The danger of the novel coronavirus has given us pause to reflect. As Christian believers, apart from praying, we are expected to examine and question our beliefs in this time, and to seek answers which are rooted in the perspective of the Holy Scriptures.
But any reflection on the big questions arising from our attempts to understand the current crisis requires us to know the context of the history of the Bible.
Epidemics and pandemics in the Bible
The most well-known epidemic in biblical times was ‘plague’, also referred to as ‘pestilence’, and known today as bubonic plague. In biblical Hebrew it was called déḇer (extermination), and in Greek it was called loimós or thánatos (death). It is frequently mentioned in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible), and in the writings of the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel.
Plague is caused by a bacterium (Yersinia pestis) found in fleas and most often transmitted by rats. It is a morbid condition, sometimes associated with war and with handling dead bodies. In as little as a day or a week from infection, flu-like symptoms such as fever, headaches and nausea occur. The ganglia become unusually swollen, and large sores develop, which can sometimes rupture. Depending on the type of plague, the wound can lead to septicemia or pneumonia. Without treatment, most infected persons die within ten days.
Plague appears in the Bible as an affliction that affects the cattle of the Egyptians (Exodus 9:3), but not people (Exodus 9:16). It also appears as a punishment on the Jews for breaking their promises (Leviticus 26:25; Deuteronomy 28:21). In David’s time, plague killed 70 000 people in just three days (2 Samuel 24:15). Plague was one of the three consequences of turning away from God (war, hunger, plague) which the Jews had been warned about before Jerusalem was destroyed (Jeremiah 14:12, 21:6-9). A third of the population was going to fall prey to the plague (Ezekiel 5:12). The Prophet Amos said: “I sent plagues among you as I did to Egypt; …I filled your nostrils with the stench of your camps yet you have not returned to me, declares the Lord” (Amos 4:10).
Alongside the plague, the Jewish Bible also mentions the following deadly diseases, epidemics, and afflictions. The ancients used to name diseases after their symptoms, sometimes using the same word for different illnesses bearing similar symptoms.
- qéṭeḇ (cholera): Cholera manifests as severe diarrhea and vomiting, muscular cramps, dehydration, low temperature, sudden loss of weight, disorientation, skin rashes, coma, pneumonia, and septicemia. This type of illness has been seen since antiquity, and it has caused havoc in modern times as well.
- réšef (typhoid fever): The symptoms of typhoid fever are a continuous fever, abdominal pain, constipation, dropping of the pulse, rashes, and the perforation and bleeding of the intestine.
- šaḫéfeṯ (tuberculosis): Tuberculosis has been known from antiquity as a fatal illness that manifests itself through fever and coughing with blood.
- qaddáḫaṯ (measles): Measles is an acute viral infection, extremely contagious, which manifests itself through fever, coughing, runny nose, conjunctivitis, eczema, lymphadenopathy, anorexia, and diarrhea. It can lead to further complications: pneumonia, convulsions, sometimes blindness and the inflammation of the brain.
- dalléqeṯ (anthrax): Anthrax was known in antiquity as an illness of both cattle and humans which manifests itself through multiple symptoms: skin ulcers and skin necrosis, coughing, fever, chills, respiratory failure, cardiac and kidney failure, hemorrhagic diarrhea, and septicemia.
- ḫarḫūr (chickenpox): Also known from antiquity, chickenpox affects children, but it can also be fatal to adults. It manifests itself through small skin rashes, itchiness, headaches, fatigue and fever. Thousands of people die from it every year.
- šəḫīn (smallpox): Smallpox is a terrible illness which manifests itself through fever, vomiting, canker sores, and blisters. It can lead to blindness and body deformities.
- çaráᶜaṯ (leprosy and other skin conditions): Leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, affects the nerves, the airways, the skin and the eyes, leading to the loss of one’s limbs and, eventually, death.
gārāḇ (scabies or mange): Known since antiquity, mange still affects around 300 million humans annually.
yabbéleṯ (weeping sores?)
Apart from these, the Bible describes the strange, unnamed illness of Job (Job 2:7-8), “painful sores from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head”, which caused terrible itching. The illness was caused by the Devil, the great biologist of evil. Poor Job’s skin got darker and peeled off, making him feel like his bones were burning and dehydrated (Job 30:30). This is a similar condition to the first of the seven plagues of the Apocalypse, which will fall upon those who not have listened to the last warning (Revelation 14:6-12): “The first angel went and poured out his bowl on the land, and ugly, festering sores broke out on the people who had the mark of the beast and worshiped its image.” (Revelation 16:2).
