I have been bombarded with questions about the COVID-19 outbreak on my social media pages and at my speaking events. Before you presume that I am being reckless about the latter, I am presently doing my speaking events via Zoom. Last week, I spoke to audiences in Adelaide, Australia, and St. Louis using this technology. This past Sunday, I taught my Paradoxes class with not only me but everyone in the class participating from the comfort of their homes via their computer or smart device. (Incidentally, all are welcome to participate and ask questions live on Sundays at 11:00 AM PT at paradoxes.org.)
The two most frequent questions I have been asked about the COVID-19 virus are (1) Is this viral pandemic the plague in Revelation 6 that John prophesied would impact much of the human race during the last days? and (2) Why would an all-powerful, all-loving God create a world in which viruses exist? In this blog I will answer the first question. In next week’s blog I will answer the second question.
The Revelation 6 Plague
Revelation is a difficult book to understand and interpret. I offer that caveat as I give my explanation, which assumes that the apocalypse is a future event and the numbers are literal. The plague in Revelation 6 is part of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. These four are “given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine, and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth” (Revelation 6:8). Presently, a fourth of the earth’s population would add up to 1.943 billion people.1
The worst-case death toll scenario calculated by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for COVID-19 is 0.2–1.7 million in the United States, or 0.06–0.5 percent of the total US population.2 This scenario, however, presumes that the federal and state governments do nothing to restrain the spread of the virus, or that the American public as a whole does little or nothing to obey government and health organization recommendations.
Over a week has passed since the CDC published its worst-case scenario. The presumptions on which the scenario was based have proven incorrect. The US governments and the American public are both taking aggressive actions to mitigate the spread of the virus. If such actions are sustained, the death toll will be at least ten times to as much as a hundred times lower.
This probable death toll assumes that there will be no further significant mutations in the COVID-19 virus. It’s a reasonable assumption given that the nations of the world continue to take mitigation efforts seriously. However, viruses being viruses, one can never be certain.
Even the probable case scenario is tragic. We who are Christians need to be ready to show compassion and mercy and provide help whenever and wherever needed. I am persuaded that this empathy and service includes reassuring people that this virus is not one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. The numbers in any scenario fall far short of what is predicted in Revelation 6. Furthermore, we presently are not seeing the other biblical signs indicative that the apocalypse has arrived.3
Normative Frequency of Pandemics
The last time that a viral pandemic occurred was in 1918–19. The Spanish flu, as it was called, killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide and 675,000 in the United States. These numbers translate into 3 percent of the world’s population and 0.64 percent of the US population.
Pandemics of this nature have occurred throughout human history at a rate of about one or two per century. Hence, it is not unusual that we are experiencing a pandemic now. Given that killer coronaviruses are most easily germinated by dense human populations coming into contact with dense animal populations, it is nothing short of miraculous that, in the present context of dense world populations of both, we have not had a coronavirus pandemic any earlier than now. Nevertheless, there is much we can learn from the current outbreak that can help forestall and mitigate future pandemics. Along with scientific and medical learning, we can apply what we already know as creatures made in God’s image. We can help and encourage anyone we know who is affected by the virus in any way.