So here we are facing a global pandemic with the Coronavirus infecting virtually 1 million people so far. Didn’t Jesus predict that one of the signs of the end times would be pestilences? Is COVID-19 a sign that the last days have arrived? In the Bible, particularly Luke’s Gospel, he says, “‘When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.’ Then he said to them, ‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues (loimoi); and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven’” (Luke 21:8–11; NRSV).*
Before we jump to hasty conclusions, some important things need to be said about this passage.
The End Times of the First Century?
Luke 21, and its parallels in Matthew 24 and Mark 13, were not originally written for us. It was addressed to the disciples when they asked Jesus about when the temple in Jerusalem’s destruction would take place (Luke 21:5-7). These predictions of Jesus turn out to be most relevant for first-century hearers of these words—the temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. This means that the nations in opposition against each other, earthquakes, famines, heavenly portents, and plagues were signs for them leading up to the Jewish war with Rome. Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews and Jewish War speak of the these turbulent times, and indeed he mentions such signs allegedly taking place leading up to the temple’s destruction.
Last Days for the Last 2000 Years?
As far as the end times are concerned, the apostles believed they themselves were living in the last days (Acts 2:14-21; 1 Cor 10:11; 1 John 2:18; Heb 1:2). The stage has been set for Christ’s second coming now for almost 2,000 years! It should be no surprise, then, that many generations of Christians since the first century have believed they were living at the end of human history.
The Christians living in 999 are a good example. Similar to our generation, these medieval Christians believed that the signs of their time, including wars, famines, pestilences, immorality, and astronomical signs—coupled with rumors such as that Pope Sylvester II was the Antichrist—announced the foreboding end in the year 1000 (or 1033 for those who started their countdown from the death of Christ). Many crowded inside and around St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, repenting of their sins. After the midnight bell struck, people cried for joy that no judgment had occurred, and they resumed their normal activities. Those riveting times are explained further by Russell Chandler, former religion writer for the Los Angeles Times, in his book, Doomsday (Ann Arbor: Servant, 1993: 47–55).
Nations Will Rise Against Nations
Prophetic verses like the ones we read in Luke 21 may sound spooky and very relevant for us today, but that is because we might have a tendency to forget that many generations of believers in the past have also experienced great wars, killer earthquakes, fearful signs in the sky, and the spread of famine and pestilence. Are wars on the increase? Well, we are still in Afghanistan after all these years, aren’t we? Now compare that with the tens of millions of lives lost in World War I and II. Before these wars, other wars were just as horrendous in others generations. The Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), the Manchu-Chinese War (1644), and the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864) claimed the lives of millions.
Certain doomsday advocates believe earthquakes are a sign of the end because they are supposedly increasing drastically. But reliable statistics show that earthquakes have not increased in the last century; what has increased is our ability to detect them. The first proper seismograph was not developed until 1880. Also, existing earthquake records prior to the eighteenth century are almost entirely confined to southern Europe, Japan, and China. There is virtually no way of knowing how many quakes devastated continents such as Africa, Australia, and the Americas prior to this time.
John Milne, the father of modem seismology, lists a total of 4,151 devastating earthquakes from A.D. 7 to A.D. 1899. In fact, more people died between 1715 and 1783 from earthquakes (1,373,845) than between 1915 and 1983 (1,210,597). Charles F. Richter, inventor of the Richter Scale, wrote that the number of great earthquakes (that is, 8.0 and over on the Richter scale) from 1896 to 1906 (about 25) was greater than other ten-year intervals after that, as Carl Olof Jonsson and Wolfgang Herbst report in The “Sign” of the Last Days (Atlanta: Commentary, 1987:31, 78, 83).
As we worry about certain food and toilet paper shortages here in the U. S. due to COVID-19, these inconveniences currently do not compare with famines of the past. In the nineteenth century, the Irish Potato Famine claimed the lives of one million Europeans (1846-1847). This seems minor, however, in comparison to China’s famine in the same century—a tragedy that claimed the lives of many millions.
Plagues and COVID-19
The current virus may be the worst plague of our recent experience, but if we look back a hundred years ago, the Spanish flu infected about one quarter of the world’s population and killed many millions. Worse than this was the Bubonic Plague of the fourteenth century. The poet Giovanni Boccaccio, who lived in that fearful time, described the tumors caused by the plague. They lodged in the groin or under the armpit and grew to the size of an egg or an apple. After these symptoms appeared, almost all those infected died within three days.
Russell Chandler offers this further description:
The disease apparently spread to Europe via a ship filled with refugees from the Crimea. Passengers already stricken with the Black Death disembarked in Sicily. So did the hosts of rats and their millions of fleas that—physicians were to discover five centuries later—carried the disease. By the beginning of the fifteenth century, the plague had killed up to forty million Europeans. Some regions lost as much as three-quarters of their population and some parts of England up to nine-tenths. Europe soon ran out of “pickmen”—paid to bury the dead—and bodies were tossed into huge overflowing trenches or left to rot in the streets where they would be torn apart by dogs (Doomsday, 117).
The Purpose of Impending Tribulation
Why did Jesus predict the temple’s destruction to his disciples? It was not to instill fear, anxiety, or so that they could store up weapons for the impending tribulation ahead. Nor was it so that they could cleverly “pin the tail” on the right date for Christ’s second coming. Jesus in the Gospels and Acts claimed that no one knows the time of such events (Matt 24:36; Mark 13:34), and that it was none of disciples’ business to know the timing of the establishment of God’s kingdom. Their job was to be witnesses to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:7–8). He predicted such things to comfort and encourage his followers for the tough times up ahead. He wanted to help them endure persecution so that they would not be tempted to deny and renounce him in the midst of their sufferings. His voice assured them that God would ultimately vindicate them, and at the end of human history, he would return.
Finally, he foretold his followers of such things to encourage them to live righteously. It is not by coincidence that the Book of Revelation has the risen Lord addressing seven churches about their spiritual and moral behavior. Incidentally, five of the seven needed to repent! (Rev 2–3)
No, I don’t believe COVID-19 is a sign that the end has arrived. We simply do not know whether Jesus is going to return in our lifetime or not. What I do believe is that we should live our lives in a godly, moral, and loving way, as though we believed Jesus were returning tonight. At the same time, we should plan out our lives as though he is not returning for another 1,000 years.
The parallels to Luke 21:8–11 are Mark 13:3–13 and Matthew 24:3–14. Mark does not include the term loimoi (plural of loimos, which means “plague,” “pestilence”). Matthew 24:7 includes the term only in certain Greek manuscripts—the NSRV does not include it, but certain versions such as NKJV and the Latin Vulgate do. For further studies on biblical and non-biblical prophecy regarding the last days, see my 99 Reasons Why No One Knows When Christ Will Return (Kindle edition, 2013).
Image 1: Corona Covid Medicine via pixabay.com; Image 2: Covid Plague Virus via pixabay.com