1.4. From Babylon the Great to the Christian Empire

1.4. FROM BABYLON THE GREAT TO THE CHRISTIAN EMPIRE

The image of the Roman Empire as Babylon the Great suffered a strange transformation in the 4th century, after Emperor Constantine the Great granted religious freedom, converted to Christianity, and the religion of Christ became the dominant cult of the empire. The change of the political context led to the change of the eschatological context. As in the case of Nero and the Jewish Antichrist, two contradictory conceptions merged. On the one hand, for the early Christians the Roman Empire was the Whore of Babylon (negative connotation), “drunk with the blood of the saints” (Christians) persecuted and killed. Rome was the capital of an empire of abomination and martyrdom, Peter the Apostle being its first victim. The luxury, the exuberance and the paganism were making Rome a damned city, accurately described by Daniel and John. It was the sanctuary of Satan’s acolytes, the emperor and the senate, from whose mouths the orders of execution, torture and confiscation were coming.

On the other hand, for the non-Christian citizens of the empire the capital was the cradle of civilization itself, the city established through the will and the blessing of the gods, the heart of the empire and the factor of stability that was preventing the world to return to chaos. Rome was more than a capital-city; it was an icon of unity, progress and civilization. Jews believe that Jerusalem holds a major role in God’s universal plan; in the same way the Romans saw the “city of the seven hills” as the heart of mankind. Rome was simply worshiped by its own citizens, being surnamed the “Eternal City” – an idea planted in the consciousness of the masses by the epic poem Aeneid (I:275-279) of Publius Vergilius Maro. In this the gods granted to the Romans never-ending imperialism:

Then Romulus, wolf-nursed and proudly clad

In tawny wolf-skin mantle, shall receive

The sceptre of his race. He shall uprear

The war-god’s citadel and lofty wall,

And his Romans his own name bestow.

To these I give no bounded times or power,

But empire without end.118

So, the fall of Rome meant not only the destruction of a city, but also the destruction of civilization and the throwing of the world into the primordial chaos. But after the reign of Constantine and the mass conversion of the Romans, the positive-pagan importance of Rome in the history of the world and its eschatological negative-Christian role combined into a singular image: Rome and the Roman Empire began to turn into protective entities of Christianity. The fate of Rome and of the empire remained essential elements in God’s plans for mankind, but in a new light. Rome became a hallowed place through the sacrifice of Peter the Apostle, a city now blessed by God, the spiritual center of the world and the pillar of civilization. Ironically, the pagan Eternal City became destined to subsist until the Christian end of the world. The Roman Empire became synonymous with the “Christian Empire,” while the imperial administration turned into the political institution within which the religion of Christ found favorable conditions for development. By contrast, everything that was outside the empire or outside the Christian religion began to be perceived as barbarous, crude and pagan, features that would be plentifully attributed to the Jews and later to Muslims. Therefore, the destruction of Rome and of the empire no longer meant only a fall into chaos, but also a destruction of the religion of Christ. From that point on the enemies of Rome were perceived as Satan’s tools and apocalyptic entities; the Goths, for example, were identified with Gog, while the Huns took the role of Magog (Revelation 20:7-10).119 And last but not least, Constantine’s pro-Christian actions made his person the prototype for a new type of prophecy: that of the messianic emperor.

The blind faith in the relation between Rome and the world’s fate emerges from Divinae Institutiones of Lactantius Firmianus. Lactantius, who was one of Constantine’s advisers, announces the destruction of Rome due to the persecution carried out against the early Christians, but at the same time he does not hesitate to link the destiny of the world to that of the empire:

how great is the number of years from the beginning of the world. And although they vary, and the amount of the number as reckoned by them differs considerably, yet all expectation does not exceed the limit of two hundred years. The subject itself declares that the fall and ruin of the world will shortly take place; except that while the city of Rome remains it appears that nothing of this kind is to be feared. But when the capital of the world shall have fallen, and shall have begun to be a street, which the Sibyls say shall come to pass, who can doubt that the end has now arrived to the affairs of men and the whole world? It is that city, that only, which still sustains all things; and the God of heaven is to be entreated by us and implored – if, indeed, His arrangements and decrees can be delayed – lest, sooner than we think for, that detestable tyrant should come who will undertake so great a deed, and dig out that eye, by the destruction of which the world itself is about to fall.120

In the year 378 the Roman armies clashed with those of the Goths at Adrianople. Ambrose, bishop of Milan, had previously identified the Goths with Gog described in Ezekiel 38. When rumors about the victory of the barbarians reached his ears, he felt that the world was on the brink of destruction. Likewise, Jerome expected the collapse of Roman civilization and the end of the world when the Huns invaded the territories of the Eastern Roman Empire.121

As long as they were persecuted, Christians believed that the pain they endured must have a purpose and a reward, and the period of hardship would be followed by a period of peace and prosperity. But, after Constantine legalized Christianity and the official hostility was replaced with the support for the church, the East and the West began to have increasingly different eschatological points of view. Premillenarism continued to be the dominant perspective in the West because the Western Roman Empire was decomposing and the prospects were grim. Western Christians believed that the Roman Empire would turn into or it would be followed by the Millennium. And, as the Israelites saw Moses and Cyrus as models of the future Messiah, in the same way Constantine and the Roman Empire became Christian models of Christ and the Millennial Kingdom.

Due to the conflict with Montanism and the influence of Neoplatonist philosophy, the idea of a future Millennium was mainly rejected in the East on the reason it was an influence of Jewish eschatology and the dualistic Messianic Age. The first who opposed chiliasm was Marcion of Sinope in the 2nd century. But Marcion ended up being treated as a heretic due to his amillenarism and other additional teachings.122 Later, Origen of Alexandria argued that the Christian hope is in Heaven, not on the earth, and believers must give a spiritual interpretation to the Book of Revelation. Tyconius the Donatist also denied two distinct bodily resurrections and an earthly kingdom of 1,000 years. Tyconius said instead that at the resurrection, which would be only one, all souls would more or less rise to Heaven due to God’s omnibenevolence, so that no part of mankind that was animated by a soul should perish.123 At the Council of Constantinople in 381 AD millenarism was categorized as a superstition124 and, in order to rule out any idea of a future divine kingdom of 1,000 literal years, the following phrase was introduced in the Nicene Creed: “whose kingdom shall have no end” (according to Luke 1:33: “and he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end”).

The amillenarist position was also reaffirmed in 431, at the Council of Ephesus, according to the teachings of Augustine. Due to the exaggerations and rude materialism of many chiliasts, in De civitate Dei Augustine replaced the earthly millennial reward with the spiritual one. He sympathized with the idea that history is divided into seven eras according to the seven days of Creation, but he ... (This text is incomplete. If you wish to read it in full, please purchase the book)



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