Revelation is not about the end of the world. Revelation is not about how Jesus comes back to kill millions of people (he doesn’t). More than anything, revelation is a reminder to be faithful to the nonviolent way of Jesus in the midst of Satan’s most powerful tool—empire. But it is also a reminder that empires, past, present, and future, are God’s chief enemy.
The book of Revelation was specifically written for Christians living in the world’s largest empire at the time. To put it in modern vernacular: Revelation was written specifically for Christians living in a superpower, much like the United States. That is why more than any other book in the Bible, the American Christian, specifically, can benefit from the message of Revelation. Rather than being about the end of the world, Revelation is about the end of empire—economic and military superpowers of the world—and how Christians must resist their patriotic propaganda in order to stay loyal to Jesus.1
Revelation spends most of its words describing empire, critiquing empire, condemning empire, and explaining why empires fall, all while calling followers of the Lamb to renounce their imperial citizenship. Unfortunately, the book of Revelation has been hijacked by pop-Christianity in the west to make it into some fortune-telling device that predicts the end of the world, leaving its harsh critique of empire unknown to those living in the heart of one. While Revelation was about the first century, the reminders that lie within are just as important today. “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near” (Revelation 1:3).
In English, the word “apocalypse” means “the end of the world,” but this isn’t the case in Greek, the language that the book of Revelation was originally written. In Greek, the word means “to reveal” or “to make fully known,” which is why the book is called “revelation.” While the book of Revelation is primarily about Jesus, the other primary themes are Satan’s evils, empire, and empire’s propaganda. Revelation was written in the preexisting ancient literature genre called “apocalyptic,” which, by the very definition of the genre, was symbolic political criticism of “the powers that be.” Rather than being concerned about encoding future events, Revelation is concerned with revealing the underlying spiritual reality of empire in order to expose its evils to God’s people.
Originally a letter, it was written a few decades after the time of Jesus when Christians were beginning to succumb to temptation and accommodate the ways of empire—exploitation, greed, violence, idolatry, etc. Revelation was written by a political prisoner of Rome to seven churches in Asia, warning them to resist the urge to give allegiance to Rome (Revelation 1:9). Revelation is filled to the brim with political criticism of the Roman Empire. While much imagery is borrowed from the Old Testament, many are employed from Roman mythology. “The Ancient Serpent” was originally a villain of Roman myth defeated by Apollo, the god of the sun.2 Now in Revelation, Apollo is switched out for Jesus, who throws the serpent down out of heaven (Revelation 12:9). Raining blood and fire was a sign of a bad omen from the Roman gods (Revelation 8:7). Even the New Jerusalem, God’s replacement for empire, is a cube which comes out of the heavens, having the exact dimensions of the Roman empire’s territory, crushing it (Revelation 21:16).
However, it is crucial that we not limit all the symbology in Revelation to Rome and the first century or limit them to the future. Revelation described the spiritual reality of the first century. However, it also describes an ongoing spiritual reality because the temptation to give allegiance to the empire is still present today. This is why Rome is never called “Rome.” Instead, words like “Babylon,” “the Beast,” “the Dragon,” and the “Great Harlot” are used so that we can safely and accurately apply these names to our contemporary situation.
The Dragon and his Beasts
Revelation “reveals Rome’s political-economic-religious system to represent the devil’s rule, to be antithetical to God’s purposes, and to be an enslaving system,”3 one that demands undiluted allegiance. Told in rich symbolism from a cosmic conflict perspective in chapter 12 and then from a political perspective in chapter 13, Revelation describes an unholy trinity as the triune God’s antagonist—the Dragon and his two Beasts.
The Dragon is a parody of the Roman myth of an Ancient Serpent that in Revelation represents Satan (Revelation 12:9). The Dragon is colored red, symbolizing that he wields the power of death (Revelation 12:3). His seven heads and ten horns represent the distribution of his power (Revelation 12:3). Satan is depicted as the great persecutor of Jesus and his followers (Revelation 12:3-4, 13-17). Most importantly, this persecution is often carried out by people who think they are doing God’s will (Revelation 2:9, 3:9).
The first Beast is described as the incarnation of the Dragon’s Satanic power of persecution, deception, and idolatry (Revelation 13:2, 4). Like the Dragon, the Beast also has seven heads and ten horns, representing the distribution and delegation of Satanic power to human rulers through government (Revelation 13:1, 17:9, 12). The second Beast is said to exist primarily to promote the worship (patriotism and nationalism) of the first Beast (Revelation 13:12). Using the power of deception, ultimately from the Dragon, it appears lamb-like (good and blameless) but spreads evil propaganda (Revelation 13:11).
Propaganda of the State
The first Beast in Revelation comes from the sea, coming from the west by way of the Aegean Sea to reach the cities of western Asia Minor, like Jerusalem (Revelation 13:1). According to nearly all Biblical scholars, the first Beast is the Roman Empire, the emperor, and imperial power. The second Beast is from the earth, meaning it is of local origin. It is seen as local governmental power, religious officials, and media that promotes the supremacy of the empire (Revelation 13:11). Together, these two beasts represent all empires that came before Rome and all empires that came after Rome.
