Eschatology is Geopolitical
Updated: 2 days ago
Pietistic and quietistic eschatologies wrongly assume that the Bible is an apolitical book. Daniel and Revelation say otherwise.
In previous columns in this series, I’ve argued that educated Christians are wrong to ignore eschatology. I’ve also argued the statements of Jesus, John, and Paul contradict the “pre-tribulation rapture” popularized by John Nelson Darby in the 19th century.
But the most important target of this series is not Darbyism. I’ll now address the eschatological views that are most popular among educated Christians today. Unfortunately, when educated believers do adopt eschatological views, these views tend to be incredibly abstract and pointedly apolitical. I will argue that these interpretations—no less than, say, Darbyist interpretations focused on America—would have been foreign to the original audiences of Daniel and Revelation.
It is not hard to see why some modern Christians might think that eschatology is a matter of inner spirituality with no geopolitical implications. Proponents of this claim seem to feel that it is somehow irreverent, or a lowering of the Bible’s status, to read eschatology in a geopolitical way. The theologian David Chilton, for example, defended his esoteric reading of certain passages in Revelation by pronouncing that “Revelation is not a book about politics: it is a book about Covenant.”
This statement is very pious-sounding, but what does it really mean? Would a first-century Christian—especially a Jewish Christian—have expected the Covenant to be apolitical?
Douglas Wilson, who shares some influences with Chilton, speaks in roughly the same way in his commentary on Revelation. Commenting on Revelation 18:11-24—a list of goods traded in the Great City of Revelation 17-19—Wilson dismisses those who read these verses as economic in nature. It is self-evident, Wilson suggests, that John is not “saying something about the GDP” of the Great City. But why, in principle, could John not comment on monetary matters in a prophecy? As Wilson himself notes, the “passage from Revelation 18 consists largely of lists of inventories of luxury items.” The passage in question also does not reference astrological disasters, great beasts, or other typically-figurative apocalyptic motifs. Instead, it describes merchants lamenting the fall of a world empire and a consequent decline in global trade. Is it so implausible that an economic-sounding prophecy would have a robust economic meaning?
NT Wright proceeds in a similar way in his own commentary, dismissing—almost out of hand—the idea that the military language in Revelation refers to real military battles. Wright even laments that there are “sadly” some who have thought otherwise. From Wright's perspective, thinking that Revelation’s military battles are real would be as bad as supposing that “the monster that comes up from the sea is an actual physical creature with the head, horns and so on.” Wright stacks other conclusions on top of his claim, writing that “[if] the military imagery is just that, imagery, so of course is the picture [in Revelation 19] of the birds swooping in, like so many vultures, to gorge themselves on the flesh of those who follow the monster.”
The assumption of all these commentators seems to be that, if we see some practical geopolitical meaning in eschatological prophecies, this obvious sullies the Bible. For these modern commentators, it is an axiom of eschatology that it must be about inner piety, insulated from the affairs of the world.
Although this principle is sometimes associated with the term “amillenialism,” I find that this label is often unhelpful, as it seems to lack a consistent definition in discussions about eschatology. The term "amillenialism" has also been applied to some interpretations which are heavily geopolitical. Accordingly, I will use the term “pietism” to refer to the principle that eschatology is strictly or broadly non-geopolitical.
Eschatology is most naturally read as addressing politics.
A common sense reading of eschatological prophecies, on their own terms, does not lend itself to pietism. The narrative of Revelation 17-20 is full of geopolitical language. It describes the fall of a city that sits on “many waters,” and which rules over “peoples and multitudes and nations and languages.” This imperial power is called “the great city that has dominion over the kings of the earth.” When the city burns, all the sea merchants cry out “What city was like the great city?”
There is no hint that this city is an invisible spiritual entity, or that it will suffer an invisible spiritual collapse. Revelation describes a public, smoking cataclysm that will change the world political and economic order. The lamentations of sea merchants are an odd detail to include if Revelation is only describing some sort of invisible battle of spirits.
