Cataclysmic historical events are often followed by massive social changes. The effects of such events are complex, varied, and unpredictable. As well, these effects interact with the effects of a host of other events and developments, so that the direct causes of change can never be determined. Consider the following.
The Black Death
The Black Death or bubonic plague arrived in Italy from Asia in October 1347. Over the next five years, the disease killed about 20 million Europeans, about a third of Europe’s population. The worldwide death toll has been estimated to have been 70 million or more. Significant outbreaks of the disease happened again and again in Europe over the next two or three centuries.
The impacts of the Black Death in Europe are particularly well documented. One of the most obvious results of the Black Death was great fear and a morbid fascination with death. One of the common themes of art in that period was the “La Danse Macabre” or “The Dance of Death”—depictions of skeletons marching toward the grave.
This focus on death in turn had various offshoots. One of these was the search for scapegoats. People feared that the plague was caused by evil people poisoning the water supply or casting spells. The “witch hunts’’ of this era are well known, but the victims included Jews, minority Christian groups, and virtually anybody who fell under suspicion. The Inquisition, a process established by Roman Catholic bishops to check on the spiritual welfare of their dioceses, became a vehicle of oppression wielded by political and religious rulers. Those suspected of evil intent were often tortured until they confessed. They routinely admitted to fantastic tales of witchcraft and black magic, with most of the details being suggested by the interrogators. There were still some practitioners of ancient pagan religions in Europe, but most of the confessions were pure fiction, made up by people who had never dabbled in witchcraft but who were willing to say anything to satisfy their torturers. The suspects were then usually executed in horrible fashion. Mobs of fearful citizens also took vengeance on suspected enemies without any pretense of due process.
But not all of the consequences were bad. Cataclysmic disasters often clear the path for reconstruction of something better. In the face of death, many Europeans became dissatisfied with the means to salvation then being offered by a corrupt Roman Catholic Church—which in practice often consisted of nothing more than performing superficial rituals or paying money. The search for certainty of salvation and a more meaningful connection to God was a significant contributor to the rapid spread of the Protestant Reformation (which in turn also led to significant reforms in the Roman Catholic Church).
There were also socio-economic consequences. The rapid decrease in population meant that marginal farmland was abandoned, so per acre crop yields increased—there was more food. The shortage of workers gave the lowest classes more leverage, leading to the breakdown of feudalism. Many serfs (essentially slaves) became freedmen and were able to negotiate better terms with the upper classes who owned the land. The poor were better off. The aftermath of the plague increased opportunities and accelerated economic growth. There was a flowering of the arts and culture. These improvements cannot be solely attributed to the plague, but the plague was one of many factors in their development.
The Spanish Flu
The Spanish flu struck in 1918-1919 and killed between 17 million and 50 million people worldwide. It was one of a series of cataclysmic events in the middle of the 20th century, and it is difficult to disentangle the separate consequences of these events. The flu struck right after World War One (1914-1918), which had killed 15-22 million people.
There was a recession after the war, and the returning soldiers had trouble finding work. Nevertheless, there was some optimism. Some Christians literally saw World War One as “the war to end all wars” and Armageddon and expected the world to transition into the millennial reign of Christ. Alcohol had been outlawed, women had been given the vote, and many expected the world to be a gentler, more civilized place. Some considered the returning soldiers, part of the victorious army in Armageddon, to be exceptionally godly men who would become church pastors and lead a crusade for moral betterment. The reality was that many of the returning soldiers were deeply traumatized, hardened, and immoral. The Roaring Twenties were an orgy of excess, secularization, and pleasure-seeking.
The greed of the 1920s resulted in the stock market crash in 1929, and the world descended into the Great Depression of the 1930s. There was massive unemployment, poverty, starvation, homelessness, sickness, and death. One anomaly was that those who still had money and a steady income could afford to buy luxury goods, since labor was cheap and prices were low. In the 1930s, there was a large increase in the number of homes with such goods as radios and refrigerators. Yet this wealth was in sharp contrast to the deepening poverty of the masses. At the same time, record heat waves caused drought, food shortages, and famine, spawning descriptive terms such as “the Dust Bowl” and “the Dirty Thirties.” To date, I have found no completely satisfactory explanation for this heat wave or why it occurred at the same as the financial collapse. Some observers saw the multiplied catastrophes as a divine punishment. One might think that the desperate situation might have led to a religious revival, but the secularization trend of the 1920s continued. Instead of a return to God, the desperate longing for solutions encouraged the rise of brutal dictatorships in Germany, Italy, Spain, the Soviet Union, Japan, and other countries.
These dictatorships led to World War Two (1939-1945), which killed another 70-85 million people. It might have been expected that this further global conflict, following the other cataclysmic events of the twentieth century, would lead to further economic decline and further secularization. Instead, the 1950s saw a massive economic upturn and increased worldwide prosperity. Reconstruction transformed Western Europe and Japan. In North America, most of the returning soldiers found jobs, married, and had children (the Baby Boom), resulting in a renewal of family life and the rise of suburbs. Secularization continued in Europe, but there was a major (and completely unexpected) rise in church attendance in North America, as well as renewed missionary outreach in the Third World. There was also a decline in European imperialism, as former colonies became independent nations.
So far, the COVID-19 pandemic has not produced death tolls anywhere near those of the earlier cataclysmic events. This is partly due to improved medical knowledge and treatments and the increased ability of governments to impose lockdowns and quarantines. But is there anything we can learn from earlier history that could tell us what might happen as a result of this current pandemic?
It is clear that cataclysmic events have massive repercussions in the social, cultural, economic, ideological, and political spheres—repercussions that are complex, interconnected, and eminently unpredictable.
Yet some vague outlines of change are beginning to appear. While the death toll for COVID-19 remains relatively low so far, there has already been massive economic dislocation from which it will take a long time to recover. Many jobs have been permanently lost, and many businesses have closed or will close. International trade will remain disrupted for years. There are already indications of increased levels of fear, conspiracy theories, scapegoating, racism, and extremism. Some leaders, in both dictatorships and democracies, have taken advantage of the situation to increase their power. (The Canadian prime minister’s suspension of parliament is not an isolated event.) Whatever ultimately happens, for good or ill, is not yet known. There will undoubtedly be surprises.
It is reassuring that God has promised to work for good in all things (Romans 8:28), in all times, places, and events. And so should we.