Institutions, Contingency and Decay In the Time of Coronavirus

Thucydides’ notorious writing on the Peloponnesian War, a founding document of Western Historiography of the 5thcentury BC, is also a book on an epidemic that signaled the definitive decline of an incredibly creative and dynamic period of Greek cultural supremacy. As fathers of modern historians, both Herodotus and Thucydides belonged to that century and narrated two important wars. Herodotus described the war against the Persians that inaugurated a Greek golden age. Thucydides reported on the Peloponnesian War that was a fratricidal conflict between Athens and Sparta, and brought an end to this glorious and unique period.

Herodotus is widely considered to have been the first writer to have treated historical subjects using a method of systematic investigation, by collecting his materials and then critically arranging them into an historical narrative. Herodotus records in his “Histories” not only the events of the Persian Wars, but also geographical and ethnographical information, as well as the fables related to him during his extensive travels. Typically, he passes no definitive judgment on what he has heard. In the case of conflicting or unlikely accounts, he presents both sides, says what he believes, and then invites readers to decide for themselves. Herodotus views history as a source of moral lessons, with conflicts and wars as misfortunes flowing from initial acts of injustice perpetuated through cycles of revenge. Because of this he is often referred to as “The Father of History”, a title first conferred on him by the first-century BC Roman orator Cicero. (De legibus, I, I, 5)

Thucydides believed that the Peloponnesian War represented an event of unmatched importance. As such, he began to write his “History” at the onset of the war in 431 BC. Like Herodotus, Thucydides places a high value on eyewitness testimony and writes about events in which he took part. He also assiduously consulted written documents and interviewed participants about the events that he recorded. Unlike Herodotus, whose stories often teach that hubris (excessive pride and arrogance) invites the wrath of the deities, Thucydides does not acknowledge divine intervention in human affairs. He claims to confine himself to factual reports of contemporary political and military events, based on unambiguous, first-hand, eye-witness accounts. Thucydides views life exclusively as political, and history in terms of political history. Conventional moral considerations play no role in his analysis of political events while geographic and ethnographic aspects are omitted or, at best, of secondary importance.

For these reasons the English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, whose book Leviathan advocated absolute monarchy, admired Thucydides, and in 1628 was the first to translate his writings into English directly from Greek. Thucydides, Hobbes, and Machiavelli are together considered the founding fathers of political realism, according to which, state policy must primarily or solely focus on maintaining military and economic power, rather than on ideals or ethics.

In the second Book of his Peloponnesian War, Thucydides described the diffusion of a Plague that devastated the city-state of Athens during the second year (430 BC) of this War, when an Athenian victory still seemed within reach. The plague killed an estimated 75,000 to 100,000 people – one third of the population – and is believed to have entered Athens through the Piraeus, the city's port and sole entry point for food and supplies. The plague had serious effects on Athens' society, resulting in a lack of adherence to laws and religious belief. In response, the political regime introduced a “State of Exception” to better control the situation with stricter laws resulting, for instance, in the punishment of non-citizens claiming to be Athenians.

The narration of this Plague is important not only because it described the decline of Athens but also the decline of Greek culture as such. Fifth-century Athens was an exceptionally flourishing period. It’s often called the “Golden Age” of Athens, lasting about a cenury, but was particularly notable during the thirty years from 460 to 430 BC. It began in 478 BC, after the defeat of the Persian invasion, when an Athenian-led coalition of city-states – the Delian League – confronted the Persians to keep the liberated Asian Greek cities free. After peace was made with Persia in the mid-5th century BC, what started as an alliance of independent city-states became an Athenian empire, after Athens abandoned the pretense of parity among its allies and relocated the Delian League treasury from Delos to Athens. This money then built the Athenian Acropolis, put half its population on the public payroll, and allowed Athens to maintain its position as the dominant naval power in the Greek world. With the empire's funds, military dominance and its political fortunes guided by statesman and orator Pericles, Athens produced some of the most influential and enduring cultural artifacts of the Western tradition. The playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides all lived and worked in 5th-century BC Athens, as did the historians Herodotus and Thucydides, the physician Hippocrates and philosophers Socrates and Plato. But Pericles, the undeniable and indisputable leader of this politico-cultural miracle, perished in this Plague.