Like Daniel, Revelation includes both symbols and angelic commentary. This is important—for it is the angels’ explanations, not just the symbols themselves, that are geopolitical. In Revelation 17:18, for instance, an angel states: “the woman that you saw is the great city that has dominion over the kings of the Earth.” The Great Prostitute is figurative, but she represents a real geopolitical entity.
To make all these events primarily spiritual would mean the content of Revelation is hidden beneath multiple layers of figurative language. For those who take the pietistic view, the symbols in Revelation are figurative, and the literal interpretations of those symbols are also figurative. There is no way to interpret Revelation this way without front-loading our reading with a heavy presumption of pietism that is alien to the text itself.
We should expect eschatology to be geopolitical.
If pietism is imported into Revelation and Daniel from elsewhere, where does it come from? The idea that religion must be insulated from worldly affairs would certainly be at home in some non-Christian theologies, like Gnosticism or the worldview of the Bhagavad Gita. Likewise, in the post-Enlightenment West, it is common to think that religion must be confined to the private sphere, a view that certainly lends itself to pietism. Yet it is hard to see how anyone, approaching the Bible on its own terms, would get pietism from scripture.
The Bible is a geopolitical book. Kings and Chronicles, among other texts, are woven throughout with stories of court intrigue and of rising and falling world empires. Likewise, much of the book of Acts is a legal drama in which Paul must assert his legal rights—as in Acts 22—and navigate factional politics—as in Acts 23. Luke, who wrote his Gospel and Acts as a single book, evidently did not think that the Gospel of Jesus Christ was sullied by the inclusion of legal and political narratives in his work.
What of prophecy in particular? In previous columns, I have argued that it is the norm for prophecies to speak to concrete and public events. For example, I earlier discussed Isaiah’s extremely specific prophecies about the geopolitical actions of Cyrus in Isaiah 44-45. We can go even further with eschatology, however. Ironically, if there is a single subgenre of prophecy that is the most political, it is eschatology.
One of the Bible’s other primary texts on eschatology, Daniel 2, is thoroughly geopolitical. In Daniel 2, Daniel interprets a dream in which Nebuchadnezzar sees a statue made up of four components. A stone then miraculously appears, smashes the idol into pieces, and then grows into a great mountain. Daniel interprets the four sections of this statue as a series of “kingdoms,” which succeed one another in turn. He explains directly that the first kingdom is the empire of Nebuchadnezzar, or the Babylonian Empire. In Daniel 2:44, Daniel concludes that “the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed… it shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever.”
This identification of the first kingdom with the Babylonian Empire tells us two important things about the scope of Nebuchadnezzar's dream. First, the four kingdoms in the dream are real geopolitical powers, not abstract demonic forces. Secondly, the events that Daniel is describing are not vague, spiritual occurrences that happen beyond our everyday experience. Babylon did not merely spiritually collapse: it was physically and violently overthrown by Cyrus.
Intuitively, the next three empires are the Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman Empires. This was the understanding of a number of ancient thinkers including Josephus,  Hippolytus, Jerome, and Theodoret of Cyr. Like the Babylonian Empire, these later three empires each suffered a cataclysmic geopolitical dissolution, not just a spiritual collapse.
Another primary biblical text on eschatology, Daniel 7, is also geopolitical. This chapter describes dominion being given to a series of four beasts. The angelic commentary plainly explains that the four beasts represent “kingdoms.” These beasts parallel the statue components in Daniel 2 and are traditionally thought to represent the four world empires listed above: the Babylonian, Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman empires. Jerome, in fact, calls this “the traditional interpretation of all the commentators of the Christian church.”
Revelation tells us that it is addressing the same narrative as Daniel.
Daniel 7 poses a particular problem for pietists, as the language of Revelation 20:11-15 stands in awe-inspiring parallel with Daniel 7:9-11. John’s audience would have been intimately familiar with Daniel, and these parallels would have signaled to them that Revelation 20 is discussing the same events that Daniel did. It follows that, if Daniel 7 is geopolitical, Revelation 19-20 is also geopolitical.
