Would God have got excited about the conversion of Constantine?

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Someone recently got in touch with some pertinent questions about my contention that the main trajectory of New Testament eschatology lands not at the end-of-the-world but firmly in the muddy battle-field of history, at the conversion of Rome.

This is not just a question about New Testament eschatology, of course. It is also a question—as will become clear—about how we understand revelation and, indeed, about how we understand God.

If I have understood you correctly, Constantine marks the moment of eschatological fulfillment that the NT writings anticipate, correct? But where I struggle is that I just can’t imagine God getting all excited and working towards the deathbed baptism of a military leader and the subsequent slow descent into corruption by his church.

Yes, I would say that the conversion of Constantine marks the most significant moment of eschatological fulfilment in the New Testament, but the statement needs to be qualified in two respects.

First, the conversion of Constantine only marks the moment—he is a convenient cipher. The real fulfilment from a biblical point of view, is that the nations of the Greek-Roman oikoumenē, in effect the empire, which formerly served other gods and opposed YHWH and his people, came to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of Israel’s God (cf. Phil. 2:9-11). In that regard, what God thought of Constantine is neither here nor there, but there is some scope for rethinking his place in salvation-history. Peter Leithart, in Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom, comments rather smartly on one of the ironies of Yoder’s anti-Constantinianism:

Yoder’s opposition to Constantine suffers from the same oversight as earlier forms of anti-Constantinianism with regard to martyrs. He longs for the hardy faithfulness of the martyr church but does not recognize that the martyrs were motivated by something very different from anti-Constantinianism. They died, one might almost say, in the hope that the Lord would raise up an emperor very like Constantine, through whom the Lord would show that their blood had not seeped silent into the earth. (309-10)

This is not to absolve Constantinianism of its subsequent sins, but it does highlight the relevance of perspective. A major part of my argument in The Future of the People of God is that the motif of suffering—notably Romans 8:16-39—has just this eschatological orientation. In his suffering and vindication Christ is “firstborn among many brothers”—that is, many others have been called to be “conformed to the image” of the martyred one (Rom. 8:28-29). This is not a narrative for the universal church at all times and in all places. It is a narrative for the early churches as they confronted the frightening hegemony of classical paganism.

Secondly, while the conversion of Rome is historically the most significant outcome of the biblical narrative, it is still only a precursor to, or anticipation of, the defeat of the final enemy, which is death, and the renewal of all things in a new heaven and new earth. Every particular contingent victory in history—over idolatry, over the debasement of human relations, over injustice, over suffering—is not much more than a signpost towards this final judgment and restoration of creation. 

It’s like the early church got what it wanted, but much like the Israelites asking to have a king, it didn’t really work out the way they anticipated, know what I mean?

Exactly. I would argue that the history of the people of God after Christ was just as messy, just as glorious and lamentable, as the history of the people of God before Christ. Christendom succeeded and failed in the same way that national Israel succeeded and failed, only on a much bigger scale. But national Israel was still a chosen people, it still represented in its institutions and symbols the sovereignty and presence of the creator God.

I think we make the mistake of assuming that the kingdom of God was to be—or still is to be—some sort of ideal or perfected state of things. My argument is that the coming of the kingdom of God in the New Testament was the coming of God to intervene decisively in the history of his people—just as he had intervened before to bring them out of Egypt or back from exile. So for Isaiah the “good news” to the exiles was that “Your God reigns”, that he was about to bare his holy arm before the nations and redeem Zion (Is. 52:7-10).

The difference is two-fold. First, since the death of Jesus the people of God is no longer under condemnation because of sin, no longer faces the sort of destruction that Israel faced, but is under grace.

Secondly, since the resurrection Jesus has been given authority to reign—along with the martyrs—at the right hand of God, over all his enemies, for the sake of the body (cf. Eph. 1:20-23); and he has poured out the Spirit of prophecy, covenant renewal, divine presence, and new creation power on his people. That is an ideal reign, if you like, but we engage with it only through the imperfection and fallibility of corporate historical experience.