The political and social stability built up in 5th century BC Athens, with sacrifice, hard work, knowledge and creativity, turned out to be a vulnerable reality. Every apparently solid institution is always exposed to historical contingency. No historical system can escape facing this random component of life. This is human existence at its very center. It is unpredictable by definition and emerges in different and changing forms, like a Plague in Pericles’ Athens or as a pandemic in our time. Our modern and post-modern programmed and rationalized world has pushed us to forget this. And particularly has pushed us to believe that life is secure only when this unexpected element is eliminated. The evident conclusion is an obsession to conceive and organize life so such possibilities don’t exist. But, of course, they do. We should arrive at the opposite conclusion instead. There is no true life without the possibility of some “black swan” (negative) or serendipitous (positive) components. Without them life becomes a simulacrum. A plastic life. An illusory experience. Without contingency life stops being life. This should become our cultural motto. The necessary and mandatory organization of our culture must never become total and absolute. The rhythm of life requires stability and organization but these cannot be bigger than life. This pandemic should teach us, among other things, this particular lesson in a time where every event, action and initiative is heavily programmed, controlled and presumed to be predictable.

At this writing more than 20.7 million people have been infected from COVID-19 in the world, and at least 750,000 have died, according to a Johns Hopkins University report. The USA alone, with its 5.2 million people infected, represents a fourth of the total world numbers. India has increased, reaching over 2.4 million infected. In Europe these last weeks here is a worrying increase in the contagions in countries like Spain, France, Germany, Greece and Croatia, that seemed to have the situation under control. But the more worrying scenario comes from Latin America where, beyond the already catastrophic situation in Brazil, Peru and Chile now also have rapidly increasing numbers in death and contagion. And we still don’t know what will be the final social, economic and psychological effects of this pandemic on a worldwide scale.

A noble religious, anthropological and ethical attitude should be qualified not only by the degree of order, stability and predictability but also by the degree of contingency it creates in us and in the social systems we live in. And above all, by the capacity to create trust in open systems that are unable to produce certainty because the more fundamental element in any worldview is that which recognizes our vulnerability to the unforeseen in life. Civilizations, religions and socio-cultural systems don’t decay because they don’t succeed in controlling the uncertainty of Life. It’s the other way around. It’s an excess of presumed certainty that pushes humans to be too confident, selfish and try to bully other humans and nature. The Creation as God’s first action for humanity, more than being an act of certainty, is a strong testimony of the blessings of contingency in a heathen context when life had become deterministic and excessively predictable. This is what the German philosopher Hartmut Rosa describes as the lacking element in our industrial societies. We have lost the beneficial sense of the “Unavailability” (Unverfügbarkeit) of Life as an essential component of our social systems. We urgently need to get it back in order to restore full humanity.


Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher, and physician. Currently, he is Chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of “Villa Aurora” and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.

Previous Spectrum columns by Hanz Gutierrez can be found at:

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons


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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

That statement totally wipes out the SDA great hope, as well as the entire doctrinal package. If heaven is only for those who are “safe to save”, and even as a general accepted description of eternal life where “sin will not rise the second time”, are we then preparing for a “plastic life”?

It’s not that the statement is wrong. Unless there are goals and obstacles to overcome in attaining that goal, life would be plastic. It does bring up the question of what is “utopia” and do we really want gates of pearl and streets of gold in the commonly held description of life eternal. Maybe this needs a rethink.

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Does anyone have ideas how this can be done while we are under the threat of this Virus? Today, only about a third of our members will be at church.

