A Letter To Christian Youth Considering Military Service

Dear Brother or Sister,

At some point you will be faced with the choice of whether or not to join the military. Throughout history, Christians have wrestled with, and often disagreed about, the appropriateness of military service for a Christian. Only you can decide for yourself whether or not you should join the military. I write this letter, not to tell you what decision to make, but to hopefully bring clarity to some of the questions you may be wrestling with (or perhaps to introduce some questions you have not yet considered).

As you consider your decision, I encourage you to think about two different, but related sets of questions.

Firstly, can you, as a Christian, kill your enemies? You need to know what the Bible says about how Christians should treat their enemies and consider the implications of these commands upon your role in the military.

Secondly, there are several instances where Jesus and his disciples interacted with members of the military. What can be learned from these interactions? How should they impact your decision?

Ultimately you must draw your own conclusions from your own study. It would be wise for you to think about these questions prior to putting yourself in a position where you may be called upon to compromise your conscience.

Can Christians Kill Their Enemies?

The New Testament has much to say about how Christians are to treat their enemies. We must love them (Lk. 6.27, 35; Mt. 5.44), bless them (Lk. 6.28; Rom. 12.14), do good to them (Lk. 6.27; 34-35), turn the other cheek (Mt. 5.38-39; Lk. 6.29), and we must not resist those who do evil.

But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. – Matthew 5.39

We are never to return evil for evil (Rom. 12.17, 19; 1 Thess. 5.15; 1 Pet. 3.9). Rather we are to give food to our enemies when they are hungry, and we are to give them drink when they are thirsty.

Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. – Romans 12.17-21

Ultimately, we are called to follow Jesus’s example, who was willing to suffer unjustly, even when he had the power to destroy his enemies (Eph. 5.1-2; Phil. 2.4-8; 1 Pet. 2.21-23).

And here’s the thing: there’s never an exception clause. There’s never any kind of statement such as “Love your enemies, except when they present a threat to others” or “Love your enemies, unless your role in the military requires that you kill them.” We’re just supposed to love our enemies. Period. We are to do good to them. Period. We are not to resist evil doers. Period.

We don’t get to say “Yeah, but this doesn’t count when it comes to really bad enemies, such as terrorists.” In fact, those are exactly the kind of enemies Jesus and his disciples had in mind. They weren’t only threatened by a foreign nation; they were already conquered by them. The Romans were known to put dozens, even thousands of Jews to death by crucifixion just to keep them living in fear. If you can imagine an America that has already been conquered by our worst enemies, then perhaps you can start to grasp the kind of enemies Jesus had in mind when He commanded his followers to love their enemies.

So the challenging question you must wrestle with is this: in light of all that the New Testament says about how Christians are to treat their enemies, can we, as followers of Jesus, justify killing our enemies?

Jesus Never Denounced Military Service

In light of all that the New Testament says about how to treat our enemies, we might expect to find Jesus denouncing military service all together. However, this isn’t what we find. Although He had numerous opportunities, Jesus never denounced military service. Not even once.

When soldiers asked John the Baptist what they needed to do to repent, John told them “do not exhort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages” (Lk. 3.14). But he didn’t tell them to leave the military.

In Matthew 8.5-13, a Centurion approached Jesus asking him to heal his servant. In response, Jesus praised the Centurion’s faith without adding a single word about his role in the wicked and idolatrous Roman army.

In Mark 15.39, Mark records that a Centurion who was assisting in the crucifixion of Jesus confessed “Truly this man was the Son of God.” Other than simply mentioning this confession, Mark didn’t add any other comment, expressing neither approval nor disapproval of the centurion’s role in the military.

In Acts 10, Cornelius, a centurion, was described as an “upright and God-fearing man who is spoken well of by the whole Jewish nationbefore he became a Christian. In the account of his conversion, he was commanded to be baptized. But not one word was spoken about his role as a centurion. He was not asked to leave the military.

In all of these accounts, no military person was ever asked to leave their positions. For many, this settles the question of military service. Many will cite these passages to defend the position that Christians can fight in the military without having any reservations about being called upon to kill their enemies.

However, I caution you not to argue for more than what these scriptures teach. Although none of these passages instruct military personnel to leave their positions, none of them express words of approval of their positions in the military either.

To argue that these passages give Christians full approval for military service is an argument from silence. Arguing from silence is what many will do with the account of the Philippian jailer to argue for infant baptism. Acts 16.33 tells us that the jailer and his whole family were baptized. Some will point and say “see, there’s infant baptism.” But the text doesn’t say that infants were baptized. That’s an argument from silence.We can only infer from what the text says, not from what the text doesn’t say. 

Jesus frequently interacted with sinners without commenting on whether or not he approved of their sin. In John 4.16-18, Jesus spoke with a Samaritans woman who had been divorced five times and was living with a woman she wasn’t married to. Jesus never rebuked her or told her to leave the man she was living with. Does this mean that Jesus approved of her marriages, divorces, and cohabitation? Certainly not!

Luke 5.29-30 describes how Jesus was eating with tax collectors and sinners. And yet there’s not one work from Jesus rebuking them. This doesn’t mean that Jesus approved of their sin. It means that Jesus was willing to meet them where they were in life, and start working with them at that point.

