Wednesday, 21 November 2012


Not long after these letters of St. Paul were written, the career of the Emperor Nero startled the world. Genius, artist, actor, evidently a man of fascinating charm, under the frantic adulation of his court, the omnipotence of money and of absolutism, he quite lost his balance, and became a hideous assassin and a god. In 67, he committed suicide. None could believe him dead. The idea of Nero had penetrated right below the sheaths of the Empire's soul. Tacitus and Suetonius show that he was held, for long, to be still alive. More than one pretender was able, in the east, to maintain his claim to be Nero. Such an one was actually supported for some time by a Parthian general, Artaban. The fact that Nero was, after all, obviously dead, made not the slightest difference. He would rise again, or, at least, the devil himself would take the form of Nero and appear among men. This last suggestion comes, of course, from the Jews, whose apocalypses become full of the idea. On the whole, it was held that he would come from the East, from beyond the Euphrates, and I may add at once that at least a connection between Antichrist and Nero was frequently and early admitted even by Christian writers. It is now easier to approach the next great Christian document, St. John's Apocalypse. In chapter vi., we are told that persecution has already raged and produced its martyrs, but they are to wait for a little longer till their number be made full. In chapter ix., we have the double symbolic vision of an army of evil spirits coming from the abyss, having for chief "the angel of the abyss, whose name in Hebrew was Abaddon, in Greek, Apolluon," the Destroyer, and of the invading army of cavalry from beyond the Euphrates, whom we have reason to regard at least on the immediate and historic plane as the Parthians, of whose onslaught the Empire stood in continual dread. Then, in chapter xi., John sees the sack by the “Beast of the Abyss," of the Holy City, Jerusalem, all but its innermost shrine; even during the worst hours Two Witnesses to God and His Truth come forth and preach, but after a while they too are killed, and the enemies of God congratulate one another and think they have triumphed. But the Witnesses are restored to life, and their foes are discomfited. Their death had lasted for 3 1/2 days, as compared to the 3 1/2 years of the total persecution. (Throughout the Apocalypse, John uses 3 1/2 years, 42 months, or 1260 days, as identical in meaning and as symbolising "persecution-time," on the model set by the persecution of Antiochus Epiphanes, supra, pp. 6, 7.) In the second part of the Apocalypse, which begins in chapter xii., is seen the Great War between Michael and Satan, and the replica of this on earth, that between Satan's representatives and the Church. The War is actually waged there by a Wild Beast who combines in his one self all the characteristics of the various wild beasts, portraying successive empires, mentioned by Daniel. He holds an authority delegated to him by the Dragon, who is Satan, and just as the name of Michael means: Who is like to God? so the Beast's war-cry is, Who is like to the Beast? His power over the Saints of God lasts 3 1/2 years; his mouth speaks "great things and blasphemies"; one of his seven heads is seen "slain unto death," but this death-stroke had been healed. And the world went gaping after him. This Beast had, he too, a lieutenant, a Beast that came not "from the sea," but from the mainland, and was partly like a lamb. His business was to induce the world at large to worship the first Beast, of whom he made an animated Image that spoke, and he worked all sorts of miracles in the name of the first Beast, and on the forehead and right hand of all who worshipped the image he caused to be stamped the number of the Beast, 666, and those who had it not could neither buy nor sell, and they who would not worship were killed. John then sees the triumph of the elect, and the Judgement. Again, in chapter xv., he sees the way opened for the kings from beyond Euphrates, and the dragon, the Beast, and the second Beast; here called the False Prophet, gathered together with their troops from all sides to a final battle, and the ruin of the Great City, Babylon. Again, chapter xvii., he is shown the doom of that city now under the symbol of the World-Wanton, seated on a beast with seven heads and covered with blasphemous names. The Beast, parodying the Eternal God who "Was, and Is, and Shall Come," "was, and is not, but shall come (again)." As for the heads, they are, says John, the Seven Hills of that city where the woman has her throne; but also, seven kings, of whom five have been, one is (now), another is not yet come, but shall rule for a short space, and—the Beast is himself an Eighth, though he is also one of the Seven. Then John sees the ruin of the harlot city; the Beast survives her, only himself ultimately to perish along with his false prophet, and last of all Satan himself is destroyed. There is today, we think, no danger of anyone supposing that