You wrote, ‘Unless there are goals and obstacles to overcome in attaining that goal, life would be plastic. It does bring up the question of what is “utopia” and do we really want gates of pearl and streets of gold in the commonly held description of life eternal. Maybe this needs a rethink.’

We do need a rethink because we aren’t understanding what the Bible is telling us.
The Bible gives us several glimpses into the next age.

Interesting that you used the adjective ‘eternal’ in your comment. Actually the Greek word was ‘aionios’ meaning belonging to a specific age (aion) or occurring during a certain age. You start to get a clearer idea of God’s plan for humanity when you see that.

If interested, here is a more detailed explanation:

I think Paul understood it that way for he wrote ‘…so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.’ (Eph 2:7).Thus there are several future ages to come as God unfolds history.

In a future age (I believe the next one), those judged worthy to actively participate in this plan will have one of several professions:

Some will be part of the priesthood (Is 66:21; Rev 5:10; 20:6). What an honour that will be. One commentator says that Ezekiel 44:17-19 speaks of these future priests who will minister both on earth (to man in the outer court with woollen garments) and in heaven (to God in the inner court with linen garments) much as Christ, in His glorified state with a spiritual body moved between heaven and earth when he visited the disciples after His resurrection.

Paul writes in 2Tim 2:12, ‘If we endure, we will also reign with Him;’, Dan 7:22 says there will come a time when the saints take possession of the kingdom, and Rev 20:4&6 say that some will be seated on thrones ‘and will reign with Him for a thousand years.’
Perhaps you are to become an administrator like Daniel (Dan 6:2) or a ruler over five or ten cities (Luke 19:15-19; Deut 1:13-15). It’s obvious that knowing the laws of the kingdom will be mandatory for such positions. Each new king of Israel was obligated to write out a copy of the laws upon taking office in order to learn ‘all the words of this law and these statutes’ (Deut 17:18, 19).

Since no type of sin will ultimately be allowed in the kingdom when all is finally said and done, but there will be people judged to be at various degrees of holiness entering the next age, I believe God will bestow the honour of becoming judges to some of His saints – not to administer punishment as man does in order to separate the guilty from society and act as a deterrent but to apply the law in the compassion of Christ to restore and assist those whom the judgment at the end of this age will show are still on the journey to glorification. Jesus said to his disciples,’…when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.’ (Matt 19:28). Paul said to the Corinthians, ‘…do you not know that the saints will judge the world? Do you not know that we will judge angels?’ (1Cor 6:2-3).

Christ is our High Priest, Lord and Judge. He is the Head but we are the body and as such I believe some of us will be given the honour to assist Him in these roles in the next age.

So, there will be much for us to do if we are judged worthy as God’s plan moves forward.

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I see you have sat at the feet of Herbert W. Armstrong. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. He and you may be right - who can truly say. My reaction was to the idea that without “black swans” to tackle we would have a “plastic” life. I had thought the black swans weren’t to be in the new age/heaven/new earth. Jesus said the kingdom of God is found within us even in the here and now; and it’s going to take us into eternity without the black swans.

I realize the article was not actually focused on this issue; but when the cameras are focused on the target, I like to see what sits behind and on the sides. We can learn a lot by shifting our gaze off center a bit.

I don’t know what you mean - I did not get my theology from Herbert W. Armstrong.

I’m not here talking about salvation (justification is by faith in Christ alone), I believe these roles will be taken by a subset of believers which the Bible calls overcomers. Maybe not ‘black swans’ but I think there will be many challenging situations to deal with for those in authority.
Please take the time to read this short four chapter booklet (with which I largely agree) before making a judgment on what I believe:

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That was an excellent article. It is well worth taking the time to read. I will bookmark it for future reference.


That is interesting. One of Armstrong’s main points was/is that during the 1000yrs, God’s “true people” will be teaching the rest of humanity; and that not all have had the chance to make a decision for or against God, which of course is very true.

