The year was 165 AD. Marcus Aurelius was emperor in Rome. A devastating epidemic swept through the empire. Some medical historians suspect it was the first appearance of smallpox in the West. Regardless of the actual disease, it was lethal. During the fifteen year duration of the epidemic, between a quarter and a third of the empire’s population died from it, including Marcus Aurelius himself. In 251 AD, a new and equally devastating epidemic again swept through the land.
That’s all interesting dinner trivia info, but what’s the point? Christian writers of that time like Cyprian, Dionysius, Eusebius, and other church fathers thought the epidemics made major contributions to the Christian cause. How so?
1) Christianity offered hope
During the 3rd century epidemic, it was reported that 5000 people a day were dying in the city of Rome alone. When surrounded by that, it inevitably led to people asking a lot of “why?” questions. Why is this happening? Why them and not me? Will we all die? Why does the world exist anyway? What is going to happen next? What can we do?
“Pagans” in the Roman empire did not provide satisfactory answers to those questions. They did not have answers as to why the Roman gods had sent this upon them or even if they were involved. Worse yet, many Roman priests had fled the empire!
Today’s secularism doesn’t have compelling answers to this. If we’re living in a truly godless universe, COVID-19 is simply the evolutionary mechanism of “survival of the fittest.” This pandemic is nature’s way of weeding out the weak from the strong. It’s the circle of life. It’s not tragic. It’s not even a crisis. It’s normal and necessary. But our response to this is showing us we’re not satisfied with that answer.
On the one hand, Christianity shows us suffering is not the way it’s supposed to be. Every human being on the planet has some sort of visceral response to what they see happening around them. Deep down we know this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. Only Christianity can provide a satisfactory answer as to why things should be different. God created a pristine world without sickness. And he will one day usher those who belong to him into a renewed world without sickness ever being a threat again. That offers people hope!
On the other hand, this suffering is just. Christianity teaches that suffering is ultimately comes back to human sin. We’re getting what we deserve, but not like karma teaches. With karma, you have just have to accept it, suck it up, and endure it. Jesus says something different. This disaster ought to lead us and call others to repentance (Luke 13). Once again, hope emerges. For the repentant, there is good reason to believe in a bright future.
2) Christianity increased survival rates
As Dionysius observed the plague unfolding around him, he wrote a lengthy tribute to the heroic nursing efforts of local Christians, many of whom lost their lives while caring for others. He wrote:
“Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy.”
Dionysius suggests that Christians faired far better saying, “The heathen behaved in the very opposite way. At the first onset of the disease, they pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treated unburied corpses as dirt, hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease; but do what they might, they found it difficult to escape.”
As pagans watched how selflessly Christians cared for one another, many were drawn to it. Not only had Christianity provided a narrative of hope, it demonstrated practical care not found anywhere else in the Roman empire.
So, Christian, we have a unique opportunity. Tell the world why you have hope. And don’t hesitate, when appropriate, to jump into the fray.