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2000 Years of Christians and Epidemics

Two of Jesus’ most famous teachings are “Love your neighbor as yourself” and “Greater love has no man than this, that he should lay down his life for his friends.” With these and numerous other biblical teachings, what should be the Christian’s essential attitude toward the challenging situations brought on by the coronavirus pandemic?

Here is a brief historical overview of Christian’s response to pandemics:

As all historians attest, Europe’s first hospitals were built by the early Christians “to provide care during times of plague, on the understanding that negligence that spread disease further was, in fact, murder.”

The Antonine Plague of the 2nd century may have killed off 25% of the Roman Empire. Christians cared for the victims and “offered a spiritual model whereby plagues were not the work of angry and capricious deities but the product of a broken Creation in revolt against a loving God.”

During another plague in the 4rd Century, the pagan Roman Emperor Julian complained about “the Galileans” taking care of people who did not agree with their beliefs. Church historian Pontianus wrote that Christians ensured that “good was done to all men, not merely to the household of faith.”

Religious demographer and sociologist Rodney Stark states that there is a lot of evidence to suggest that in cities with Christian communities, the death rates due to plagues may have been half that of other cities.

When the bubonic plague reached Wittenberg, Germany in 1527, Martin Luther did not flee the city like many did, but stayed to minister to his fellow citizens. His daughter Elizabeth soon died from the disease. In a tract entitled “Whether Christians Should Flee the Plague,” Luther wrote: “We die at our posts. Christian doctors cannot abandon their hospitals. Christian governors cannot flee their districts. Christian pastors cannot abandon their congregations. The plague does not dissolve our duties: It turns them to crosses, on which we must be prepared to die.”

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