Bible prophecies have long stated that just before the return of Jesus Christ, a series of terrible events—portrayed as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse—will sweep over the earth. These coming calamities will include: increasing reports of wars, famines, natural disasters and disease epidemics. The “fourth horseman” is named Death and rides a pale horse. The Four Horsemen will ravage one quarter of the earth’s population by violence, hunger and “beasts of the earth”—including viruses and bacteria that spread disease (Revelation 6:8). The Scriptures indicate these end-time pestilences will trigger devastating disease epidemics that will claim millions of lives. While public health disasters of this magnitude may seem far-fetched in the light of modern medical technology, warnings of deadly epidemics on a global scale are becoming more frequent—indicating that ancient Bible prophecies are coming alive right now!
In recent decades, medical authorities have expressed repeated concerns about the emergence of new diseases and the resurgence and spread of diseases once thought to be under control. Malaria, a potentially deadly infectious disease that afflicts millions annually, has returned to regions where it was once nearly eradicated. However, it is now spread by pesticide-resistant mosquitoes and antibiotic-resistant parasites—making it more difficult to treat and control.
Drug-resistant tuberculosis, another major killer with a long history, 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—which attacks the central nervous system—enabling it to move from Africa to other areas of the globe. Sexually transmitted diseases are thriving and spreading in our increasingly godless societies today. The HIV-AIDS epidemic that emerged in the 1980s has claimed the lives of more than 30 million people worldwide—and the disease is actively spreading with more than 2 million new cases every year, while newly identified diseases continue to emerge and threaten the health of populations around the world.
The resurgence of old plagues and the emergence of new infectious diseases around the globe has public health officials clearly worried. Epidemiologists recognize that in recent years, a number of factors have come together that have dramatically increased the risk of pandemics and that “our global population has never been so vulnerable to rapid transmission of disease” (nationalpost.com, May 22, 2014).
One factor is the sudden eruption of new viruses for which no vaccines are available. Another factor is the emergence of drug-resistant forms of diseases that make common treatments ineffective. Other factors that facilitate the spread of infectious diseases include: the increasing ease of global travel between urban centers where large numbers of people live and move in close contact with one another, mass movements of people dislocated by wars and political turmoil, and the transport of animals and animal products around the world.
The breakdown of public health services, the contamination of water supplies, and disruption of waste disposal systems that follow natural disasters all contribute to the eruption and spread of infectious diseases. The threat of biochemical terrorism—the deliberate release of toxic microbes or chemical agents in large urban areas—offers a scary scenario of how large populations can be decimated in a short time. In the last several decades, 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 on the pale horse pictures!
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 festered in the filth and crowded living conditions of medieval cities. In 1348 the bubonic plague virus arrived in Europe from India along medieval trade routes, and this “Black Death” epidemic killed one third of the population of Europe (some 30 million people). Columbus’ sailors brought syphilis from the Americas and the disease spread through Europe, aided by promiscuity and public bathhouses. Europeans brought smallpox to the Americas, where it killed an estimated 100 million Native Americans in one century because they lacked natural antibodies to the disease. Epidemics altered the course of history in the past, and will again have a major impact on the world.
Public health workers recognize that SARS and MERS are related to the virus that caused the great flu pandemic of 1918 that killed 50 million people around the world in about 18 months. That so-called Spanish Flu “ranks as one of the deadliest epidemics in history” (news.nationalgeographic.com, January 23, 2014). The disease apparently originated in China and spread with some 90,000 Chinese laborers transported by boat to North America, by train to the east coast and by boat to work on battlefields in Europe where both soldiers and Chinese laborers were infected and died. This global pandemic was caused by the sudden emergence of an extremely infectious form of the virus and spread by moving large numbers of people around the globe.
Recent examples illustrate how epidemics can suddenly arise and rapidly spread in our modern world. Following the 2011 earthquake in Haiti, aid workers from Nepal arrived already infected with a cholera virus. Within days, there was an outbreak of cholera on the island that eventually killed 6,000 people and infected more than 300,000. Just this year, the mosquito-borne virus that causes chikungunya (an African word meaning “contorted with pain”) arrived in the Caribbean from Asia or Africa and spread rapidly through the islands, afflicting more than 55,000 people. The virus apparently came with an infected person on an airplane. When we study how epidemics appeared in the past and influenced the course of history and we see how factors in our modern world can promote the spread of infectious diseases, we should not be surprised that Jesus Christ predicted long ago that one of the signs that would precede His return would be pestilences on a global scale (Matthew 24:3–7; Luke 21:11). We need to be alert to prophecies coming alive today—that are pictured by an ominous rider on a pale horse!