The religious experience of Covid and the limitless power of the state

5 November 2021

Wilberforce Academy Director Rev. Dr Joe Boot explains what lies at the heart of the state’s response to the pandemic.

By any reckoning, the events of 2020 and 2021 have been at once tragic, deeply disturbing, and far-reaching in scope and implication. A kind of paradigm shift has taken place while millions of us were ordered to stay in our homes.

What was once unthinkable in the West can never be made unthinkable again as restrictions, mandates and limitations have been placed upon ostensibly free peoples by various states, the like of which had only ever been seen before in the communist world under totalitarian regimes.

The religious roots of Covid response

Most analysis by social critics and philosophers has focused on various sociological, psychological, and environmental factors to account for the lack of resistance to the collapse of freedom and the overriding of free institutions. However, in my view there are actually a variety of religious issues that lie beneath this bewildering passivity. What has taken place are merely fruits of a revolutionised worldview in the West.

The first thing that must be said is that any truly Christian analysis of the cultural crisis cannot ignore the fundamentals of the scriptural perspective on reality. This begins with the recognition that human beings are creatures of God who are fallen and in rebellion against him. This is not true simply in terms of an individual’s private personal ethos. Rather it implies a concrete outworking of apostasy that seeks to also alienate creation itself from the living God. R. J. Rushdoony put it forcefully:

“Fallen man is aggressively concerned with an ambitious program of remaking all things. This requires a steady assault on and capture of all men and institutions for this grand plan of establishing the independence of man from God and making man over again into the new god of being.”[1]

This desire is rooted in the primeval temptation directed at our first parents: “you shall be as god” (Gen. 3:5). It is a travesty that we do not appear to take this spiritual apostasy of humanity and diabolic ambition more seriously in our comfortable, flabby, Western church culture. Many Christian people, who should know better, naïvely assume a benevolent and religiously neutral posture and programme among the secular ruling class in addressing a crisis.

Too often we overlook the reality that we are in a spiritual struggle, a cosmic conflict for cultural formation in terms of the kingdom of God against the kingdom of darkness – and have been since Cain slew Abel. Any believer who thinks Satan and his hoard sit on the sidelines of history during times of panic, disease, and political upheaval need to familiarise themselves with their Bible.

Moreover, Scripture plainly teaches that unregenerate people do not discern the things of the Spirit of God; indeed it is foolishness to them (1 Cor. 2:14). As such, those authorities, judges, and rulers who do not ‘kiss the Son’ as required by the living God, conspire – either ignorantly or self-consciously – against him (Ps. 2). Our Lord is crystal clear that those who are not for him are against him and those who do not gather with him intend to scatter abroad (Matt. 12:30). The idea that these basic religious motives vanish for the sake of the ‘common good’ in political and cultural life is simply a delusion.

A second issue emerging from Scripture is that because of rebellion and sin, man is wracked with guilt and shame when outside of the regenerating work of Christ in the kingdom of God. As a result, he is in the grip of the fear of death in his response to the vicissitudes of life. Deep in our being, we know guilt must be expiated and sin punished. Aware of guilt and shame, man seeks to hide from God and escape the consequences. The penalty for sin scripturally is death and as such, death is feared by human beings – a reality currently on vivid display. Ultimately, death concerns final separation from God according to the Bible, but because of his enmity against God, fallen man fears death not as separation from God but as separation from mortal life. Man wants all of life on his own terms, when in fact true life is only possible on God’s terms and is wholly dependent upon him.

This is where a schizophrenic element emerges in fallen human thinking and living. By resisting God and his law-Word, people in rebellion actually oppose the life they claim to cherish and have thereby a masochistic desire for self-punishment and will to death. This masochistic urge is “never more in evidence that when men and societies have together abandoned moral law for permissiveness.”[2]

In masochism, a form of temporary satisfaction and reprieve from feelings of guilt is sought by enduring pain, suffering or humiliation – it is a futile effort at covering sin. This need for atonement is not simply a cultural product, it is part of the human condition in a fallen world and cannot be sidestepped. Actions and conditions pursued by a person that are evidently opposed to that individual’s welfare, be they political or socially neurotic, may justly be seen as masochistic.

It is very hard not to see both the fear of death and the urge to self-punishment governing the last two years in the form of political and social masochism. The intense fear of death from a virus has been obvious and everywhere. The fear is magnified by unresolved guilt and man’s awareness of accountability to God for sin. The masochistic urge is always self-destructive, whether directed at oneself or society as a whole.

