When the twelve men sent by Moses to spy out Canaan (Numbers 13-14) reported back, ten were gripped by fear of the threat to their lives, and two were looking to what God would accomplish through their obedience.
When the Philistine champion Goliath confronted the army of Israel (1 Samuel 17), all the Israelites were afraid and dismayed, except for David who was dismayed at the way God was being dishonoured and trusted God to deal with Goliath through him.
The Queen of Sheba was impressed by the international reports of King Solomon’s wealth and wisdom (1 Kings 10), but according to Deuteronomy 17 his accumulation of wealth, weapons and wives was contrary to God’s will and proved his downfall (1 Kings 11).
According to the prevailing outlook of the majority of his contemporaries, Job’s suffering gave evidence of his sin; but God commended Job’s view that it didn’t.
The numerous false prophets in the days of Jeremiah and Ezekiel spoke messages in line with what their God-ignoring contemporaries wanted to hear, while the true prophets confronted them with their need to repent.
The general advice in King Nebuchadnezzar’s reign was that bowing to his image was the way to be ‘well and good’ (Daniel 3), but three faithful Jews preferred to serve God rather than to take part in idolatry, even if it cost their lives.
The general atmosphere among the people in Judah after the exile tended towards nostalgia, discouragement and fear, but leaders like Nehemiah and prophets like Haggai spoke and acted out of a vision for future restoration and greater glory.
The majority Jewish expectation in Jesus’ day was for a political-military Messiah to establish a worldly kingdom, but Jesus came as a suffering-servant Messiah to establish a spiritual kingdom. Most people reported he was a prophet; only a few recognised him as Messiah (Mark 8).
The parables of the kingdom that Jesus told (eg. Mark 4:30-32), and his words about the narrow gate and hard way (Matthew 7:13-14), suggest that following Jesus faithfully is a minority way and view of life. Even in the centuries of Christendom, the way of authentic discipleship may have been pursued by far fewer than those who practised religion out of socio-cultural convention or political-legal requirement. In our own day, in the West at least, those who believe the truth of the biblical gospel and live accordingly are following a distinctly minority report.
There are those who would also argue that extra-biblical history regularly testifies to majority views that later come to be discredited. Few people now think the sun moves round the earth, or that slavery is acceptable; most do not doubt that germs cause disease or that smoking is bad for you. But these were once minority reports.
None of this is to suggest that the majority report is always wrong – that would be as ridiculous as supposing the minority report is always right. Truth and reality are usually more complex and multifaceted than such black and white alternatives anyway, and few people would dare to suggest – especially in regard to contemporary issues and events in which they are themselves involved – that they have the comprehensive knowledge or God’s-view perspective to equip them to make such judgments.
But it is to suggest that it is always a wise thing to listen carefully to minority reports, especially when the majority report is so widely assumed or strongly announced that minority reports are less likely to be noticed, even when people have the courage to voice them. In the current pandemic we have heard of the notion of herd immunity in relation to disease management, but there can be a similar kind of herd immunity to information management. In the digital-information age we live in – which tends more towards viral dissemination of soundbites and spin than towards deep and careful reflection – it is all too possible for information to be accepted because it is widely credited rather than because it is credibly grounded.
Minority and majority reports in lockdown
There are numerous examples of majority and minority reports in the current pandemic and lockdown:
Majority report: Government policy is led by ‘the best science available’.
Minority report: ‘Which science?’ There are disagreements among scientists about methods, findings and recommendations, and the decision about which of these to follow is made, at least in part, by political considerations. Some members of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies have complained about political censoring of their advice.
Majority report: The risk of transmitting the virus at one metre is about 10 to 30 times higher than the risk at two metres (according to the government’s chief scientific adviser).
Minority report: The two-metre advice has a questionable evidence base and possibly conjured up out of nowhere (according to a professor on the government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group). The World Health Organisation recommends one metre. Public Health England acknowledge that the two-metre rule may be relaxed to enable businesses to re-open.
Majority report: Make your own face coverings, and use them properly. Wearing a face covering does not protect you, but may provide some protection for others you come into close contact with.