Let’s consider some of these parallels. Daniel 7 describes the Ancient of Days taking “his seat,” “books” of judgment being opened, and a beast being “given over to be burned with fire.” Revelation 20 describes a figure—apparently the Father—seated on a great white throne, “books” of judgment being opened, and Death and Hades being thrown into a lake of fire.
Revelation’s symmetry with Daniel shines even more gloriously when we consider Daniel 2. Daniel 2:44-45 powerfully emphasizes that the political destruction of the fourth empire is pointedly followed by a period of dominion by the saints. This dominion is an affirmative negation of the sequence of world empires: the saints’ kingdom “shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever.” In the same way, Revelation 20 states that, after the Great City in Revelation 17-19 is destroyed, the saints will be given dominion: the martyrs “came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.”
This means that the narratives of Daniel and Revelation stand in parallel, and together illuminate the same sequence of events: four world empires succeed one another in turn. The fourth empire, the Great City, shocks the world with its fall—a fall that is, in some way, tied up with the activity of the saints. The fall of the Great City is followed by a millennial period—of the dominion of the saints—which is a negation of imperial rule. At some point after this period ends, the Last Resurrection and the Last Judgment occurs.
Daniel 2:44-45, especially, leaves the pietist with no way to separate the two narratives of Daniel and Revelation. In both Daniel 2:44-45 and Revelation 17-20, the dominion of the saints follows the collapse of a final empire. These are inescapably the same occurrence, and the two books therefore relay the same drama. In addition to the directly political language of Revelation, then, the political narrative in Daniel disconfirms pietism: Revelation is political.
What if pietists acknowledge that there is some geopolitical content in Daniel 2 and 7, but want to maintain that Revelation 17-20 describes nonphysical heavenly events? In this case, the continuity of Daniel is destroyed.
The Babylonian Empire and its collapse were clearly physical. How is it that, by the time we reach the collapse of the Fourth Empire, and the establishment of God’s kingdom in Daniel 2:44, we are in purely spiritual and nonphysical territory? This would simply be ad hoc abstraction in the service of pietistic goals.
There are important apologetic reasons to understand that eschatology contains geopolitical specifics.
NT Wright downplays efforts to identify the Great City by saying that doing so would provide little spiritual consolation to Christians. “Empires come and empires go; it is cold comfort to be told that this or that great system will… be replaced by another which may be still worse.”
One problem with this argument is that prophecies have independent apologetic significance. As noted in an earlier column, the Deuteronomic test of a prophet’s authenticity is whether his prophecies are fulfilled: “when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the Lord has not spoken… You need not be afraid of him.” Likewise, fulfilled prophecies are demonstrations of God’s providence. Josephus put this well in his commentary on Daniel:
Insomuch that such as read [Daniel's] prophecies, and see how they have been fulfilled, may justly wonder at the honor wherewith God honored Daniel; and may thence discover how the Epicureans are in error, who cast Providence out of human life… So that by the aforementioned predictions of Daniel those men seem to err from the truth, who determine that God exercises no providence over human affairs. For if that were the case, that the world went on by mechanical necessity, we should not see that all things would come to pass according to his prophecy.
Moreover, Daniel—unlike Wright—seems to care a great deal about specific identification. In Daniel 2, we are directly told that the first of the four empires is Babylon. In Daniel 7, Daniel “desired to know the truth about the fourth beast” and is given more information about its identity. In the distinct but related prophecy of Daniel 8, Gabriel says to Daniel: “As for the ram that you saw with the two horns, these are the kings of Media and Persia. And the goat is the king of Greece.” The concerns of Daniel and John are simply very different from those of pietists like Wright.
Contrary to quietism, the church is an actor in eschatology.
Pietism is also associated with a separate conviction that might be called “quietism.” In general, quietists assert that the church does not have any active political role in eschatological events. Instead, the quietistic church essentially watches meekly and prays as God unilaterally instantiates the prophetic narrative. Rather than participating in the drama, the church observes the drama of eschatology as if projected on a screen.
