Back in early March, the biggest selling item in Australian supermarkets was toilet paper, with complete aisle shelves of the stuff emptied as panicked citizens stockpiled personal items, medications, and long-life foodstuffs, anticipating an imminent coronavirus (Covid-19) quarantine and business shutdown. The supermarket chains responded with a two-pack limit (but still with as many as 16 rolls in each) as manufacturers switched to 24-hour production. As one online commenter quipped, these shoppers must have been confusing the symptoms of coronavirus with some other disease!
But, having just emerged from perhaps its worst bushfire season on record, Australians had some justification for panic, which morphed into paranoia fuelled by commentators using words like “dire” and “apocalyptic”, while serious Bible students spoke of the events as “signs of the times”—of the end time that immediately precedes Christ’s second coming, as referenced in Luke 21: “There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven” (verse 11, italics added).
“Pestilences in various places” around the globe? Certainly we are seeing that realised. But haven’t we seen this before?
Modern life with its rapid and mass global transport is such that, despite advances in medical science and disease control, diseases such as SARS, swine flu and Covid-19 aren’t easily contained, and rapidly spread to “various places”, uncomfortably fulfilling that aspect of Jesus’ prediction.
Covid-19 is hardly the first such pestilential threat the world has experienced and although causing numerous deaths—the mortality rate, according the World Health Organization (WHO), is just 3.4 per cent—it is nothing compared to the Spanish Flu of 1918, the cholera outbreaks of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the recurring Black Plagues of the Middle Ages. And within living memory is the HIV/AIDS epidemic that killed millions, not to mention the 400,000 people who will likely die from malaria this year.
Scientists and bio-terrorism experts agree that a cultivated bird flu with spliced-in viral genes could be so contagious that it could kill hundreds of millions of people, a figure not to be sneezed at given that Spanish Influenza killed an estimated 20 to 50 million (some sources say 50 to 100 million), fully three per cent of the world’s population. The swine flu epidemic of 2009 resulted in an estimated 150,000 to 575,000 fatalities.
So does Covid-19 qualify as a biblical “pestilence” or is it just another of many over the 2000 years since Luke wrote his Gospel? According to the WHO, respiratory diseases like the coronavirus come in at only number 10 as a cause of death, well behind heart disease, cancer, accidental injury, stroke and diabetes. In the West, if people were really in fear of what’s killing them—after all, good health is simply the slowest possible rate at which a person can die—they would exercise more, eat less fatty fast foods and more vegies and avoid alcohol, not buy toilet paper!
So can we safely identify this current pestilence as one of the literal “Signs of the Times and the End of the Age,” as the NKJV Bible subtitles this section of Luke, and take it as a warning of where we are on history’s timeline? After all, given the recurrence of pandemics over the centuries, it could be simply dismissed as life as we know it; another century, another pestilence—the world goes on as it has for millennia and this is just the latest, our fears hyped by the media with pictures of empty streets (and empty shelves) and stoked by personal paranoia.
But before answering, turn a few more pages of your Bible to the apostle Peter’s second letter: “Dear friends,” he begins, “. . . I want you to recall the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets and the command given by our Lord and Saviour through your apostles. Above all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing . . . . They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ [Christ] promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation” (2 Peter 3:1–4).
True, the recurring waves of history do cycle through, but Peter’s reference to the “last days” must speak to our times for we live in an era of anti-biblical, anti-Creation, anti-Flood sentiment that was rare in ancient times.
What’s that got to do with anything? Well, Peter continues: “They [the scoffers] deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water. By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed” (verses 5, 6).
The result of the Flood in ancient times was the destruction of the earth; the climax of our end times will be similar: “the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgement and destruction of the ungodly” (verse 7). Dire, to be sure, and a sobering warning to accept God’s forgiveness and grace while there is still time. The threat of fire and brimstone isn’t so much to scare us but to warn us, because, as Peter adds, “The Lord is . . . patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (verse 9).
So we’ve been warned. “The heavens will disappear . . . the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare” (verse 10). So live a decent life, Peter exhorts, not concerned or unduly worried by the shocking events of the end of days, and not held captive by our wealth and possessions, “since everything will be destroyed. . . [Rather], live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God . . . looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells” (verses 10–13).
When the Black Death stalked Europe, the pious viewed it as a kind of divine punishment—retribution for sins such as greed, blasphemy, heresy, fornication and worldliness. By this logic, the only way to overcome the plague was to win God’s forgiveness. Some people believed that the way to do this was to purge their communities of heretics and troublemakers. So, for example, many thousands of Jews were massacred in 1348 and 1349, with thousands more fleeing to the sparsely populated regions of Eastern Europe, where they could be relatively safe from the rampaging mobs. But while lashing out at neighbours was one way to cope, other people turned inward and fretted about the condition of their souls. The Flagellants, for example, consisted of upper-class men who, in acts of penance, travelled in procession and beat themselves with heavy, metal-studded leather straps before wondering crowds.
But that isn’t the sort of response that God seeks from us. Although natural disasters, disease and pestilence strike us as consistent and regular occurrences, and although we may despair at the pain, the suffering, even the tragic loss of life, we need not despair. Rather, turn to that “patient”, caring, involved God who loves us; the One “who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up [to die] for us all, . . . [and who will] give us all things?” (Romans 8:32, NKJV1).
And that ultimate “thing” is Paradise, a new world in which all are invited to share. Until then, even as around us people fall victim of disease—even to death—when things look truly bleak, draw comfort from something else Jesus said about those awaiting His return: “When these things begin to happen, look up and lift up your heads, because your redemption draws near” (Luke 22:28, NKJV).
Lee Dunstan served as editor of the Australian/New Zealand edition of Signs of the Times for 25 years, between 1993 and 2018. He currently heads up Christian Services for the Blind and Hearing Impaired and lives on a boat on the Hawkesbury River, north of Sydney.
1. Verses marked NKJV are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used with permission. All rights reserved.