Jesus predicted the destruction of the Temple and the disciples asked him “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matt 24:3). It seems clear that Jesus spoke of signs of the end of the age in much of the chapter. Initially he speaks of what I call preliminary, repeated signs or reminders of the end. They are like recurring motorway signs pointing towards a distant destination. One of them is “pestilences” (Lk 21:11).
So, Jesus teaches us to take notice of “pestilences” as a reminder of the end. Obviously, our first concern is what we can do to help those affected by them. But we should also remember they are reminders!
Ebola is “the most severe, acute health emergency seen in modern times,” said Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization in October 2014. She added that it is a “crisis for international peace and security” and added “I have never seen a health event threaten the very survival of societies and governments in already very poor countries. I have never seen an infectious disease contribute so strongly to potential state failure.”
Others have accused her of alarmism. One such is Ruth Schuster, an Israeli journalist. She points out that whereas several thousand people have died from Ebola, 35 million are infected by HIV, 130 million for hepatitis C and 300 million for hepatitis B. In 2013 1.5 million died of AIDS, over a million from viral hepatitis, and half a million from flu. But then she writes: “The next generation of virologists and immunologists needs to be prepared because in this age of jet travel, a contagious disease could devastate the human species. The flu pandemic of 1918 killed 20 million to 40 million people and that’s before people and their germs were casually climbing onto planes.”
The UK International Development Secretary, Justine Greening, reported that ministers were shocked by the US public health institute that 1.4 million may be infected by Ebola by January 2015 if it is not checked.
Certainly, the Ebola crisis is a solemn reminder of the dangers of “pestilences” in our global village. But it isn’t the only reminder in the news. There have been alarming recent reports about dangerous lapses of security at laboratories containing lethal viruses.
Dangers from laboratory experiments and security failures
In September 2014 scientists discovered old vials containing smallpox, ricin, plague and botulism between 60 and 100 years old in a US laboratory. They were not stored in accordance with security regulations. In July 2014 6 vials of smallpox viruses were found in a cardboard box in a Maryland laboratory. The same month anthrax was discovered in unlocked refrigerators (or refrigerators with a key in the lock) some in an unrestricted hallway. Some anthrax containers were missing and had to be found. Some 75 scientists in Atlanta may have been exposed to anthrax because proper procedures were not followed. Samples were transferred to laboratories not equipped to deal with them.
Professor Yoshiro Kawaoka has been researching mutated forms of the 2009 H1N1 pandemic flu virus. He has been accused of risking creating a new pandemic not least because his laboratory does not have adequate biosecurity. Kawaoka has also created copies of the virus which caused the deadly Spanish Flu pandemic which killed some 50 million people in 1918.
Robert Kolter, professor of microbiology at Harvard Medical School, was quoted as saying: “The scientists doing this work are so immersed in their own self-aggrandisement, they have become completely blind to the irresponsibility of their acts. Their arguments in favour of such work, i.e. increase ability for surveillance, remain as weak as ever.”
David Cameron spoke to the press about the emergence of untreatable bacteria. He said: “This is not some distant threat, but something happening right now … If we fail to act, we are looking at an almost unthinkable scenario where antibiotics no longer work and we are cast back into the dark ages of medicine, where treatable infections and injuries will kill once again. That simply cannot be allowed to happen and I want to see a stronger, more coherent global response.”
Dr Keiji Fukuda, the World Health Organisation’s assistant director general for health security said that unless adequate international action is taken, once-beaten diseases will re-emerge as global killers and common infections and minor injuries which have been treatable for decades will once again kill people. It is regarded by experts as a threat equal to climate change and global terrorism.
We need to pray for those affected by disease and for those seeking to combat these dangers. But we should also note that pestilences are a reminder of His coming and the end of the age. There will be no pestilences in the new heaven and new earth..
See my main writings on Eschatology (the End Times: the Return of Christ, Judgment, Heaven etc) at http://www.christianteaching.org.uk/eschatology.html for both a Full (more detailed) Version and a Summary Version.