Christians must come out of “Babylon”, wherever Babylon-like powers may be found. Our allegiance should belong to Jesus alone. If we misplace our allegiance, we risk facing the same judgment that the wicked will eventually suffer.
And he cried out with a mighty voice, saying, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! She has become a dwelling place of demons and a prison of every unclean spirit, and a prison of every unclean and hateful bird. For all the nations have drunk of the wine of the passion of her immorality, and the kings of the earth have committed acts of immorality with her, and the merchants of the earth have become rich by the wealth of her sensuality.” I heard another voice from heaven, saying, “Come out of her, my people, so that you will not participate in her sins and receive of her plagues; for her sins have piled up as high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities.”– Revelation 18.2-5
We are clearly supposed to “come out of her”, but who is “Babylon the Great” in the book of Revelation? What are the different ways people have interpreted Revelation? How have these different interpretations impacted the way people read Revelation 18.2-5? With so many different interpretations of these verses, found within such a complex book, what application can the church draw from the command to “Come out of her”?
Context, Context, Context
As with studying any other Biblical text, our goal is to seek the author’s (and the Holy Spirit’s) original intent. The primary meaning of these verses is what John intended them to mean, which in turn must also have been something his readers could have understood.
Revelation is a difficult book, and it has been interpreted in a variety of ways. Before surveying the most popluar approaches to the book, it is helpful identify some contextual landmarks to guide us on our journey.
- Revelation identifies itself as apocalyptic literature, which is highly symbolic in nature (1.1). Babylon the Great symbolizes something which necessarily must bear some resemblance and have some sort of similar qualities with the ancient Babylonian empire, otherwise the image wouldn’t make any sense.
- The text identifies “Babylon the Great” as “the great city which reigns over the kings of the earth” (17.18).
- John says the book is a prophecy regarding things which “must soon take place” (1.3).
- The book is addressed to the seven churches of Asia (1.4).
- The church’s confrontation with persecution is clearly a major theme throughout the book.
- This great city, Babylon, is presented to us in Revelation 17-18 as a contrast with the holy city, the New Jerusalem, described in Revelation 21-22. The former is described as a prostitute (17.1-13), thus forming a contrast with the pure and righteous marriage of the Lamb (19.7-10). The former city is judged (17-18), thus forming a contrast with the saints who are rewarded (21.22).
As we survey different approaches to Revelation we must continually ask if the path they suggest makes sense in light of these contextual landmarks.
Babylon The Great is Rome
This understanding comes from what is often called a “preterist” approach towards Revelation. The word “preterist” simply means “gone by”. The preterist view holds that the events referred to in Revelation were specifically fulfilled in the first century or shortly thereafter.
According to the most common version of the preterist approach, the book of Revelation was written to warn and encourage the church in light of Roman persecution. The book served to encourage Christians to persevere by reassuring them that God was in control, even over the Roman government. Babylon, “the great city which reigns over the kings of the earth” would therefore be Rome. The command to “come out of her” would thus be read a command to the church to withdraw their allegiance and trust from the Roman government. The church must not support the state, align with the state or seek to reform the state. They are to withdraw from the state, and maintain an attitude of submission to the state, even if that means death.
Those who suggest that the book should be read in this way point to several of the landmarks we identified earlier. They insist that we must attempt to read Revelation from the perspective of first-century Christians to whom it was originally written. Revelation was written to the “seven churches of Asia” (1.4), about “things which must soon take place” (1.1), because “the time is near” (1.3). Throughout the book there is an urgency for the readers to respond quickly (2.16; 3.10-11; 22.6, 7, 12, 20). These statements require that we look for fulfillments during the lifetime of the original audience.
However, according to this view, there are timeless lessons which Christians can take from Revelation. For example, from the passage we have just examined, Christians should continually view the state as a “Babylon,” a “prostitute” who is continually attempting to seduce Christians by the pleasures she offers. The state should be viewed in contrast to God’s kingdom. Since all earthly kingdoms will be destroyed just as Rome was (1 Cor. 15.24), Christians should continually “come out of her” lest they share in that destruction.