We can only argue from what the Bible actually says, not from what it doesn’t say. We can say that Jesus didn’t rebuke soldiers for their military service or require them to step down. We cannot say that Jesus therefore approved (or disapproved) of them in these positions.

It is safe to assume that if each of these soldiers continued to follow Jesus, they would eventually be confronted with the same “love your enemy” commands mentioned above. They would have to work out the implications of those commands in their own lives. Did they leave their military posts? Did they stay and try their best to serve Jesus and love their enemies from within the military? We simply don’t know. The text doesn’t tell us.

The Decision is Yours

The Bible never gives a clear command about whether or not a Christian can join the military. So the question comes down to you. In light of all that Jesus commanded about how Christians are to treat their enemies, can you put yourself in a position where you may be called on to kill your enemies?

If you decide you cannot join the military without compromising your conscience, then don’t join. But, don’t turn your conviction into a formula that you can apply to other Christians who decide to join the military. Although we must clearly teach what Jesus teaches about how Christians are to treat their enemies, we must never draw a line that Scripture doesn’t draw. If Jesus never felt compelled to condemn military service, we shouldn’t either.

No Christian has any business questioning the authenticity of another Christian’s faith, regardless of whether they are in the US military or in a military that opposes the US. In the New Testament, military persons were met with the gospel wherever they were, and were left to work out the difficult implications on their own. We should do the same.

If it seems to us that someone’s position in the military makes them a sinner, let us remember the words of Jesus in Matthew 7.1-3:

Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?

If you do choose to join the military, nothing in scripture forbids you from making that choice. But never stop wrestling with what it means to “love your enemies”, to “do good to them” and to “leave vengeance to God”.

Make a practice of loving your enemies in small everyday ways. Be kind to your grumpy neighbor. Buy supper for the rude, arrogant, self-centered person in your unit. Pray for the lives and families of enemy soldiers that they will be blessed with the gospel. Train your heart to respond in love to the people who deserve it the least. And then, when you come face to face with your enemy, with your finger on the trigger, have the courage to love them even in that crucial moment.

Never stop following Jesus. Never stop loving your enemies.

In Him,

Your Loving Brother

The Heavenly City: Part 2 – The Resurrection Will Be Bodily

All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own. And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, as heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them.
– Hebrews 11.13-16

In part 1 it was observed that in a sense, Christians are heirs of Abraham’s land promise. Yet it is important to recognize, that according to the book of Hebrews, this land promise was never intended to be fulfilled in an earthly city or an earthly country.  We must not think that the Christian hope is somehow limited to the land of Canaan or the earthly city of Jerusalem. Just as Abraham was looking forward to a heavenly city, so we look forward to fulfillment of the land promise in that same heavenly city.

If you haven’t read part 1 yet, please read it here.

But what does that mean? If our hope is “heavenly”, what does that mean about the resurrection? Can we actually have bodies in the heavenly city? Or will we simply be bodiless spirits floating somewhere up above the clouds?

To answer these questions, it is important to recognize two things.

  • The author of Hebrews assumed that bodily resurrection was a foundational Christian doctrine

Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of instruction about washings and laying on of hands, and the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment. – Hebrews 6.1-2

  • There is a sharp distinction between “heavenly” and “earthly”, but this distinction is not a distinction between “material” and “non-material”

The book of Hebrews doesn’t force us to choose between either a heavenly hope or a bodily resurrection. It holds these two together in one unified picture of hope.

Hebrews’ Contrast Between Heavenly and Earthly

The country we will receive is “heavenly” because it is not “earthly.” There is a big difference between the two and it is very important that we maintain this distinction. But as we seek to maintain a distinction between the “heavenly” and the “earthly”, it is important that we notice how the book of Hebrews describes that distinction.

The primary point of distinction between “heavenly” and “earthly” is not what many assume it to be. It is not a distinction between a “spiritual” existence (in the Hellenistic, non-bodily sense of the word) and “material”. It is not a distinction between “up there” and “down here”.

The main point of “faith” in Hebrews 11 is that it looks forward to what has been promised but has not yet been received. Just as Noah acted on a promise when he built the ark (11.7), so Abraham acted upon a promise when he waited for the heavenly city. For whatever other differences there may be between “heavenly” and “earthly”, the primary point of contrast, according to the author of Hebrews, is a contrast between that which “now is” and that which “will be”. It is a contrast between the present world and the future world (11.13).

We can at present see cities designed and built by men. Only by hope can we see the “city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (11.10). We can at present see earthly counties. Only by hope can we see the “better country” which God has prepared (11.16). We are at present “strangers and exiles” in our earthly countries. By hope, we seek a country prepared by God which we can call our own (11.13).

The author of the book of Hebrews speaks further of this “heavenly city” in chapter 12, where he identifies it as the “heavenly Jerusalem.”

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to the myriads of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect. – Hebrews 12.22-23

Here, in speaking of the “city of God” we read about the “spirits of the righteous” who are currently enrolled in heaven. This is presumably the spirits of the departed righteous who are waiting for the resurrection day.  This is consistent with other scriptures that speak of us departing from our bodies upon death, and going to be with Christ (read more on this temporary state of the righteous dead here). But even so, this seems to be an intermediate state, for the text goes on to speak of another day still in the future, in which both heaven and earth will be shaken, so that what God intends to last forever may do so.

