If the past few years are any guide, we’re in for a wild ride in 2018.
From Pyongyang’s nukes to Hollywood casting calls, from China’s rise to the EU’s breakup, from street battles in Charlottesville and massacres in Vegas to the president’s Twitter habits: Everything teeters on the edge of apocalypse.
Today’s world seems to be a scramble of disconnected data points, but there’s coherence in the chaos. The most penetrating analyses focus on the West’s loss of confidence in globalization. That framework doesn’t explain everything, but it explains a lot.
It explains Trump, the polygonal backlash against the EU, the anxious resentments of the alienated young and the forgotten middle and working classes, hostility to refugees and immigrants, and frustrations with political correctness and enforced diversity.
We can deepen the analysis with a glance at an actual apocalypse, the book of Revelation. Chapter 18 describes the lamentation of kings and merchants over the fall of a great trading city called “Babylon.”
Revelation 18 isn’t a prophecy about globalization. It’s not, as many believe, about the fall of the Roman Empire. Rather, it portrays the collapse of the world order that ancient Jews believed centered on Jerusalem and its temple.
We know Babylon is Jerusalem because John tells us that the “great city” is where the Lord was crucified (Rev. 11). We know the city is Jerusalem because Babylon is a harlot, and in the Old Testament Jerusalem is almost invariably the harlot city. Babylon is even dressed like one of Israel’s high priests, with a gilded, jeweled robe and an inscription on her forehead (Rev. 17).
Revelation 18 ends with: “in her was found the blood of the prophets and of saints and of all who had been slain on the land” (v. 24). From our twenty-first-century perch, that sounds like ancient Rome, but the description actually proves that Babylon is Jerusalem. When John wrote, the Romans had barely shed a drop of Christian blood. According to Jesus, Jerusalem is the city that kills prophets (Matt. 23:35).
Literally, the city is first-century Jerusalem, but the city is called Babylon, equivalent to Babel. John prophesies the fall of an ancient world, but he also (secundum tropologiam) describes the fate of the “Babel project” that has fascinated humanity for millennia.
“Babel” often functions as a symbol for statist tyranny, but that’s only part of the story. The original Babel wasn’t merely a political aspiration. It was a religious dream. As James Jordan has noted, the men of Babel set out to build a city and a tower, a civic order centered on a sacred temple-tower to connect heaven and earth (Gen. 11).
In Revelation, Babylon rides a Roman beast, and together they represent the union of the two halves of ancient humanity, Jew and Gentile. Babylon relies on the brute force of a sea beast to trample opposition and the slick punditry of a land beast to cover her tracks (Rev. 13). Babylon is at the center of a world-system. When the harlot city collapses, the system falls, and great is the fall of it.
Revelation gives insight into contemporary history in several ways. It unveils the distorted Christian inspiration behind globalism. The vision of a global city saved by commerce is a counterfeit gospel that gathers a counterfeit church, but it’s hardly even thinkable without the real gospel.
By recognizing that globalism is a faith, we can understand the ferocious tenacity of its defenders. People cling to idols even after they’ve been shattered. Every morning, Philistine priests pick up the shards of Dagon and pile him back in place for another day’s worship (1 Sam. 4–6).
In 1989, Russia and Eastern Europe woke up from one of the twentieth century’s global dreams. Twenty years later, that dream’s chief competitor is fraying. The West’s disorientation and dismay are like that of a committed Russian communist circa 1991. But believers shouldn’t be surprised. Babels always fall.
But there is a global city. A few chapters after Babylon falls, the new Jerusalem descends from heaven. She is a bride, not a harlot, filled with divine light and honored by the tribute of kings and nations (Rev. 21). After the nightmare of Babylon and her beasts comes the Church. She is the only everlasting city, with foundations in heaven, whose builder and maker is God.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.