The great dilemma facing the world’s leaders right now is a new disease (COVID-19) with the following features: 1) we have no preventive (vaccine) and no cure, 2) it appears to be highly contagious, 3) it can be spread by people who don’t even know they have it (no symptoms), and 4) it is substantially deadly. We don’t yet know how deadly. Based on today’s statistics, lethality ranges from one percent (Germany) to over ten percent (Italy). Given that so many who test positive are completely without symptoms, it is more likely that the actual range is something like .5% to 5%. Since the deadliness of the common flu is about .1%, these are serious numbers which merit a serious response. To date, the primary response of the world’s leaders (in addition to emergency-level health care for the sick and an all-out drive to find a vaccine and a cure) is social distancing; a substantial portion of the world’s people largely confined to their homes. But this remedy threatens to completely collapse the world’s economy, which would likely have consequences more lethal than the virus itself (suicide, starvation, and increased susceptibility to disease among other consequences).
In light of this situation, I thought it might be helpful to take a closer look at what the Bible has to say about social distancing as a response to contagious disease. There are three main texts: Leviticus 13:45-46, Numbers 5:1-4, and Numbers 12:10-15. I will take them in the order they appear in the Bible. “The leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp.” Lev 13:45-46, ESV. Leprosy is today known to be a mildly contagious disease with extremely debilitating consequences. Back then, there was no treatment and no cure. When a person was identified as having the disease, they were to live alone and signal their condition by dress and voice whenever they were in public. In the previous verses of Leviticus 13 (verses 1-44) are elaborate procedures to diagnose the disease along with 7-14-day quarantines during the period when it was unclear if the symptoms were actually leprous or not.
Numbers 5:1-4, ESV: “The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Command the people of Israel that they put out of the camp everyone who is leprous or has a discharge and everyone who is unclean through contact with the dead. 3 You shall put out both male and female, putting them outside the camp, that they may not defile their camp, in the midst of which I dwell.’ 4 And the people of Israel did so, and put them outside the camp; as the LORD said to Moses, so the people of Israel did.” This text is similar to the previous, without the elaborate procedures for diagnosis and adding a couple of other triggers for isolation (bodily discharge and contact with the dead). The remedy for leprosy was to distance those infected with the disease outside the camp of Israel.
In Numbers 12:10-15, Moses’ sister Miriam is found to have leprosy. Moses prays to God for her healing and Miriam is healed. Nevertheless, in line with the procedures outlined in Leviticus 13:1-44, Miriam is quarantined outside the camp for seven days to verify that the healing had, in fact, taken place. So social distancing is clearly a biblical remedy for contagious disease and those who follow the Bible should have no qualms about observing it under the current situation, even to the extent of avoiding gatherings for worship.
There are, however, two significant differences between the incidents recounted in the Bible and the situation today. First, in the Bible, it was the infected who were isolated socially, not the healthy. By identifying and isolating the diseased the contagion could be controlled. Second, the Israelites were dealing with a disease that had observable, physical symptoms. As we have already noted, with COVID-19 a person can be infected, and infectious, and yet have no symptoms. To some degree that makes social distancing in this case a fool’s errand. In the context of crowded cities, the disease can still be passed on within households and in the context of the search for food and other essential supplies. People who feel completely fine and have no symptoms can still unknowingly spread the disease to the people around them.
What guidance can we take from these texts for the current situation? The “biblical” solution to COVID-19 would seem to involve two things: 1) Find a vaccine and a cure, so the wider population need no longer fear infection from social interaction. But since those remedies are thought to be 12-18 months away at best, what can be done more immediately to stem the tide of the disease without collapsing the world economy? 2) Ramp up testing for COVID-19 to separate the asymptomatic from the healthy. With a contagious disease, diagnosis is critical (Lev 13:1-44). If no one knows who has the disease, social distancing in the biblical sense will not be possible.
There is still the hope that COVID-19 will somehow burn itself out like many similar flus have done in the past. But in the meantime, the “biblical” approach would seem to be, 1) Determine who in fact has the virus and who does not, and 2) Isolate those who are infected so that the rest of the population can go on with their lives and avoid the consequences of a long-lasting global shutdown.