But now He has promised, saying “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth, but also the heaven.” This expression “Yet once more” denotes the removing of those things which can be shaken, so that those things which cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude. – Hebrews 12.26b-28a

That which is currently on earth and in heaven will be shaken. That which we are to receive cannot be shaken. It will be more solid and more enduring than what we now experience. As we envision this heavenly city, we must not think it will simply be a resuscitation of the same old, deteriorating, fragile earth we presently know.

The same point is restated briefly in Hebrews 13.14.

Here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come.

In summary, we must not think that Abraham was promised a land built, designed, or founded by man. We are not looking forward to an earthly country that is fragile and shakable like the ones we now know. The land promise was never intended to be fulfilled in the earthly country of Israel. We are looking forward to a city which is designed, built, and founded by God, which will be far more enduring and unshakable. The book of Hebrews describes these as the ways in which our hope is “heavenly”, not “earthly.”

Is it possible that the “heavenly” and “earthly” are different in ways far beyond these differences described in the book of Hebrews? Perhaps so. But whatever other contrasts there may be, we must not assume that the Hebrew author held to a view of the “heavenly” city as a place “up in the sky” for “bodiless spirits” in a purely “non-material” state. We must not make this assumption lest we deny what the Bible teaches as the foundation of Christian hope: The material, bodily, resurrection from the dead.

The Importance of Bodily Resurrection

The author of Hebrews assumes that the “resurrection from the dead” is among the most basic of all Christian doctrines (6.2). Abraham himself had faith in God’s ability to raise dead people back to life (11.19). In Hebrews 11.35, women endured torture, not because they hoped to be released from their physical bodies, but because they believed they would obtain a “better resurrection.”  It is hard to see how anyone could have spoken of Jesus freeing “those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives” (2.6), unless they believed that death itself was actually reversed (as opposed to just being redefined).

From Philippians 3.20-21, we learn that Jesus will transform our lowly bodies to be like His glorious body.  When Jesus was raised from the dead, he was not just a bodiless spirit. Although His body was certainly different than it was before, the resurrection was a material resurrection. He walked, talked, and even ate fish. He could be seen and even touched. His resurrection actually left the grave empty. His body was spiritual, or as Peter described it, it was “made alive by the Spirit” (1 Pet. 3.18), but it was a material, tangible body.

Our bodies will be like his. Or as Paul describes it in Romans 8.23,

Even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sonsthe redemption of our body.

For more on how the Bible describes the hope of bodily resurrection, read here.

Conclusion

The book of Hebrews does not force us to choose between a bodily resurrection and a heavenly city. It doesn’t force us to choose between Abraham’s land promise and a city built by God. It holds all these ideas together into one unified picture. The Christian hope is for a bodily resurrection, in a permanent city built by God, which is the ultimate fulfillment of Abraham’s land promise. When we speak of heaven, we must never so “spiritualize” our hope to the point that we deny the bodily resurrection.

Now may the God of peace, who brought up from the dead the great Shepherd of the sheep through the blood of the eternal covenant, even Jesus our Lord, equip you in every good thing to do His will, working in us that which is pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen. – Hebrews 13.20-22

The Heavenly City: Part 1 – The Land Will Be Heavenly

Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of instruction about washings and laying on of hands, and the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment. – Hebrews 6.1-2

For here we do not have a lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come. – Hebrews 13.14

God never promised the church the land of Israel. But as we oppose the hope of an earthly kingdom, we must not so “spiritualize” our vision of heaven that we end up denying the bodily resurrection of the dead.

The book of Hebrews describes the Christian hope as the “heavenly” country (11.16) and the “heavenly Jerusalem” (12.22) For many, when they read of this heavenly hope, they envision some sort of non-material, non-bodily, eternal life up above the clouds. Before we conclude that the Christian hope is simply “going to heaven when we die” as bodiless spirits, we must remember that the author of Hebrews assumed that the bodily resurrection of the dead was a foundational Christian doctrine (6.1-2). We are not forced to choose between either a heavenly hope or a bodily resurrection. The author of the book of Hebrews holds these two together in one united picture of hope.

The purpose of this two part article is to examine the Christian’s heavenly hope as it is presented in the book of Hebrews.

Background: Abraham’s Land Promise

He was looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. – Hebrews 11.10

The heavenly city is introduced to us in the context of Abraham’s faithful response to the land promise. This promise is repeated several times throughout the book of Genesis, and is developed into one of the most prominent themes in the Old Testament.

And He said to Him, “I am the LORD who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess it.” – Genesis 15.7

I will give to you and to your descendants after you, the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God. – Genesis 17.8

It is sometimes thought that the land promise ceases to play a role in the New Testament. While it is true that the church is never promised an earthly country, it is important to recognize that the author of Hebrews builds on this land promise as he develops his picture of the heavenly city.

Note that in Genesis 17.8, it reads “I will give to you and your descendants after you, the land of Canaan.” The promise of the land was not just given to Abraham’s descendants. It was also given to Abraham himself. But as we continue reading Genesis, we see that with the exception of a small burial plot (Gen. 23) Abraham was never given possession of the land.

