The COVID Test for Christian Virtue

By Bryan Laughlin, Doug Ponder    |    September 18, 2023

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The Kind of Person Who Can’t Endure the Opening of This Article Is Precisely the Person Who Needs It Most

This article is not actually about COVID. Yet it is about why many Christians were prime targets for deception during the COVID pandemic and how Christians—especially pastors—can become the kind of men who are resistant to folly and dishonesty for the sake of Christ’s church.

Recall the early days of the pandemic. For several weeks, there were enough unknowns and conflicting reports that it was prudent to err on the side of caution. Only wantonly reckless people responded to the initial news of a novel virus with a stubborn refusal to take care. As time went on, however, a different picture emerged: governing officials were caught lying about data. They contradicted themselves repeatedly. They suppressed dissenting views from leading scientists and public health experts. Many of these officials flaunted their hypocritical violations of orders they imposed on others. State officials, like those in New York and Virginia, attempted to shut down churches, defining them as “non-essential” organizations while defining liquor stores, bike shops, and tattoo parlors as “essential businesses.” They forced millions to comply with mask mandates that current scientific studies had already questioned and which subsequent studies thoroughly proved don’t work. They guilted millions more into getting a vaccine that turned out to be both significantly less effective and significantly more risky than advertised.

Again, it is understandable why many Christians went along with some of these measures at first. There were reflexes in place that oriented a person to trust the government and to distrust Uncle Bobby’s wild theories, freshly pulled from a shady-looking website and passed off as gospel truth. Yet it turns out that Uncle Bobby was right about a distressing number of things—not because his sources are always trustworthy on every subject, but because they were among those brave enough to ask hard questions, seek real answers, and offer needed warnings to the world. Those who did not heed such warnings after they manifestly proved true should follow the lead of this café in Melbourne, whose apology recently went viral on social media. It said: “Apology to the unvaccinated and vax-coerced. Last year we didn’t know: The injection does not stop COVID transmission. It does not protect others. Now we know. We were wrong to exclude you.”

That’s a good start, but we can (and must) do better. For it’s one thing to say, “We didn’t know,” but it’s quite another thing to say, “Nobody could have known.” In fact, many people did know. And they said so, repeatedly. It’s just that these warnings came from the “wrong” sort of people, people like Donald Trump, who blamed the virus on China, calling it “Kung Flu.” To be sure, Trump’s history of rudeness, carelessness, crassness, and sexual immorality certainly predisposes a person to think twice about his claims on various matters. But an intellectually virtuous man knows that a statement is not right or wrong because of who uttered it (even if his name rhymes with Woug Dilson). Indeed, the only basis for fact is whether or not a claim is true. And in this case, it turns out the virus was indeed leaked from a lab in China—just like Trump said.1

As we said from the start, this article really isn’t about COVID. Instead, it is a call for Christians—and especially the pastors called to lead them (1 Pet. 5:2)—to repent of the intellectual vices that caused so many to be so easily duped so that God’s people will not miss the truth in other areas of their lives. As the old adage says, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” In that spirit, this article is intended to spare many Christians from needlessly accruing that kind of shame.

Of Vice (and Virtue) and Men

Christ did not choose educated men to be his disciples (Acts 4:13); he chose teachable men. He also chose sober-minded men who could hear hard words and stick with him because they knew there was nowhere else to go (John 6:60–69). He chose diligent men who not only could learn from him but who would continue to learn after he was gone (John 16:12–15; 2 Tim. 2:15). He chose resilient men who could receive rebuke, even stringent rebuke (Mark 8:31–33), without having an anxiety attack. And he chose men who would be courageous enough to keep speaking the truth even though it would bring them suffering and death (Acts 5:40–41; John 21:18–19). In other words, Christ chose men who were—or, at least, became—virtuous.

Unfortunately, the concept of virtue is not as well-known as it ought to be, at least among contemporary Protestants. Though the Reformed confessions teach otherwise, for quite some time, the view in the pews has functionally reduced salvation to justification alone, as if the Lord’s great plan were only to forgive a bunch of sinners who have no desire to deny themselves and follow Jesus (contra Luke 9:23), and who therefore make no effort to put to death what is earthly in them (contra Col. 3:5), and who thus are never conformed to the image of his Son (contra Rom. 8:29). Small wonder that such a view of salvation has no use for verses like those that say, “For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue” (2 Pet. 1:5 emphasis added).

