Plagues were a common occurrence in ancient times. What was also a common occurrence was abandoning the sick to die. Even in an impressive place like Rome, the only people who received any kind of health care were the wealthy and powerful who had the money to hire a physician. There was no such thing as a hospital in first century Rome. This was because there was no pagan theological basis for the inherent value and dignity of the stranger. The only option for the poor would be a visit to a healing deity's temple, such as Asclepius. It was a common practice for people to carry their sick out of the house and leave them in the street for fear of catching the plague themselves. During a plague that struck in 250 A.D., it was reported that 5,000 died in one day in Rome. Bodies were left piled up in the street as pagans tried to appease the gods whom they believed were angry at them.
Into this situation came a group of people with a radically different view of human beings. They believed that humans have inherent value and dignity because they are created in the image of God. Their Lord, Jesus, had modeled and instructed love that gives sacrificially to all, especially those without status or money. As a result, they cared for the sick and the dying, taking great risk on themselves. Many of them contracted the disease and died. However, they viewed this as a type of martyrdom in the name of Christ. In the third century, Eusebius pointed out that only Christians showed sympathy to those who were sick. Christians not only cared for their own, but also for the pagans, many of whom had persecuted Christians, blaming them for angering the gods. These efforts became more organized over time, which gave rise to various orders whose purpose was to care for the sick and the dying. This, along with the Christianization of the culture, drastically changed the public attitude toward the sick. Rather than seeing the sick as those to be avoided, they were seen as those that needed to be cared for in the name of Christ. This divine motivation to care for the sick is what eventually led to public health care, clinics, and hospitals.
Later, in the early 1500's the plague came to Wittenberg in Germany. While many were fleeing, Martin Luther, a minister, believed that he was called to stay. Just as health care workers stayed to care for the bodies of the sick, so he was called to stay to care for the souls of the sick. He refused to abandon those in need.
During the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic, A.B. Lipscomb, nephew to David Lipscomb, wrote an article in the Gospel Advocate about one Nashville church's response. As the hospitals became overwhelmed, The Russell Street Church of Christ offered its building as a field hospital. The editor, J.C. McQuiddy, praised this action in the next issues, citing the parable of the Sheep and the Goats as the authority to do this.
In 2015, medical missionary Dr. Kent Brantley, traveled to Liberia to serve in the name of Christ. While there, he contracted the deadly Ebola virus and survived with an experimental treatment. In February this year, he told Fox News, "The message I shared in 2014 is just as true and just as pertinent now as it was then: We must choose compassion over fear. We must choose to respond to people (even in deadly outbreaks of infectious diseases) with actions and words and attitudes that convey compassion and uphold the dignity of our fellow human beings."
The thing that all of these and many, many other similar examples have in common is the love of Christ. Love overpowers fear and causes one to run to the disaster to help rather than away in fear. John wrote that perfect love casts out fear. Paul wrote that the love of Christ is what compels us. Like our Lord who left Heaven to come here, we love in deed and in truth, and not with just words. It is that love, the love of Christ, that opens the door for the Gospel which brings about true spiritual healing, even in the face of violence, danger, sickness, and death.