Of the contemporary commentators we’ve discussed, Wright is the most emphatically quietistic. In his commentary on Revelation, for example, Wright insists “Nor will the vengeance be brought about through the agency of God’s people: vengeance is too dangerous a weapon to be handled by the followers of the lamb.” 
Before responding to Wright’s downplaying “the agency of God’s people,” it is important to interrogate Wright’s use of the word “vengeance” to characterize what is happening in Revelation. By characterizing combat with evil as “vengeance”—a word that is not actually used in Revelation—Wright invokes Romans 12 to front-load the eschatology debate in favor of quietism. Yet Romans 12 does not prohibit combat with evil: it prohibits “avenge[ing] yourself.” If Daniel and Revelation are about liberating other people from systems of oppression, then the problem Wright struggles with does not arise. God’s people have an affirmative duty to “break every yoke,” or system of oppression, as Isaiah 58:6 says. In fact, the whole point of Isaiah 58 is that believers are not simply to piously fast in their own homes, but to act in the world. Confronting evil in the service of others also involves self-sacrificially placing oneself in harm's way. In contrast, cowardice in the face of evil, in the vein of Judges 19, is the height of selfishness. Revelation 21 lists “the cowardly” first among those who “will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur.”
It should be no surprise, then, that eschatological passages portray God’s people as agents—not shrinking observers—in God’s cosmic drama. Consider Daniel 2:44. After describing a stone smashing the statue and becoming a mountain, recall that Daniel concludes this way: “the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed… it shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever." Note especially Daniel's use of the words “it shall.” Daniel does not say that God will dismantle these kingdoms while God's people pray silently. Instead, it is God's kingdom itself that "shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end."
Revelation continues in the same manner. Thus, Revelation 18:6: “Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues… Pay her back as she herself has paid back others, and repay her double for her deeds.” Likewise, Jesus says in Revelation 2:26: “The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received authority from my Father.” The context of Revelation 2 makes it clear that “the one who conquers” here is not the Holy Spirit, but a faithful member of the church. Jesus’ promise of a “rod of iron” brings to mind Psalm 149, in which the Psalmist calls for a climactic triumph over the nations by “all [the Lord’s] godly ones.”
Quietism is further squelched when we adopt the traditional identification of the four world empires, a subject we will discuss in greater detail in the future. The biblical and historical record shows that, in fact, God’s people had an affirmative role in challenging these powers.
Under Persia, the reestablishment of Judea was not accomplished through patience alone, but through political advocacy in the Persian court at Susa, as in Nehemiah 1-2, and sometimes through openly defying unjust laws, as in Ezra 4-5. Under the Seleucids, the Judeans militarily overthrew the cosmopolitan cultural hegemony of Antiochus IV—an event foretold and sanctioned by the conclusion of Daniel 8. Finally, the Christian church played an active role in breaking apart the Roman system of oppression—a role epitomized at the Battle of the Frigidus.
The Battle of the Frigidus represents the triumph of the church over a secular empire.
If the church today had a reasonable grounding in its own history, the Battle of the Frigidus would be well-known among Christians. In 394 AD, much of the aristocracy of Rome was still pagan. The Western imperial usurper Eugenius—though nominally a Christian himself—sought to marshal their support for his cause. To that end, he restored the pagan Altar of Victory in Rome and financed the reopening of pagan temples. The Eastern Emperor Theodosius, by then a serious Christian under the influence of the church father Ambrose of Milan, marched against him.
Although Eugenius seemed primed to win the battle, Theodosius prayed fervently for victory. His prayers were answered at the Frigidus, in modern-day Slovenia, when a ferocious wind bore down on the Western troops throughout the battle. The Christian victory at the Frigidus—achieved through the active co-participation of Christians in God’s plan—decisively snuffed out the pagan imperium and put the church on a secure footing for the next thousand years.
In a Sermon on Psalm 36, Ambrose himself addressed the battle at length, making three important comments that contravene quietism. First, Ambrose said that Theodosius had acted as an “innocent prince who trusted in the Lord.” In other words, Theodosius’ use of armed force did not mean that he lacked trust in God: it meant that God’s people are active agents of God’s will.
