For more than a generation the publishers of The Good News magazine have focused on Europe and the Middle East from the perspective of Bible prophecy. The scriptures of Revelation 17 and 18 in particular have been applied to the developing European Union as a fulfillment of a revived Holy Roman Empire—symbolized as a "beast" with a woman riding its back, a union of politics and religion described as "Babylon the Great" that exists for a brief time.
But with the latest economic crisis in Europe revealing fundamental flaws in the EU, is it time to reassess this explanation? Is it possible for Europe to become the kind of dominant power described in the Bible? Let's take another look at what prophecy reveals and address this key question: Where will this system called "Babylon the Great" come from?
The strange prophecy
Revelation 17 describes the unusual vision the apostle John saw—an end-time power symbolized as a beast ridden by a woman. He saw a "great harlot who sits on many waters" (verse 1). In prophetic symbolism, the waters and seas here represent "peoples, multitudes, nations and languages" (verse 15, New International Version).
This woman rides on "a scarlet beast . . . full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns." On the woman's forehead "a name was written: mystery, babylon the great, the mother of harlots and of the abominations of the earth" (verses 1, 5). This woman is shown to have several unsavory attributes as she interacts with the Beast power and its peoples. John's attention is fixed on the woman as he considers the wide range of her impact.
Elsewhere in the book of Revelation, a woman is used to symbolize God's people collectively—ultimately His true Church (compare Revelation 12:17; 19:7). Since the woman in chapter 17 is depicted as a prostitute, it's clear she represents not the faithful Church, but an apostate church or religious system.
Similarly, animals or beasts are prophetically symbolic of human geopolitical powers—see, for example, Daniel 7, where different creatures prophetically represent the Babylonian, Medo-Persian, Greco-Macedonian and Roman empires.
This woman, called Babylon the Great, is shown riding this enormous beast figure over a succession of epochs. The biblical symbolism here is of a church-state union, the woman representing a religious entity and the Beast a major geopolitical power.
History shows the most potent and far-reaching combination of church-state power was that of the Holy Roman Empire. This complicated and longstanding empire began in Europe in the eighth century and lasted in various forms until the 19th. Its zenith came during the time of the Spanish Habsburg emperor Charles V. His empire not only covered much of Europe but also extended to North and South America.
Symbols represent a coming end-time superpower
Revelation 17 shows the last revival of this political power. The 10 horns of the Beast represent rulers who for a short time give their power and authority to the Beast, which will both "make war with the Lamb," the returning Jesus Christ, and turn and hate the harlot and "make her desolate and naked, [and] eat her flesh and burn her with fire" (verses 12-16).
This woman is also described as "that great city which reigns over the kings of the earth" (verse 18). She is further identified as sitting on "seven hills" (verse 9, NIV). Only one city sits on seven hills, has "reign[ed] over kings of the earth" and is closely identified with a major religious system—Rome.
What we see described here is a power yet to arise in its final form on the world stage that exerts far-ranging political and religious influence over people in all nations and ethnic groups.
When this system arises it will astound the world in a way no modern power has done. No other empire in modern times has combined military and economic power with the added element of religious influence and control as described here.
The religious power, represented here as a fallen woman, has relations with "the kings of the earth" described as "fornication" (verse 2) or "sexual immorality" (English Standard Version). This immoral relationship, having no holy covenant of marriage, implies instability and faithlessness. It may seem good for the moment but never produces a satisfying relationship—not least because often the partners are using each other for their own ends.
This woman is also said to be "drunk with the blood of saints and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus" (verse 6). Clearly this woman, while appearing to be noble, wise and wealthy, leaves a wake of human misery that cannot be covered over and excused with false righteousness.
From where could this power arise?
Where do we find such a power developing in today's world?
Consider how our present world has been transformed just since World War II.
When it ended, two dominant powers stood astride the world—the Soviet Union and the United States. The German-led Axis powers that plunged the world into total war had been defeated. Subsequent years saw relations between the two great victors settle into a Cold War that came to an end in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since then the United States has been the sole world superpower, albeit reluctantly.
Since 9/11 America's attention has been focused on the Middle East with near-simultaneous invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The War on Terror has sapped American money, energy and morale. The outcomes have been questionable at best, with U.S. troops now gone from Iraq and the last in Afghanistan waiting to be extracted.
A recent killing rampage by an American soldier directed at Afghan citizens has heightened the tension on both sides with calls for an even quicker pullout of American soldiers. The psychological toll of the last decade is yet to be tallied.
