Category Archives: Current Events

Reflections on a Knee to the Neck and Burning Streets

This blog is not for everyone. It is about a German-American talking to my brothers and sisters who identify, or are identified, as “white”. If you are a brother or sister who is identified as “non-white” or a “person of color,” I have no expertise to address how you are feeling in light of the senseless death of George Floyd. It was and is a great tragedy. My heartfelt sympathy goes out to his family and all who loved him. But if I can, in a small way, help some who look like me to understand just a bit of what they and you are going through, I am obligated to make the effort.

It happened one day in Orlando, Florida. I was attending a conference in a hotel near downtown. Next to the hotel was a lovely lake with a park-like strip between the lake and the four-lane boulevard that intersects the downtown from north to south. During a break I decided to take a walk along the park-like strip between the lake and the street. The path was separated from the boulevard by a strip of grass and trees about twenty-feet wide, so I was at a small distance from the traffic. I was dressed in my best suit and tie, so I probably looked pretty professional.

Suddenly I heard a voice calling from the street. “Jon Paulien!! I know you from television!!” I looked over at the street and a car had stopped with the window down. A young man I didn’t know was beckoning me from the passenger seat. Not wanting to be rude, I went over reluctantly, realizing his car should not be stopping on a busy street. I acknowledged his greeting and asked how he recognized me. He told me of the TV program and I told him I appreciated his gratitude for the program. Glancing nervously to my left I saw a police car approaching and quickly told him, “You’ve got to go, there’s a police car approaching.” The driver of the car took the hint and drove off immediately.

I was turning away from the street to walk back to the path when the police car came to a screeching halt near me. I turned around and the policemen began yelling at the top of his voice through his open window: “YOU ARE THE MOST SELFISH, INCONSIDERATE, STUPID PERSON I HAVE EVER SEEN!!!!! HOW COULD YOU STOP TRAFFIC JUST TO HAVE A CHAT. . . .” I honestly don’t remember what else he said, I had totally numbed out by this time. When he finally paused for a breath, I broke in and said as calmly as I could muster, “Thank you, sir, I’ll remember that in the future,” then turned around and walked away. But as I walked away I was literally shaking, totally traumatized by the feeling of injustice, and also the combination of loud anger with the emblems of authority (uniform and police car). The thought occurred to me, “If that could happen to me, right here, right now, and wearing my best suit, what would have happened to me just now if I had been black and wearing a hoodie?”

I recalled a minor incident years before in upstate New York. I was driving in a small town with my good friend Al from the City. We were trying to find our way through that unfamiliar rural town when I realized that I had just gone through a stop sign without knowing it. Right in front of me was a police car, but officer didn’t seem to have noticed what I did. I told Al, “It’s a good thing that policeman didn’t see me, I just went through a stop sign.” Al responded, “Yeah, that’s a good thing for both of us. He would have given you a ticket, but he would have given me a beatin’.” Al is African-American. He was joking. Or was he?

Police are human. They have good days and bad days. But nearly every police officer I have ever met would rank among the finest human beings I know. Self-controlled. Professional. Courteous. Nearly all are impressive and honorable human beings. But I know from experience not all are self-controlled, at least not all the time. Not all are professional and unbiased. And it does not take many to taint the whole. The officer in Orlando completely misread what was happening in front of him. He did not know that I was where I was under some duress. I don’t know what he was going through that day, but what he said and did to me was wrong, it was unjust. It was over the top. And I ended up shaking at the abuse and the injustice in a way I have never experienced before or since. And for a moment, I tasted just a bit of what my African-American friend and other people of color go through way more frequently.

In light of the burning streets, it is no doubt tempting for you to believe that an isolated instance of police brutality cannot measure up to the national chaos that has followed. But that is because you and I have never been mistreated because we were driving while black, or jogging while black, or even walking along the street while black. I spoke yesterday with Leslie Pollard, President of Oakwood University, a predominantly black Seventh-day Adventist institution. He told me that the students and faculty were deeply traumatized by what happened to George Floyd. They are wondering if the Adventist Church has anything relevant to say to all this. But frankly, if we are neutral at a time like this, we are irrelevant. The students and faculty at Oakwood are saddened, they are angry, they are frustrated. Some are outraged and tempted to fight. It is not because they have over-active imaginations. It is because most have had multiple encounters with police like the one I did. After an event like this, each wonders, “Could I be next? Could my father be next? My sister, my children?” It is not an illusion. It does not take many incidents like the one I experienced to live in constant fear of those who have been called to serve and protect.

There is such a thing as systemic or institutional racism. These are often not the result of conscious intent, but combined with conscious or unconscious bias, result to the disadvantage of many. When you are at the disadvantaged end of the societal spectrum, it can affect your physical, mental and emotional health. People who are systematically discriminated against because of the color of their skin or the place of their origin, live shorter, less-healthy lives (see the research of David Williams at Harvard). And it is not just people of color. Williams discovered that working-class whites and white evangelical Christians today are experiencing similar marginalization (“trailer trash,” “Bible-thumping bigots”) as their darker-hued family members experience. And with similar health consequences. So ultimately the problem is not a matter of right or left, black or white, we must all examine our hearts regarding how we treat those who are different from us.

I don’t have an answer for unconscious bias or systemic discrimination. I don’t have an answer for how criminal elements so quickly take advantage of righteous indignation. The people who are actually rioting are rarely the same ones who are demonstrating against injustice. You don’t correct an injustice by creating new injustices. Many of the homes and businesses being destroyed are owned by the very people hurting over the loss of George Floyd. The vandalism and destruction must be stopped. But in our outrage over the way law-abiding police are being treated, and over the wanton destruction of property and livelihoods, let us not forget how all this started. Let us consider how these events are impacting our brothers and sisters. And let’s do something about it.

