Calamitous Famines Have Disappeared (Implications for Eschatology)

Recently I learned some very good news that should be welcomed by everyone, regardless of one’s viewpoint on world affairs or eschatology. This news is that famines have sharply declined over the last 100 years, to the point of almost disappearing. This post will provide details about this trend and will also discuss why and how Jesus’ well-known prediction about famines had everything to do with His own time period and not ours. Doom and gloom is not this world’s destiny, and we have every reason to rejoice when famines disappear and when the world improves in other ways.

An October 2015 article in The Huffington Post reported that “calamitous famines that cause more than 1 million deaths” have now been completely eliminated (source: the 2015 Global Hunger Index). There has also been a “reduction ‘almost to a vanishing point’ of great famines, which cause more than 100,000 deaths.” Between 1900-1909 around 27 million people died of famine; during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s that number was cut in half (14 million deaths per decade); that number was divided by 10 by the 1990s (1.4 million deaths by famine); and about 600,000 died of famine between 2000 – 2015. Based on the given data, the trend would look something like this*:

Deaths by Famine Since 1900

*Note that no data was given for the periods of 1920 – 1940 and 1970 – 1990 in the Huffington Post article cited here. Also note that the final period (in purple) covers 15 years rather than 10 years like the other periods.

“Wait a minute. This shouldn’t be happening,” some might say. “Aren’t we in the end times? Didn’t Jesus say there would be famines and earthquakes before the end? Then why are famines going away?” Yes, Jesus did say that there would be famines before the end:

“And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginnings of sorrows” (Matthew 24:6-8; see also Mark 13:7-8 and Luke 21:9-11).

What was “the end” He was speaking of? It was to be “the end of the age” (Matthew 24:3, 14), which would take place when every stone of the temple would be thrown down (Matthew 24:1-3, Mark 13:1-4, Luke 21:5-7). That age did come to an end when the temple was destroyed in 70 AD. It was the age which revolved around the temple, that is, the old covenant age (Hebrews 8:13).

How was Jesus’ prediction about famines fulfilled between the time of His prophecy (around 30 AD) and the end of the old covenant age in 70 AD? A series of famines took place throughout the Roman Empire between 41 AD – 52 AD and another great famine took place in 70 AD. Two of these famines affected Judah and Jerusalem, and both were predicted in Scripture, in Acts 11 and Revelation 6, respectively.

Famines during the Reign of Claudius Caesar (41-54 AD)

A severe famine was predicted by Agabus in Acts 11:28-30.

“And in these days prophets came from Jerusalem to Antioch. Then one of them, named Agabus, stood up and showed by the Spirit that there was going to be a great famine throughout all the world, which also happened in the days of Claudius Caesar. Then the disciples, each according to his ability, determined to send relief to the brethren dwelling in Judea. This they also did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul.”

Claudius Caesar was the fifth Roman emperor, and he ruled from 41 – 54 AD, immediately before Nero. More than one significant famine took place during the reign of Claudius, but one in particular fulfilled the prophecy of Agabus. The Roman historian Dio Cassius recorded details about each of them, and Luther W. Martin wrote the following helpful summary in a 1955 edition of The Gospel Guardian:

“The first famine during this period was centered around the city of Rome in the years 41 and 42 A.D. The second famine known to have occurred during the reign of Claudius was in the fourth year of his office (45 A.D.), and was particularly centered in Judea. It is this famine to which Luke makes reference in Acts 11:28… The third famine during the time of Claudius was centered in Greece in about A.D. 50. The fourth famine took place in 52 A.D. and once again, plagued the city of Rome.

Josephus, the Jewish historian, supplies further information concerning the intensity of this famine, with its great distress and many deaths. In a footnote, it is indicated that it may have lasted for a three year period.”

In addition to Josephus, the Roman historians Suetonius (“Life of Claudius,” chapter 18) and Tacitus (Annals 11:4) also wrote about the great famine which fulfilled the prediction of Agabus. These remarks were made by Josephus in Antiquities 20.2.5:

“[The arrival of Queen Helena of Adiabene] was very advantageous to the people of Jerusalem; for a famine oppressed them at that time, and many people died for want of money to procure food. Queen Helena sent some of her servants to Alexandria with money to buy a great quantity of grain, and others of them to Cyprus to bring back a cargo of dried figs. They quickly returned with the provisions, which she immediately distributed to those that [had] need.  She has thus left a most excellent memorial by the beneficence which she bestowed upon our nation.”