False piety and virtue signalling manifest in a pharisaic insistence and compliance with mask mandates, social distancing, self-imprisonment and a quasi-religious hope in experimental vaccines, lockdowns, and various restrictions are indicative of a corporate masochistic urge. To be seen openly complying with and strongly supporting all these self-denying and self-sacrificing measures is regarded as a form of social righteousness. In short, there is an atmosphere of societal ‘atonement’ about the whole enterprise. A culture in the grip of guilt and shame that rejects the atonement of Jesus Christ will be quick to leap at various forms of self-atonement in the hope of expiating their burdens by self-sacrifice.

This is also where the ineradicable human need for justification is manifest. Scripturally, justification is a judicial fact in view of Christ’s redemptive work for those who embrace the covenant of grace secured by the shed blood of Christ at the cross. But to be justified is also a deep, keenly felt need for sinful man outside of Christ. If that need is not met by the gospel, justification will be sought elsewhere.

Even in sin and rebellion human beings long to conform to a moral order, to be seen to be setting things right, so that man wants to bring judgment on himself to be justified. If the penalty for sin laid upon Christ is set aside, people try to lay it on themselves by self-punishment, or upon others – in this case, the unvaccinated or non-compliant. Hence, those not complying with the Covid cult are being denied access to society, to work at their vocation, travel, visit loved ones in hospital, even access medical treatments like organ transplants. These are literally the scapegoats for the spreading of disease and death and so the majority want to drive them away from society for it – just as the scapegoat in the older testament was driven away after the sins of the people were laid upon it.

We all need the burden of sin and guilt atoned for and removed to cleanse our conscience, but counterfeit atonement and justification just exacerbate the problem because man cannot be justified by any works of self or social righteousness, nor by laying the punishment for their sins upon other sinners. This is why Scripture describes the wicked as a troubled sea that finds no rest. “There is no peace for the wicked says my God” (Isa. 57:21).

By contrast, to be a true Christian is to rejoice in an inner freedom, peace, and rest because all efforts at self-justification have been renounced. This liberating reality has socio-cultural consequences, as does the unbeliever’s self-torture:

“A society in which godly justification prevails will thus be marked by social energy and vitality. Instead of dissipating its strength on inner warfare and futile self-justifications, it will move forward to re-order all things in terms of God’s law-Word. Instead of being group-directed, inner-directed, or past-oriented, it will be future-oriented and God-directed.”[3]

This observation is very telling. It is proven true decisively in the divisive race wars in the West, breaking people up into groups of oppressors and oppressed, past-oriented with the sins of generations long deceased and directed toward inner feelings, destroying the vitality of numerous communities and institutions, and pulling apart the fabric of society. Yet the reaction to Covid has likewise shattered social energy and vitality by ruining economies, destroying small businesses, pushing up energy and food prices, driving inflation, decimating the GDP and life-expectancy of poorer peoples, undermining long-term health by missed operations and appointments, and setting back the education of our children. In an especially morbid turn, compliant churches have also closed their doors – and thereby cut off access to the sacraments which signify our redemption and justification in Christ.

Much of Western society has engaged in futile self-justifications by redefining ‘love of neighbour’ (which scripturally requires obedience to God’s law, cf. Matt. 22: 37-40; Rom. 13: 8-10) to mean compliance with all state bureaucratic regulations and embracing cliches that reimagine sin and righteousness as ‘doing the right thing’ (meaning locking down life) and ‘saving lives,’ (by accepting coercive vaccination mandates), all the while claiming to save Western man’s failing welfare institutions which have taken on the characteristics of idols.

Regulations and coercive mandates have placed people at war with one another, creating a two-tier society and further sapping social vitality. We are also group-directed with mass censorship and group-think, shouting, or shutting down the voice and opinion of the ‘unorthodox.’ Perhaps worse still, we are past-oriented, sacrificing our children and their futures in the name of protecting the elderly – a reversal of the godly order. All these redefinitions of righteousness indicate religious self-justification at work, not Christ-centred justification.

A third observation which carries equally powerful religious overtones is the fact that the deceptive political messaging ‘we are all in this together’ provides an artificial sense of cultural unity, meaning and purpose. By unrelenting coverage and propaganda, Covid fear and Covid care have become a form of collective religious and indeed aesthetic experience – one which numerous Christians have substituted for corporate worship for many months. This pseudo-religious experience consists partly in the expectation that those all-around share in this feeling with us. The British philosopher Sinead Murphy has pointed out that:

“The feeling is the pleasure of a certainty that, when not pulled in different directions by conceptual disagreements, conflicting interests and personal preferences, we human beings in the world are fundamentally the same as each other.”[4]

This deep and aesthetic ‘feeling’ of unity, of common concern and the pleasure derived from it, is not easily penetrated. In seeking to explain the apparent impotence of counterarguments to Covid measures and the undefined moral contempt directed at the doubters and non-compliant, Murphy again writes with insight:

“Those we wish to convince to change their minds are not using their minds; those we wish to share our concerns do not have our concerns; those we wish to feel our distress cannot see us or our distress: they are caught up in a kind of satisfaction – occasioned by the concerted responses of governments and populations to an invisible global attack – that is comprised of a heady sense of profound community, of fellow feeling on a universal scale. We cannot touch this experience with our facts and our projects and our pains. At the very most, we can only threaten to puncture its ecstasy; insofar as we do that, we are batted away as an inconvenient distraction … the outright refusal of so many to engage in debate, even to admit that there is a debate, and their injured backlash against anyone who does not share their enthusiasm, is surely explained by … an experience available to human beings which, given the appropriate occasion and so long as our neighbors play ball, is the infinitely consoling certainty that we are all, fundamentally, in this together … Covid consensus … offers no less than the return of the feeling of universal community in an organised world that, however irrational, impractical and indifferent to the plight of others, cannot be expected to be relinquished easily or soon.”[5]

This striking aesthetic experience many are having is, to my mind, part of the broader pseudo-religious experience of Covidianity. The ‘covering’ and justification being sought by many within it, the sense of a ‘faith community’ engendered by it, and the certitudinal trust placed in the ordering of the new society by a substitute great shepherd, the state, all answer to the fundamental religious nature of man and the essential needs of the human community. This makes for a very powerful motive. In a culture that has largely turned its back upon the gospel, the need for religious unity, ordered certitude, justification and cleansing have not gone away. As such, these realities, hopes and needs will be transferred to other experiences and institutions as substitutes for the real thing, but the imitation ultimately cannot provide them.

Of sheep and men

In the final analysis, guilt, shame, fear of death and false unity can only lead to isolation and a retreat from both life and genuine love. No longer anchored to faith in Christ and his reconciling work, Western culture has been cast adrift. People are increasingly lost in their own inner feelings or sense of self, striving after a religious experience to replace the gospel. This has made Western peoples rootless, vulnerable, and impressionable, inclined to every path of self-atonement on offer that give assurance of justification, salvation, and life! This susceptibility makes people easy victims of tyranny.

A tyrant is one who rules without genuine divine authority, in contempt of God’s law, usurping the authority of God – and then inevitably setting at variance constitutions historically grounded on that authority. The rejection of the living God culturally separates our society from true meaning and purpose and in its place the arbitrariness of tyranny arises as people yearn for an ordering principle capable of leading them to safety – a power involving a total control over life and death. Lost sheep are always looking for leaders who will promise to ‘keep them safe’ in quiet pastures, providing a sense of both unity and rest if they will just follow along and be saved.

As Scripture reveals, people are thus in some respects like sheep, and all need a shepherd. The Lord Jesus Christ presents himself to us in the gospel as the true, the good and great shepherd of the flock (John 10:11; 1 Pt. 5:2-4) who lays down his life for the sheep. It is fascinating to note that the great rulers of the ancient world regarded themselves as guardians and shepherd-kings of their people, determining their destinies and assuming a right of social control whilst expecting total obedience from their subjects. To be state-less and without a shepherd-king was considered a kind of social death or form of punishment.

The question again confronting us in our time is who is the great shepherd of the sheep? Who has the right to give religious direction to people and nations? To whom do people belong and who are we to follow in times of uncertainty? Sheep not properly led will follow other sheep blindly into danger and disaster. What confronts the West today is a choice between man enlarged and embodied in the state as the shepherd of the sheep, or a return to the Lord Jesus Christ, the Shepherd of our souls.

Despite our incurable weakness for authority, contra Aristotle and the humanistic tradition, God’s Word makes plain we are not creatures of the state, nor were we made to be sheep of the state’s pasture, entirely subject to the will of the civil government and infantilised by its bureaucracy. However, the religious restlessness of the human heart since the Fall of man means we are extremely vulnerable to being conditioned by the sustained religious appeal of the state to being the shepherd-king. As Rushdoony has pointed out, only the gospel is able to make us truly free and resistant to such hypnotic conditioning:

“Every false shepherd appeals to this restlessness and anxiety of man and offers false hope. When men find their rest, their true sabbath, in Jesus Christ, then they are free to be men, to exercise dominion, to grow in righteousness and holiness, and to gain knowledge under God. They are then not sheep in relationship to other men, but free men in Jesus Christ. They are then freed also from any urge to follow, sheep-like, the dictates of men.”[6]

This does not mean there is no place for the state or subjection to godly authority in God’s order. What it means is that we are enabled to recognise tyranny and resist because of the principle of freedom in Christ, and when we are in subjection to proper authority according to the Word of God it is a subjection as unto God and not to man.