I am totally ok with the NT being a series of historical documents, but out of interest do you have a post somewhere on how the divine inspiration of scripture fits into that? I ask because IF the NT is divinely inspired (or even inerrant) then it’s strange to imagine the culmination of God’s Great Plan to be Constantine and Christendom; if it’s not inspired but ‘merely’ historical documents, then I can (as a former historian) easily imagine analysing them historically, but is it then still valid to use them theologically?

I think I would challenge the dichotomy between inspired and (merely) historical. Also the assumption that we have to read them theologically rather than historically if they are going to teach us something about “God’s Great Plan”. It is precisely as historical texts that they reveal to us the purposes of the God of Israel—not any old God but the God of a historical community over time. It is precisely as historical texts that they are inspired. I am inclined to think that the doctrine of divine inspiration is essentially redundant. Nothing is ever true simply because we say it is.

Again, we assume that revelation must be absolute, transcendent, supra-historical, but I don’t think that’s how scripture works. Why should the God who called Abraham to be the father of a great people not have a plan—or plans—that culminate in just those momentous events that punctuate the history of a people? In fact, it seems to me that the God who called Abraham is barely interested in anything other than the continuing, troubled historical experience of his people.

Thanks to scholars like Tom Wright and Scot McKnight we are getting comfortable with the idea that Jesus fulfilled Israel’s story. All I’m arguing is that the story didn’t stop with Jesus—that the destruction of Jerusalem and the conversion of Rome—and the eventual collapse of Christendom, for that matter—are just as significant theologically as the exodus from Egypt, the conquest of Canaan, the exile to Babylon, the return from exile, and the commonly overlooked but theologically very important attempt made by Antiochus IV to suppress Jewish worship and religious identity.

I can see how like sociologists we can evaluate how early Christian communities understood themselves and their relationship to God, but can it apply to us? Or do we have to write our own ‘scriptures’?

Good question! I don’t think we have to write our own “scriptures”, but we do have to tell our own story in a way which is consistent with the biblical narrative. We are not in the situation that the first century church was in. The New Testament does not tell our story. We might be in a situation like it—just as the journey that the early church had to make was analogous to the exodus or the return from exile. But I think we need a hermeneutic that both recognizes the narrative distance between us and the New Testament and is imaginative enough to understand how the narrative also establishes our dependence upon the New Testament. History forces the two worlds further and further apart, but history also holds them together.

peter wilkinson | Fri, 06/28/2013 - 10:40 | Permalink

 My observation remains that this historical/kingdom/political interpretation of Constantine and the effect of his “conversion” oversimplifies history. “Christendom” was never the uniform phenomenon of Christianity triumphant as being suggested. There really were mass movements across Europe, not small dissenting pockets, which rejected Christendom throughout the dispensation. Even within the “Christendom” paradigm (Popes, bishops etc wielding the political and military power of co-ercion) there was great variety, dissent, and renewal/reform movements/personalities before and after the Reformation. Paul would be turning in his grave if he thought that “Christendom”, or a kingdom judgment which introduced it, was the fulfilment of all he had given his life for. Jesus would already have been turning in his grave, except that he wasn’t there, and was the person supposedly presiding over Christendom!

The issue hangs on the criteria you use to define and evaluate the church and its role within history. If you have made the NT and Jesus’s mission applicable mainly to the pre-Constantinian era, then you can say more or less whatever you like about the church after Constantine. The NT is no longer the authority for defining its character or mission, and neither is the character, ministry and mission of Jesus.  ”Christendom” can then by all means be the outcome of a supposed “kingdom” intervention of God against Roman paganism. The character of Christendom becomes more or less irrelevant, because we are dealing with political issues and developments. The mission of the church has been lost with the supposed fulfilment of Jesus’s and Paul’s prophetic horizons. The church no longer has a clearly definable mission, apart from survival, apparently, and being existentially “authentic”.

The hypothesis is fascinating, but I find the historical argument being here presented simply breaks down under the weight of its own improbabilities.

I can’t help but feel Peter that your biggest problem is that looking back on history it is too messy, too many failures, too human perhaps?  You want to believe that the Kingdom in its coming and fullfillment will be glorious, perfect, triumphant in justice/righteousness?  You want something that would have Paul applauding in his grave.  