This is a work in progress and there may be flaws in the above that I do not see. But I share this publically for what it is worth in dealing with the present crisis.
The following is an update and expansion of the original blog including some elements of the original and additional biblical evidence.
Since the outbreak of the corona virus pandemic, many people are asking faith-based questions. Is this a judgment of God on the human race? Is this a sign of the End? Does Bible prophecy speak about it? Even if people don’t believe in God or the Bible, they are wondering what their Christian neighbors are thinking about the subject. So I will address what the Bible has to say about contagious diseases and the role they may play as signs of the End in Bible prophecy. Is the current pandemic the Big Event that many have feared?
For starters, let’s all take a deep breath and get some perspective. COVID-19 has sadly led to thousands of pre-mature deaths, but it still pales in significance to the Spanish Flu of a hundred years ago. That resulted in 50-100 million deaths all around the world, at a time when world population was less than two billion (it is close to eight billion today). And further back in history is the Black Plague, which is estimated to have killed 75 to 200 million people (1347-1351 AD) at a time when world population was less than 500 million. That is a ratio of one out of every three people in the world, more or less. So while the current situation is very serious, in human terms, it is not yet at the level of what one might call “apocalyptic proportions.”
So what does the Bible have to say about contagious diseases or pandemics? In the older portion of the Bible, the primary language is ancient Hebrew. The Hebrew word for contagious disease or pandemic is dever. It occurs around fifty times in the “Old Testament”. The root word in the Hebrew has the meaning of “destroying,” with an extended meaning of “pestilence” or “plague.” Ironically, this word is not only associated with contagious disease, it is often associated with animals; it is the “cattle disease” (Exod 9:3). God was planning to use the threat of pestilence to scare off the Canaanites (locale inhabitants of the land of Canaan), so Israel wouldn’t have to fight to enter the “promised land” (Num 14:12). We know, from current experience, how easily a pandemic can induce panic and irrational behavior.
The most common occurrence of “pestilence” in the Hebrew portion of the Bible was as a consequence of Israel’s unfaithfulness to God. When Israel was unfaithful to God, they lost His protection, with the result that enemies would invade their land and cause destruction. In that context we repeatedly find the famous trio: war, famine and pestilence (Lev 26:25; Jer 24:10; Ezek 14:12-21). The three together portray the siege of an ancient city. War drives a people inside the walls of the city, famine follows as the siege continues, and the end-result is contagious disease followed by exile (Lev 26:21-26; Jer 21:6-9; Ezek 7:15). The important point for the questions at the beginning, it that contagious disease (Hebrew: dever) is not in these contexts portrayed as an active punishment from God, but rather as the consequence of disobedience, which results in a loss of God’s protection (Jer 27:13; 32:14; 34:17; 38:2). Pandemics don’t come because God is angry with people, they are the natural consequences of human foolishness and rebellion.
The more recent portion of the Bible (the New Testament—written in the common Greek of the Roman world) has less to say about contagious disease. Luke 21:11 associates pestilence (Greek: loimos, loimoi) with earthquakes, famines and heavenly signs that would occur at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. The word is not found in the part of Luke 21 that addresses the end of the world (Luke 21:25-28). A parallel text to Luke 21:11 is Matthew 24:7. There you will find “pestilence” in some Bible versions but not others. The reason is that the Greek manuscripts the translations are based on sometimes include “pestilence” and sometimes don’t. It is likely that “pestilence” is not original with Matthew. But even if it were, Matthew 24:8 does not place this at the End of the world, but as “the beginning of birth pains.” Pestilence was seen by Jesus as something general to the human experience, not something especially associated with the End. The word is also used metaphorically in Acts 24:5, as in, “This Paul is such a pest.” That derogatory reference is, of course, no clue as to the meaning of COVID-19 today.
