The worldwide upheaval caused by the fast-spreading novel coronavirus pandemic has many people reaching for their Bibles, and some starting to wonder: Could this be a sign of the apocalypse?
It sure might feel apocalyptic. But not if you ask Christian writers and pastors who have spent years focusing their message on the Book of Revelation — the New Testament’s final book. It lays out a lurid, poetic vision of the End Times, in which many evangelical leaders interpret it to mean that Jesus will return to Earth, believers will be raptured to heaven and those left behind will suffer seven dreadful years of calamities. Most of these Revelation-focused prophesiers don’t see coronavirus as heralding the Second Coming and the end of life on Earth as we know it.
“If a person were just completely ignorant about what the Bible says about the End Times, they may think this right now: This is it,” said Jeff Kinley, a writer of books on biblical prophecy who lives in Harrison, Ark.
Kinley said he understands why Americans might see this time of fast-encroaching disease, isolation from loved ones and crashing stock markets as apocalyptic. Americans are primed to believe the end of the world might arrive any day now. In 2010, 41 percent told Pew Research Center that they expected Jesus to return by 2050.
Kinley pointed to Revelation 6:8, which forecasts deaths all over the globe “by sword, famine and plague,” and Jesus’ words about the events before the end times in Luke 21:11: “There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven.”
“I think he’s referring to a future time,” Kinley said. “I don’t think this is an actual fulfillment of that.”
The Bible is very specific about what will happen before the End Times, Kinley says, and those events haven’t all unfolded yet. For one major thing, the ancient temple in Jerusalem is supposed to be rebuilt first.
Gary Ray, a writer for the prophecy website Unsealed, agreed: He and his fellow evangelical End-Times writers are focused on what is happening with holy sites in Israel, not disease. “The key focus that we have in our minds is Israel. That’s God’s prophetic clock. As things progress in that country, we get closer to when the rapture of the church will occur, and then the tribulation,” he said.
Ray, who lives near Dallas, pointed out that there have been many pandemics in world history, and none of them have been a token of an approaching apocalypse. But this one might be different, he acknowledged — because of an astrological event in 2017 that Ray read as fulfilling a prophecy in Revelation. “Jesus said there would be pestilences and great signs in the heavens. And sure enough, both of those things are happening together.”
In Ray’s opinion, these portents should send non-Christians rushing toward the Bible, so they can convert while there is still time before the Christians are raptured and everyone else has to endure the wretched seven years. “God is a very gracious god,” he said. “He wants the most possible people to be saved. He’s giving sign after sign after sign, and they’re very clear.”
Michael Brown, host of the Christian radio show “The Line of Fire,” based in Charlotte, also said coronavirus is not a sign of the End Times, but a good opportunity for reflection on what he believes will come. “I see this as a trial run to see how we respond to calamity and hardship,” he said. “If we’re shaken now, how are we going to react when it really gets wild?”
One reason for all these relatively rosy assessments from people who might otherwise be doomsday prophesiers? It might be President Trump’s attitude toward the virus; the president, who is very popular among evangelical Christians, for weeks played down the seriousness of the disease threat. His tone, however, grew markedly more concerned this week.
James Beverley, a professor at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto, said he found in researching his forthcoming book on Trump and Christian prophecy that charismatic and Pentecostal prophets, who normally think the End Times are near, have been less likely to forecast doom during the Trump administration.
“Some are saying that Satan is the source of evils like the virus, but the doom and gloom message is missing. There is such a positive view on Trump and such strong wishes for his reelection that there is deep hope that the virus will die out, a strong economy will return and Trump will defeat the Democratic nominee,” Beverley wrote in an email. “It is stunning how optimistic charismatic prophets are since Trump won in 2016.”