And people sometimes think there’s another lesson now lost, in which he is also holding them to account. And the Corinthians did need to repent, but it wasn’t because God had sent a pandemic on them, although Paul does say, I agree, in 1 Corinthians 11, the reason that some of them are weak and ill and some of them have died is that they are abusing the Lord’s supper, and they are not celebrating this great meal in a way [that] shows respect for the Lord and for the community, which is his body. So there is a bit of that that’s always possible, that sometimes that is what godly grief is meant to do.

Scott Lindsey: But the godly grief . . . My mother died just over two years ago, and because she was old, she was nearly 95, we had kind of been hoping she would be able to slip away peacefully, which thank God she did. And because we’d been hoping that, I wasn’t expecting the waves of grief [that] came. But hey, she had been my mother for 70 years—of course I was grieving! But that wasn’t a grief [that] led to any repentance. She and I had talked; we prayed together; it was her time to go. Godly grief is a much bigger thing. 

So you can’t just take that verse out of 2 Corinthians as though godly grief must always lead to repentance. If there is repentance to be done, then yes, godly grief would be a way to that. But there is a much larger godly grief. And I am grieving over the pandemic right now, but I don’t think it’s pointing that I should be repenting of anything. Maybe it’s pointing for some people to repent, as I said before, of the way we’ve organized our farming practices, the use of certain animals in the food chain, etcetera. That’s a very different thing. So let’s be careful how we use a text like that.

Scott Lindsey: Alright, so Merrill asks Dr. Wright: “What do you make of the Church being driven to online platforms in relation to the scattering of the Church in Acts 8?”

Dr. Wright: That’s a nice question. Yes, I mean, when the Church scatters in Acts 8, they don’t stay as isolated individuals because everywhere they go, they tell other people about Jesus. And where two or three gathered together in his name, there he was in the[ir] midst. and the Church grows and, of course, they didn’t have any online options. So there’s two quite different things going on here.

On the one hand, all the reports are that far more people have been attending online worship than normally turn up to church on a Sunday. Now, of course, it’s quite easy. If all you have to do is fall out of bed and press a button on the computer and there’s a church service going on, albeit a distanced one, then you can tune in and please God. There will be a lot of people who may be either on the verge [of] faith or coming to faith or having their faith revived or strengthened by that means. But e-worship—electronic worship, if you like—easily fools us into thinking that actually worship is a private hobby and that it’s the flight of the alone to be alone, me as a soul all by myself talking to God. And it just happens that there are some other people who are doing so at the same time. And that has never been the Christian vision. 

The Christian vision is precisely of a community of all one in Christ Jesus, and it’s one of the things [that] the secular world would love us to think—that actually, we’re just a bunch of private individuals pursuing a private hobby and occasionally getting together to do it with one another, because the world does not want the Church to be the Church. The world does not want to see the communities of Jews and Greeks, slaves and free people, Barbarians and Scythians that Paul talks about. The world does not want the Church to have that New Testament vision of a single Jesus-worshiping community. The world is much happier if we are separated because then we cut no ice.

Dr. Wright: And that’s a very dangerous position to be in right now. So I’m looking forward to us getting back together and doing Church together in the proper New Testament way.

Scott Lindsey: This next question kind of falls in line with the first one, Michael asks, how can then this pandemic help us in deepening discipleship? Obviously, I know there’s a lot of people now attending Bible study, maybe for the first time because it’s convenient, it’s electronic, but how do you see good solid discipleship.

Dr. Wright: All of that kinda happened, but developing discipleship is something that the Church should be doing all the time anyway. If God wants to use the pandemic almost by accident, as it were, as a way of getting some people into discipleship training who might now otherwise be . . . well, fantastic. But I don’t think that’s a direct a+b=c equation. God can take the worst things that can happen in the world and bring good out of them—the prime example, of course, being the crucifixion of Jesus. The most wicked thing [that] humans ever did produced the most extraordinary blessing as a sign of the utter generous grace of God. 

And God can be and is being utterly generous in grace at the moment. But I don’t think we should say that in such a way that we say, “Oh, this is a special opportunity.” We always ought to be discipling new believers, and old believers. We all need stirring up to love good works in all sorts of ways, so I’d be wary of tying it too closely into that.