What can you do? First of all, speak up. And not just in mixed audiences. Speak up to your own white brothers and sisters. It is often hard to speak up for yourself. It comes across as self-serving. Our black brothers and sisters need us to speak up for them and with them at this time. I am speaking up here. And I will be looking for other ways to get my voice heard on this issue. Second, pray that God will bring people of color into your life and impress you with how to offer a word of encouragement and support, and also deeds of kindness and love. Third, work to improve the social structures in your community. Many people of color live in food deserts, no easy access to fresh fruits and vegetables. It is no wonder so many are over-weight and diabetic. Band together with others to create opportunities for those less fortunate than yourselves. Lobby, vote, do all in your power to speak up for those less fortunate than you. And finally, pray that the God of justice will move mightily in this situation to show how He feels about the hurting and the oppressed. And pray that He will use you to show his justice and mercy to them. It is time to “do justice and to love mercy” (Micah 6:8).

An “Adventist Muslim” Response to COVID-19

It has been one of the great privileges of my life to work for 13 years at Loma Linda University, a grand experiment in the possibility that many religions can work together in a common mission to “continue the teaching and healing ministry of Jesus Christ.” I have been often been amazed at the spiritual commitment of the non-Christian faculty and staff at LLU. Among them is Eba Hathout, Professor of Medicine and Medical Director of the Pediatric Diabetes Center at our Children’s Hospital. A self-professed “Adventist Muslim,” she speaks below with prophetic power to our situation. This is a transcript of her Ramadan speech at an interfaith event on May 14, 2020:

“It was a mere two months ago, that we were all wrapped up around ourselves. We as individuals, political parties, different-color races, religions and countries. On the global scene, our world was in a state of toxic inflammation, with fires of anger and hatred and war everywhere. Then in just one moment, on March 11, everything stopped, and the world stood still. I had been busy preparing for the annual Hassan Hathout Legacy interfaith event: For the Love of Tomorrow, which was scheduled to take place at the Huntington Gardens on March 15th. My last meeting at the venue was on March 10th when all details were final. The next morning, news about the virus invading America was starting to erupt, and I made the difficult decision to postpone our event. Later that evening, and with unprecedented speed, the whole of America shut down. My son and his classmates at Harvard Law School were told not come back to campus after Spring Break. Harvard was closing. Other colleges shut down. Schools followed. Our nation, and much of the world, was on lock down.

“As a physician, the priority at our university hospital was how to take care of patients while keeping everyone safe. We had heard the horror stories of Italy, and then of New York. The work environment changed to a war zone, with command center meetings twice a day including weekends, and numerous other virtual meetings throughout the day. At Loma Linda, every meeting starts with a prayer. A two-year transition to Telemedicine had to be done in two weeks. Quick decisions were made about which doctors needed to stay and work from home for their own safety. Visionary leaders planned and were ready for the worst in terms of casualties. However, the worst did not happen in the form of massive numbers of sick and dead people, rather it was in the many co-workers and patients’ families who had to lose income or livelihood. At work and throughout the nation, financial losses were cruel and grave.

“We take comfort in God’s insurmountable power and bountiful grace as we read in the bible: But They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings as eagles, they shall run and not be weary, and they shall walk and not faint.
We read echoes in the Quran: It is God who started creation that can start it again. He shall grant you endless bounties from heaven, and from earth.
Today more than ever, we are being tested for our capability to adapt, and our ability to recover. Self-renewal, in all of God’s living creatures, is what favors the survival of one species over another. It is that inner force to bounce back and move on. This too is a skill in which God can provide and guide.

“One month after ‘D-Day’ of the pandemic, I started going out for solitary walks around our Pasadena neighborhood. I couldn’t help but notice that our world had changed again. The sky was bluer, the trees were greener. I could smell more roses as the earth began to breathe. There were far more birds singing and children walking with their parents in the streets. Strangers were smiling to each other in the markets, and the pavements were full of friendly words and gestures. I didn’t know quite how to describe it other than to say that, somehow, despite the threat of a deadly virus in the air, the world felt less toxic, and more human.

“Towards the end of April, the lunar month of Ramadan started, and it was then that I realized what an unprecedented fasting month that would be. This time, it was not just Muslims who were staying home reflecting and reading scripture, Americans of all faiths were doing the same. It was as if all of America was living with us, our first common Ramadan. Our mouths are not just closed but masked with veils of different colors, as we each try to protect our neighbors and our friends. The only time we unveil is when we talk to God in prayer. Our eyes yearn for each other. We got accustomed to smiling with our eyes rather than our lips. This inconvenience is far more tolerable for those who wear the mask, not out of fear, but out of love.

“In the past, when we called for cleaner air, we sometimes forgot that toxicity was also spiritual and emotional and social. It took one tiny virus, killing thousands around the world, for us to wake up to a gentler and kinder America. And it is important as we mask and glove each day to remember why we do this. Personally, it is easier to accept that one will die whenever God destined them to, and just move on. One other factor is added to this equation, it is that negligence can carry harm to someone we love. I know many who have such orientation. Taking precautions is neither forgetful of faith nor of destiny, it is not born out of restlessness, rather it is taking a bold step out of the house of fear, and into the house of love.
In his poem, The Great Realization, Tom Roberts was asked by a little boy: why did it take a virus to bring people back together, he answered: sometimes you got to get sick before you start feeling better. That is why Hindsight is 2020.

