A report by the Public Religion Research Institute reports that nearly half of Americans “believe that the recent surge in natural disasters is the result of biblical ‘End Times’ and not “climate change, and more than two-thirds of white evangelical Protestants hold this belief, according to a new study.”
The premise is false. If history is the test of truth, there hasn’t been a rise in natural disasters. For example, studies have shown that large scale earthquakes have occurred many times in history, and like today, the claim had been made that end of the world was upon them. John Wesley wrote of “The Cause and Cure of Earthquakes” in 1750:
“Of all the judgments which the righteous God inflicts on sinners here, the most dreadful and destructive is an earthquake. This he has lately brought on our part of the earth, and thereby alarmed our fears, and bid us ‘prepare to meet our God!’ The shocks which have been felt in divers places, since that which made this city tremble, may convince us that the danger is not over, and ought to keep us still in awe; seeing ‘his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still,’ Isa. x, 4.”1
In 1756, Gilbert Tennent observed that earthquakes were “extraordinary in respect of number and dreadful Effects”2
News of earthquakes in our day holds prophetic significance for many “because we are to such an extent ‘strangers to the past,’ [thus] we easily read into the events and circumstances of our own day a distinctiveness and uniqueness that may not actually be there.”3 We get instant news of any natural disaster, act of violence, and outbreak of disease in an instant from the most distant parts of the globe.
Consider the Lisbon, Portugal, earthquake of 1755. It was a major city of the time. “The estimates of the death toll range from about 15,000 to more than 75,000. Modern historians incline to believe that the correct figure is probably about 30,000, which would be more than ten percent of the city’s population, the equivalent of nearly a million in contemporary New York.”4 A tsunami triggered by an offshore earthquake “completely emptied the Lisbon harbor before rushing back, like a ‘mountain of water’ to sweep the lower parts of the city. Earthquake survivors who had gathered in the port drowned, ships were overturned and broken like toys.”
Even tsunamis have a long and forgotten history. In Japan, marker stones had been placed warning future generations not to build below the level of the stones. “Hundreds of such markers dot the coastline, some more than 600 years old.”
“High dwellings are the peace and harmony of our descendants,” the stone slab reads. “Remember the calamity of the great tsunamis. Do not build any homes below this point.”
What is often forgotten by today’s prophetic speculators is the horrendous death toll of the Black Death of the fourteenth century. Tens of millions died. The estimated death toll throughout Europe was about 30 percent of the population, or twenty-five million out of a population of about eighty million. “Worldwide, the scholarly estimates … remain little more than medieval guesses: perhaps 75 million dead out of a total population of perhaps 500 million.”5
Today’s pestilence catastrophes, including the AIDS epidemic and Ebola, do not rival the Black Death, which has been described as the “most lethal disaster of recorded history.”6 The Black Death hit everyone.
Let’s compare the Black Death with today’s worldwide AIDS epidemic. At the time when the Bubonic Plague swept through Europe, the world’s population was around 545 million. Estimates tell us that 70 million people died as a direct or indirect result of the plague (12.8% of the population). If 100 million people die from AIDS, out of today’s population of 5 billion, this is only 2% of the population. In order to compete with the Bubonic Plague, AIDS would have to kill 640 million people (12.8% x 5,000,000,000 = 640,000,000).
Numerous records exist of epidemics that preceded the frightful pneumonic/bubonic plagues that visited Europe in 1347. As early as 1331 the epidemic broke out in Hopei Province in China, with reports that it killed nine out of every ten people. Numerous other plagues have been recorded, both before and after the Black Death.
Here is how one man described the 14th century:
“‘O happy posterity, who … will look upon our testimony as a fable,’ wrote Petrarch. The poet nonetheless felt that the events of ‘that dreadful year 1348’ must be recorded for the very posterity that would not believe the testimony. ‘Will posterity believe,’ he wrote from Parma in the late spring of 1349, ‘that there was a time when, with no deluge from heaven, no worldwide conflagration, no wars or other visible devastation, not merely this or that territory but almost the whole earth was depopulated? When was such a disaster ever seen, even heard of? In what records can we read that houses were emptied, cities abandoned, countrysides untilled, fields heaped with corpses, and a vast, dreadful solitude over all the world?’”7
The bubonic plague remained unrivaled until the Influenza Epidemic of 1918 and 1919 because of the number of deaths that occurred over a short period of time:
“The influenza pandemic of 1918–1919 killed more people than the Great War, known today as World War I (WWI), at somewhere between 20 and 40 million people. It has been cited as the most devastating epidemic in recorded world history. More people died of influenza in a single year than in four-years of the Black Death Bubonic Plague from 1347 to 1351. Known as ‘Spanish Flu’ or ‘La Grippe’ the influenza of 1918–1919 was a global disaster.”
The spread of disease was always a concern. It’s become part of the plot in the popular Downton Abbey series. “Alastair Bruce, who’s in charge of historical accuracy on the series, told The Telegraph, that actors have been instructed not to touch each other. He said there was ‘no physical contact’ and ‘no hugging’ in the early 20th century, because of how easily disease was spread.”
What’s made the difference? Antibiotics.
Christians need to be cautious is making predictions about when the end may or may not come. We can become paralyzed in the face of such disasters believing that we are in an inevitable death spiral. Others before us have believed that the end was near for them. This allowed competing worldviews to gain a foothold. A similar thing happened when prophetic speculation became the thing to teach and write about more than a hundred years ago in prophecy conferences. World War I was the end. The rise of Hitler was the end. World War II was certainly the end. Communism was a sure sign the end was near. Similar things are being said about Islam and secularism. Of course, if we adopt a belief in prophetic inevitability, then we are only contributing fuel to the fire that needs to be extinguished.
- John Wesley, “The Cause and Cure of Earthquakes” (1750), Sermons on Several Occasions, 2 vols. (New York: Carlton & Phillips, 1853), 1:506. [↩]
- Gilbert Tennent (1703–1764) quoted in James West Davidson, The Logic of Millennial Thought: Eighteenth-Century New England (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977), 102. [↩]
- Carl Olof Jonsson and Wolfgang Herbst, The “Sign” of the Last Days—When? (Atlanta, GA: Commentary Press, 1987), x. This book is filled with statistical and historical information that easily refutes the notion that our era is unique when it comes to earthquakes, wars, and famines. [↩]
- Otto Friedrich, The End of the World: A History (New York: Coward, McCann and Geoghegan, 1982), 188. [↩]
- Friedrich, The End of the World, 115. [↩]
- Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (London: 1979), xiii. Quoted in Carl Olof Jonsson and Wolfgang Herbst, The “Sign” of the Last Days—When? (Atlanta, GA: Commentary Press, 1987), 101. [↩]
- Friedrich, End of the World, 115–116. [↩]