The year 2020 dawned with hope and promise. Yes, there were the usual global trouble spots and troublesome leaders, but on the whole things seemed quite positive.
But virtually overnight, conditions changed—dramatically. Worrying reports began to emerge from China about a new virus that had crossed from animals to human beings, similar to earlier swine flus and bird flus. In many ways this new or “novel” coronavirus seemed similar to common cold and flu viruses. But this one was different.
Since this virus originated in animals—most likely bats—and then mutated and made the jump to human beings, the new human hosts infected by this virus had no natural immunity or defenses.
Initially China, and then the World Health Organization (WHO), downplayed the threat of human-to-human spread. But the danger soon grew too great to ignore. It could indeed be spread person-to-person, and unlike normal colds and flus, the transmission and death rates for this virus appeared to be much higher. The elderly in particular seemed prone to fatal lung infections. The death toll quickly mounted into the hundreds, then thousands.
China soon locked down Wuhan, center of the epidemic, banning all traffic into and out of the city. Its 11 million residents were ordered to stay indoors. Shortly after, other cities with millions of residents were placed on similar lockdowns. By the end of January the World Health Organization had reversed course and declared a global health emergency.
In hindsight, this was obviously too little, too late. Within weeks the COVID-19 virus had spread throughout much of the world before most people had a clue what was going on. The epidemic’s spread was greatly aided by the fact that governments were slow to shut down international travel, large numbers of infected people showed no signs of illness, the incubation period was up to two weeks long, no one was sure how the virus was spread and no known detection test or treatment was available.
All across the world, governments and hospitals were woefully unprepared for the growing flood of patients—in spite of repeated past warnings of the probability of just such a pandemic.
Pandemics and Bible prophecy
Pandemics—global epidemics—have been with us for a long time. COVID-19 is simply the latest. Tomorrow we could as easily see another, much more severe plague emerge seemingly out of nowhere to sweep around the globe, leaving misery and millions of dead in its wake.
How does all this fit with Bible prophecy? Does prophecy shed any light on our current conditions and what we might expect in the future?
Shortly before His crucifixion, Jesus’ disciples asked Him what “signs”—events or trends—would precede His return. In response, He listed religious deception, war, famines and pestilences. These, He said, would be “the beginning of sorrows” (Matthew 24:5-8, emphasis added throughout).
This would lead into what is commonly called the great tribulation—“a time of great distress, such as there has never been before since the beginning of the world, and will never be again.” He then added, “If that time of troubles were not cut short, no living thing could survive, but for the sake of God’s chosen it will be cut short” (Matthew 24:21-22, Revised English Version).
This is truly sobering to contemplate. Could mankind really face a time in which every living being on earth could face extinction? (Actually, that possibility is already here through existing nuclear, chemical and biological warfare capabilities.)
The four horsemen of the Apocalypse
Jesus’ prophecy in Matthew 24 is a bare-bones outline of end-time trends and events. He gave a much more detailed prophecy in the book of Revelation, which we are told in its first verse is “the Revelation of Jesus Christ.”
In Revelation 6 we find the same four major trends Jesus foretold in Matthew 24—religious deception, war, famines and pestilences—repeated.
The first rider, in verse 2, is mounted on a white horse. Some assume this is Jesus Christ, but not so! Christ does return on a white horse, but not until much later in the prophetic timeline of the book. This first rider wields a bow and wears a crown. But the real Jesus bears a sword and wears many crowns. The first rider is an imposter, representing corrupted and false religion that will deceive most of mankind (see Matthew 24:5, Matthew 24:11, Matthew 24:24).
The second horseman rides a fiery red horse, “and it was granted to the one who sat on it to take peace from the earth, and that people should kill one another; and there was given to him a great sword” (Revelation 6:4). This horse represents the bloodshed and horror of widespread warfare Jesus foretold in Matthew 24:6-7.
Revelation 6:5 describes a black horse, and the rider carries scales in his hand. A voice describes the scarcity of food that will strike the earth in the aftermath of war. This represents the famine conditions Jesus foretold in Matthew 24:7.
Then we come to the fourth horse and rider. The apostle John describes it as “a horse whose color was pale green. Its rider was named Death, and his companion was the Grave” (Revelation 6:8, New Living Translation).
The Expositor’s Bible Commentary says this about the pale green color of the fourth horse: “‘Pale’ (chloros) denotes a yellowish green . . . the paleness of a sick person in contrast to a healthy appearance.” Put bluntly, this horse is the color of death—which is the name of its rider.
