by Bob Wheeler

John Sloan: The City from Greenwich Village, 1922

John Sloan: The City from Greenwich Village, 1922

    Down through the centuries Christians have had to face daunting challenges of every sort, from physical deprivation to deep discouragement to outright persecution. Yet Christians in the western industrialized nations may be facing the deadliest challenge of all, namely, the challenge of material prosperity. To understand why this particular challenge is so deadly, it is instructive to examine a biblical picture of a prosperous civilization. The example we have chosen is the lamentation over “Babylon” contained in Revelation chapter 18.

    The chapter describes the judgment of God on “Babylon the Great.” In trying to understand what “Babylon” represents, we believe that many commentators have overlooked an important and obvious detail: Babylon is described in the chapter as a very wealthy commercial power. Therefore the figure cannot represent an ecclesiastical entity, such as the Roman Catholic Church, nor can it symbolize all secular political power as it has existed throughout the church age, for not every great political power has been economically successful. Rather, Babylon represents a certain type of secular power, namely, a power that has grown wealthy through extensive commerce. It is this financial prosperity, moreover, which creates the distinctive spiritual conditions that are so typical of “Babylon.” That is the picture we have before us in this passage.

    Why, then, does God pour out His judgment upon Babylon? What is so wrong with being prosperous?

    First of all, we are told that Babylon “lived luxuriously” (Rev. 18:3,7,9; NKJV), that is, she maintained a life-style that was marked by the ostentatious display of wealth, or as we would call it today, “conspicuous consumption.” We get a picture of what kind of life-style this was from the list of merchandise she bought contained in verses 12 and 13. It includes precious metals and gems, fine clothes, costly building materials, rare spices and fragrances, as well as livestock and vehicles, much of it imported from as far away as Africa, Arabia, and China. The denizens of this city obviously had a taste for the finer things of life, and spent their money lavishly to acquire them. In a word, Babylon is the very epitome of a materialistic society.

    Secondly, she is proud. “. . . she glorified herself,” and said, “I sit as queen, and am no widow, and will not see sorrow” (v. 7). In a similar passage in Ezek. 28, it was said of the ancient Phoenician city of Tyre,

        “By your great wisdom in trade you have increased your riches, And

         Your heart is lifted up because of your riches.” (Ezek. 28:5).

    Prosperity tends to make men proud of their achievements, and give them a sense of self-sufficiency. The begin to become more impressed with what they have done for themselves than with what God has done for them. Eventually their philosophy conforms to their hearts, and secular materialism is born.

    What is especially significant, however, is Babylon’s ability to corrupt others with her wealth. “For all the nations have drunk the wine of the wrath of her fornication, the kings of the earth have become rich through the abundance of her luxury” (v. 3). “. . . for by your sorcery all the nations were deceived” (v. 23) Apparently the idea here is that Babylon’s tremendous wealth had seduced the other nations to partake in her idolatry and other abominable practices. Men were all too willing to compromise their moral and religious principles for the sake of financial success, and thus they were corrupted by Babylon’s imposing wealth and decadent life-style.

    And finally, Babylon persecuted the saints. “And in her was found the blood of prophets and saints, and of all who were slain on earth” (v. 24). If men do not worship the true God, they will worship a false one; and a false religious system cannot tolerate a competing religion that threatens to expose the lie. Thus the opposition must be crushed brutally, and true Christians typically pay with their lives. This, then, is Babylon the Great: materialistic, proud, seductive, and brutal.

    Is this not, in large measure, a picture of our own society today? We are proud of our free market economy, and it has produced the highest standard of living in the world. This, by itself, poses a serious threat to the church. Robert L. Dabney, who was once a professor of church history, made this trenchant observation: “The past answers that there has not been a single instance in which the spiritual health of the church has survived a season of high temporal prosperity. She has survived the sword and the fire. Like the burning bush, persecutions have not consumed her. The power of kings and commonwealths and the gates of hell have not been able to prevail against her; but never, in a single case, has she failed to succumb before the miasm of temporal ease and plenty.” (Discussions, Vol. I, pp. 699-700).

    The reason is not hard to find. Over 3,000 years before, God had warned ancient Israel to beware, lest, when they have prospered in the promised land, “your heart is lifted up and you forget the LORD your God . . . then you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gained me this wealth” (Dt. 8:11-17). Prosperity leads to a false sense of self-sufficiency, and this in turn causes us to forget God who is the real source of our blessings. Is it any wonder that the church today is spiritually dead, always looking for the quick fix, but never willing to make any real sacrifice for God?

    It is important to observe, moreover, the morally corrosive effects of a free market economy. Private enterprise is in business to make a profit, and to do this retail merchandisers must sell products. In order to sell a product, the retailer must convince the public that a need exists, and that his product will meet the need. This he does through advertising. Thus an extensive body of propaganda is generated aimed at convincing the public that happiness and fulfillment can be gained through the acquisition of various material possessions. This phenomenon is known as “consumerism.”

    Eventually, as consumerism begins to take hold, a popular culture develops which reflects these materialistic values. With time, there is an inevitable slide into outright hedonism, as an every hungry public refuses to be denied any kind of pleasure. This hedonism is especially pronounced in the communications media that are heavily dependent on advertising revenue, such as magazines, and commercial radio and television. Today, teenage girls and young women in particular are subjected to a barrage of propaganda aimed at convincing them that happiness consists in clothes and a boyfriend, and that the way to get the boyfriend is to wear the suggestive clothing advertised in the fashion magazines. The articles in the magazines reinforce the message in what amounts to an outright assault on morality. Thus, in a sense, the morals of our young women are being corrupted by our business community. Sadly, American films, television programs, and popular music are exported the world over, thereby drawing other nations into our sin.

    What Christians in such a society must realize is that they are surrounded by Satanic propaganda on every side, deceiving and enticing in every manner possible. The warning we have been given by God , however, is contained in Rev. 18:4: “. . . Come out of her, my people, lest you share in her sins, and lest you receive of her plagues.” We must turn off the TV, put down the magazine, and stop the CD. To drink from the poisoned cup is to invite spiritual death. If we value our souls, we will not allow ourselves to be defiled by the pollution of the world. May God give us grace to flee from Babylon the Great!

Note: this blog post originally appeared as Chapter 24 in The Road to Heaven: A Practical Guide to the Faith of Our Fathers, by the blogger, copyright 2004.