“So here we are together, living through and making History as the generation of 2020. Therein lies the perfect milieu for fasting, where the inflammation of hatred is quietened, and many toxins that invade our ears and gut and spirit are put to rest, body and soul align to make happy brains and happy hearts. That is healing at its best. There is a depth and a height which we attain when we fast that is enormously uplifting. Whenever we reach one mountaintop, we begin to climb another. Everything shrinks to its proper dimension, and a magical power prevails. That I would argue, is the power of distilled, detoxified, and purified Love.

“As a child, I remember sitting next to my father watching the first Apollo moon landing, I recall my father’s words which echo in my conscience to this day: Isn’t it a pity, that Man who was able to reach the moon, is still not able to reach the heart of his fellow man. Now that we face this common and largely unpredictable virus threat, perhaps we can start conducting our lives with a more vivid image of an ancient and eternal reality, that of our own impermanence, and our ultimate divine destination.

“While we cannot cure the world, we can certainly do our part, where we are, with what we have..like the old story of the man who walked on the beach rescuing one starfish at a time by tossing it from the sand back to the ocean where it can live..When someone told him: “There are hundreds of beaches and thousands of starfish, you won’t make a difference..” he replied as he tossed another starfish back into the ocean: “I make a difference to this one.”
This pandemic has left us with many to resuscitate, and much to rebuild. So wherever we are, and however we can, let us take a path of love, and rescue whatever starfish come our way, remembering that if we cannot help everyone, sometimes it’s enough to make a difference to one.

“On these special last nights of Ramadan, I hope that our fast will add to the collective prayers of Americans of all faiths, and that divine healing can touch both body and soul of our nation. May God make us instruments of His mercy as we rebuild a common new path, guided by divine wisdom, and shining with God’s light.

“I pray that God will ease our deep longing for each other, and for people and places where we cannot be at present. Today in particular, I remember my own friends and say to them: In love we met, in love we part, and in love, I hope, we meet again.”

Leviticus and Social Distancing

After writing on the Bible and Social Distancing, I reached out to a friend I consider one of the top authorities in the world on Leviticus and Numbers in the Bible, Dr. Roy Gane. He was gracious enough to share the following thoughts on my blog and the larger context of the issue in the Pentateuch (books of Moses). I highly recommend his terrific commentary: Roy Gane, Leviticus, Numbers. NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004. The words that follow are his.

The purpose of the quarantines in the Pentateuch was not to prevent the spread of disease per se, although that would have been a side effect in some instances, especially in cases of so-called “leprosy” (a scaly-skin malady that is not the same as modern Hansen’s disease, although perhaps it was an ancient relative of modern leprosy). The stated purpose of the quarantines was to prevent the spread of physical ritual impurity that would defile the camp in which God’s holy sanctuary was located (Num 5:1-4). So any application to the present Covid-19 pandemic (including references to various modes of transmission in Lev 15) would be indirect.

However, some biblical principles that we can derive are as follows:
(1) As you have pointed out, ancient Israelites who were infected were separated from the others, who could go on with life as usual. Today, testing is crucial to accomplish this distinction in order to avoid spreading the problem.

(2) In Lev 13:45, the infected person voluntarily adopts a distinctive appearance (in this case of mourning) and notifies others at a distance of his/her condition so that they will know not to approach. It would be helpful if those currently infected by Covid-19 would take analogous precautions by marking themselves in some way (that could be standardized by the government and/or social media) and telling others to stay away if they (the infected) must go out and about.

(3) Although God punished Miriam with “leprosy” (Num 12; and later Gehazi and King Uzziah), there is no indication in Leviticus 13-14 that those who are infected with the disease have committed a sin for which they deserve punishment (cf. John 9:1-3). Covid-19 is similar in this respect, so those who are infected should not be additionally burdened with a social stigma or discrimination, as if they deserve to suffer or belong to a people group that is blamed with causing the outbreak.

(4) If it proves true, as has been widely reported, that the disease originated in a “wet market” in Wuhan, it is possible that some animal-to-human transmission of viruses in “wet markets” could be prevented by respect for animal life (an implicit topic of legislation in Leviticus and other pentateuchal books) and restriction of human diet to “clean/pure” creatures that the Lord has identified as fit to eat (Lev 11; Deut 14).

(5) A key overall Leviticus principle is to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18). If we are infected or could be infected, pending up-to-date testing, let’s protect others as best we can.

The Bible and Social Distancing


The great dilemma facing the world’s leaders right now is a new disease (COVID-19) with the following features: 1) we have no preventive (vaccine) and no cure, 2) it appears to be highly contagious, 3) it can be spread by people who don’t even know they have it (no symptoms), and 4) it is substantially deadly. We don’t yet know how deadly. Based on today’s statistics, lethality ranges from one percent (Germany) to over ten percent (Italy). Given that so many who test positive are completely without symptoms, it is more likely that the actual range is something like .5% to 5%. Since the deadliness of the common flu is about .1%, these are serious numbers which merit a serious response. To date, the primary response of the world’s leaders (in addition to emergency-level health care for the sick and an all-out drive to find a vaccine and a cure) is social distancing; a substantial portion of the world’s people largely confined to their homes. But this remedy threatens to completely collapse the world’s economy, which would likely have consequences more lethal than the virus itself (suicide, starvation, and increased susceptibility to disease among other consequences).

In light of this situation, I thought it might be helpful to take a closer look at what the Bible has to say about social distancing as a response to contagious disease. There are three main texts: Leviticus 13:45-46, Numbers 5:1-4, and Numbers 12:10-15. I will take them in the order they appear in the Bible. “The leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp.” Lev 13:45-46, ESV. Leprosy is today known to be a mildly contagious disease with extremely debilitating consequences. Back then, there was no treatment and no cure. When a person was identified as having the disease, they were to live alone and signal their condition by dress and voice whenever they were in public. In the previous verses of Leviticus 13 (verses 1-44) are elaborate procedures to diagnose the disease along with 7-14-day quarantines during the period when it was unclear if the symptoms were actually leprous or not.