Revelation describes the spiritual reality of empire’s poisonous effect on the world, one that, though continuously dying, is still around today. Eugene Boring explains, “the beast is not merely ‘Rome’… It is the inhuman, anti-human arrogance of empire which has come to expression in Rome—but not only there… All who support the cultural religion, in or out of church, however Lamb-like they may appear, are agents of the beast. All propaganda that entices humanity to idolize human empire is an expression of this beastly power that wants to appear Lamb-like.”4 The goal of the second Beast is crucial to understand—propaganda is to make evil look good.
And it performed great signs, even causing fire to come down from heaven to the earth in full view of the people. Because of the signs it was given power to perform on behalf of the first beast, it deceived the inhabitants of the earth. The second beast was given power to give breath to the image of the first beast, so that the image could speak and cause all who refused to worship the image to be killed.
Propaganda, the role of the second beast, exists to deceive citizens of empire. Violent war-making is meant to look like pre-emptive defensive peacemaking. Slavery is meant to look like freedom. Tyranny and oppression are meant to look like liberation and democracy. The state’s propaganda is meant to create unquestioning allegiance appear as if it is freely chosen and enjoyed. Ultimately, it is meant to make the demonic look and feel divine. Putting things this way makes it seem as if such a deception would be impossible to pull off in a developed nation, but as scholar Michael Gorman puts it, “the grand lie does not appear to start as deception, but only as rhetorical exaggeration. The exaggeration deepens, lengthens, and broadens in an almost organic act of self-distortion. Eventually the rhetoric becomes a blatant falsehood, but now people have not only come to believe the lie, they also live the lie; over time they have been narrated into it. At that point, the exaggeration-turned-falsehood becomes uncontested and uncontestable truth, and its effects highly dangerous. Evil in the name of good and of God is now nearly inevitable, as the lie functions as an apocalypse, a religious revelation that only a true Apocalypse can unveil.”5
The propaganda of Empire works so effectively that it can make Christians kill each other by the millions. Empire demands praise and worship, but because of the beast’s propaganda, most will give it freely without identifying that it is idolatry, for they feel like it is self-originated (Revelation 13:8, 12, 15-17; 14:9-11; 16:1-2, 10-11). Babylon will trade comfort and safety for your love and support. Questioning its violence, war, or slavery will bring censorship, persecution, or imprisonment. The second beast’s propaganda is so effective that it’s citizens will often self-censor or censor each other to maintain the status quo. Try not standing and placing your hand over your heart during the pledge of allegiance or national anthem and see the distasteful stares you’ll receive. The second beast demands worship of the first.
America In View
Babylon, representing all superpower nations throughout history, is described as the Great Whore (Revelation 17:1-2, 5). Babylon is the seductive and self-glorifying nation that is the antithesis of God’s Kingdom and his people. New Testament scholar Bruce Metzger writes, “Babylon is allegorical of the idolatry that any nation commits when it elevates material abundance, military prowess, technological sophistication, imperial grandeur, racial pride, and any other glorification of the creature over the Creator… The message of the book of Revelation concerns… God’s judgments not only of persons, but also of nations and, in fact, of all principalities and powers—which is to say, all authorities, corporations, institutions, structures, bureaucracies, and the like.”6 Revelation repeatedly tells us that human rulers of nations get their power and authority from Satan because whether they know it or not, they worship him (Revelation 11:7; 13:2-4, 7, 8, 12, 14; 16:5-6, 13-14, 16; 17:12-14; 18:3, 23; 19:19; 20:2-3, 7-10). This truth is reinforced by Jesus himself when political power is labeled a Satanic temptation.
Babylon is a system, alive and well in America, that represents the epitome of Satan’s method of deceiving the world, proliferating violence, and domination. Endless laws and punishments are used to maintain power over the masses. Citizens are seduced with the false promise of security that allegedly comes through increased prosperity and power (Revelation 17:2). All empires like America must always self-glorify to survive. This glorification is an exponential self-fulfilling prophecy of patriotic myth that always demands making claims about itself that are rightfully only able to be made about God (Revelation 17:3-4). Being directly opposed to Jesus and his Kingdom, empires like America will always resort to anything necessary, from censorship to violence, in order to silence the faithful’s counter-imperial witness (Revelation 17:14). Babylons grow both territorially and in scope through the power of the sword, which falls upon anyone who stands in their way (Revelation 17:13). But as Jesus said, those who live by the sword will always die by the sword, and Americas of the past and the present always die by self-inflicted wounds (Matthew 26:52, Revelation 17:16).
