Silver Bullet? Golden Calf? Is the vaccine our way out of this?
Updated: Feb 16, 2021
…In repentance and rest is your salvation,
In quietness and trust is your strength,
But you would have none of it…
…Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help… Isaiah 30-31
“Light at the end of the tunnel”.
“Injection of hope.”
“Our way out of the crisis.”
The prophecies concerning “the vaccine” are positively messianic.
I write “the vaccine” in this way because we were taught to pin our hopes on “the vaccine” before we even knew which vaccine(s) we were talking about. Now that three different vaccines have been approved for use in the UK, we still use this catch-all, “the vaccine”. It has become for us the locus of all our hopes.
It is human nature to fix our hope of rescue onto something. If not God, we won’t trust nothing, we’ll trust something. Right now, as a nation and largely as a Church, we’re putting our trust in “the vaccine”.
But is the vaccine our way out of this?
What is "this"?
We have no hope of identifying our way out of this if we don’t even understand what “this” is. If we don’t diagnose the problem correctly, we can’t apply the right solution.
So, do we know what the real crisis is?
If the crisis of the hour is the virus, the pandemic, then an effective vaccine might well be the solution. But this is not the real crisis of the hour.
The real crisis of the hour is a spiritual and moral crisis. We have sinned; we are under judgment; and we are not repenting. Each of these three is a spiritual and moral crisis in its own right, largely unnoticed or ignored by God’s people in the UK, but together they form a constellation of historic proportions.
The call of the hour is not to beat the virus. I’ll say it again. The call of the hour is not to beat the virus. The call of the hour is to hear God, humble ourselves, confess our great sin, repent, and beg his mercy. But this we are not doing.
This pandemic is a wake-up call from God to do with our spiritual and moral crisis: but we insist on sleeping still. We want our vaccine to stop this nasty alarm – hit snooze, or just break the thing! – so we can carry on with our slumber. But is that what God in his goodness desires for us?
I want to argue that the vaccine may well represent a pathway even deeper into the real crisis that besieges us, compounding the crisis, rather than the longed-for way out.
Have We Sinned?
Caution is salutary when we are minded to interpret something as the judgment of God simply because it looks like the judgment of God. Biblical checks on this tendency include Jesus’s words to his disciples in John 9, when they assumed a person's blindness was punishment for sin (they just weren’t sure whose sin), and of course significant episodes within the lives of Job and Joseph. There is such a thing as suffering for doing good (1 Peter 3).
But against this caution we must weigh example after example, both in the Old Testament and in the New, of specific temporal judgment indeed being dealt because of specific sin: Cain is put under a curse and the land is made difficult for him because he shed his brother’s innocent blood (Genesis 4); “the LORD struck the child that Uriah’s wife had borne to David, and he became ill” (2 Samuel 12:15); Ananias and Sapphira are struck dead for lying to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5); believers get sick and die because of their attitude to the Lord’s supper and his body (1 Corinthians 11:29-32).
It would be overstating it to say that this is the default – that if something looks like judgment from God then it probably is – but at the very least we should take it seriously as a possibility. If it looks like judgment from God, it could be. So is it?
The most important question to ask in exploring this possibility is this: Have we sinned?
If we can identify some significant unrepentant sin in our lives, it would be wise to consider whether there isn’t after all some connection between that sin and the suffering that God’s sovereign hand is bringing upon us. Indeed, God in his mercy may be using that very hardship to bring the sin to our attention so that we can repent of it and experience his forgiveness and restoration.
We should clarify, as we set out to identify significant unrepentant sin, that we should be looking for corporate sin, not just individual, since this judgment we are experiencing (if indeed it is judgment) is being inflicted at a corporate level, sweeping up Church and nation.
So, is there some great national sin, in which the Church has also played a part?
The answer of course is yes.
Do not dismiss as a mere “hot topic issue” the real-life fact that more than 9 million innocent bearers of the image of God have been systematically “terminated” by the State, through the NHS, with our taxes, since the Abortion Act was written into the statute books in 1967.
This law was passed with the blessing and help of the national Church, and also with the support of evangelicals for many years. Click here to listen to something of that story.
Although there have been huge improvements in our witness since the 80s thanks to the work of John Stott, John Wyatt, and others, it would be fair to say that we have never truly, permanently repented of our silence, inactivity, complicity and participation; we have never started behaving significantly differently in the face of the greatest human rights atrocity since the beginning of time.
Today, 80% of evangelicals think that abortion is sometimes justified.
Rarely do you hear any church offering clear, thorough teaching on abortion. When it’s an issue like racism, climate change, Covid-19, the Church jumps to it and is outspoken. Websites, books, conferences appear; teams spring up, programmes proliferate, money pours… But I have almost never heard of a church rallying a taskforce or a steering group to tackle the crisis of their local baby genocide, and yet the baby genocide is taking many more lives globally than racism, climate change, and Covid-19 combined.