For the uninitiated: Virtues are traits to be cultivated, not simply capacities that are possessed (or not). For example, a person with keen eyesight possesses the gift from birth. This means keen eyesight is not a virtue, even though it is an asset. Attentiveness, on the other hand, is a virtue. It is something that can and must be cultivated, for without it, a person becomes habitually unobservant, inattentive, and thus culpably neglectful. Such character traits are especially unfitting for pastors, who are called to “pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28; cf. 1 Tim. 4:16).

The Intellectual Virtues

Among the many virtues, the so-called intellectual virtues are those cultivated character traits (or habituated dispositions) that incline a man to acquire, maintain, communicate, and practice the truth.2 They include such cultivated traits as inquisitiveness (or wonder), love of truth, teachableness, honesty, integrity, resilience (or tenacity), attentiveness, circumspection (or carefulness), studiousness (or diligence), wisdom, foresight, courage, discernment (or non-gullibility), fair-mindedness, charity, and humility. Without these virtues, all Christians are prime targets for deception, even self-deception.

On this point, philosophy professor Jay Wood offers a helpful illustration of how intellectual virtues (and their opposing vices) affect the process of knowing:

Suppose you have a passion for social justice and have as an overriding goal of your life to work for a fairer society. One day you are selected for jury duty to determine the guilt or innocence of a minority person being accused of assault and battery during an urban riot. As it happens, the prosecution’s main evidence consists of some video footage of the alleged assault, filmed by a bystander. When you view the film, you judge that it is ambiguous. Looked at one way, it might appear to be a case of assault; looked at another way, it might be seen as a justifiable act of self-defense within a racially charged environment. You are also aware, however, that your passion for ameliorating the injustices done to minorities in your community might be skewing your judgment; in the recesses of your mind arises the doubt that your beliefs about this matter (or any other matter about which you have strong passions) have been reached in an unbiased manner.

You confer with your fellow jurors and discover that they detect no ambiguity at all; it appears to them to be an open-and-shut case of assault. Discussing matters with them, you find them to be no less intelligent than you are, and genuinely interested in reaching a fair verdict. You begin to wonder how, if at all, their disagreement affects your beliefs. Have your passions (however admirable they might be) overridden your sound judgment in this case, and perhaps other cases as well?3

Wood’s thought experiment highlights a significant point, namely, that a person’s beliefs are not a simple matter of “having the facts.” And this is not because there are no facts, as postmodern subjectivists would have us believe. Rather, it is because the ability to apprehend the truth depends partly on the kind of person a man is. This makes Enlightenment-influenced modernists extremely uncomfortable, but it is the consistent testimony of the Scriptures. As such, all Christians—and again, especially those men called to lead God’s flock—must cultivate intellectual virtues.

The Mental-Moral Connection (or: One Reason Why Some Very Smart People Believe Some Very Dumb Ideas)

In his 1941 essay on “Bulverism,”4 C. S. Lewis famously described the tendency for modern people to psychologize their opponents instead of engaging their arguments. He writes, “You must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly.”5 For example, suppose someone replied to your arguments with the remark, “You only believe that because you’re a man,” or “white,” or “a conservative,” or “a Christian nationalist,” and so on. Such a person would be guilty of Bulverism.

Lewis illustrates the imbecility of this error: “Suppose I think, after doing my accounts, that I have a large balance at the bank. And suppose you want to find out whether this belief of mine is ‘wishful thinking.’ You can never come to any conclusion by examining my psychological condition. Your only chance of finding out is to sit down and work through the sum yourself. When you have checked my figures, then, and then only, will you know whether I have that balance or not. If you find my arithmetic correct, then no amount of vapouring [sic] about my psychological condition can be anything but a waste of time.”6

Bulverism is wicked, and we should thank God for Lewis’s refutation of it. Yet Lewis continues with an equally important, but not equally cited, point: “If you find my arithmetic wrong, then it may be relevant to explain psychologically how I came to be so bad at my arithmetic, and the doctrine of the concealed wish will become relevant—but only after you have yourself done the sum and discovered me to be wrong on purely arithmetical grounds. It is the same with all thinking and all systems of thought. If you try to find out which are tainted by speculating about the wishes of the thinkers, you are merely making a fool of yourself. You must first find out on purely logical grounds which of them do, in fact, break down as arguments. Afterwards, if you like, go on and discover the psychological causes of the error.”7

In other words, while we must not assume someone is wrong and then psychologize their error, it is nevertheless true that if someone is wrong, then there very well may be spiritual (which Lewis calls “psychological”) causes of the error. That is not always the case, to be sure. A man might be wrong because he does not yet have enough information. Or a man may think he has accurate information but later discover that he was deceived. Or, again, a man’s brain could malfunction due to some external factor, like lack of sleep, excessive consumption of alcohol, a brain tumor, etc. Yet, at other times, a man may have sufficient information, which is, in fact, accurate, and there is nothing physically wrong with his brain, but he still comes to a disastrously incorrect conclusion. This is where Lewis’s insight is of great value. As an expert in the classics and medieval literature, Lewis was fully aware that the connection between moral virtue and mental clarity—the connection between right living and right thinking—is a recurring theme among most ancient philosophers and world religions.

