So what does the Bible have to say about contagious diseases or pandemics? In the older portion of the Bible, the primary language is ancient Hebrew. The Hebrew word for contagious disease or pandemic is dever. It occurs around 50 times in the “Old Testament”. The root word in the Hebrew has the meaning of “destroying”, with an extended meaning of “pestilence” or “plague”. Ironically, this word is not only associated with contagious disease, it is often associated with animals; it is the “cattle disease”of Exodus 9:3.
God was planning to use the threat of pestilence to scare off the Canaanites (local inhabitants of the land of Canaan), so Israel wouldn’t have to fight to enter the “promised land” (Numbers 14:12). We know, from current experience, how easily a pandemic can induce panic and irrational behaviour.
The most common occurrence of “pestilence” in the Hebrew portion of the Bible was as a consequence of Israel’s unfaithfulness to God. When Israel was unfaithful to God, they lost His protection, with the result that enemies would invade their land and cause destruction. In that context we repeatedly find the infamous trio: war, famine and pestilence (Leviticus 26:25; Jeremiah 24:10; Ezekiel 14:12–21). The three together portray the siege of an ancient city. War drives a people inside the walls of the city, famine follows as the siege continues and the end-result is contagious disease followed by exile (Leviticus 26:21–26; Jeremiah 21:6–9; Ezekiel 7:15). The important point for us, wondering about the spiritual significance of our current situation, is that contagious disease (Hebrew: dever) is not in these contexts portrayed as an active punishment from God, but rather as the consequence of disobedience, which results in a loss of God’s protection (Jeremiah 27:13; 32:14; 34:17; 38:2). Pandemics don’t come because God is angry with people, they are the natural consequences of human foolishness and rebellion.
The more recent portion of the Bible (the New Testament—written in the common Greek of the Roman world) has less to say about contagious disease. Luke 21:11 associates pestilence (Greek: loimos, loimoi) with earthquakes, famines and heavenly signs that would occur at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. But the word is not found in the part of Luke 21 that addresses the end of the world (Luke 21:25–28).
Some Bible versions, which rely on later Greek manuscripts, refer to “pestilence” in Matthew 24:7, which is a parallel text to Luke 21:11. But even if this were an accurate translation, Matthew 24:8, again, does not mention pestilence as a feature of the end times, but as part of “the beginning of birth pains”.
Pestilence was seen by Jesus as something general to the human experience, not something especially associated with the end. The word is also used metaphorically in Acts 24:5—“This Paul is such a pest.” That derogatory reference gives, of course, no clue as to the meaning of COVID-19 today.
There is another Greek word that often translated as “pestilence.” It is thanatos—a common Greek word for “death” and the usual word chosen in the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, to translate dever. So the Greek word for death at the time when the New Testament was written can carry connotations of “pestilence”, or pandemic.
Thanatos is used in this way three times in the book of Revelation. In Revelation 2:23, it is used in the context of a specific event that is in the past today. The second reference is found in Revelation 6:8. The rider on the pale horse is given authority over a fourth of the earth, to smite with sword, famine, and pestilence. Like Matthew 24 and Luke 21, pestilence is predicted to be a general characteristic of human history, which has certainly been the case.
The third reference to thanatos (death/pestilence) is clearly in an end-time context, however. Pestilence is one of the consequences of “Babylon’s” fall just before the second coming of Jesus. This text does not tell us that Covid-19 is a sign of the end—there is not enough information to be that specific. But it does indicate, more than other biblical texts, that pandemics are likely to be a feature of the end-times.
There is one other end-time text that could be relevant to our questions, and that is Revelation 16:2, which speaks of sores afflicting those who have the “mark of the beast”. While these sores are serious, the biblical words for contagious disease or pandemic are not used there.