Numbers 5:1-4, ESV: “The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Command the people of Israel that they put out of the camp everyone who is leprous or has a discharge and everyone who is unclean through contact with the dead. 3 You shall put out both male and female, putting them outside the camp, that they may not defile their camp, in the midst of which I dwell.’ 4 And the people of Israel did so, and put them outside the camp; as the LORD said to Moses, so the people of Israel did.” This text is similar to the previous, without the elaborate procedures for diagnosis and adding a couple of other triggers for isolation (bodily discharge and contact with the dead). The remedy for leprosy was to distance those infected with the disease outside the camp of Israel.
In Numbers 12:10-15, Moses’ sister Miriam is found to have leprosy. Moses prays to God for her healing and Miriam is healed. Nevertheless, in line with the procedures outlined in Leviticus 13:1-44, Miriam is quarantined outside the camp for seven days to verify that the healing had, in fact, taken place. So social distancing is clearly a biblical remedy for contagious disease and those who follow the Bible should have no qualms about observing it under the current situation, even to the extent of avoiding gatherings for worship.

There are, however, two significant differences between the incidents recounted in the Bible and the situation today. First, in the Bible, it was the infected who were isolated socially, not the healthy. By identifying and isolating the diseased the contagion could be controlled. Second, the Israelites were dealing with a disease that had observable, physical symptoms. As we have already noted, with COVID-19 a person can be infected, and infectious, and yet have no symptoms. To some degree that makes social distancing in this case a fool’s errand. In the context of crowded cities, the disease can still be passed on within households and in the context of the search for food and other essential supplies. People who feel completely fine and have no symptoms can still unknowingly spread the disease to the people around them.

What guidance can we take from these texts for the current situation? The “biblical” solution to COVID-19 would seem to involve two things: 1) Find a vaccine and a cure, so the wider population need no longer fear infection from social interaction. But since those remedies are thought to be 12-18 months away at best, what can be done more immediately to stem the tide of the disease without collapsing the world economy? 2) Ramp up testing for COVID-19 to separate the asymptomatic from the healthy. With a contagious disease, diagnosis is critical (Lev 13:1-44). If no one knows who has the disease, social distancing in the biblical sense will not be possible.

There is still the hope that COVID-19 will somehow burn itself out like many similar flus have done in the past. But in the meantime, the “biblical” approach would seem to be, 1) Determine who in fact has the virus and who does not, and 2) Isolate those who are infected so that the rest of the population can go on with their lives and avoid the consequences of a long-lasting global shutdown.

This is a work in progress and there may be flaws in the above that I do not see. But I share this publically for what it is worth in dealing with the present crisis.


Corona Virus Update

The following is an update and expansion of the original blog including some elements of the original and additional biblical evidence.

Since the outbreak of the corona virus pandemic, many people are asking faith-based questions. Is this a judgment of God on the human race? Is this a sign of the End? Does Bible prophecy speak about it? Even if people don’t believe in God or the Bible, they are wondering what their Christian neighbors are thinking about the subject. So I will address what the Bible has to say about contagious diseases and the role they may play as signs of the End in Bible prophecy. Is the current pandemic the Big Event that many have feared?

For starters, let’s all take a deep breath and get some perspective. COVID-19 has sadly led to thousands of pre-mature deaths, but it still pales in significance to the Spanish Flu of a hundred years ago. That resulted in 50-100 million deaths all around the world, at a time when world population was less than two billion (it is close to eight billion today). And further back in history is the Black Plague, which is estimated to have killed 75 to 200 million people (1347-1351 AD) at a time when world population was less than 500 million. That is a ratio of one out of every three people in the world, more or less. So while the current situation is very serious, in human terms, it is not yet at the level of what one might call “apocalyptic proportions.”

So what does the Bible have to say about contagious diseases or pandemics? In the older portion of the Bible, the primary language is ancient Hebrew. The Hebrew word for contagious disease or pandemic is dever. It occurs around fifty times in the “Old Testament”. The root word in the Hebrew has the meaning of “destroying,” with an extended meaning of “pestilence” or “plague.” Ironically, this word is not only associated with contagious disease, it is often associated with animals; it is the “cattle disease” (Exod 9:3). God was planning to use the threat of pestilence to scare off the Canaanites (locale inhabitants of the land of Canaan), so Israel wouldn’t have to fight to enter the “promised land” (Num 14:12). We know, from current experience, how easily a pandemic can induce panic and irrational behavior.

The most common occurrence of “pestilence” in the Hebrew portion of the Bible was as a consequence of Israel’s unfaithfulness to God. When Israel was unfaithful to God, they lost His protection, with the result that enemies would invade their land and cause destruction. In that context we repeatedly find the famous trio: war, famine and pestilence (Lev 26:25; Jer 24:10; Ezek 14:12-21). The three together portray the siege of an ancient city. War drives a people inside the walls of the city, famine follows as the siege continues, and the end-result is contagious disease followed by exile (Lev 26:21-26; Jer 21:6-9; Ezek 7:15). The important point for the questions at the beginning, it that contagious disease (Hebrew: dever) is not in these contexts portrayed as an active punishment from God, but rather as the consequence of disobedience, which results in a loss of God’s protection (Jer 27:13; 32:14; 34:17; 38:2). Pandemics don’t come because God is angry with people, they are the natural consequences of human foolishness and rebellion.

