On 13 March 2020, the first case of Coronavirus was confirmed in Nairobi, Kenya. This was two days after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, spreading fast and causing death globally. Ever since, life in Kenya has not been the same again. The clarion call, “stay at home, stay safe” has coloured the screens in our living rooms.
The call to wash hands with soap and running water for not less than twenty seconds or sanitize with 70% alcohol sanitizers, and maintain social distance meaning physical distance is the daily anthem. Places of worship, schools and all public gatherings have closed. The pandemic has sparked fear, panic and confusion, giving rise to a wave of prophetic messages, either new or from the archives, answering the questions that everyone is asking: “Why COVID-19? Who is and will be affected and why? Who is and will be spared, and why?” One such prophecy was a video titled, “Africa will shock the world.”
The preacher alleges that in the developed world with all their capacity in health care, they were dying in their thousands and in Africa we have no resources nor capacity, people are wondering, can Africa survive? He says that Africa will not see dead bodies all over the continent due to the following reasons: Africa believes in God, upholds some values that God expects the nations to uphold, has stood its ground to believe in the sanctity of marriage and will not go the way of same sex marriage. He goes on to present this value to God as the reason why God should save the Africans and spare their lives. Africa believes in a God who comes to our situation and rescues us…”1
False prophecy is not a problem for Africa only, it is a global problem. So-called Christian psychic Sylvia Browne wrote two separate books in 20042Sylvia Browne, Book of Angels (Carlsbad, CA: Hay House, Inc., 2004) and 20083 Sylvia Browne, End of Days: Predictions and Prophecies of the End of the World (New York: Dutton, 2008); in them she mentions a terrible disease that will be experienced in or around 2020. Today, millions have tied her vague description to COVID-19 and her books have re-gained popularity. Some right-wing pastors have been defiant, treating COVID-19 as a hoax. For example, the American Pentecostal preacher Rodney Howard-Browne endangered his flock by gathering together for worship, even after the government had banned public gatherings4Jason Wilson, “The rightwing Christian Preachers in deep denial over COVID-19’s dangers,” The Guardian, 4 April 2020. Online: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/apr/04/america-rightwing-christian-preachers-virus-hoax. Some preachers are also downplaying the pandemic; for example, the Nigerian televangelist TB Joshua prophesied that COVID-19 would end on 27 March 2020:
“This month (March), 27th, it will be over. By the end of this month, whether we like it or not – no matter the medicine they might have produced to cure whatever, it will go the way it came. “If it is not a medicine that brought this to the world, medicine cannot take it out. It will go the way it came.”5
The voices of other religious leaders have been muted, many of them not sure of what to say or not say, while others simply choose to dance to the music or stay on the fence for the uncertainty of how things will turn out.
In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic when many people have lost hope, especially as the big economies have become vulnerable and appear to be the worst hit, any message of hope will rekindle faith and energize people to look forward to a tomorrow free from the virus. Every day, social media is flooded by messages of hope, either of a miraculous end of COVID-19, a miraculous cure having been found, the need to repent and lead holy lives to avoid COVID-19, the claim that rapture is imminent, or the exhortation that God is judging the world for sin while the righteous remain symptom free. Sometimes my mind is almost blowing up! If it is this bad for me as theologian and church minister, how much more for the ordinary Christians? How does one know what to believe or not? What to pray for and against? How should Christians react to such unrealistic false hopes raised by these prophecies? How do they even know that these are false hopes?
COVID-19 and Discerning the Voice of God
Especially in Africa, false prophecy worsened the spread of HIV in the first two decades, which were critical days lost to mitigating the spread. Even when science provided the facts of the cause of HIV, the mode of transmission, and resources for prevention and treatment, many Christian believers fell through the cracks of life-threatening theologies and succumbed to AIDS. There is danger of walking the same path as we address COVID-19. It is, therefore, imperative to learn to discern the voice of God amidst many popular voices, and not repeat the mistakes we made with HIV.
Reflecting on Jeremiah 29:1-13 provides some insights which may help us as we struggle to discern the voice of God amidst the many voices claiming to be God’s voice. Jeremiah takes up the challenge to convince those in exile that their exile will be long, and they need to find ways of coping. Jeremiah has often been regarded as a prophet of doom by some scholars, while others see him as prophet of realism. His message bears both judgement and hope of restoration.
In the reign of Jehoachim, King of Judah, Babylonians attacked and carried the king and the nobles to exile alongside the vessels from the temple. This must have been a humiliating experience. At a glance this could not be the will of God. The temple and the vessels therein were sacred. Besides, the Israelites were God’s chosen people, distinct from other nations. In this scheme, there is no way God would allow them to suffer humiliation at the hands of a heathen king. Although Jeremiah had prophesied with much drama (putting a yoke on his neck) to demonstrate that Israel would be under the yoke of the Babylonians, his message had proved unpopular since it did not seem to provide the much-needed hope of immediate restoration.
