Real Reality

  • Nathan Schneider
The world is temporarily closed

So…I know I introduced last week’s blog as the first in a series of posts on God’s provision, with the promise that this week I’d continue that series. But sometimes ideas are too important and too timely to pass up, and that’s the predicament before me. So for today’s post, I’m going to depart from our regularly scheduled programming to bring you some thoughts that hit me this week as I studied the Word. I promise next week I’ll continue where we left off…unless I don’t, in which case I don’t promise.

I’m not sure how it happened, but around the time I was in early high school, I developed an unnerving fascination of viruses. I know, nerd alert. What do you expect from a guy who finds Hebrew exciting? Anyway, I’m not entirely sure how it started, but if my memory serves me, it had something to do with my dad reading to me the opening chapter of Richard Preston’s page-turner, The Hot Zone. In the book, Preston narrates the outbreak of a new strain of Ebola virus in a primate facility in Reston, VA, just miles from the nation’s capital.

Now I’ll admit–Preston has a flair for the dramatic in his depiction of Ebola, and anyone who’s read The Hot Zone knows exactly what I’m talking about. That opening chapter hooks you like a flossed Sockeye on the Russian River. And as a pimple-faced fourteen-year-old with a long history of obsessing over dangerous things (e.g., great white sharks, black widow spiders, etc.), I was well oiled and primed for this new obsession. I mean, come on–a virus so deadly it kills 70 percept of its victims!

And just so you understand how fascinated I was over this virus, I present two pieces of material evidence:

  1. Exhibit A: I wrote a class paper my junior year on the need for more funding for filovirus research.
  2. Exhibit B: I actually called the Centers for Disease Control and left a message on their answering machine requesting that they send me information on the Ebola virus.

I rest my case.

Getting back to Preston’s book, I think what impressed me so much with his work was how he explained the world of viruses in a way that helped me understand a new part of our world. Viruses, after all, aren’t something we regularly think about. They represent a world virtually alien to us. That’s why there was one particular passage that has stuck with me even after so many years. In it, Preston uses a simple illustration to communicate the utter microcosmic nature of viruses:

Viruses are too small to be seen. Here is a way to imagine the size of a virus. Consider the island of Manhattan shrunk to this size: /. This Manhattan could easily hold nine million viruses. If you could magnify this Manhattan and if it were full of viruses, you would see little figures clustered like the lunch crowd on Fifth Avenue. A hundred million crystallized polio viruses could cover the period at the end of this sentence. There could be two hundred and fifty Woodstock Festivals of viruses sitting on that period – the combined populations of Great Britain and France – and you would never know it (Richard Preston, The Hot Zone, 52).

Apart from making all of you a little more paranoid than you were before, I hope you also appreciate the virological “microverse” as well. The reason I started thinking of this passage from Preston’s book was because I came across a graphic depicting the relative size of the coronavirus as compared to other microscopic objects:

As you can see, the coronavirus is tiny. In fact, “tiny” is an insult. It is utterly dwarfed in comparison to say, a typical red blood cell. In units of measurement, a typical coronavirus particle measures just 125 nanometers in diameter.

At this point, you’re probably a little confused as to why I’m going into such detail on a virus that has basically altered life as we know it for the foreseeable future. Now stop and think about what I just said–that’s my point.

Which brings me to a passage of Scripture which–when I first had this thought about the size of this virus–instantly popped into my brain:

The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. Yahweh of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress (Psalm 46:6-7).

We live in a world which consistently thumbs its nose at God. Actually, it does more than that–it defies God…in earnest. The idea of the nations raging echoes the opening words of Psalm 2,

Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against Yahweh and against his anointed (Psalm 2:1-2).

We see this all around us. The nations of the earth smugly posture themselves as the masters of their domain. They are self-secure. Governments set themselves as the ultimate authorities, answerable to no one. They have no need of God, have no interest in His Word, and have no comprehension of His holiness, righteousness, and justice. They laugh at the thought of a sovereign God. They scoff at the idea that he will bring justice to the world. They have no fear of God–in their eyes, they are unassailable.

Look around. God just brought the world to a screaming halt with a particle 120 nanometers wide. The world is in utter panic over a microscopic shell of proteins encasing a single strand of RNA. “The nations rage–the kingdoms totter.” It’s moments like these that expose the just how insecure the nations really are–how thin of a thread they hang by, and just how merciful God is in allowing them to continue a little longer.

