“Hindsight is 20/20”

“Hindsight is 20/20.” And now, hindsight is 2020. Looking back at the year of 2020 provides the opportunity to see with more clear vision. It’s tempting to just forget about 2020 and move on; understandably so. However, reflecting on this fraught year provides helpful lessons for moving forward into 2021 with greater vision and faith. 

And looking to the last century brings clarity about how Americans reacted and adapted to three other pandemics in the last century—the Spanish Flu (1918-1920), Asian Flu (1957-1958) and Hong Kong Flu (1968). Within America, millions of Christians and thousands of churches have reacted and adapted from pandemics in the last century. Hindsight reveals their experience, historic trends and the benefit of comparison. 

20/20 Lesson #1 – Americans panicked more in the Covid-19 pandemic than the previous pandemics.
March 2020 saw widespread panic within the United States; with good reason. New York City’s daily death count was in the hundreds and counting. Stores had persistently empty shelves. The stock market plummeted. Unemployment soared. Most Americans experienced great levels of uncertainty and fear. David Ropeik, a retired Harvard instructor commented on the response and said, “There are feelings factors that heighten our fear of any risk when we have massive uncertainty . . . when you’re not certain, you have a terrible feeling of not knowing. There’s a powerlessness, a vulnerability” (1).

That vulnerability was new to most Americans living in 2020 whom had not experienced war, economic depression or worldwide disease; nor had their parents or grandparents. Most Americans did not have coping techniques to handle a crisis on that scale, which resulted in the panic. To add insult to injury, the Covid-19 pandemic spread rapidly and lethally, with little or no time to prepare. 

Americans in 1918-1920, 1957-1958 and 1968 seemingly did not panic to the same degree. Other major crises happening during those eras include: 

  • WWI ended in a stalemate in 1918. In total, over 20 million men worldwide and injured another 21 million. 
  • From 1899-1923, the sixth cholera epidemic was rampant and would eventually kill a half million people (2).
  • The Great Depression persisted from 1929-1941. 
  • The polio epidemic disabled hundreds of thousands of Americans from 1894 – 1968 (3).  
  • WWII – America’s involvement from 1941-1945. 
  • Korean War – 1950-1953. 
  • Vietnam War – 1965 – 1975.

Those world events shaped those who lived at the time to come to expect death, disease and war as normal experiences of human life. Americans in 2020, for the most part experienced relative peace, prosperity and health for 60 plus years. Those benefits had the adverse effect of not preparing Americans with coping techniques to cope with a cataclysmic world event like the Covid-19 pandemic. 

As 2020 draws to a close, many Americans are still in the midst of dealing with the compound traumatic events of the year: grieving loss of loved ones, facing mortality, financial loss, seeing children suffer, fear of the virus and social unrest. The healing process will last for months, if not years to come. The mental health crisis, caused by that trauma will “last much longer than the health effects” predicted Joshua C Morganstein, Assistant Director at the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress, “We should expect a significant ‘tail’ of mental health needs that continue long after the infectious outbreak resolves”(4). Americans that lived through 2020 are more able to cope through worldwide traumatic events, yet the emotional scars of 2020 will likely linger. 

Application –  Continue to speak the truth, hope and certainty of the gospel to an anxious, traumatized and bewildered church. 

“In him [Jesus] was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1: 4-5). 

The dark and bleak circumstances caused by the pandemic makes the message of Christ’s gospel shine brighter. For Christ did not find hope in the changing of circumstances, rather he put his hope in the Father. Our suffering Savior faced the most bleak circumstances on the cross, yet was faithful and trusted God until the end. Christ’s resurrection proves that the Father is faithful to bring life out of death, joy out of pain, and endurance out of trial. The good news of the Risen Christ is the ultimate healing agent for a traumatized people. 

Each pastor will need the Spirit’s insight on how to preach that message to their bewildered congregations. Moses was a leader who led his people through trauma: 

“In Exodus 6 we learn that Moses received a clear message from God that the Hebrew slaves were about to be freed from 400 years of captivity. Soon, they would have their own land. Moses faithfully delivered the message but . . . [the Israelities had] a stunning response: “Moses told [the good news of their deliverance] to the Israelites, but they would not listen to him, because their spirit had been broken by their cruel slavery.

[One pastor commented that] Trauma shatters our faith. It shatters beliefs about God and leaves us questioning all that we ever knew or thought about the goodness of God. We doubt his love; we doubt his power; we doubt our lovability. We wonder, ‘If God loves me, why did he let this happen?’ Doubts often lead to distorted beliefs becoming the norm. We believe that God must not exist, that we are being punished, and that we are shameworthy. . . 