Stephen the martyr, in reflecting on this promise, noted that Abraham never received what he was promised.

God had him move to this country in which you are now living. But He gave him no inheritance in it, not even a foot of ground, and yet, even when he had no child, He promised that “He would give it to him as a possession and to his descendants after him.” – Acts 7.4b-5

Hebrews gives us insight into Abraham’s mindset towards this land promise.

By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he lived as an alien in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, fellow heirs of the same promise; for he was looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God….

All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own. And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, as heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them.
– Hebrews 11.8-10; 13-16

Abraham did not assume that the land promise was limited to the earthly borders of an earthly nation. Although he lived in Canaan, he dwelt there as a stranger and exile, still awaiting the fulfillment of God’s promise. As Abraham looked for the fulfillment of God’s land promise, he looked forward to what Hebrews calls the “heavenly” country and the “city” prepared by God.

Heirs According To The Promise

The Christian hope is found in this same heavenly city.

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem – Hebrews 12.22

We receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken. – Hebrews 12.28a

For here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come. – Hebrews 13.14

We learn from Galatians 3.29 that all those who have faith and are baptized into Christ are “Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.” From the book of Hebrews we learn that, in a sense, we are heirs of the land promise. The heavenly city, introduced in Hebrews 11 as the fulfillment of Abraham’s land promise, is developed in Hebrews 12-13 as the heavenly city for which Christians hope.

In this sense, we are heirs of the land promise. However, we must not misunderstand the nature of this promise. The promise was never intended to be fulfilled in an earthly city or an earthly country.  We must not think that the Christian hope is somehow limited to the land of Canaan or the earthly city of Jerusalem. Just as Abraham was looking forward to a heavenly city, so we look forward to fulfillment of the land promise in that same heavenly city. What Abraham hoped for is what we hope for. And since Abraham never set his hopes in an earthly county, and neither should we.

Does this mean that Abraham was simply longing to “go to heaven when he died” and live eternally as bodiless spirit? Is this what Abraham had in mind when he longed for a heavenly city? Is this what the author of Hebrews believed would be the fulfillment on the land promise? What is the nature of the heavenly country?

Please continue reading Part 2 here.

Capital Punishment, War, and Loving Your Enemies

Does God’s authorization of capital punishment and war in the Old Testament imply that it is appropriate for Christians to execute justice on their enemies and even kill them if necessary?

Does the Old Testament teach that God authorizes violence?

There are many Old Testament scriptures that show that in some situations God divinely authorized violence, including the death penalty, as punishment for crimes. For example, God commanded the death penalty for murder (Ex. 21.12-14; 19; Lev. 24.17, 21), hitting one’s parents (Ex. 21.15; 17; Lev. 20.9), kidnapping (Ex. 21.16; Deut. 24.7), and sacrificing a child to the god Molech (Lev. 20.3). Numerous other examples could be given.

There are also Old Testament examples where God commanded His people to go to war. Perhaps most glaring is when God commands the complete destruction of the Canaanites.

You shall not leave alive anything that breathes. But you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittite and the Amorite, the Canaanites and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, as the LORD your God has commanded you. – Deut. 20.16-17 (cf. 7.1-2)

In 1 Samuel 15, God commands Saul to “utterly destroy” the Amalekites (v. 3). When Saul disobeys God by saving some of the spoil, he is rebuked by Samuel (vs. 8-9; 19), who then responds by killing Agag, king of the Amalekites (v. 33). It certainly appears that God approved of Samuel’s obedient violence.

Other examples could be cited, but the two examples mentioned here should be sufficient to show that at times God divinely sanctioned acts of violence against evildoers. We can therefore view these Old Testament warriors as examples of faithful obedience (cf. Heb. 11.34)

Does God Always Approve of Just Violence?

Although God sometimes commanded the Israelites to do violence against wrongdoers, this does not imply that God commands all people at all times to engage in violence against their enemies. God does not change (Mal. 3.6), but sometimes His expectations change.

Early in David’s reign, David received God’s approval before going to war (2 Sam. 5.17-25). Yet late in David’s life, David took a military census without God’s approval and was punished for it (2 Sam. 24.2-4). God viewed David as unfit for building the temple as a direct result his waging of wars (1 Chron. 22.8; 28.3). Although God approved of some of David’s wars, He did not approve of all of David’s military actions.

Years later, Hosea would rebuke Israel for multiplying “lies and violence” and for making an alliance with Assyria (Hos. 12.1). Hosea rebuked Israel for trusting in their warriors (10.13), and for multiplying their national defenses (8.14).

Micah warned that God would “cut off your horses from among you, and destroy your chariots” (5.10-11). Amos too was very critical of nations who used violence against other nations (1.3, 6, 9, 11, 13; 2.1), and voiced strong opposition to Israel’s trust in their military power (2.14-16; 3.9-11; 6.13-14).

Keep in mind that Israel was not looking to use military alliances and violence to be conquerors. They were simply looking to the sword for self-defense against other wicked nations. Yet they were met with God’s disapproval because they had turned from trusting in God to trusting in their military might.

What Can We Conclude from God’s Authorization of Just Violence?

  1. God is a Just God

God views human life as special, and God values justice. Although God does not delight in the death of the wicked (Ezek. 33.11), He did write the death penalty into His law and at times commanded warfare.