This is why exponents of godly resistance in the face of tyranny like the great reformer John Knox in his Admonition to England were able to develop a theology of resistance that contributed to the preservation and development of liberty across Europe. In fact, Knox argued that “common people had the right and duty to disobedience and rebellion if state officials ruled contrary to the Bible. To do otherwise would be rebellion against God.”[7] Knox inspired great English puritans like Samuel Rutherford who wrote Lex Rex; Or the Law and the Prince (1644), which argued that the law is king and that all law must be grounded in the Law of God. Christ is the true sovereign whose law-Word must govern. Francis Schaeffer has pointed out that, “in almost every place where the reformation flourished there was not only religious noncompliance; there was civil disobedience as well.”[8]

Professing Christians who set aside the Lordship of Christ and his Law as the sovereign shepherd-King, following rather pietistic and humanistic patterns of thinking are, unsurprisingly, sheep-like in their behaviour and response toward the state. And there is no limit to the foolishness of those who follow men rather than Christ the Lord – they are like sheep to be sheared by people.

Biblical faith puts the state in its proper place as one form of cultural power among many that must be properly distinguished and delimited if it is not to become a Leviathan. As Herman Dooyeweerd wrote:

“There are numerous other types of power: the spiritual power of the Word and sacraments in the church community, the economic power of free enterprise, and the power of science and the arts … It is a totalitarian fantasy, however, to assume that the state, like a modern Leviathan, can make all these power-types subservient to its political purposes, that it can absorb them within its own sphere of power, yet permit them to retain their distinctive character … where the church, science, and art are denatured by the state, with totalitarian political ideology, they lose their typical social power.”[9]

Because in the present cultural crisis far too many Christians and the shepherds of their congregations have behaved like sheep to be sheared by men, the last two years have seen Western governments assault the church (and other spheres of life like free enterprise, medicine, and the family) in an effort to denature them. The result has been a profound undermining of their distinctive character, a great loss of their social power and an all-encompassing control ceded to the state. At the root of this is a complete failure by much of the church to grasp the central and radical character of the kingdom of God as the defining principle for human community:

“The Christian religion, linked to Old Testament revelation, provides a new religious ground-motive for reflection on the foundations of human society. It is the theme of creation, fall into sin, and redemption by Christ Jesus in the communion of the Holy Spirit. It reveals that the religious community of the human race is rooted in creation, in the solidarity of the fall into sin, and in the spiritual kingdom of God through Christ Jesus (Corpus Christi). In this belief, Christianity destroys in principle any claim made by a temporal community to encompass all of life in a totalitarian sense. It demands internal independence for the church in its relation to the state and sharpens our view of the proper nature of the spheres of life.”[10]

The great shepherd of the Kingdom is the Lord Jesus Christ. Only the kingdom rule of God encompasses and commands all areas of life in every sphere. The Christian should therefore walk in confidence and trust as we are led by the Lord to obey his Word, even in the face of opposition, harassment, and persecution.

Psalm 23 gives us a wonderful picture of the life of the believer who makes the Lord his shepherd. Not only does the good shepherd lead us in paths of righteousness to green pastures and still waters, restoring life itself, but he takes us by the hand through the valley of death’s dark shadow where, as his saints, we need fear no evil – not even a virus or an over-reaching state. In the midst of all such trials, he anoints the believer’s head with oil. This poignantly symbolises a prophetic and royal anointing that is the heritage of the people of God.

In relationship to other people, even to the Lord’s enemies, we are not like sheep, but are free prophets and kingly priests of the King of kings. The psalmist poetically reminds us that in the process of the cultural struggle in history, we are assured of final victory as the Lord of all the earth prepares a victory banquet for us before all those who oppose his Kingdom.

[1] R. J. Rushdoony, Revolt Against Maturity (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1987), 63.

[2] Rushdoony, Revolt Against Maturity, 196.

[3] Rushdoony, Revolt Against Maturity, 192.

[4] Sinead Murphy, “The Covid Aesthetic,” The Daily Sceptic, last modified June 8, 2021,

[5] Murphy, “The Covid Aesthetic.”

[6] Rushdoony, Revolt Against Maturity, 293.

[7] Francis A. Schaeffer, A Christian Manifesto (Illinois: Crossway Books, 1982), 97

[8] Schaeffer, A Christian Manifesto, 99

[9] Herman Dooyeweerd, A Christian Theory of Social Institutions, trans. Magnus Verbrugge (La Jolla, CA: Herman Dooyeweerd Foundation, 1986), 90-91.

[10] Dooyeweerd, A Christian Theory, 48.

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