Minority report: ‘Properly’ means completely covering your nose and mouth while breathing comfortably; washing your hands before putting it on or taking it off; not touching your eyes, nose, or mouth at all times, or the front of the face covering, or the part of the face covering that has been in contact with your mouth and nose. Once removed, make sure you clean any surfaces the face covering has touched, and wash the face covering after use at 60 degrees or higher.
Majority report: Covid-19 is a deadly killer, and must be overcome at all costs. There have been about 60,000 excess deaths in the UK since the Coronavirus outbreak began, of which some three-quarters are Covid-related and the rest perhaps due to reluctance to visit a doctor or a hospital, or the result of long-term health conditions being made worse by having to remain at home.
Minority report: Currently in the UK around one in 400 people is infected with coronavirus, and the chances of coming into close contact with one of those individuals – certainly as we are practising social distancing even when out and about – is considered to be pretty slim. If we do become infected, many show no symptoms and only one in 20 people who shows symptoms is believed to need hospital treatment. If we are infected our chance of dying seems to mirror our chance of dying anyway over the next year, certainly once we pass the age of 20.
Majority report: Restrictions must be kept in place until safety from escalating infection can be guaranteed. Easing restrictions too soon, without adequate tracing and testing, or carelessly disregarding the restrictions that are in place, could lead to a dangerous resurgence of infection rates.
Minority report: There is a need to balance competing risks, and find the least worst option overall, bearing in mind the indirect costs referred to by the UK chief medical adviser, including poor access to healthcare for other conditions, huge rises in mental illness, financial hardship and damage to education. An Office for National Statistics survey found that people in lockdown are more worried about their mental wellbeing than their general health. Health experts warn of a looming mental health crisis for millions of people surrounded by death and disease and forced into isolation, poverty and anxiety, with significant increases of depression, addiction and abuse, and perhaps one in four of us suffering from a form of post-traumatic stress disorder because of the pandemic. Cancer Research UK estimates that 2,700 fewer people are being diagnosed every week. 700,000 routine surgical treatments a month are being affected. Calls to domestic abuse helplines have increased by two thirds. Globally, experts fear resources for other diseases being diverted and depleted, undermining the long fight against other infectious diseases like AIDS, tuberculosis and cholera that kill millions every year. Also at risk are decades-long efforts that allowed the World Health Organization to set target dates for eradicating malaria, polio and other illnesses. In the most vulnerable countries, poverty could be as deadly as the coronavirus crisis.
Majority report: Further outbreaks of coronavirus and rolling lockdowns are inevitable without widespread testing, tracing and isolation across the UK.
Minority report: Even with an effective vaccine, the virus is likely to remain in circulation for the foreseeable future since no vaccine is 100% effective and not everyone on the planet will be vaccinated. Even with tracing, it is difficult to account for asymptomatic transmission (and at least 40% of people infected may be asymptomatic). The response by governments and the tech industry to the coronavirus outbreak has already raised many concerns about privacy from contact tracing apps, mobile location data tracking and police surveillance drones. Companies are using software to monitor employees working from home. Students are being watched remotely through exam monitoring software, despite privacy concerns about the practice.
Majority report: the planet is healing due to global lockdown, through reduced air pollution, cleaner water, and people reconnecting with nature. The Committee on Climate Change urges investment in new jobs, cleaner air and improved health, more home-working and online GP consultations. The energy secretary has spoken in favour of a green recovery to the recession.
Minority report: The journal Nature says CO2 emissions for 2020 will be roughly the same as 2011, and are likely to increase greatly once the pandemic passes. The transition of the economy away from reliance on burning fossil fuels requires a long-term transition of equipment and factories. The pandemic has shown us is that it is possible to achieve these reductions, but the challenge will be doing it in a sustainable way.
Majority report: Public life has been stripped to its essentials. Amid all the death, difficulty and distress, we’ve come to see what really matters, especially health and care workers, delivery drivers, the stackers of supermarket shelves and good neighbours. We value them better now, whether through public clapping or volunteering or socially-distanced friendliness.