This plague is to continue, and will be felt during the many plagues which will rapidly follow on from it as the history of the world accelerates to the end (Revelation 16:10-11).
The ten plagues of the Christian era
Many plagues have blanketed the world over time. Almost every year, there is a deadly epidemic somewhere in the world. These are only the major, historic pandemics:
- In the years 165-180, Galen’s plague (or the Antonine plague), which was probably a smallpox or a chickenpox epidemic, affected Asia Minor, Egypt, Greece and Italy. Transmitted to these regions by Roman armies returning from campaigns in Mesopotamia, this plague decimated the Roman military, and killed over 5 million people.
- In the years 541-542, there was an outbreak of bubonic plague (Justinian’s plague), which hit the Eastern Empire and its Mediterranean ports, killing, in a single year of horror, almost 25 million people. It annihilated almost a quarter of the population of the Eastern Mediterranean, and it devastated Constantinople, where up to 5 000 people died every day.
- In the years 1346-1353, a large part of the world was affected by bubonic plague. This outbreak became know as “The Black Death”. This pandemic devastated large parts of Europe, Africa and Asia, killing between 75 and 200 million people. The plague came from Asia, on merchants’ ships, transmitted by flea-infested rats.
- In the years 1852-1860 the worst cholera pandemic took place. The disease appeared in the Ganges River delta in India, and spread through Asia, Europe, North America and Africa, to the cost of a million human lives. In 1854 alone, 23 000 people in Great Britain died.
- Between 1889-1890 the Asian (or Russian) flu haunted the Earth. From Central Asia to Canada and Greenland, this flu killed around a million people.
- In 1910 and 1911, a cholera epidemic broke out again in India, where it killed 800 000 people. It then took over the Middle East, North Africa, Eastern Europe, Russia and America, where, because of isolation measures, the disease did not claim many victims.
- In 1918-1920, a deadly flu epidemic broke out, infecting around a third of the world’s population, and taking the lives of tens of millions of people within the first weeks. Unlike other flu epidemics, which killed children, older people and the sick, this started to affect healthy young adults.
- In the years 1956-1958, the Asian flu broke out again (subtype H2N2), first in China, then Singapore, Hong Kong, and then in America. In two years, the plague had claimed 2 million lives.
- In 1968 a flu pandemic broke out in Hong Kong, which was genetically related to the one in 1918. Within 13 days, it was observed in both Singapore and Vietnam, and after three months it had reached the Philippines, India, Australia, Europe, and the United States. Over 1 million people died, and 15% of the victims were from Hong Kong.
- A different kind of virus, the years 2005-2012 saw the peak of the virus HIV/AIDS, which was first identified in the Congo in 1976. It has killed 36 million people between 1981 and today. There are between 31 and 35 million infected people today, most of them living in Africa, south of the Sahara, where there are around 21 million infected people (5% of the population). Between 2005 and 2012, millions of people died from HIV. The number of annual victims has since decreased steadily from 2,2 million to 1,6 million.
It is natural, when a plague arrives, seemingly out of nowhere, for people to ask “Why?”. Scientific explanations are not well understood and accepted by most ordinary people. Thus, many people end up looking for explanations in the spiritual realm. It is interesting, however, that the armies that are usually devoted to Evil which the Bible describes—the Devil and “the powers of this dark world” (Ephesians 6:12)—are not suspected by most Christians as being responsible for these terrible plagues. Rather, God is blamed.
Dr. Liise-Anne Pirofski, Head of the Infectious Diseases Department of the Albert Einstein Medical College, and an expert on the history of epidemics, has said: “When disease strikes and people are suffering, the need to understand why is great. And, unfortunately, the need to identify a scapegoat is unavoidable.” For example, the 2009 swine flu was blamed on the Mexicans by many Americans and Chileans. Argentinians blamed Chileans, and Europe warned its citizens not to visit Argentina.
When the black death (bubonic plague) hit Europe in the 14th century, Jews were accused of poisoning wells and spreading the plague (which is what some of them falsely “confessed” to, under torture). Many Jews did not use public wells, hence the suspicion. This ethnic, religious group of people were suspected because they were not very affected by the plague. In actual fact, the Jews had since antiquity practiced good hygiene, as they were in the habit of washing their hands, especially after using the toilet, and bathing every week (on Fridays, to prepare for the Sabbath). These habits were absolutely despised by Christians. The washing of hands and bathing were looked upon in horror even by kings and the nobility.
