As the current crisis continues to capture global attention, many are turning to the Bible for answers. Some even look to the plagues described in the book of Revelation, reading them as God’s punishing judgments unleashed upon the earth. Is the current coronavirus one of these plagues?
Many scholars recognize the narrative of judgment in Revelation as a reflection of the 10 plagues God inflicted upon Egypt. Exodus is a model for understanding Revelation, and if we acknowledge its echoes, we can understand its connection to the end of days. The Exodus story goes like this: After hearing His people crying out in suffering, God responds by afflicting a series of plagues upon Egypt until the cruel king releases them. But why did the narrative happen this way, and what does it reveal about the nature of judgment?
Don’t rush past the details of who God is. The Exodus story demonstrates God’s redemptive actions. He’s the saving God. His purpose is not to terrorize through plagues but to encourage Egypt to see and come to know Him (Exodus 7:5). The story declares who God is (Exodus 10:2). In short, it is about discernment of God’s character, which is not obvious. This revelation about God helps guide us through the narrative.
In the same manner, it’s important to correctly understand God in the book of Revelation. What kind of God is revealed? Is He a God of punishment and retaliation? The book shows that God confronts evil so His divine presence can dwell among us, but the question remains: must God be violent to achieve this? God’s defining symbol in both stories is the slain Lamb (Exodus 12:13; Revelation 5:6). The way Jesus suffers and dies stands in stark contrast to the way the world operates.
The story of the Exodus gives us an empathetic understanding of judgment. Life was difficult for Israel, and God wanted His people to know that He had seen their suffering. The motivation that leads to God’s expressions of judgment are His concerns for suffering and injustice. The plagues and judgments in Revelation should be read against the backdrop of the cross. God isn’t indifferent toward His enemies, as the Lamb is a victim of violence, suffering the plagues and their curses. The plagues are captured in His own suffering and death, not on what He inflicts upon others.
Yet, how are we to understand these horrible plagues? How do they increase our capacity to love God? If you look closely, a much more intriguing message emerges, one that awakens our trust in a God who cares deeply about humanity. I submit that the justice reflected in the plagues can be understood as an expression of truth-telling. God comes to break the silence. He comes to show that He knows about Israel’s suffering and has never lost control. God begins to level His critique against the gods of Egypt, unmasking what the Egyptians hold as deities (Exodus 12:12). The idols the Egyptians cling to and the lies they believe are exposed until there is nothing left but the truth.
This truth-telling is revealed with the first plague, when the Nile turns to blood and the pretense of the Egyptians is exposed. Pharaoh had ordered his people to drown the Israelite babies in the Nile. Where is justice? It initially seems that these crimes occur without notice, but God sees the injustice and hears the cries. The first plague is the beginning of judgment, as God holds Egypt accountable for its injustice. He tells the truth by exposing the manipulative cruelty of evil, and the judgment matches the sin. God has not lost control over the world; He is not impotent. The Egyptians and the powers they give allegiance to are judged. If they repent and free the oppressed, the truth-telling will end, but as long as they don’t, it continues. Frogs, lice, flies, and locusts swarm, detonating the economy. As God exposes the tragedy, we experience His feelings about cruelty, slavery and economic injustice. There is more truth-telling, which eventually ends in death.
The Exodus story is one of redemption through justice. God’s judgment does not rule out restorative justice. God is not just telling the truth about offenses; He is showing signs of mercy and redemption. God always has an appropriate response to evil: redemption. Deliverance is an expression of His justice. Judgment is experienced in His own suffering and death as He deals with sin. Jesus confronts evil and injustice by saying, “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out. And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself” (John 12:31, 32 NKJV).
At the culmination of the Exodus story, the cloud of divine presence that gives light to the Israelites gives darkness to the Egyptians. Might I suggest that this darkness is already in the hearts of the Egyptians (Exodus 14:19–20)? The fear, hatred, and oppression to which they have surrendered is their own darkness, and it destroys them. God merely gives them over to the chaos already in their hearts, separating the two camps—light and darkness. The Egyptian armies are defeated in the Red Sea. Their wrongdoings turn upon them, and maybe that’s how God’s judgment works.
We may see similarities between the 10 plagues and Revelation, but we should not overlook the differences. Egypt has some redeemable qualities, and many Egyptians join the redemptive story after the plagues. Not so with Revelation’s final plagues—everyone refuses to repent. It’s not a different kind of judgment, but the final plagues of Revelation have some different elements and are doled out to a greater degree. To consider COVID-19 as God punishing us through a specific judgment to get us to come back to Him is to ignore these details. Suffering plagues do not lead rebellious hearts to repentance. We may find similarities between this modern pandemic and the Biblical plagues, but we should also see the differences. The 10 plagues had a specific goal: redemption through justice. God is author of these plagues but not of those in Revelation.
The serpents the Egyptian magicians produce when imitating Moses’ miracle recall the Garden of Eden and its ancient serpent who takes advantage through deception, making it difficult for much of humanity to see the truth. In the final plagues of Revelation, we see the work of this ancient serpent magnified (Revelation 12:9–12). Satan is featured in a much bigger way, even taking control of the impenitent (Revelation 16:12–16). What is involved in the final plagues? I suggest military warfare, biological weapons, ecological disaster, economic injustice, and political evil. God’s response to the evil that contradicts His redemption is to let it go and thus unmask, expose and reveal the powers and pretense of evil.
And what of the logic of Exodus—a series of plagues unleashed prior to deliverance? We see that redemption has already begun, but thank God, He isn’t done yet. God will come to break the silence, magnifying a sense of hope and triumph. He will come to announce game over, take the forces of nature back under His loving control, and demonstrate that He is the Creator. The beautiful new creation that He leads us toward is manifest in Revelation 21 and 22. God’s way of redemption is victorious; the slaughtered Lamb makes that clear. Perhaps, therefore, pestilence is not God punishing us for our sin but rather a truth about the nature of evil itself.
How will we react to this revealed truth? God is better than you think (Revelation 15:3,4). Look to the God who is revealed in the suffering Lamb. His incomprehensible love is the cure we are all looking for.
Craig Ashton Jr.