Christ Alone in the Midst of the Deadly Plague: A Reflection from Philippians 1:21

In April 1849, tens of thousands of rats wandering around in the downtown of Oran, a barren and arid city in the northwest of Aljazair, North Africa.  They were found dead and staggered, not too long after they had been running around in the peak of a day.  The death of these multitudes of rodents was followed by a plague that led to cholera that spread rampantly among local civilians, especially children.  As usual, people became panicked, and fear spread among them as the plague itself claimed the lives of Oran residents each day.

        The above background setting is the vivid story written by Albert Camus (1913-1960) in his widely known book, La Peste (The Plague; 1947), the same book that later won him the 1957 Nobel Prize in Literature.  Camus’s work depicted a grief-stricken life, filled with violent wars and futility of the future, especially when people experienced suffering and death caused by the mysterious cholera epidemic.  Being an atheist and existentialist philosopher who did not believe in God or the afterlife, Camus also did not believe in suffering, death, or in the idea that human existence bears moral significance.  In his understanding, the life of human beings are pointing toward meaningless, irrational, and indescribable death.

        This is why he described the situation in Oran, which was flooded with plagues in such grim expression: The city was locked down.  Its main gates were closed just as the railways and goods’ traffic were shut down.  All forms of communication with communities outside were halted.  In August, when things went down south—and many residents became distressed in this isolation—several people attempted to escape from Oran, but they were caught or shot to death by the militia who were on their watch.  Then, massive pillage and violent riots ensued along with curfew from the authorities.  Each day went by with mass funerals that became more frequent and performed hastily by the officials to the point where there seemed to be no more sympathy left to the grieving families.  Hence a story depicted by Camus that described vulnerable and frail humanity walking toward a looming reality: death.

        Isn’t it striking to see the similarities—between the coronavirus pandemic (which began in Wuhan, China, and later spread to the entire globe)—and the description of the reality of suffering and death in Oran as Camus wrote the story?  Is it true that humanity is so feeble and ephemeral?  Is there any hope in the midst of human restlessness and frailty in the present time?

        Just as people around us are in confusion, panic, and fear, let us look into the Scripture, the living and eternal Word of God.  Let us ponder what the Apostle Paul said in Philippians 1:21, where he said, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain” (NIV).  Take note: the word that he was using, “Christ,” and John Calvin (1509-1564) once interpreted this verse uniquely and perfectly.  He said, “Christ has to be the sentence subject,” while the predicate is “gain” (which leads to the idea that the predicate ought not to “live [with Christ]” and “die [with gain]”).  So what shines out from this verse, supposedly, is that “Christ [is] gain.”

        For Calvin, this point of view fits well with the idea in the preceding verse: “I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death (Phil. 1:20, NIV).  Calvin’s conclusion is as follows: “And certainly it is Christ alone who in death as in life blesses us.  Otherwise, if death is miserable, life is in no way happier, so that it is difficult to decide whether outside Christ dying is more advantageous than living.  Again, when Christ is present with us, he will bless our life equally as he does our death.

        According to Calvin, even the Apostle Paul himself did not worry much about matters of life-and-death, because for him to live is Christ and to die is gain.  This is the stability of faith in those who have followed and served Christ.  In that regard, they are neither allured by things in the present life nor haunted by the terror of death that awaits them.  Because, “If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord” (Rm. 14:8, NIV).  Therefore, even when death brings peril and causes one to fear—in the same way that an insurmountable catastrophe befalls upon us—it is the stability of faith in the believers who are in Christ that controls their life in such time as this.

        The great Reformer, Martin Luther (1483-1546)—who successfully led the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century—did not fear the risk of death that came from authorities who had sought his life at that time.  Nonetheless, when his beloved daughter was dying in her illness, Luther had to admit that his heart was deeply troubled, angered, and found it utterly difficult to let her die: “I love her very much; if my flesh is so strong, what can my spirit do?  God has given no bishop so great a gift in a thousand years as he has given me in her.  I am angry with myself that I cannot rejoice in heart and be thankful as I ought.”  That said, the stability of Luther’s faith is the determining factor that enabled him to behold Christ alone, who has sustained his life in the midst of that sadness and perplexity.

        With the spread of the COVID-19 these days, Christians, as well as the global citizens, are facing an unprecedented circumstance: that suffering and death are just as imminent as they are frightening.  But the greatest news of the gospel for humankind is that Jesus Christ has overcome sin and death, and for those who believe: “You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away.  Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins” (Col. 2:13, NLT).  Concerning physical death that all of us will have to face in this life, Jesus gives his unwavering assurance that cannot be purchased with anything this world can offer: “I am the resurrection and the life.  The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.  Do you believe this?” (Jn. 11:25-26, NIV).