This particular virus, it is argued, must be a sign of the “last days” that are prophesied of in the Bible, specifically in the book of Revelation. But is this really the proper way to think about the current global situation?
As of yesterday, there have been nearly 3,500 confirmed cases of a novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in the United States. The U.S. government has “declared a public health emergency and issued the highest level of travel warning on other countries as the virus spreads its horrible infection.” In response, universities, schools, and public institutions have suspended in-person gatherings until further notice. Churches have cancelled Sunday services. These extraordinary events have caused some Christians to conclude that the end is near. This particular virus, it is argued, must be a sign of the “last days” that are prophesied of in the Bible, specifically in the book of Revelation. But is this really the proper way to think about the current global situation?
Rethinking How We View the Book of Revelation
Many Christians, perhaps unconsciously, hold a very specific view of Revelation called the “futurist view.” This view sees nearly all the events portrayed in John’s symbolic vision as needing to be fulfilled literally sometime in our future. Interpreters who hold this view are forced to continually modify their interpretation of the events going on around them in order to make it fit with their view of the book of Revelation. Dr. Gregory Beale elaborates:
In the twentieth century alone, for instance, numerous individuals, from Hitler to Saddam Hussein, with various popes and other politicians (as has been the case from the medieval period up to the present), have been identified as the antichrist, and then quietly discarded when they pass from the scene. The same is true with specific historical events or institutions (the Second World War, the European Common Market, the Gulf War, Y2K, Saddam Hussein’s supposed rebuilding of Babylon). In short, the Bible is interpreted by modern events first, instead of by itself. (Revelation: A Shorter Commentary, p. 8)
Similarly, many Christians today are prone to think that the coronavirus “pandemic” is proof-positive that Jesus is coming back soon (i.e. within this generation). They see the worldwide scale of the virus and conclude that it must be a sign that the pale horse of Revelation 6 is at work in a special way in our generation. The Apostle John explains this pale horse that he saw in his vision as follows: “And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth” (Revelation 6:8, emphasis added).
However there is another way of viewing Revelation. Dr. Beale explains that instead of viewing the Apostle John’s vision as speaking mainly of “events surrounding the return of Christ at the end of history,” we should view the book of Revelation “as a symbolic presentation of the battle between good and evil” that is unfolding as Christ continues to expand his kingdom throughout the earth. Certain events still remain to be fulfilled (such as Christ’s final return), but the specifics in the vision must be understood in light of the fact that John was given a vision which represented what was already occurring in the first century. Christ’s inaugurated reign has set in motion a series of events that have been unfolding (and will continue to unfold) for the past 2,000 years.
With this framework in mind, Beale notes that “the horsemen represent sufferings [including diseases] decreed to occur for all of Christ’s followers” throughout the church age. The trials that come upon all humanity are for two main purposes: (1) to purify the faith of Christians and (2) to punish those who reject Christ’s kingship. God sometimes will also use these “judgments” to stir the consciences of unbelievers, causing them to consider the claims of Christ. In his commentary, Beale argues persuasively that the book of Revelation (and the Bible as a whole) makes it clear that behind every famine, pestilence, war, or natural disaster, God is at work. A biblical understanding of human history, and especially the past 2,000 years, confirms this: God uses various means to accomplish his purposes.