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February 2021 Feature

Someone asked me recently, in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic, “Is it the end of the world?” He pointed to the present situation as unprecedented; as one that is shaking the world. The reality is that, while the current pandemic is severe and has caused many deaths and is causing much concern and anxiety, such suffering and disaster is not new in this world.

Three Great Events

About a hundred years ago, three global events shook the world, and all three have been given the adjective “Great” to underline their global impact. Within a short span of slightly over two decades, the Great War (1914-1918), the Great Flu Pandemic (1918-1919), and the Great Depression (1929-1939) came upon the world to cause death and misery.

The First World War, considered the Great War to end all wars, started with the assassination of a royal heir and became a global conflagration that resulted in the death of 23 million people. Nations locked horns in fitful revenge and a fight for dominance, often behaving badly and madly. Huge numbers of young men were repeatedly sacrificed in the deadly trenches in Europe just to gain a few inches of territory. It was a war that dragged on for four painful and grievous years.

The Great Flu Pandemic (caused by an H1N1 virus) followed on the heels of the war and became the deadliest in history. It is said to have infected more than 500 million people and killed 50 million of them. Some estimates offer higher figures. The first wave during spring of 1918 was relatively mild, but the second wave later that year was deadly, causing distressing death within hours and days. People were asked to wear face masks, schools and businesses were closed, and there was great panic. The pandemic killed many younger people, just as the war had done.

Soon after such massive blows, the world suffered economic depression. It began with the stock market crash in 1929 in America. This resulted in panic behaviour, closure of banks, and a rise in unemployment. It was further exacerbated by the “dust bowl” phenomenon in the 1930s when American farmlands became barren due to severe drought, gravely affecting food and crop production and causing economic failure. Massive dust storms caused environmental damage. Unemployment, hunger, and poverty was experienced by millions.

Singapore was not spared by these great events. In February 1915, 850 mostly Muslim Indian soldiers in the British army in Singapore rose against their officers in mutiny and killed several of them. They were stationed in Singapore to guard German prisoners of war. While there were many reasons for the uprising, it was partly caused by a rumour that the troops were going to be moved to Muslim Turkey to fight in the war. The mutiny was put down with the help of Britain’s World War One allies and most of the soldiers involved were killed.

The pandemic did not spare Singapore either. It is estimated that at least 3,000 people died as a result (out of a population of 370,000). The authorities implemented school closures, social distancing, and the disinfecting of public places. The Great Depression caused a huge plunge in Singapore’s trade from 1929 to 1933. Historian Mary Turnbull comments that Singapore became “a depressing place for all communities”. Heavy retrenchment of workers and high unemployment made life difficult for many, though people were also resilient and tried their best to cope with their difficult circumstances.

War, Pestilence, and Famine in the Bible

The combination of war, pestilence, and famine is not unknown in Scripture. In fact, it is a common theme in the biblical worldview of history.

After David sinned against God by counting his soldiers (thus trusting his military might more than God), God asked him to choose one of three punishments: Three years of famine, three months of war or three days of plague (2 Samuel 24:13).

The prophet Jeremiah warned the Israelites of the “sword, famine and plague” (Jeremiah 14:12), a theme that appears repeatedly in his book (21:6; 27:8, 13; 32:24, 36; 34:17; 38:2; 42:22). The prophet Ezekiel, in similar fashion, mentions these three aspects of God’s judgment (5:12; 6:12; 7:15; 12:16).

In His answer to His disciples’ question about the signs before the end of the world, Jesus mentioned wars, famines, and earthquakes (natural disasters, within which we can include plagues). Jesus said that all these will be “the beginning of birth pains” (Matthew 24:8).

The apocalyptic vision of John saw global destroyers killing by sword, famine, and plague—and also wild animals (Revelation 6:8).