The more recent portion of the Bible (the New Testament—written in the common Greek of the Roman world) has less to say about contagious disease. Luke 21:11 associates pestilence (Greek: loimos, loimoi) with earthquakes, famines and heavenly signs that would occur at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. The word is not found in the part of Luke 21 that addresses the end of the world (Luke 21:25-28). A parallel text to Luke 21:11 is Matthew 24:7. There you will find “pestilence” in some Bible versions but not others. The reason is that the Greek manuscripts the translations are based on sometimes include “pestilence” and sometimes don’t. It is likely that “pestilence” is not original with Matthew. But even if it were, Matthew 24:8 does not place this at the End of the world, but as “the beginning of birth pains.” Pestilence was seen by Jesus as something general to the human experience, not something especially associated with the End. The word is also used metaphorically in Acts 24:5, as in, “This Paul is such a pest.” That derogatory reference is, of course, no clue as to the meaning of COVID-19 today.

There is another Greek word that is often translated as “pestilence.” It is thanatos—a common Greek word for “death.” For whatever reason, it as the usual word chosen in the ancient Greek Old Testament (LLXX) to translate the Hebrew word for contagious disease, dever. So the Greek word for death at the time when the New Testament was written, can carry connotations of “pestilence,” or pandemic. It is used in this way three times in the book of Revelation. In Revelation 2:23, it is used in the context of a specific event that is in the past today. The second reference is found in Revelation 6:8. The rider on the pale horse is given authority over a fourth of the earth, to smite with sword, famine, and pestilence. Like Matthew 24 and Luke 21, pestilence is predicted to be a general characteristic of human history, which has certainly been the case.

The third reference to thanatos (death/pestilence) is clearly in an end-time context, however. Pestilence is one of the consequences of “Babylon’s” fall just before the second coming of Jesus. This text does not tell us that COVID-19 is a sign of the End, there is not enough information to be that specific. But it does indicate, more than other biblical texts, that pandemic is likely to be a feature of the end-times. There is one other end-time text that could be relevant to our questions, and that is Revelation 16:2, which speaks of sores afflicting those who have the “mark of the beast.” While these sores are serious, the biblical words for contagious disease or pandemic are not used there.

The short conclusion of this biblical study is two-fold. 1) Pandemic as such is not a “sign of the end.” Since far worse pandemics have occurred in history, it COVID-19 should not be used as an indicator of where we are in history. If the end-times are at hand, other indicators will prove to be more significant that this one. To put it plainly, Bible prophecy does not indicate that pandemic is a key element of the “signs of the End,” neither does it rule it out as one of the troubles of the End. 2) Pandemic is not a direct, active punishment of God, it is a consequence of the human condition that the Bible calls sin and rebellion against God. According to the Bible, God (through Jesus Christ) is the author and sustainer of life (John 1:3-5). But there are forces in the universe that oppose God and create pain and destruction (Job 1:6-12; 2:1-6). To the degree that the word “judgment” is appropriate in a pandemic, it is God allowing the human condition to take its course and reap its consequences.

Is there anything else in the Bible that may be helpful in the current crisis? In the Old Testament contexts, contagious disease was a condition that could and should be alleviated by human action (Jer 27:13; 38:2). The most practical remedy offered for contagious disease in the Bible is, in fact, social isolation (Num 5:1-4; see also Num 12:10-15 and Lev 13:45-46), the very thing many of us are now experiencing. It is important for a community to place a separation between those who have the disease and those who do not, as far as this is possible. Co-operating with authorities in these matters should not create an issue of conscience for believers, in fact, conscience should encourage co-operation in a crisis like this (Rom 13:1-5).

Having said all this, prophecy clearly indicates that panic is one characteristic of the final events (Luke 21:25-26). Could COVID-19 lead to eschatological levels of panic? I am not a prophet, an economist, or a scientist, so take the following with a grain of salt. COVID-19, as we experience it, could get a whole lot worse, killing (in the worst case scenario publically stated) as many as two million Americans and tens of millions worldwide. That would put it in Spanish flu territory, but not Black Plague numbers. The greatest concern would not be the current virus, but a mutation of the virus into something even more dangerous. This possibility is something to watch closely, but it does not seem likely to me (I am open to correction on this from scientific sources, not internet speculation). Viruses tend to decrease in potency over time rather than increase. And due to lack of widespread testing, the death rate is probably much lower than 3% right now, as many people who have COVID-19 don’t even know it. In Germany, a nation where testing has been much more widespread than most places, the death rate is currently about eight-tenths of one percent, around a quarter of the world rate. In the USA it is currently less than 2%.

My greater concern for the future is the economic fallout of social isolation over many months (if that proves necessary). Worst-case estimates are that unemployment could reach 20% or more in the USA if the lockdowns last 6-12 months. This could trigger another Great Depression. Given the panic buying already occurring, the social order in a Facebook, post-Christian world could easily break down, leading to rioting, looting and other consequences. Among the likely consequences would be the end of face to face higher education as we know it, a long-term decline in tourism and international travel, a major decline of the restaurant industry and in–person retail, and in today’s climate, a serious increase in perceived anti-Christian persecution.

A couple of years from now, it is very possible that the current, global response to COVID-19 will be perceived as an over-reaction. But since we will never know for sure if that is really true, I am glad we are doing what we are doing, just in case. As to when the final events of earth’s history will happen, the words of Jesus remain relevant, “stay awake, because you don’t know. . . .” Matt 24:42.