The short conclusion of this biblical study is two-fold:
1) Pandemic as such is not a “sign of the end”. Since far worse pandemics have occurred in history, Covid-19 should not be used as an indicator of where we are in history. If the end-times are at hand, other indicators will prove to be more significant that this one. To put it plainly, Bible prophecy does not indicate that pandemic is a key element of the “signs of the end”, but neither does it rule it out as one of the troubles of the End.
2) Pandemic is not a direct, active punishment of God; it is a consequence of the human condition that the Bible calls sin and rebellion against God. According to the Bible, God (through Jesus Christ) is the Author and Sustainer of life (John 1:3–5). But there are forces in the universe that oppose God and create pain and destruction (Job 1:6–12; 2:1–6). To the degree that the word “judgement” is appropriate in a pandemic, it is God allowing the human condition to take its course and reap its consequences.
Is there anything else in the Bible that may be helpful in the current crisis? In the Old Testament contexts, contagious disease was a condition that could and should be alleviated by human action (Jeremiah 27:13; 38:2). The most practical remedy offered for contagious disease in the Bible is, in fact, social isolation (Numbers 5:1–4; see also Numbers 12:10–15 and Leviticus 13:45–46), the very strategy many of us are now using. It is important for a community to place a separation between those who have the disease and those who do not, as far as this is possible. Co-operating with authorities in these matters should not create an issue of conscience for believers; in fact, conscience should encourage co-operation in a crisis like this (Romans 13:1–5).
Having said all this, prophecy clearly indicates that panic is one characteristic of the final events (Luke 21:25,26). Could Covid-19 lead to eschatological levels of panic? I am not a prophet, an economist or a scientist, so take the following with a grain of salt. Covid-19, as we experience it, could get a whole lot worse, killing (in the worst case scenario publicly stated) more than 130,000 Australians and tens of millions worldwide. That would put it in Spanish flu territory, but not Black Plague numbers. The greatest concern would not be the current virus, but a mutation of the virus into something even more dangerous. This possibility is something to watch closely, but it does not seem likely to me (I am open to correction on this from scientific sources, not internet speculation). Viruses tend to decrease in potency over time rather than increase. And, due to lack of widespread testing, the death rate is probably much lower than three per cent right now, as many people who have COVID-19 don’t even know it. In Germany, a nation where testing has been much more widespread than most places, the death rate is currently about 0.08 per cent, around a quarter of the world rate. In the USA it is currently less than two per cent.
My greater concern for the future is the economic fallout of social isolation over many months (if that proves necessary). Worst-case estimates are that unemployment could reach 20 per cent or more here in the USA if the lockdowns last 6–12 months. This could trigger another Great Depression. Given the panic buying already occurring, the social order in a Facebook, post-Christian world could easily break down, leading to rioting, looting and other consequences. Among the likely consequences would be the end of face-to-face higher education as we know it, a long-term decline in tourism and international travel, a major decline in the restaurant industry and in–person retail, and in today’s climate, a serious increase in perceived anti-Christian persecution.
A couple of years from now, it is very possible that the current, global response to Covid-19 will be perceived as an over-reaction. But since we will never know for sure if that is really true, I am glad we are doing what we are doing, just in case. As to when the final events of earth’s history will happen, the words of Jesus remain relevant: “Stay awake, because you don’t know” (Matthew 24:42).
Dr Jon Paulien is Dean at the Loma Linda University School of Religion, California USA. Re-posted with courtesy from his blog, revelation-armageddon.com.
Scientists across the world have been anticipating a pandemic. A year before COVID-19 was first detected, biologists at the University of Warsaw published “Bats, Coronaviruses, and Deforestation,” a paper that links the rapid destruction of the natural habitats of bats to the spread of coronaviruses such as SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV.
The rainforests of Southeast Asia have been reduced by 50 percent over the last 70 years. .Across the world, natural habitat is being destroyed bringing disease-carrying animals in closer contact with humans than ever before. It then details that 31 percent of the viruses that bats are capable of carrying are different forms of coronaviruses. Finally, it ends with a prophetic warning: “The risk of newly emerging CoVs-associated diseases in the future should be considered seriously.”
