[If you’re looking for a German version of this post, you’re in luck.]
I’ve heard only one person so far—a young New Yorker, interviewed on TV—use the word “apocalyptic” in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic. Mostly, I guess, we are being very pragmatic about it. But it’s early days, and as the fatalities mount and the economic and social impact begins to bite, we may begin to feel rather less sanguine about the whole thing. The fact is that we are having to take extraordinary measures to deal with an extraordinary global crisis.
We’re not surprised to find that there are many “plagues” (plēgai) in the book of Revelation (eg. Rev. 9:18; 11:6; 15:1; 18:8), but the analogue for these is the plagues of Egypt—more general and perhaps unnatural “blows” against a people. The word “pestilence” occurs only once in the book in the ESV: Death and Hades are given authority to “kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth” (Rev. 6:8).
So what’s that all about? Should we be worried? No and yes.
John addresses his “revelation”—his apokalypsis—to the seven churches in Asia. He speaks of himself as their “brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus” (Rev. 1:9). They are under considerable stress at the moment, for all sorts of reasons, but sooner or later Jesus will be recognised by the peoples of the earth as the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the living God, endued with all authority and power (Rev. 1:7).
The visions begin with a “revelation of Jesus Christ” as the one who died but now lives, who has “the keys of Death and Hades” (1:18). Jesus has appeared on earth, somewhat in the manner and guise of an angel, to instruct John to write letters to the Seven churches. The circumstances and experiences of the churches vary, but the key message is the same: those who persevere and “conquer” in the face of opposition and the threat of death will have a share in the “first resurrection” of the martyrs, which will take place in the wake of the overthrow of Babylon the Great (Rev. 20:4-6).
Then we have a dramatic change of location. John sees a door open in heaven. He is taken up in the Spirit and finds himself in the throne room of the God who created all things (Rev. 4:1-2, 11). There is a hint here of the central point of dispute for the churches in the pagan world. It is not the manifold gods of Greece and Rome but the one God of Jewish prophetic tradition who is in control of history—and it is the God of history who holds in his hand “a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals” (Rev. 5:1). In effect, that he holds this scroll is the “gospel” that is being proclaimed to the nations (Rev. 14:6-7). They will soon have to reckon with the God of history.
An angel asks whether anyone is worthy to open the scroll with its seven seals. John is reassured that the Lamb, seen standing before the throne of the living God, has been found worthy because by his death he has ransomed a priestly people for God (Rev. 5:5-10). In other words, the authority to act as judge on behalf of God at this critical moment in the history of his people has been given to the crucified and exalted Jesus.
The rest of the book follows from this premise.
As the first four seals are opened, four horsemen appear (Rev. 6:1-8). The first, on a white horse, is a conquering king, armed perhaps with a Parthian bow. The second comes riding a red horse and is “permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people should slay one another, and he was given a great sword.” The third, on a black horse, sets the price for wheat and barley under famine conditions, but is told not to harm olive oil and wine. The fourth, finally, whose horse has a sickly green colour, goes by the name Death, with Hades in close attendance. Death and Hades (or all four horsemen) are “given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth” (Rev. 6:8).
- John has plainly been inspired by Zechariah’s visions of a rider and four horses of different colours and of four chariots with teams of horses of different colours, which are sent out to patrol the earth (Zech. 1:8; 6:1-8). But John’s four horsemen are far more sinister.
- The rider on a white horse is unlikely to be Christ, despite the similarity with the rider on a white horse who judges and makes war following the overthrow of Rome (Rev. 19:11). Christ is the one opening the seals. The rider of Revelation 6:2 has a bow, not a sword, and appears to share the mission of the group; he is the one leading the assault.
- The word translated “pestilence” is thanatos (“death”). The usage is common in the Septuagint—for example: “A quarter of you shall be dispensed by death, and a quarter of you shall be finished off by famine in your midst, and a quarter of you, to every wind I will scatter them, and a quarter of you shall fall by the sword around you…” (Ezek. 5:12).
