During the 2020 global pandemic, there’s been a great deal of speculation about whether the widespread COVID-19 illness is a harbinger of the end times and the return of Jesus to earth.
Although some headlines in secular publications have fed on this speculation, the actual story is more nuanced—and detailed—than some soundbite-heavy reports might indicate. The Adventist South American News Agency (ASN) sought out a noted scholar in the field of eschatology in order to provide sound, biblical answers.
Dr. Jon Paulien, 71, is currently a professor of theology at Loma Linda University in the United States. He holds a bachelor's degree in theology, which included a year abroad studying in Germany, as well as master’s and doctoral degrees in the New Testament.
A member of the Society for Biblical Literature and the Adventist Society for Religious Studies, Paulien has published on topics related to the history of the Adventist Church and the book of Revelation.
ASN: According to your research, how can the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as other current global phenomena, such as earthquakes, plagues, and so on, be understood in the light of biblical prophetic study?
DR. PAULIEN: Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, many people have been asked questions related to religion. Is this a judgment from God on the human race? Is this a sign of the end? Does Bible prophecy talk about this [specific virus]? Even if people do not believe in God or the Bible, they are wondering what their Christian neighbors are thinking. Therefore, I will address what the Bible has to say about communicable diseases and the role they can play as signs of the end in Bible prophecy.
ASN: Is the current pandemic the big event that many feared?
DR. PAULIEN: To begin, let's all take a deep breath and get some perspective. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has led to hundreds of thousands of premature deaths, but it is still insignificant compared to the Spanish flu of a hundred years ago. That epidemic resulted in 50 to 100 million deaths worldwide, at a time when the world population was less than two billion (today it is almost eight billion). And further back in history is the Black Death, which is estimated to have killed 75 to 200 million people (AD 1347-1351) at a time when the world's population was less than 500 million. This is a proportion as high as one in three people in the world, more or less. Therefore, although the current situation is very serious, in human terms, it is not yet at the level of what could be called "apocalyptic proportions.”
ASN: What does the biblical text teach us?
DR. PAULIEN: So, what does the Bible have to say about contagious diseases or pandemics? In the oldest part of the Bible, the main language is ancient Hebrew. The Hebrew word for contagious disease or pandemic is dever, which means “a blow, slaughter, plague, [or] pestilence.” It appears about fifty times in the Old Testament. The word root in Hebrew has the meaning of destroying, with an extended meaning of pestilence or plague. Ironically, this word is not only associated with communicable diseases, but also with animals. It is the “disease of cattle” (Exodus 9: 3). God was planning to use the plague threat to scare the Canaanites (locals from the land of Canaan), so that Israel would not have to struggle to enter the “promised land” (Numbers 14:12). From current experience, we know how easily a pandemic can induce panic and irrational behavior.
The most common occurrence of "pestilence" in the Hebrew part of the Bible as a consequence of Israel's infidelity to God. When Israel was unfaithful to God, they lost His protection, with the result that enemies would invade their lands and cause destruction. In this context, we repeatedly encounter the famous trio: war, famine, and plague (Leviticus 26:25; Jeremiah 24:10; Ezekiel 14: 12-21). The three together portray the siege of an ancient city. War pushes people into city walls, famine continues as the siege continues, the end result is a contagious disease followed by exile (Leviticus 26: 21-26; Jeremiah 21: 6-9; Ezekiel 7:15) . The important point for the questions at the beginning is that the contagious disease (Hebrew: maggephah) is not portrayed in these contexts as an active punishment from God, but as the consequence of disobedience, which results in the loss of God's protection (Jer 27:13; 32:14; 34:17; 38: 2). Pandemics do not occur because God is angry with people. They are the natural consequences of human folly and rebellion.
The most recent part of the Bible (the New Testament — written in ordinary Greek in the Roman world) has less to say about communicable diseases. Luke 21:11 associates pestilence (Greek: loimos, loimoi ) with earthquakes, famines and celestial signs that would occur at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD The word is not found in the part of Luke 21 that addresses the end of the world (Luke 21: 25-28). A text parallel to Luke 21:11 is Matthew 24: 7. There you will find plagues in some versions of the Bible, but not in others.
The reason is that the Greek manuscripts, on which the translations are based, sometimes include plagues and sometimes they do not. It is likely that plagues are not in the original in Matthew. However, even if it were, Matthew 24: 8 does not put it at the end of the world, but as "the beginning of labor pains". Jesus saw plagues as something general for human experience, not as something especially associated with the end. The word, too, is used metaphorically in Acts 24: 5, as in: "this man [Paul] is a plague". This derogatory reference is, of course, no clue to the significance of Covid-19 today.
There is another Greek word that is often translated as plague. It's thanatos - a common Greek word for death. For whatever reason, like the usual word chosen in the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint version) to translate the Hebrew word for contagious disease, duty. Therefore, the Greek word for death at the time the New Testament was written may contain connotations of plague or pandemic. It 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 quarter of the earth, to strike with sword, famine, and plague. Like Matthew 24 and Luke 21, the plague is predicted to be a general feature of human history, which has certainly been the case.
