(Investigator 192, 2020 May)


Bacteria are almost everywhere. Viruses too; oceans, atmosphere, soil and human bodies are full of them. (Zimmer 2011) Most species of viruses and bacteria don't make people sick but about 320 varieties are known that do.

Jesus predicted: "wars … great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues…" (Luke 21:9-11) Revelation 6:8 similarly foretold: "sword, famine, and pestilence…"


As I write, Corona virus or Covid-19 has infected nearly 3 million people in 210 countries, and killed 200,000. Government efforts to contain it is degrading national economies, threatening global recession.

Table 1 is based on Worldometers website where daily totals of confirmed cases from every country are listed without speculations on under-reporting. Other, speculative, sources have estimated that Indonesia alone has 1 million infected people!

Table 1   Covid-19 Worldwide Statistics 2020

Date Total  Confirmed Infections Total Deaths Total Recovered Lands affected
Feb 29 84,000 2,900
March 11 120 000 4,000

March 23 352,000 15,000 101,000 192
April 3 1,041,000 55,000 222,000 204
April 26 2,945,000 204,000 843,000 210

Corona viruses are a large family of viruses some of which cause the common cold and others severer illnesses. Covid-19 is a new highly-infectious strain.

It broke out in China in November 2019 and in January went global. Newly infected people don't feel symptoms immediately, therefore don't know they are sick nevertheless can infect others...

Some religious leaders link Covid-19 to Armageddon:  "So the events unfolding around us are making clearer than ever that we're living in the final part of the last days, undoubtedly the final part of the final part of the last days, shortly before the last day of the last days." (From: YouTube)

The efforts to contain Covid-19 will amplify global debt, shrink national economies and produce record unemployment as thousands of businesses shut down. On March 26 India's government ordered India's 1300 million people into lockdown, "every street, every neighborhood". In some countries food crops are rotting because foreign workers aren't turning up for harvesting. Add to economic losses the shutdown of schools, sports events, tourism, restaurants, concerts, etc, and it's not long sustainable. (Lomborg 2020)

But without containment-measures all hospitals would rapidly be overwhelmed as 30% of the world's people get sick and 2% of these die. That's about 50 million deaths. The strategy of shut-downs and self-isolation should slow the spread of Covid-19 and save the majority of these 50 million — but leave them vulnerable to new outbreaks of Covid-19 afterwards. The gamble is that before further outbreaks occur we'll have an effective vaccine. If we don't, the global self-infliction of economic and social pain may end up pointless.

Sweden has reacted to Covid-19 like it's an ordinary flu — people self-isolate or don't as desired, leading (hopefully) to "herd immunity" for survivors.


Epidemics are city-wide or nation-wide outbreaks of infectious disease. Pandemics are continent-wide or worldwide. A widespread endemic disease such as seasonal flu is not considered a pandemic. The WHO has characterized Covid-19 as a pandemic.

Epidemics and pandemics can change world history. For example:

The world has seasonal illnesses and ongoing illnesses some of which kill more people than the average pandemic. Seasonal influenza affects tens of millions and annually kills 500,000 worldwide. Tuberculosis, diabetes, dementias, diarrhoeal diseases and malaria each kill over 1 million people yearly, as also did AIDS until recently.

"Infectious diseases" are communicable from person to person by skin contact, droplets from mouth or nose, and fecal matter. Nature Reviews Microbiology (2011) says:

Worldwide, 16 million people die from infectious disease every year… Approximately one in every 12 individuals, or 500 million people worldwide, is living with chronic viral hepatitis and the estimated number of new chlamydial infections per year is approximately 50 million…
In total, there are ~1400 known species of human pathogens (including viruses, bacteria, fungi, protozoa and helminths…

People get sick when disease organisms enter the body and multiply. The period from when germs initially invade until symptoms appear is the "incubation period". Examples are three days for Anthrax and Scarlet Fever; 1-5 for Cholera; 2-10 for Covid-19; Smallpox about 12; Typhus 12; Typhoid 14; Syphilis 21; AIDS 40-60.

Of virus species 5000 have been identified of which 219 infect humans. Some of these are Yellow fever; Hepatitis; HIV; Genital Herpes; Viral Meningitis; Human Papillomavirus; and viral hemorrhagic fevers (such as Ebola).

Regarding bacteria, Dykhuizen (2005) writes: "my guess is there are a billion species..."  About 30,000 species have been formally named of which 100 cause diseases in humans. Some of these are Plague; Cholera; Gonorrhea; Leprosy; Anthrax; Diphtheria; Tetanus; Tuberculosis; and Whooping Cough.