In Jesus’ prophecy recorded in Matthew 24, in the wake of religious deception, warfare and famine, another wave of disasters will strike the earth—“pestilences” or disease epidemics (Matthew 24:7).
Ominously, John tells us in Revelation 6:8 that “power was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, with hunger, with death, and by the beasts of the earth.”
And besides disease will come other plagues. Jesus further mentioned great “earthquakes” (Matthew 24:7; Revelation 6:12)—a term that, in the original Greek, can also apply to other natural calamities such as great storms and tsunamis.
Amid such horrors, disease epidemics will take the lives of hundreds of millions of people. All told, the death toll will be unlike anything anyone has ever seen!
To grasp how devastating and deadly these plagues can be, let’s briefly review some of the horrendous epidemics of our past.
Plagues that changed history
In terms of impact, nothing has matched the “Black Death” or “Black Plague” of the 14th century. This outbreak of bubonic plague apparently started in Asia and marched its way westward into Europe, where it spread rapidly and ferociously. It is thought to have killed a third of the world’s population.
As was typical of diseases at the time, there was no known prevention or cure. Social structure broke down. Populations panicked as entire towns were wiped out. Families were decimated as parents lost children, children lost parents, and men and women lost their spouses.
Yet this was neither the first nor the last time plague would make its deadly march across civilization. Eight centuries earlier, in A.D. 541, an outbreak of plague in the time of the Emperor Justinian shattered his dreams of reestablishing the might and glory of the Roman Empire. Hordes of flea-carrying rats spread the plague through the Byzantine Empire, killing about a fourth of the world’s population—some 50 million people.
In 1894 another plague outbreak in Hong Kong and Canton (or Guangzhou) killed an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 people, then spread from Chinese ports to the rest of the world, bringing 10 million more deaths.
Bubonic plague, though, is far from the only mass killer when it comes to epidemics. In 1817, the first of seven cholera pandemics over the next 150 years started in Russia and took a million lives. Cholera spread to India where millions more died.
Smallpox, leprosy and measles are other diseases that have claimed millions of lives. In 1520, smallpox helped bring down the mighty Aztec Empire in what is today Mexico.
Today epidemiologists are greatly concerned about pandemics like COVID-19—zoonotic viruses that jump from animals to human beings through mutation. HIV is one such killer, and it has claimed some 35 million lives over the last 40 years. Ebola is another, killing its victims so quickly that they most often die before they have time to spread the virus to others.
Just over a century ago, a strain of flu crossed from birds to human beings and took an estimated 50 million lives during its deadly march around the globe.
Today one must also take into account the possibility, if not the probability, of biological weapons being used against other human beings. The idea has been around since the 1300s when Mongol invaders catapulted plague-infested corpses over the walls of cities to let the plague do its killing for them. Anthrax and cholera are only two of a number of deadly infectious agents that we know have been converted into bioweapons by national governments and terrorists.
God’s warning to man
COVID-19 has brought much of the world to a state of near-panic. Entire nations have been shut down due to the disease. Government-ordered closures of many thousands of businesses have thrown millions of people out of work. It remains to be seen whether such steps are out of proportion to the danger posed by the virus. However, the economic impact of business shutdowns may well bring a worldwide recession if not another worldwide depression like that of the 1930s.
Yet these things are only a foretaste of catastrophes to come, which Bible prophecy indicates will be multiple magnitudes worse. Can we imagine a world in which we see hundreds of millions of deaths?
This brings us back to God’s message to mankind through the four horsemen. The horrors that they represent—false religion, war, famine and disease—are the consequences of mankind rejecting our Creator and choosing our own way to live—which, as all of human history has shown, results in death (Proverbs 14:12; Proverbs 16:25).
The Bible is full of warnings and pleadings from God to turn from our sinful ways and “seek the Lord while He may be found” (Isaiah 55:6). He wants us to live righteously according to His laws, which show us how to love Him and our fellow man. He is “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
The antidote to end-time plagues
Do we have an antidote to the fourth horseman of disease and death? Yes we do, and any of us can claim it.
When God brought His people Israel out of Egypt, He told them: “If you will listen carefully to the voice of the Lord your God and do what is right in his sight, obeying his commands and keeping all his decrees, then I will not make you suffer any of the diseases I sent on the Egyptians; for I am the Lord who heals you” (Exodus 15:26, NLT).
But if they disobeyed Him, this is what they could expect: “If you refuse to listen to the Lord your God and do not obey all the commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come and overwhelm you . . . The Lord will afflict you with diseases until none of you are left in the land . . . The Lord will strike you with wasting diseases, fever, and inflammation . . . The Lord will strike you with madness, blindness, and panic” (Deuteronomy 28:15, Deuteronomy 28:21-22, Deuteronomy 28:28, NLT).