For example, in Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle states, “Wickedness perverts us and causes us to be deceived about the starting points of action. Therefore, it is evident that it is impossible to be practically wise without being good.”8 By “good,” Aristotle does not mean “morally perfect” (which is impossible for any mere mortal, cf. Rom. 3:10–11). He is referring to moral excellence, that is, to virtues like fairness, self-control, wisdom, and courage.9 Aristotle was not alone in making the moral-mental connection. The author of the intertestamental book, Wisdom of Solomon, writes: “Perverse thoughts separate men from God . . . because wisdom will not enter a deceitful soul, nor dwell in a body enslaved to sin” (Wisdom 1:3–4). And doesn’t Paul teach the same when he writes of the “ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Rom. 1:18 emphasis added)?

Common sense further attests to these ancient observations. For it is plain how vices like arrogance, obtuseness, dishonesty, hypocrisy, pugnacity, gullibility, and laziness (among others) can hinder a man’s ability to acquire, maintain, communicate, and practice the truth—and it is not always Bulverism to identify these after an error has been exposed. In other words, while it is not valid to assume someone is wrong and then “psychologize” their error, it is valid, and sometimes vitally necessary, to examine why someone is wrong after it has been demonstrated that they are—as so many were during the COVID pandemic.

The Heart Dynamics of Vicious Disbelief

In one of his pointed rebukes of the Pharisees, Jesus says, “How can you believe, since you accept glory from one another but don’t seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44). In other words, Jesus was well aware of the capacity for vice to poison the reception and confession of truth. Specifically, Jesus here warns that the desire for human acceptance and approval has a way of warping a man’s mind, such that he is predisposed to accept what he wants to be true and reject what is inconvenient, costly, or unpopular among the group whose admiration he craves (cf. John 12:43).

Fear of rejection poisoned their receptivity to the truth.”

—Byan Laughlin and Doug Ponder

Once again, C. S. Lewis understood this dynamic of the heart quite well. In The Great Divorce, Lewis imagines a conversation between two old friends: one now in heaven, the other in hell. The condemned man is obstinate, the redeemed man penitent. The latter says, “Let us be frank. Our opinions were not honestly come by. We simply found ourselves in contact with a certain current of ideas and plunged into it because it seemed modern and successful. At College, you know, we just started automatically writing the kind of essays that got good marks and saying the kind of things that won applause.”11 That is how vices (and virtues) work: like deep groves channeling water along a well-worn path, the repetition of actions that arise from certain desires will reinforce and increase both the desires and those actions that arose from them.

The redeemed man is not finished. He further confesses, “You know that you and I were playing with loaded dice. We didn’t want the other to be true. We were afraid of [fundamentalism], afraid of a breach with the spirit of the age, afraid of ridicule.”11 In other words, the fear of rejection poisoned their receptivity to the truth. The two men did not want a certain viewpoint to be true because it stood against the spirit of the age, with all its ridicule of those who believed such things. As a result, one man remained obstinate in his rejection of the resurrection, while the other was very slow in arriving at the truth.

At this point, the condemned man protests, “I’m far from denying that young men may make mistakes. They may well be influenced by current fashions of thought. But it’s not a question of how the opinions are formed. The point is that they were my honest opinions, sincerely expressed.”12 (Surely you can hear this objection on the other side of the COVID pandemic, can you not?)

It is noteworthy that in his attempted self-justification, the condemned man acknowledges the ability of certain vices (which Lewis calls “the intellectual sins”) to affect one’s belief. Yet the man insists that what ultimately matters is not “how the opinions are formed” but whether they are “honest opinions, sincerely expressed.” This is, of course, the sentimental root of most modern heresy.