the visions of the Apocalypse are meant to represent a series of historical events succeeding one another chronologically. John relates the same thing again and again under different symbols, rather as at least once he uses the same symbol (the Beast's heads) for different things—hills and kings. It is true that in re-relating under a new symbol what he had already told, he has usually altered the focus of his gaze somewhat, and is contemplating truth on a different plane. Thus in the first part of the Apocalypse, he may be said to remain on all but the most general plane of all, and to contemplate great principles rather than historical events, save quite in passing, as when he declares the number of the martyrs to be not yet full, and has, I think, an eye briefly turned towards the group of martyrs slain under Nero, and not yet followed by those to be slain by Domitian. In the double vision of the Angel of the Abyss, and of the Parthians, he certainly has the City and Empire of Rome in his mind, as representative of evil, but goes into no great detail. Under the image of the siege of the Holy City, he tells certainly that for a while the forces of evil seem to defeat Christ's Church, though they do not quite succeed in annihilating it: true, they get rid of the continual witness that infuriates them, but even then the success is only apparent and brief, for the remnant of the Church has new Life given to it, and the triumph of evil is neither complete nor lasting. Here the detail of "persecutionperiod" is introduced. Each vision, it, may be noticed, offers a new detail which fits it in, from a literary point of view, to the next ones, and each becomes more focussed on to actual life than the preceding one was. But hitherto, nothing like an "Antichrist," save in the most vague and general sense, has been mentioned. This is what the second part of the book supplies. We are shown first in a most general symbol the attack of the Dragon upon the Messiah, and the war on His behalf captained by St. Michael. Then the scene is shifted to the earth, and the Dragon's Viceroy, the Beast from the Sea, and that Beast's own delegate, the Beast from the land, are seen persecuting the Church. There is no doubt about the first Beast. It is the persecuting Roman Empire. And to my mind there is no doubt, or very little, about the second Beast. It is, immediately, proconsular power in Asia that “played up" to the Emperor; saw to the exhibiting everywhere of his images, and worked, quite possibly, imitation miracles and even ventriloquial effects in connection with them. Unless a man did acts of divine homage to the Emperor in the person, so to say, of his image, he was boycotted and cast out of social life, and in course of time persecuted to death. Does John fix his eye, here, on any particular Emperor? He seems to do so when he says that the Beast has a "number," which is "that of a man," namely, 666. In Hebrew and in Greek, numbers were represented by letters—1 by a, and so forth. Into whatever number the letters of a man's name added up, that was his number. This game, for so it almost was, occurs very often in the Sibylline Oracles among apocalyptic books, but also in quite ordinary life it was common. Now in Or. Sib. i. 324-33 If the name of Jesus is given as 888; and it is thought at least possible that the number of Antichrist was 666. Anyhow, the words Nero Cesar in Hebrew give the total 666, and in Greek, 616, which is a variant reading of 666, as St. Irenaeus testifies, in the Apocalypse. Now by the further "game" called isopsephia, or "equal reckoning," if the number of a man's name could be shown as identical with that of a word expressing a quality, etc., that man would be said to have that quality. So if the name Nero Cesar added up into 666, and also the number of Antichrist was 666, it would follow that Nero was Antichrist, and, indeed, as such he was often to be exhibited to the reprobation of future generations. There are difficulties that beset every single explanation of this subject; but the above seems at present far the most probable, and is reinforced by what St. John says when he describes the Harlot. There the Beast is represented as the Empire, or at least the Imperial Force or spirit supporting the City of Rome.: it had parodied the Lamb, the Son of God, who had been slain and risen again, by itself suffering apparent defeat and returning to life, as indeed the Empire may be said to have done after the collapse which seemed total after the death of Nero, and the revival that followed in the persons of the Flavian Emperors. But in particular John tells of the seven heads of the Beast as being seven kings, of whom five had already ruled; a sixth was actually on the throne, a seventh was come, but should have but a brief reign; and then the Beast himself should be, says John, an eighth, and yet be one of the seven. Those who have the patience to look up the book, Princes of His People, II, which I have several times mentioned, will find reasons that allow of our safely saying that the kings, calculating