Corona Virus and Prophecy

I have been hesitant to speak out on the new corona virus (COVID-19) and its potential implications for prophecy and vice versa. There is so much that we don’t know yet. But with a total lockdown in the state of California and many other places (leaving the house only for exercise and food gathering), people are anxious and want to know if I have any advice.

First of all, take a deep breath and get some perspective. COVID-19 has sadly led to thousands of premature deaths, but it still pales in significance to the Spanish Flu of a hundred years ago. That resulted in 50-100 million deaths all around the world, at a time when world population was less than two billion (it is close to eight billion today). And beyond that is the Black Plague, which is estimated to have killed 75 to 200 million people (1347-1351 AD) at a time when world population was less than 500 million. That is a ratio of one in three, more or less. So while the current situation is very serious, in human terms, it is not yet at the level of what one might call “apocalyptic proportions.”

The Hebrew word for contagious disease or pandemic is dever. It occurs around fifty times in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). The root word has the meaning of “destroying” and it came to have the meaning of “pestilence” or “plague,” hence the association with contagious disease, and often associated with animals; “cattle disease” (Exod 9:3). It was how God planned to scare off the Canaanites so Israel wouldn’t have to fight to enter the promised land (Num 14:12). It is was also a consequence of disrespecting the covenant, often associated with war and famine in the famous trio: war, famine and pestilence (Lev 26:25; Jer 24:10; Ezek 14:12-21). The three together portray the siege of a city. War drives a people inside the walls, famine follows and the end-result is contagious disease followed by exile (Lev 26:21-26; Jer 21:6-9; Ezek 7:15). This dever is not portrayed as an active punishment from God, but rather as the consequence of disobedience, which results in a loss of God’s protection (Jer 27:13; 32:24; 34:17; 38:2).

The Greek Bible (New Testament) has less to say about contagious disease. Luke 21:11 associates pestilence (Greek: loimos, loimoi) with earthquakes, famines and heavenly signs that would occur at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. Late Greek manuscripts include pestilence in Matthew 24:7, probably because of familiarity with the Lucan wording. In other words, loimos/loimoi is one of the consequences of the siege of Jerusalem by Titus. The word is also used metaphorically in Acts 24:5, as in, “This Paul is such a pest.” The only other text in the New Testament that contains a word often translated “pestilence” is Revelation 6:8. The rider on the pale horse is given authority over a fourth of the earth, to smite with sword, famine, and pestilence (Greek: thanatos—a common word for “death” and the usual translation of dever in the Greek OT). In historicist SDA interpretation, Revelation 6:8 is not a sign of the end but something common to the whole age between the opening of the scroll and the Second Coming. The one end-time text that would seem at all relevant here is Revelation 16:2, which speaks of sores afflicting those who had the mark of the beast. While these sores are serious, the biblical words for contagious disease or pandemic are not used.

The short conclusion of this biblical study is two-fold. Pandemic is neither a “sign of the end” nor a direct, active punishment of God, but it is one of the consequences of sin in the broadest sense. In the OT contexts, it was a condition that could and should be alleviated by human action (Jer 27:13; 38:2). The most practical remedy offered for contagious disease in the Bible is social isolation (Num 5:1-4; see also Num 12:10-15 and Lev 13:45-46), the very thing many of us are now experiencing. To put it plainly, Bible prophecy does not indicate that pandemic is a key element of the “signs of the End,” neither does it rule it out as one of the troubles of the End.
Having said all this, prophecy clearly indicates that panic is one characteristic of the final events (Luke 21:25-26). Could COVID-19 lead to eschatological levels of panic? I am not a prophet, an economist, or a scientist, so take the following with a grain of salt. COVID-19, as we experience it, could get a whole lot worse, killing (in the worst case scenario publically stated) as many as two million Americans. That would put it in Spanish flu territory, but not Black Plague numbers. The greatest concern would not be the current virus, but a mutation of the virus into something even more dangerous. This possibility is something to watch closely, but is not likely (I am open to correction on this from scientific sources, not internet speculation). Viruses tend to decrease in potency over time rather than increase. And due to lack of widespread testing, the death rate is probably much lower than 3% right now, as many people who have COVID-19 don’t even know it. In South Korea, where testing is widespread, it is 0.7%. Current numbers for Germany (another nation ahead of the curve) are 0.3%, one-tenth of the rate reported in China and Italy (75 deaths out of 21,000 reported cases). In the USA, the current rate is about 1.2%.

My greater concern is the economic fallout of social isolation over many months (if that proves necessary). Worst-case estimates are that unemployment could reach 20% or more in the USA if the lockdowns last 6-12 months. This could trigger another Great Depression. Given the panic buying already occurring, the social order in a Facebook, post-Christian world could easily break down, leading to rioting, looting and other consequences. Among the likely consequences would be the end of face to face higher education as we know it, a long-term decline in tourism and international travel, a major decline of the restaurant industry and in–person retail, and a serious increase in perceived anti-Christian persecution in this country. In the words of Jesus, “stay awake, because you don’t know. . . .” Matt 24:42.

If you want my speculation–for what it is worth, and it isn’t much–I think a couple years from now, we will consider the current, global response to COVID-19 an over-reaction. But since we will never know if that is really true, I am glad we are doing what we are doing, just in case. But even if we find ourselves in the Kingdom a couple years from now (whether through death or the Second Coming), no one will complain that they are missing out on all the excitement here below.

The Meaning of Christmas

This is probably not the time of year when Jesus was born. More likely He was born in September-October (when shepherds would be in the fields). That means Christmas could be the day when Jesus was conceived in Mary’s womb, but we don’t have any records or evidence so that we can know for sure. What we do know is that this is the time of year when most people in the Western world, at least, actually do give a thought or two to the birth of Christ. So it is appropriate at this time of year to think of what Christmas tells us about God.