Whoever sheds man’s blood,
By man his blood shall be shed,
For in the image of God
He made man
– Genesis 9.6

  1. Not All Killing Is Murder

Although the Old Testament is clear that murder is wrong (Ex. 20.13), it is also clear that not all killing is murder. Since what God does and directs others to do is always right and just (Ps. 19.7-19; 33.4-5), and since God tempts no one to do evil (Jas. 1.13), this shows that capital punishment and war are not inherently wrong.

  1. The Key Issue Has Always Been Faithful Obedience to God

Although the Old Testament does show that God gives divine authorization of violence in some circumstances, it is important to recognize that God – not Israel’s military might – would determine their victory.

The LORD your God is the one who goes with you, to fight against your enemies, to save you. – Deut. 20.4

When God defeated the Egyptians as they tried to cross the Red Sea, the entire battle was fought and won single-handedly by God. (Ex. 14-15). God left no room for doubt: Israel was saved by God’s strength alone, not by their own military might.

Israel faced a seemingly undefeatable enemy in Jericho. And yet, because they faithfully obeyed God’s command to march around the walls, God delivered the city of Jericho into their hands (Josh. 7). In contrast to Jericho, Ai was a much smaller village, and would seemingly be an easy victory. However, due to disobedience, Ai defeated Israel (Josh. 8). Israel’s strength in battle was not dependent on their own ability to defeat their enemies. Their strength was dependent on their faithful obedience to God.

In Judges 7, God trimmed down Gideon’s army to just three hundred, lest the people boast and say, “My own power has delivered me” (Jud. 7.2). Israel’s army was made weak so that God would be shown to be strong.

The Holy Spirit summed up the source Israel’s strength in Psalm 33:

The king is not saved by a mighty army;
A warrior is not delivered by great strength.
A horse is a false hope for victory;
Nor does it deliver anyone by its great strength.

Behold, the eye of the LORD is on those who fear Him,
On those who hope for His lovingkindness,
To deliver their soul from death
-Psalm 33.16-19

Even though God did instruct His people to execute the death penalty and, on occasion, to go to war, Israel’s strength was never dependent on the sword. Their strength was found in their faithful dependence on God.

Our Strength is Found in Obedience to God’s Commands

The Christian’s highest goal is faithfulness.  If God commands that Christians execute violence against their enemies, it would be wrong not to. The most important question to consider is this: What has God commanded Christians to do in response to their enemies?

What Has God Commanded Christians To Do In Response To Their Enemies?

The New Testament does not directly address how governments and nations are to view and treat their enemies. But the New Testament has much to say about how Christians are to treat and think about their enemies. As Christians, we are to…

That’s everything the New Testament teaches on the matter of how Christians are to treat wrongdoers. Note that nowhere do we find any exception clause in these teachings. Jesus never says “Love your enemies and do good to them except when common sense and your desire for justice tell you that you need to kill them”.

What About Justice?

Jesus embraced God’s justice. According to Jesus, if someone makes a little one to stumble, it would be better for them to have a millstone hung around their neck rather than to face God’s judgment (Mt. 18.6; Lk. 17.2).

In fact, the reason Jesus didn’t fight back when He was crucified is because He “kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1 Pet 2.23). The reason Paul commanded Christians not to avenge themselves is because God has said “Vengeance is mine, I will repay” (Rom. 12.19). The more we believe that God will execute His justice on evildoers, the more we can trust that we are free from having to take justice into our own hands.

This is not to argue that all killing is inherently wrong. This is not to argue that all policemen and soldiers are murderers. This is not to argue that governments and nations are necessarily acting wickedly when they execute justice.

God is the all-knowing, and perfectly-just Creator of life. As such, if God wants to use governments to execute His wrath against evildoers, He certainly has that right (Cf. Rom. 13.1-4).

But, as Christians, God gave us the responsibility is to love and do good to our enemies, even when the principle of justice tells us that they would deserve far worse (cf. Mt. 5.38-39; Lk. 6.27-29). And no Christian can offer any service to their government that would cause them to compromise their commitment to God (Acts 5.29).

Every disciple of Jesus must wrestle all of His teachings. I cannot see how a Christian can use violence to execute justice and at the same time faithfully follow God’s commands to love our enemies.

What About Common Sense?

Granted, these teachings don’t make any sense. In fact, at times, refusing to violently resist evil can sound downright foolish. But how much sense did it make for Moses to stretch out his staff across the Red Sea? How much sense did it make for Israel to march around the walls of Jericho? How much sense did it make for Gideon to trim his army down to just 300 men? How much sense did it make for the all-powerful God to let Himself get tortured and killed unjustly rather than using his power to defeat His enemies?

The strength of God’s people has never been found in their weapons. The strength of God’s people is found in their faithful obedience to God.

Can A Christian Seek Political Office?

This question is important. It must be carefully considered in light of several scriptural principles before we can determine if we, in good conscience, can faithfully serve Christ while seeking political office. If, after examining everything the Bible has to say about a Christian’s relationship to the world and to its governments, a Christian can still in good conscience, seek political office without compromising their commitment to Christ, then yes, a Christian may seek political office.