But maybe the work of God will always be messy, unexpected and -dare I say it- a little imperfect in appearence.  A bit like you and me.

I would suggest that your second last sentence is fairly well on the money.  What guarentee do you or I have that we are not fighting for our very survival?  The future relevance and existence of the church or humans is hardly guarenteed.  God is not some authoritarian puppet master who will interject and stop us if we are heading off the cliff.  In those circumstances authenticity and survival are incredibly important.

Hi Justin,

 The future relevance and existence of the church or humans is hardly guarenteed. God is not some authoritarian puppet master who will interject and stop us if we are heading off the cliff. In those circumstances authenticity and survival are incredibly important.

I am wondering if Peter — and he can respond to this — is saying that there is something “inauthentic” about Constantine, given the tragectory the church has taken and continues to take every time its survival is its main concern. I’ve been in a number of discussions about this aspect of Jesus and Paul’s horizon that Andrew is defending. I was looking back at a previous discussion with Andrew where I quoted Hendrik Berkhof from his “Christ and the Powers” where Berkhof shows how Jesus’ submitting himself to the Father’s will by giving himself over to his enemies — and how that very non-resistent and self-scrificial act “defeated” the powers by exposing them to their hypocrisy and self-serving aims. I can’t but help but believe that that is always used as the pattern going forward by the New Testament letters that defines our mission”until the final enemy, death, is defeated.” Being drawn up in the role of Israel “in Christ” as the Suffering Servant in all times and places is where I’d place my best guess as to how I would process faithful witness to Jesus being “Lord of all.”

I am always concerned about how new manifestations in history of the environment of the New Testament church affect how the church processes its mission. Underground churches many times look to this Western history as its deliverance, much as those like Eusebius looked at Constantine.

This vision is so opposite in my mind of how those like the Anabaptists processed it, that I am having a very hard time buying into it. You begin to see that “discipleship” and the cross as calling and example go by the wayside in trying to come to terms with the Constantinian paradigm. Andrew has some good challenges to this, but I believe leaves some things unaddressed. I know he leaves the final resurrection and the defeat of death to that “third horizon,” and I can work with this; but that final horizon seems to be the basis for us to relate to each other and the world in a way that shows we really believe Jesus is in control and Lord of all — even to our own detriment if need be, even in the New Testament period.

I would like to see Andrew, if he is going to bring out Leithart’s book as how this event in history ought to be looked at, would engage those reviewers like Tim Grimsrud (review on Amazon) who take considerable exception to Leithart — not only in his addressing of Yoder — but how this “paradigm shift” has taken the church forward.

I am wondering if we need to bring the concept of remnant into this discussion for the church, similar to how it is brought into the Jewish scriptures and Paul’s thought concerning Israel.

Just trying to come to terms with all this, as I believe everyone here is trying to do.


There are a few differences i would like to highlight between you and me. They are mostly in definitions or how i understand things.

1. You claim that the conversion of Rome is an escatological fulfillment. I differ with you what conversion means. First off Rome did not cast off all its idols with Constantine. This maybe happened 2 or 3 generations later with the rise of the power of the Church. Secondly, what you call conversion does not fit the definition of change or repentance as spoken off in the Bible. Conversion should include a change of heart, not making mere confessions. To call making mere confessions as a conversion is a Greek view of confession. The Jewish view would include a change in heart. The Roman empire even though it confesses the Christian God as the God most high, did not change the character of the kingdom in anyway. It continued to be the evil, corrupt, conquering, decadent empire.

2. To claim that the martyrs of the first 3 centuries died looking for a Christian king of the Roman empire, would be putting words in their mouths. They died being obedient to Christ, and looking for the reign of Christ. The “Christian” emperor of the Roman empire would be a deceptive start. Revelation speaks of the beast who comes in peace (towards Christians) and uses deception to make people follow his ways. What i differ with you is how you define the reign of Christ. It needs to be defined properly or we will be deceived by look alikes.

3. I don’t think the Kingdom of God is simply God intervening, it is the reign of Jesus Christ, first in individual people’s hearts as first fruits and later as a fulfilled Kingdom.

