Is this the apocalypse? Is coronavirus the end?
In Revelation 6, Jesus the Lamb opens seven seals that keep the heavenly book closed. As he opens the first seals, four horsemen charge out from heaven to earth. One rides a white horse and conquers with his bow; a second is on a blood-red mount and bears a sword to take peace from the earth; a rider on a black horse holding a set of scales causes a dearth that inflates the prices of wheat and barley; the final horseman, Death, rides a “green” horse and kills with sword, famine, pestilence, and wild animals. Anyone who reads Revelation as a prophecy of the end of the world might conclude the coronavirus signals the advent of the fourth horseman and prepare for the Rapture.
That, in my judgment, is a misinterpretation of John’s vision. Revelation prophesies things that will happen “soon” after John sees them (Rev. 1:1; 22:6), and the first half of the prophecy represents events that took place before John wrote. Before he sees the horsemen, John has been swept up to heaven to witness the perpetual liturgy of the cherubim and ancient ones (ch. 4). When he sees the unopened book, he laments there’s no one to open it, until the Lamb suddenly appears to receive the book (ch. 5). First the Lamb isn’t in heaven, then he is. Readers are supposed to recognize the scene: Jesus’s ascension. On a mountain in Galilee, John witnessed Jesus’s departure to the Father; in the Apocalypse, John witnesses the same event from the other side of the firmament. The vision of horsemen in chapter 6 portrays the aftermath of the ascension, that is, the Pentecostal gift of the Spirit. The four horsemen symbolize the devastating impact of unleashing the Spirit of Jesus on the world. When the gospel goes out conquering, it causes division, depletes the resources of those who resist, and devastates anyone who defies the Lamb. Living in the twenty-first century, we don’t look ahead to the coming of the horsemen; we look back.
That doesn’t entirely answer the question. After all, God is willing to dash worlds in pieces when they conspire against him and his anointed King (Psa. 2). Isaiah said Babylon’s sky would collapse (Isa. 13–14), and it did. Leading up to the fall of Jerusalem, Jeremiah prophesied the same cluster of calamities as Revelation—famine, sword, and pestilence (Jer. 14:12; 21:7–9; 24:10; 29:17–18)—and predicted Judah would revert to the darkness and “formless void” of pre-creation chaos (Jer. 4:23; cf. Gen. 1:2). History has stumbled on for millennia since Jeremiah, but he wasn’t wrong. A world did end when Nebuchadnezzar torched Solomon’s temple.
So we can re-ask the question: Is this an apocalypse? Is coronavirus an end, the EOTWAWKI (“end of the world as we know it”)?
It’s impossible to know, of course. Millions might die, leaving many nations in desperate disarray. It’s possible, as R. R. Reno, Peter Hitchens, and others have warned, that the response to the epidemic will be as devastating as the disease. We may be doing too much, or too little. No one knows. We don’t have enough data even to know how dangerous the disease itself is, much less our counter-measures.
Speculation about the end of civilization misses a key point anyway. Rod Dreher has noted in several recent essays that “apocalypse” means “unveiling.” When God comes near, he strips away the fig leaves, our defenses and delusions, and brings hidden things to light. In the United States and Europe, the pandemic may reveal many things: The fragility of our sense of invincible security; the frivolity of our entertainments; the risks of globalization and the risks of insurmountable national boundaries; the frayed condition of our social relations. Our confidence in science may be shaken—whether because the experts’ modeling drastically overshoots or because science can’t save us. Coronavirus may put a nail in the coffin of libertarianism, convincing everyone that only massive collective action can protect us in times of mortal danger. It may, on the other hand, be a blow to statism, if the massive collective action backfires.
The main thing exposed by any apocalypse is the state of the heart. God tested Israel with manna to “know what was on your hearts” (Deut. 6), and his word cuts through to expose the thoughts and intents of the heart (Heb. 4:12–13). We will come through this, and that reprieve will be as critical a test as the crisis has been. What will we do when things return to “normal”? Will we recognize the decadent abnormality of our pre-pandemic norms? Will our common effort ease partisan divisions, or will Washington return to business as usual? Will we learn self-restraint and delay our gratifications? Will the students and faculty who repopulate abandoned campuses redouble their efforts to woke-up our universities, or will progressivism be exposed as a puerile indulgence? Will a post-pandemic entertainment industry sober up to offer penetrating, edifying art, or will it continue to feed our insatiable hunger for titillating distraction? Will the pandemic make us more or less addicted to the belligerent virality of social media? Will self-isolation permanently isolate neighbors from one another, or will our common battle and common fear bring us closer together? Most important: Will we come out of the pandemic with a deepened knowledge that there’s a God in heaven? Will we fear him, or will we, like Pharaoh, harden our hearts as soon as the Lord gives relief?
We may be facing the end of a worn-out world. We may not be. Either way, we are facing an apocalyptic unveiling, and we’re facing it now. What will be laid bare?
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.