To ask such a question does carry certain risks. There is little doubt in my mind that rulers with godly values are better than rulers with wicked values. Political power requires popular support. To even raise questions Christian involvement in politics increases the risk of having wicked rulers in power. This would almost certainly have negative consequences.

Yet even at the risk of hurting the church’s political influence, we must be willing to consider the question. I am convinced the risk we face from wicked earthly rulers is far less dangerous than the risk we face if political involvement causes us to lose both our body and soul in hell (Mt. 10.28). If our devotion to politics is so strong that we can’t even entertain questions raised by our faith, we don’t have a devotion to politics, we have a religious devotion to politics. Jesus is Lord, and we must be willing to examine every aspect of our lives in light of that fact: the church, our families, our careers, and even our approach towards politics.

Two Reasons Why The Question Is Important

I believe that one of the reasons that questions of Christian political involvement are often overlooked is because two important Biblical themes are likewise overlooked or ignored. When we consider that the political realm is under demonic control, and the kingdoms of this world are in conflict with the kingdom of God, it should cause us to view politics in a much darker light. This, in turn, brings questions of Christian political involvement to a higher level of importance than they are typically given.

  1. The political realm is under demonic control

Biblically speaking, Satan is the “ruler of this world” (Jn. 12.31; 16.11). Paul describes Satan as the “god of this world” (2 Cor. 4.1-4) and the “prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2.1-2). Paul understood that the non-Christian world was part of Satan’s “domain of darkness” (Col. 1.13). Satan’s influence is especially powerful in the political realm. The kingdoms of this world have been handed over to him, and he has the ability to offer those kingdoms to individuals to tempt them away from worshiping God (Lk. 4.5-8).

Yes, Satan is an unlawful ruler, with limited and temporary power. Yes, the Bible teaches that God can ordain even wicked rulers as His ministers and therefore they do not bear the sword in vain. But Satan’s power and influence is real. Due to misunderstandings of passages such as Luke 20.25 and Romans 13.1-4, many Christians remain ignorant of Satan’s rule and influence over worldly governments. Those who are ignorant of his power are the most susceptible to his influence.

See also: “The “God” of the World”

  1. The kingdoms of this world are in conflict with the kingdom of God

The kingdoms of this world were established by God as a result of the fall of man, and God’s kingdom was established for the purpose of confronting and ultimately destroying these kingdoms (Dan. 2.44; 1 Cor. 15.24-26). Throughout the Old Testament, God continually shows himself superior of the pagan rulers and authorities. The prophets continually showed God as more powerful than these political powers and promised to deliver His people from them. Jesus showed himself to be the fulfillment of the law and the prophets by announcing a “kingdom” to a world where Caesar thought of himself as the only “Lord” and “Savior.” In reflecting on the resurrection and reign of Jesus, Paul understood that the kingdoms of this world are among the enemies of the Kingdom of God (1 Cor. 15.24-26).

See also: “Kingdoms in Conflict: An Important, Yet Overlooked Theme in the Bible

The Importance of Wrestling With What Scripture Teaches

While it is true that there is no explicit command which forbids Christians from seeking political office, we must not ignore all that Scripture does say that could impact the question. There is likewise no explicit command which forbids Christians from owning a Casino, but we all understand that such a career would be wrong because it would obviously violate so many Biblical principles. We must not look to the absence of an explicit command as permission to ignore or disagree with what the Bible does teach on the subject.

If seeking political office causes one to compromise our commitment to Christ and to His kingdom, then no, that Christian may not seek political office.

It may be wrong to seek or obtain political office if:

  • It tempts someone to love their enemies less (Mt. 5.38-48)
  • It tempts one to have their heart focused on earthly things instead of heavenly things (Mt. 6.19-21)
  • The office requires one to act as a judge over those outside the church (Mt. 7.1-5; 1 Cor. 5.12)
  • It causes a Christian to “lord over” others like the gentiles did (Mt. 20.25-28)
  • It causes one to fail to render to God what is rightfully His (Mt. 22.15-22)
  • The office requires one to do harm to enemies if necessary rather than doing good to them (Lk. 6.27)
  • It causes a Christian to lose their distinction from the world (Jn. 15.18-19)
  • It leads one to fight like the world fights(Jn. 18.36-37)
  • It requires one to take vengeance on evildoers, something that Christians are forbidden from doing (Rom 12.19)
  • The office requires one to resist other earthly rulers (Rom 12.29-13.4)
  • It tempts one to think forget that God can even use their wicked political opponents for good if He so chooses (Rom. 13.4)
  • It causes division between Christians (1 Cor. 1.10)
  • It causes one to be yoked together with unbelievers in a way that gives them influence over them (2 Cor. 6.14-18)
  • The office’s duties include the use of earthly weapons instead of spiritual ones (2 Cor. 10.3-4)
  • It tempts one to treat as enemies those who have flesh and blood (Eph. 6.12)
  • It causes one to feel like earthly authorities have more power and influence than they actually do (Col. 2.15)
  • It distracts one from their Christian fight (2 Tim. 2.3-4)
  • It causes one to lose their distinction as a stranger and exile (1 Pet. 2.11-12)
  • One is motivated to do so out of the intimidation of wicked rulers (1 Pet. 3.13-17)
  • It keeps one from separating from Babylonian-like powers (Rev. 18.4)

Satan’s influence over the political realm is real. Earthly kingdoms are among God’s enemies who are destined to be destroyed (1 Cor. 15.24-25). No Christian should ever offer any service to their government that would cause them to compromise their commitment to Christ (Acts 5.29).