However, the third reference to thanatos (death/pestilence) is clearly in an end-time context. Pestilence is one of the consequences of the fall of Babylon just before Jesus' second coming. This text does not tell us that COVID-19 is a sign of the end. There is not enough information to be so specific. But it indicates, more than other biblical texts, that the pandemic is likely to be an end-time feature. There is another end-time text that may be relevant to our questions, and it is Revelation 16: 2, which speaks of wounds that affect those who have the mark of the beast. Although these wounds are serious, the biblical words for contagious disease or pandemic are not used there.
ASN: And what is your conclusion?
DR. PAULIEN: The short conclusion of this Bible study is twofold. The pandemic, as such, is not a "sign of the end." As much worse pandemics have already occurred, COVID-19 should not be used as an indicator of where we are in history. If the end times are near, other indicators will be more significant than this. In other words, Bible prophecy does not indicate that the pandemic is a key element of the "signs of the end", nor does it exclude it as one of the problems of the end.
The pandemic is not a direct and active punishment from 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). Insofar as the word judgment is appropriate in a pandemic, it is God allowing the human condition to run its course and reap its consequences.
Jesus' return dates
ASN: How do you see attempts to set dates for Jesus' return, for the end result in this world, especially when many people look for answers in the Bible?
DR. PAULIEN: I have written extensively on these topics in two books, What the Bible Says About the End-Time and The Millennium Bug. The short answer to that question is that Jesus specifically warned people not to set end dates. In Matthew 24, He cited wars, famines, pestilences, earthquakes, etc., all "signs of the end" in Judaism. But He quoted them to say, "It is not the end yet."
The only sign of the end that He offers is the second coming itself (Matthew 24:30). This is confirmed by Ellen G. White in the book The Great Controversy, page 640, where a voice informs the people of God who learned about the time of Jesus' return just an instant before beginning to see him. The scientific evidence for the folly of setting dates is that all the dates already set for Jesus' return in all 2000 years of Christian history are wrong. I know that sometime, someday, someone might actually get it right, but it would be like a stopped clock, accurately reflecting the time twice a day. It would be no more useful to God's people than a failed prediction. There is a lot of wisdom and balance in the following statement. “We must not live in agitation about time. […] No one, however, will be able to predict exactly when that time will come. […] You will not be able to say that He will come in one, two, or five years, nor should you delay His coming,” Selected Messages , volume 1, page 189).
ASN: You talk and study a lot about Armageddon, a battle presented in the context of Revelation 16. This struggle is seen by many prophecy scholars as spiritual and not literal, although it effectively implies a conflict between the enemy of God and the powers at his service and the faithful remnant to God's principles. What can we still say about Armageddon, from the interpretation of the biblical text?
DR. PAULIEN: I wrote at length on this topic in the book Armageddon at the Door, available in Spanish and English. A brief summary follows.
The word Armageddon appears only once in all Scripture, Revelation 16:16. It is the site of the final battle in Earth's history. The fact that the battle is mainly spiritual is indicated in the previous verse (Revelation 16:15). In this battle, the unholy trinity (Revelation 16: 13 — the same three as the dragon, the sea beast and the land beast of Revelation 13) sends three demonic angels to proclaim a counterfeit gospel to the world (Revelation 16: 13-14 ), in contrast to the three angels of Revelation 14.
In this context, there is a final appeal to readiness for the second coming (Revelation 16:15). Therefore, there are two trinities, two groups of angels, and two conflicting gospel messages. Armageddon is a worldwide confrontation that calls on the world to decide between two visions of God and two different gospels. This conflict will be like the confrontation on Mount Carmel, where the fire came down from Heaven to demonstrate that God was the true God (see Revelation 13: 13-14). In Hebrew, Armageddon probably means Mount Megiddo, the mount near the ancient plain and town of Megiddo, Mount Carmel.
In the context of the end time, people will be able to discern who the true God is by the character of the respective available deities. According to Revelation 13, the god behind the dragon, the beast and the false prophet seeks to persuade by force, threat, and intimidation (Revelation 13: 15-17) and by great displays of power, resulting in deception (Revelation 13:13 -14). In contrast, the true God appeals to the world based on self-sacrifice (Revelation 5: 6; 12:11) and the truth (Revelation 15: 3-4). The contrast couldn't be sharper. Those who chose the demonic Trinity will become more and more like them. Those who choose the true God will honor Him, give Him glory, and worship Him. They will trust and obey Him (Revelation 14:12), even on matters like the Sabbath, regardless of the consequences (Revelation 12:11). The battle of Armageddon finally exposes who each person adores and admires. Prepares for the end of probation and the conclusion of all things. The battle for Armageddon is best understood with attention to 2 Corinthians 10: 3-5 and Ephesians 6: 10-17.