The Continuing Babylon
"My father, and the father of my father, pitched their tents here
before me: but they never heard of these figures. For twelve hundred years
have the true believers -- and, praise be to God! all true wisdom is with
them alone -- been settled in this country, and not one of them ever heard
of a palace under ground. Neither did they who went before them. But lo!
here comes a Frank from many days' journey off, and he walks up to the
very place, and he takes a stick. . .and makes a line here, and makes a
line there. Here, says he, is the palace; there, says he, is the gate;
and he shows us what has been all our lives beneath our feet, without our
having known anything about it. Wonderful! wonderful! Is it by books, is
it by magic, is it by your prophets, that you have learnt these things?
Speak, O Bey; tell me the secret of your wisdom." (Sheik Abd-er-Rahman,
quoted p. 260, C. W. Ceram, 'Gods, Graves, and Scholars').
When archaeologist Robert Koldewy turned up at Babylon, spade in hand,
in 1898, no city met his sight. If you have to dig to find the city, then
is the city standing, or swept clean? Yet oddly enough some dispensationalists
want to rebuild the thing, so they can destroy it all over again. But Koldewy's
barren site had already been swept with God's broom:
“For I will rise up against them,” says the LORD of hosts, “And cut off
from Babylon the name and remnant, and offspring and posterity,” says the
LORD. “I will also make it a possession for the porcupine, and marshes
of muddy water; I will sweep it with the broom of destruction,” says the
LORD of hosts." (Isaiah 13:22-23).
At the time of the New Testament, Babylon's political demise had long been accomplished. The city still stood, but was physically sinking into ruin; Alexander the Great had, hundreds of years before, detailed his men to restore already collapsing structures.
The great city was depopulated: "At present it [Seleucia, the new capital]
is larger than Babylon; the other is in great part deserted, so that no
one would hesitate to apply to it what one of the comic writers said of Megalopolitae in Arcadia, 'The great city is a great desert.'" (Strabo,
Geography, Book XVI, Chapter I, Section 5, (first century) Volume III, p. 145).
The fourth century Christian apologist Macarius Magnes perceived that, by
his day, Babylon amounted to little: "Or look on Babylon, the capital of Assyria, once so fair and of such enormous proportions, then desolated by the Persians, and now not preserving a trace of its former greatness."
(The Apocriticus of Macarius Magnes, Book IV, Chapter XI).
The emperor Trajan found nothing on the spot but mounds, stones and ruins:
"Trajan ascertained this in Babylon. He had taken the side-trip there on
the basis of reports, unmerited by aught that he saw (which were merely
mounds and stones and ruins), and for the sake of Alexander, to whose
spirit he offered sacrifice in the room where he had died." (Cassius Dio,
Roman History, Book 68, Chapter 30). The Mesopotamian city no longer presented any threat to the people of God; so why does "Babylon" turn up in the New Testament, this time astride the seven hills of Rome?
To understand, the reader must realize who is the king of Babylon. The
king of Babylon is, at first notice, a mortal man who must die even though
he has proclaimed himself a god:
". . .you will take up this proverb against the king of Babylon, and
'How the oppressor has ceased, the golden city ceased! The LORD has broken the staff of the wicked, the scepter of the rulers; he who struck the people in wrath with a continual stroke, he who ruled the nations in anger, is persecuted and no one hinders.' . .Hell from beneath is excited about you, to meet you at your coming; it stirs up the dead for you, all the chief ones of the earth; it has raised up from their thrones all the kings of the nations. They all shall speak and say to you: 'Have you also become as weak as we? Have you become like us? Your pomp is brought down to Sheol, and the sound of your stringed instruments; the maggot is spread under you, and worms cover you.'" (Isaiah 14:1-11).
The "king of Babylon" who is food for maggots is a man. But there
is another king of Babylon, the power behind the throne:
"How you are fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! How
you are cut down to the ground, You who weakened the nations!" (Isaiah
This "king of Babylon" remained in business while the others
were mouldering in the grave, having moved his capital city to Rome. The
people of this king will continue sharing the earth with the people of
God, as tares with wheat, up until the harvest, when all things will be
separated and put in order.
Tradition assigns authorship of Revelation to John, the beloved disciple.
Though the Hebraic language of Revelation differs from the smoother Greek
of John's gospel, it is natural for an author not at home in the language
he uses to seek the assistance of native speakers. But exiled on Patmos,
John was deprived of the community help he would have had while writing
John, in his gospel, uses the language of realized eschatology. Without
prejudice to the future complete fulfillment of prophecy, he stresses how
much of the believer's hope is held already as a present possession. Is
this another such passage?: "This is the first resurrection."
(Revelation 20:5). Although a specific group is here in view, all believers
are said to have already experienced resurrection, in passages like Colossians 2:12:
"In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead." (Colossians 2:11-12).