Being “Christian” means “Christ-like”. Even though Jesus did oppose ungodliness in His culture, Jesus never showed the slightest interest in politics, and resisted the temptation of earthly political power when it was offered to Him (Lk. 4.5-8).

Can it be wrong for a Christian to seek political office? It absolutely can be.

The Importance of Respecting Biblical Silence

In spite of all these principles which must be considered, I find it significant that no Biblical author ever sets forth a rule that forbids Christians from seeking political office. While it is true that Jesus never sought to use political means, neither did Jesus establish a law against it. We also have the example of men such as Joseph and Daniel, each of which held positions of authority in pagan kingdoms. In the New Testament we read about a Christian named Erastus, who was a city treasurer (Rom. 16.23), as well as saints who were in Caesar’s household (Phil. 4.22). And while scripture is silent about whether Cornelius the centurion or the Philippian jailor continued in their posts after becoming a Christians (Acts 10.1-7; 16.25-40), the Bible doesn’t rule out that possibility.

There are several Christians (myself included), who after meditating on all that the New Testament has to say about a Christian’s relationship to the world and to its governments, will conclude that it is inappropriate for Christians to seek positions of political power. But no matter how much wisdom there may be in such a conclusion, we must remember that there is only one lawgiver, and we are not Him.

Is it possible to consistently love your enemies, if your political position requires that you order the dropping of bombs against them if necessary? Is it possible to enforce even the best intended of laws without becoming a judge of those outside the church? Is it possible to spend years of your life dedicated to politics and to avoid Satan’s influence upon you? I personally don’t see how it can be done. But (and this is very important), no matter how firm one may be in that conviction, we cannot, and we must not, make a rule where God Himself has not spoken.

If another Christian wrestles with all of those same New Testament scriptures, and concludes that they, like Erastus, can faithfully follow Christ and hold political office at the same time, there is nothing in the New Testament that plainly says that seeking a political office is itself a sin.

If we attempt to elevate our personal convictions to the level of scripture, it is not our personal convictions that we have elevated, but rather scripture that we have brought low. If Satan tempts us to turn personal convictions into a rule for others, we have in practice jumped up into the judgment seat of God and proclaimed ourselves to be equal with God.

Can a Christian Seek Political Office?

If, after wrestling with all that the Holy Spirit has to say, a Christian concludes that they can, in good conscience, faithfully follow Christ and execute the demands of the office, then yes, a Christian may seek political office. If we cannot consistently and faithfully follow Christ while seeking political office, it would be wrong to do so.

As Christians, we must remember that hope for our world doesn’t hang on which people get in power. It hangs on Christians using the power God has given us. And this isn’t a power that we release by getting more godly people into positions of political power. It’s a power we release by how we unite together, as God’s kingdom, and show the world God’s love in how we live, in how we share, and how we sacrificially serve the needs of others. And when we, as the church, address the needs of the world, the glory goes to God and not some version of government.

Does Romans 13 Teach That Christians Have Permission to Kill For Their Government?

It is my conviction that since the fourth century AD, the frequent misinterpretation of Romans 13 has done more to harm the reputation of Christianity than perhaps any other misinterpreted scripture.

Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God , an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. – Romans 13.1-4

This scripture is used to support the idea that Christians have a “dual citizenship.” That is, since God set up government, and since they do not bear the sword in vain, Christians have obligations both to God and to the government. These obligations do not conflict with one another since government authorities have different responsibilities than private individuals.

According to this view, when a Christian is acting as an agent of their government, they may bear the sword against their enemies, but when they act as individuals they are to love their enemies. Therefore a Christian may bear the sword against evildoers without sinning if they are doing so as an agent of the government.

This has been the dominant way of understanding Romans 13 ever since the Catholic Church came into political power in the late 4th century. But this is not what Romans 13 actually teaches. In fact, Romans 13 teaches nearly the opposite.

What is Wrong with the “Dual Citizenship” Idea?

Before looking at Romans 13, these three things should cause us to pause before accepting the dual citizenship interpretation.

  1. The way the New Testament describes Jesus

Jesus didn’t have divided loyalties. Rather, Jesus was executed by the Jewish and Roman authorities because they viewed Him as their enemy. Jesus did have lots to say that should impact the way a Christian approaches politics, but Jesus never sought a political office or political reform. Jesus served only one Master.

Also notice the language that the early Christians used to describe Jesus. In the early Roman Empire, the unifying slogan was “Caesar is Lord.” When Christians confessed “Jesus is Lord”, this not only made a statement about Jesus, it also made a statement about Caesar. If Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not.  They didn’t have two sets of loyalties; they had one. This was the primary reason Christians were thrown into prison and persecuted by their government.

  1. What Jesus taught about love for enemies

Jesus’ teachings about love for enemies rule out any possibility of allowing that love to be qualified by anyone or anything.

