“The dragon gave the beast his power and his throne and great authority. One of the heads of the beast seemed to have had a fatal wound, but the fatal wound had been healed. The whole world was astonished and followed the beast. Men worshiped the dragon because he had given authority to the beast, and they also worshiped the beast and asked, “Who is like the beast? Who can make war against him?“
The famous Pax Romana (Peace of Rome) was seen as proof that the gods had chosen Rome to be the force of goodness and civility within the barbaric and chaotic world in the centuries on either side of the AD/BC divide.
Through its economic and military might, Rome extended peace across the entire Mediterranean world…whether the peoples of the region wanted it or not. In the eyes of its citizens, the might and glory of Rome, symbolized by the noble and majestic eagle carved atop the standards of its legions, was worth dying for…and thus it was certainly worth killing for. Anything that threatened the security of the nation was to be dealt with swiftly…and mercilessly. Would-be revolutionaries and upstart kings were captured, tortured and ultimately executed publicly for all to see as a reminder of what happens when terrorists threaten to destroy the divinely sanctioned government or the lifestyle it had constructed for its citizens.
It was for this very reason (in the eyes of Rome’s rulers, at least) that a certain carpenter’s son from an obscure village in the backwater province of Galilee was crucified. Yes, there were far deeper and more foundational theological reasons for Jesus’ death…but from the perspective of the Empire, it was simply business as usual to keep peace and control over a hard-to-control province.
A few decades after that, as that crucified would-be king’s followers had spread throughout the entire empire and had begun to infect even some in Caesar’s own household (Philippians 4:22), Rome cracked down on this sect–initially under the decadent and unstable Nero, and then to a far greater degree under the beastly reign of Domitian, who was seen as something of a Nero reincarnate.
This new sect of Judaism known as “Christianity” or simply “The Way” was deemed a threat to the security of Rome that hated Rome for its way of life. These “atheists” (as the earliest Christians in the Empire were labeled) seemed determined to bring down society by denying the gods and refusing allegiance to them–something no nation could tolerate.
It was during this time that the crucified Messiah from Galilee gave what would become his final apocalyptic vision to one of his remaining Apostles named John, who himself had been exiled by the Empire on a small rocky prison in the Mediterrannean Sea. We know this vision today as the book of Revelation–one of the most misunderstood and/or neglected books in the entire New Testament. And while most people mistakenly assume that Revelation is all about the future and cosmic cataclysmic disasters, at the heart of the book of Revelation (chapters 12-17), as virtually every New Testament scholar will attest, is a powerful unveiling (what the word “apocalypsis” literally means) of the evil forces and monstrous actions upon which the mighty Roman Empire rested. Literally, in the vision Rome is depicted not as the noble goddess Roma riding a majestic steed…but rather as a drunken harlot riding a horrible mutated beast which would shortly thereafter devour even her!).
You see, Rome prided itself on, among other things, it’s military might and its civil religion (which were intertwined at all levels of society). Rome saw itself as the savior of the world—echoed on every coin minted with the image of Caesar bearing the title “Lord and Savior”, no less. Anything which threatened Rome’s stability was not tolerated. Rome was, in the eyes of its loyal patriotic citizens, a true ‘global force for good’; a true ‘city on a hill’; a true ‘light to the nations.’
Yet through the eyes of Heaven recorded in the pages of Revelation, mighty Rome was little more than a temporary puppet whose strings were ultimately being pulled by the Dragon himself, “that ancient serpent called the devil” (Revelation 12:9). Rome’s downfall was imminent because of, among other things and like every fallen empire before it, its nationalistic pride, human exploitation, rampant immorality and idolatrous committment “Peace and Security” had been obtained through violence and bloodshed.
Though the word “antichrist” is nowhere found in Revelation (or any other book of the Bible other than the short letters of 1st and 2nd John!), the depiction of the Roman Imperial evils found within its pages are very much in harmony with the concept: an earthly power that ascribes to itself divine beneficence and demands loyal obedience. A power that would use any and all available means to protect its dominion and further its cause. A power that would dehumanize, torture and ultimately kill any who it saw as a threat to its way of life.