"If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God." (Colossians 3:1).
"But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus." (Ephesians 2:4-7).
This contemporary sermon touches on the same theme:
"Now in that hope of the resurrection, the personal resurrection that happens in each of us when we are born again (John 3:3), when we are given new life, when the Spirit of Christ now moves into our heart and takes over our lives, this gives us hope, not only for this life, so we can live holy lives in this life, but it gives us hope for the after-life. It gives us hope for eternity.
(Chaplain Gordon James Klingenschmitt, Sermon)
The new birth is itself a literal resurrection from the dead, according
to the Bible, thus all born-again believers are resurrected people. What
can be truthfully predicated of each member of the class can also be predicated
of a sub-group, namely the martyrs with whose situation John is especially
concerned. As the book of Acts records, the roll call of Christian martyrs
began with Stephen and kept lengthening. As John explains, these people
are not to be lamented as having suffered a miserable fate; they have gained,
Weighing in on the 'not' side is Dean Alford, who insists that, if one
resurrection is physical as the second certainly is, then so much be the
"If, in a passage where two resurrections are mentioned, where certain souls lived at the first, and the rest of the dead lived only at the end of a specified period after that first, if in such a passage, the first resurrection may be understood to mean spiritual rising with Christ, while the second means literal rising from the grave;
then there is an end of all significance in language, and Scripture is
wiped out as a definite testimony to anything. If the first resurrection
is spiritual, then so is the second, which I suppose no one will be hardy
enough to maintain. But if the second is literal, then so is the first,
which in common with the whole primitive church and many of the best modern
expositors, I do maintain and receive as an article of faith and hope."
(Dean Alford, quoted p. 59, 'Jesus is Coming,' William E. Blackstone).
Let us apply Dean Alford's methodology to other speeches which John quotes:
"Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
Martha said to Him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection
at the last day.”
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives
and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?”
Let us proceed according to Dean Alford's rule, which lays down that in
any passage in scripture which counts 'life' or 'resurrection' or 'death,'
the term must have precisely the same signification in both uses, or else
"there is an end of all significance in language, and Scripture is
wiped out as a definite testimony to anything." Thus the Lord said,
"He who believes in Me, though he may die. . .shall never die."
This is self-contradictory, if 'die' can mean only one thing. Rather, the
believer may see physical death, as his soul and spirit depart his failing
body, which is left as a motionless corpse, yet, if he is truly a believer,
he will never see spiritual death, or disunion from God. Let's try another
saying of the Lord: "For whoever desires to save his life will lose
it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what profit
is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or
what will a man give in exchange for his soul?" (Matthew 16:25-26).
By Dean Alford's rule, whoever loses his life for the Lord's sake has found
just exactly what he lost, not anything even a little different. In a sense
that is so, because the believer who perishes a martyr will regain, at
the resurrection, the physical body from which his soul has been sundered.
But what he finds as he dies is not the quotidian life he gives up, the
ability to move one's limbs which a guppy also has or a house-cat, but
a life at one with the source of life. The Lord's point is not that the
believer's loss is made up, but that he does not lose but gains.
Dean Alford's rule has failed, with well-known sayings of the Lord. Why
assume it will be successful with Revelation 20?
What is beyond doubt historically is that Rome did burn in 64 A.D., and
the Christians were blamed for it. It may be that they were implicated,
though innocent. What most people believe: that mad Nero scape-goated the
Christians for a fire he himself started,-- has the look and feel of propaganda.
Conspiracy theories were as popular in antiquity as they are today. After
a fire, the ancients looked for the arsonist. Fire was antiquity's preferred
weapon of mass destruction. The victors in war not uncommonly burned a
fallen city. This weapon was also in the arsenal of civil war: the conspirators
in Cataline's abortive revolution were accused of planning arson; Cicero,
who unmasked the conspiracy, turns oracular, "For I seem to myself to see
this city, the light of the world and the citadel of all nations, falling
on a sudden by one conflagration." (The Fourth Oration of M.
T. Cicero against Lucius Catalina, Delivered in the Senate, Section 11).
Centuries prior, a slave insurrection had been uncovered and
"Agrippa Menenius, Publius Lucretius and Servius Nautius,
having been honored with the military tribuneship, discovered a plot that
had been formed against the commonwealth by slaves. The conspirators were
planning to set fire to the houses at night in many different places at
the same time, and then, when they had learned that everyone had rushed to
the aid of the burning buildings, to seize the Capitol and the other
fortified places and, once in possession of the strong positions in the
city, to summon the other slaves to freedom and together with them, after
slaying their masters, to take over the wives and possessions of the
murdered men." (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, Book XII,
Chapter 6, Loeb edition Volume 7, page 219).
Arson was also a weapon available to stateless terrorists. Most fires, of course,
start accidentally. But when a politician died unexpectedly the ancients
looked for the poisoner, and when a city burned, they looked for the arsonist.