Minority report: Many people are beset by fear of leaving their homes, such that an expert in risk from Cambridge University and government adviser has described fear among British citizens as ‘very worrying’, saying that we are ‘definitely overanxious’ about coronavirus. Some people, especially among British, Asian and Minority Ethnic groups, have complained of the escalation of selfish, non-socially distant gatherings. Clapping health and care workers is no substitute for providing adequate PPE, paying them enough that they don’t need to use food banks, or getting migrant workers basic rights like the right for their family to remain in the UK if they die. Heroes are not supposed to complain, of course, but if we value people who care for others with courage and professionalism we should push for changes that really make a difference. On a wider canvas, there are concerns about rising nationalism in Europe, and tensions in Europe between both east and west, and north and south. The UN Secretary General said the coronavirus pandemic had unleashed in the world a ‘tsunami of hate and xenophobia’, including anti-foreigner sentiment online and in the streets, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and anti-Muslim attacks.
Thinking Christianly about life and death
A recent Newsweek article posed the question (alluding to the seventeenth-century French philosopher Descartes) ‘What is man if he ceases to think?’, and urged people confronted with such diverse information about the pandemic to stop and think about what is happening, rather than being driven by fear of one kind or another. Perhaps some clear thinking would help to reduce the human cost of virus misinformation that has circulated within what the World Health Organisation has called an ‘infodemic’. It seems that rumours, conspiracy theories and bad health information have been linked to assaults, arsons and deaths.
But how, especially, should Christians be thinking about all this? With regard to many issues, no doubt, it would be foolish to suppose there is just one right view that aligns with faithful discipleship of Jesus. But such faithful discipleship will surely require us to prayerfully explore the complex issues before us in the light of the teaching, values and priorities of Jesus. Since the way of Jesus is very much a minority report in contemporary culture, we may need to listen especially carefully to its distinctive voice amid so many other, louder voices.
Take, for example, the almost unquestioned assumption beneath the various perspectives on the direct and indirect costs of the pandemic, that the number one priority is the protection and preservation of physical life and health. This, too, incidentally may be traced back to Descartes who asserted (in his Discourse on Method) that ‘the conservation of health … is without doubt the primary good and the foundation of all other goods of this life’. How, then, do we understand Jesus’ words (in Matthew 10:28) about not fearing those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul, but rather fearing him who can destroy both soul and body in hell? Or his words (in Mark 8:35) that whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it? What did the apostle Paul mean when he wrote (in 1 Corinthians 15:19) that If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied? Is physical survival more important than anything else, including love, truth, faith, service of others? Those who recently commemorated the 75th anniversary of VE Day presumably believed there were people and values worth preserving at the cost of physical life. Alexander Solzhenitsyn thought the materialist principle of ‘survival at any price’ strips us of our humanity. The apostle John, perhaps, would think it strips us of our Christianity, since he wrote that [Jesus] laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers (1 John 3:16).
There is nothing cavalier or blasé about this. It is Christian faith that speaks most strongly of the inestimable value of human life made in God’s image, and of the rightness of doing good to all; of laying down our lives out of love for others, but not of complicity in the loss of others’ lives through uncaring negligence or unwise behaviour. But the teaching of Jesus and his apostles is that the eternal life of his kingdom, which we enter now by faith in him, transforms both the way we see our physical death (no longer something we need fear) and the way we see our physical life now (following his way, whatever the cost).
In 1527, Martin Luther wrote a letter questioning ‘whether one may flee from a deadly plague’. He encouraged people to self-quarantine until they were completely well, to treat gently and prayerfully those who were afraid, to use medical provision and good public health practices (eg public hospitals, and cemeteries outside town centres, both rare at the time). He also thought hysteria had gripped much of Europe and was leading to great harm, and encouraged Christians not to neglect their duties at home or in their communities over concerns of illness, insisting that we have a duty to serve our neighbour at all times, even if it might bring some risk to ourselves. He also recommended participation in public worship as something more necessary, not less, in times of plague, as it encouraged faith rather than fear, and a focus on a joyful life and a good death.