Apart from the above points i am still confused by your view. You acknowledge the existence of sign posts. So is the “conversion of Rome” a fulfillment or a sign post? If anything i see the conversion as both a sign post to the Kingdom of God fulfillment as well as a false start used by the beast, but not a fulfillment. Even in Romans 8, the fulfillment is described as a time when creation is no longer subject to decay. This has not happened yet.

Sam, thanks. You make good points, but…

On the basis of 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10 what conversion means is abandoning the worship of idols and turning to serve the living and true God. That seems an apposite definition in the context of this discussion. Obviously it didn’t all happen with Constantine—Rome didn’t formally “convert” until Theodosius. But my point is that in the light of Jewish narratives about the place of Israel among the nations and  the expectation that one God YHWH would judge and rule over the nations, I don’t see how we can exclude from the purview of a biblical theology such a massive historical event as the conversion of pagan Europe to Christianity. In any case, I think that you will find that this was seen by people at the time very much to entail a “change of heart”.

The martyrs were certainly looking for the reign of Christ, but there is nothing to suggest that they expected God to bring earthly kingdoms and empires to an end. Yes, God would overthrow Rome because it was a “beastly” empire, but Jesus was to be “King of kings and Lord of lords”—that is, earthly rulers would acknowledge his supreme authority, they came to confess him as Lord, Saviour and God, whereas once they had exalted themselves as lord, saviour and god.

I don’t think the Kingdom of God is simply God intervening, it is the reign of Jesus Christ, first in individual people’s hearts as first fruits and later as a fulfilled Kingdom.

Well, I think that’s a misreading of the New Testament under the influence of modern pietism. To take just one example, Jesus expected the kingdom of God to be manifested at the climax to the Roman invasion of Judea and the capture of Jerusalem (Lk. 21:20-33). The vindication of the Son of Man would then become apparent to all people, and the disciples would be delivered. All this would take place within a generation. This coming of the kingdom of God simply cannot be reduced to a subjective religious experience.

So is the “conversion of Rome” a fulfillment or a sign post?

I see it as both, like you, but in a different way. I think we have to draw a distinction between the coming of the kingdom as a particular historical event (though we live with the consequences) and the final renewal of creation. I think that what Paul is saying in Romans 8 is that creation looks to the historical fulfilment of God’s kingdom and the vindication of the suffering saints as a sign that creation itself will ultimately be set free from its bondage to decay.

See also: “The Kingdom of God: who, what, when, and how?” and “New creation and the kingdom of God”.

Doug Wilkinson | Mon, 07/01/2013 - 02:06 | Permalink

“Thanks to scholars like Tom Wright and Scot McKnight we are getting comfortable with the idea that Jesus fulfilled Israel’s story.”

That’s an interesting line.  Israel’s story included the promise of resurrection.  Was that fulfilled?

Taking a look at the promised conclusion of Israel’s story, in Isaiah 66 we find out that at the destruction of the apostate members of the Old Covenant and complete transition to the New Covenant, a New Heaven and New Earth will be established.  At this point,

Isa 66:19  and I will set a sign among them. And from them I will send survivors to the nations, to Tarshish, Pul, and Lud, who draw the bow, to Tubal and Javan, to the coastlands far away, that have not heard my fame or seen my glory. And they shall declare my glory among the nations.
Isa 66:20  And they shall bring all your brothers from all the nations as an offering to the LORD, on horses and in chariots and in litters and on mules and on dromedaries, to my holy mountain Jerusalem, says the LORD, just as the Israelites bring their grain offering in a clean vessel to the house of the LORD.
Isa 66:21  And some of them also I will take for priests and for Levites, says the LORD.
Isa 66:22  “For as the new heavens and the new earth that I make shall remain before me, says the LORD, so shall your offspring and your name remain.
Isa 66:23  From new moon to new moon, and from Sabbath to Sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, declares the LORD.
Isa 66:24  “And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.”