This was…and still is…a manifestation of “antichrist.”
It’s an animating aspect of every Empire throughout history; of every dictator and would-be dictator; of every conquerer, terrorist, and regime that has ever risen to power through oppression, exploitation and material greed. Such evil—such sin—was judged at the Cross by the world’s TRUE Caesar, the Messiah of Israel, Jesus of Nazareth—or as Revelation calls him, the Lamb of God (Revelation 5). This aspect of human evil (among other things!) was judged on the Cross. This judgment was validated at Jesus’ Resurrection and Ascension. And it stands condemned until Jesus’ eventual return, when it will once and for all be obliterated (Revelation 20:10-14).
In the meantime, the followers of the true King are called to resist the Siren-call of Empire; to stand against its seductions. Promises of “peace and security” can never be accepted if they are delivered by means of exploitation, dehumanization or other destructive evils that deface the Image of God found within the soul of every human being. Such actions are diametrically opposed to the Kingdom of God’s Messiah.
Such actions are anti-Christ.
Given the portrait of worldly Empire painted throughout the pages of the Bible—and most vividly in its last book!—whenever we see vestiges of such a force arising within our own societies, followers of Jesus should take note. We should take a long, hard look in the national mirror and allow whatever worldly power under whose authority we temporarily reside to be fully exposed by the piercing gaze of the one “whose eyes are like blazing fire” (Revelation 2:8).
When we see the beastly element of antichrist rising to the surface among our own leaders—even democratically elected ones—let us expose it and oppose it.
If we apathetically accept the methodology of the Beast (or worse, actively defend it!), we declare by our words and/or actions that our true loyalties reside on earth rather than in Heaven. We are in danger of taking upon our foreheads the “beast’s mark” rather than the “lamb’s seal.”
The majority of Rome’s loyal and patriotic citizens no doubt believed that the torture and execution of revolutionary Galileans in some faraway land was a “necessary evil” in order to preserve the Pax Romana and their divinely ordained way of life. They likely applauded the arrest, torture and public executions of the group of Judean terrorists known as “Zealots.” Even the ones who didn’t have a personal taste for violence no doubt believed Rome’s national security trumped the human dignity of any who declared themselves its enemy.
Sadly, a large number of self-professing followers of Jesus here in America seem to have adopted a similar form of idolatry when it comes to maintaining a Pax Americana. Instead of devotion to the Goddess Roma above all else, devotion to Uncle Sam claims utmost priority. Jesus is wrapped in the Stars and Stripes and America’s enemies are seen as de facto God’s enemies…and, thus, America’s interests become God’s interests. Therefore, anything that is a threat to America is also a threat to God’s people and must be opposed at all costs—even if it means doing things to one’s enemies that are universally deplored and condemned even under worldly international law which we as a nation expect everyone else to uphold.
This is the type of beastly thinking that so easily entangles itself within so many American churches. I’ve been heartbroken by the number of discussions I’ve had and the comments I’ve read from fellow Christians who continue to defend or condone the recently exposed heinous torture of prisoners (many of whom have been denied trial and are simply suspected of being involved with various terrorist groups) overseen by the C.I.A. My brothers and sisters supposedly following the same state-tortured Messiah as I do are now justifying and even applauding state torture when it is in their perceived self-interest or when their own way of life is seen as threatened (all this leaving aside the fact that when it comes to obtaining reliable and useful information from captured combatants, torture simply doesn’t work). Instead of placing trust in the tortured Lamb who conquered this world’s powers through his sacrificial death, many Christians are supporting this world’s powers in using horrendous torture of those for whom the Lamb died in order to preserve a sense of temporal security.
Such a relativistic ethic is normally anathema to evangelical Christians. Yet when it’s done to the ones deemed the most hated of all enemies (i.e. radical Islamic terrorists…or anyone suspected of being affiliated with them), the ones who “struck us first” it suddenly becomes less evil. The horrors of 9-11 are put forth as sufficient reason to justify things like indefinite detention without trial, simulated drowing, forced sodomy, sexual humiliation, prolonged exposure to cold, being made to stand upon broken legs for long periods of time, shackling to walls in uncomfortable positions for days on end, and physiological/psychological experimentation. Brothers and sisters, make no mistake about it…such things are antichrist!