But the redeemed man knows better: “Having allowed [ourselves] to drift, unresisting, unpraying, accepting every half-conscious solicitation from our desires, we reached a point where we no longer believed the Faith. Just in the same way, a jealous man, drifting and unresisting, reaches a point at which he believes lies about his best friend: a drunkard reaches a point at which (for the moment) he actually believes that another glass will do him no harm. The beliefs are sincere in the sense that they do occur as psychological events in the man’s mind. If that’s what you mean by sincerity, they are sincere, and so were ours. But errors which are sincere in that sense are not innocent.”13

Sadly, many Christians are plagued with a similar desire for the world’s approval. Wanting to have their cake and eat it too, they attempt to hold onto God’s Word without letting go of their longing for a seat at the Cool Kids table. This fosters an eagerness to believe ideas that win the favor of the world (for now) while also producing an eagerness to quickly leave behind ideas that draw the world’s ire. Such a person cannot believe the truth, Jesus says (John 5:44), for to do so would jeopardize the approval he desires most: not the eternal approval of God (Matt. 10:33) but the fleeting praise of man. This is the motivational factor driving virtually all progressives who abandon the “faith once for all delivered to the saints.”14

It does not take much imagination to see how a vicious desire for earthly approval could easily thwart a person’s ability to hear and fairly evaluate the mounting information that became available through the multi-year coronavirus pandemic. The point here is not that every person who unswervingly followed the mandates of the officials who got COVID disastrously wrong was guilty of the specific sin of craving man’s approval. But they likely were guilty of other pernicious vices which, as the dust settled and clearer evidence began piling up, led such people to continually downplay, ignore, or deny the undeniable because of some deeply ingrained dispositions that inclined them toward falsehood instead of truth. The vital question is, How can what is wrong be made right?

Becoming Intellectually Virtuous Christians

Our point thus far has been to demonstrate that the underlying cause for sustained pandemic-related deception wasn’t that people made one careless misjudgment in a moment of global confusion and crisis. Who could blame a man for such a mistake as that? No, the real trouble was that a long train of intellectual vices had taken root in many peoples’ lives, such that they were primed—without knowing it—for exactly the kind of deception they fell prey to.

Praise God, there is forgiveness with the Lord and infinite pardon for those who confess the error of their ways (1 John 1:9). Yet a Christian should not want to repeat his folly, remaining captive to the vices that led him astray, repeating the same errors in the next trial he faces, like a dog returning to its own vomit (Prov. 26:11). As such, the first step toward becoming an intellectually virtuous Christian is the honesty to admit where you were wrong, and the desire to do what is necessary to get things right the next time around. This sort of commitment says with the psalmist, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! See if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Ps. 139:23–24).

Yet we have seen that it’s not enough to have the right information. We must also become the right kind of people, that is, people who can meet new and difficult situations with habitual dispositions that enable us to “judge with just judgment” (John 7:24). This is not something that can be achieved by ideas alone. That is to say, simply identifying the intellectual virtues and vices is no substitute for practicing them. Hence, Paul says, “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you” (Phil. 4:9 emphasis added). This is the only path to the renewal of the mind (Rom. 12:2), a path paved not with right thinking only but with right thinking and right living, which mutually reinforce one another. To that end, let us consider several vicious intellectual sins and the attitudes and actions that cultivate their opposing virtue.

The Vice of Pride and the Virtue of (True) Humility

Recall how, despite the emergence of mountains of data showing the disastrous effect of lockdowns on kids—including disproportionate damage to low-income minority households—, many individuals and governing officials persisted in their dogmatic defense and forceful continuance of the same course of action. The reason is not difficult to discern: as sinners, we are loath to admit when we are wrong, especially when our errors have significantly damaged the lives of others.

In this way, the vice of pride seeks to resolve the tension a person feels between the facts and the undesirable implications of those facts by means of a culpable dismissal of the facts themselves. It’s not so much that a prideful man says, “No! I will not believe that,” but that (as Lewis foresaw) a prideful man says, “I do not want the other to be true . . . therefore it cannot be true.” This is the spirit of pride that goeth before a destructive fall (Prov. 16:18), for a prideful man would rather save face than espouse truth.

The antidote to pride, of course, is humility. The trouble is that we live in a day that is confused about the nature of both. That is, many mistake pride for certainty (or even great confidence) while mistaking humility for speaking in soft tones with many qualifications like, “I just feel like . . .” or “For me . . .” or “My lived experience is . . .” and other phrases that highlight the centrality of the subject (which, ironically, is very nearly the essence of pride).

A prideful man would rather save face than espouse truth.”

—Bryan Laughlin and Doug Ponder

In actuality, humility is a matter of submission to objective reality—to God most of all (Jas. 4:10), but also to the facts of God’s world (Ps. 24:1). Thus, humility is a posture of teachability, which expresses itself in a willingness to admit error and to do what is right, regardless of one’s desires. If a humble man does not have enough information yet to know what is true, he says, “I don’t know,” instead of pontificating on matters about which he is uninformed. For the Scriptures say, “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and his shame” (Prov. 18:13). But once the facts are known, humility bows before the facts—like the fact that protection from natural immunity has been found to be “at least as high, if not higher than that provided by two-dose vaccination using high-quality mRNA vaccines” or the fact that the COVID vaccine only reduced the rate of transmission, rather than preventing it, and with less efficacy than natural immunity. These well-established truths mean that no matter how many vaccines and boosters a person has received, a humble man will not double down on his desire to have been correct all along. A humble man says, “Yet not what I want, but what the truth is.”

