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 screengrab 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 told CNN 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.
But such bad predictions aren’t a modern phenomenon.
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.
Many point to Revelations
If there was a prize for the most misunderstood source for bad predictions, it would go to the Book of Revelation. It may be the Bible's ultimate crossover -- no other book's imagery and language has so penetrated popular culture.
Even people who have never read the Bible are familiar with its references: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the Red Dragon, 666 and the seven bowls of plague.
Revelation is filled with such contagious imagery that one theologian who has studied its text calls it a "multimedia" book whose popular images operate like an infectious disease.
"They break off from the larger text and circulate like little viruses in our culture that hook on to other things and that's when they really take off and spread," says Timothy Beal, author of "The Book of Revelation: A Biography."
Beal says many people quoting Revelation get the meaning and the symbolism wrong.
"Almost none of the people talking about Revelation have really sat down and read it," he says. Many people, for example, believe that the "Rapture" -- when it's believed that Jesus returns at the end of the age and all Christians, dead and alive, will rise up in the air to meet him -- is in Revelation.
Not true, says Beal.
There is no explicit mention of the Rapture in Revelation. There are references to the concept in scriptures like 1 Corinthians 15:52, which says, "...For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed."
But Beal says the Rapture theory actually originated in the 19th-century work of a theologian named John Nelson Darby.
How about the Antichrist? Isn’t that in Revelation?
Nope, Beal says.
The writer of the first book of John in the New Testament warns of generic "Antichrists" who deny that Jesus is the messiah. But there is no figure like the central character in the film, "The Omen," a cunning son of Satan with the number 666 stenciled on his body.
So what about 666 -- isn't that in Revelation?
Yes, but it doesn't refer to Satan. Instead, theologians say the number references another incarnation of evil for the first Christians: Nero, the Roman emperor.
Jones, the Texas church youth director, cited Revelation 15:1-3, which warns about "seven angels with seven plagues."
"I don't think posting things of that nature is to spread fear, " Jones says. "My belief is God is coming soon and there will be things that were written that will take place, things that may seem a little scary, but I think it reaffirms what God said would happen."
Why invoking doomsday scenarios can be harmful
Invoking "end-times" biblical passages may actually bolster some people's faith by giving meaning to events that seem cruel and arbitrary.
But people who invoke the terrifying imagery of Revelation in connection with COVID-19 can do more than get scripture wrong. They can damage others’ psychological health, Beal says.
"I had one student who was reading Revelation outside on the waterfront and she fell asleep and woke up in the middle of a thunderstorm. She had an absolute panic attack because she felt like she was in the book," says Beal, a religion professor at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio.
Doomsday predictions from the Bible can also lead to another danger -- doing nothing, Beal says. He believes people who are seized with panic over something like COVID-19 may ignore other chronic issues threatening humanity’s survival, such as climate change.
"It can lead to a call to inaction," Beal says about misinterpretations of Revelation. "That is to say, people will say this is all happening because of God's plan and it's going to get worse before it gets better so there's nothing we can do about it because it's God's will."
But that probably won't stop people from invoking Revelation when a pandemic hits. For centuries it's been the go-to book for doomsday prophets warning about the spread of "end-times plagues" and bizarre weather patterns.
One scholar questioned whether the Book of Revelation predicted the coronavirus in a recent column for the Christian Post, concluding, "the final shaking will be far more intense than this."
Many Biblical scholars, though, say the book of Revelation is not really about the end of the world. Rather, it was about the end of the world of its author, a devout Jew and earlier follower of Jesus. He was struggling to understand how the Roman empire had stormed Jerusalem in 70 A.D. and burned down its great temple after quashing a Jewish revolt.
The destruction of the temple of Jerusalem was incomprehensible for some earlier followers of Jesus. They had expected Jesus to return "with power" and conquer Rome before inaugurating the new age. But Rome had conquered Jesus' homeland instead.
The book of Revelation was the author's way of reminding early Christians that God and justice would ultimately prevail, says Lehner, the Notre Dame theologian.
"The book of Revelation is not a book about predictions but a book of consolation," Lehner says.
Consolation is what people should spread on social media right now -- not doomsday predictions, he says. Lehner says that in recent days he's seen beautiful prayers and even humorous messages on social media that have lifted his spirits, and he urges people to reach out to those who may be isolated.
Doing so may not be as thrilling as sharing predictions of doom. But before you decide to get in touch with your inner Nostradamus, share a kind word rather than a doomsday prediction, he says.
You’ll feel better in the end -- and so will many of us who’ll need all the help we can get in the tough days ahead.