Trauma impacts every part of a person—both body and spirit. While we have effective medical and psychological interventions to treat the effects of trauma, treatment that ignores faith is likely to delay recovery” (5).  

Even with great faith, recovering from trauma is a slow and nonlinear process. There is a promise, however, that the soul can find its healing in the “eternal words of life”(John 6:68). The gospel is the only tried, tested and sure hope for traumatized souls. Therefore, Paul’s charge to Timothy is a charge fitting to all pastors, especially in this time: “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2). 

20/20 Lesson #2: Throughout the last century, American leaders and government institutions have been largely unable to quickly end pandemics.

Scientists generally agree that a airborne respiratory virus epidemic or pandemic is eradicated by: strict social distancing measures, mandatory quarantines, mask wearing, enforced contact tracing, travel bans and frequent testing. All of those measures are a challenge to the greatest American value: freedom. Therefore, American government leaders in the last four pandemics of the century have not been able to effectively stop or lessen the effects of the pandemic because of Americans’ high value of  individual rights and the free movement of the marketplace (6). 

During the Spanish Flu of 1918-1920, the scope and size of the federal government was vastly smaller than it is today. As such, President Woodrow Wilson had little power, precedent or public health institutions to enact sweeping measures to eradicate a pandemic. With other major concerns at the time, chiefly the end of WWI and the fragile world peace after the war, his attention was diverted away from the pandemic. In fact, Wilson contracted the Spanish Flu while negotiating peace talks in Paris in 1919, but his personal experience did not lead him to call for sweeping government action to halt the transmission of the disease (7). 

Newspaper articles from late 1918, at the onset of the Spanish Flu, show how certain government jurisdictions (state, counties and cities) enacted bans to indoor gatherings which provoked court battles around the infringement of First Amendment rights (8). The U.S. Constitution provides a way for individual rights to be temporarily suspended for wartime (martial law), but does not exempt individual rights for public health(9). Therefore, leaders at all government levels have little legal justification to suspend individual rights of gathering, movement, etc. 

Little is mentioned about the response of the federal government through the 1950s and 60s, when the Asian and Hong Kong pandemics occurred. The government was more focused on the Cold War during the late 1950s. And 1968 was one of the most tumultuous years in U.S. history with the Vietnam War and protests at home, the Civil Rights Movement, Cold War unrest in Europe, the nation’s grief over the murders of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, and a highly divisive presidential election; all of which diverted Lyndon Johnson’s attention away from the Hong Kong Flu (10). 

During the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a patchwork of policies on the national, state, county and city levels. Early on, in March – May 2020, a national emergency was declared by President Trump and subsequent levels of government had strict measures of quarantine, etc. Starting in May 2020, many jurisdictions began to loosen restrictions as Covid-19 infections decreased as significant pressures mounted for those calling to revitalize the economy. While there is no question that hospitalizations and deaths have decreased due to government measures and behavioral changes of Americans (masks, social distancing, etc.); America has the highest number of deaths by Covid-19 than any other nation. And despite having four percent of the world’s population, the U.S. has tallied daily positive infection rates in the ten of thousands since April 2020 (11).  

Application – Lead your church to celebrate and live fully in God-given freedom while also biblically submitting to and honoring government leaders.

God values freedom and granted to humanity, His image bearers, the greatest freedoms: freedom of thought and will. Every citizen in every nation is granted by God those greatest freedoms. This is his common grace. No matter what anyone or any government may do to a person physically, no one can control one’s thoughts nor curtail one’s free will of faith. 

Americans are also granted additional freedoms that many citizens in other nations do not enjoy—the freedom to exercise faith, to read and write freely, to express one’s self, to travel, to vote and to gather. These First Amendment Rights are dearly held, highly valued and not easily forfeited by Americans. 

In a rapidly expanding and deadly pandemic, American government leaders have enacted closures, shelter-in-place orders and mask requirements (which temporarily curtail First Amendment freedoms) in order to protect human health, life and the availability of medical care. Both in 1918 and 2020, protests, debates and culture wars in 2020 have resulted in the infringement of First Amendment rights since there is little Constitutional framework or Supreme Court precedent for the validity of those public health enactments. Americans have divided in response to those actions. 

Churches have felt those divisions sharply. 

Scripture provides precedent and wisdom for how church leaders can lead their congregations submitting unto government leaders, even through government’s enforcement of laws may be unjust.

