by Bob Wheeler
The Bible tells us that just prior to the return of Christ a worldwide empire will arise headed by a charismatic dictator. This person is variously designated in Scripture as “the man of sin,” “the son of perdition,” and “the Antichrist.” It is a sobering glimpse into what lies ahead.
The Scriptures indicate that the domain of the Antichrist will be global in extent. “And authority was given him over every tribe, tongue, and nation” (Rev. 13:7b; NKJV). But what is especially significant about this figure is the role that religion plays in his regime. We are told that he “opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God” (II Thess. 2:4). What we have here, in other words, is a political cult, with all the outward trappings of religion, used to reinforce political power. The dictator will command respect and loyalty by presenting himself as an incarnation of deity.
To assist him in this he will receive the support of organized religion. Revelation 13 describes a false prophet who promotes the cult of the Antichrist. The prophet is described as possessing supernatural powers. “He performs great signs, so that he even makes fire come down from heaven on earth in the sight of men” (v. 13). A statue of the Antichrist will be erected, and the false prophet will be able “to give breath to the image of the beast [i.e., the Antichrist], that the image should . . . speak” (v. 15).
To reinforce the religious cult economic power is used. In a passage that has been much discussed and debated, the false prophet is said to “cause all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hand or on their foreheads, and that no one may buy or sell except one who has the mark or the name of the beast, or the number of his name” (vv. 16,17). The number is 666.
We can only begin to guess what this will mean in actual practice. One of the better commentators on the Book of Revelation, George Eldon Ladd, says “It is not at all clear that John is thinking of a literal brand visible on the person of the worshipers of the beast.” But whatever it is, it will have the effect of punishing people economically for refusing to worship the Antichrist.
All of this may seem a little far-fetched to the modern, sophisticated reader, until it is remembered that we have already come close to this in the not so distant past. The fact of the matter is that totalitarian states will often use the trappings of religion to control public opinion and promote loyalty to the regime.
Probably the most outstanding example of this is Nazi Germany. The Nazis were skillful manipulators of the masses. British historian Michael Burleigh describes the annual rallies held at Nuremberg to honor the Nazi regime. “Using architecture, sound, light and quasi-liturgical responses, those rallies were the nadir of Nazi attempts to replace politics as rational conversation with affect and sensation.” “. . . every audible or optical effect was carefully managed,” and the participants “found themselves in a world of aesthetic and emotional intoxication” (Sacred Causes, p. 114).
It must be remembered that this happened in Germany, one of the most cultured and sophisticated states in the world at the time. It happened because Germany had already started to lose faith in Christian orthodoxy. While it still maintained the external forms and rituals of worship, confidence in the Bible as the inspired Word of God had long since eroded. This loss of faith created an emotional void, which could then be filled by a skilled manipulator.
The loss of faith in moral absolutes also allowed the Nazis to act without moral restraint. Eric Voegelin noted that “without a moral code derived from a transcendent God there was nothing to inhibit them. Any means were justified, from lying propaganda to physical mass murder, to bring about the desired realm of God on earth. . . ” (Burleigh, p. 120).
Because of the quasi-religious nature of such a regime, and its claims on the undivided loyalty of the masses, it ultimately becomes a rival to the older, established religions, and eventually seeks to displace them. This means that it inevitably persecutes those who remain loyal to the old religion. Christian believers, then, are faced with a difficult choice: either they conform or risk prison sentences, torture, or even death. It forces the believer to determine where his true loyalties lie. Does he have a genuine faith, an unshakable confidence that God exists and that His will will eventually prevail? Or is his faith merely a cultural one – a desire to fit in with the rest of society and look respectable? In a situation like this the religious chaff is separated from the wheat.
Are we prepared for what lies ahead?