The Vices of Gullibility and the Virtues of Discernment

Closely related to those who give an answer before they hear, the Scriptures repeatedly tell us, “Every fact is to be confirmed by the testimony of two or three witnesses” (2 Cor. 13:1; cf. Deut. 19:15; Matt. 18:16). Again the Scriptures say, “The fool believes everything, but the prudent gives thought to his steps” (Prov. 14:15). Similarly, the apostle Paul says, “Test everything; hold fast to what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21; cf. Acts 17:11).

The Scriptures repeatedly warn us to this effect for many reasons, including the tendency for people to believe what they hear without investigating to see whether or not the claims are true. Hence, the Scriptures say, “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him” (Prov. 18:17). To be sure, the one who states his case first may indeed be right, but how can one know? That is the critical question, a question that highlights the need for reasoning and for evidence-based conclusions instead of snap judgments, trusting one’s gut, evaluating by appearances, or making assumptions rooted in prevailing cultural narratives.

In other words, all these verses highlight the vices of gullibility (e.g., unwarranted credulity, laziness, and impatience) and the need for virtues pertaining to discernment (e.g., circumspection about initial claims, diligence to seek out the truth, patience in waiting for information). There were, of course, many examples of vicious gullibility during the COVID pandemic, but let us begin with another example first. Recently, a popular conservative commentator interviewed a man who claims to have smoked crack and had sex with former president Barak Obama. A non-gullible (i.e., discerning) man knows that big claims require big evidence. In this case, the testimony belongs to Larry Sinclair, a man with a lengthy criminal history, including several convictions for forgery and fraud. On top of this, Sinclair had already failed a polygraph test when making this specific claim about Obama many years ago.15 At the risk of stating the obvious, the point is not that we should trust all politicians (for that would be vicious gullibility, too). Rather, the point is that we should doubt the testimony of a gay drug addict with a dubious history of lying for profit.

Yet the virtues of discernment don’t only work in the negative mode. That is to say that a discerning person should not only distrust sources that repeatedly prove inaccurate, misleading, and corrupt but also (positively) trust sources with a track record of accuracy, integrity, and foresight. To give a pointed example, this means that a discerning person has learned to distrust those like Anthony Fauci (because of his repeated lies, hypocrisy, and contradictions) and has learned to trust those whose opposition to corrupt governing officials has been justified many times over. Meanwhile, a viciously gullible person will continue to believe without good reasons for doing so, and this is to his great detriment.

Vicious Hate and the Virtue of Charity

Sometimes a man readily believes something not because he is undiscerning but because he is full of vicious hatred (not to be confused with godly hatred),16 which inclines him to believe something he ought not believe out of a desire to smear his opponents further. Returning to a previous example, all sensible people should not want the story of Larry Sinclair’s homosexual crack session with Obama to be true, and something is deeply wrong with the person who does want it to be true. Of course, whether the story is true is a matter of history; and whether we can know the truth is a matter of evidence; but whether we should want it to be true is a matter of charity, which assumes the best about others until proven otherwise.

Vicious hatred is the opposite of charity. As Paul says, “Charity . . . rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth” and “hopeth all things” (1 Cor. 13:7 KJV). This does not mean that a charitable man is blind to the point of being willfully naïve. Rather, Paul means that a charitable man should want the best for others, which entails wanting the other person to not be as bad as they might initially have seemed to be. This sort of charity expresses itself in the disciplined commitment to move slowly toward serious accusations. As the apostle James tells us, “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger” (James 1:19). Again, assuming the best of others does not mean we ignore facts to the contrary. The disposition of charity is simply one that says, “I hope it’s not as bad as all that,” and continues to grant charity unless and until the facts make it plain that, tragically, things were indeed much worse than one had hoped.