Jesus, as a man and leader, submitted to government authorities and suffered under their rulings. After an unjust Roman trial, Jesus was found to be an enemy of the state. The Lord submitted to Pontius Pilate’s order of his crucifixion and replied to Pilate that, “‘You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above’” (John 19:11). The Lord was able to submit to earthly authority, knowing that He was ultimately under His Father’s Heavenly authority. 

This radical submission is counter to our age and to our human nature. During this time of unprecedented government action, every Christian should behold the Lord’s submission and let the Spirit minister about how to become Christlike in the tough issues of church and state. However, the Lord’s submission to earthly governments was not the end of the story. Jesus’ resurrection on the third day, proves that a government, no matter how extreme in their tactics, can ultimately not thwart the forward progression of the gospel.

Romans 13, 1 Peter 2 and Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels are texts given to Christians to outwork how to honor, obey and pray for government leaders, while not placing ultimate hope in them. Church leaders should expect that they will be inconvenienced (at best), will likely suffer and some may even die (like the Lord) under government rulings. Yet Christ is our model that God’s authority can not be thwarted and “‘the gates of hell will not prevail’” against the Church (Mat. 16:18). 

Scripture suggests that submitting to government should be the default position of Christians and churches. However, Scripture also calls for occasions of civil disobedience in order to be obedient to Christ. Biblical wisdom would say that civil disobedience should be a last resort, should not be acted upon hastily or often, should be done in consultation with many trusted Christian voices and in full accord with the church’s accountability team and carried out in a spirit of humility and with the fear of God. 

The Apostle Paul instructed the church on how to live God-given freedom: “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Gal. 5:13-15). And what are the markers of living out God’s design for freedom? It is in bearing “the fruit of the Spirit [where there] is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law” (Gal. 22-24). 

Christians have the ultimate freedom—to live according to the Spirit. That good news should be the message we herald and celebrate above all else. 

20/20 Lesson # 3 – Pandemics are accelerated when there is high mobility of people. 

The Spanish Flu became a global pandemic because of the travel induced by WWI in 1917-1918. Millions of soldiers were in the trenches together during the war and then returned home with the flu, which spread the flu from Europe to North and South America, Africa, Asia and Australia. Tragically, the Spanish Flu particularly affected young people, under 30 years old, who were the majority of the soldiers in WWI. The war also caused a wide displacement of people including refugees, which furthered the spread of the influenza virus. 

Worldwide, the Asian Flu killed two million people and the Hong Kong Flu that killed close to four million people was not spread by war or displacement, but rather because of the movement of people for travel and economic trade (12). The Hong Kong Flu was believed to come to the US from Marines serving in Vietnam (13). 

Similarly, the Covid-19 pandemic was caused by international travel. A medical study confirmed that “China imposed a lockdown in Wuhan on January 23rd, 2020, when the number of cases was rising. Despite the lockdown and prevention of travel across states or out of the country, over 100 SARS-CoV-2 cases were exported out of China by February 14th . . . . As the lockdown came into effect, there was significant prevention of virus export, but still, some cases of undetected community spread continued out of China. . . By February 2020, a large number of cases were reported in South Korea, Italy, and Iran. There was a rapid local transmission of the infection as well as wider international spread. By mid-March, over 80 nations had reported the outbreak, and the World Health Organization (WHO) declared it a pandemic on March 11th, 2020” (14).

Application – God will use both the mobility and immobility of His people for the advance of the gospel. 

The year before each of the four pandemics in the last century was marked by increased travel and mobility. Yet as the pandemics became lethal, especially during the Spanish Flu and Covid-19 pandemic, there was a radical standstill. Borders were shut; families quarantined in homes and there was an inability to travel. 

As seen in the Book of Acts, the Lord will use both the mobility and immobility of his people for the advance of the gospel. Will Anderson, in an article for the “The Gospel Coalition,” comments on how God is working through people’s immobility of 2020 to reinstitute healthy family rhythms and neighborly missional outreach powerfully during this time. That article can be accessed here

In an upcoming article, Alan Frow will look further about how the Gospel spread in the persecution based scattering in Acts 11.

20/20 Lesson #4 Pandemics in the last century have adversely affected the poor. 


Citizens of poorer nations, in the last century, were more likely to get sick and die from the worldwide pandemics due to crowded housing, multi-generational homes, poorer sanitation infrastructure and lack of adequate health care. Citizens of wealthier nations had a less chance of being infected and recovered at a higher rate in the last three pandemics (15). One study concluded that “The Spanish flu hit hardest in India, where it killed 5.2% of the population, and South Africa ,where 3.4% died. With their large populations, India accounted for 43% of all deaths and China 21%” (16). The Asian and Hong Kong Flus adversely affected and killed older people in Asia. The American Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that the Asian Flu killed 116,000 in the U.S. and 1.1 worldwide (17). The Hong Kong Flu killed 100,000 in the U.S. and 1 million worldwide (18). 

