Friday, January 24, 2020
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Friday, January 24, 2020. I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Coronavirus Spreads in China as Government Quarantines 25 Million People: Echoes of Plagues Past, Present, and Future
Back in December, we heard the first reports of a new respiratory illness in China. Now, it has caused a full blown health panic as Chinese authorities have shut down a city of 11 million people. By late yesterday, the Chinese communist party and its government had announced that authorities would shut down at least five major metropolitan areas, including tens of millions of people in order to try to prevent the further spread of a disease that is at this point identified as a coronavirus. As the New York Times reported yesterday, "Chinese authorities are closing off Wuhan, a city of more than 11 million people and the epicenter of a pneumonia like virus that has spread halfway around the world, by canceling planes and trains leaving the city and suspending buses, subways, and ferries within it."
The reporters went on to say, "The announcement shared on Chinese state media hours before it was to take effect on Thursday morning was a significant escalation from just the day before." Well, indeed it was, and further escalation would happen during the day of Thursday in China.
The headline in yesterday's Wall Street Journal on the story was, "China Locks Down City at Center of Virus." There were other headlines in other major media. They talked about a virus spreading from China all the way to the United States. In the U.S. thus far just one case, although by late yesterday it was reported that there might be a second case in Texas.
Another article in the New York Times, this one by reporter Denise Grady stated, "Less than a month after the first few cases of a new respiratory illness was reported in Wuhan, China, travelers have carried the virus to at least four other countries, including the United States. More than 500 people are known to have been infected, at least 17 have died, and the world is bracing itself for what might come next."
Over the course of human history, there have been successive waves of plagues and pestilence and disease and illness and viruses. Many of these waves have been incredibly deadly. More on that in just a moment. But in China, there is now the echo of a warning of something that took place 17 years ago, and that was what is known in China and elsewhere as the SARS disaster or S-A-R-S, the name of a disease that appeared 17 years ago in 2003 in China, and spread very quickly with the Chinese government very slow to respond and extremely slow to acknowledge this expanding health problem to the wider world.
As Li Yuan reports for the New York Times, "The SARS disaster was supposed to drag China into a new era of openness and responsibility. The deadly disease rippled across the world 17 years ago, abetted by a Chinese government that covered up its spread. As the scope of it became clear, Chinese journalists, intellectuals, and other critics helped shame Beijing into opening up about the problem." But the major point in this article is that China has repressively shut down so many of those voices so that there are not many alternative ways that the rest of the world can find out what is going on in China.
We are now almost entirely dependent upon the Chinese government and that means the Chinese Communist Party to tell us what is going on. Because in an age of increased repression, after a very brief period of openness, the Chinese Communist Party has a monopoly on all knowledge and control within the nation. Wuhan has become a symbol of an autocratic government trying now to respond in its own autocratic way to this kind of health crisis. You would note that in the United States it would be extremely difficult to shut down a city, to give this kind of order, but it comes rather naturally given the shape of the regime in China.
But it is also now a matter of national urgency. And even as the reports came in late last night, the Chinese government has basically shut down all lunar new year festival occasions that would draw any kind of crowd in cities that not only include Wuhan, but also the capital city of Beijing. Now just keep in mind what that means for China. The lunar new year is the largest festival, the largest national event on the annual calendar in China, and according to many reports, there are millions and millions of people who were expected to be in motion visiting family, going to events. By some estimates, about 600 million people were expected to be moving in one way or another, city to city, or within major cities because of the festival. But now the Chinese Communist Party has decided that is simply a risk too high to take.
As the Washington Post reported late last night, the Chinese government is now effectively trying to quarantine about 25 million people, and as the paper notes, that's actually more than the entire population of the state of Florida.
Now we're talking about a coronavirus, and one of the interesting and troubling things about this kind of virus is that it appears to emerge primarily from animals, transmitted from animal to animal until some kind of mutation allows the transmission from animal to human, but the most frightening mutation takes place when the virus mutates in order to spread from human to human. And we are told that this coronavirus has now reached that stage. It has now mutated so that it can be spread from human to human. Now, one of the reasons so many of these viruses start out in places like China is because there is a closer proximity between human beings and animals. Not only that, but animals and other animals. We are told that some of these viruses, these coronaviruses, exist naturally within bat populations, the bat populations then spread it to other populations. Often you hear about the role play by swine, by pigs in this process, because pigs are often the engine or the context for the mutation of the virus into a new form.
Answering the question, “How is the virus spread among humans now?,” the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday, "Seven strains are known to infect humans, including the virus in Wuhan, that can be spread by coughing, kissing, or making contact with saliva. Chinese officials say four of the strains cause common colds. Two other strains, however, have been extremely deadly, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome known as SARS and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome or MERS are coronaviruses."
There are also other reports telling us that this particular virus may spread more rapidly and may already have spread more rapidly because many human beings infected with the virus have symptoms that are so mild, they do not know they have the disease, and thus they don't do anything to prevent passing it on to others.
But even as the person who becomes the host might have very mild symptoms, by the time the virus spreads, it can have deadlier symptoms in others. There is however no recent precedent for a government trying to quarantine 25 million people, and at this point there is no reason to expect that it will stop at 25 million. As the New York Times reported, "Extreme measures during outbreaks have been imposed elsewhere before. During the Ebola epidemic in West Africa in 2014, Sierra Leone ordered everyone in the nation to stay home for three days as the authorities went door to door checking for new cases, retrieving dead bodies, and trying to stop the disease from spreading further."
The paper goes on to say in Monrovia, the capital of Iberia, a sprawling neighborhood with tens of thousands of people, it was put under strict quarantine by the government and guarded by police officers in riot gear, also that in recent years. But again, none of that really comes close to 25 million people being quarantined in China.
And once again, we are looking at the fact that the World Health Organization—which has not yet interestingly enough declared this to be a world health emergency, but it's expected to do so quickly— the World Health Organization has warned that the virus has almost certainly spread far beyond where it is known to have spread now. And consider further the eerie fact that it was just over a century ago, about 100 years ago that one of the worst plagues ever to be experienced by humanity spread in the form of the Spanish flu, and in the year 1918 the last year of the First World War, the Spanish flu, as it was known, killed about 50 million people worldwide. That's 50 million. That was far more than those who were killed in what has been called the Great War or World War One. There were at least 675,000 deaths from the Spanish flu in the United States in that year.
That flu virus also spread incredibly rapidly, and one of the mechanisms for that spread was actually the movement of so many millions of persons in the war itself. But there were other very strange aspects of the Spanish flu and all those that killed in 1918. For one thing, when there is a virus like this, especially a respiratory virus, it is often the aged and the sick or the weak who were the most endangered. But in that flu epidemic of 1918 oddly enough, some of the most endangered were the healthiest, in particular healthy young men between about the ages of 17 and 25. Healthy young men, and many of them of course, had been mobilized in the war. Why in the world would such a virus be particularly deadly to extremely healthy young men? Well, the reason was their very health became an engine for their own demise, given the immune suppression system in the human body.
Their immune systems were so powerful and healthy that they actually turned deadly because even as their blood system responded by producing all of those blood cells in order to fight the virus, these young men often suffocated on their own blood cells. The blood cells simply flooding their own lungs.
But Christians looking to this news and of course looking with concern also have to look, recognizing that we are hearing echoes of what we find in Scripture. For example, in the Gospel of Luke 21:11 where Jesus says, "There will be earthquakes and in various places, plagues and famines and there will be terrors and great signs from heaven." As we think about plague itself, it is hard to come up with a more horrifying picture of plague than what we see in the Old Testament in the Book of Exodus with the plagues against Egypt, especially the horrible plague against the firstborn of Egypt because of Pharaoh's disobedience to God.
We are also reminded of Revelation 6:7-8 in which we read, "When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature saying, ‘Come and see.’ So I looked and behold a pale horse, and the name of him who sat on it was Death and Hades followed with him." That fourth horseman has often been associated with plague, with illness, with a violent death by means of this kind of disease, which we now identify primarily with deadly viruses spreading across the human population.
All of this presented in Scripture as aspects of God's judgment, not only in the past, but a warning of an apocalyptic future in which God's judgment is going to be poured out on humanity in horrifying ways. That's the whole point of the vision that we read in the Book of Revelation and in particular what we read in Revelation 6. The horse, by the way, in Revelation 6, this pale horse is pale precisely because it is not healthy, it represents death. And this pale death is often understood to be symbolic of the pale face of one who is suffering from this kind of fatal disease.
Now all of the governments involved in the World Health Organization, and even I, as I'm speaking here on The Briefing, I am not trying to instill panic in anyone, and as a matter of fact would do everything to try to prevent that kind of panic. These kinds of recurring waves are rightly identified these days very quickly with modern medicine. Even the virus itself can be detected with lightning speed compared to times past when they didn't even know about viruses and their existence. But the truth is that Christians of all people are rightly humbled by the fact that these viruses do exist. In a fallen world, they are very deadly. In a fallen world, they can spread very quickly.
But beyond the issue of public health, important is that is, Christians understand the deep biblical and theological overtones to all of this. Eventually there is going to come a plague that will not be stopped, for which no antidote will be found, for which no vaccine will be effective. It is because that plague is going to come as an act of God's judgment upon humanity. And Christians know in this case as an every other, there is no safe place to be but in Christ.
Apocalypse Coming: The Doomsday Clock Reminds Us That Humans Share a God-Given Sense of a Coming Reckoning
But speaking of apocalypse and world crisis and the end of the world, just consider the fact that yesterday we were told that the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has moved its famous Doomsday Clock up to 100 seconds before midnight. As Hannah Knowles and Abby Ohlheiser tell us for the Washington Post, “This is a metaphor for the end of the world in a recognition of growing threats from nuclear war, climate change, and disinformation.”
Well, let's just back off a little bit. We are talking about a clock that most Americans have probably heard of. It is a metaphorical clock. It actually takes a physical form, but it's not keeping time. Instead, midnight is presented as the end of the world, the end of humanity, absolute disaster, and thus the putting of the clock's hands at 100 seconds before midnight is supposed to communicate to us that we are actually very near the end of humanity, the end of history, the end of the world, because of current world crises.
But let's take a big step back this time. Let's remind ourselves that the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was actually put together largely by scientists who had been involved in the United States in the Manhattan Project that produced the two nuclear bombs that brought about the end of World War Two. Scientists such as Robert Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein, concerned about the spread of nuclear weaponry and a new atomic crisis the world faced, decided to set up this organization and its board of sponsors in 1948 and they decided to guide the setting of the clock.
They set it then, back at the dawn of the nuclear age, just a few minutes before midnight. That was to serve as a warning, but between then and now, over about 70 years, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has moved to the hands often far closer to midnight, indicating their judgment of an ever impending crisis. Now 100 seconds before midnight, as the story tells us yesterday, the clock is now set is actually the closest it has ever been set to midnight, closer even than during the Cuban Missile Crisis when the world was actually on the brink of an atomic war.
But on this matter, for clarification, we are indebted to scientist Lawrence M. Krauss. He's a theoretical physicist. He's president of the Origins Project Foundation. He's the host of something known as the Origins podcast. He is an avid opponent of the biblical doctrine of creation, but he is also the former chairman of the board of sponsors of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.
He served in that role from 2009 to 2018. Remember, he is a theoretical physicist. Here's what we need to keep in mind. In the Wall Street Journal yesterday, he tells us the truth about the setting of the atomic clock. He reminds us that the original concern of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and its sponsoring group was the threat of nuclear war, but at this point that same group takes on other world crises as its concerned as well, Factoring that into the warning it issues by just how close to midnight the clock is set. But the point made by Lawrence M. Krauss is that at least when the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the scientists behind it, were speaking on the basis of science, they might actually have had something to say. After all, they were atomic scientists. They were nuclear physicists. They know something about nuclear weapons, they had a right to speak to it.
But the point Krauss is making right now is that the current clock is set by an organization that is actually not even so scientific. And furthermore, even if it were, atomic scientists have a particular expertise and should be recognized as having a particular competence in speaking about atomic science, not about world crises, in particular world crises put into a political context.
Krauss writes this, "There's a deeper problem. Not only is the doomsday clock unscientific, the factors of its setting are now dominated more by policy questions than scientific ones. The former may be important," he says, "But claiming the authority of atomic scientists is appropriate only for the latter." He continues, "Atomic scientists can speak with authority as Rabinowitz, Einstein, and Oppenheimer did to the technical capabilities of nuclear weapons. Scientists’ views," he says, "May also carry special weight when they raise concerns about global climate change consequences." He goes on, "But today the clock setting is determined more by concerns about how superpowers can engage in arms control talks, about potentially reckless statements by world leaders, or about what policies would best reduce carbon emissions. These," he says, "are important questions but not ones in which scientists can claim special authority."
This has long been a problem not only in politics but in the public mind. People confuse areas of expertise. This is one of the reasons why, for example, when people hear that someone is a medical doctor, they tend to transfer medical expertise to other areas, but that might not apply at all. Atomic scientists, we can be assured, know something about atomic science, at least if they're credentialed, but that doesn't mean that they know anything about politics or furthermore that they really know anything much about many of the policies to which they speak.
Now as if the point were not made clearly enough for us, the Washington Post article actually identifies the current executive chair for the Bulletin of Atomic Sciences as Jerry Brown, the former four-term governor of California. Governor Moonbeam, as he was known in the 1970s is one of the best known political liberals in the United States. The odd thing is, is that he is now not nearly as liberal as the California government dominated by Democrats is now. But he was none the less, that four-term Democratic governor, the two sets of two terms separated by a number of years, but let's just state the obvious. Governor Moonbeam is not an atomic scientist. Nevertheless, as the Post says, he is executive chair for the Bulletin of Atomic Sciences.
So let's just suggest that the first but less significant worldview analysis point on this particular story is the fact that human beings tend to confuse competencies. When we hear about atomic scientists or the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, we assume they're talking about atomic science. And because they are atomic scientists, we assume they know something about which they're speaking, but it turns out that that is now no longer reliably the case. The doomsday clock as it is now infamously known, turns out to be far more political, if not nearly exclusively political rather than scientific.
But there's a second point of worldview analysis here and it's actually far more important. This is an apocalyptic warning. Just think about it. You're talking about a clock that is threateningly close according to their predictions to midnight. Midnight means the end of the world. It means, as they say, the end of the human race. It means the end of history. It means the end of consciousness, of everything. It means the end of the cosmos in a very real sense, or at least the inhabitable part, our part of the cosmos. What does that tell us? It tells us that human beings, even in our sinfulness, have a very clear sense of apocalypse coming. We have a very clear sense that this world is not going to last forever. We have a very clear sense that some kind of doom is actually coming at the end of human history.
And there's a reason why we have that sense. It is because as we read in the book of Ecclesiastes in chapter three, God has put the knowledge of eternity in humanity. We have the experience of chronology, we have the knowledge of eternity, and we have the innate sense, the right sense that whatever this is, this is not eternity. We also understand that there is judgment coming. There is a sense, a moral sense in humanity that some kind of disaster is looming. Some kind of judgment is coming. There is going to be an apocalypse, and that warning shows up and just about every form of mythology, pagan and modern and in every worldview, one way or another.