There is another Greek word that is often translated as “pestilence.” It is thanatos—a common Greek word for “death.” For whatever reason, it as the usual word chosen in the ancient Greek Old Testament (LLXX) to translate the Hebrew word for contagious disease, dever. So the Greek word for death at the time when the New Testament was written, can carry connotations of “pestilence,” 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 fourth of the earth, to smite with sword, famine, and pestilence. Like Matthew 24 and Luke 21, pestilence is predicted to be a general characteristic of human history, which has certainly been the case.
The third reference to thanatos (death/pestilence) is clearly in an end-time context, however. Pestilence is one of the consequences of “Babylon’s” fall just before the second coming of Jesus. This text does not tell us that COVID-19 is a sign of the End, there is not enough information to be that specific. But it does indicate, more than other biblical texts, that pandemic is likely to be a feature of the end-times. There is one other end-time text that could be relevant to our questions, and that is Revelation 16:2, which speaks of sores afflicting those who have the “mark of the beast.” While these sores are serious, the biblical words for contagious disease or pandemic are not used there.
The short conclusion of this biblical study is two-fold. 1) Pandemic as such is not a “sign of the end.” Since far worse pandemics have occurred in history, it COVID-19 should not be used as an indicator of where we are in history. If the end-times are at hand, other indicators will prove to be more significant that this one. To put it plainly, Bible prophecy does not indicate that pandemic is a key element of the “signs of the End,” neither does it rule it out as one of the troubles of the End. 2) Pandemic is not a direct, active punishment of 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). To the degree that the word “judgment” is appropriate in a pandemic, it is God allowing the human condition to take its course and reap its consequences.
Is there anything else in the Bible that may be helpful in the current crisis? In the Old Testament contexts, contagious disease was a condition that could and should be alleviated by human action (Jer 27:13; 38:2). The most practical remedy offered for contagious disease in the Bible is, in fact, social isolation (Num 5:1-4; see also Num 12:10-15 and Lev 13:45-46), the very thing many of us are now experiencing. It is important for a community to place a separation between those who have the disease and those who do not, as far as this is possible. Co-operating with authorities in these matters should not create an issue of conscience for believers, in fact, conscience should encourage co-operation in a crisis like this (Rom 13:1-5).
Having said all this, prophecy clearly indicates that panic is one characteristic of the final events (Luke 21:25-26). Could COVID-19 lead to eschatological levels of panic? I am not a prophet, an economist, or a scientist, so take the following with a grain of salt. COVID-19, as we experience it, could get a whole lot worse, killing (in the worst case scenario publically stated) as many as two million Americans and tens of millions worldwide. That would put it in Spanish flu territory, but not Black Plague numbers. The greatest concern would not be the current virus, but a mutation of the virus into something even more dangerous. This possibility is something to watch closely, but it does not seem likely to me (I am open to correction on this from scientific sources, not internet speculation). Viruses tend to decrease in potency over time rather than increase. And due to lack of widespread testing, the death rate is probably much lower than 3% right now, as many people who have COVID-19 don’t even know it. In Germany, a nation where testing has been much more widespread than most places, the death rate is currently about eight-tenths of one percent, around a quarter of the world rate. In the USA it is currently less than 2%.
My greater concern for the future is the economic fallout of social isolation over many months (if that proves necessary). Worst-case estimates are that unemployment could reach 20% or more in the USA if the lockdowns last 6-12 months. This could trigger another Great Depression. Given the panic buying already occurring, the social order in a Facebook, post-Christian world could easily break down, leading to rioting, looting and other consequences. Among the likely consequences would be the end of face to face higher education as we know it, a long-term decline in tourism and international travel, a major decline of the restaurant industry and in–person retail, and in today’s climate, a serious increase in perceived anti-Christian persecution.
A couple of years from now, it is very possible that the current, global response to COVID-19 will be perceived as an over-reaction. But since we will never know for sure if that is really true, I am glad we are doing what we are doing, just in case. As to when the final events of earth’s history will happen, the words of Jesus remain relevant, “stay awake, because you don’t know. . . .” Matt 24:42.