Scott Lindsey: This is a great question . . . from Scott: “Dr. Wright, how, then, would you explain the difference between the sovereignty of God and him being in control?

Dr. Wright: Well, these are English words, which have sliden to and fro in theological and philosophical discourse over a long period. And we can use them in different ways, and different theologians have used them in different ways. I want to talk about the sovereignty of God in the same way I want to talk about the kingdom of God. Some people don’t like either of those phrases because a lot of people today feel—and they’ve expressed this to me, including people in my own family—the idea of God being in control is sort of mechanistic and heavy-handed and top-down and almost bullying and God just manipulating us. And they say, “No, if there is a God, he can’t be like that.” And when I read the stories of Jesus, I don’t sense that sort of control with a capital C. And if that’s what you mean by sovereignty, then watch out. 

Sovereignty is a good New Testamenty word because it goes with the idea of the kingship of God, and people sometimes say to me, but how can you possibly talk about kingship, ’cause that sort of top-down or bullying. And the answer is, Jesus used that image, despite the fact that Caesar was on the throne and Herod Antipas was just up the road, because it’s a great Old Testament image from Daniel—Daniel 7 and Daniel 2, particularly, from Isaiah 52, [a] classic passage.

Dr. Wright: And from one Psalm after another after another, and all those passages say, “Hang on! This is what God’s kingdom looks like. And it looks like Jesus coming and doing what he did and dying with King of the Jews above his head and the crown of thorns. And so Jesus takes those images of sovereignty and redefines them around his own sense of vocation and specifically around his own going to the cross. So when we say “sovereignty of God,” if that’s a word we want to retrieve as I do, we have to think of it as meaning what it means in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, not as meaning what it means in some, say seventeenth-century philosophical scheme, which ends up with a sort of deterministic God who is treating us all like puppets. That’s not the God of the New Testament.

Scott Lindsey: So Andrew‚ probably a pastor, I’m gonna guess with this question—but what book of the Bible or message is needed most in the world today? . . . You’ve mentioned Psalms numerous, numerous times, and obviously what a great resource for lamenting. But is there another book?

Dr. Wright: This question to me is rather like asking which of your four children is your favorite. Don’t ask a father that question—I love them all as they are. However, in my current work, I am driven back again and again to Romans, which has been where I’ve lived really for the last 50 years. When I see somebody else writing a commentary on Romans I think: “Hang on, how dare you come and poke the coals in my fire place? That’s where I live.” Likewise, the book of Genesis means more and more to me the older I get. And the Psalms are just amazing. And so I guess there’s a lot of Genesis and Psalms in Romans. So it all comes back to that. And particularly to Romans 8. So many Christians have seen Romans 8 as the final chapter in the story of how we get to heaven, if you do the Romans Road thing. But actually, Roman 8 is about vocation. It’s about the suffering and prayer of the people of God as they are learning to be the younger brothers of Jesus. As they are being trained and equipped and qualified to be the image-bearers, the ones through whom the love of God is working in the world. And that’s what glorification is all about.

Dr. Wright: Guess where that goes back to? Psalm 8: crowned with glory and honor, with all things put in subjection under his feet. This is the image of how the whole creation is to be restored, and that process begins with the wordless, Spirit-driven lament of the people of God. Isn’t that extraordinary? I’ve heard numerous sermons on Romans 8, but nobody ever told me that. It’s something that’s been bubbling up in theology in recent years.

Scott Lindsey: I was hoping maybe the first part of the interview somehow would lead to this next question, so I’m very glad Adrian has asked the question. Could we use the same idea of lament and sorrow in light of the current ethnic divide? Beause as I was reading the book, that was something just stirring the whole time. I mean, I know the book’s about the current pandemic, but there is so much application to what you said, to what we’re going through again with this.