This is the mindset and methodology of the Beast, not the Lamb! The eagle sitting atop the American flag is no more worthy of unconditional loyalty than the one that sat atop Rome’s banners; so let us stop acting as if it is simply because our nation’s Founding Fathers gave lip service to God and claimed ours to be a “Christian Nation” (all while wiping out the indigenous population and buying and selling Africans like bipedal livestock, no less!).
We have one Ruler, Jesus. Yes, we are called to submit to temporary earthly rulers and live as good citizens within their various domains of power, supporting them in their mandate to protect the innocent from harm and punish evil (Romans 13)…but only to the extent that such patriotism does not require we deny our Gospel ethic by condoning such evils done by these authorities.
While our particular government does not actively persecute or execute followers of Jesus for their faith, it is no less fallen than any other political world power. In fact, the veil of civil religiosity that permeates our culture can make the temptation even more insidious. As New Testament scholar Michael Gorman has observed:
“…the syncretism of Rome’s civil religion involved the blending of Roman ideology and pagan religiosity, but the syncretism of American civil religion involves the blending of American ideology and Christian, or at least theistic and quasi-Christian, religiosity. The early church had a natural suspicion of Roman civil religion because it was so blatantly pagan and idolatrous—though even it could be appealing. Contemporary Christians can much more easily assume that Christian, or quasi-Christian, ideas, language, and practices are benign and even divinely sanctioned. This makes American civil religion all the more attractive—that is, all the more seductive and dangerous. Its fundamentally pagan character is masked by its Christian veneer.”
(Gorman, Michael J. (2011-01-01). Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness: Following the Lamb into the New Creation (Kindle Locations 1348-1353). Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.)
The first Christians in Rome didn’t have the freedom to speak out against, hold accountible, and work to replace their leaders who governed in the spirit of the Beast.
That is part of what makes America a desirable nation in which to be a citizen. That is what so many who have lived and died in service to this nation were fighting to preserve, and it is a good thing. It is indeed something to celebrate and protect…even, as a last resort, through the just use of legitimate force to restrain and prevent wanton evil. But for Jesus’ followers that freedom can never be legitimately maintained through the Beastly method of prisoner torture. Aside from being ineffective in obtaining reliable unique information (despite what you may have seen on from the Jack Bauers out there in TV land), torture of captive prisoners is simply and unequivocally evil…no matter what euphemism is used to make it sound more acceptable.
Even conservative Senator John McCain—himself a victim of “enhanced interrogation” at the infamous Hanoi Hilton—recognizes this. Thankfully, McCain gave an impassioned plea to Congress to likewise realize it and to reject the use of torture in the name of freedom. “Torture” and “Freedom”, in fact, are oxymoronic. If we condone the former we show that we do not truly value the latter.
Even those with no religious faith recognize this basic concept (as, damningly, recent surveys have seemed indicate. See for example http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2014/12/21/poll-most-non-believers-decry-cia-torture-while-the-religious-are-o-k-with-it ). How much more should this be the case for followers of the tortured and executed Lamb of God??
May we not embrace the tools of antichrist in our quest for worldly security.
May we not give lip service to the Lamb while harboring in our hearts the mindset of the Beast.
We are never promised safety as followers of Jesus…let us not trade our gospel ethic birthright for a mess of nationalistic pottage.
Readers desiring a fuller exploration of the themes and message of the book of Revelation should see the following:
“Revelation: A Guided Tour of the Apocalypse” (DVD) by JM Smith
“Reading Revelation Responsibly” by Michael J. Gorman
“Revelation and the End of All Things” by Craig Koester
“Revelation for Everyone” by N.T. Wright
“Revelation” (New Cambridge Bible Commentary) by Ben Witherington
“The Theology of the Book of Revelation” by Richard Bauckham