Probably additional diseases will emerge in future because: "According to a new estimate, there are about one trillion species of microbes on Earth and 99.999 percent of them have yet to be discovered." (Bakalar 2016)

Another cause of "disease" is gene-modifications:

Monogenetic diseases result from modifications in a single gene occurring in all cells of the body… Scientists currently estimate that over 10,000 of human diseases are known to be monogenetic. (WHO)

A new discovery is that the genomes of ancient viruses make up 8% of human DNA and sometimes cause disease. (Arnold 2020)


The New Testament Greek word translated "plagues" or "pestilences" in Luke 21:11 is "loimos".

Another Greek word "plegee" is used of serious injuries and public calamities. It is translated "plagues" in Revelation 9; 11; 15; 16; 18; 21 but I won't discuss these chapters further.

In Matthew 24, Luke 21 and Mark 13 Jesus foretells the "end of the age", the "great tribulation" on Jerusalem (which began in 70 CE), and his second coming.
If the following comments are unclear or too concise, read Matthew 24 and Luke 21 a few times to become familiar with those chapters.

Luke 21 and Mark 13 differ from Matthew 24 by omitting some points and adding others. Jesus may have spoken the three versions to different audiences, but they can be fitted together and therefore are not contradictory.

A problem is that Jesus said: "this generation will by no means pass away until all these things have taken place." (Matthew 24:34) This seemingly implies that Jesus second coming would take place in the 1st century.

Some interpreters claim "this generation" means "this people" i.e. the Jews. Others give the prophecy two fulfilments and limit Jesus return to the second fulfilment only. However, Jesus used the phrase "this generation" on other occasions and it always meant his generation, one generation — his contemporaries. If a future generation were intended the correct grammar is "that generation". The predictions of every sect that identified any post 1st-century generation as the last generation before Armageddon have always turned out false.

My solution is to divide Matthew 24 into three sections:

Luke 21:23-24 clarifies that the "tribulation" did not finish in 70 CE but includes the entire period when Jews are killed, scattered, taken captive, and Gentiles (non-Jews) rule Jerusalem.

"Immediately after the tribulation" therefore means "immediately after" Jerusalem is restored to Jewish rule.

Note also that Jesus until Matthew 24:26 (and Luke 21:20) uses the pronoun "you", implying that his audience would experience the sorts of things he was predicting. But in verse 30, where Jesus describes his return, he uses the pronoun "they" — "They will see…" — implying that his return or second coming will occur after his audience is deceased.

The three-fold division is evident also in Luke 21.
With this three-fold division how do we understand "this generation will by no means pass away until all these things have taken place?"

Simply assume that when Jesus spoke, he did not stand (or sit) motionless like a cardboard box but used gestures and body language. When he said "these things" did he gesture toward Jerusalem or up toward the sky?

If toward Jerusalem then "these things" exclude the "signs from heaven" and Jesus' second coming.

Therefore "this generation" — the generation of Jesus — would see wars, pestilences, earthquakes, and the start of the "great tribulation", but not the signs in heaven or Christ's second coming.


Revelation 6:8 says: "…they were given authority over a fourth of the earth to kill with sword, famine, and pestilence, and by the wild animals of the earth." (NRSV) Some Bibles here have "death" instead of "pestilence".

The Greek word is "thanatos" which taken literally means "death". However, just as "sword" is a figure of speech and refers to war, so "death" is here a figure of speech called "Metonymy" and refers to plagues. The Companion Bible explains: "Metonymy… When one name or noun is used instead of another, to which it stands in a certain relation." 

Many modern translations therefore replace "death" in Revelation 6:8 with "diseases", "pestilences", or "plague". Translating "thanatos" this way is supported because:

1, To "kill with death" is redundant since everything that kills does so "with death";

2. Famine is mentioned in Revelation 6:8 and famine often precedes outbreaks of disease. This is a historical and medical fact because poor nutrition reduces the body's resistance to disease. In the Old Testament the link between famine and disease is indicated because the Hebrew word "deh-ver" (pestilence), which occurs 49 times, appears 16 times [Correction 20 times] together with the word "famine" as in the phrase "famine and pestilence".

3. Revelation 6 parallels Matthew 24 and Luke 21 as in Table 2:

Table 2   Parallel Details 

Revelation 6:3-8 Matthew 24:6-9 Luke 21:9-11
sword/wars wars wars

earthquakes earthquakes
famine famines famines

     Christ's return:   Revelation 6:12-17;   Matthew 24:30-31;   Luke 21:25-28

Some Bibles mention "plagues" also in Matthew 24:7, which other Bibles there omit. This is because ancient manuscripts don't always agree and different Bible translators may rely on different manuscripts.

It is clear, however, that both Luke 21 and Revelation 6 predict plagues/pestilences as events to occur until the return of Jesus.