Think of the risk involved. God chooses to take human form in order to reveal in an accessible way what God is like (John 1:14-18; 14:9). He could have come fully formed, like the original Adam, and face all the challenges of this life as an adult, with adult reasoning and capacities. But instead God entrusts Himself to a human mother, to feed, train and protect Him. What could possibly go wrong with this picture? It is the story of incredible, risk-taking, no-holds-barred love. It is only in such a full-bodied way that human beings could fully discover what God is like (Heb 1:1-3) and God could fully experience what humanity in all of its sinfulness and rebellion is like (Heb 5:6). Only a love that will not let us go would do that. A love that was willing to allow His own creatures to torture and kill Him rather than retaliate (Luke 23:34). There is no need to be afraid of such a God and there is every reason to worship Him. And the good news is that we become like the kind of God we worship. To worship and admire a God like that is to become more and more like Him.

Wouldn’t it be a great Christmas if that happened to you?

The Day After (AC18-12)

In case you had not heard, the compliance documents and procedures we have been talking about this last week were voted by the GCEC to the tune of 185-124, about a 60% majority. If you are wondering what will happen now, go back and read the last two blogs (AC18-10 and AC18-11) where I explore that. The odds are the vote will have little impact over the short run. The long run is less certain.

If you are rejoicing today, rejoice! Savor it with all your might. God has given us deep capacity for both joy and sadness. Days of sadness will come for you again, so take the days of joy to heart and remember them when the dark days come. But if you run across someone who is sad or even devastated today and you feel tempted to gloat or tell them sternly that they will now be rewarded for their rebellion, reject the feeling, it did not come from God. God weeps with those who weep. In times of rejoicing we have a surplus of energy to comfort the heartbroken and sooth the fears and anxieties of others. Don’t miss that opportunity today.

If you feel sad or devastated today, know that God loves freedom so much that He even allows human beings to take away the freedom of others. It was God who centuries ago allowed the papacy to win the battle of the Christianities and dominate the Christian world for over a thousand years. If God could somehow continue His mission in the darkness of the Middle Ages, this small setback yesterday is a piece of cake to him. If there are no humans that you can trust, know that God remains trustworthy, even in the midst of human freedom and its consequences. Stay close to Him and you will be all right.

To any of you who are thinking of leaving the Seventh-day Adventist Church today I ask, “Where will you go?” Where else can you find the unique package of ideas that John the Revelator prophesied would be mission critical in the last days of earth’s history? And if you think you can live without that, know that no matter where you go, religious politics will follow you. It will be same old same old wherever you go. God did some amazing things for the SDA pioneers more than 150 years ago. They needed to organize their religion in order to more efficiently proclaim what God was doing in the world. That was the right thing to do. Religion is a human attempt to honor and proclaim a mighty act of God, and as such it is a beautiful thing. But over time all human institutions become more focused on their own survival than on the original mission, even when they are feeling really pious. But feeble and defective as they are, religious institutions still bear witness to elements of the original mission. For that reason, the disciples never left Judaism. Luther never left the Catholic Church. And Ellen White never left the Methodist Church. They were all thrown out. God arranged things so they had no choice. I doubt things are that drastic now, but if it should happen to you, that will be God’s sign that He has something better for you. In the meantime, set your face to the tasks God has set before you today. Even when things seem out of control, God is still in control.

What Do I Hope Will Happen? (AC18-11)

I trust the collective wisdom of church leadership, but voted decisions of the church have not always proven to be good for the church. The 2014 decision to put an up or down vote on the floor of the San Antonio session has in retrospect proved to be a big mistake with escalating consequences. And 2014 is far from the first such mistake. Ellen White spoke about this in Testimonies, volume 9, page 278: “Many matters have been taken up and carried by vote, that have involved far more than was anticipated and far more than those who voted would have been willing to assent to had they taken time to consider the question from all sides.” When documents are so controversial that they split the leadership of the church down the middle (GCDO’s recent 32-30 vote to put these documents on the floor of GCEC), I am very uncomfortable seeing these documents voted and implemented. When nearly half of those at the heart of the mission do not approve the danger of this being a mistake that will cause serous unintended consequences is high.

The reality is that the early church did not operate by vote, they operated by consensus. The only vote mentioned in the Bible (to my knowledge) is mentioned in Acts 26:10. There we are told that Paul cast his vote in the Sanhedrin in favor of punishing Stephen (who ended up stoned to death). The early church operated by consensus, talking things over until a solution appeared that most or all of the leaders could agree with. This is what happened in Acts 15. Having said that, it is probably impossible to govern a voluntary organization of 20 million members by consensus. But there is an alternative. Making all substantive actions dependent on a super-majority of two-thirds or even 75%. If 75% are needed to approve something, leaders will have to work hard to find common ground and will be less likely to push actions that can split the church. But that is a discussion for another day.

So what happens if these documents are approved? I would hope that they would be implemented on the Gamaliel Principle. In Acts 5:29-39, the Sanhedrin determined to execute the apostles for preaching Jesus as the Messiah. Gamaliel, one of the most respected members of the Sanhedrin, warned against that. He indicated that if the apostles work was of God, it would succeed regardless of what the Sanhedrin did with the apostles. If their work was not of God, it would fail. In other words he was saying, “Put these differences in God’s hands. Let Him demonstrate that this new direction has His blessing. Don’t put yourselves in the place of God.” Such an approach would allow for some reprimand and even punishment, but in the end allow the diversity to live and prove itself. Coercing the conscience does more harm than the behavior you are trying to control.