The Covid-19 pandemic has killed more people in wealthier nations at significantly higher rates than the last three pandemics; perhaps due to the nature of the virus killing older adults with pre-existing conditions including obesity, diabetes and auto-immune diseases. Those risk factors are much more prevalent in wealthier nations, which can contribute to America having the most deaths than any other nation (and a quarter of all worldwide deaths) and why the US, UK and many European nations have higher documented rates of infection (19). Within those wealthy nations, poorer citizens who do not have adequate health care and/or who have higher exposure rates at work and/or more pre-existing conditions are more likely to be contagious and pass away from the virus at greater rates. 


Economically, the Covid-19 crisis has only widened the gap between the nations that ‘have’ and the nations that ‘have-not.’ Developing countries such as Brazil, Mexico, India and South Africa face severe economic fallout. In South Africa, the GDP fell 50 percent in 2020, while the nation was already facing double-digit unemployment (20). Sadly, developing economies will likely struggle for years with the Covid-19 disease and economic recession because the vaccine (which provides hope for rebound) will likely be slower to reach developing economies. On the other hand, America, China, Russia, the U.K. and the European Union are spending billions to develop, manufacture and distribute a vaccine to their citizens and those nations/regions will likely have a speedier health and economic rebound (21).  

Within the United States, blue-collar workers with jobs in the service sector including food services, travel industry and restaurant industry have been hit particularly hard. And those on the margins of society found it increasingly difficult to find work; which has widened the gap between wealthy and the poor (22). 

Application – The Church’s role to serve the poor is acutely needed.  

God’s mandate to love and serve the poor is clear throughout Scripture. One immediate need in nearly every community is for free or affordable food. The non-profit organization, Feeding America, found that 50 million Americans and 17 million children will be food insecure in 2020 (23). That is one in six Americans. Many families in 2020 struggle with securing food given for their children because schools, which provided many kids in need with one to two meals a day, are no longer meeting in-person. In a time of desperate need, many churches are stepping in to feed their communities and show compassion to those in need.

With the countless other needs arising within communities at this time— materially, emotionally and spiritually. Churches are fulfilling mercy and justice initiatives in the wake of this crisis. In quieter, but in no less significant ways, churches are serving individuals in their communities through helping the parents with online school, helping the unemployed find work, helping the displaced student with housing, and serving the many families affected by Covid-19. The pandemic produced crucial and dire needs for millions of people and the Lord has placed churches to serve these needs and ultimately speak hope through the gospel. 

Citizens in developing nations are feeling the double impact of the pandemic and economic fallout due to lack of tourism, manufacturing and trade. And like Americans, citizens in all countries face the trauma caused by the pandemic. Overseas missions necessitate a different approach during a pandemic with shut borders, restricted visas, less funds, inability to gather, etc. However, the need for missions and those who live and preach the gospel abroad is greater now than ever. Paul Chitwood, P.h.D, President of the International Mission Board, stated, “Now is the time, especially amid a global pandemic, to ‘pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest’ (Matt. 9:38). And now is the time for the church to renew our commitment to sending and supporting more career missionaries, recognizing their unequaled value in fulfilling the Great Commission” (24). How a church engages missionally abroad will look different, yet continue to involve your church in the global mission of God and involve them in serving, praying, giving and sending towards the harvest of citizens in the nations that need to know the name of Jesus. 



“Hindsight is 20/20.” The history of 2020, and the three other pandemics of this past century, are like rear view mirrors. When driving, rear view mirrors help drivers check their blindspots without having to look away from the road. Rear view mirrors “allow drivers to be aware of potential dangers and attempt to avoid them” (25). Looking back at the last four pandemics of the last century shows the propensity to panic, or resist any infringements of freedom, or to doubt how the Lord will use both mobility and immobility, or to not see the needs of the poor. These blindspots, which left unnoticed, could present danger in the future. 

Ultimately, our hope is not in knowing history. Rather, our hope is in God. His Word. His Spirit. His hope. His gospel. His eternity. And we echo the chorus of Christians across the world and across the centuries who have sung and prayed, “Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart.”


Footnote Citation:

1. Milligan, Susan. “Americans Panic and Play During the Coronavirus Pandemic.” U.S. News & World Report: https://www.usnews.com/news/national-news/articles/2020-03-19/americans-panic-and-play-during-the-coronavirus-pandemic. 19 March 2020
2. Cholera Through History.” Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/science/cholera/Cholera-through-history. Accessed 10 November 2020. 