Jesus' prediction of plagues/pestilences to occur until "the end" when he returns conflicted with the common belief in the 1960s-1970s that antibiotics and vaccines would soon eliminate infectious diseases. 

Spellberg (2008) writes:

Dr. Anthony Fauci has assured us that the belief that infectious diseases had been conquered was widespread in the 1960s and 1970s [7]. Furthermore, in 1978, one of the world's leaders in infectious diseases, Dr. Robert Petersdorf, commented that, “Even with my great personal loyalty to Infectious Disease, I cannot conceive of the need for 309 more [graduating trainees in] infectious disease...unless they spend their time culturing each other” [8, p. 630]. As late as 1985, Dr. Petersdorf had not changed his mind; at the Infectious Diseases Society of America's annual meeting that year, he stated that “the millennium where fellows in infectious disease will culture one another is almost here” [9].


A plague killed about 50,000 people in Athens in 429-426 BCE. Plagues on that scale were rare before Jesus' time but increasingly common afterwards.

The Encyclopedia of Plague and Pestilence (2001) outlines over 600 plagues/pestilences since the 1st century. See a partial list in Table 3.

In predicting wars, famines and plagues Jesus identified great-impact type events that the majority of people would hear about or experience.

Consider the Black Death:

There were simply not enough serfs and peasants left in England to do the work. The aristocrats also died in droves. The medieval economic system broke down because of the rapid drop in population…
It took 200 years for population levels to recover. In the meantime, the medieval system of serfdom collapsed, because labor was more valuable when there were fewer laborers. (Shipman 2014)

And the various smallpox plagues may have killed in total over 300 million people, inflicting massive recurring demographic, economic and social shocks.

Table 3
A Partial List of Plagues

Antonine Plague (A.D. 165-180):
5 million deaths. The plague (probably Smallpox) weakened the Roman Empire leading to opportunistic invasions by "barbarians".

Plague of Cyprian (250-271):
This Europe-wide plague killed over 1 million people.

Plague of Justinian (541-542):
Bubonic plague which killed 25 million people in the Eastern Roman Empire and started its decline. Other outbreaks until 700 CE killed additional millions and decreased Europe's population 50%.

Japanese smallpox epidemic (735-737):
2 million deaths.

The Black Death (1347-1351):
Benedictow (2005) writes: "The data is sufficiently widespread and numerous to make it likely that the Black Death swept away around 60 per cent of Europe's population. It is generally assumed that the size of Europe's population at the time was around 80 million. This implies that around 50 million people died in the Black Death. This is a truly mind-boggling statistic."

Shipman (2014) writes: "Between 75 and 200 million people died in a few years' time, starting 1348." 

Syphilis 1493 onward:
Syphilis killed millions per century.

Smallpox Mexico (1519-1520s):
20 million people lived in Central America when Hernando Cortes arrived in 1519 and brought smallpox which killed more than 5 million natives.
Cocoliztli epidemic (1545-1548):
Possibly Salmonella Enterica, which killed 10 million in Mexico. Another outbreak (1576-1580) killed 2 million.

Italian Plague (1629-1631):
280,000 deaths

Smallpox (16th century):
Smallpox is the most deadly disease brought to America by European explorers. It killed perhaps15 million and facilitated the collapse of the Aztec and Inca empires.

Measles — Mexico 17th century:
2 million deaths.

Smallpox 18th century:
Smallpox killed 40 million Europeans in the 18th century. Of survivors 30% went blind.

Smallpox 1780–1782 and 1837–1838:
Smallpox depopulated the Plains Indians of North America.

Persian Plague (1772):
2,000,000 deaths.

Asiatic Cholera Pandemics (1817-1823; 1826-1837; 1852-1860; 1865-1875; 1881-1896; 1899-1923; 1961-1975):
The first six of these pandemics began in India and spread over much of the world including Europe, Britain and America. The second pandemic killed about 500,000 people; the third 1 million; the fourth "115,000 deaths in Prussia alone"; the fifth 1 million; the sixth 800,000 in India alone.

Plague Pandemic (1855-1960s):
Bubonic plague in Yunnan province (China) went worldwide.  Kohn (2001) writes: "By 1918 India reported 10 million human deaths."

European Smallpox Epidemic (1870-1875):
This killed 500,000 Europeans but also spread to Africa and the Americas.

Russian Flu pandemic (1889-1890):
One million deaths in Russia, Europe, Africa and America.

Spanish Flu (1918-1920):
Worldwide over 20 million died. The initial spread occurred in crowded American military camps where soldiers prepared to leave for Europe. The Flu killed 675,000 in the USA; Germany 427,000; France 400,000; Britain 228,000; Spain 260,000; Australia 15,000; Japan 390,000; India 12 million; Indonesia 1.5 million.