So, the fulfillment of Israel’s story is the establishment of the faithful of Israel under the New Covenant and their commission to now teach and convert people who’ve never heard of God (meaning that in the New Heavens and New Earth there are unbelievers, sin, etc.).  The Romans might have been their first converts, but nothing having to do with Rome was included in the climax of Israel’s eschatology, only the first step of Israel 2.0.  In addition, you are, again, leaving out the history of the church outside of the Roman Catholic/Reformed church.  If Constantine’s conversion was the waters of Ezekiel 47 being knee high, Christianity was almost simultaneously spreading to Bejing, the tip of India, the Russian Steppes, and the tip of Africa.  There are now over a billion Christians.  I expect that in 1,000 years there will be several billion more.


Doug, I’m not sure what you’re getting at here. Isaiah uses the new creation metaphor to speak of the restoration of Israel following judgment. The nations are involved in that restoration in different way—including the swearing of allegiance (45:23).

Yes, the chuhrch spread outside the Greek-Roman world, but that’s also outside the controlling Jewish narrative, which by the first century is wholly preoccupied with Rome. Paul’s mission was clearly to lay claim to the empire on behalf of YHWH.

And historically, very few of the world’s Christians are not heirs of Constantine. The global church is almost entirely the product of western missionary expansionism.



My first point was that if you are saying that Jesus fulfilled Israel’s eschatology in the first century then it had to include the resurrection in some sense (not just his, but theirs as well).

My second point was that Isaiah 40-66 is seen throughout the New Testament as being fulfilled in their day.  Some might say that it was more of a pattern being repeated than a discreet, one off prophecy, though I would disagree.  Either way, the New Testament writers were drawing on Isaiah (and Joel, Hosea, Daniel, etc.) to define what they were experiencing.  If that is so, and Isaiah 65-66 defines the New Heaven and New Earth at the climax of Israel’s eschatology, then the portion of Isaiah 66 that I quoted would describe the conditions after the New Heavens and New Earth begins.  Those conditions include going out into all of the world (not just the oikoumene, since now we are talking about people they’ve never heard of and who’ve never heard of God) to evangelize some of the population.  That means there are unbelievers and some who will remain unbelievers running around the earth during the New Heavens and New Earth period.  It also means that, assuming Rome was the first group to be evangelized, the evangelization wasn’t part of the lead up to establishing the New Heaven and New Earth.  It was only the first successful campaign after it had been set up.  But, the climax of the eschatology happens long before this.  So, the successful evangelization of the Romans typified in Constantine’s conversion wasn’t the climax of the eschatology, it happened long after the eschatology was finished.

My final point was that at the time of Constantine the majority of the members of the church and the portion of the church that covered the largest geographical area was east of Jerusalem.  It’s also where the almost all of the Apostles died in ministry.  We know almost nothing about this church because they were exterminated by Muslims over the last 1,000 years.  Our scripture might be based on the experience of Paul and a minority of the Apostle’s work in the Mediterranean areas, but that doesn’t mean that it’s the core of Christian history.

Isn’t the sequence in Isaiah 66:15-24 something like: God judges Jerusalem, he restores his people as “new heaven and new earth”, envoys are sent to the nations to make known the glory of YHWH, who will bring dispersed Jews back to Jerusalem as an offering to the Lord and who will themselves worship YHWH, and finally those who come will go out of the city and look on the dead bodies of the Jews who rebelled against God. So yes, the restoration of Zion following judgment is a new creation, but this is followed by the sort of proclamation of God’s mercy to his people that Paul describes in Romans 15:8-12, resulting in the offering of the Gentiles (cf. Rom. 15:16) to YHWH.

In other words, Isaiah, like the New Testament, envisages a two-stage historical fulfilment: the remaking of Zion followed by the response of the nations.

