COVID-19 and the Return of Jesus

Johannes Pflaum

The headline sounds sensational. But it isn't about revelations or speculations, but rather about examining the signs of the times in light of the Bible, and soberly categorizing them.

The Lord Jesus certainly asked the Pharisees and Sadducees to understand the signs of the times (Matt 16:1-4). The point is assessing developments in light of the prophetic Word (2 Pet 1:19). However, this is subordinate to an important basic biblical principle. Only the living God can direct history to its goal, according to His plan. Only He knows about the exact times (cf. Acts 1:7), and possible delays to or accelerations of end-time events.

The question arises: what does all of this have to do with the coronavirus pandemic? Wasn’t there also the Spanish flu at the end of World War I, and the plague in the Middle Ages? Didn’t people in those days think that events were taking place that suggested Jesus’ return and the coming Judgment Day? It’s true that these speculations have existed before. Nevertheless, it’s worth taking a closer look at the current situation.

In Jesus’ end-times discourse (Matt 24; Mark 13; Luke 21), we can see various baselines that are discernible in the events leading up to the Lord’s return. Biblical interpreters have different insights into this end-times discourse. For example, some see the start of the labor pains prior to the Great Tribulation that Jesus had announced. For others, the events predicted only begin with the Tribulation. Regardless of how we think about it, the developments of redemptive history are always foreshadowed. We can also say that they announce themselves before their actual fulfillment comes to light. In this way, end-time lines emerge more and more clearly, until everything is finally fulfilled.

Scripture reveals another prominent indicator for evaluating the signs of the times; namely, Israel. In Deuteronomy 30:1-11, there is already talk of a future gathering of Israel and the fulfillment of the promises connected with it. In Isaiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, as well as in other prophets, the coming judgment on the nations and the establishment of God’s visible rule (from a New Testament perspective: the return of Jesus) are also inseparable from the events surrounding the land and people of Israel. That’s why the sprouting fig tree is therefore a symbol of the coming summer in Matthew 24:32-33. The fig tree is symbolic of the land and people of Israel (cf. Hos 9:10; Joel 1:7; et al.). In the Gospel of Matthew, our Lord Himself compares the coming judgment of Israel with the sterile fig tree (Matt 21:18-22). The signs of the last time are thus the events around the newly awakening and “sprouting fig tree” of Israel. From this benchmark, we can also classify the other signs that Jesus listed as forerunners of His coming. 

There is one more thing to consider. The “labor pains” or signs of Jesus’ approaching return, are global events. The character of Jesus’ end-time discourse makes this clear. This is expressed literally in the global preaching of the Gospel (Matt 24:14), and the fearful anticipation and helplessness in the face of upcoming events that affect the whole world (Luke 21:25-26). The Book of Revelation also shows that the events prior to Jesus’ return will be global; that is, worldwide. There is a clear difference from earlier times, when events were typically confined to specific regions, even if they were large or spanned more than one continent. In Matthew 24:7, we read of great wars, famines, epidemics, and earthquakes. I’d like to single out epidemics here, including pandemics.

One example I could give is the plague (1346-1353), which included the “Old World” (Europe, the Middle East, and northern Africa) but was not yet global. 

Interestingly, the attribute “worldwide” didn’t appear in pandemic lists until the end of the 19th century. We see the term “worldwide” again and again in the pandemic lists of the 20th and 21st centuries. As mentioned, the nation of Israel is the chief sign of the end times. The first worldwide pandemic (influenza, 1889-1890) coincided with the time when the first waves of Jewish return migration began and Zionism emerged as a movement. In Matthew 24:7, we also read of nations and kingdoms rising up against each other. Arnold Fruchtenbaum points out that in the time of Christ, the expression “nation against nation” was the name for a world war that precedes the coming of the Messiah. The two World Wars were not the final great war the Bible speaks of. But the global dimensions of World War I—much more so in World War II—had never been seen in the whole of human history. And, between these two World Wars, we also see the worldwide Spanish flu with its 50-70 million deaths (some estimates reach up to 100 million victims). Although the number of victims was much lower, the Asian, Hong Kong, Russian, avian, and swine flus also fall under the “worldwide” label. Similarly, HIV infections have been cited as a global pandemic, with 36 million deaths to date since 1980. Additionally, there is worldwide information about epidemics or pandemics, which remained limited to certain regions, but represented a possible global threat (e.g. SARS, MERS, Ebola).

Currently, deaths from coronavirus have been significantly lower than other worldwide pandemics. Nevertheless, there are some features that distinguish this crisis from previous pandemics.

At one point, there was a global flood of information related to the SARS-CoV-2 virus like never before in a pandemic. Initially, at the beginning of the 20th century, information was provided by print media. Then radio was added, followed by television, as a broad means of communication. The internet was already present during the avian and swine flus. But the global flood of information about the coronavirus pandemic is breaking all records of media coverage of previous pandemics. In Matthew 24:6, Christ speaks of His disciples “hearing” of wars and rumors of war. The content of this “hearing” can also include the next verse, in which Christ elaborates on what has been said, complete with famines, epidemics, earthquakes, and more. The coronavirus has become the dominant topic in the news, as well as in many personal discussions, over the months.

Another prominent feature of COVID-19 is the speed at which the virus has spread worldwide. The spread of the Spanish flu has already been linked to the worldwide mobility which had developed as a result of the events of World War I. Both the viral spread rate and the infection rate—which was still light as far as the avian and swine flus were concerned—exploded with the coronavirus. A major contributing factor was constant, tightly packed international air and tourist travel. Within a few weeks, the virus had spread practically all over the world.