Christopher Tolkien Dies at 95: Remembering the Beloved Son, Youngest Inkling, and Faithful Steward of Middle Earth
And that brings me to our final consideration for this week, and that is to acknowledge the death last week in France at age 95, of Christopher Tolkien. Christopher was the third child and the second son of the famous author, J. R. R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. But it was Christopher Tolkien who followed his dad's example in so many ways. It was Christopher Tolkien who brought to life the rest of the mythological universe and the legends behind The Hobbit, and of course The Lord of the Rings—The Hobbit in 1937, The Lord of the Rings in 1949. But the work known as The Silmarillion actually came out in 1977, considerably after the death of J.R.R. Tolkien. And it was largely the work of his son Christopher Tolkien in assembling the materials that his father had left—and we're talking about hundreds of thousands of words, eventually, well over a million words—to assemble all of this and to bring it out as an expansion of the legendary background. That book came out in 1977.
But when the book came out, there were people who accused Christopher Tolkien of being not just the assembler and editor of the tale, but rather as the author. But it was actually in response to this that Christopher Tolkien then went on to what I think was an even greater achievement in scholarship, and that was bringing out the entire 12 volumes known as The History of Middle Earth. It was released as complete in 1996. Those 12 massive volumes represented a compilation of all of the fragments, of all the marginal notes, of all of the beginnings and the middles and the ends of stories that Tolkien had put together, Tolkien the father. And all of that came from J.R.R. Tolkien's hand. And by publishing this material became very clear that it was J.R.R. Tolkien who was behind the tale published as The Silmarillion, and furthermore that Christopher Tolkien had an excellent and faithful steward of his father's voluminous, but largely disorganized writings.
As a young boy, Christopher Tolkien had a particular interest in his father's stories, and we are told as early as being a preschooler, age four and five, Christopher was concerned as he heard his father read his stories, that there were some times inconsistencies. In the forward to The Hobbit, Christopher relates what he had said as a very young boy, "Last time you said Bilbo's front door was blue and you said Thorin had a golden tassel on his head, but you've just said that Bilbo's front door was green, and that Thorin's hood was silver." So in one sense, Christopher Tolkien's editorial work on behalf of his father began when he was a very young boy, but it continued all the way through the end of his very long life. He died in France on Wednesday at age 95.
In all the annals of human literature throughout the ages, it is hard to come up with an example of a son who so honored his father by the completion of his work. He was an accomplished scholar himself. Like his father, he became a tutor in the English language at New College, Oxford. He also became the youngest member of the Inklings, that famous group of writers there in Oxford that included so many of the most important names in English literature of the 20th century, including not only his father, but C.S. Lewis. He was also a scholar of ancient languages, considered to be one of the world's foremost authorities in ancient Icelandic.
But what's the big point of all of this? Well, early in the 20th century, the efforts by intellectual liberals, even theological liberals, was as they said, to de-mythologize, even in their words, to de-mythologize the Bible, particularly the New Testament, but it was Tolkien's purpose to re-mythologize.
He looked at the horrors of the 20th century, and he had experienced some of the first of those horrors in the First World War himself, and he understood the humanity cannot live without legend. It cannot live without mythology. And so his entire work, his life work with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and all the rest that his son Christopher would then largely bring into being, it was an effort to try to enchant the modern world with a very pre-modern story. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are certainly not explicitly Christian, but they cannot be understood except over against the background of the biblical meta-narrative. The Lord of the Rings trilogy taken by itself is rightly seen as one of the most prophetic indictments of the horrifying anti-human ideologies of the 20th century.
And so interestingly enough, intriguingly enough, we come to the end of this week and we have looked at the outbreak of a new plague in China. We've looked at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists setting the end of the world at just 100 seconds before midnight. And we have come to understand the death of Christopher Tolkien at age 95 last week. And so if you have followed these discussions all together, then you come to understand the very strange continuity. It's there for all to see. Who can see the truth in the tale?
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at AlbertMohler.com. You can find me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll be speaking today at the pastors' conference at the First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, Florida, and I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.