I think your sequence of Isaiah 66 is close. However, I think you are missing the power of the end state. The eschatological climax (meaning the climax of the prophecy associated with the end of Israel under the Old Covenant) is the judgement against the apostates (where they end up as dead bodies as a perpetual warning not to cross God) and a postitive judgment for the faithful. Then, we go into the final age (which has no Biblically revealed eschatology, with the possible exception of the Gog/Magog revolution of Revelatoin 20), where the survivors of the faithful go to places that have never heard of God and recruit people who’ve never heard of God to be priests and Levites (a hint that they aren’t physically descended from Israel, but are a new type of priest and Levite under the New Covenant). This age is never seen as ending other than possibly at the revolutoin mentioned above. Likewise, in the New Testament the writers explain Isaiah’s New Heaven and New Earth to be the period where bona fide righteousness finally dwells on earth in the form of a people of God without apostate members (remember in Isaiah 65, the definition of the New Jerusalem is a people of God that is actually, finally a blessing to the whole world). There is no hint that evil people and unbelievers are no longer on earth in either Isaiah or Revelation. In fact, the New Jerusalem is seen as always ready to receive the sinners who are outside the gates during the New Heaven and New Earth era. Your summary of the two stage process is good, but keep in mind that stage two is a perpetual state where each group that enters is simply the most recent group to enter. The entry of the first group (the Romans, possibly) isn’t part of the establishment of the New Heavens and New Earth, it’s only possibly (because I’m suspicious that we are leaving out earlier eastern accomplishments) the first success of the survivors going out to all of the world. That means that the conversion of the Romans isn’t an eschatological event. It’s simply an important event in the first portion of the perpetual age of the New Heaven and New Earth.


That means that the conversion of the Romans isn’t an eschatological event.

It seems to me that there is a great deal said in the New Testament about a judgment that will come on the Greek-Roman world subsequent to—or perhaps in conjunction with—judgment on apostate Israel. It’s not just that some Romans converted—Rome is to be judged because of its idolatries and blasphemies and because it has oppressed God’s people. Paul speaks of a coming day when God will judge the oikoumenē in Acts 17:31. Both the Jew and the Greek (not humanity) will suffer the wrath of God in Romans 2. The judgment in 2 Thessalonians 1:5-2:12 appears to have in view a defiant pagan ruler in the mould of Antiochus IV. Revelation, as I read it, climaxes in the fall of Babylon the Great, which I think is unquestionably Rome. Then there are the Psalms that speak of a day when Israel’s God will rule the nations, which is exactly what happens when Rome converts.

There is indeed a lot of talk about judging the world as part of the eschatological climax.  However, I don’t think there is a lot of agreement about exactly what that means.  Though it’s possible that it has to do with judging nations corporately, I’d like you to consider the possibility that it overlaps directly (and so talk of the two may be confusingly intermixed) with the concept of the intermediate state and final judgment which would be a judgment of all men individually.  Interestingly, this overlaps with your take on “hell”.

It seems fairly obvious that the Old Testament asserted that people went to Sheol when they died and that this evolved as the term Hades started to be used so that there became some idea of compartments (good and bad) in the intermediate state.  I think one of the things that would have been offensive to Greeks, but that Paul was refering to in his speech in Athens, is that there was about to be a final disposition for all of those who were being stored in this system.  The Greeks saw the Hadean realm as indefinite or possibly forever, and were offended more by the idea that they would be done away with in the afterlife far more than the idea that they’d be punished indefinitely.  I think a major part of eschatology is the transition from the “Death and Sheol (or Hades)” program of the intermediate state to immediate judgement after death via the Great White Throne Judgment.  This would require that everyone, Israelite and Gentile, who’d been stored up in Hades throughout human history would have to be judged as a batch, and then implies that people from that point forward in history would then be judged individually as they die.  Your position on Hell accepts most of the foundation for my point above, but you conclude that there has been no major change in that paradigm so that currently all people are still parked in the Hadean realm until the judgment.  Christianity has been split since its first century on a Hadean intermediate state and a heavenly one.  One of the most important books I’ve read on the topic is “Regnum Caelorum” by Charles Hill.  I highly suggest you read it.  He tracks the relationship between positions on the intermediate state (Hadean or Heavenly) and then points out how those positions very clearly indicate a chiliast or Amillennial approach to human history.  It would take too long here to go into the details, but I think it’s an integrated topic and you would get a lot out of his analysis.