The 2008 economic collapse and subsequent recession has also impacted America's economic role in the world. If the United States cannot be counted on, some have reasoned, then prepare for a change. And make no mistake—change is coming.
The point to understand is this: America is the preeminent world power on which the present world order hinges. No one seriously doubts or argues this. But the signs of power being shifted are growing ever more evident—and, again, no one can seriously deny this.
America's days as the controlling power in world circles are numbered. Bible prophecy is clear on this point. So with the sunset of American power, who will take its place?
Will it be Europe?
The European Union has been going through a major test of its viability with the Greek debt crisis. At stake is the viability of the entire EU project as it presently exists. Without a full economic union it has become clear that there is no true "union," and without a unified fiscal policy controlled by a central authority the present debt problems of the member states will inevitably continue.
Germany is by far the strongest economy within Europe. Its fiscal stability has been the guarantee behind the financial firewall that is keeping the fragile EU together. No other EU member state can begin to take on this role—and that is the unspoken problem and fear. No one desires to see the present German economic dominance to advance to another stage of control.
The crisis in Europe is still simmering. Greece has received a series of bailouts, not without pain. Spain, Italy and Austria have received credit downgrades. Democratically elected leaders have been replaced in some countries. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is being accused of leading Germany and Europe down the wrong path. What can be done?
Germany is the leading manager of this crisis, and in truth is the one country that is responsible for the current situation. Germany pushed hard for the single currency but, like all other EU members, did not want to give up sovereignty to another authority. The result was a single currency, the euro, without effective political union.
What some predicted more than 10 years ago has now come to pass—a massive debt crisis with no effective way to manage and remove it. One observer describes it as "a machine from hell." Many see a need for political union, but at the same time it's the most feared of solutions.
The Financial Times of London puts it this way: "The current crisis shows that Greeks, Germans and Italians do have one important thing in common—a deep aversion to ceding control of their national budgets. The result is that the euro is in a dangerous and unstable position. The actions that are being urged on Germany are unreasonable. But Germany's own solution—structural reform now, political union later—is unworkable" (Gideon Rachman, "Germany Faces a Machine From Hell," Feb. 14, 2012).
The fear of a strong Germany controlling the future of Greece or any insolvent European country immediately evokes words like "Auschwitz" or "Nazism." Behind the scenes, leaders are very worried about the outcome. The crisis simmers, waiting for a bold solution from somewhere.
As things stand, Germany is seemingly the only nation that can steer Europe back into calm and stable waters. Watch for some further crisis to appear and create the right conditions for a group of core nations to cede political and operational control to a power that can right the ship. It will come, and when it does it will reshape Europe and possibly the world scene.
Here's the point
Historically, the only world region that fits the description of the power foretold in Revelation 17 is Europe. No other region in history has provided the narrative for a combination of political, economic and religious power that impacts so much of the world. No other region today can come close to providing the elements of this prophecy. None.
I realize that much is made about the post-religious nature of Europe. It is true that secularism has a dominating influence on European culture right now. But religion in Europe is not dead—far from it. Everywhere you go in Europe you see signs of the religious past and you even see signs of a religious present.
A few months ago I stood in St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna's city center. It was an early Friday evening as people were leaving work and hurrying into the weekend. I watched the vast cathedral fill up with people coming and going for confession and quick prayers. Young and old streamed by me within the church. I thought, "This place is alive with activity!" I am reminded of the inscription on a cross in front of the Habsburg Palace: Christus Hoffnung Europas ("Christ the hope of Europe").
At some point a crisis will arise whereby religion will be offered as the only solution for the stability of the world order. This is what we see in Revelation 17, a crisis so large that a core group of leaders will cede authority to a central power. This power will emerge vastly different than any other we see today—yet be firmly rooted in ancient and medieval tradition. Imbued with the power of popular religion, it will offer what seems the only viable hope of human survival and prosperity.
For a moment in time, the most critical in all history, the world will follow. It will end as all other have, but not before it ushers in a time of global trouble unlike anything ever seen before in human history (Matthew 24:21-22).
We are seeing the world shifting and the beginnings of new alignments in power and influence. A new "Babylon" will emerge. Now is the time to understand the words of this prophecy and heed the warning of God found in Revelation 18:4: "Come out of her, my people, lest you share in her sins, and lest you receive of her plagues."