The right to rule human beings has always been God’s alone. Therefore, the ultimate rebellion of this truth is called Empire, Babylon, or Superpower. Empires believe they have the right to rule people, other nations, and shape the world according to their own agenda. Pharaohs, Caesars, Kings, and Presidents all overreach and take what they are forbidden to—power and authority. But what Empires claim for themselves, God promises to his Son, and therefore empires are always opposed to God and God is always opposed to empires.
Empire is ruled inversely to how God rules. God rules with love, nonviolence, peace, and compassion; Empire rules with hatred, fear, violence, war, and abuse. America was born in the blood and bones of the slaughter of the land’s native peoples. America grew in economic power off of the slashed and torn backs of an enslaved people. America dominates the globe with over 800 foreign military bases ready to deliver “democracy” to any nation that steps out of line. The New Testament’s Rome was Babylon, and our Babylon is America.
Fallen, Fallen is Babylon the Great
Chapters 18 and 19 of Revelation describe in poetic detail the fall of Babylon, and thus how all empires fall. Empires become “a dwelling for demons and a haunt for every impure spirit” (Revelation 18:3). Babylon’s cultural influence has corrupted the world because “by your magic spell all the nations were led astray” (Revelation 18:23). Therefore, Revelation urges citizens of superpowers to “come out of her, my people, so that you will not share in her sins” (Revelation 18:4). The corporations “who sold these things and gained their wealth from her will stand far off, terrified at her torment. They will weep and mourn and cry out: ‘Woe! Woe to you, great city, dressed in fine linen, purple and scarlet, and glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls! In one hour such great wealth has been brought to ruin!'” (Revelation 18:15-17). And like every empire throughout history, “with such violence the great city of Babylon will be thrown down, never to be found again” (Revelation 18:21).
A system of power and domination that is capable of killing the Son of God in the name of religion and country will always stand as the arch-enemy of God’s people until all are awoken to Christ’s way of peace. But the road to Babylon’s destruction won’t be filled with Christ-followers bearing weapons, rather it will be paved with the faithful witness to the nonviolent, peacemaking, cross-bearing way of Jesus. This is why in the final battle of Revelation no actual fighting occurs—the promise and reality of Christ’s victory was already achieved on the cross through self-sacrificial love for his enemies. The integrity and witness of the church depend on realizing this truth.
Revelation challenges followers of Jesus to remain faithful and to expect persecution because of it (Revelation 2:26; 6:9-11; 12:17; 13:10; 14:3-5, 12; 16:15; 17:14). In the empire of Rome, persecution could lead to imprisonment or death, just like in many nations around the world today, but in the empire of America, this is hardly the case. This is not because America is a beacon of freedom, but because Christianity isn’t a threat in America, but rather, it is a tool to prop up the empire’s agenda. The moment that the Church in the American empire, by in large, starts practicing patient endurance, faithfulness to the peacemaking way of Jesus, and speaking out against empire, the sword will fall. Revelation says that Christians should expect to be killed for their undiluted allegiance to Jesus (Revelation 2:10; 12:11; 13:10; 14:13; 20:4, 6). If this isn’t happening in an empire, something is wrong.
Babylon is called “Babylon the Great” as a mockery. God does not come to make nations great again; rather, he defeats them because they are works of Satan (Revelation 19:15). In Revelation, the fall of Empire is met with several choruses of praise from God’s people, singing, “Hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up for ever and ever” (Revelation 19:3). This is a somber reminder to Americans. Allegiance to any empire is to abandon allegiance to God’s Kingdom. Revelation’s author shows its readers that the Roman Empire will eventually destroy itself (which it did) and that any Christian that attaches itself to an empire will likewise face destruction. Today this couldn’t be more true—the popular Evangelical version of Christianity that chases after political power will not only permanently lose its credibility, it will be lost altogether. Christians in America must abandon the ethos of superpower in order to follow the way of Jesus instead of using the name of Jesus to prop up an empire doomed to destruction. Revelation screams, “don’t become comfortable, ‘come out of her my people,’ for you are not citizens of empire, ‘do not share in her sins.'”
- Richard Horsley contends that “far from looking for the end of the world, they [Jewish apocalyptic writers] were looking for the end of empire. And far from living under the shadow of an anticipated cosmic dissolution, they looked for the renewal of the earth on which a humane societal life could be renewed.” Horsley, Revolt of the Scribes, 207 (cf. 18, where he says apocalyptic texts are “statements of opposition to imperial rule”). See also Wright, who calls apocalyptic “the subversive literature of oppressed groups” (The New Testament and the People of God, 288).
- Mitchell G. Reddish, Revelation: Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary, (Smyth & Helwys Pub, 2001, 230)
- Carter, Warren, The Roman Empire and the New Testament: An Essential Guide, (Abingdon Press, 2010, 18)
- M. Eugene Boring, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching Revelation, (John Knox Press, 1989, 156-157)
- Gorman, Michael J.. Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness: Following the Lamb into the New Creation. Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers.
- Metzger, Bruce M., Breaking the Code Revised Edition: Understanding the Book of Revelation, (Abingdon Press, 2006, 88)