from the Emperor Augustus, bring us to Domitian for the eighth in their series: now Domitian was everywhere nicknamed the Resurrected Nero, and was really thought to be, by some, a reincarnation of that Emperor, so savage was his policy. In him, the whole spirit, then, of the Empire, seemed once more to be that of Nero, so that in myth and in fact he was, or acted as, not only "the eighth," but as one of the seven, i.e. Nero. All the same, it is noticeable that John cannot shut up his thought into the person of one Emperor or even period, or of one Empire; for the Beast survives the city Rome and is not conquered till the end of time. John does no more than see Nero (who certainly is in his mind) and Domitian (who perhaps is) as types of a policy—examples of persecution proper to pagan Rome. His eye is on this plane far more occupied with the whole series of Emperors and the whole persecuting work of Rome, than with any particular man. See then the levels in John's thought—the Christ-persecuting Emperors of Rome, as it were represented by Nero in particular as their type; the "Romes," or persecuting powers of all ages, be they cities, systems of thought, principles, ideals, or what you will; and floating above them all, the tremendous figures of the archangel Michael and of Satan. Constantly, the Church appears to be on the verge of annihilation; even while there is a "check" upon that total defeat be this "check" symbolised as Michael, or the Two Witnesses, or seen in a particular man or policy or some existing political or philosophical system—the evil influence is still at work; a moment of great weakening on the part of the Christians suffices for the full "revelation," as St. Paul calls it, of that evil influence; it seems to score a triumph of the completest sort, but is then itself defeated—absolutely, at the last day, when Satan, whose representatives all these earthly persecuting men, influences, legislations are, shall be bound for ever along with his wicked servants. Thus, to start with, the harmony of St. Paul and of St. John is seen to be complete. Satan is engaged in his enduring war against God; that anti-God influence is throughout history felt upon the earth; it has at all times its particular representative. The battle sways to and fro: sometimes the Beast seems stricken to death; but it revives: sometimes, the Christian Witness and the sources of Grace, that inhibit the full triumph of evil, are for a space apparently destroyed— there is Apostasy, and the anti-Christian foe is fully revealed; but at the last the Word of God, Eternal Truth, will make an end of these lying doctrines that set the world astray. Have then either John or Paul prophesied the Advent of a definite individual Antichrist at the end of time? No. There is most certainly nothing to prevent our surmising that the enemies of God may be led or represented by an individual, at the end of human history just as at any other time; indeed, since the " End of the World," and the events surrounding it, must necessarily occur as historical events, it seems equally necessary that they must express themselves in something concrete, either a man, or a group, or a political or systematic unit of some sort: but the Old Testament, St. Paul, and St. John use their image of a definite one person precisely when their gaze is fixed rather on their own time, which is, in a sense, the least "real," most transitory, plane of all those that they contemplate. Babylon, Tyre; Antiochus, Rome—and all the persecutors of all history for ever, are but the crude material examples of a much deeper and abiding truth, just as the Two Witnesses stand as symbol of that residue of the Faithful who never cease their promulgation of God's truth even in the worst of persecution, and, "though they be dead, yet shall they live," as Our Lord promised; and just as we ought not to try to tie them down to definite personalities, like Moses and Elias, Elias and Enoch, Peter and Paul, so neither should we seek to assign a definite individual as the captain of the enemy host that forever bears hard upon them. These conclusions would have to be modified were there a consistent patristic or ecclesiastical tradition concerning the Antichrist, and different in scope. But there is not. To begin with, the Apocalypse so startled the imagination of Christians that any speculations about Antichrist were based almost wholly on that book. But its obscurity served it, so to say, a bad turn. For many people gave it up, as we are apt to, in despair, and others found in it justification for unjustified ideas of their own. For example, those who had imbibed from other sources the belief that Christ was to reign 1000 years upon the earth before the End, had certain sentences in the Apocalypse which they could quote in their support. This,' we think, is largely why the Apocalypse took so long to make good its claim to be included in the canon. Having suffered, then, this sort of eclipse, it became the prey of every kind of guesswork. The earliest writers, who do not seem to have