What’s so bad about religion? Why would God so fully detest a form of Christianity that He would call it a whore, a drunk, and a wrathful brawler? Why would God rejoice over its demise? At first blush, God might sound angry and vindictive.
The Bible’s last lament is the solemn pronouncement over Babylon: “Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great!” (Revelation 18:2, NASB). This lament echoes the prophets of past ages whose mission was liberating those traumatized by empires (Isaiah 48:20; Jeremiah 50:4,6). In Revelation 18, the world becomes illuminated by a light from heaven, which not only exposes the failing of human empire and false religion but also indicates their impending end. God describes His indictment against Babylon: “She has become a dwelling place of demons and a prison of every unclean spirit, and a prison of every unclean and hateful bird” (Revelation 18:2, NASB). Some scholars say that this prison (phulaké) should not be understood as a place of incarceration but rather as a “home base” where hateful birds stand guard for the demonic. One could say that fallen Christianity is depicted as becoming the place where demons come home to roost.
Who is Babylon? Some say this iconic Babylon represents Rome. Others say she’s imperialism, but the meaning of Babylon may not be that elusive. If we listen to Revelation, Babylon emerges as a symbol of human empires that have risen and crumbled—all institutions that organize religiously and politically to influence and control mankind—though I think the end time is especially emphasized. Revelation scholar Sigve Tonstad shows how the mechanisms of religion, politics, and even economics cannot be separated from this apocalyptic vision (Revelation, 2019, pp. 261–262).
Babylon is portrayed as an exploitive and oppressive economic system. Commercialism is riddled with envy and greed, driven by an economy that accepts abusive practices. Diminished communities, degraded laborers, ruined livelihoods—all these are due to economic exploitation. Here in the West,we are often blind to the suffering around us because we want to feel comfortable and enriched. In Babylon, we see broken systems of religion that cause economic injustice and political oppression, making a few rich through slavery that makes the bodies of others mere commodities. Christians too are guilty, for Babylon reflects a mainstream Christianity that seeks power above morality. In the end, this Christianity joined by empire will be unmasked, as will the consumers, corporations, and politicians who supported it.
Why? Because these people have traded in falsehoods: “For your merchants were the great men of the earth, for by your sorcery all the nations were deceived” (Revelation 18:23, NKJV). Even in religion, people promote lies about God’s ways, such as being harsh and severe, salvation by works, and eternal torment. Such systems trading in theological falsehood grossly misrepresent who God is. Many have been tricked or held captive by these lies about God. Good men and women have been deceived, surrendering their lives to her pleasures, but the liars will be exposed. As Friar Laurence says in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, “These violent delights have violent ends.”
I think it is incorrect to read the demise of Babylon as God engaging in reckless violence to achieve His aims. The violence is already in Babylon. As the mighty angel cries, “in her was found the blood . . . of all who have been slain on earth” (Revelation 18:24, NKJV). The fate that befalls Babylon is of its own making. It is “exploitative, unsustainable, and doomed by its own inner structure” (Tonstad, Revelation, 2019, p. 254).
The heavenly call beckons us to “come out of her, My people” (Revelation 18:4, NKJV). The angel calls us from Babylon’s spell—from our pride and sense of superiority, our confidence in our power, our self-sufficiency, and our use of violence. Don’t let Babylon shape your thinking, direct your loyalties, or influence your theology about who God is. Get out, so you don’t collude with her in sin or share her self-ruination. It’s a voice that everyone must hear: “Flee from Babylon! Run for your lives!” (Jeremiah 51:6, NIV). Don’t become intoxicated by her pleasures, deceived by her lies, and thus numb to the true beauty of God’s character as reflected in the matchless charms of His self-renouncing love that promotes the truth about His kingdom. Fix your attention on the self-less Lamb of God!
Craig Ashton Jr.