But what if these documents and procedures don’t pass, what if they are rejected? Are we doomed to have drama every Fall until the Lord comes? Surely there is a better alternative. If these documents fail (it looks to me as if it could go either way), I suggest members on all sides lay aside pride and go back to 2010 in spirit. In sports this is sometimes called a “do over.” Knowing what we know now, what would we have done differently? Do we love each other enough to respect the consciences of all? Is there a way to treat women equally without ordaining them? There are proposals out there that accomplish that. Perhaps with both sides tweaking such proposals we can come to a consensus that frees all consciences to pursue the mission of the church without reservations. We can respect the biblical convictions of both sides and find a way forward together. Ordination, after all, is not a biblical concept (the 2015 document voted in San Antonio stated exactly that) and adds no power or prestige to a pastor. It merely indicates that the person has the church’s approval to speak in its behalf. In a practical sense the church has already given that approval the day it hires a person. So ordination is more of an honorary element than a functional one. Would we split the church over who gets a badge of honor and who does not? Seems rather silly when you put it that way. In my view, the way out of the current impasse is to reverse the actions all have taken since 2010, at least in theory, and see if there is a middle road that we could have chosen then. Perhaps it is not too late to choose it now.

In conclusion, let me briefly reflect on some research I did a few years ago on the leadership language of the New Testament. I studied many books and articles on the subject and did my own wrestling with the New Testament (I ended up with more than a hundred footnotes). What fascinated me in this study was that there are only three passages in the New Testament that give specific principles on how church leadership should function. One of these was more localized, Acts 20:17-35. The other two are core to everything, Matthew 20:25-28 and John 13:13-15. I will close with these two passages, which are self-explanatory. Matt 20:25-28 (context James and John– parallel Mark 10:42-45): “But Jesus called them to him and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 26 It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, 28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’” John 13:13-15: “You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. 14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.”

If These Proposals Are Voted, Where Will They Take Us? (AC18-10)

In reaction to the documents being proposed at Annual Council next week, two main possible outcomes seem to be envisioned; peace with honor and massive centralization of church authority with serious consequences. Those who wrote the document (and many conservatives on issues like women’s ordination) hope for the former, that these processes will achieve peace with honor, a solution to the impasse that has been in place for several years. The processes introduced in the documents provide church leadership a way to show that it is doing something without actually hurting the parts of the church that would be affected by the processes. The long process of working over the documents resulted in many safeguards being introduced against “kingly power.” In reality very little is likely to happen as a result of these new processes.

A careful analysis of the documents seems to support this view of things. In reality, compliance committee action is so cumbersome it is unlikely to get far in most cases. First a recommendation has to move up the ladder from conferences to the GCADCOM. If ADCOM can agree that the problem is serious, they will then refer to the appropriate compliance committee. The committee will then engage the organization that is under scrutiny to investigate the charges, exercise diplomacy, engage in prayer, listening and conversation, allow 60-90 days for a counter-proposal that could resolve the issue. If after all these attempts the problem is resolved the committee will recommend that ADCOM close the case and give its blessing on whatever action had been in question. If the problem is unresolved, the compliance committee can recommend that an entity is “out of compliance” and should be dealt with. If the GCADCOM accepts the recommendation (no sure thing), it would be referred to GCDO (ADCOM plus division officers—about 70 people) which meets once a year before the Annual Council begins. If GCDO accepts the recommendation that an entity is dangerously out of compliance (no sure thing), it is passed on to the Executive Committee (GCEC—300 members from around the world for action at Annual Council. If GCEC approves (no sure thing), the entity receives a warning. If nothing changes, a similar process the following year can result in a reprimand to the president of that entity. If nothing changes, a similar process the following year could result in the president being removed from membership in the GCEC. And that would have to occur on the basis of a two-thirds vote, perhaps a little more likely than the impeachment of an American president in the Senate, but unlikely nevertheless. The safeguards built into the system are such diversity at the lower levels of the church is unlikely to be much affected. Something has been done, but it is a something that, in itself, won’t hinder the work among the minority. The main damage would be psychological and spiritual, the loss of people who would see the whole process as evidence that the church no longer deserves their respect and support.

But what about the more ominous outcome, a slippery slope leading to massive and unintended (by most at least) consequences for the church. This fear arises from a lack of trust in the collective wisdom of church leadership. Is that lack of trust founded? It depends on who you speak to. I don’t think things are this bad, but humor me for a moment on what could happen. Once this process is voted, it will be treated with all the status of policy even if it is not at that level (guidelines). Leadership would then come under pressure from the minority to compel recalcitrant unions to come around even if the process fails to achieve that. The case can be made that leadership itself is out of compliance if any entity is out of compliance and not forced to recant. Pressure could build to vote unions out of the fellowship, in which case a “unity document” could end up splitting the church. Unions out of compliance love the church and want to be part of it. They would never choose to leave, but some might not mind being kicked out and accept that as the will of God. The unity documents could then have forced the very schism in the church that they were designed to avoid.

This scenario reminds me of a story. An Arab in the marketplace of Baghdad was horrified to find himself face to face with Death. Death had terrible look on his face. The man was so frightened he jumped on his horse and rode all the way out of Baghdad to Samarra. Someone else approached Death and asked him why he had given the man such a frightening look. Death replied that he was not trying to frighten the man, he was just surprised. “I was surprised to see him in Baghdad, for I have an appointment with him in Samarra tonight.” In fleeing to Samarra the man assured the very outcome that he was trying to avoid. All actions have a reaction and in church history many outcomes ended up far from what those who made those decisions intended. This could be the case with these Annual Council documents. I hope and pray not.