Russian Typhus Epidemic (1914-1922):
"One of the worst and most extensive disasters of all time." (Kohn 2001)

Encephalitis Lethargica Pandemic (1915-1926):
Worldwide 1½ million deaths.           

Russian Malaria Epidemic (1922-1923):
"Perhaps Europe's most devastating malaria epidemic of the modern era, killing millions of people." (Kohn 2001)

Asian Flu (1957-1958):
This avian flu virus entered humans in China and spread worldwide taking up to 2 million lives.

Hong Kong Flu (1968-1969):
1 million killed worldwide.

AIDS (Identified in 1981):
About 35 million deaths by 2020 and still climbing.

Wikipedia says: "Measles killed around 200 million people worldwide over the last 150 years. In 2000 alone, measles killed some 777,000 worldwide out of 40 million cases globally."

"About 25% of the world's people are infected with Mycobacterium tuberculosis, 8 million become ill with tuberculosis annually and 1-2 million die. In the 19th century tuberculosis killed a quarter of Europe's adults, and in the 20th century about 100 million people worldwide." (Wikipedia)

Swine Flu Pandemic (2009-2010):
A new strain of flu that originated in Mexico, spread worldwide, infected 1 billion, and killed 500,000.


The Bible says, "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities…" (Romans 13:1) Acting on this advice during the present pandemic when governments consult medical professionals for strategies to contain Covid-19 can be life-saving. 

Consider social-distancing and home-quarantine rules which some people are still flouting. Their importance was known during the Spanish Flu pandemic. However, on September 28, 1918, the city of Philadelphia went ahead with a grand parade to support the war effort and 200,000 spectators crowded the sidewalks; but St. Louis cancelled its parade. Days later all of Philadelphia's hospitals were filled! Philadelphia became America's hardest hit city with 16,000 deaths from flu (almost 1% of its population) but St Louis only 700 (about 0.1%). 

"Governing authorities" can be wrong too. The Bible teaches "speak the truth" — lies and their consequences are one of the themes of the Bible. It also identifies as being disgusting to God anyone who condemns the innocent. (Proverbs 12:22; 17:15) China flouted both these ethical principles if the reports are correct that authorities knowingly underreported the Covid-19 death toll and silenced individuals who tried to alert the public. Jennings (2020) writes: "the party hid the seriousness of the crisis in January while Chinese companies stripped Western countries of protective medical equipment."

Jesus was right to predict plagues because epidemics, pandemics and endemic diseases have been major historical events. They occurred throughout the centuries, not just in one generation. Religious leaders who claimed a certain pandemic proves Armageddon is near have always been wrong — they misunderstood and misused Matthew 24 and Luke 21. The Bible has other predictions of plagues, notably in Zechariah 14 of a flesh-rotting plague just before "the LORD becomes king over all the earth", but Covid-19 is nowhere specifically predicted.

Also wrong were people who expected vaccinations and antibiotics to eliminate all infectious diseases. That would have refuted Jesus, but it hasn't happened!


Arnold, C. Enemies within, New Scientist, 29 February, 2020, 36-39

Bakalar, N.

Benedictow, Ole J. The Black Death The Greatest Catastrophe Ever, History Today, March 2005, 42-49

Cartwright, F.F. and Biddiss, M. (Third Edition) 2014 Disease and History, Thistle Publishing, p. 93

The Companion Bible - Being The Authorized Version of 1611 … With 198 Appendixes, Samuel Bagster & Sons, p. 1891;  Appendixes p. 11

Dykhuizen, D.  Species Numbers in Bacteria, Proc Calif Acad Sci. 2005 June 3; 56 (6 Suppl): 62–71.

Giles, J. Healthy democracy, New Scientist, 21 May, 2011, pp 34-37

Jarus, O, 20 of the worst epidemics and pandemics in history

Kohn, G.C. (Editor) 2001 Encyclopedia of Plague and Pestilence, Checkmark Books

Lomborg, B. Money or lives: at some point we must say 'enough', The Weekend Australian, March 28-29, 2020, p. 18

Microbiology by numbers, Nature Reviews Microbiology, Volume 9, p. 628 (2011)

Shipman, P. The Bright Side of the Black Death, American Scientist, November-December 2014, 410-413

Spellberg, B. Dr. William H. Stewart: Mistaken or Maligned? Clinical Infectious Diseases, Volume 47, Issue 2, 15 July 2008, Page 294,


Wills, C. 1996 Plagues Their Origin, History and Future, Harper Collins

Wigram, G.V. Englishman's Hebrew and Chaldee Concordance of the Old Testament, Fifth Edition, Samuel Bagster & Sons, 334

Zimmer, C. A Planet of Viruses, University of Chicago Press



Jennings, P. The Weekend Australian, April 18-19, 2020, p. 18