Dr. Wright: Yes, and here there is real, genuine repentance for real, genuine, major mistakes [that] have been made. I did a lecture on this just 10 days or so ago, and some of you may know it. It is available on the website of Wycliffe Hall here in Oxford, and the principal wrote an introduction to my lecture. But then there’s a link to the lecture. It’s on my website, as well. But then the principal wisely put up at the front a poem by one of our African students about how he perceived the killing of George Floyd, which is very poignant and very necessary, really, because . . . godly grief should produce repentance. 

And this is the thing: it’s not enough to say, “Oh dear, some of us are racist. That’s very naughty; we should repent of that.” It goes much further back than that because when the present wave of racism really began—and I’m talking about seventeenth-, eighteenth-, nineteenth-century slavery particularly, and the collusion of Britain in that—this is not me getting at Americans. It’s me getting at my own country for launching a lot of that stuff.

Dr. Wright: Then the churches should with one voice have said right at the start, “This is totally wrong. This goes against everything that we believe and live.” And my question is: Why didn’t the churches do that? 

And I have two answers for that. One—and I expound this in the lecture—one is because ever since the sixteenth century, we have divided ethnically because we wanted the Scriptures and liturgy in our own language, so we have German churches and British churches, etcetera. And we didn’t notice that we were colluding with the deconstruction of the Pauline vision of the Church, which is the Jew, Greek, Barbarian, Scythian. And we just got so used to that. So we have Black churches down there and White churches, and nobody seemed to think that that was a problem. And my friends, that was a major problem, so that when then serious, nasty, wicked racism came upon the scene, including white slavers going and kidnapping Black people from Africa and taking them across the Atlantic, the churches should have been preaching every Sunday against this. 

But the other reason that they didn’t was because the churches since the Middle Ages have been so concerned about making sure that people went to heaven by believing the right stuff. So teaching them how to believe and how to pray and how to get their souls in fit condition that they were not thinking about what it would mean to have a small working model of a heaven-and-earth community on Earth right now. The Church should have been that working model of what genuine human community was like.

Dr. Wright: So when we say racism is wrong, it’s not enough to say, “Oh, the Black Lives Matter movement that is Marxist-inspired, the reason it’s Marxist-inspired was that the churches left a big vacuum where they should have been doing the model of how to do community together. And if the churches leave a big vacuum, somebody else is going to fill it with their agendas. Shame on us because we weren’t there doing it first. 

So yes, we were in the pandemic. I was thinking about that, and then all this terrible stuff has happened. And of course, it’s always been there. And we British have a different racial history to the American one. We had a major problem in the 60s with our immigration policies, etcetera. That’s a whole different thing. So in my lecture, I wasn’t dealing with actually the racism itself. I was dealing with the question of why didn’t the churches say 200 or 300 years ago, “This will not do.” So we’re not dancing to the modernist secularist agendas here; we’re reclaiming ground that was properly ours and repenting as we do so.

Scott Lindsey: So last question, and I’m gonna earn some points with this. I’m being fed these questions via a document, so I guess my nephew has jumped in. He said, “Uncle Scott, can you ask Dr. Wright about the Church’s historic role in society during panic and pandemic, which you talk about numerous times in the book?”

Dr. Wright: It’s really important, and for me, my eyes were open to this when I read Rodney Stark’s book the Rise of Christianity, which came out about 25 years ago. Stark is a sociologist, and he’s looking. He’s not telling us sort of a great Christian success story. He’s simply saying, “Granted, Christianity was so unlikely and so unbelievable. How come it grew and spread?” And in chapter 4 of that book—and I’ve picked up on this in my little book—Stark details what happened in the second and third centuries, when you would have a plague strike a city, which would happen often enough, like it happened in Athens in the fifth century BC. And a large number of people died, including Pericles. When that happened in say a town in Turkey in the second century AD, all the people who could afford to—the rich and well-to-do—would get out and run, flee to the hills where it would be healthier, rather stay than in the towns where the infection was more likely to spread. 

The Christians would stay and would nurse people, including the people who might have been persecuting them before. And when it was all over and some of the Christians have died, but some of them haven’t, people [would ask]: “Why did you do this? We weren’t your family. Indeed, we rather hated you for not worshiping our gods.” 

The Christians would say, “We follow this man, Jesus, who gave his life for us. And the least we can do is to give our lives for anyone else that needs it.” And that was one of the reasons that people became Christians. 