Biblically, the shedding of innocent blood is no small thing. The unsystematic killing of Abel alone was enough to curse the ground and bring God’s judgment. The mass killing of babies through child sacrifice – combining two of the things that God hates the most: idolatry and the shedding of innocent blood – was enough to provoke in God a response beyond anything we see elsewhere. In Jeremiah 7:31 he says that the very idea of his own people practising this was unthinkable to him. In Psalm 106 we read that it caused God to “abhor his own inheritance”. In 2 Kings 21, when Manasseh sacrificed his own son and shed “so much innocent blood that he filled Jerusalem from end to end”, we read that it provoked the LORD to anger and to declare: “I am going to bring such disaster on Jerusalem and Judah that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle.” It does indeed seem that child sacrifice was the final straw: exile became inevitable.
We know that child sacrifice is happening today not just in our nation but also in our Church. (If you don’t think of abortion today as child sacrifice, if you think it’s merely Cain-kills-Abel, please listen here.) We also know that not only is practising child sacrifice a sin in God’s eyes: turning a blind eye to child sacrifice is a sin (Leviticus 20:1-5).
You and I may not have had an abortion ourselves, but we’ve looked the other way and left countless babies and mothers unrepresented and undefended.
This is a grave spiritual and moral state for the Church and nation to be in.
In light of the unimaginable quantity of innocent blood that has filled our land, with so little protest and opposition from ourselves, even with our help and participation, would it really be so surprising, would it be unwarranted, if we were experiencing the judgment of God?
On the contrary, it is astonishing that God in his mercy has withheld judgment for so long, and it is astonishing that even now it is so gentle compared with all the brutal violence we have meted out on his innocent children. I expect that there will be much worse yet to come. There should be.
I am not claiming any special insight or revelation from God here, I am not claiming that he has “told” me that this is judgment. I am simply putting two and two together to make four.
How could such grave national sin fail to kindle the wrath of a holy and loving God?
Child sacrifice, practised at a national level, is precisely the kind of behaviour that we see biblcally provoking God to national judgment.
So, Are We Under Judgment?
There is of course a limit on how much we can know the mind of God or understand his ways. It would be impossible to say with certainty that x is definitely judgment for y.
But in a sense, we do not need to know that. So long as we have identified y – significant unrepentant sin – we can and must go ahead and repent of it straightaway! We needn’t wait until we are sure that God is judging us in a special way for that specific sin! So we can skip this section: we know we need to repent.
Even so, the kind of trouble we are experiencing is noteworthy for its similarity in form to what we know to be the judgment of God in Bible times and what God promised to inflict as judgment or as “wake-up calls” in time to come, in the last days.
This, combined with the fact that we have sinned in a significant unrepentant way, strengthens the case that this is indeed the judgment of God.
On epidemics and the judgment of God I can hardly do better than Peter Saunders’s extremely comprehensive biblical study. Please do read it. For me one of his most sobering and pertinent observations was this:
Sadly, in the context of Revelation most people on earth missed the signs. We are told that in the face of these warnings they failed to repent:
‘The rest of mankind who were not killed by these plagues still did not repent of the work of their hands; they did not stop worshiping demons, and idols of gold, silver, bronze, stone and wood—idols that cannot see or hear or walk. Nor did they repent of their murders, their magic arts, their sexual immorality or their thefts.’ (Revelation 9:20,21)
Murders, magic arts, sexual immorality and thefts. It is not difficult to see how these descriptions might apply today in our post-Christian West in the shadow of the sexual revolution and all its societal consequences.
Not only did they fail to repent but later, when things got worse, they like the Egyptians before them, ‘cursed the name of God, who had control over these plagues’. (Revelation 16:9)
I fear this is exactly what we are seeing today. Nearly a year on since Saunders wrote this piece, things have only gotten worse, and yet there is still hardly a murmuring of repentance, from the nation or from the Church. Indeed, we blaspheme the name of God, claiming that it is we who have control over the virus: we will defeat it by our own powers.
Have We Repented?
Since March of last year, our nation has largely continued to heap sin upon sin.
Days into the first lockdown, DIY abortions at home began, and then the baby genocide started in Northern Ireland.
It wasn’t long after that that the Government tore into the family unit with the “quickie divorce” bill.
The Church has not been playing her part in being a prophetic voice and a spiritual lead to the nation. We have largely been silent and behind.
The Church of England bishops found voice to condemn racism, Brexit, and Dominic Cummings, but not a squeak from any of them against the baby genocide. Even in the House of Lords none of the “Lords Spiritual” spoke up in defence the Northern Irish babies, and only 7 out of 26 of them voted against the genocide there.
The Church has certainly performed many acts of charity, but charity is no substitute for repentance. When King David committed adultery and murder, he had to repent – it wasn’t enough to point to all the good things he’d done or was still doing.
