[A Spanish translation of this article is available here: “Pensando Bíblicamente Sobre el Coronavirus, las Pestes y el Fin de Los Tiempos.”]
As of yesterday, there have been nearly 3,500 confirmed cases of a novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in the United States. The U.S. government has “declared a public health emergency and issued the highest level of travel warning on other countries as the virus spreads its horrible infection.” In response, universities, schools, and public institutions have suspended in-person gatherings until further notice. Churches have cancelled Sunday services. These extraordinary events have caused some Christians to conclude that the end is near. This particular virus, it is argued, must be a sign of the “last days” that are prophesied of in the Bible, specifically in the book of Revelation. But is this really the proper way to think about the current global situation?
Rethinking How We View the Book of Revelation
Many Christians, perhaps unconsciously, hold a very specific view of Revelation called the “futurist view.” This view sees nearly all the events portrayed in John’s symbolic vision as needing to be fulfilled literally sometime in our future. Interpreters who hold this view are forced to continually modify their interpretation of the events going on around them in order to make it fit with their view of the book of Revelation. Dr. Gregory Beale elaborates:
In the twentieth century alone, for instance, numerous individuals, from Hitler to Saddam Hussein, with various popes and other politicians (as has been the case from the medieval period up to the present), have been identified as the antichrist, and then quietly discarded when they pass from the scene. The same is true with specific historical events or institutions (the Second World War, the European Common Market, the Gulf War, Y2K, Saddam Hussein’s supposed rebuilding of Babylon). In short, the Bible is interpreted by modern events first, instead of by itself. (Revelation: A Shorter Commentary, p. 8)
Similarly, many Christians today are prone to think that the coronavirus “pandemic” is proof-positive that Jesus is coming back soon (i.e. within this generation). They see the worldwide scale of the virus and conclude that it must be a sign that the pale horse of Revelation 6 is at work in a special way in our generation. The Apostle John explains this pale horse that he saw in his vision as follows: “And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth” (Revelation 6:8, emphasis added).
However there is another way of viewing Revelation. Dr. Beale explains that instead of viewing the Apostle John’s vision as speaking mainly of “events surrounding the return of Christ at the end of history,” we should view the book of Revelation “as a symbolic presentation of the battle between good and evil” that is unfolding as Christ continues to expand his kingdom throughout the earth. Certain events still remain to be fulfilled (such as Christ’s final return), but the specifics in the vision must be understood in light of the fact that John was given a vision which represented what was already occurring in the first century. Christ’s inaugurated reign has set in motion a series of events that have been unfolding (and will continue to unfold) for the past 2,000 years.
With this framework in mind, Beale notes that “the horsemen represent sufferings [including diseases] decreed to occur for all of Christ’s followers” throughout the church age. The trials that come upon all humanity are for two main purposes: (1) to purify the faith of Christians and (2) to punish those who reject Christ’s kingship. God sometimes will also use these “judgments” to stir the consciences of unbelievers, causing them to consider the claims of Christ. In his commentary, Beale argues persuasively that the book of Revelation (and the Bible as a whole) makes it clear that behind every famine, pestilence, war, or natural disaster, God is at work. A biblical understanding of human history, and especially the past 2,000 years, confirms this: God uses various means to accomplish his purposes.
Thinking Correctly About the Current Crisis
If Beale’s understanding that diseases and calamities are part and parcel of the age we live in is substantially correct, which I believe it is, then it would make sense that various forms of calamities and pestilences have been occurring for the past 2,000 years. (Even as a postmillennialist, I must affirm that diseases, in some form at least, will continue to be a reality until Christ returns.) A brief look at some of the major health crises over the past 2,000 years confirm that what is occurring today is nothing new:
- Antonine Plague (2nd century): Possibly caused by either Smallpox or Measles, this plague occurred in Asia Minor, Egypt, Greece, and Italy. The death toll was approximately five million.