Biblical professor Carl Trueman has observed that in the current coronavirus crisis ‘the levels of general panic indicate that few of us have been properly prepared for the reality of our own mortality’, whereas in Luke 13:1-5 Jesus indicated that death should alert us to both our mortality and our spiritual condition before God. ‘The church is certainly to help people to live, but to live in the shadow of mortality. She must set this earthly realm in the greater context of eternity. She is to prepare people through her preaching, her liturgy, her psalmody, and her sacraments to realize that death is, yes, a terrible, terrifying reality we must all some day face, but that the suffering of this world—or indeed, this passing superficial prosperity many of us enjoy—are but light and momentary ephemera compared to the eternal weight of glory that is to come.’
L. S. Dugdale, a doctor and medical ethicist, has cared for countless patients who have approached life’s end without giving it much thought. He comments that preparing well for death is not what occupies the news. Instead, the conversation is focused on minimizing spread, treating disease, and amassing personal protective equipment—all necessary measures to safeguard public health. But they do not solve the problem of our mortality, nor do they provide the tools to prepare for it. ‘From the late Middle Ages until about a century ago, preparation for death was part of life. In order to die well, one had to live well, and this was worked out in communities over a lifetime. It wasn’t random or subjective. Rather, it was profound and coherent… We must start to face our finitude and rehearse for death. COVID-19 is giving us another chance.’
Dale Coulter, a theology professor at Regent University, says that the Black Death that struck Europe in the 14th century served to accelerate a growing emphasis on a more interior, and less institutional, Christian spirituality, focusing on the humanity of Christ, practices of meditation and contemplation, and a return to the simplicity of being a follower of Christ. It led to a stronger focus on spiritual, eternal realities, rather than material ones. German sociologist Gabriele Kuby has suggested that the global coronavirus pandemic has the potential (rather like a cancer diagnosis) to awaken a new sense what matters most, an attention to deeper questions.
It is not just those most closely affected by the nearness of death and the sufferings of life who might be more sensitised to spiritual realities and eternal priorities. Dr John Wright of Bradford Royal Infirmary recently noted a marked reduction in patients coming to hospital with acute heart attacks or strokes during the pandemic, and a fall in average resting heart rates (according to the Fitbit tracker). He wonders whether the slowing down of frantic lives from enforced lockdown might be nurturing new healthier habits and lifestyles. Sleep duration has also increased with people going to bed earlier than normal and sleeping longer (which benefits the immune system). Professor and cardiologist Alistair Hall has noted the increase in levels of exercise, and thinks people may be more active throughout the day as they spend less hours sitting at a desk. He also thinks people are remembering to take their medicine. In other words, for some the lockdown lifestyle has created a more rested and less busy time than they have previously known, and Gabriele Kuby suggests that it has also given many people opportunity for reflection. Perhaps some people may reflect on what really matters, and might be more open than during their previous frantic busyness to consider spiritual and eternal realities, rather than just cycle through box sets, exercise regimes, and the like.
Perhaps. But it is equally the case that a crisis tends to reveal what really matters to us as much as change that. Some people have described the global pandemic in apocalyptic terms, but ‘apocalypse’ means ‘unveiling’. Peter J. Leithart, President of Theopolis Institute, says ‘the main thing exposed by any apocalypse is the state of the heart’, and asks, ‘What will we do when things return to “normal”?’ This is a question that challenges those who profess to follow Jesus as much as those who do not.
Gabriele Kuby points out that the pandemic coincided with the period of Lent, and suggests a response of self-searching and repentance might be in order. Something similar seems to have been in the Pope’s mind in March this year when, as well as reminding his hearers that God ‘brings serenity into our storms’, he also suggested the pandemic ‘exposes our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules, our projects, our habits and priorities. It shows us how we have allowed to become dull and feeble the very things that nourish, sustain and strengthen our lives and our communities… In this world, . . . we have gone ahead at breakneck speed, feeling powerful and able to do anything. Greedy for profit, we let ourselves get caught up in things, and lured away by haste. We did not stop at your reproach to us, we were not shaken awake by wars or injustice across the world, nor did we listen to the cry of the poor or of our ailing planet. We carried on regardless, thinking we would stay healthy in a world that was sick.’