At the behest of flagellant monks, who blamed Jews, and born out of a desire to seize Jewish wealth, hundreds of Jewish communities were destroyed in France, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Germany. On 14 February 1349, 2 000 Jews were burned alive in Strasbourg, before the plague had even broken out there. In Mainz, the entire Jewish ghetto of 3 000 souls was massacred. In different places, Jews committed suicide, so as not to fall prey to Christians. In the end, many found refuge in Poland and Lithuania.
Influenced by his doctor, the pope at the time (Pope Clement VI of Avignon), who was in conflict with the flagellant monks, published two papal bulls insisting that Jews were not guilty for the onset of the plague, and that it had instead been caused by an unruly alignment of three planets.
The cause of an outbreak and the circumstances of its spread are always complex, and the worst thing to do is to blame others, whether they are infected or not. We always need to keep things in perspective: a pandemic is just one of the problems we are bound to face in this world, and not by any means the greatest evil that can befall us. From a biblical perspective, the worst disease is sin, a perversion of our attitude towards God and our fellow humans. This is the gravest pandemic, to which we all contribute in one way or another. It is a horror which people have become complacent about, and which has destroyed many souls, making them exceedingly unhappy in this life.
It is important to note that a portion of the blame for spreading some epidemics lies with those who do not respect the rules. In the same way, sin spreads when the laws that God gave to Moses are not respected. God also gave rules to Moses, 3 500 years ago, about nutrition, hygiene and cleanliness, the avoidance of the touching of dead bodies, rules for washing, and many other practical rules for life. Unfortunately, many Christian theologians, by misunderstanding the words of Jesus Christ, have decided that these rules are no longer valid: one can eat what they please, and touch anything. Nothing is unclean.
From the point of view of God’s providence, it is true that nothing is out of His control. But His priorities are different to ours, and, no matter how hard it may be for us to accept this, His priorities are better. At the same time, God never made a pact with people (and such a pact would not even be possible in a world governed by sin and its effects), that He would intervene in the event of natural calamities or socio-political troubles to arbitrarily end the suffering. In spite of all His care for them, God hasn’t even promised the faithful that they will be entirely spared from misery. There is nothing, therefore, for us to hold against God in the case of this coronavirus pandemic.
Does God have any obligation towards us? In a certain way, we could say He does, because He made us. And the Bible shows that His providence works in our favour more than most of us imagine. At the same time, the truth is that we, as Adam’s children, have drifted far away from Him, and demonstrated that we don’t want to know Him anymore. The parables of Jesus are the most edifying evidence of the complex way in which God’s interested in our well-being and salvation is communicated to us. The shepherd did not abandon his hundredth sheep, the only one who went missing—he went searching for it. The housewife searched for her missing coin until she found it. Strikingly then, we discover that the prodigal son’s father did not go in search of him, but rather he waited for him at home (Luke 15:4-32). But at the heart of the parable, we can come to understand that, if the father had gone to search him, the son would most likely have only run further from him, and become even more unwilling to accept his grace. Sin drives our minds away from God.
The parable of the prodigal son shows clearly that it was through hardship that the son came to his senses—this alone made him recognise his need. In other words, his great trouble did not lie in the fact that he had lost his wealth, that his clothes were torn, that he had ended up being a slave for pigs, and that he was hungry and haunted by exhaustion. On the contrary, these hardships were the only reason why the estranged son got up and went back home. Thus, his hardships and sufferings were a true blessing to him! By contrast, human beings in Noah’s time, before the Flood, were extremely healthy, and lived incredibly long lives. However, in the space of one day, they all perished, except for eight faithful people. Our Saviour had seen in their defiant attitude that they would not accept his gift of grace. Their tragic end is an analogy for the times we live in now—right before His return (Matthew 24:37-39).
God is not the perpetrator of these plagues. He very rarely punishes humanity in that way (Acts 5:1-11). Neither can one say that a plague merely hits “those who must be hit” (Daniel 3:22; Luke 13:1-5). The truth is, justice is rarely done in our world, and only God’s judgement will give satisfactory answers to all our questions (Psalms 94;15; Obadiah 1:15 Revelation 14:6-7). To complete the picture of God’s character, the Bible—which grants God, as Sovereign, even that which does not lie in His intention, wish, or action—shows that He “strikes”, only to then “heal” (Job 5:18; Isaiah 19:22-25). Healing strikes at the heart. Man may think that God’s attitude is cruel or indifferent. But, looking at it from God’s ‘house’—meaning, from His presence and under the influence of His wisdom—everything looks different (Psalm 107; Isaiah 6:1-3).
Florin Lăiu is a specialist in biblical languages, and a theologian.