Secondly, Ambrose referred to the Christian Roman forces in the battle as “God’s holy people.” Ambrose did not ascribe to a post-Enlightenment separation between the church and state: the Eastern forces were acting primarily as members of the church.
Thirdly, Ambrose directly ascribed Theodosius’ victory to God’s miraculous intervention: “[the Westerners] could not sustain the attack made upon them by the winds… Their hearts failed them, for they knew that God was fighting against them.” God therefore takes an active interest in the church’s participation in geopolitics and intercedes on the church’s behalf. Ambrose also did not consign geopolitics to the Old Testament, giving Judea an active role but the Christian church a quietistic one. On the contrary, Christians will wield a “rod of iron” against injustice with God’s aid.
The battles in Revelation are more than imagery.
What of Wright’s argument that, if we see genuine combat in Revelation, this is like thinking that “the monster that comes up from the sea is an actual physical creature”? Of course, if we think Revelation is describing the same narrative as Daniel, we would expect an apocalyptic beast to be a symbol. But we we would expect it to be a symbol for hard political reality.
Curiously, neither Wright's nor Douglas Wilson’s commentary addresses the parallel between Revelation 20:8-9 and Daniel 7:9-11, or otherwise integrates Daniel with Revelation 17-22. Given the thoroughly geopolitical nature of Daniel, it may be that a committed pietist has little choice but to downplay Daniel when reading Revelation.
More importantly, Revelation itself states that its symbols represent geopolitical forces: “the woman that you saw is the great city that has dominion over the kings of the Earth,” and she is seated on “many waters” which “are peoples and multitudes and nations and languages.” In human history, the dissolution of real geopolitical forces involve real battles. The breakdown of the Babylonian Empire certainly involved battles. In fact, the Bible prefigured those battles in striking detail.
The angel’s call to “all the birds that fly directly overhead” is yet another sign that real-world politics are being discussed. The Bible frequently expresses God’s condemnation of specific, unjust rulers with prophecies announcing that they shall be eaten by the birds of the heavens and by the dogs of the fields. This happens with the House of Jeroboam, the House of Baasha, and the House of Omri. Famously, the Omride queen Jezebel was literally eaten by dogs after Elijah and Elisha ordained a literal revolution against her.
The Millennium is a physical and public event.
In Revelation 20, an event occurs which has given its name to much of the debate surrounding eschatology: "the Millennium." After the destruction of the Great City, John tells us, the Resurrection of the Martyrs will occur, beginning a thousand-year reign of the saints. During this time, Satan is said to be imprisoned in a pit, “so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while.” When Satan is released, after the Millennium, he will rule “the nations that are at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle” against the saints.
The Millennium is often accused of being overblown in theology because it is discussed in “only four verses”—Revelation 20:2-5—but this is not true. If Revelation and Daniel are read together, then it is clear that the Millennium is also being discussed in Daniel 2:44-45 and Daniel 7:22. We will not undertake a comprehensive discussion of the Millennium here. For now, suffice it to say that there are two broad camps when it comes to understanding the Millennium.
One camp, while encompassing a range of different views, is united in agreeing that the Millennium is a public event, set sequentially within the narrative of Revelation 17-22, with a beginning and end. We can place most historic Christian thinkers in this camp, including Irenaeus, Victorinus, Caesarius of Arles,  Andrew of Caesaria, Bede, and Hildegard. I am not necessarily talking here about the view that the millennial period is a literal thousand years, or even to the broader view known as “chiliasm”—although some of these thinkers were chiliasts—but merely to the bare proposition that the Millennium is a distinct public event in a sequence of other events.
In contrast, pietists understand the Millennium in a more idealistic sense. Pietists spiritualize the Millennium, deny that it is one sequential event among others, and cast it as broadly invisible or heavenly. Historically, something like this view was espoused by Oecumenius—a non-patristic Greek commentator, who Andrew of Caesaria wrote his own commentary in order to refute—and by a Latin author named Apringius of Beja. This is also the most popular view among respectable contemporary commentators like Wright.  In defense of the pietistic view, Wright explains: “It appears at first sight very difficult to see this millennium as ‘the age of the church.’ Nobody aware of church history would suppose that there has been no satanic attack, no deceiving of the nations (or of the church itself) during that time.”
