No, this is not the end of the world. But COVID-19 certainly is an apocalypse — an “unveiling” — as the word is understood in the Book of Revelation.
The prophet John, quarantined on the island of Patmos, received a vision that unveiled both the misrule of Rome and the sovereignty of God. Readers could see “divine” emperors as beastly and God as firmly in control. May the Spirit open our eyes to see so clearly today.
The Lamb opens the seventh seal in Revelation 8, signaling that another round of plagues is about to culminate. At that moment there is silence in heaven for half an hour as the heavenly court pauses. Then an angel offers incense along with prayers of the saints — prayers of ordinary people like you and me.
We should not assume that God inflicts plagues or that COVID-19 somehow is divine punishment. The initial plagues of Revelation — empire-building, violence, war, famine (6:1-9) — have human actions as their genesis. Human arrogance and disobedience destabilized the planet, making it vulnerable to further disaster.
Parallels in our time might be the way climate change or massive migration, with all their ripple effects, seem to be the result of human misjudgment and malfeasance.
Without concluding that God inflicts plagues, we can say that God allows them. Calamities in Revelation happen only as the Lamb opens seals, as angels blow trumpets or as angels empty libation bowls. All this happens in the presence of God.
The appropriate response of humans to plagues is to turn to God. Moses hoped that plagues upon Egypt would soften Pharaoh’s heart — but they did not. John cannot fathom why global suffering does not turn humanity to God — but it does not (9:20-21; 16:9, 11).
Much as Revelation revealed the corruption of Rome, COVID-19 reveals realities in our time. It will become evident which political or religious leaders faced danger and acted in timely and wise ways to protect their people.
We will know which leaders tried to bluster their way through disaster and which humbly sought counsel. It will be revealed which commercial and journalistic entities served a vulnerable population and which exploited those in need.
The pandemic also will reveal the kindness and courage of millions. It will unveil the ability of whole societies to discipline social interaction to protect each other. Coping with the virus will inspire churches, mosques and synagogues to fellowship and worship through cyberspace. Scientific research will uncover new treatments for viral illness. We will learn the strength of our own faith.
At this crisis moment, there is silence in heaven as God and the Lamb await our prayers. The Creator of the universe is attentive, and we are not alone. Even if we are convening on Zoom, faith communities now become outposts of the new Jerusalem, where God is present to strengthen, heal and make all things new. Come, Lord Jesus!
J. Nelson Kraybill is president of Mennonite World Conference and president emeritus of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. See more writing and information about his upcoming tours to Israel-Palestine at peace-pilgrim.com.