3. “Polio Elimination in the United States.” United States Centers of Disease Control, https://www.cdc.gov/polio/what-is-polio/polio-us.html. Accessed 23 November 2020. 

4.  Savage, Maddy. “Coronavirus: the possible long-term mental health impacts.” BBC Online, https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20201021-coronavirus-the-possible-long-term-mental-health-impacts. 28 October 2020. 

5. Swanson, Karen and Phil Monroe. “Trauma: How the Church Can Heal Soul Wounds.” Christianity Today, https://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2019/june/trauma-how-church-can-heal-soul-wounds.html. 26 June 2019. 

6. Bellah, Robert, et al. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life by University of California Press, 2008. 

7. Solly, Melian. “What Happened when Woodrow Wilson Came Down with the 1918 Flu?” Smithsonian Magazine,  https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/what-happened-when-woodrow-wilson-came-down-1918-flu-180975972/. 2 October 2020. 

8. Gehrz, Chris. “What the 1918 Influenza Pandemic Meant for American Churches.” Patheos, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/anxiousbench/2020/03/influenza-pandemic-1918-churches/. 10 March 2020. 

9. United States Constitution, ratified 1789, https://www.constituteproject.org/constitution/United_States_of_America_1992

10. Ip, Greg, et al. “Lessons for the Coronavirus Crisis From Six Other Disasters.” Wall Street Journal, wsj.com. 20 March 2020.  

11. Wolfson, Elijah & Chris Wilson. “Tracking the Spread of the Coronavirus Outbreak Around the U.S. and the World.” Time Magazine Online, https://time.com/5800901/coronavirus-map/. 23 November 2020. 

12. Whiting, Kate, “A Science Journalist Explains how the Spanish Flu Changed the World. We Forum, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/04/covid-19-how-spanish-flu-changed-world/. 30 April 2020.

13. Allen, Arthur. “Figuring out the flu.” Los Angeles Times Online, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2009-may-11-oe-allen11-story.html. 11 May 2009. 

14. Mandal, Anaya,  MD. “Analysis of COVID-19 spread from China, Italy and Iran.” News Medical Life Sciences, https://www.news-medical.net/news/20200915/Analysis-of-COVID-19-spread-from-China-Italy-and-Iran.aspx. 15 September 2020. 

15. Whiting, “A Science Journalist Explains how the Spanish Flu Changed the World.” We Forum, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/04/covid-19-how-spanish-flu-changed-world/. 30 April 2020.

16. Uren, David. “ Like Spanish flu, Covid-19 will hit the poor the hardest.” The Australian Research Policy Institute, https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/like-spanish-flu-covid-19-will-hit-the-poor-the-hardest/. 8 April 2020. 

17. “1957-1958 Pandemic (H2N2 virus).” Centers of Disease Control, https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1957-1958-pandemic.html.  Accessed 30 November 2020. 

18. “1968 Pandemic (H3N2 virus).”  Centers of Disease Control, https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1968-pandemic.html. Accessed 30 November 2020. 

19. “Mortality Analyses.” John Hopkins School of Medicine Coronavirus Resource Center, https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/data/mortality. Access 23 November 2020. 

20. Dadi Patel, Aaisha  and Gabriele Steinhauser. “South Africa’s Economy Shrinks 51% as Lockdown Restrictions Hurt Businesses.” Wall Street Journal, https://www.wsj.com/articles/south-africas-economy-shrinks-51-as-lockdown-restrictions-hurt-businesses-11599563965?mod=searchresults&page=1&pos=5.8 September 2020. 

21. Rivas, Ana, Peter Loftus and Alberto Cervantes. “Covid-19 Vaccines: What’s Coming and When?” Wall Street Journal, https://www.wsj.com/articles/covid-19-vaccines-whats-coming-and-when-11598882964?mod=searchresults&page=1&pos=1. 16 September 2020.

22. Caldwell, Alicia. “As Covid-19 Cases Surge, Latino Communities Feel the Brunt.” Wall Street Journal, wsj.com. 15 July 2020. 

23. “Feeding America” homepage, https://www.feedingamerica.org/hunger-in-america. Accessed 2 December 2020. 

24. Chitwood, Paul. “Why the Mission Remains Essential Work.” The Gospel Coalition, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/mission-remains-essential/. 16 May 2020. 

25. “ The Importance of Rear View Mirrors.” Jones and Swanson Firm, https://www.awjlaw.com/blog/the-importance-of-car-mirrors/. 30 July 2014.