There were many instances of vicious hate during the pandemic, including during some of the responses to various riots that broke out amidst rising racial tensions. For example, a grievous lack of charity was on display when TGC ran an article equating (the now fully acquitted) Kyle Rittenhouse with the deranged racist and murderer, Dylan Roof. Similarly, the author expressed a lack of charity toward the police officer who shot Jacob Blake, describing the latter as an innocent victim of racialized police brutality. Yet it was later discovered that Blake was armed and that he had an existing warrant for his arrest on the charges of domestic violence, sexual assault, trespassing, and disorderly conduct. But instead of charitably hoping for the best (1 Cor. 13:7) while patiently waiting for evidence (James 1:19), TGC hastily published the article within four days of the Kenosha riot.17 Let us be clear: No one denies the pain the author describes feeling when those disturbing images flashed across all our screens. Nevertheless, our Lord plainly told us, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with just judgment” (John 7:24). In this case, the failure to do so was an extension of the very problem the author wants to correct. For a man cannot eradicate one of the roots of racism—that is, judging by appearances—while committing the same misjudgment in an article about racism. By contrast, a charitable disposition would have displayed a patient hesitancy to speak before the relevant facts were known. Such charity would have spared many people—including one of this essay’s authors18—from making such a grievous error in judgment.

A charitable man should want the best for others, which entails wanting the other person to not be as bad as they might initially have seemed to be.”

—Bryan Laughlin and Doug Ponder

One more word about charity. In his beloved classic, Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis warns about what happens to the souls of those who want the worst to be true of their opponents. It’s a warning that cannot be repeated too often (even if it means quoting Lewis a third time).19 He writes, “Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, ‘Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,’ or is it a feeling of disappointment and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible? If it is the second, then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils.”20 Lewis wrote these words during a time when the Nazis were bombing Britain and doing horrible things to millions of people across Europe. Yet Lewis was no sentimentalist, so we know he was not saying, “Perhaps some of the Nazis are good dads after all, so let us not be too harsh with them.” No, the purpose of Lewis’s words is not to exonerate the Nazis but to guard us from becoming the kind of people who ignore important evidence while fostering a vicious prejudice. This is soul-saving advice.

Doubtless, some will quote to us this proverb, “Physician, heal thyself!” For was it not the COVID-suspicious who displayed vicious hate toward scientists and governing officials when they should have been charitable to those who were trying to help? Dear reader, if you think this way, your mind has been a victim of the memory hole. You have forgotten that the greatest hate came not from those with prudent hesitancy about a hot-rushed vaccine’s potential inefficacy and unknown risks but toward that group of people.21 For example: The Los Angeles Times ran a column titled “Mocking anti-vaxxers’ COVID deaths is ghoulish, yes—but may be necessary.” Similarly, The New York Times published pieces like “Unvaxxed, Unmasked and Putting Our Kids at Risk” and “I’m Furious at the Unvaccinated.” Bloomberg ran the article “The Unvaccinated Are a Risk to All of Us,” and The Washington Post published one calling American leaders to imitate the draconian cruelty of France’s president: “Macron is right: It’s time to make life a living hell for anti-vaxxers.” While he was still hosting CNN’s Don Lemon Tonight, the anchor exclaimed that the unvaccinated were “idiotic and nonsensical.” On another occasion, Don Lemon said, “The people who are not getting vaccines who are believing the lies on the internet instead of science, it’s time to start shaming them or leave them behind.”

Our not-so-friendly neighbors to the north were even worse. The Toronto Star announced, “Vaccine resisters are lazy and irresponsiblewe need vaccine passports now to protect the rest of us.” The Star ran another piece saying, “The unvaccinated cherish their freedom to harm others. How can we ever forgive them?” Similar vicious hate was displayed across the pond. One author for the UK’s Daily Mail said, “It’s time to punish Britain’s 5 million vaccine refuseniks.” Similarly, British journalist Piers Morgan tweeted that “Those who refuse to be vaccinated . . . should be refused NHS [National Health Service] care if they then then catch covid [sic]. Let them pay for their own stupidity & selfishness.”

Yet it was not just journalists who whipped the world’s nations into vicious hatred. Political leaders across the West did the same. U.S. President Joe Biden repeatedly referred to COVID as “a pandemic of the unvaccinated”—a claim that public data proves had always been a myth. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau displayed vicious hatred in saying that unvaccinated people “are very often misogynistic and racist” before asking, “Do we tolerate these people?” And again, French President Emmanuel Macron told the +5 million unvaccinated French people that they were no longer citizens.

And this does not account for the many instances across the West where unvaccinated people were fired from their jobs, prohibited from attending college, excluded from restaurants and other public spaces, denied organ transplants, and punished by courts in child custody cases. These insane behaviors were justified by their perpetrators on the belief that the vaccine would prevent transmission of the virus. As Democratic-appointed Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan opined, “You have to get vaccinated so that you’re not transmitting the disease.” But on October 10, 2022, a spokesperson for Pfizer admitted to the European Parliament that the COVID vaccine had not actually been tested for preventing transmission.