This is a curious objection. Wright is, after all, only too willing to recognize much of the language of Revelation—such as the battle scenes—as figurative. Why think that Satan is “at first sight” literally, and not figuratively, locked in a pit?
The key to understanding the Millennium is provided by the framework of Daniel. In prophecy, as we have seen, it is the geopolitical dimensions of the narrative that are the most literal. Consider, then, what happens before and following the Millennium. The Millennium begins after the collapse of the Great City, which rules the nations of the earth. After its conclusion, Satan takes command of the nations “at the four corners of the earth.” When John says that Satan cannot “deceive the nations,” his meaning is most likely not that Satan is locked in a physical pit, but that the sequence of world empires has been interrupted.
The core essence of the Millennium, then, consists of the following elements. First, it will chronologically follow the defeat or dissolution of the fourth empire, which is the Great City. Secondly, because Satan cannot deceive the nations, there will be a long period where the series of world empires will end, and no new world empire will arise. Thirdly, this period will be characterized by the geopolitical dominance of the church over the world previously ruled by the preceding four empires. The church, however, will dominate the world in a way that is a negation of this sequence of empires. We will further discuss the implications of the Millennium in the future. But, of course, we do not reach any of these questions if we read eschatology through the lens of pietism.
Pietism seems to be supported by little more than the modern sense, likely derived from the Enlightenment, that it is somehow icky or cheap for a religious text to speak to questions of geopolitics. Yet there is no biblical reason to begin our exegesis with this premise. “For from him and through him and to him are all things,” including questions of politics.
Christians should not force the Bible to accommodate itself to Rousseauian Western conceptions about the separation of religion from public life. These ideas have no foundation in either classical or medieval Christian thought, and they are certainly not native to Judaism. In rediscovering eschatology, we must strive to do so from the perspective of the original audience of Daniel and Revelation. It is only by doing so that we can discover the full theological significance of biblical prophecy and understand how it orients the mission of the church and the ethic of the Christian life.
 That Josephus adopts this interpretation is strongly implied in Antiquities X.X, where he conspicuously avoids relaying the prophecy to his Roman audience—“I do not think it proper to relate it”—despite later boasting that all of Daniel’s prophecies are fulfilled. By reading Daniel, he said, the reader “may thence discover how the Epicureans are in error, who cast Providence out of human life; and do not believe that God takes care of the affairs of the world… by the aforementioned predictions of Daniel those men seem to err from the truth, who determine that God exercises no providence over human affairs. For if that were the case, that the world went on by mechanical necessity, we should not see that all things would come to pass according to his prophecy.”  Commentators who wish to paint the Jesus of Revelation as essentially docile make much of His identification as the Lamb in Revelation. Rather than simply seeing the Lamb as a prototypical sacrificial animal and thus a symbol of the crucifixion, they claim that Jesus is being squarely identified with the personality of a lamb. This is obviously in tension with the descriptions of Jesus in Revelation 1 and Revelation 19, not to mention the Incarnate Jesus’ boldness and physical courage. But, more pertinently, the Lamb of Revelation is not docile: it is awesome and terrifying. In Revelation 5, the Lamb has seven eyes and seven horns representing “seven spirits of God.” Revelation 14:10 says that “If anyone worships the beast… he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the Lamb.” Pacifists imagine that, when Jesus is called the “Lion of Judah” in Revelation 5 before the Lamb appears, John is being subtly rebuked for expecting to see a lion. The deep irony is that, if a real lion had appeared in Revelation 5, this would have been far less frightening than what John actually saw.  Caesarius of Arles, however, was a quietist. Amusingly, when discussing the fire that consumes the army of Satan, Caesarius speculates that perhaps this only means “they will believe in Christ through the fire of the Holy Spirit, and they will be spiritually consumed by the church.”