Now, that’s why hospitals, hospices, [and] orphanages, were Christian innovations. Nobody did that stuff before except the Jews, but the Jews did it within their own community. And the Christians were basically saying, “We are now like the dear beloved Jewish people, only for the whole world.” And that’s how it went. And so I quote a point from Martin Luther, when there was an epidemic [that] he had to cope with—and he had to cope with several during the course of his active ministry—and he developed “I’ll take medicine. I will avoid places of infection. If people need me to be somewhere, I will go and minister to them. But if God wants to take me, he knows where he can find me.” It’s a wonderfully down-to earth, robust, typical Martin Luther response. In other words, we have a responsibility, and that responsibility is not just for our own family. Paul says, “Do good for all, especially those of the household of faith.”

Dr. Wright: But basically, the Church is to be an outward-facing multidimensional, multiethnic, polychrome, polyglot people. And that’s what we do. And if the secular arm says, “No, we’ll do it now, and you Christians go and teach people how to say their prayers and go to heaven,” the answer is, “No, sorry, we have form on this one. We are people who believe in bringing health to the world, bringing education in the world, bringing relief to the [poor of the] world, and we’re not going to stop because we follow Jesus. And that’s the long and short of it.

Scott Lindsey: Amen. Alright, so everybody, we’re wrapping up. The video from today’s interview will be posted in the comments field. Again, it’s been a fascinating discussion with Dr. Wright on his upcoming book God and the Pandemic. Again, go to faithlife.com/live to get a copy of that book. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Dr. Wright for this. Absolutely awesome discussion—very insightful. How can people find out more? Obviously, go to logos.com, type in Wright, and there’s all the books. But how can people find out [about] this lecture you gave recently, and so on?

Dr. Wright: The website, which is ntwrightpage.com. But also, many of you will know that there are lots of online courses that I’ve done, which are at www.ntwrightonline.org. And if anyone goes there, they’ll see, there’s plenty of courses on various different things there. But the lecture itself, the shortcut, which is either on my website ntwrightpage.com or on the website of Wycliffe Hall in Oxford and it’s “On the Death of George Floyd,” and it’s a whole piece, including a link to my lecture. So God be with you. Thanks very much for tuning in and for all those great questions. It’s good to be with you.

Scott Lindsey: We’ve done this a few times, Dr. Wright, but I would like to ask you to close us in prayer, maybe in light of what we’ve discussed today but even the racial situation right now. But we would just be honored for you to close us in prayer.

Dr. Wright: Gracious Father, our hearts and our minds are full of so many concerns right now, and in Your presence and by Your Spirit, we lament the mess that our world is in. And with the lament, we confess that we ourselves have sinned in so many ways and colluded with sin and evil. We pray that You will forgive, restore, revive, heal. We pray that new medications will be found, new treatments will be found both for those who are suffering from the pandemic and those who are near death’s door at the moment—but also to stop the disease spreading any further. 

And we pray that medical lessons and health lessons and food safety lessons that need to be learned globally and locally will be learned. We pray that You will keep us mindful through this time and what comes afterward of the lessons that You want us to learn, which may not be the ones that we have thought that we should be learning. And we pray especially for your church worldwide that as people gather for worship again, we may have a renewed hunger for Christian fellowship and mutual support. And for all those who have found their support through meetings online, Father, draw them in. Build them into your Church.

Dr. Wright: Make them know and feel that they are part of that body of Christ, where there is neither Jew nor Greek, Black nor White, Barbarian or Scythian—or any of the rest of them. Make us all one in Christ, that the world may believe. So Father, be with us—and especially those who right now are facing death, whether their own or that of one they love. Bring comfort and healing and Your presence. We ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Written by
Jason Stone

Jason Stone is the Sr. Community Manager at Logos. He has a master’s in biblical exegesis from Wheaton College Graduate School and over a decade of experience with digital marketing, church communications, and ministry.

View all articles

Your email address has been added

Written by Jason Stone
Explore top resources on counseling, mental health, grief, pain, and loss.
Unlock curated libraries and Bible study tools for up to 30% off with your first Logos 10 package.