So, then, there was indeed a lack of charity during the pandemic, but mainly from those in power toward the millions of people who remained unvaccinated for a combination of religious reasons, medical reasons, prudent hesitancy, and discerning distrust toward governing officials. For, after sufficient time had passed and information had increased, it was not a lack of charity to distrust those who had earned our distrust by lying repeatedly and by punishing all those who had the courage to live not by lies.

The Vice of Cowardice and the Virtue of Courage

Like the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22–24), virtues and vices usually come in clusters. Yet some virtues impinge on others. As one scholar pointed out, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point. . . . A chastity or honesty, or mercy, which yields to danger will be chaste or honest or merciful only on conditions. Pilate was merciful till it became risky.”22

Thus, there are some who may diligently pursue the truth with every intention of discovering it and acting upon it, but when the truth turns out to be more costly than they can bear, they turn away to walk in the darkness. We see this dynamic at work in the hearts of religious leaders who believed in Jesus at some level but “would not confess him” publicly for fear of being “banned from the synagogue” (John 12:42). Before we sympathize with those cowards, it is worth remembering that our Lord said, “Whoever confesses me before men, him I will also confess before my Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies me before men, him I will also deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 10:32–33; cf. Rev. 21:8).

The point is not that a believer will never cower in a moment when courage is needed, as the life of the apostle Peter reminds us (John 18:15–27). Yet we must never forget that Peter’s story did not end with the continuation of cowardice but with repentance and restoration (John 21:15–17) that turned him into the sort of man whose courage was a defining mark of his connection to Jesus (Acts 4:13), even unto death on a cross (John 21:18–19). In a similar vein, it is imperative that Christians recover the resources of our faith that lead us to courageously speak the truth, even—especially—when it is costly and unpopular to do so.23

It was certainly unpopular to stand against the tide during COVID. In fact, I know of several pastors who eventually came to see that governing officials were duplicitously misleading millions, but they refused to lead their churches in accordance with their convictions (James 4:17). Other pastors openly mocked men like John MacArthur, who courageously opposed the overreach of California’s wicked leaders. In these ways, many pastors sowed vicious seeds in their lives, which, if not repented of, will yield a devastating harvest of cowardice. For if they caved on a matter like COVID, when the enforcement of mandates was mainly done through threat, how will they stand when the progressive mobs bring their demands, with enforcement measures that cost people their livelihoods?24

The COVID Test of Christian Virtue

Time would fail us to speak of other virtues and how they nourish a soul that seeks, loves, and obeys the truth (cf. Rom. 2:8; Gal. 5:7; 2 Thess. 1:8). We might have mentioned the virtue of integrity, which guards a man from soul-destroying hypocrisy (Prov. 10:9; 11:3). For a man who does not practice the truth does not really know it (1 Cor. 8:1–2); he has the kind of “knowledge” that is good for nothing but increasing his own judgment (Luke 12:47). Or we might have discussed the virtue of justice, which refuses to evaluate things with double standards detested by the God of truth (Lev. 19:35–36; Prov. 20:10). Or again, we could have spoken of the virtue of tenacity, which does not fall over at the first sign of resistance, tossed to and fro by every zeitgeisty breeze (Eph. 4:14). But we have given sufficient examples of some of the more egregious vices that cripple a man’s ability to acquire, maintain, communicate, and practice the truth.

In hindsight, the COVID pandemic proved something of a test—not the kind that returned false positives—but the kind that exposed what sort of persons we are. This went double for pastors, who have the solemn responsibility of shepherding God’s people through difficult times “as examples to the flock” (1 Pet. 5:3). In this way, the COVID crisis tested the discernment of every pastor, exposing whether we would follow officials far past the point of virtuous charity into the depths of vicious gullibility. It tested a pastor’s zeal for truth and his diligence to seek it out. It tested the humility of pastors to submit to the truth once it was discovered, even if the implications were costly and unpopular. And it tested the nerve of pastors who knew the truth and needed to act with courage.

These are not easy words to hear, for many pastors failed the test, and no one likes to consider his failings. Yet our God does not convict in order to condemn but to cure; he does not cut to harm but to heal. For a man cannot repent until he feels Christ “laying his finger on the sore” to “point out a particular disease.”25 And if our response to the COVID pandemic exposed some vicious disease in our souls, why shouldn’t we run to the Great Physician for the healing he came to bring (Luke 5:31–32)? We may not all have passed the COVID test for virtue, but we don’t have to fail the next trial that comes around.