It’s these kinds of moments that put God’s sheer power and sovereign authority and absolute control of life, death, and everything in between into proper perspective. While the nations rage, and the peoples plot in vain, God “utters his voice, the earth melts.” Or, in the words of Psalm 2,

He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision. Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury” (Psalm 2:4-5).

The coronavirus is a reminder of who’s really in charge. It’s a wakeup call to the nations and to you and I that there is only one Person we should fear. It’s a sharp slap in the face–a hard shake by the shoulders–bringing us out of our comfortable stupors and back to a singular reality–a reality that is real. The reality of the nations is a fairytale reality–a make-believe world in which man is in charge. He controls his own destiny, and he has nothing to fear after death. He can live according to his own authority, his own morality, and his own purposes, without the need to worry about accountability from anyone higher than himself.

That reality is a myth. It’s an unreal reality. Man isn’t in control. He never was! And all it takes is a virus you can’t even see with your naked eye to bring this all-powerful being called “man” to his knees in utter panic. Francis Schaeffer spoke about the role of the Christian apologist (aka, you and I) as bringing a reality check to the unbeliever.

Every man has built a roof over his head to shield himself at the point of tension…. The Christian lovingly, must remove the shelter and allow the truth of the external world and of what man is to beat upon him. When the roof is off, each man must stand naked and wounded before the truth of what is…. He must come to know that his roof is a false protection from the storm of what is (Francis Schaeffer, The God Who Is There, 1:140-1).

Well guess what…the coronavirus has done all that for us. Man’s frailty and weakness is exposed. It has exposed real reality, or in Schaeffer’s words, “what is.” “What is” is a fallen world in which man is not in charge and is accountable to a holy God.

And we have a message for them that they despise and at the same time desperately long to hear. It’s a message of hope. The same God who “utters his voice” causing “the earth to melt” (Psalm 46:6b); the same God who “speaks to them in his wrath and terrifies them in his fury“; that same God says to us,

Yahweh of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress (Psalm 46:7).

This God is a dangerous God. He is full of wrath. He brings judgment upon the rebellious nations. But for the believer, he’s a haven–a fortress which protects from every assault. It’s such an important point that it’s repeated at the end of Psalm 46 in verse 11. God protects those who belong to Him. That’s why the psalmist can say in verses 1-3,

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling (Psalm 46:1-3).

I suppose if the psalmist were alive today, he might add, “though the coronavirus sweeps across the globe.” God is shelter. He is rest. He is protection. That’s not a promise that bad things won’t happen. It’s a promise that it doesn’t matter what’s going on in this world. Bad things can happen. Bad things will happen. But that has nothing to do with your relationship with God–not any longer.

You want to know the irony of all of this? When David speaks of the nations’ terror at the utterance of God’s angry rebuke in Psalm 2, it’s a very specific message that terrifies the nations:

Then he will speak to them in his wrath and terrify them in his fury, saying, “As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill” (Psalm 2:5-6).

The message that terrifies the nations is the message of Messiah. It’s the message that Jesus reigns–that He is King. It’s the gospel that terrifies the nations. It’s also the gospel that will save the nations.

That’s what God really wants. He says as much in Psalm 46:

Be still and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth (Psalm 46:10).

In fact, the next psalm–Psalm 47–celebrates God’s universal kingship. And his universal reign will culminate in his gracious inclusion of the nations–the nations that once raged against Him–into his kingdom, just as He promised Abraham in Genesis 12:3…

God reigns over the nations; God sits on his holy throne. The princes of the peoples gather as the people of the God of Abraham. For the shields [leaders] of the earth belong to God; he is highly exalted (Psalm 47:8-9).

So yes, the nations are blind. They are deaf. They are defiant against God. They are self-secure and self-reliant. But the coronavirus pandemic is a small peak at the real reality–God is in control. If He can stop the world with a virus; if he can disrupt our lives by something we can’t see; he can do much greater things–like bring these nations to the point where he can gather them together before Him “as the people of the God of Abraham.”

Indeed–he is highly exalted.

p.s. In case you’re wondering, the CDC did in fact send me what I had requested. I left that message and then heard nothing for over a month. Then one day, a manila envelope appeared in the mailbox filled with photocopies of scientific literature on Ebola and Marburg viruses. I didn’t understand half of what I read. That didn’t stop me. Dr. CDC person–whoever you are–you made that fourteen-year-old one very happy person.