Ryan Ward | 17
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’ very first words are a proclamation of the coming of God’s Kingdom on earth: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). This is probably one of the most succinct summaries of Jesus’ message in the gospels, yet it suggests a discomforting question for its hearers today. Why is it that this divine Kingdom is evidently absent from the nations of the world? There are approximately 193 sovereign states in the world, and none of them can possibly claim to be God’s Kingdom on earth, not even the United States if you can believe it. It is not an idle question to ask where God’s rule fits in among the nations, for as political theologian Oliver O’Donovan has noted, the fact of Christ’s present kingship is central to a properly Christian understanding of politics.
The traditional answer to this question in the Christian tradition comes from Romans 13, where Paul instructs his readers to respect the governing authorities that God has appointed. Paul describes the “eschatological” nature of God’s Kingdom, meaning it is still awaiting fulfillment at the second coming of Christ, and that in the meantime God has deputized secular authorities to exercise judgment in His place. The most elegant formulation of this “secular” conception of politics comes by way of Augustine’s theory of the two cities. Augustine holds that the “City of God” exists in provisional form within the “city of man” and is therefore subject to secular political authorities. This theory goes a long way in helping us reconcile the proclamation of the coming of Christ’s Kingdom with Paul’s imperative to respect the governing regimes that currently hold power, but it still leaves us with questions regarding the proper place of those regimes in the time before the Second Coming.
If we wish to understand the precise nature of the “secular” power which holds sway in the time before the Final Judgment, I propose that we look to the “apocalyptic” tradition of politics which is traditionally held to be the polar opposite of secular politics. Normally when we think of apocalyptic politics, we conjure up images of some doomsday sect in the hills of Montana where members pack their bags every few years for what is surely the actual date of the rapture. But I will argue that the symbolically rich visions of the Book of Revelation actually contain some keys to understanding the proper place of “secular” political authority in light of the final coming of Christ’s Kingdom.
First of all, it is necessary to for us to understand exactly what I mean by the term “secular.” It is crucial to note that this term does not mean “irreligious,” but actually refers specifically to the time period in between Christ’s first and second coming. The mistake many interpreters of Augustine make is to assume that his theory of the two cities leaves room for a “secular space” for government that is apart from the “religious space” claimed by the City of God. This line of interpretation follows historian Robert Markus, whose brilliant and influential reading of Augustine erred crucially by holding that politics for Augustine was essentially “indifferent” of the ultimate matters of the Christian religion. The error here is a result of his construal of the secular “realm,” an entirely foreign concept to Augustine, for whom the saeculum referred to not a defined space, but to a time inaugurated by Christ’s death and resurrection and which comes to its completion with the final judgment.
This emphasis on the proper time allotted to secular authorities points us in the direction of the Book of Revelation. Contrary to popular perception, Revelation is not just about “the end,” but is actually an account of God’s judgments as they play out in history and come to a culmination at the final judgment. Everything that happens reflects the cosmic significance of the slain Lamb, who is the only one with authority to unseal the scroll on which is written God’s final judgments (5:1-8). There is obviously much to be said about what transpires after this scene, but for our purposes, it will be best to focus on what happens in chapters 12-13 and 17-18. These sections portray the rise and judgment of the Roman Empire, the theme which prompts theologian Richard Bauckham to call Revelation “…the most powerful piece of political resistance literature from the period of the early Empire” (Theology of Revelation, 38). But beyond a historically specific indictment of Roman power, these sections also provide us with keys for understanding the proper place of “secular” politics in light of Christ’s resurrection and coming judgment.
Chapter 12 is at the center of Revelation, and as is characteristic of many works of ancient literature, it contains the central narrative which provides us with a key to understanding the text as a whole. For the first time in Revelation, we see evil incarnated in Satan himself and are shown the part that he has to play in the persecution of God’s people. Here we find a woman giving birth to a child, who we understand to be Christ, and a dragon ready to devour him upon his birth (12:4). He cannot do so, however, for God has made provision for the safety of the woman in the wilderness and has taken up Christ into heaven to sit on his throne and rule the nations (12:5). God’s victory over Satan comes by way of the “blood of the Lamb” and the testimony of his saints who have shared in his sacrifice by going to their death for Christ (12:11). But although we know Christ has conquered, there still remains this time when the Satan makes war on the people of God who keep his commandments and “hold to the testimony of Jesus” (12:17).
