A killer stalks the land. Silent and invisible, it inexorably pursues its prey. It may strike at you through a stranger or through your most intimate loved one. And, like any predator, it usually first pursues the weak, the infirm, and the frail.
It takes on many guises, assumes many names. From time immemorial, humans have called it Pestilence, which means “a deadly and overwhelming disease that affects an entire community.” Deadly, overwhelming, affecting an entire community. COVID-19, what many call “coronavirus,” surely qualifies!
In early March 2020, Daniele Macchini described the terrifying situation at the hospital where he is a doctor in Bergamo, a city of 120,000 in northern Italy: “There are no more surgeons, urologists, orthopedists,” he said. “We are only doctors who suddenly become part of a single team to face this tsunami that has overwhelmed us. . . .
“Cases are multiplying. . . . The E.R. is collapsing.
One scientific model of the course of this disease was “developed by British epidemiologists and shared with the White House.” These scientists “stated the coronavirus is the most serious respiratory virus threat since the 1918 flu pandemic. If no action to limit the viral spread were taken, as many as 2.2 million people in the United States could die during the pandemic, according to epidemiologist Neil Ferguson and others at the Imperial College Covid-19 Response Team.” Ferguson later experienced COVID-19 symptoms himself.
In a world already reeling from massive wildfires in Australia and a plague of locusts in Africa, many wonder whether the coronavirus is the pestilence that Jesus warned about in Luke 21:11: “There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places” (emphasis added). The prospect of perhaps tens of millions of cases and millions of deaths worldwide certainly sounds apocalyptic! And perhaps it is. But even the worst-case projections of COVID-19 pale in comparison to past visitations of Pestilence—a past in which it has gone by other names.
the history of pestilences
Nearly eight centuries ago, in medieval Europe and Asia, it was called “the black death,” “the great bubonic plague,” or even “the great mortality,” among other names. It tormented Asia and Europe for most of the 1300s, leaving 100 to 120 million corpses in its wake—out of a total world population of approximately 475 million. But that was not the end. It continued to rage through Europe every few years for the next 300 years, and even then, it was not vanquished. Indeed, the third plague pandemic occurred in the 1850s. Smaller outbreaks occurred in San Francisco in the first decade of the twentieth century, and Australia experienced a dozen outbreaks between 1900 and 1925. And then, just when the world appeared to have found ways to hold the black death at bay, Pestilence changed its name.
From 1914 to 1918, millions of soldiers converged on Europe during World War I. And Pestilence flourishes where large numbers of vulnerable people congregate. Europe in 1918 provided just such a fertile environment. The disease that incubated there went by the name Spanish flu, at least in part because Spain’s King Alfonso XIII came down with a highly publicized case of the virus. Ever the opportunist, Pestilence stowed away in the bodies of soldiers returning home, and it swept through a world still reeling from war. The first cases of the Spanish flu in the United States occurred in Kansas, not far from where my mother resided, who was four years old at the time. The Spanish flu struck in three waves, the second being the most deadly. Worldwide, as many as 50 million people died. One can still easily observe the devastation of the 1918 pandemic. In a cemetery not far from my home, I have seen row after row of tombstones with widely varying birthdates, sometimes groups from a single family, all with the same ending date: 1918. That was my immediate family’s first brush with Pestilence. Millions died, but my mother survived.
My first brush with Pestilence took place in my childhood. Although rarely mentioned today, poliomyelitis, or simply polio, haunted my early years. The worst outbreak of polio in the United States took place in 1952. Out of more than 57,000 cases that year, 3,000 died, and nearly seven times that number suffered from various stages of paralysis. That may not sound like much today, but in his book A Hole in the World, author Richard Rhodes gives a sense of what it felt like. “Polio,” he said, “was a plague. One day you had a headache and an hour later you were paralyzed. How far the virus crept up your spine determined whether you could walk afterward or even breathe. Parents waited fearfully every summer to see if it would strike.”
My own children grew up during the height of the HIV plague. Since then, we’ve seen SARS, Ebola, and others. Today, my grandchildren are surrounded by Pestilence in the form of COVID-19. My family has had many encounters with Pestilence.
coronavirus and prophecy
But what about the coronavirus? Is this the final Pestilence—the one Jesus described in Luke 21?
As is often the case, we misunderstand the Bible because we focus on a few of its words. In Matthew 24, a parallel passage to Luke 21, Jesus’ mention of wars, famines, and earthquakes in verse 7 is bracketed with two cautions. At the end of verse 6, He said, “See to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come” (emphasis added). And verse 8 reinforces these words, for there He tells us that “all these are the beginning of sorrows” (NKJV; emphasis added).1 Notice that again: the beginning, not the end, for the end is still to come !