- The reference to killing by sword, famine, pestilence and wild beasts evokes a well defined Old Testament tradition. Typically it is Israel that is on the receiving end: “For thus says the Lord GOD: How much more when I send upon Jerusalem my four disastrous acts of judgment, sword, famine, wild beasts, and pestilence (thanaton), to cut off from it man and beast!” (Ezek. 14:21). What connects the disasters is invasion and warfare: the Babylonians will besiege Jerusalem and large numbers of people will die from famine and disease in the city and by sword and wild animals (cf. Jer. 14:12; 15:2; 21:7; 24:10; 32:24; 38:2; Ezek. 5:12, 17; 7:15). The Roman historian Dio Cassius reports the Jewish casualties at the time of the second revolt in AD 132-35: 580,000 men fell to the sword, countless others to famine, disease and fire; “wolves and hyenas rushed howling into their cities” (Dio Cassius 69.1-2)
- Judgment does not begin here. What has happened is that the conditions for judgment by invasion and warfare, whether against Jerusalem or against Rome, have been put in place. There are certain other conditions to be fulfilled before the full force of God’s wrath is unleashed at the blowing of the first trumpet (Rev. 8:6): the souls of the martyrs are told to wait a little longer to be avenged (6:9-11); there are premonitions of the social-political upheavals to come (6:12-17); a symbolic number of Jewish believers is sealed against harm (7:1-8); a crowd of witnesses from the nations, perhaps also martyrs, is seen declaring that salvation belongs to God and to the Lamb (7:9-17); and the prayers of the saints for an end to their suffering and for vindication rise before the throne of God (8:1-5). Then it all kicks off.
So the place of widespread, uncontrollable infectious disease in John’s disturbing apocalyptic vision can be precisely determined: a king will lead an army, peace will be removed from the land and the door will be opened to warfare, social and economic chaos will ensue, culminating in an assault on the city (Jerusalem? Rome?) and massive loss of life through fighting, starvation, disease and wild animals. Nothing for us to worry about there.
Or is there? Do we not also have a disturbing story to tell?
Rodney Stark has argued that the self-sacrificial Christian response to the devastating ebola-like plagues that swept through the Roman world in the third century did much to establish the credibility of Christianity and its superiority to paganism. I see that the thesis has been getting a lot of coverage recently.
It may be of great historical significance, but I’m not sure it offers much guidance—or comfort—for the church today. On the one hand, arguably, such compassion is one of the things that modern secular humanism has retained from its Christian upbringing. There is a great deal of neighbourliness in evidence at the moment. On the other, we now have professional social and medical services. It’s the doctors and nurses who are being applauded from balconies in Spain and Portugal. The churches are empty.
Perhaps another historical example would be more relevant.
When Gregory was elected pope in 590 following the loss of his predecessor to the plague from the east that was ravaging the city, he immediately called his people to repentance. Tom Holland tells the story in Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind:
The Roman people, hearing their new pope urge them to repentance, did not hesitate to obey him. Day after day, they walked the streets, raising prayers and chanting psalms. Eighty dropped dead of the plague as they went in procession. Then, on the third day, an answer at last from the heavens. The plague-arrows stopped falling. The dying abated. The Roman people were spared obliteration. (150)
Would that work today? I doubt it, but we have become a burdensome population on this shrinking earth, and it may be a more appropriate model than Stark’s. The suspicion is growing among scientists that it is the large-scale disruption of the natural environment that is forcing novel pathogens into the human population. Isn’t repentance—a transformative change of mind, a radical change of behaviour—exactly what is needed? And isn’t that something that the church should be good at?
Surely there is another story welling up from the depths of an increasingly fevered social consciousness—a story about the fragility of culture and meaning and truth, the vanity of the modern self, the inadequacy of our economic and technological infrastructure, the pointlessness of consumption, the knife-edge vulnerability of our ecosystem. The current pandemic has caught us by surprise, but it is easily assimilated as a harbinger of more serious trouble to come.
What John’s stunning work should do, I think, is inspire us to forge a new “apocalyptic” narrative for ourselves—from bits and pieces of scripture, to be sure, but a narrative grounded in our own place and time. We are not living in first century Judea or Asia Minor. We are not living in ancient Rome. We need a compelling forward-looking narrative to make sense of what is happening and teach us how to live here and now.
We are not just church doing its best to be honest and good and true, perhaps telling people about Jesus, in trying times. We are a story-telling people on behalf of the God of history. It’s a hazardous business, I agree. People say all sorts of stupid things about God in a crisis. But that’s not a reason for not trying.