This cosmic battle between God and Satan sets the stage for the arrival of the two beasts, which many interpreters see as symbols of Roman imperial rule and the cult of emperor worship which was prevalent throughout Asia during John’s time. But as Richard Bauckham argues, the meaning of the beasts is not limited to Rome alone, but also represent “primeval forces of evil” that were incarnated in the Roman Empire during John’s day (Theology of Revelation, 89). Commissioned by the dragon, the first beast arises from the sea and exercises authority over all the nations of the earth and makes war on the saints (13:7). He appears to have a mortal wound, which parodies the sacrifice made by Christ, the slain Lamb. The second beast comes from the land and compels worship of the first beast because of his messianic appearance, and restricts those who refuse from participating in economic activity (13:!7). Taken together, these beasts represent the Roman Empire’s total military and economic domination of the Mediterranean world and expose its ultimately blasphemous pretensions.
Despite the conspicuous references to Roman power, the implications of this vision go well beyond the political circumstances of 1st century Asia Minor. By recalling Daniel’s vision of the four beasts in Daniel 7, John highlights the continuity of the nature of imperial rule stretching at least back to ancient Babylon, a connection which will become explicit in chapter 17. As theologian N.T. Wright notes, the pursuit of totalitarian empire is deeply embedded in human nature after the Fall. He identifies Revelation as the climax of the “Cain-and-Babel narrative” in which, recalling the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11, “humans grasp at the eschatological city-gift but inevitably corrupt it and use it as an instrument of their own self-aggrandizing power” (“Revelation and Christian Hope,” 116). The enduring characteristic of empire is that it represents mankind’s attempt to appropriate the power and authority of God for themselves by way of a unified political endeavor.
But we should also note that there is something different about the empire that arises in Revelation that distinguishes it from Old Testament empires like Babylon. Remember that the beast from the sea only has authority to make war on the saints and dominate the nations on account of the dragon’s fall from heaven. It is thus Christ’s victory over the dragon, accomplished in the crucifixion, which leads to the specific form of conquest and dominion that the beast represents. The beast’s mortal wound is an attempt to imitate the image of Christ as the slain Lamb, and to therefore appropriate for himself the source of Christ’s authority for himself. This inaugurates what Bauckham calls the “satanic trinity”, comprised of the dragon and the two beasts, which attempts to support itself only by compelling the worship due to God himself.
The result of this attempt at a perverse imitation of God’s authority is outlined in greater detail in chapters 17 and 18. Here we find another symbol for Roman power, the prostitute who sits upon the beast from the sea. For the first time, the name “Babylon” is given specifically to Rome, a connection which confirms our earlier inclusion of Roman power among the empires of Old Testament infamy. The prostitute is arrayed in magnificent clothing and jewelry, which leads John to marvel at her appearance (17:6). But he is quickly admonished by the angel who accompanies him, for her great appearance of wealth and beauty is all for show. Her power is founded upon cooperation with the beast and its ten horns, which represent the kings of the kingdoms subjected by Roman imperial rule. But her alliance with the beast will not last long, for even as they conspire together to make war on the Lamb, the beast and the ten kings conspire against the prostitute (17:16).
The image of Rome as a prostitute who relies on a false unity to hold on to power is an indictment of all forms of political power which would arrogate for themselves the authority which belongs to God alone. For its conceits, Babylon receives God’s judgment, which breaks down the military and economic power that appeared so formidable in chapter 13. In chapter 18, the kings of the earth and the merchants lament the fall of Babylon, who all had a stake in the continuing dominion of the empire. For all the splendor of their endeavors to adorn their works in fine trappings, it has only taken a single hour for God to lay all their wealth to waste (18:17). Once the façade has been lifted, and the power of Babylon exposed as a work of an evil parody of God’s authority, it cannot stand in the face of God’s true and just judgments (19:2).
So where does this leave us in our attempt to say something about worldly political authority? Revelation shows us what happens when people put their faith in a system of rule that employs its military, economic, and cultural resources to grasp at the unity and peace that only God can provide. It is not wrong to seek peace through the institutions of government that God has granted authority in this secular age, as Augustine recognized, but this goal must be pursued within the limits imposed by the fallen nature of mankind. Otherwise, we are bound to repeat the mistake epitomized by Babel and incarnated in so many empires since by grasping for the peace of God through unjust political means.
This limitation on secular political action does not mean that collective action will always be futile, but it does mean that we must live in anticipation of God’s final judgment, at which time the kingdom of the world will become “the Kingdom of the Lord and of his Christ” (11:15). In the meantime, we are sustained by what political theorist Pierre Manent calls “transpolitical hope”, such that our own political endeavors are framed by the victory of Christ won through the cross. It is this hope that enables government to be truly “secular” and to serve the world in the present age, and to recede before the King of Kings in the age to come.
Ryan Ward, Bowdoin Class of 2017. Government and Legal Studies. Biddeford ME.
Ryan’s preparations for the end of the world include a strict regimen of Bob Dylan, Oliver O’Donovan, and St. Augustine, all washed down with a strong cup of coffee.