Yet after the devastating ride of the four horsemen, the book of Revelation shows the rest of the story—God’s merciful intervention both to correct as well as save the human race from extinction. God will bring peace and freedom from death and disease to the earth in His wonderful Kingdom—but not before mankind has learned the lesson of where our human ways lead us.
The story of mankind doesn’t end with the last of the four horsemen of Revelation. John saw not four horsemen but five. And mankind’s hope lies with the fifth horseman, Jesus Christ, whose ride in Revelation 19:11-16 to intervene in world affairs marks the end of mankind’s misrule on the earth.
This is mankind’s real hope. This and this alone will be the real end of disease and deadly pandemics. The coming of the King of Kings will bring an everlasting Kingdom of peace, plenty and bountiful blessings for the entire human race.
But you don’t have to wait until then to experience the blessings that can come from knowing and having a relationship with Him! Why not act now? Why not dig into God’s Word to learn what He really wants and expects of us, and how you can avoid the horrifying times to come on our world? The choice is up to you!
Plagues and Other Disasters: A Biblical Perspective
How should we view tragedies, accidents and disasters, regardless of their scale or circumstances? Here are some keys to a proper biblical perspective:
1. God has said in Bible prophecy that terrible disasters, including pestilences or disease epidemics, would grow in frequency and intensity as the end of the age approaches—to shake people out of their complacency and lead them to seek Him (Matthew 24:7; Luke 21:11; Revelation 6:7-8; Revelation 16:2, Revelation 16:8-11).
2. Ecclesiastes 9:11 reveals that God allows many events to run their course according to “time and chance.” This means that many tragedies are, for those affected, accidental and unforeseeable.
3. Christ made it clear that those who die in accidents or terrible disasters are not necessarily greater sinners than those who survive (Luke 13:1-5).
4. Personal tragedies or calamities are not necessarily the result of one’s sins (John 9:2-3).
5. Plagues and other disasters should humble us and lead us to repentance, helping us to see our dependence on God to sustain and deliver us (1 Kings 8:37-40; Revelation 16:8-11).
6. Plagues of disease and other disasters have sometimes been the direct judgment of God on rebellious humanity and nations (Genesis 6:11-13; Genesis 18:20; Genesis 19:24-25; Exodus 9:13-14; Exodus 32:35; Leviticus 26:14-16, Leviticus 26:21, Leviticus 26:25; Numbers 16:46-50; Deuteronomy 28:58-62; Ezekiel 14:21; Revelation 9:20-21).
7. Some calamities are made worse by man’s poor judgments and age-long rejection of God and His laws, resulting in worsening environmental, health and economic conditions (Proverbs 14:12; Proverbs 22:3; Matthew 7:24-27).
8. God is a truly loving God who is working out a great plan for all humanity (John 3:16; 2 Peter 3:9; 1 Timothy 2:4; 1 Corinthians 15:22-24).
9. Converted Christians who die in disasters securely await being raised to immortality in the first resurrection at the return of Jesus Christ (Isaiah 57:1-2; 1 Corinthians 15:51-52; 1 Thessalonians 4:16; Revelation 20:4-6).
10. Non-Christians who die in disasters, those who never had a genuine understanding of God or real opportunity for eternal salvation, will be raised in the second or general resurrection to live again in the flesh with their first real opportunity to learn God’s way, repent and be saved (John 5:28-29; Matthew 12:41-42; Revelation 20:5).
11. The multitudes of humanity who are raised in the second or general resurrection will experience joyful and abundant life under the rule of the Kingdom of God (Ezekiel 37:12-14).
12. The sufferings experienced now in “this present evil age” (Galatians 1:4)—this era of man’s self-rule under the influence of Satan the devil—are writing a lesson of experience about what it means to live in a world cut off from God and His ways.
13. We don’t know all the reasons God brings or permits specific calamities or why particular people are made to suffer by them, but we should trust that in God’s omniscience and ultimate wisdom He knows how to work out what is best for everyone in the end (Romans 8:28; 1 Timothy 2:4).
14. Jesus Christ will eventually return to usher in the rule of the Kingdom of God (Revelation 11:15; Daniel 7:14), under which disasters, sickness, financial devastation and fear will no longer plague mankind.
15. When all of repentant humanity is at last glorified, there will be no more pain, suffering, sorrow or death (Revelation 21:4).
16. All the sufferings of this brief present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory we will ultimately experience for all eternity to come (Romans 8:18; 2 Corinthians 4:17-18).
— Tom Robinson