sought for any general method of interpreting the book, also seem to mingle a due recognition that the Beast is the Roman Empire, with the idea that the Antichrist will be a personage appearing at the End, and acting as the Beasts in the Apocalypse, and in Daniel do. But these writers are accessible to us only in fragments or quotations., or at least do not treat ex professo of the Apocalypse. Victorinus, Bishop of Pettau, wrote two commentaries on the Apocalypse, but he belongs already to the third century; he still believes in the millennium, though St. Jerome, who edited his shorter commentary, corrects this, and holds that the Beast is Nero, who will be resuscitated by God as Antichrist and king of the Jews. But this writer is of enormous importance as being the first we possess who makes it clear that St. John's visions do not display historical events in chronological order, but the same events or ideas under different, completer forms. Tyconius, an African schismatic, wrote about 380 a commentary which orthodox Fathers esteemed most highly, having but to purge it of the passages that related to the Donatist schism in particular. He regards the "Witnesses" as the Church with her two testaments; the Beast with its seven heads is the totality of the powers that oppose Christ, which shall be concentrated in some sense in the last King of Satan's city. He makes it most clear that John takes up the same subject again and again. St. Jerome at least makes it clear that he held no method of explanation or particular interpretation to be traditional. St. Augustine holds indeed that there will be a personal Antichrist, but this is due rather to St. Paul than to St. John, especially as he reads "apostate" instead of "apostasy" in the Epistle to the Thessalonians. The Beast is, for him, the totality of Satan's city, including bad Christians. In short, the Apocalypse is, for him, the world-long contest of the two cities. The only criticism we might, with Fr. Allo, make, is that Augustine is still too near the Roman Empire for it to have sunk, as it should, into its due place as but an incident in the enormous struggle. Enough really has been said to show at least a negative—that no system of interpretation was official in the Church, nor lvas any tradition in the technical sense established. Nor did the subsequent centuries, in the Greek or the Latin world, succeed in doing so, though let us make it quite clear that nearly all Catholic writers have expected a personal "Antichrist," and not one of them has excluded the idea of a personal Antichrist; nor, indeed, can we see how they could possibly, on (as we have said) appropriately do so. Certainly we do not. The really new start was made in the twelfth century when the Abbot Joachim of Flora, among much that was good, fell into the fatal innovation of supposing that the Apocalypse describes successive ages of Church history. The fourth period, for example, is that of the Ascetics (Apoc. xi. 19–xiv) who are attacked by Mohammed, or Islam generally, whose wound, inflicted by the Crusades, was cured when Saladin re-took Jerusalem. The sixth period is that in which Joachim himself is living, and is to contain the destruction of the Germanic empire by Asiatic chiefs, to whom a way was opened (the Euphrates was dried up) by the defeat of the army of Frederick Barbarossa in the third Crusade. His successors became even more fantastic, and it was they who started to see Antichrist in the person of certain Popes. This idea was taken up by the precursors of Protestantism, like Wyclif and Hus, and from now on the poor book becomes the prey of what is almost like insanity. In 1522, Luther himself did not admit the Apocalypse to be a genuine prophecy; but he began to do so in proportion as he found in it weapons against the Papacy. English and Scotch writers went even further along this line, Brightman (1616) reserving the Last Plagues for the benefit of the Jesuits, and of Bellarmine in particular. The real renaissance of scientific study of the book took place in Spain in the sixteenth century, and the Jesuits themselves were largely responsible for it, especially Alcazar, 1614 and 1619, and Mariana, about the same time. Modern criticism has been either historical and sane, or quite fantastic in its dismemberment of the book and its assigning of the fragments to different authors; but none of it bears directly on our subject. It is, however, very clear to our thinking that there is no Catholic tradition necessitating our adopting any particular view of the Antichrist, and that the periods which have shown the strongest inclination to fasten his identity on to this or that person, have been precisely the ones when scientific criticism flourished least. Moreover, we recognise that there is every temptation to seek for such identifications, in so far as they are always more exciting and picturesque than more profound and spiritual considerations. To sum up. Outside the sacred text there is nothing that can be of any real value to us in our study of this subject. The Book of