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.
I have been hesitant to speak out on the new corona virus (COVID-19) and its potential implications for prophecy and vice versa. There is so much that we don’t know yet. But with a total lockdown in the state of California and many other places (leaving the house only for exercise and food gathering), people are anxious and want to know if I have any advice.
First of all, take a deep breath and get some perspective. COVID-19 has sadly led to thousands of premature 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 beyond that 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 in three, 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.”
The Hebrew word for contagious disease or pandemic is dever. It occurs around fifty times in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). The root word has the meaning of “destroying” and it came to have the meaning of “pestilence” or “plague,” hence the association with contagious disease, and often associated with animals; “cattle disease” (Exod 9:3). It was how God planned to scare off the Canaanites so Israel wouldn’t have to fight to enter the promised land (Num 14:12). It is was also a consequence of disrespecting the covenant, often associated with war and famine in the famous trio: war, famine and pestilence (Lev 26:25; Jer 24:10; Ezek 14:12-21). The three together portray the siege of a city. War drives a people inside the walls, famine follows and the end-result is contagious disease followed by exile (Lev 26:21-26; Jer 21:6-9; Ezek 7:15). This dever is not 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; 32:24; 34:17; 38:2).
The Greek Bible (New Testament) 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. Late Greek manuscripts include pestilence in Matthew 24:7, probably because of familiarity with the Lucan wording. In other words, loimos/loimoi is one of the consequences of the siege of Jerusalem by Titus. The word is also used metaphorically in Acts 24:5, as in, “This Paul is such a pest.” The only other text in the New Testament that contains a word often translated “pestilence” is 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 (Greek: thanatos—a common word for “death” and the usual translation of dever in the Greek OT). In historicist SDA interpretation, Revelation 6:8 is not a sign of the end but something common to the whole age between the opening of the scroll and the Second Coming. The one end-time text that would seem at all relevant here is Revelation 16:2, which speaks of sores afflicting those who had the mark of the beast. While these sores are serious, the biblical words for contagious disease or pandemic are not used.
The short conclusion of this biblical study is two-fold. Pandemic is neither a “sign of the end” nor a direct, active punishment of God, but it is one of the consequences of sin in the broadest sense. In the OT contexts, it 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 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. 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.
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. 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 is not likely (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 South Korea, where testing is widespread, it is 0.7%. Current numbers for Germany (another nation ahead of the curve) are 0.3%, one-tenth of the rate reported in China and Italy (75 deaths out of 21,000 reported cases). In the USA, the current rate is about 1.2%.
My greater concern 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 a serious increase in perceived anti-Christian persecution in this country. In the words of Jesus, “stay awake, because you don’t know. . . .” Matt 24:42.
If you want my speculation–for what it is worth, and it isn’t much–I think a couple years from now, we will consider the current, global response to COVID-19 an over-reaction. But since we will never know if that is really true, I am glad we are doing what we are doing, just in case. But even if we find ourselves in the Kingdom a couple years from now (whether through death or the Second Coming), no one will complain that they are missing out on all the excitement here below.