March 27, 2020

Coronavirus: A Sign of the End?

A few days ago I stood in a pulpit in Asia and asked for a show of hands. “Is Coronavirus a sign of the end?”

Every individual except one raised their hand. I commended that person for her courage in being the odd one out. I reassured her by saying that both the yeas and the nays are right. The yeas are right, but perhaps not in the way most people think of when considering the biblical signs of the times. That makes the nays right too.

In His sermon on the signs of the end, Jesus said there will be “wars and rumors of wars” and “famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains” (Matt. 24:6-8).1 Jesus didn’t mention plagues as a sign of the times. But in the parallel account of Luke, He mentioned “great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places” (Luke 21:11). Jesus continued, “But before all this, they will seize you and persecute you” (verse 12).

Pestilences will be signs of the times, but only when persecution begins. The book of Revelation is full of “plagues.” It mentions a “great and marvelous sign: seven angels with the seven last plagues” (Rev. 15:1). The first plague is described in these words: “Ugly, festering sores broke out on the people who had the mark of the beast and worshiped its image” (Rev. 16:2). So pestilences (and presumably pandemics) will apparently stress the world beyond its limits at the very end, to the point that “there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world” (Matt. 24:21). The coronavirus cannot count as a sign of the end, so far.

Plagues in History

History’s records are full of epidemic events. The 1918 influenza pandemic that occurred more than 100 years ago claimed 50 million lives on the heels of World War I, which had already claimed more than 17 million lives. The bubonic plague of the fourteenth century decimated Europe to the point that between 50 and 80 percent of the population was wiped out in a matter of months.

So while we can’t say that the coronavirus counts as a sign of the end, it doesn’t mean that the circumstances we’re facing, and their long-term impact, won’t have an apocalyptic quality and affect the course of history, perhaps accelerating it toward the fulfillment of prophecy.

In fact, history teaches that plagues had a significant impact on the growth of Christianity in the third century. One of the most virulent epidemics, probably smallpox, affected the Roman Empire from about a.d. 249 to 262. It became known as the Plague of Cyprian to commemorate St. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, who, as a witness and writer, described the plague.2 It caused widespread manpower shortages for food production and the Roman army, severely weakening the empire.

At the height of the outbreak, 5,000 people a day were said to die in Rome. According to historian Kyle Harper, that period nearly saw the end of the Roman Empire. But in that dramatic time, “the threat of imminent death from the plague and the unwavering conviction among many of the Christian clergy in the face of it won more converts to the faith.

“Cyprian, in the heat of persecution and plague, pleaded with his flock to show love to the enemy. The compassion was conspicuous and consequential. Basic nursing of the sick can have massive effects on case fatality rates; with Ebola, for instance, the provision of water and food may drastically reduce the incidence of death. The Christian ethic was a blaring advertisement for the faith. The church was a safe harbor in the storm.”3

This caused Christianity to grow so much that ancient religions floundered. The second century had been a century of great temple construction. But by“the middle of the third century, they were tumbling into disrepair. . . . By the end of the century, temples that had recently been the incubators of the most ancient religious lore of humankind were turned into military barns. Rites of imponderable antiquity simply vanished. . . . By any measure, the crisis of the third century was an unrestrained catastrophe for the traditional civic cults.”4

Thanks to the Christian response to the plagues, Christianity grew in numerical strength so that by the end of the century emperors tried to stem its rise by launching cruel and sustained persecutions. By the turn of the fourth century, Emperor Constantine decided that it was better to join the church rather than fight it. Christianity’s eventual rise to preeminence was the long-term result of exercising extraordinary compassion and resilience during a time of great suffering and adversity.

Opportunities to Grow Our Faith

What opportunities are open before us? It’s perhaps too early to tell. The world is still trying to come to grips with the magnitude of the catastrophe that’s visited upon us. Sure, eventually vaccines and medical protocols will be developed to the point where this plague, too, like those of the past, will be vanquished.

But one thing is certain: the economic pain it’s bringing upon us will cause many people to question the assumptions of materialism in ways that perhaps the world has never before considered. When things are shaken so thoroughly in the span of a few short weeks that everything we’d taken for granted is hanging in the balance—health, freedom of movement, predictable laws of economy and commerce, employment—the Holy Spirit will surely find more room to speak to the hearts and consciences of our contemporaries. What will be our response?

Well, for one, we need to be sober and consider the consequences of what we’re witnessing: “Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming” (1 Peter 1:13). The coronavirus crisis and its consequences may be a rehearsal to help us prepare for events preceding the Lord’s coming. 

For another, let’s draw assurance from the promises God gave His children through His Word:

Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High

will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.

I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress,

my God, in whom I trust.”

Surely he will save you

from the fowler’s snare

and from the deadly pestilence.

He will cover you with his feathers,

and under his wings you will find refuge;

his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.

You will not fear the terror of night,

nor the arrow that flies by day,

nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness,

nor the plague that destroys at midday” (Ps. 91:1-6).

With that assurance, let’s minister to the world around us in ways that will change the course of history, as Christians of the past did.

Claude Richli is an associate secretary of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

1 All Bible texts are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright ã 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

2 “Saint Cyprian,” Encyclopedia Britannica, 2013.

3 Kyle Harper, The Fat
e of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire
 (Princeton University Press, 2017),p. 71.

4 Ibid., p. 74.