Eye-witnesses reported seeing men spreading the fire, some of whom claimed
to be acting under orders. Most of these must have been opportunistic looters.
When I was attending art school in New York, the lights went out, and residents
of that red-white-and-blue city went on an all-night looting spree. Rome,
like New York City, encompassed within its bounds the extremes of wealth
and poverty. To watch wealthy residents flee their homes, stocked with
precious portable items of silver and gold, must have placed temptation
in the way of the city's poor, who may also have helped the fire along
in its march toward the wealthier districts.
It is also not inconceivable that Nero's men did start fires. Rome had
running water, though insufficient water pressure to fight fires effectively.
Once the fire was out of control, what means did they have to make one
last desperate effort to save the city? Firemen facing a forest fire today
set back-fires. The intent is not to make a bad situation worse, but to
contain the fire, by encircling it with a ring of scorched earth. The fire's
advance is checked by a lack of fuel. This is radical surgery, like amputating
a limb to save a life, or shooting down a passenger plane to keep it from
hitting a building. Sacrificing one district to save another would involve
political controversy if known. But to this day it is an effective fire-fighting
technique, and I wonder if it was not tried when all else had failed.
Seneca suggests knowledge of such a technique in 'On Mercy,' "If a fire is
discovered beneath some single roof, the family and the neighbors pour on
water; but a widespread conflagration that has now consumed many homes is
put down only by the destruction of half the city." (Lucius Annaeus
Seneca, On Mercy, Book I, Chapter 25).
Both of these groups of fire-starters: opportunistic looters and fire-fighters,--
come on the scene of an already mature fire. They did not start the fire,
which most likely was accidental, as are most fires. Nonetheless, the Christians
were blamed for it. Was there evidence against them? The criminal investigation
got underway: "The next thing was to seek means of propitiating the
gods, and recourse was had to the Sibylline books, by the direction of
which prayers were offered to Vulcanus, Ceres, and Proserpina." (Tacitus,
Annals, 15:43). It is one of the oddities of life that pagan polytheist
Rome held sacred certain books written by, among others, Jewish women.
Later, Christians and Jews would be accused of forging this material;
however, this cannot be proven. Some people simply find it incredible a
pagan city should have conducted its business based, in part, on
God-devoted oracles. But why is this incredible?
Access to this material was restricted. While some of the surviving 'Sibylline' material
comes from who knows where, extant passages which appear authentic commend
monotheism, condemn idolatry, and praise the Jews.
One idea which must have struck investigators is the repeated prediction
of a world fire, a world-ending conflagration: ". . .when God who
dwells in the sky rolls up the heaven as a scroll is rolled, and the whole
variegated vault of heaven falls on the wondrous earth and ocean. An undying
cataract of raging fire will flow, and burn earth, burn sea, and melt the
heavenly vault and days and creation itself into one and separate them
into clear air." (Sibylline Oracles, Book 3, 81-87). Peter sounds
this theme in his letter from Babylon about the "fiery trial"
or arson trial they are then undergoing (1 Peter 4:12): ". . .the
heavens will be dissolved, being on fire, and the elements will melt with
fervent heat" (1 Peter 3:12). Not only Christians, but also the Stoic
philosophers who held government posts, anticipated a world fire. It is
self-evident such a fire cannot be started by a human arsonist. It is also
self-evident, however, that Revelation Chapter 18 is not about this world
conflagration, because the merchant spectators standing at a distance are
not consumed. Another theme of interest is the resentment conquered peoples
feel for their masters, a theme not heard in the tributes to Roman 'liberation'
of the 'Fox News' networks of the day, but real and raw: "However
much wealth Rome received from tribute-bearing Asia, Asia will receive
three times that much again from Rome and will repay her deadly arrogance
to her. Whatever number from Asia served the house of Italians, twenty
times that number of Italians will be serfs in Asia, in poverty, and they
will be liable to pay ten-thousandfold." (Sibylline Oracles, Book
3, 350-355). One cannot know if they read, ". . .when the earth-shaking
lightning-giver will break the glory of idols and shake the people of seven-hilled
Rome. Great wealth will perish, burned in a great fire by the flame of
Hephaestus." (Sibylline Oracles, Book 2, 16-19). That Rome was built
upon seven hills was a common-place of ancient literature, "Now, while ye
may, bulls, crop the grass of the Seven Hills. Ere long this will be a
great city's site. Thy nation, Rome, is fated to rule the earth wherever
Ceres looks from heaven upon the fields she tends. . ." (Tibullus Book II,
Chapter V, 55-60, p. 275 Loeb edition).
The Sibylline oracles may have started the government looking in the direction
where they ultimately found pay-dirt, because they did beyond doubt punish
the Christians for the fire: