In early February, Hatun, an Evangelical Christian speaker and nom de guerre, took to London’s Hyde Park, declared that the end of the world was coming and that God was about to unleash His wrath upon the earth’s sinners.
At the time, coronavirus seemed mostly like an obscure illness that many considered to be merely a more intense flu. Though worrisome, world leaders denied that it would affect Europe or the U.S., and that even if it did, it could be curbed relatively quickly. But standing on his small soap box in Speakers’ Corner, Hatun argued that COVID-19 had infected and killed so many already because of the state’s repression of God and the church. He warned his small audience to be fearful and repent, because “only God’s chosen few would survive.” Most people, he remembers, dismissed him.
I met Hatun nearly two years ago, when I was reporting on Speakers’ Corner, a historic London institution that’s now become a crucial battleground in the online culture wars. Back then, he was still warning about the End Times being near (but rather than coronavirus, he suggested transgender children were the final sign). Speaking to him today from his North London flat, where he lives with his wife and two children, he tells me that rather than being scared, he feels vindicated. “I was always prepared for this,” he says. “Infections and disease, especially created by man, are one of the first signs God uses to show he is displeased.”
And though Hatun recognizes that innocent people — including devout Christians — have either died or fallen seriously ill because of coronavirus, his explanation is simple: “It’s not for me to challenge the plans of almighty God. I’m his servant. My job is to spread his message.”
Around the world, dozens of preachers who have made a name for themselves — both online and IRL — foretelling the events of the apocalypse (and oft-laughed at when these predictions never materialized), are now being consulted by scores of worried people every day. Unsealed, an American Christian prophecy organization, says that even though it doesn’t necessarily believe COVID-19 to be a biblical sign of End Times, it’s nonetheless receiving tens of concerned messages each day from Christians and non-Christians alike. On Amazon, bestsellers in its religion and ethics category include self-published books about the coronavirus being a creation of Satan and a republished volume of psychic Sylvia Browne’s End of Days, which purports that COVID-19 was prophesied in both the Old and New Testament. Meanwhile, over at The Christian Post, there are dozens of articles about whether coronavirus has larger biblical connotations, as well as if Christians should be preparing for the return of Jesus in the coming months.
The Book of Revelation, of course, looms large here — i.e., many preachers use it as evidence of Jesus’ imminent return, but only after the occurrence of several unique calamities. The specifics of such calamities, however, are the source of great debate. Because of the Bible’s poetic language, passages like, “There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven,” present a vagueness both in terms of particulars and the sequence in which they might take place.
In other words, pretty much any calamity (be it social change, environmental degradation and/or global pandemic) can be thought to welcome back Christ to our mortal plane.
“All these disasters are taken to be God’s judgment on the earth for wickedness and lead to a final battle and judgment. However, it’s not clear when these will take place,” explains Paul Middleton, a biblical scholar at Chester University in the U.K. “The writer [of Revelation] seems to imagine everything taking place ‘soon.’ Since they didn’t, subsequent readers of the text have tried to read themselves and their own situations into it.”
As such, for most Christian organizations, managing Revelation-inspired conspiracy theories is par the course. But the outbreak of COVID-19 is different. First, unlike other global catastrophes such as terrorist attacks, congregations can’t go out into the world to spread their message. Second, up against religious doomsday guys with big online followings, churches, many of which are still adapting to simply live-streaming services, now have to figure out a way of combating biblical misinterpretations before they reach too many people.
“It’s a constant frustration for church leaders — that their people are going off and watching nonsense during the week, and they can only do things on Sundays,” says Sam Hailes, editor of Premier Christianity magazine. If anything, though, that might be the silver lining in all of this — that traditional houses of worship are being forced to think differently about how they reach their parishioners (and how often). Since Hailes’ church started broadcasting its services online, for example, attendance has increased by more than 50 percent, a pattern being seen in churches all across Europe.
Also, the apocalyptic messaging hasn’t exactly caught on. “For the most part, Christians aren’t considering this to be a sign of the End Times,” Hailes tells me. “Instead, they’re using this time to present messages online that are positive. They tend to be about how to have faith and not fear, and encouragements to serve our local communities and ‘be the church’ even though we can’t meet in a building in the same way as before.”
As for Hatun, he obviously can’t preach of our impending doom from the Speakers’ Corner any longer, but he is planning on starting a daily live stream with other Christian voices to give an “authentic Christian” perspective on COVID-19, a series that he hopes will serve as an “invitation to Christ.” He is, though, characteristically vague about whether this latest global challenge is what will actually usher in Revelation’s long-promised hellfire and brimstone.
“It might be a sign, because the Bible talks about plagues and diseases,” he says. “Or it might just be a warning from God, that if we don’t change our wicked behavior, something even worse will happen in the future.”