SARS and Bible Prophecy
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While much of the world’s attention in recent weeks focused on the war in Iraq, a new deadly type of pneumonia called Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) erupted, striking people on multiple continents. The latest reports indicate that some 3,500 people in 27 countries have contracted this illness, and the known death toll has surpassed 200. In hindsight we have learned that the disease emanated from China where, regrettably, government officials initially tried to cover it up by forbidding newspapers and agencies to report the problem. As a result, others were infected who then took the disease with them to additional countries.
After enduring blistering condemnation at home and abroad for initially suppressing this medical emergency, a top Chinese disease-control specialist, Li Liming, made a public apology for China’s slow response to the outbreak. China’s vice premier also called for an immediate establishment of a new medical-emergency agency to disseminate information on these kinds of issues. As the media continues to report on those infected and the baffling challenge to epidemiologists who are trying to unlock the mysteries of this new disease, an interesting lesson regarding Bible prophecy stares us directly in the eye.
Many who read the prophecies about world conditions prior to Jesus' return to this earth find them hard to believe. "Outlandish!" "Wild!" "Weird!" "Unbelievable!" These are common perceptions. But for those who have eyes to see and the courage to reflect, SARS should change this view. Prophecies related to disease are found in the Gospel accounts and in the book of Revelation. During His earthly ministry, the public asked Jesus what conditions would be like at the end of this age. Answering, Jesus said, "For many will come in My name, saying, 'I am the Christ,' and will deceive many. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places" (Matthew 24:5-7, compare with Luke 21:8-11).
According to the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, pestilence is "any sudden fatal epidemic" and in reference to Christ’s return, it is often coupled with famine (article "Pestilence"). The four horsemen of the apocalypse in Revelation 6 represent the fulfillment of Christ’s prophetic words in Matthew 24 and Luke 21. Here we find a white horse representing false religion and teachers, a red horse representing war, a black horse representing famine, and a pale horse representing death through various means—including pestilence. As Revelation 6:8 puts it, "I looked and there was a pale green horse! Its rider's name was Death, and Hades followed with him; they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, famine, and pestilence, and by the wild animals of the earth" (New Revised Standard Version).
These prophecies about disease have seemed surreal to many who have grown accustomed to the marvels of modern medicine. Today, many diseases have been eliminated and almost every disease has a treatment. But the sudden appearance of SARS has been scary because doctors don’t know how to treat it. From the outset, officials didn’t know whether it was a virus or a bacterium. Now doctors in Hong Kong and Germany have apparently isolated an agent in the disease that is associated with measles and diseases in domesticated animals. Commenting on this development, the World Health Organization (WHO) cautioned that this is just a preliminary finding from one patient only.
Of course, the carnage associated with SARS is not limited to those who die—not really all that significant according to one health official who explained, "If this were influenza, you'd have seen 100 times the infection rate and many more deaths" (Business Week Online, "Deadly Virus," April 8). The fear of contracting SARS has had a huge impact, causing many to avoid travel. The World Health Organization (WHO) has asked major airports—including those serving Beijing, Shanghai, Guandong, Hong Kong, Singapore, Hanoi, and Toronto—to quiz travelers about their health and discourage all who have had a fever in the previous 24 hours from flying. Sporting events, trade shows and conferences in many Asian cities have been cancelled. Schools in Hong Kong and Shanghai have closed and the diminished number of tourists is also having a major economic impact on Asian airlines. Some health officials say the public has overreacted to SARS and is overly cautious.
Expecting doctors to announce within a few weeks that the disease is under control in China and that doctors are making progress in finding a treatment, these officials believe all the hysteria will fade just as quickly as the disease began. If it does, many will once again relegate the biblical prophecies of sudden disease epidemics to wild speculation or something that can be conveniently ignored. Will you?