Wednesday, April 4, 2012

'The Beast' and Americana

As some of you know I have been working and re-working my view on eschatological biblical hermeneutics (biblical interpretation) for quite a few years. I grew up dispy, was trained as a progressive dispy (pretrib, premil), converted to historic premil and post-trib; but now I am a convinced amillennialist, thanks in no small part to Richard Bauckham (who I have been in personal correspondence with over the last week) and his writings on the book of Revelation. I don’t want you to think that I just changed my view on a dime; this has been long and coming, and Bauckham has simply provided a way to be amil without also having to be a Federal-Covenantal Calvinist [Bauckham himself doesn't commit to either an amil or postmil position; he remains open on that continuum].

I open this way to get us into what I really want to write about; that is what Bauckham has to say about Revelation 18 as an economic critique of the Beast [Rome], and any other empires that imbibe this kind of empiric mantle. Let me quote a bit from Bauckham on this issue, and then I will provide further elaboration of my own afterwards.

[F]inally, the portrait of the harlot in Revelation 17:1-6 ends with a fresh and even more sinister use of the image of drunkeness: she who made the earth drunk with her seductive wiles is herself ‘drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the witnesses of Jesus’ (17:6). The accusation recurs, this time with a judicial image, in 18:24: ‘in her was found the blood of prophets and of saints, and of all who have been slain on earth’. Here the prophets and saints are the Christian martyrs, and many commentators understand ‘all who have been slain on earth’ also as Christian martyrs, but this is not the natural sense, and it robs the verse of its climax. Rome is indicted not only for the martyrdom of Christians, but also for the slaughter of all the innocent victims of its muderous policies. The verse expresses a sense of solidarity between the Christian martyrs and all whose lives were the price of Rome’s acquisition and maintenance of power. John has not forgotten that Babylon rides on the beast with its bear’s hug and its lion’s teeth (13:2). He knows that the Pax Romana was, in Tacitus’s phrase, ‘peace with bloodshed,’ established by violent conquest, maintained by continual war on the frontiers, and requiring repression of dissent. Like every society which absolutizes its own power and prosperity, the Roman empire could not exist without victims. Thus John sees a connexion between Rome’s economic affluence, Rome’s idolatrous self-deification, and Rome’s military and political brutality. The power of his critique of Rome—perhaps the most thoroughgoing critique from the period of the early empire—lies in the connexion it portrays between these various facets of Rome’s evil

Thus it is a serious mistake to suppose that John opposes Rome only because of the imperial cult and the persecution of Christians. Rather this issue serves to bring to the surface evils which were deeply rooted in the whole system of Roman power. In John’s perspective, the evils of Rome came to a head in her persecution of Christians, because here Rome’s self-deification clashed with the lordship of the Lamb to which the Christian martyrs bore witness and so what was implicit in all of Rome’s imperial policies here became explicit. Hence Revelation most often portrays the fall of Rome as vengeance for the death of the Christian martyrs (16:6; 18:24; 19:2; cf. 18:6). But this is certainly not the whole story: God’s judgment of Rome is also attributed to her slaughter of the innocent in general (18:24; cf. 18:6), her idolatrous arrogance (18:8), and her self-indulgent luxury at the expense of her empire (18:7). [Richard Bauckham, "The Climax of Prophecy: Studies on the Book of Revelation," 350-51]

Theological Implications
This has immediate application for our current situation, as Americans and Westerners in particular. What Bauckham argues is that the book of Revelation was primarily intended for the seven churches he wrote it too (what a novel idea). Then the apocalyptic language, and prophetic genre of the book take on new character, we no longer ought to read it through a purely ‘futuristic’ lens; as so many do, at least in my orbit of contacts. While the book was initially written to first century Graceo-Roman Christians; its prophetic reach comes into our present and into the future yet to come. Bauckham is arguing that the harlot who rides the ‘Beast’ is the economic affluence of Rome, and then any empire following that walks in the same footsteps as Rome. That society is the Beast; the kingdom of the world that would seek to exalt itself against the kingdom of the Lamb.

The sobering reality of what Bauckham is getting at is that America, and the West (and much of the East) could be the ‘Beast’. I will pick on America since I am American. We feature all of the characteristics that Bauckham notes as features of the Roman empire, or the ‘Beastly empire.’ We have absolutized our power (American exceptionalism), we have indulged our affluence, we have ‘self-deified’ ourselves by synthesizing Christianity with a certain set of Americana and her Judeo-Christian values, and we have established all of this through our overpowering military might and political maneuvering. We have swallowed up the world to the point now that we are feeding on ourselves, and we don’t even realize it (given the global nature of things, it could be argued that the nations of the world have come together to take her stand against the King of kings and Lord of lords).

It seems to me that the blood of the martyrs, the cries of the saints who have gone before us is crying out louder than ever before. In light of these things how then should we live?

*I thought I would repost this post of mine.


  1. Bobby, a book that I have found very helpful (and along similar lines as Bauckham presents, at least from my reading here of your post) is called "Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness- Following the Lamb into the New Creation," by Michael J. Gorman. Really good stuff.

  2. Hi Cody,

    Thank you, I know of Gorman, and will be checking this book out when I get the chance; thank you for the heads up! Hosanna in the Highest!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.