The messages from the false prophets had carried the day—especially Hananiah’s because he soothed the ears of the Israelites by offering immediate hope that the exile would end in two years. Jeremiah sees this as unrealistic hope which is misleading, destructive and will only lead God’s people astray into further complacency and wrong actions and cause more misery and pain. Jeremiah urges the exiles to be patient, calm down, take a deep breath, act soberly, and make the right choices. “You are now in Babylon. his situation is not reversible, it is going to get worse as those who remained in Jerusalem will soon join you. Study the situation, live normal life, work for peace because if there is peace your life will be more bearable.” God would restore the people, but only after the exile had gone the full cycle of seventy years. The exiles are desperate to return home, but false prophecies promising return after two years are misleading and only make a bad situation worse. They should understand that this bad time is known to God, and God’s plan for Israel’s prosperity still stands.
The fact that the elite and the nobles were taken into exile first must have been devastating, causing panic and despair and this would have been fertile ground for false prophecy as a quick fix, “This can’t be happening! God cannot allow this to happen to God’s chosen people.” The self-proclaimed prophets, among them Hananiah, gave hope for immediate restoration Jeremiah 27:16b quotes Hananiah who says, “Very soon now the articles from the house of the Lord will be brought back from Babylon.” (Chapter 28:2-4) His timeframe for restoration of both the exiles and the articles from the temple was two years.
Jeremiah warns the people in chapter 27:17, “they (the prophets) are prophesying lies to you. Do not listen to them, serve the king of Babylon and live.” The die had been cast; Israel had to fall in the hands of Nebuchadnezzar who is referred to as the servant of God in Chapter 27:6. Babylon was to carry out the judgement of God over Israel and the nations. The Israelites had the choice between subjecting themselves to the rule of the Babylonians or being punished by the sword, famine and plague (chapter 27:8).
The paradox in Jeremiah 27-29, however, is the two dissenting voices each claiming to be from God. The people of God need wisdom and spiritual insight to discern the true message from the false. This text is an invitation for the people facing challenging moments and situations to adapt and try to make life meaningful in the unusual times. Jeremiah urges the Israelites to brace themselves for tougher times and not to listen to the lies of the false prophets. In Chapter 27:19-22, the things that were not captured by the Babylonians from the temple and the palace will also be taken away to Babylon. In chapter 28:14, God will put an iron yoke on the neck of all the nations to make them serve Nebuchadnezzar…although Hananiah had broken the wooden yoke to signify that the exiles would return soon and all will be well, Jeremiah puts on an iron yoke to signify tougher times ahead.
Jeremiah advises the exiles to take it easy for they are there in Babylon to stay:
“Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare…For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfil to you my promise and bring you back to this place” (Jeremiah 29:5-10 NRSV).
This was the message which no exile would have desired to hear. And yet, however dim it appeared, it was the true message from God. The appealing message of Hananiah, however soothing it was, was false prophecy clearly not from God! The promise of restoration is there, and Jeremiah does not dispute it, but the time of its fulfilment is dependent neither on the people’s desperation nor the false prophets, but on God.
The people of God are exhorted by Jeremiah to exercise patience while in exile, and to contribute positively to the society they now live in. As a prophet of realistic hope, he exhorts the people to understand the times. Whereas it is appealing to hear the soothing words of the false prophets which offered immediate hope, they must understand that this is unrealistic hope since it is not the message from God.
Lessons worth learning about false prophecy; or lessons we must learn about false prophecy;
- It gives false hope, and when it is not fulfilled may lead people to lose of faith, either in the prophet or in God.
- It is favourable, flashy and fashionable; soothing to ears, it is easily believed (1 Kings 22:13).
- It tells people what they want to hear: “For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires…” (2 Tim 4:3-5 NRSV)
- It makes people self-conceited as they try to align themselves with the right side of God- amplifying self-righteousness and complacency.
- It can lead people to miss out on the right interventions, ending up in mis-actions and inaction, lessons learnt from HIV, especially the early days, when the church linked HIV to judgement and punishment from God for the sexually immoral. Failing to learn the lesson of right intervention, opportune moments were lost, lives were lost, and we are still recovering from deaths which could have been prevented, reversed and postponed, leaving behind vulnerable populations especially in the African continent.
- It creates conflicts in mitigating the public health problem as mixed messages are sent out and embraced by different actors.
- It makes an already bad situation worse. In the case of COVID-19, we make a bad situation better (a sign of true hope) by protecting ourselves by wearing a mask, washing hands with soap for not less than twenty seconds or sanitizing with 70% alcohol sanitizers, and maintaining physical distance. Simple as this message may appear, it is lifesaving. If a prophet then tells people not to pay attention to the public health message because the virus is an enemy from Satan, and what they need to do is gather, pray and fast for God to intervene, what is likely to happen is that more people in prayer and fasting will get infected and some may even lose their lives. If the prophet’s message gains popularity, then the government interventions may not yield much fruit. It would be a worse tragedy if the government also believed in the false prophecy and hence embarked on prayer and fasting alone; then there will be a real disaster.
In conclusion, we need to discern the prophecies as we continue to grapple with difficult issues in life, especially COVID-19. True prophecy may be painful, for example Jeremiah telling the exiles that they need to settle in Babylon and not buy into the fantasy of the exile being reversed in two years. He urges them to work for peace in the cities they live in because if those cities prosper, they too will prosper. For indeed, this is the reasonable thing to do, especially if the exile will last for seventy years. True prophecy offers realistic hope not false hope, for in it the plan of God for God’s people is embedded.
- Realistic Hope, Not False Hope: Prophecy and COVID-19 - June 8, 2020