  1. It really should go without saying, but this is not an endorsement of everything that Trump has ever said or done. But since we are writing to increase intellectual virtue, we cannot assume intellectual virtue. Therefore, it must needs be said.
  2. These four categories are borrowed from W. Jay Wood, Epistemology: Becoming Intellectual Virtuous (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1998).
  3. W. Jay Wood, Epistemology: Becoming Intellectual Virtuous (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 11.
  4. You likely won’t find “Bulverism” in your dictionary, for C. S. Lewis coined the term for the logical fallacy we are about to describe.
  5. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2014), 301.
  6. Ibid., 300–301.
  7. Ibid, 301. Emphasis mine.
  8. Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, VI.12.
  9. Some corners of Christianity will balk at the notion that non-Christians can possess such virtues, but this is a classical Christian teaching that is easily demonstrated by common sense. Think of a courageous non-Christian on the battlefield. Or think of an honest business owner who pays his employees fairly. Or again, think of a non-Christian athlete who possesses tremendous self-discipline or self-control. None of these virtues indicate that such persons know the way of salvation; it simply reminds us that “while all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23), not every person is maximally undisciplined, maximally cowardly, maximally unjust, and so forth. And this explains why some non-Christians were not as easily duped during the pandemic, while many Christians tragically were.
  10. C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York: HarperOne, 1946), 41.
  11. Ibid. Emphasis mine.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid., 42.
  14. It is no accident that Lewis’s obstinate man condemned to hell had been an Episcopal bishop during his earthly life. Let the reader understand.
  15. I am fully aware of the inaccuracy of polygraph tests. However, rumors were recently circulating that Larry Sinclair had passed such a test, when, in point of fact, he did not. This is yet another example of the importance of having virtues related to discernment. For more on the inaccuracy of polygraph tests, see “The Truth About Lie Detectors.” American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/topics/cognitive-neuroscience/polygraph.
  16. If the verses of Scripture where God himself is described as hating certain classes of unrepentant persons and God’s people are described as joining the Lord in his hatred of the same are a stumbling block to you, see John Frame, “More on Imprecations.” May 21, 2012. https://frame-poythress.org/more-on-imprecations/. For a similar article on the subject, see Greg Morse, “‘Oh Slay the Wicked’ How Christians Sing Curses.” Desiring God. September 6, 2023. https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/oh-slay-the-wicked.
  17. Worse still, the article still remains published at the time of writing, with only minor retractions of so-called “editorial oversights.”
  18. Had I waited for even a shred of evidence to come in, I might have known that he didn’t have to drive that far to “cross state lines.” Nor was it odd for him to do so, since he worked in that neighboring city. Add to this the fact that his boss specifically requested his presence to protect the store from being destroyed by a rioting mob. Christians are free to question the prudence of his actions and whether or not his attempts to protect his boss’s store (and thus his livelihood) constituted a legitimate case of self-defense. But we are not free to uncharitably rush into assessments that proved false, to say nothing of accusations of heart motives that only the Lord’s knowledge can prove true. And though the chances that Kyle Rittenhouse will ever read this essay are about as the same as my winning the lottery, consider this my official apology to anyone who heard me make public comments about this event before the facts were known. I did not hate the man in my heart, but since biblical love and hate are not feelings but actions, I confess that my actions were an expression of the same vice about which we have been speaking.
  19. We’re not finished yet, though. There may yet be time for a fourth.
  20. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1980), 118.
  21. The following links are widely available on the internet. However, Alex Gutentag of the Jewish magazine Tablet has done us a tremendous service by collecting them in his article, “Vaccines Never Prevented the Transmission of COVID: Allowing Zealots to Censor News in the Name of ‘Science’ Is a Danger to Public Health.” Tablet. October 18, 2022. https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/science/articles/vaccines-never-prevented-transmission-covid-alex-gutentag.
  22. The author of these words is none other than C. S. Lewis, once again, but only end-note-readers were ready for what the quadruple quotation reveals. The source is The Screwtape Letters (London: Centenary, 1942), 148. Careful readers may have noted that though Lewis indeed has been cited four times, the quotes derive from four different books. And though he is rightly known for many things, we wonder if evangelicals overlooked a treasure-trove of insights on the nature of the virtues and their importance for the Christian life.
  23. One book that can help Christians do this is Joe Rigney’s Courage: How the Gospel Creates Christian Fortitude (Wheaton: Crossway, 2023).
  24. You already know the answer to this rhetorical question: they won’t.
  25. Calvin says this about Christ’s interaction with the Rich Young Ruler in Mark 10:21. See John Calvin, A Harmony of the Evangelists, Volume Second. Calvin’s Commentaries, XVI, trans. William Pringle (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005), 397.
Bryan Laughlin, Doug Ponder

Bryan Laughlin is CEO and professor of theology and missiology at Grimké Seminary. He is also lead pastor of Remnant Church in Richmond, Va.

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