The Dragon and his Beasts
In accordance with the overall historical thrust of this blog, I’d like to demonstrate in this post how the spiritual demonic realities addressed by the Biblical authors are ultimately subordinate to and representative of historical-political concerns—not the other way around. Put simply, Satan and his demons personify pagan political power. As such, Satan’s defeat in the heavens (Revelation 12 and 19) coincides with the collapse of Babylon (Revelation 18) because Babylon (Rome) is the earthly manifestation of his power.
Why is this important? These and other depictions of visionary and heavenly warfare imbue the NT’s historical-political narrative with cosmic significance. The fall of Babylon is thus not simply a loosing on earth, it is a loosing in heaven. In other words, for the persecuted early Christians, the dissolution of Greco-Roman imperial paganism was not a coincidence of history—it was the direct result of Christ’s exaltation into heaven and of his expulsion of Satan from heaven. Christ displaced Satan as lord of the nations and as a result Christendom displaced paganism. These are two sides of the same coin, one heavenly and the other earthly. Satan, his beasts, and the whore of Babylon serve only this historical narrative.
Where does this story begin?
Early Israelite religion as it is represented in the Old Testament plainly acknowledged the existence of national deities who were subordinate to the one true Creator God, YHWH of Israel. Israel’s prolonged experience of foreign domination colored their understanding of these gods, however. The peoples who worshiped these lesser gods more often than not did not submit to YHWH. Rather, with the support of their own gods, these peoples abused Israel and mocked her god for centuries. It thus became increasingly apparent in the Second Temple Period that the gods which empowered the pagan polities and their kings were in rebellion against the one true God. This realization culminates in one of the latest OT texts, the book of Daniel.
Before we can approach John’s vision of Satan and his beasts, we must turn to the source of his imagery, the book of Daniel. Daniel relates several heavenly visions in which a variety of beasts terrorize the people of God only to be destroyed at the coming of one like a son of man. In 7:15-27 an angel tells Daniel that these demonic beasts are kingdoms and their horns kings. When the one like a son of man comes before the throne of God their reign will end and the saints of the Most High God will be given their authority (7:9-14; 26-27). The book of Daniel thus awaits the end of pagan hegemony and the ascendancy of God’s reign over the nations. The apocalyptic imagery here is therefore thoroughly concerned with the political and historical position of God’s people in relation to the nations. The same can be said of Ezekiel 29:3-5 which casts Pharaoh as the sea monster and God as the fisherman. The concrete implication of this mythic battle is found in verse 12: “I will make the land of Egypt a desolation among desolated countries; and her cities shall be a desolation forty years among cities that are laid waste. I will scatter the Egyptians among the nations, and disperse them among the countries.”
What does Daniel’s figurative portrayal of history here accomplish? His visions endow Israel’s earthly situation with spiritual significance. The visions remove the triumphant masks worn by pagan empires to reveal their true demonic faces. They direct the hearer to faith in the God who slays the beasts and empires of old (Isaiah 27:1, 59:9, Psalm 74:13-14, Job 41). They assure Israel that God can and will rectify His people’s suffering. They give hope to those who have no power, no ability to liberate themselves.
Revelation: The Last Beasts and a Whore
There are some things to keep in mind as we transition from Daniel to Revelation. As I have pointed out elsewhere, Christians tend to read the language of the New Testament in a spiritualizing manner. We think that while the Old Testament is concerned with politics, history, and war, the New Testament transcends these earthly realities in favor of spiritual realities. For instance, we believe that the salvation brought about by Christ relates primarily to the afterlife.
And yet, again and again the New Testament authors unabashedly conscript the political language and images of the Old. This is particularly true of John’s Apocalypse, a text that revels in the political-historical implications of passages like Psalm 2 and Daniel 7. So if Psalm 2 concerns the concrete submission of hostile pagan nations to God’s Messiah, and if Daniel 7-12 concerns the historical defeat and replacement of pagan empire, we should resist the urge to prove that the New Testament writers have dispensed with their political-historical import.
In Revelation 13 John appropriates Daniel’s visions extensively to introduce two new beasts. The first comes out of the sea and is given authority by the dragon (Satan) to rule every nation and to wage war against God’s saints. The second beast comes out of the earth and is given authority to kill those who do not worship the image of the first beast. At the dragon’s behest, these beasts blaspheme God, kill the saints, and corrupt the nations.
A woman named “Babylon the great” is added to this cast in chapter 17. She sits on another beast and adulterates the kings and peoples of the earth with her fornications. She is “the great city, Babylon, the mighty city” whose end is desolation (18:10). After her collapse, Christ rides out and kills both the beasts and the kings who oppose him (19:11-21). Satan is then removed from heaven and locked away for a thousand years (20:2-3). With every authority over the nations now removed—Satan, Babylon, and the hostile kings—Christ and his saints rule the nations for a thousand years (20:4-6, cf. 2:6-7).
As was the case in Daniel’s visions then, John’s narrative associates the power source of pagan empire with heavenly evil—in John’s case Satan, the dragon. It likewise characterizes the pagan empire and its rulers as demonic beasts. The empire’s capital is shown to be the corrupter of nations. The dragon, the beasts, and the whore then each point not to themselves but to something else in the prophetic narrative. In depicting these heavenly figures, John is interested in earthly realities. Of first importance is the salvation and vindication of his churches as they face of an age-old, tyrannical, God-denying empire.