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Is this a Sign of the End of the World?

As I write this, more than three billion (one-third of the world’s population) are living under lock down as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread around the world, with more than 450,000 confirmed cases. Nearly 21,000 have died of it.

In times like these, end-time prophecies are making their rounds on social media and other platforms. These apocalyptic messages are mostly based on interpretations of the books of Ezekiel, Matthew, Mark and Revelation.

According to Revelation 6, “the seven seals” will be opened before the world as we know it comes to a disastrous end, to be followed by the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ.  The disastrous events will include swarms of locusts, falling stars, wars, famines and earthquakes. The first four seals concern the arrival of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Specifically, the fourth seal concerns destruction by the plague.

Rev 6:7-8 states, “When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.”

The word “plague” in Greek is θανάτῳ (thanato) which is also translated “pestilence” and “disease”. According to Jeremiah Jaques of the Philadelphia Church of God, the pale horse “is a personification of disease epidemics—sickly, haunting and unyielding.”  He believes that the COVID-19 pandemic is the harbinger of the biblical apocalypse. And he is not alone.

COVID-19 is not the only plague in recent history.  We overcame HIV/AIDs (1981), the pneumonic plague (1994), SARS (2003), Avian flu/H5N1(2006), Dengue fever (2006), swine flu/H1N1 (2009), Cholera (2010), MERS (2013), Ebola (2014), Measles/Rubeola (2014), Zika (2016) and Measles again (2019).

Going further back in history, there was one plague that fitted the end-time apocalyptic descriptions in the Bible. The Black Death (bubonic plague) devastated Europe between 1348 and 1350 killing a quarter to half of the region’s population. It struck again and again in 1362, 1368 and 1381 as it would intermittently into the 18th century. In most parts of Europe, it took nearly 80 years for the population sizes to recover, and in some areas more than 150 years.

The disease was so lethal that some went to bed well and died before morning; some doctors caught the illness at the patient’s bedside and died before the patient. The symptoms include continuous fever and the spitting of blood, coughing, and heavy sweating.  Everything about the victims smelled foul.  The mortality rate ranged from 20 to 90 percent. Depression and despair descended on all who contracted the disease.

Like it is today, Italy took the brunt of it.  Agnolo di Tura del Grasso, a chronicler from Siena, who lost his wife and five children, described the pandemonium:

“The mortality in Siena began in May. It was a cruel and horrible thing…  It seemed that almost everyone became stupefied seeing the pain. It is impossible for the human tongue to recount the awful truth. Indeed, one who did not see such horribleness can be called blessed. The victims died almost immediately. They would swell beneath the armpits and in the groin and fall over while talking. Father abandoned child, wife husband, one brother another; for this illness seemed to strike through breath and sight. And so they died. None could be found to bury the dead for money or friendship. Members of a household brought their dead to a ditch as best they could, without priest, without divine offices. In many places in Siena great pits were dug and piled deep with the multitude of dead. And they died by the hundreds, both day and night, and all were thrown in those ditches and covered with earth. And as soon as those ditches were filled, more were dug.”

Europe in the 14th century was prosperous by reason of extensive trade between the East and West and within Europe itself. Venice and Genoa were wealthy bustling trading ports in the eastern Mediterranean and the Black sea. Most historians generally agree that the plague was likely spread through Eurasia via these trade routes by parasites carried on the backs of rodents which entered the Italian port of Messina. The disease spread like wildfire along the active trade routes all over Europe. In all likelihood, it started with a flea riding on the hide of a black rat, with a gut full of the bacillus yersinia pestis.

Survivors “were like persons distraught and almost without feeling,” writes Agnolo. Europe was nominally Christian then and the devastation generated a crisis of faith. This is encapsulated in this line found in William Langland’s (1332-1386) epic poem Piers Plowman, “God is deaf nowadays and will not hear us. And for our guilt he grinds good men to dust…”

Like it is today, the crisis showed forth the best and the worse of human nature.  Reactions of hostility, confusion, greed, remorse and abuse were mixed with genuine compassion, caring and sharing. The blame game could not be avoided as “Jews, friars, foreigners, beggars, pilgrims, lepers and Romani” became scapegoats.  One Sicilian friar reported, “Magistrates and notaries refused to come and make the wills of the dying,” and worse, “even the priests did not come to hear their confessions.” In one account called the Decameron, the author said, “One man shunned another… kinsfolk held aloof, brother was forsaken by brother, oftentimes husband by wife; nay, what is more, and scarcely to be believed, fathers and mothers were found to abandon their own children to their fate, untended, unvisited as if they had been strangers.”

But there were also pockets of extraordinary goodness and kindness. According to one French chronicler, the nuns at one city hospital, “having no fear of death, tended the sick with all sweetness and humility.” New nuns replaced those who died, until most had died; “many times renewed by death [they] now rest in peace with Christ as we may piously believe.”

And there were those who feared what they perceived to be the wrath of God and changed their ways. Many living together out of wedlock decided to be formally married. Swearing and gambling had so diminished that manufacturers of dice were turning their product into beads for saying prayers.

The medical authorities of the time were at a loss to explain the cause of the Black Death.  Many ascribed it to supernatural forces, earthquakes and malicious conspiracies.  No one in the 14th century considered rat control a way to ward off the plague, and people began to believe only God’s anger could produce such horrific displays of suffering and death.

Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375), an Italian writer and poet, questioned whether it was sent by God for their correction, or that it came through the influence of the heavenly bodies. Some Christians believed that it was the end of the world according to biblical prophecy, while others became pious, believing that their piety might endear them to a God whom they believed had sent the plague to punish them for their sins. These took to flagellating themselves with whips on public roads and in public squares to atone for sins.

Yet others, according to Agnolo, became fatalistic, giving “themselves over to pleasures: monks, priests, nuns and lay men and women all enjoyed themselves… Everyone thought themselves rich because he had escaped and regained the world”.  Many of these were the flagellants who subsequently embraced hedonism as a vicarious effort to accelerate or absorb God’s wrath, to shorten the time of suffering for others. It was a form of antinomianism that came from the belief that the world itself was ending and that their individual actions were of no consequence.

But the Black Death, like all the other plagues, passed, and the world did not come to an end.  In the same way, the COVID-19 pandemic will also pass.

Dr. William Wan is the General Secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement and the Chairman of  Prison Fellowship Singapore.  He is also a winner of the Active Ager Award (Council of the Third Age) 2011. Dr Wan also sits on the advisory panel of The Bible Society of Singapore.