Various leaders have called for days of prayer, but these have generally been devoid of repentance. Some will say this is harsh but many of these prayers have in fact been pagan prayers – prayers for health and safety and deliverance but without repentance.
I am not sure I will cope with hearing 2 Chronicles 7:14 misquoted one more time. Almost everyone leaves out the “and turn from their wicked ways”, and ignores verse 13 which points out that God sent the plague. But they love the idea of God “healing the land”, and they are happy to pray for that.
We ourselves attempted to call a day of repentance amongst church leaders in the wake of our conference back in April. But we found that it was falling mostly on deaf ears, and we had to acknowledge before God that repentance was not something we could organise or force into being. We had to admit that repentance wasn’t happening. And it still isn’t.
So, Is The Vaccine Our Way Out?
How can it be?
Isaiah 30:15 tells us plainly: “In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength…”
The verse finishes on a poignant note: “but you would have none of it.”
It should be abundantly clear to us that the only and whole solution to our spiritual and moral crisis is repentance. Anything apart from repentance is at best futile but more probably aggravating the problem.
We are looking to the vaccine, instead of repentance, for our help and salvation.
Isaiah 30 and 31 tell the story of the Israelites failing to listen to the word of the LORD. They do not consult him, but instead carry out plans that are not his, and go down to Egypt for help.
Because it is not God’s plan, the LORD says that Egypt will be “utterly useless” to them.
“This is the opposite of waiting on the Lord,” says John Piper in his exposition of this passage. “When our way is blocked, and the Lord says wait, we better trust him and wait, because if we run ahead without consulting him, our plans will probably not be his plans and they will bring shame on us, rather than glory.”
When it comes to the vaccine, there is a blockage that we should heed. Not only are we looking to it as an alternative to repentance to get us out of the crisis: there are ethical concerns to do with the vaccines themselves. They have been produced with the help of aborted fetal cell lines, and the practice of organ harvesting from healthy, wrongly killed babies continues today around the world.
Jim Nicholls asks a good question: “Can we really attribute something of such questionable origins to God? Surely just the association with child sacrifice is enough to testify against these vaccines as being blessings from God… I believe just the very fact that these vaccines are linked with the practice of abortion should signal to us as Christians that there’s something not quite right here.”
But instead of stopping and taking this issue seriously, giving it permission to derail the whole project, most of us seem dead-set already on taking the vaccine – because it’s meant to be the way out. We’re impatient. We’ve had enough of this pandemic. We’ll tolerate or find a way around ethical problems to do with the vaccine. But Nicholls is right to say: “let us not be driven by our desire to get our lives back to ‘normal’ or fear over what others might think of us.” These motivations – and plenty of fears over personal safety too, fear of death – are clearly wreaking havoc in the hearts and minds of many believers. Indeed, many of them cite these motivations out loud themselves, this is not my conjecture.
How can we be sure that such strong motivations are not clouding or jeopardising a simple desire to please the Lord in all that we do?
We must take seriously the warning of Scripture: impatience often gives birth to idolatry. It was when the Israelites “saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain” that they built the golden calf. At least, that was their perspective: God said that they were “quick” to turn away.
I confess I am with Nicholls when he says: “I have winced when I’ve heard Christians giving thanks to God for the vaccine.” I don’t think we really know God as we ought to if we think that this is his gift to us, as if he would give us something out of the fruit of child sacrifice and it would be our way out of judgment for child sacrifice even though we are still not repenting of child sacrifice.
Yes, Christians have been praying for the vaccine, and so it is unsurprising that they think that this is God’s answer. But as Rico Tice points out in his excellent book Honest Evangelism, watching what we pray for can actually help us to identify our idols. Yes: we can pray to the Living God for our idols. Shocking!
The blending of the Living God and idols that he hates is nothing new. Aaron built an altar in front of the golden calf and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the LORD.”
Sounds a little like some of our prayer meetings today.
The fact that we prayed for this and it has come is no evidence whatsoever that it’s a gift from God. Indeed, there is so much evidence to the contrary.
We are meant to be repenting, but instead we are turning to a vaccine that is itself produced with the fruit of the very practice we’re meant to be repenting of.
Why is this not ringing alarm bells?
I am not a holy man nor yet a man of prayer, but I think I know a holy prayer when I hear one.
Back in November, during the second lockdown, my friend Dave Borlase spoke from the Bible on the need for repentance. He shared this prayer with us: “Lord, don’t take this pandemic away from us until we’ve learned what you want us to learn.”
At that basic level, even if we were to lay aside ethical concerns to do with the vaccine, the absence of repentance alone means that the vaccine cannot be our “way out” of the crisis, not God’s way out. We still haven’t learned, we still haven’t repented.
Even if the vaccine does appear to bring some form of momentary relief, it will not help in the long run or with the root of our problem; indeed, with its connection to child sacrifice, it may well drag us deeper into complicity, complacency, and compromise.
We just need to repent.