- Plague of Justinian (6th century): This was an outbreak of the bubonic plague, thought to have killed upwards of 25 million people, including perhaps half of the population of Europe. The city of Constantinople was hit particularly hard, losing nearly 40% of its population, sometimes 5,000 people per day.
- Black Death (14th century): It is estimated that the Black Death killed up to half the population of some countries. The Black Death is reported to have killed 75 million people in Asia alone.
- Yellow Fever (1793): There were outbreaks in dozens of U.S. cities, including Philadelphia, where nine percent of the total population died. Philadelphia was the capital of the United States at the time and the American government fled the city.
- Cholera Pandemic (1852-1860): Approximately one million people died, including 23,000 people in Great Britain in a single year (1854).
- Spanish Flu (1918): Approximately one-third of the world’s population became infected, with at least 50 million worldwide deaths (nearly 700,000 occurring in the United States). For three weeks in October of 1918, many American churches cancelled public gatherings.
The COVID-19 crisis is no more a harbinger of the apocalypse than the Plague of Justinian was in the 6th century. Gary DeMar recently wrote a helpful article entitled, “Today’s Virus Scare is Not a Sign of the End or Anything Near a True Pandemic.” In this article he lists numerous pandemics and pestilences that have occurred in history, noting that many “people believed the end of the world was near for them when these devastating plagues hit.” In each case, this belief proved misguided. The end of human history did not come for any of the previous eighty generations who have lived since Christ’s resurrection in the first century. This does not mean that the end will never come (cf. 2 Peter 3:1-13). However, it does mean that we should not allow the events occurring around us to shape our theology. Though it is possible for Christ to return in this generation, I think it is more likely that we have hundreds, if not thousands, of years to go before that glorious day. In the meantime, we need to be focused on serving Christ and the church, sharing the gospel, and living for the glory of God, regardless of the timing of Christ’s return.
Three Thoughts for Christians During This Season
Despite the fact that we should not give undue significance to this specific instance of a “pestilence,” there are certain things we should keep in mind as we think about what is going on around us.
1. Life is Frail
Every generation that thought Jesus was coming back in their lifetime, and used that thought to spur people on to holy living, was technically (in hindsight) using a false premise to motivate obedience. However, even if Christ doesn’t come back in this generation, everyone alive right now is going to be dead within 120 years. Therefore, the urgency of the gospel remains constant for every single generation. We shouldn’t need a pandemic to remind us of this truth, but sometimes we forget this reality. When Jesus was told about two “tragedies” that recently occurred, he used those events to remind people about the urgency of the need to repent, lest they perish in their sin (Luke 13:1-5).
2. God is Sovereign
God is in complete control of the coronavirus. As was stated earlier, he is using this crisis for various purposes. It is not our job to sort out all those purposes, but rather to trust and obey God in the midst of difficult situations. Amid the apparent chaos, life goes on. Many people, including healthcare professionals, willingly put their own health at risk in caring for those in need. This mindset has been present in Christians throughout church history. For example, during the aforementioned Antonine Plague in the second century, Christians made a name for themselves by their willingness to risk their own lives in caring for the sick. Similarly, Dr. Benjamin Rush, a professing Christian, risked his life during the 1793 Yellow Fever crisis by remaining in Philadelphia and caring for the infected, even bringing them into his own home. Only eternity will reveal the various good purposes that God has for such periods of pain and loss.
3. While Living in a Fallen World, We Await the Restoration of All Things
Clearly, we live in a world that is racked with the consequences of sin. Pain, suffering, war, disease, and death are all results of the fall. The Apostle Paul wrote that “the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” (Romans 8:22). Every single person experiences this reality in some form or another. The good news, however, is that Jesus Christ is making all things new. The hope of Christians is in their risen King and the promise that he has made to set all things right. Until that day, we faithfully await his return (which will likely occur long after we die) by diligently and joyfully walking in his commands, even amidst suffering.
[For another article about the coronavirus, focusing on the topic of cancelling church services, check out: “Unprecedented Times Call for Precedented Measures: Coronavirus and Cancelling Church Services.“]