Daniel represents under the image of four wild beasts, four successive empires which, because they were the enemies of God's People were foes no less of God. The last of these produces a king who triumphs over the people to such an extent that he can set up an idolatrous image in the Temple itself. This image represents himself under the features of the supreme pagan God. The persecution period lasts three and a half years, after which God triumphs, and the End of the World is described as the consummation of His triumph. We considered Daniel, no less than Isaiah and Ezekiel, to see behind these concrete personages a wider view—that of the world-long struggle of good and evil, ending in the Victory of God. Towards the Christian era, "apocalypses" began to be written, in which this theme was developed, the enemy of God, or of His Christ, being regarded as a pagan prince, or as Satan incarnate. After the Christian era, all these lines of speculation poured together, for a space, into the personality of Nero risen. Christian writers, outside the New Testament, lent themselves more or less to these speculations, without really basing themselves on, or constructing, a "tradition." Within the New Testament, the clearest references are our Lord's own words,—when He says that there shall be many false Christs before the End, and also sees and describes the End through, so to say, the disaster of the taking of Jerusalem by Rome; and, the words of St. John, in his epistles, where alone the word "Antichrist" is used. Here he definitely says that whatever the Christians may have heard about Antichrist, Antichrist is already present—in the person of all those who deny Christ, especially apostates. St. Paul, while insisting that the date of the End is and must be unknown, also says that it cannot come till much has happened first. Elsewhere, he includes in these happenings the conversion of the Jews, itself preceded by that of the Gentiles. He says that the Spirit of Revolt is already active, but checked for the present; that when there is an "apostasy," then its full force shall be able to reveal itself, and that this will happen when the "check" is in some way removed. We saw reason to think that St. Paul might possibly have his eye upon some contemporary situation—the tendency of the Empire to substitute itself in the person of the Emperor, for God; at present, this had not fully happened. But St. Paul also sees the matter in far more general terms, his persons become abstractions, operating throughout history, and the ultimate forces are even spiritual altogether—Satan and his great enemy, Michael. St. John in many symbols, throughout his Apocalypse, teaches the self-same thing. Ever is there an anti-God—ever a struggle—it may be this Emperor or that, who demands of the Christians of his age that they should worship him; it may be a collectivity of such Emperors, making up the whole history of the Roman Empire; it may be successive Empires or other such dominant forces throughout Christian history. Ever Michael is fighting with the Dragon; ever the Witnesses are being seemingly destroyed, and then reviving by the breath of God; ever the Beast is being wounded to death, but the wound of his death is healed. Whether, when the world's history has gathered to its climax, the Antagonist is to be represented by one man, or one system of government or of thought, matters very little, and we cannot assert. But precisely as John generalises his vision to take in more than the Empire of his day, the less does he assign anything that we can legitimately tie down to one human or diabolic personality. The upshot of this is not to make us careless. We have to obey the reiterated command—to Watch. More subtle influences surround us and sap our loyalty than any mere visible persecutor, whether open and ravaging undisguisedly, or veiled in some likeness of reason or philanthropy—that "angel of light," as whom we are told Satan can disguise himself. The fierce materialistic atheism of a generation ago has been succeeded by a vague semi-mystical quasispiritual tendency that does not refuse to use the names that Religion has always used; this spurious Universalism that speaks so fair is perhaps today the most dangerous of the Beasts that attack and hate us. The Parody of the Church! The false internationalism that masquerades as the truer Catholicism; the disregard of all fixed beliefs and codes that engineers a lying Unity; the ethical enthusiasm that seeks to replace supernatural holiness; the theosophical, continuity that is fain to join hands with ancient errors and cults, and to reduce historic Christianity to being but a phase, a momentary expression of the mind of man when it muses upon God. We have not to tremble at the thought of some future horrible revelation that may never come in our day; nor yet have we to lap ourselves in false security precisely because it has not yet come. Already the "Mystery of Revolt" is active. Already there are "many Antichrists." Let us watch, lest unawares we be caught up into our own Apostasy.