As Covid-19 spreads throughout the world many Catholics are asking if God sent this disease as a punishment for sins. Some have said God definitely is punishing the world or even the Church because of various recent events. Others contend that God would never punish people with a plague or pandemic and so it’s obvious that this disease is not a divine punishment.
The truth (as it often is) is found somewhere in the middle.
The Bible records God punishing people in this life for their actions through natural disasters. God rained fire and brimstone upon Sodom and Gomorrah because of their inhabitants’ depravity (Gen. 19:24-25) and he sent venomous snakes to afflict Israel when they became impatient and spoke against God in the desert (Num. 21:6). Some of these punishments include sending diseases to afflict people such as the plagues upon Egypt (Exod. 7:16-17) and even a plague upon Israel (2 Sam. 24:15).
And this isn’t something God only did in the Old Testament. St. Paul admonished the Corinthians who received the Eucharist while in a state of sin: “that is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died” (1 Cor. 11:30). St. Luke records how Ananias and Sapphira fell down and died after Peter confronted their dishonest behavior towards the communal collection (Acts 5:9-11).
Now, there is a question about what the biblical authors mean when they say God sent a plague or other disaster. It could be the case that God directly intervened in the natural order to bring such a calamity about or that he permitted a natural evil to unfold and simply chose not to stop it. Either way, the testimony of Scripture shows that we can’t say that God never causes sickness or death as a punishment for sinful behavior.
But that doesn’t mean illness or death are always a punishment for sinful behavior. A central theme of the book of Job was that he had done nothing wrong to incur the afflictions he endured (1:1). In fact, God became angry with Job’s friends for wrongly suggesting Job’s afflictions were punishments for sin (42:7). He tells Job (and the rest of us) that we are not in a position to judge why God allows some evils to occur (38:1-41). That’s because, as God said through the prophet Isaiah, “as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (55:9).
Jesus likewise taught that some evils occur without any connection to sinful behavior. He said the victims of a building collapse in Siloam were not any more sinful than Jews that Pontius Pilate slaughtered (Luke 13:2-5) and that no one’s sin caused a man to be born blind from birth (John 9:3). God instead allowed the man to be blinded so that his healing power would be displayed through Jesus’ healing of him. This is similar to why God did not heal St. Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” (which may have been an illness; cf. Gal. 4:13, 15). Paul’s suffering was not a punishment for sin but an opportunity for God’s grace to be revealed. That’s why God told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).
Not every natural evil should be seen as a punishment for sin. In fact, God usually allows the world to unfold according to the laws he built into it—miracles are the exception, not the rule. Because we live in a world governed by natural laws, we should start with the presumption that any natural evil, whether personal and communal, is a byproduct of those laws and not a specific punishment for sin.
Indeed, the Church hasn’t said other global pandemics, tsunamis, earthquakes, and other kinds of disasters that killed hundreds of thousands and afflicted millions were divine punishments. Therefore, why should we believe Covid-19 or any other disaster is different from past ones that we did not think were punishments for sin?
People in the Bible were living in a key phase of God’s plan, when divine interventions were especially common, and he gave them prophets to understand the reasons for these interventions. But we live in a different age, and public revelation has stopped, meaning we have to use other methods.
If the disaster only affected a group of people who we’d expect God to punish, like a group of abortion doctors or the attendees of a Satanic black mass, that could be evidence of divine punishment. It would also be permissible to believe a disaster was a divine punishment if it was foretold or accompanied by a church-approved private revelation, though even then the faithful would not be obligated to believe it because this truth is not found in public revelation.
However, we have no evidence like this in favor of the view that Covid-19 is a divine punishment. Yet God always brings about good when an evil occurs, and this pandemic provides a reminder that we must repent from our sinfulness while we have time to do so.
Indeed, that was the point Jesus made when people asked him about the seemingly senseless deaths of the Galilean Jews at the hands of Pontius Pilate. He said those slaughtered worshipers weren’t more sinful than the people of Siloam who died when a tower collapsed on them. What mattered was not why they died, but whether they were able to repent before they died, or as Jesus bluntly put it, “unless you repent you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:5).
You or I may or may not contract Covid-19. If we do, we may or may not die from it. We also may never know why God allowed some people to get this disease and not others. But what we do know is that you and I will die and come face-to-face with our Lord to be judged (2 Cor. 5:10).
Therefore, we should use this time of communal trial as well as the “personal disasters” that afflict most people to draw near to God. We should repent of any sin that keeps us apart from God and seek communion with him, even if it is through a prayer of spiritual communion and worshiping with the assistance of something like an online video stream of the Mass. And we should extend Christ’s mercy and kindness to the many people who are in need right now and may be suffering physically, emotionally, and economically. St. Paul put it this way in his second letter to the Corinthians:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God (1:3-5).