How, then, should Christians react to this situation? Over the centuries, many pestilences and natural disasters, such as earthquakes, have prompted Christians to proclaim that Christ’s return is near. So far, all of these predictions have failed. It’s probably true that pestilences will be a part of the world’s final crisis. In fact, the Bible says that seven plagues will devastate the world immediately before Christ’s second coming. But in the absence of other evidence that the world’s final crisis has begun, it would be a mistake to assume that coronavirus is the immediate prelude to Christ’s second coming.
On the other hand, we must not minimize the seriousness of today’s Pestilence. Whether or not it’s the end of the world, the coronavirus, like its predecessors, will indeed be the end for some. In good times as in bad, as followers of Christ, it’s our duty and our privilege to be His representatives. As such, we should remember what Paul told Timothy: “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but a spirit of power and love and a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7, Phillips).2
the coronavirus and faith
It’s natural that we should have concerns for ourselves and our loved ones in such trying times. Let us take these concerns to God in prayer. People who feel depressed and fearful are significantly more vulnerable to disease, so we need to maintain an appropriate level of cheerful faith. The Bible is full of stories that can lift our spirits.
In this storm of sickness, doubt, and fear of the future, we would do well to remember the story of Jesus’ disciples, who found themselves caught in a storm on the Sea of Galilee. Mark tells us that, terrified for their lives, they “awoke him with the words, ‘Master, don’t you care that we’re drowning?’
“And he woke up, rebuked the wind, and said to the waves, ‘Hush now! Be still!’ The wind dropped and everything was very still.” Next, He addressed the disciples. “Why are you so frightened?” He asked. “What has happened to your faith?!” (Mark 4:38–40, Phillips). It’s precisely in times like these that the world needs Christians to demonstrate what it means to live a life of faith.
Of all people, Christians should realize that our security in such times doesn’t come from stockpiles of supplies. When we take more for ourselves than we need at the moment, we may prevent our neighbors from meeting their needs or deprive healthcare workers and others who provide for our safety of the equipment and supplies they need to save people’s lives. As Paul told the Christians in Ephesus, “Don’t worry over anything whatever; tell God every detail of your needs in earnest and thankful prayer, and the peace of God which transcends human understanding, will keep constant guard over your hearts and minds as they rest in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6, Phillips).
the coronavirus and Christian responsibility
In 1527, when yet another wave of the bubonic plague, the black death, swept through Europe, pastors implored Martin Luther to give instructions concerning what Christians should do. He responded with an open letter titled, “Whether one may flee a deadly plague.” Recognizing that God gives different gifts and abilities to different individuals, he stated that “one simply cannot place the same burden upon everyone.”
And so it is with us today. Each of us has different circumstances, different opportunities, different capabilities, and different responsibilities.
As responsible citizens, we need to heed the public health measures put in place by the government where we live. It’s our duty—to others as well as to ourselves—to take responsible measures to keep ourselves healthy. Even if our own symptoms are mild, we would not wish to carelessly infect, and perhaps even cause the death of, someone more vulnerable than ourselves. To the degree that it’s appropriate, we should limit our exposure to others while at the same time seeking opportunities to safely minister to the needs of those around us.
But many of us have other responsibilities as well. If we have careers in healthcare, then it’s our duty and privilege to care for those who are suffering. If we are producers of food, medicines, and scores of other critical goods and services, then that’s what we should do. Others of us are responsible for keeping needed supplies of food, equipment, medications, and other necessities moving from producers to those in need. Still others maintain water, sewer, power, and communications. And, of course, there are law enforcement officials, who are responsible for maintaining an orderly society.
Paul advised the Christians in the city of Colossae, “Whatever you do, put your whole heart and soul into it, as into work done for God” (Colossians 3:23, Phillips). This is good counsel at any time, but it’s especially pertinent in times of crisis.
Keeping civilization from collapsing requires all kinds of services. If we aren’t directly involved in providing or maintaining an aspect of these, we can avoid unnecessarily infecting those who are. We can avoid impeding them by unnecessary consumption or traffic or by increasing their burdens. And we should support them all with our gratitude, our thanks, our cooperation, and our prayers.
In Luther’s letter “Whether one can flee a deadly plague,” he remarked, “If it were Christ or his mother who were laid low by illness, everybody would be so solicitous and would gladly become a servant or helper. Everyone would want to be bold and fearless; nobody would flee but everyone would come running.” Surely that is true for all of us as we face this global crisis. Many of us would love to have such an opportunity! The good news is we do have that opportunity. As Jesus reminds us, “I assure you that whatever you did for the humblest of my brothers you did for me” (Matthew 25:40, Phillips).
Ed Dickerson is a freelance writer who lives in Garrison, Iowa, USA. He is the lay pastor of the HomePage Seventh-day Adventist company in Marion, Iowa, and he is a frequent contributor to Signs of the Times®.
1. Bible texts marked NKJV are taken from the New King James Version®.
2. Bible texts marked Phillips are taken from The New Testament in Modern English by J.B. Phillips, copyright © 1960, 1972. Administered by The Archbishops’ Council of the Church of England. Used by permission.