The pandemic and lockdown have given us an opportunity to think about what really matters, what life is really about; to see beyond our illusions and distractions, our busyness and preoccupation with material goods. It has given us pause to reflect on alternative ways we might value people, care for the environment, work more healthily, live more justly and sustainably. It has brought to our attention the inevitability of our mortality, the uncertainty and vulnerability of our daily lives, and – if we would recognise it – our need for God as the source and goal of life, and of the wisdom and strength to live and die well.
For those who are not followers of Jesus, this is a good time to consider his invitation to discover an abundant kind of life (John 10:10) that begins right now and gets even better after death (John 11:25-26). Authentic Christianity is about a way of living now that, because it is lived in relation to Jesus’s goodness and power, brings substantial meaning and beneficial goodness into our individual lives and into the lives of others. It is a way of thinking and valuing that invites transformation of attitudes and relationships, working practices and lifestyle choices. It is a way of growth away from personal, social and structural evil towards healing and forgiveness, justice and peace; away from self-seeking loneliness towards self-giving community. It is a progressive coming home from the emptiness, anxiety and ultimate frustration of life apart from God, to a place of centred and joyful belonging, safety and fulfilment in the love and generosity of God. It is an ultimate coming home beyond death to a life without lack or limit of anything truly good, the enjoyment of wholeness and freedom from all evil and harm, and the unending unfolding of joyful, creative, purposeful and meaningful life in ever-rich, ever-fresh and ever-developing experience of a renewed creation and of relationship with our Creator. Small wonder, then, that the apostle Paul could say that to live is Christ, to die is gain (Philippians 1:21).
But how will those who are not followers of Jesus be encouraged to consider his invitation to this abundant, eternal life, unless we who profess to follow Jesus are already living in its reality in such a way that our whole way of life, attitudes, priorities, relationships, behaviours, loves and longings bear witness to it. It has been suggested that, in fact, for many professing Christians ‘to live is gain, to die is Christ’ – a reversal of what Paul wrote, because the focus for living now is no different from those who do not follow Jesus, and Jesus himself is treated as someone who gets us into heaven when we die rather than the centre and substance of life now, the object of our delight and devotion. People are more likely to consider the life that Jesus offers if they see it reflected in Christians free from fear and full of goodness. That represents a minority report of major importance.
For anyone interested in exploring the abundant eternal life into which we are invited by Jesus in the light of our inevitable physical death, here are two helpful resources:
David Gibson’s book, Destiny: Learning to live by preparing to die (IVP, 2016), is a fresh and stimulating exposition of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. As he explains in the preface, ‘Ecclesiastes teaches us to live life backwards. It encourages us to take the one thing in the future that is certain – our death – and work backwards from that point into all the details and decisions and heartaches of our lives, and to think about them from the perspective of the end. It is the destination that makes sense of the journey. If we know for sure where we are heading, then we can know for sure what we need to do before we get there. Ecclesiastes invites us to let the end sculpt our priorities and goals, our greatest ambitions and our strongest desires. I want to persuade you that only if you prepare to die can you really learn how to live.’
Gary Black’s book, Preparing for Heaven: What Dallas Willard taught me about living, dying and eternal life (HarperOne, 2015), thoughtfully and warmly combines material that Willard had written for a course on death and immortality with his own subsequent experience of terminal illness and death. As Black writes in the foreword, ‘If you are looking for a grand vision of the type and quality of life that lies far beyond the reach of the current imaginings … if you are looking for a purpose that is worthy of devoting your life to, if you are wondering about the enduring reality of heavenly existence and its eternal call, this book is for you.’
These seven essays were written, in this order, between March and September 2020. Inevitably, a few of the facts and figures will be out of date by the end of the year.