Pastors, Death & COVID-19: Church History Can Help

As members of the church he pastored lay dying in the hospital, Juan Carlos Mendez assured them of Christ’s presence via video chat while nurses held up the phone. In his Los Angles church of 150 members, 11 people were infected with COVID-19 during the pandemic’s opening months. Four were hospitalized, including two in intensive care. Two died. Abruptly, Mendez found his normal pastoral routine transformed into 10 hours daily of visiting with hospitalized believers through video chat, helping them arrive at a point of “peace with their own soul.”[1]

He’s not alone. With more than 800,000 COVID deaths worldwide, pastors on every continent have found themselves ministering to the dying, as well as those afraid of dying. (Others have not been permitted to visit dying church members, which is a cause of profound lamentation for both pastors and parishioners.) At times the task can be overwhelming, but church history can help. Faithful pastors have shepherded believers through death for two millennia—through plagues, wars, and other dangers. Here is a sampling of their wisdom.

Bishop Cyprian of Carthage (c. 200-258) led his flock through a plague that, at its height, left 5,000 people per day dead in Rome. He counseled, “When the dear ones whom we love depart from the world, we should rather rejoice than grieve…counting it the greatest gain no longer to be held by the snares of this world, no longer to be liable to the sins and vices of the flesh, but taken away from smarting troubles, and freed from the envenomed fangs of the devil, to go at the call of Christ to the joy of eternal salvation.”[2]

Reformer John Calvin (1509-1564), who faced physical threats and frequent illness wrote, “No one has made progress in the school of Christ who does not joyfully await the day of death and final resurrection…‘Rejoice,’ says the Lord, ‘and raise your heads for your redemption is drawing near.’ [Luke 21:28 p.] Is it reasonable, I ask you, that what our Lord meant to be sufficient to arouse us to rejoicing and good cheer should engender nothing but sorrow and dismay?”[3]

British Baptist John Bunyan (1628-1688) pictured death as a river in his famous allegory Pilgrim’s Progress. He cast the main character, Christian, as experiencing fears and doubts while he struggled to cross it to the Celestial City. Then Christian’s friend Hopeful said, “My brother, these troubles and distresses that you go through in these waters are no sign that God hath forsaken you; but are sent to try you, whether you will call to mind that which hitherto you have received of His goodness, and live upon Him in your distresses.” Christian subsequently “found ground to stand upon; and so it followed that the rest of the river was but shallow. Thus they got over.”[4]

Amid threat of cholera, Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892), stated, “Fear to die! Thank God, I do not…What is death? It is a low porch through which you stoop to enter heaven. What is life? It is a narrow screen that separates us from glory, and death kindly removes it!”[5]

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), who gave his life standing up to the Nazis during World War II, told students at an underground seminary in Germany, “Will we comprehend now…that today it is a blessing to die, to be taken away?…Not all the dead are blessed; rather those ‘which die in the Lord,’ those who learned how to die in time, who kept faith, who clung to Jesus up to the last hour, whether amidst the sufferings of the first martyrs, or in the martyrdom of silent loneliness. The promise of death’s blessedness, which is the resurrection, is solely for the congregation of Jesus Christ.”[6]

And, of course, joining these pastors is the apostle Paul, who would have ministers tell those suffering under the fearful menace of coronavirus, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:55).

David Roach is editor of the BibleMesh blog.

[1] David Roach, “COVID-19 Leaves 2 Dead, 11 More Infected at L.A. Church,” California Southern Baptist Convention Website, April 2, 2020, https://www.csbc.com/news/2020/covid-19-leaves-2-dead-11-more-infected-at-l-a-church (accessed August 27, 2020).

[2] Cyprian, “On the Mortality,” in Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 5: Hippolytus, Cyprian, Caius, Novatian, Appendix, eds. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2004), 470.

[3] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1960), 718. In other editions, see 3.10.5.

[4] John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress 11.193, Project Gutenberg, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/39452/39452-h/39452-h.htm#Christian (accessed August 27, 2020).

[5] Charles Spurgeon, “Liberty from the Fear of Death,” Spurgeon Gems, https://www.spurgeongems.org/chs_death.htm (accessed August 27, 2020).

[6] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Learning to Die,” in Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Testament to Freedom, rev. ed., eds. Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1995), 267.