Quickly on your other points.  I don’t think there is any indication in 2nd Thessalonians 1 that the persecutors are anyone other than Jews.  That is the narrative from Acts surrounding Thessalonica and I think it carries through to the epistle itself.  I also don’t think there is compelling evidence that Babylon the Great from Revelation is anything other than Jerusalem and the Old Covenant system.  That character is being punished for breaking a covenant with God, which Rome certainly never had.  As far as ruling the nations goes, I think that it’s an important part of the story, but it’s seen as a condition of the perpetual state.  In other words, it’s an ongoing condition, not a climax, so is parallel to the time I think that Isaiah 66 is talking about with missionaries going out to the hinterland.  That ruling doesn’t happen in a moment, it’s an ongoing function.


I think one of the things that would have been offensive to Greeks, but that Paul was refering to in his speech in Athens, is that there was about to be a final disposition for all of those who were being stored in this system.

But that’s not what Paul says. He says that God will judge the oikoumenē. There is no reference to either Hades or Sheol either here or in his letters.

The persecutors are may well be Jews in 2 Thessalonians, but we have a rebellion or “apostasy”, followed by the appearance of a figure who is described in language taken from Old Testament accounts of blasphemous pagan rulers—the king of Babylon, the Prince of Tyre, Antiochus IV. The rebellious Jews will be judged, but so too will this pagan ruler figure.

I really don’t understand how or even why anyone would identify Babylon in Revelation with Jerusalem. For example, it seems to me very unlikely that the destruction of Jerusalem would be spoken of in these terms—but this is another matter:

Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great, she who made all nations drink tthe wine of the passion of her sexual immorality. (Rev. 14:8)

I’m not saying that there is no corporate judgement in view.  I’m only saying that there is also the idea of individual final judgement, which was shocking to the Greek mindset.  I think that Paul’s conversation with Felix might also be a good example of Paul’s use of the concept:

Acts 24:24-25 (ESV)
24 After some days Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was Jewish, and he sent for Paul and heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus.
25 And as he reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment, Felix was alarmed and said, “Go away for the present. When I get an opportunity I will summon you.”

I don’t think that Felix was alarmed because he thought that his personal sin was going to cause God to destroy the empire.  I think he was upset because Paul was suggesting that pretty soon he (and everyone else) was going to be personally, finally judged for sin.

Regarding the blasphemous ruler, I the most persuasive presentation I’ve seen on this is by Duncan McKenzie in his two book set on the Anti-Christ.  To summarize, scripture often talks about rulers, nations, and the demonic characters empowering the rulers with interchangeable references.  So, I’d agree that Titus and Vespasian played their roles in the story, but that role is focused around the destruction of Jerusalem, not the conversion of Constantine.

We’re probably going to have to agree to disagree on the identity of Babylon because I have exactly the opposite opinion as you.  I can’t understand how anyone could miss the obvious references to Jerusalem in the text.  Though I don’t agree with everything he has written, I’d suggest you pick up Preston’s short book “Who is this Babylon?” for what I think is a persuasive argument on the topic.


Evelyn | Tue, 07/02/2013 - 08:26 | Permalink

This is not a narrative for the universal church at all times and in all places. It is a narrative for the early churches as they confronted the frightening hegemony of classical paganism.

Fair enough… but then how can it serve as a narrative for us?

I wonder also whether this underlying paradigm of conflict with a hostile environment colours the way the Christian faith is still lived out by some nowadays in far from hostile environments. I’m thinking especially of the Culture Wars, or the general sense of being under attack that permeates the polemic of the Christian Right in America. I’m suggesting the tone of the texts may feed an ongoing martyr complex more appropriate to Ancient Rome or modern day Egypt or China than to the West. I realise this is somewhat of a tangent, but I’m reflecting on the ways the texts are used, and why they are used in those ways. 

I am inclined to think that the doctrine of divine inspiration is essentially redundant.

Amen. Am I right in thinking that entire doctrine hangs on one line in 2 Timothy? The scriptures say about themselves that they are divinely inspired so it must be true because the scriptures are dinvinely inspired because they say they are ad nauseam. Apart from the fact that the writer was referring to the OT anyway… Yes, let’s dump that idea, or better yet, come up with a deeper, broader, more meaningful definition of what ‘divinely inspired’ means.

But I think we need a hermeneutic that both recognizes the narrative distance between us and the New Testament and is imaginative enough to understand how the narrative also establishes our dependence upon the New Testament.

 I would love to hear more about this.