The total amount of infectious disease outbreaks around the world has been steadily increasing over the last four decades, according to a 2014 study by Brown University scientists. During that time, the world’s forest coverage has been reduced to half its size. The majority (60 percent) of these new outbreaks were animal-borne (zoonotic) diseases, including the Ebola virus, SARS-CoV, MERS-CoV, H1N1 “swine flu,” Nipah virus and many others. The Brown University scientists therefore attributed this recent global rise in infectious disease primarily to an increase in “pathogens spilling over to humans from wildlife.”
Carlos Zambrana-Torrelio, the associated vice president for conservation and health at the EcoHealth Alliance, analyzed over 704 different infectious disease outbreaks between the years 1940 and 2008, and found that measuring the rate of deforestation in a given area was the number one predictor of where the next pandemic will occur. “Scientists have been sending out warnings about this for years now,” Zambrana-Torrelio told Truthout. “We can’t keep encroaching upon the natural habitats of wildlife without taking into consideration what deadly diseases might spill over from that wildlife into the neighboring humans.”
Regions of the Amazon with increased rates of deforestation have concurrently experienced increased rates of malaria in humans. As climate change withers away the canopy of trees that act as the “ceiling” of the rainforest, puddles of stagnant water are becoming increasingly common on the ground. Mosquitos, particularly the kind that carry malaria, love to breed in this murky standing water. This increase in mosquito population in deforested areas is going largely unchecked due to their natural predators, mainly frogs and dragonflies, dying off in the destroyed habitat.
“Normally, trees can absorb stagnant water through their roots,” Andy MacDonald, a disease ecologist and environmental scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told Truthout. “But if there’s not enough trees around, the stagnant water remains, creating a prime breeding ground for mosquitoes.” The areas of the rainforest where there’s the most standing water, MacDonald said, corresponds to the same areas where humans are encroaching upon and destroying the trees. “This creates deadly potential for interaction between people and malaria-carrying mosquitoes.”
A similar phenomenon happens in the rainforests of Southeast Asia, where El Niño droughts are becoming increasingly intense due to rising global temperatures. The 1998 El Niño drought, for example, occurred at the exact same time as the 1998 Nipah virus outbreak in Malaysia. “The drought caused mass forest fires that swept the region. These fires created a huge smog that prevented the plants from growing fruit,” said Amy Vittor, an assistant professor at the University of Florida’s Emerging Pathogens Institute told Truthout. “This forced the flying fox bats of the rainforest to migrate to the towns of Malaysia.”
Measuring the rate of deforestation in a given area was the number one predictor of where the next pandemic will occur.
Some of these bats flocked to Malaysian pig farms, where the first cases of Nipah virus were reported. Bats would bite into fruit that the pigs ate, causing the virus to spread to the pigs. Humans caught the virus when they came in contact with the pigs.
The majority of global deforestation today is driven by multinational corporations, including Cargill, JBS and Mafrig, as well as their creditors BlackRock, JPMorgan Chase and HSBC. These corporations clear acres of land for the mass production of a single cash crop. The Amazon, for example, is primarily being destroyed for products that people in Western countries buy but do not necessarily need — palm oil, sugar cane or various biofuels like ethanol.
Monocrop farming, in which large swathes of land are dedicated for the repeated production of a single crop, is a relatively new phenomenon that depletes soil (such as in the case of the 1930s Dust Bowl), leaves crops vulnerable to pests (as in the case of the Irish potato famine) and leaves humans vulnerable to disease by reducing the biodiversity of animals in the surrounding region (as in the case of global bee populations).