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. – Matthew 5.43-45

Christians are to love the way the Father loves, and the Father doesn’t pick and choose who He is going to send rain and sunshine to. Just as the Father has no exception clause when it comes to His love for enemies, likewise Jesus offered no exception clause for Christians when they love their enemies.

This rules out any possibility of Christians saying “I’m going to love this kind of enemy, but not that kind of enemy”, or “I’m going to love my enemies in these circumstances, but not in those circumstances.”  The command has nothing to do with the nature of our enemies or our circumstances.

This undermines the idea Christians must do good to their enemies, unless they are acting in the political realm, in which case they are allowed to bear the sword against them. Unqualified, enemy-love, is the identifying mark of those who are sons of their Father. As soon as we look for a time when it is “okay” to not love our enemies, we have ceased to love the way our Father loves.

  1. What Jesus taught about resisting evil

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other to him also. – Matthew 5.38-39

When Jesus said “Do not resist an evil person,” He didn’t mean Christians are to be passive and do nothing in response to evil.  The Greek word translated “resist” specifically refers to violent resistance. It means that Christians aren’t to respond with an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a bullet for a bullet, or a bomb for a bomb. Christians can and should resist evil by getting involved and even laying down their lives if necessary, but they aren’t to respond to violence with violence.

Just retaliation was the principle upon which all the Old Testament scriptures about punishing violence were founded (Ex. 21.24), and it is likewise the principle of justice that underlies our modern social system. Jesus said, “You have heard” that principle of justice, and then immediately instructs his followers not to follow that principle. Disciples of Jesus cannot use the principle of justice to justify violence against enemies.

Supporters of the “dual citizenship” idea sometimes look to the Old Testament to defend their position. Jesus recognized that the Old Testament commanded just retaliation. But Jesus commanded His followers not to follow that principle, but rather to love the way the Father loves.

Does Romans 13 Make An Exception?

Romans 13 is often used to make two closely related points. 1) While God doesn’t approve of private retaliation, He does approve of governments when they bear the sword. 2) Therefore, when Christians bear the sword against evildoers as agents of the government, they are not sinning.

Next time you hear Romans 13 used in this way, consider these three points.

  1. “Institutes” does not mean “approved”

The Greek word translated as “institutes” is “Tasso”. Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance defines Tasso as “to arrange in an orderly manner.” Thayer’s Lexicon defines it as “To place in a certain order, to arrange, to assign a place, to appoint.” “Tasso” cannot be translated as “created” or “approves of”.

When a librarian arranges books, it doesn’t matter whether the librarian likes a book or despises a book. To arrange those books in a certain order doesn’t infer that the librarian approves of what is written in those books.

Romans 13 builds on the Old Testament teachings about how God uses pagan governments to accomplish His will. God used nations such as the Assyrians and Babylonians as His ministers, but continually made it clear that He did not approve of the violence of those nations.

Romans 13 doesn’t teach that God “approves” of governments. Rather it teaches that God takes them as they are, whether good or evil, and arranges them in a way which serves His purposes. God arranges them to avenge the one who practices evil for the good of His children. Therefore governments do not bear the sword in vain.

  1. Not bearing the sword in vain is not the same as “not sinning”

In this context, when Paul writes that governments “do not bear the sword in vain”, this means that when governments wield the sword of violence, God arranges them to ensure that their violence is not without purpose.

God can make all things work together for the good of those who are called according to His purpose (Rom. 8.28). In the context of Romans 8, this includes persecution, distress, famine, nakedness, peril, and sword. No one would argue that persecution “is good” or “has God’s approval”, but God can use horrible things to work together for the good of His children. They are not in vain.

In the same way, governments do not bear the sword in vain. But there is not one word in Romans 13 that can be used to suggest that Christians have permission to bear the sword against their enemies without sinning.

  1. Context, Context, Context

If we read Romans 13 in context we can see that Paul is actually teaching something opposite of the “dual citizenship” idea.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse… Never pay back evil for evil to anyoneNever take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. – Romans 12: 14, 17, 19-21

Like Jesus, Paul offers no qualifications to enemy-love. We are to love all of our enemies, all the time, without exception. Christians are to leave all vengeance to God. This is the same Greek word (ekdikeos) used in Romans 13.4 to describe what God uses governments to accomplish.

Never take your own revenge (ekdikeo), beloved. – Romans 12.19a

Why? Because…

Vengeance (ekdikos) is mine”… says the Lord.” – Romans 12.19b

How does God execute vengeance on our enemies?

[Government] is a minister of God, an avenger (ekdikos) who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. – Romans 13.4

God uses governments to do the very thing He forbids Christians from doing. Christians are never to execute vengeance. We aren’t allowed to do that.

Conclusion

Romans 13 must not be used to encourage Christians to bear the sword for their government against evildoers. First of all Romans 13 does not teach God’s approval of governments when they bear the sword. And even more importantly, no Christian should ever offer any service to their government that would cause them to compromise their commitment to Christ. As Christians, we have sworn off all vengeance against our enemies. Vengeance belongs to God, and God uses governments to bring it about.

Christians do not have dual citizenship with dual allegiances and dual sets of responsibilities. Yes, in a legal sense, we do have citizenship in an earthly country. But when it comes to our allegiance, we are to proclaim that Jesus is Lord (and Caesar is not).

Come Out of Her My People… But Who Is She?

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.