Another aspect is the growing fear and perplexity that comes with the pandemic. At the beginning, the emerging epidemic outside of China was still being downplayed by many governments. But, this attitude turned into hysterical panic and unprecedented activism within a few days. Politicians  and health experts contradicted themselves within a few weeks, making statements and assessments that were in complete opposition to what they had said previously. One sign of the times in Luke 21:25-26 is global perplexity, and the associated fear and dread of coming events. From then on, the panic over climate change was replaced and overshadowed by fear of the coronavirus. The final days before Jesus’ return will be a time of global, fearful expectation, regardless of whether those fears materialize.

With the SARS-CoV-2 virus, a completely unexpected event befell humanity. As a result, life changed suddenly, even in industrialized nations. Just a few months earlier, the sudden restrictions on personal freedoms, movement, and assembly had seemed extremely unlikely in democratic countries.  Everything happened practically overnight—without long-running processes or developments. We should be shaken out of our false sense of security in this regard: the overall situation on earth, even in the West, can change quite rapidly. This doesn’t just apply to freedom of belief, which we’re still very grateful for right now. The last events before Jesus’ return can start coming true within the blink of an eye.

Additionally, the coronavirus pandemic suddenly brought many countries on different continents into conformity. From Asia to Australia, some African countries, Europe to America, people are suddenly in the same boat with the same threats, problems, and measures. Regardless of the countries in which they live, people were ready to cede their rights to certain freedoms in the fight against the pandemic. This also leads to global solidarity between peoples. I’m not concerned with the question of whether these measures are appropriate or excessive, but with the fact that we recognize the baseline: apparently, an unforeseen, threatening event can occur overnight, leading to a global state of emergency shared by everyone. In the future, such an event, even in other fields, could serve as a stepping-stone for the rise of the Antichrist (cf. Rev 13:1-3).

For years, we’ve already become aware of the monitoring options that come with digital communication. Due to coronavirus, various nations (Taiwan, Israel, etc.) have officially used this monitoring. This is also associated with a rapid acceleration in the capture and collection of digital data and profiles. Drones are systematically being deployed to monitor the population’s compliance with rules about going out and social contact. It’s understandable that this is serving the best of intentions—disrupting the routes of infection. But, at the same time, another barrier to electronic surveillance has officially been overstepped. As a result, we can firmly assume that governmental, digital, and electronic surveillance will also be much easier to use in other threat scenarios in the future. In view of health and the public good, a large part of the population is no longer concerned. This is also evident from the increasing willingness to disclose your own movement data through a coronavirus tracking app.

In this context, the coronavirus pandemic also fueled the discussion about abolishing cash. Doing so would avoid one possible “virus carrier” (cash) and eliminate the risk of infection for people directly involved in payment transactions. It is of secondary importance whether this is fueled by actual virological findings, or is only a pretext for the planned abolition of cash. It is more important to see that both the “friendship” with a completely cashless payment transaction and the associated increasing surveillance, are further developments that are paving the way for the future appearance of a “world problem solver”—the Antichrist (cf. Rev 13:16-17).

For the first time since World War II, the emergence of the coronavirus in Western democracies led to emergency ordinances that suddenly gave governments much more power to control their citizens’ lives very centrally. The legitimate concern remains that some of it will linger on, even after the possible pandemic waves have ended. On the one hand, it will be easier for democratically elected governments to issue emergency regulations in difficult situations in the future. On the other hand, individual regulations of varying intensity could also be maintained. Additionally, there are the economic consequences of COVID-19. They will lead to a global economic crisis, the depths of which can’t yet be foreseen. Such a recession can be the next step in further expanding the “coronavirus pandemic proven” state interventions and ordinances. Possibly vital economic interventions by the state can be a further step toward mankind worldwide becoming accustomed to centralized forms of government. This whole scenario would then be a further precursor to the appearance of the Antichrist.

Now the “corona cuts” are affecting all citizens in the same way, completely regardless of their religion or other interests (e.g. sporting events). As the church of Jesus, it’s important that we support such emergency efforts and be subject to the state (cf. Romans 13:1-7), unless this leads to disobedience to God and His Word. This means that we have to keep a close eye on developments and analyze them, drawing the necessary conclusions. In this context, the question of whether the prohibition on the free practice of religion (worship services) corresponds to the basic constitutions of the individual Western democracies, is not insignificant. Taking Germany as an example, it becomes clear that constitutional lawyers have differing opinions. Mind you, I’m not concerned with the question of whether the church of Jesus should follow measures intended to slow the spread of coronavirus. As mentioned, this should be discussed in connection with Romans 13. Rather, it’s a matter of seeing the overall development; how certain fundamental rights can suddenly be restricted or suspended by an emergency, even without long upheavals or unrest. As the church of Jesus, this should save us from all false self-confidence regarding freedom of belief.

As mentioned at the beginning, it isn’t a question of feeding religious sensationalism or starting speculation. But what is emerging in the wake of the COVID-19 scenario is undoubtedly further preparation for the final global events before Jesus’ return. The coronavirus pandemic is a wake-up call for the church of Jesus in the West. The point is to wake up from our affluent Christianity, to see through our pious false security, and to consciously, internally prepare for Jesus’ approaching return and the events to come. As the Apostle Paul writes in Romans 13:11-12: “Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”

We’re not pleased with the looming perspective shown above regarding the coming upheavals and escalations. Even as Bible-believing Christians, we can fall into fear and dread ourselves. For this reason, our Lord encouraged His disciples at the end of His end-times discourse in Luke 21:18-19: “But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives.” I’d like to conclude with, “Cheer up: our Lord is coming soon!”

Midnight Call - 09/2020

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