In the summer of 2008, an elderly psychic who claimed she started receiving premonitions at age 5 published a book that contained an ominous prediction.
“In around 2020, a severe pneumonia-like illness will spread throughout the globe, attacking the lungs and the bronchial tubes and resisting all known treatments,” it said. “Almost more baffling than the illness itself will be the fact that it will suddenly vanish as quickly as it arrived, attack again ten years later, and then disappear completely.”
The prediction faded from public memory and the book’s author, Sylvia Browne, died in 2013. But the coronavirus pandemic has brought new attention to Browne’s book, “End of Days: Predictions and Prophecies About the End of the World.” It’s shot up to No. 2 on Amazon’s nonfiction chart, and physical copies are now selling for hundreds of dollars.
Government and public health officials have issued all sorts of guidelines to help people protect themselves against the spread of Covid-19. But there’s another contagion that experts seem helpless to stop: The plague of prophets warning that the coronavirus is a sign we’re at the “end of days.”
There is something about pandemics that cause panicked people to empty their minds along with supermarket shelves. Countless doomsday warnings like Browne’s prediction are spreading online, blending coronavirus fears with everything from political paranoia about a “#oneworld gov controlled by the UN” to Australian wildfires and swarms of locusts in Africa.
What drives these doomsday ‘prophets’
Many include wildly inaccurate readings of the Book of Revelation. Often these pandemic prophets end their predictions with sign-offs such as “IF YOU DON’T HAVE A BIBLE, BUY ONE!”
Maybe it’s no wonder some people are stocking up on guns and ammo.
But some who study religion and prophecies for a living say it’s time for these social media prophets and psychics to take a self-enforced quarantine. Doomsayers are harming peoples’ spiritual and psychological health, they say.
They’re also claiming knowledge that even the most revered figures in religion didn’t dare assume. Whenever Ulrich Lehner, a Catholic theologian at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, comes across a social media preacher warning that Covid-19 means the end of the world is near, he’s tempted to tweet back this response: “Matthew 24:36.”
That’s the passage when Jesus says about the end of the world: “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
“Jesus himself said, ‘You don’t know the hour,’ yet some self-appointed prophets today seem to know more than the angels around God’s throne,” Lehner says.
Lehner says some of the doomsday prophets may be driven by another sin: pride.
“Perhaps in these guys who create mass panic there is also a certain pride, a bloated self-confidence that ‘I have some special insight,”’ says Lehner, author of “God is Not Nice: Rejecting Pop Culture Theology and Discovering the God Worth Living For.”
“If that’s not devilish, I don’t know what is.”
But one man who linked Covid-19 to biblical scriptures says he wasn’t trying to spread fear.
Elisha Jones, a youth director at a church in southeast Texas, tweeted a screen grab of a Facebook post that cited 2 Chronicles 7: 13-15. That’s where the Bible says God told Solomon, “When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people … I will heal the land” if people “turn from their wicked ways.”
Someone wrote a caption above the biblical passage that read: “Australian wildfires — the rain was held back. Africa – locust plague. World pandemic — Covid-19.”
Jones said he was trying to warn people that “Jesus said these things will happen” and that the Earth is undergoing “birthing pains before Jesus’ second coming.”
“I absolutely think it could be a direct sign of something God said would happen, or even a precursor for things to come,” Jones says about Covid-19 and other world events.
There’s a long history of bad doomsday predictions
Whatever the motive, doomsday predictions don’t have a good track record.
Remember Y2K? How about the recent “Mayan Apocalypse?”
Some people pointed to the end of the Maya Long Count calendar, on December 21, 2012, to conclude it also meant the end of the world. They warned of giant tidal waves and that the Earth would collide with another planet. Sales of survival kits soared, and there were reports that a man in China built a modern-day Noah’s ark.
Historians say many Christians in 17th-century Europe predicted the world would end in 1666 because the numbers “666” represented the mark of the Beast mentioned in the Bible’s Book of Revelation. When the Great London Fire, which lasted four days, erupted that year, many saw it as a fulfillment of the prophecy.
Browne, the author and psychic, was consistently criticized for the inaccuracy of her prophecies when she was alive. There are numerous accounts that she made mistaken claims about crimes that increased the suffering of victims’ families. She even predicted she’d die of old age at 88 — she died at 77.
Even Browne’s most famous prediction, about a mysterious respiratory illness in 2020, looks different in a critical light.
Snopes, the fact-checking website, said, “lobbing vague claims about likely events does not a prediction make,” when examining Browne’s prophecy. It rated her prediction as not true or false but as a “mixture” containing significant elements of both truth and falsehood.
“It’s unclear whether Browne’s ‘prediction’ was more of a lucky guess, considering the book was written after the SARS outbreak,” Snopes said.