In 1805 George Peter Holford wrote a book titled, “The Destruction of Jerusalem, An Absolute and Irresistible Proof of the Divine Origin of Christianity,” in which he showed that many of the events recorded by Josephus and other first century historians fulfilled Jesus’ predictions in the Olivet Discourse. Regarding this famine, Holford wrote that it “was of long continuance. It extended through Greece, and even into Italy, but was felt most severely in Judea, and especially at Jerusalem, where many perished for want of bread. This famine is recorded by Josephus also, who relates that ‘an assaron of corn was sold for five drachmae’ (i.e. about 3 1/2 pints for three shilling, three denarius).” One drachma was the daily wage for a soldier at that time, and five drachma were worth about $500 in today’s currency. So three pints of corn sold for about $500 during this terrible famine.

The Great Famine in Jerusalem in 70 AD

In 70 AD, when the old covenant age was coming to its final end, there was another great famine, but only in Jerusalem. This famine was made all the more severe because of the actions of a key leader in the civil war that had been raging in Jerusalem between the revolutionaries and those who wanted to maintain peace with Rome.

To give a little background, Jerusalem had been divided into three factions ever since late 67 AD. These factions were led by [1] Eleazar, who was over the Zealots [2] John of Gischala, who was over the Galileans, and [3] Simon, who was over the Idumeans. This was the civil war described in Revelation 6:3-4, also fulfilling Revelation 16:19 where it is said that “the great city” (Jerusalem – see Rev. 11:8) was divided into three parts. (This mirrors the 3-part division that also took place in Ezekiel’s day (Ezekiel 5:1-12) when Jerusalem was destroyed the first time by Babylon in 586 BC.) In December 69 AD John of Gischala foolishly set fire to the supply warehouses in Jerusalem, and nearly all the grain supplies were burned, which would have lasted the city for years (Josephus, Wars 5.1.4, 21-26).

On April 14, 70 AD the Roman General, Titus, laid a siege around Jerusalem. This took place just before Passover, after hundreds of thousands of Jews had already arrived from surrounding nations for the feast, and it lasted for five months until Jerusalem and the temple were burned. The famine brought about conditions fulfilling Revelation 6:6, where John was told that a quart of wheat would be sold for a denarius, the typical salary for one day’s work. It became so severe that there are records of parents roasting and eating their own children. Moses prophesied that this would happen to the people of Israel (Leviticus 26:29) in their latter days (Deut. 31:29) during a time of sevenfold judgment (Lev. 26:18, 21, 24, 28; note the seven seal, trumpet, and bowl judgments in the book of Revelation), the cutting off of their bread supply (Lev. 26:26), and the execution of the vengeance of His covenant (Lev. 26:25).

Others ate their belts, sandals, dried grass, and even oxen dung, according to Josephus. There were also violent home invasions where anyone who was suspected of hoarding food was tormented until they revealed where it was. Some escaped from Jerusalem to the Romans because they couldn’t bear the conditions in the city any longer. George Peter Holford wrote about the pestilential diseases (Leviticus 26:25; Deuteronomy 28:58-62, 32:24; Matthew 24:7) that accompanied this famine:

“After Jerusalem was surrounded by the army of Titus, pestilential diseases soon made their appearance there to aggravate the miseries, and deepen the horrors of the siege. They were partly occasioned by the immense multitudes which were crowded together in the city, partly by the putrid effluvia which arose from the unburied dead, and partly from spread of famine.”

There is No Prophecy of Famine for Today

Every Biblical prophecy about famines, pestilences, earthquakes, and great tribulation was fulfilled many centuries ago. We can rejoice that famines are disappearing at this time. It’s never been easier than right now for humanitarian workers and agencies to respond to difficult situations and events. Communication and transportation have been made easier and more efficient. Because of the internet and social media, the public is more easily made aware of needs, situations, and how to directly help or at least support humanitarian efforts.

Jesus reigns on the throne of David right now (Acts 2:29-36, Ephesians 1:20-23, Hebrews 1:3-13, Revelation 1:5). We can rejoice over anything else that His government is accomplishing for His glory and for the good of this planet. As Isaiah 9:7 says, “Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, to order it and establish it with judgment and justice from that time forward, even forever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.