“People were surrounded by traumatic death. And they didn’t have any idea how far it would go. Was it going to kill everybody? . . . Could this be the end of the world-is this Armageddon that the street corner ministers are preaching about?” (Influenza, 1918)
When the topic of the end times comes up in conversation, the usual first piece of evidence given that our generation is indeed the “rapture generation” is the state of the world, both its moral character and natural calamities. Nearly all prophetic writers point to the signs of wars, famines, plagues, lawlessness, and earthquakes as prime indicators that the whole prophetic scenario is beginning to fit together like some giant prophetic jigsaw puzzle. Here’s one example among many: “I am not predicting Christ’s imminent return in the year 2000. But we have sufficient evidence to substantiate that we are the ‘Terminal Generation.’ My personal conviction is that the deadly dangers now rising in the curve of probability will require the Second Coming of Christ before too long." Just as a reminder, this is 2009.
Now we’re being told in a full-page advertisement for a new book on Bible prophecy that appears in the April 25, 2009 issue of World magazine that “Jesus Really is Coming Back . . . . Soon!” It’s not that Jesus is coming back; He’s really coming back soon. With the news about the swine flu “pandemic” it won’t be too long before some prophecy “expert” will be interviewed because he claims that it’s another sign of the “really soon” coming of Jesus.
What is often forgotten by today’s prophetic speculators is the horrendous death toll of the Black Death of 1347-1351. 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." Today’s pestilence catastrophes, including the AIDS epidemic, do not rival the Black Death, which has been described as the “most lethal disaster of recorded history." 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). This calculation, however, is irrelevant in terms of the Olivet Discourse since the events described therein were fulfilled prior to A.D.70, a point I make in my books Last Days Madness and Is Jesus Coming Soon?
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. The bubonic plague remained unrivaled until the Influenza Epidemic 1918 and 1919 because of the number of dead 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.
This information is lost on the average Christian end-timer who views only today’s ills as important and prophetically significant. “Perhaps because we are to such an extent ‘strangers to the past,’ we easily read into the events and circumstances of our own day a distinctiveness and uniqueness that may not actually be there." When Hal Lindsey, for example, reads Jesus' words in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21, he is sure that “WE ARE THE GENERATION HE WAS TALKING ABOUT!" Those who suffered through the “great dying” of the fourteenth century and the pandemic of nearly a century ago thought they were the generation Jesus was talking about. All the facts seemed to fit. Death, dying, and starvation were everywhere as Jesus foretold. But did Jesus have the 14th century in mind or the beginning of the 20th? Many thought He did. 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?"
Their catastrophe was not a fulfillment of prophecy. Jesus had a different era in mind when He uttered words describing plagues, famines, earthquakes, and wars on the mount called Olivet. The disciples were to look for signs within their generation, and they found them.
So if some newspaper reporter stops you on the street and asks you about the “swine flu” as a sign of the end of the world, tell him all the swine are in Washington.
W.S. McBirnie, 2000 AD!: Nine Years to Doomsday? (Glendale, CA: Voice of Americanism, 1991), 12. It’s actually a combination of swine, human, and avian (bird) viruses.
Otto Friedrich, The End of the World: A History (New York: Coward, McCann and Geoghegan, 1982), 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. Jonsson and Herbst, The “Sign” of the Last Days-When?, x.
Hal Lindsey, The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon (King of Prussia, PA: Westgate Press, 1980), 181. Friedrich, End of the World, 115-116.