I like your explanation on “time” as per Einstein, etc. I believe time/space is the most important factor we don’t take into consideration when speaking about God’s realm and His dealings with mankind. That’s because, unless you’re a physicist, it’s all hard to even imagine, and even more, to understand.

So, thank you for your post.


Thanks for explaining Armstrong’s view. I did not realize he thought such things would happen in the age to come.
My only recollection of him is that he believed that one’s works contributed to salvation. That’s why I mentioned justification by faith alone in what Christ has done which I believe is the gospel or good news.

It can be confusing because the Bible says at the end of this age there will be a judgment of our works. I believe that judgment is not to to decide if we are saved or lost but one of the reasons is to determine our fitness for service as the kingdom unfolds in the next age.

I also believe that ultimately all will be saved which I don’t think Armstrong did.

I also find Einstein’s explanation of space/time difficult to comprehend, I guess because we have only ever experienced time as a constant independent of everything else. Imagining God operating outside of our reality is a further challenge. I think, in order to help us comprehend, the Bible gives God human characteristics and Jesus taught of spiritual realities by parables about familiar objects and human relationships.

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I’m glad you enjoyed the linked article.
In my view, the Greek noun ‘aion’ and its adjective ‘aionios’ (and the corresponding Hebrew word ‘olam’) describe a concept which has been very poorly conveyed to us. As you can imagine there are others.

Sometimes there just isn’t a single corresponding word which accurately translates a concept from a different language. This can be a problem when translating modern languages but in the case of ancient manuscripts it is complicated further by the fact that the ancients had a different concept of reality than we do and so thought differently. It seems to me that in order to be precise a translator has to have a pretty thorough knowledge of the ancient Hebrew and Greek cultures.
Of course, we also have the bias of the translator to contend with when he decides which modern word to choose.
It can be a real challenge to try to sort out the modern word that best conveys the ancient thought.

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Your church is having in person services? Depending on where you are, one of the first things to do to help fight COVID is to stop doing that. If you’re in the US, that would most likely be appropriate.

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No, we voted to hold our church services as protests, inside Walmart™ stores. Not a problem-and no mask mandates!! After all, are we Protestants for naught?

What a marvelous exploration of the significance of this pandemic in our current cultural aeon. I learned a great deal and appreciate the writer’s insights. While the Athenians could not have anticipated an epidemic at the height of their glory, they were aware that one might come. We were told one could come and that it was inevitable, and that we should prepare as much as possible. We did not, and we are paying and will pay an exacting price.

For those who speculate that the “age to come” in Scripture will require us to likewise live with contingency and catastrophe if we want to experience life in its fullness, one can imagine more than that and better. But. as Paul reminds us, “we see as in a dark mirror the things that God has prepared for those who love him.”


Maybe so, Sirje, but I think it’s worth a shot. :wink:

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You misunderstood. I don’t actually believe God intends to provide us with a “plastic life”, but if we need those"black swans," in our lives in the here and now to make life meaningful, then what does that say about God’s kingdom as proclaimed by Jesus.

Yes, for those who come. Everyone has to sign in and is asked a string of questions. Every other pew is pushed back to maintain social distancing. My wife and I watch the service on Zoom. Alberta has very strict rules and so far they are paying off.

Just click my icon if you really want to know more about me.

Oops, my bad. I intended to signal support of your intent with a winking smiley. ( I corrected him/her.)

Don’t know about the US…, but around the world it is very common to find the idea that the simple act of going to church is what is important; it is a symbol of worship and fidelity. If one day you don’t go to church for any reason, in the afternoon you get a small group visiting you at home. People are always afraid that you could already be apostatizing. You belong to the church as property, so they have a “special zeal” for you… :roll_eyes: And also, I bet they offer you the opportunity of paying your dues at that time…

Salvation by attendance, or maybe by seating. The pandemic? Who cares brother. Tim?.. “It is what it is”… :innocent:

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