Babylon the Great is Jerusalem
This is a different variation of the “preterist” view and shares many of the same strengths. Those who hold this view contend that Revelation was written at a very early date, prior to the fall of Jerusalem, and was written with specific reference to that event. This view is based largely on the similarity of the vivid language used in Revelation with that used by Jesus in Matthew 24. Since Matthew 24 was almost certainly written with reference to the fall of Jerusalem, Revelation most likely refers to the same event. “The great city which reigns over the kings of the earth” was written in reference to the city of Jerusalem. Of course Jerusalem never actually reigned over the kings of the earth in the same way Rome did, but according to this view, that’s part of the point of the accusation. The Jewish authorities had come to think so highly of themselves that they had essentially become like the wicked Babylonians.
These verses would thus be understood as a call for Christians to flee the doomed city of Jerusalem before she was destroyed by the Romans, just as Jesus had commanded them to flee the sudden destruction of the city in Matthew 24.16-18.
This view is thus dependent on proving that Revelation was written at a very early date. Most scholars have concluded that the evidence for an early date of the book is lacking. This view is also called into question in that it was addressed to the seven churches in Asia rather than to Judean Christians. Asia Minor was a hot bed for emperor worship, which seems to me to support the Roman government view of Babylon. If, however, the “Jerusalem” view is correct, the modern applications would not be drastically different. Christians still must withdraw from aligning themselves with wicked Babylonian-like authorities, wherever and whenever they may be found.
Babylon the Great is a Spiritual Paradigm
Many Christians throughout history have held to what is referred to as the “spiritualist” view of Revelation (sometimes called the “idealist” view). This particular approach to Revelation denies that the events and figures found within the book have any direct correlation with actual events or figures, either in the past or in the future. To search for the specific fulfillment, they argue, is to misunderstand the apocalyptic genre of the book.
According to this view, “Babylon the Great” is just a spiritual paradigm that encourages Christians to withdraw from aligning themselves with wickedness, wherever and whenever it may be found. The verses were to be applied to Christians whenever they find themselves in spiritual conflict.
This perspective has some strengths. It strongly affirms the symbolic nature of Revelation (1.1), and with it, the absurdity of trying to interpret it literally (6.13; 8.12; 12.4). This view reminds its readers to maintain humility as they read the book. If the book doesn’t specifically tell us what it refers to, we can at best rely on human wisdom when we try to “interpret it.”
The weaknesses I see with this view is that the book itself claims that it contains actual prophecy (1.3; 22.7, 9-11), which referred to events which would soon take place (1.1). It was addressed to specific historical churches (1.4), and it doesn’t easily account for the repeated warned or readers to respond quickly (2.16; 3.10-11; 22.6, 7, 12, 20).
Babylon the Great was (and is?) a Future Empire
This futurist view contends that “Babylon the Great” referred to something well beyond the era of the Roman Empire. Some believe the events of Revelation have already begun to unfold, while others believe all the events remain in our future.
Many protestant reformers and also the early leaders of the restoration movement believed that Babylon the Great referred to the Catholic church, and the book prophecies the great reformation movement. Others have believed that Babylon the Great refers to Communist China, America, or some other empire that will yet arise one day in the future. According to the futurists approach, Christians are expected to somehow identify Babylon once it arises, and then withdraw from her.
A big problem I find with this view is that it seems to contradict the book’s own claim that it was written about “things which must soon take place” (1.1). If the futurist view is correct, it necessitates that we know later history to be able to understand the book. Therefore this approach wouldn’t have made any sense to John’s original readers.
Come Out of Her!
If we keep in mind the landmarks found in the historical and literary context, I am convinced that we can have a pretty good idea about how we should read and apply Revelation 18.2-5.
I personally find the “Babylon is Rome” view most compelling. The “Babylon is Jerusalem” view is also a possibility. I also believe that the vagueness of apocalyptic literature makes it easy to draw spiritual principles that can be applied to Christians in any era as the idealist suggest. The futurist view doesn’t impress me at all. In fact, it concerns me since it leads so many people to try to read the book as some sort of horoscope telling the future, an approach which becomes dangerously close to the sin of divination.
But regardless of what conclusions you draw from Revelation 18, the modern application remains essentially the same. It is the same basic admonition Paul made to the Corinthians (2 Cor. 6.14-18), encouraging them to cut all ties that would bind them to unbelievers. Christians must not align themselves with wickedness.