“Farms that produce a variety of crops will attract a variety of wildlife that come to feed on the crops,” biologist John Swaddle of the College of William & Mary told Truthout. On the flip side, when a farm is only producing a single type of crop, it will only attract a limited variety of animals. If one type of animal from that limited variety catches a disease, the entire ecosystem is threatened. This dynamic creates what is commonly known as the dilution effect: The more types of species there are in a given ecosystem, the more resistant the overall ecosystem will be to the spread of disease.
West Nile virus, for example, infects some species of birds more easily than others. Ducks and geese are naturally more resistant to contracting and spreading the virus, so they act as a kind of “buffer” against the species that are more vulnerable to the virus, like crows and finches. If a mosquito carrying West Nile virus bites into a duck or goose, it is likely that the virus will simply die off in their system. To investigate this phenomenon, Swaddle compared every county in the eastern U.S. that reported a case of West Nile virus in 2002 (the first year of the outbreak) to a neighboring county that did not. The result? On average, the counties that reported cases of West Nile virus had a significantly lower diversity of bird species than the counties that had no cases. And what factors affect the biodiversity of bird species in a given area? Deforestation, climate change and monoculture farming.
The Amazon is primarily being destroyed for products that people in Western countries buy but do not necessarily need.
Likewise, the rise of monocrop palm plantations in the forests of West Africa have been a significant driver of the spread of the Ebola virus. The first known cases of the 2013 Ebola outbreak occurred in the Guinean villages of Guéckédou and Meliandou, which are both surrounded by areas that had been heavily deforested for monocrop palm plantations. Much of the Upper Guinean forests have been reduced to 16 percent of the size that they were in 1975. This is largely due to the industrial monocrop farming of western-backed corporations like the Guinean Oil Palm and Rubber Company, which is financed by the European Investment Bank. As Ebola-carrying bats are pushed out of their natural habitat, they flock to places like palm oil plantations, where they can find ample food and shelter.
Another one of the largest corporations driving deforestation, and thereby the spread of Ebola in West Africa, is the London-based Farm Lands of Africa, Ltd. Between 2010 and 2012, the three years leading up to the 2013 Ebola outbreak, Farm Lands of Africa acquired over 1,608,215 hectares of forest in the Congo Basin. This massive land grab forcibly displaced thousands of families, turning land that was previously used primarily for vegetable farming by Indigenous people into monoculture plantations for the export of cash crops like palm oil. It also displaced thousands of Ebola-carrying fruit bats — many of which are attracted to the rich vegetation and shelter of the palm plantations.
The world’s rainforests are not being destroyed to feed people. “Many options exist to meet the global food supply in 2050 without deforestation,” wrote University of Klagenfurt ecologist Karl-Heinz Erb in the journal Nature. Forests are primarily being cleared for the plunder of cash crops that mostly benefit the wealthy heads of multinational corporations.
Such is the case with the PT. Hardaya Inti Plantations company, owned by billionaire Siti Hartati Murdaya, which has seized over 22,000 hectares of land in Indonesia for monoculture palm oil plantations. The acquisition displaced over 6,500 families by destroying the subsistence farms and forests that they relied on to live. Half of those families ended up working on the palm plantations, where they were cruelly exploited for meager wages. So it is questionable whether this deforestation is benefiting the majority of Indonesians, beyond its billionaire kleptocrats. On top of that, the resulting environmental destruction is causing a mass displacement of wildlife in the region, leading to the proliferation of malaria and dengue.
As University of Ferrara scientists state in their April 2020 paper, “The novel zoonotic COVID-19 pandemic: An expected global health concern,” the current COVID-19 pandemic was highly predictable. Based on the patterns of deforestation associated with the two most recent outbreaks of other coronaviruses, SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV, as well as countless other animal-borne diseases, including Ebola, malaria and dengue fever, there is much evidence to suggest that this current pandemic is part of a larger global trend.
“If we want to do everything we can to prevent the next pandemic from occurring,” Zambrana-Torrelio said, “we must stop deforestation.”
Reproduced courtesy of Truthout 14/5/2020