Bible scholars, such as Michael Wilcox, have suggested that the Book of Revelation is best understood as various scenes of what will go on in the world between Christ’s first and second comings. It is a collage of pictures of the last days, understood as the period between the Incarnation and the Return of Christ. See how the writer of Hebrews used the term “these last days” in Hebrews 1:2 (cf. 1 Peter 1:20).

The Book of Revelation alternates between the terrible scenes on earth (with wars, pestilence, and famine), and glorious scenes of heaven where God and Christ are worshipped in the Spirit. We can learn some key lessons from this.

How, Then, Should We Live?

First, devastating wars, deadly plagues, and terrible economic failure are themes that will be repeatedly seen in human history. It is when these scenes are repeated, perhaps with greater intensity, that the end will come. The world has already seen terrible times and will continue to see such times before the return of Christ.

Second, we must recognise that while all such suffering takes place on earth, God is sovereign. There is no military conflict, deadly pandemic or distressing economic failure in which God is helpless or surprised. He is still Lord over all the dreadful scenes on earth.

John Donne, the 17th century English spiritual writer and Anglican priest, came down with a serious illness at the prime of his life. He thought it was bubonic plague, for many around him were dying of a mystery illness and their deaths were announced by the ringing of church bells. Providentially, Donne recovered and wrote a book of 23 devotions based on his experience. Besides his piece entitled “For whom the bells toll…”, Donne’s meditations reflect his struggles in coming to terms with what he thought was a deadly and infectious disease.

He asked God whether his affliction was a “correction” or a “mercy”. He had difficulty interpreting his condition. Was God punishing him or did God have a higher mysterious purpose? Amid his many questions, he saw God’s hand on him and knew that it was a sovereign and loving hand. He surrendered himself to God, trusting that God was with him and that perfect joy and glory belonged to the future. He kept company with Job, the man who suffered in every way, and who said of God, “Though He slay me, yet will I hope in Him” (Job 13:15). His was the response of faith in a God who is with us.

Third, we can always turn to God in repentance and prayer. We all know that oft-quoted passage from 2 Chronicles 7:14, but may have failed to notice the context of God’s promise.

“When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land. Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place” (2 Chronicles 7:13-15).

The context in which God’s promise is set is when famine and plague strike the people. When such times come, God wants us to repent and turn to him with humility and faith. He promises to hear and forgive us and heal the land.

Fourth, we can, in difficult times, reach out with faith and compassion and live courageously. If we have God’s presence and believe in His sovereign purposes and loving wisdom, we can think of those caught in the throes of disaster and offer hope in the living God.

In AD 250, a devastating plague spread across the Roman Empire and killed a large part of the population. It was highly contagious and killed people quickly so that many dead and dying were left unattended on the streets. In Rome alone, 5,000 people died daily at the height of the pandemic that lasted for 20 years. This plague is called Cyprian’s plague, named after the bishop of Carthage, because he was the one who described the symptoms of the plague most accurately.

Cyprian was able to do this because he mobilised the church to attend to the sick and the dead, Christians gave water and food to the dying and buried the dead. To be sure, many of them were also infected. But because they persisted helping their needy and desperate neighbours, they developed a herd immunity that allowed them to continue helping victims. Impressed by their selfless actions, many non-Christians joined the church.

We return to the question at the beginning of this article. Is it the end of the world? I don’t know (see Matthew 24:36). What I know is that wars, plagues, and famines have been an integral part of the story of this world. Perhaps the end of the world is near. Perhaps it will take some time. Whatever it is, we must believe in God who is sovereign and who loves us.

We must repent and return to Him, pray and ask for His mercy, and live our lives as if this may the last day. We must be found faithful and loving as we remain in Christ and reach out in His love.

Bishop Emeritus Robert Solomon served as Bishop of The Methodist Church in Singapore from 2000-2012. He had served previously as a medical doctor, church pastor, principal of Trinity Theological College and president of the National Council of Churches of Singapore. He now has an active itinerant ministry of preaching and teaching in Singapore and abroad.