Disease Epidemics: The Fourth Horseman

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Bible prophecies about the end of the age employ sobering images of four horsemen to describe terrible events that will sweep over the earth just before the return of Jesus Christ.


Bible prophecies about the end of the age employ sobering images of four horsemen to describe terrible events that will sweep over the earth just before the return of Jesus Christ. The Fourth Horseman (Revelation 6:7–8) pictures the outbreak of pestilences and troubles (Matthew 24:7; Mark 13:8; Luke 21:11) that will ravage one quarter of the earth by violence, hunger and "the beasts of the earth"—including viruses and bacteria (Revelation 6:8). At the world's current level of population, this means these calamities will kill more than 1.5 billion people! Disasters of this magnitude may seem unbelievable in the face of modern medical technology, yet warnings of devastating global epidemics are appearing with increasing frequency—indicating that these ancient Bible prophecies are about to come alive!

Sobering Reports

In recent decades, medical authorities have noted the resurgence and spread of infectious diseases once thought to be under control. Malaria has returned to regions where it was once nearly eradicated, but is now spread by pesticide-resistant mosquitoes and antibiotic-resistant parasites. Today malaria infects 600 million people and kills more than a million children in sub-Saharan Africa annually. Drug-resistant tuberculosis, another major killer, is spreading in economically blighted areas of Eastern Europe, Russia, Asia and Africa. Warmer temperatures have expanded the range of mosquitoes that carry West Nile virus into North America. Sexually transmitted diseases are skyrocketing in large cities of the world. According to a recent United Nations report, the AIDS epidemic has infected 40 million people around the world. In 2003, AIDS killed more than 3 million and infected more than 5 million, and experts say "the worst is yet to come!" The resurgence of infectious diseases around the globe has public health officials clearly worried—for understandable reasons!

Our Vulnerable World

In the past century, the development of antibiotics—the "magic bullets" of modern medicine—has fostered a false sense of security in which many assume that we are no longer threatened by infectious diseases. However, the appearance of microbes resistant to powerful drugs reveals that there are limits to what antibiotics can do. In just a few hours, thanks to international jet travel, disease carriers can come into contact with thousands of people at airports half a world away, greatly aiding the spread of disease. The rise of mega-cities, where millions of people live in close contact, also facilitates the spread of disease. In the developing world—where millions crowd together in slums with little access to clean water, medical services or the sanitary disposal of human wastes and garbage—these infectious diseases thrive. Social disruptions caused by war and political turmoil that plague Africa, the Middle East and other areas of the world create fertile conditions for the spread of infectious disease. All these factors are present and growing in our world today. The threat of biochemical terrorism—the deliberate release of toxic microbes or chemical agents in large urban centers—offers a scary scenario capable of killing large numbers of people in very little time. In the last decade, our world has clearly become more vulnerable to the outbreak of global epidemics that have the potential of claiming millions of lives—which is exactly what the Fourth Horseman pictures!

The Forgotten Past

A quick glance at history reveals that "epidemics have crumbled empires, defeated armies and forever changed the way we live" (Fourth Horseman, Nikiforuk, p. xv). Epidemics in the past arrived unexpectedly, and spread death and devastation over wide areas of the world. In the Middle Ages leprosy, tuberculosis, cholera and typhoid thrived in the filth and crowded living conditions of medieval cities. In 1348 an epidemic of plague—the "Black Death"—killed one third of the population of Europe (some 30 million) in just two years! The plague spread along medieval trade routes. Columbus' sailors brought syphilis from the Americas, and the disease spread rapidly through Europe, aided by promiscuity and public bathhouses. Europeans brought smallpox to the Americas, where it killed 100 million Native Americans in one century because they lacked natural antibodies to the disease. The most dramatic global epidemic in modern times was the flu epidemic of 1918, which killed 50 million people in just 18 months! By contrast, the battlefields of World War I required four years to claim 15 million lives. The recent SARS outbreak and the resurgence of infectious diseases clearly indicate that the Fourth Horseman is still a threat to the health of mankind—and he will ride again when conditions are ripe.

Lessons of History

Although epidemics are often described as "acts of God" or natural disasters, "they do not arrive uninvited. It takes a good dose of civilized provocation to start an epidemic" (Nikiforuk, jacket). Around 450bc, Hippocrates observed that "diseases did not come calling unless there had been either great changes to human health or great changes made to the health of the land"—in other words, "humans make epidemics" (ibid., p. 11). German pathologist Rudolf Virchow, considered the father of epidemiology, concluded nearly 150 years ago that "epidemics resemble great warnings from which a statesman… can read that a disturbance has taken place in the development of his people" (ibid.).

Human lives and the environment today are changing in unprecedented ways. Just look at the results of the population explosion: polluted air and water in garbage-laden and growing cities, slums where millions live in squalor, forests destroyed by economic development, and rising temperatures that affect weather patterns and economies around the globe. Add to this the appearance of drug-resistant germs, diseases spread via jet travel, and immune systems weakened by stress, promiscuous sex, intravenous drug use and malnutrition—and you have a potent prescription for global epidemics! The AIDS epidemic and skyrocketing rates of sexually transmitted diseases are the biological consequences of promiscuity, poor hygiene and a host of high-risk behaviors on the part of people who ignore fundamental principles of health, and are not prepared to take responsibility for the damage that their actions cause others.

Long ago, our Creator warned that "if you do not obey the voice of the Lord your God, to observe carefully all His commandments and His statutes… the Lord will make the plague [pestilence] cling to you… the Lord will strike you with consumption, with fever, with inflammation… from which you cannot be healed" (Deuteronomy 28:15–28). The Bible reveals that because of mankind's willingness to ignore fundamental physical and moral laws, we will reap the consequences of breaking those laws, and that "every sickness and every plague… will the Lord bring upon you until you are destroyed" (Deuteronomy 28:61). Jesus Christ also warned that, before His return, global calamities would threaten the existence of the human race (Matthew 24:21–22). When the Fourth Horseman begins his final ride, he will be summoned by human actions. These sobering prophecies are coming alive and moving towards fulfillment in the years just ahead!

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