The Decline and Fall of Nations: A Prophetic Perspective

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The Decline and Fall of Nations

A Prophetic Perspective

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Harvard historian Niall Ferguson, writing in the March/April 2010 issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, presents an analysis of how empires can quickly collapse into chaos. Rather than a slow decline over centuries, Ferguson shows that many large nations of the past were gone in a few short years. They were seemingly strong and viable and faded virtually overnight.

Conventional wisdom presents the economic challenges to America's global dominance as long-term threats. Demographics alone will increase the debt to unmanageable proportions.

Citing long-term predictions of China overtaking America in economic size and output by 2027 or 2040, Ferguson asks, "What if history is not cyclical and slow moving but arrhythmic—at times almost stationary, but also capable of accelerating suddenly, like a sports car? What if collapse does not arrive over a number of centuries but comes suddenly, like a thief in the night?" ("Complexity and Collapse," p. 22).

A thief in the night? Sounds biblical! "But concerning the times and the seasons, brethren, you have no need that I should write to you. For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night. For when they say, ‘Peace and safety!' then sudden destruction comes upon them, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman. And they shall not escape" (1 Thessalonians 5:1-3).

What the Bible says about the end-time events culminating in the Day of the Lord applies to the sudden collapse of powerful nations and empires throughout history. Ferguson looks at the collapse of the Soviet Union over a short period of five years, from the time Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party. Although the CIA overestimated the size of the Soviet economy, they did have nuclear superiority over the United States. It looked as if the Soviet Union would be around to challenge America for many years to come.

"Yet less than five years after Gorbachev took power, the Soviet imperium in central and Eastern Europe had fallen apart, followed by the Soviet Union itself in 1991. If ever an empire fell off a cliff—rather than gently declining—it was the one founded by Lenin" (ibid., p. 30).

Ferguson's thesis is that empires are large, complex systems that can be turned upside down in short order by the insertion of even one event that is more than the system can handle. Lack of confidence in a nation's future, even while it is strong, can be such an event. When other nations lose confidence in the sustainability of an economic model, events can be set in motion to quickly change the balance of power.

Other smaller, seemingly insignificant events can trigger a chain reaction leading to world upheaval. The assassination of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand in June 1914 was the fuse that lit the powder keg of World War I. No one saw it at the time, but events quickly got out of control and conflict started.

Recent economic crisis

We have the recent example of how the complex world economy went from boom to bust when a lot of Americans began defaulting on something called "subprime loans." Because thousands of large financial institutions were set up to depend on the performance of those loans, they suddenly found themselves insolvent or quite near the brink. The reverberation brought down large Wall Street financial houses and had repercussions across Europe and Asia.

The world financial system came near meltdown one week in September 2008. The global economy is still recovering. It is an object lesson in how quickly events, even small events, can happen and turn the world upside down.

Ferguson concludes by observing that "empires behave like all complex adaptive systems. They function in apparent equilibrium for some unknowable period. And then, quite abruptly, they collapse... It is sudden" (ibid., p. 32).

What Ferguson and other historians miss in their studies is what can be called the missing dimension in world affairs. That missing dimension is the hand of God in the rise and fall of great nations and empires.

The Bible is a chronicle of ancient nations that rose and fell according to His plan and purpose. Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome—all are mentioned in the narrative. All played key roles in working with the nation of Israel and the Church founded by Jesus Christ. Even today, the lessons of empires embedded in the Bible apply as we watch the modern world move toward what Christ said would be the end of the age.


The prophetic book of Daniel lists Babylon as the first in a line of empires that would impact the world from the time of the fall of Jerusalem to the end of the age. Daniel found himself at the seat of the empire dealing with a succession of rulers beginning with Nebuchadnezzar. While explaining the king's dream, the prophet says that God "removes kings and raises up kings" (Daniel 2:21).

Here is the first principle to understand about world affairs. God determines the course of nations. He can set up or remove a leader when He wills. That doesn't mean He is involved in every small nation's affairs when it does not impact the course of His plan. The nations may "rage" and the rulers "take counsel together" (Psalm 2:1-2), but unless their actions are in accord with the counsel of God, in the end they will pass from the world scene.

Babylon found itself in this position on the night when a subsequent ruler, Belshazzar, "made a great feast" (Daniel 5:1). This event occurred as the Persian armies massed outside the city gates. During the banquet the fingers of a man's hand appeared and wrote on the wall of the king's palace (verse 5). King Belshazzar was troubled at the sight and asked for anyone to interpret what the writing said. Word came that Daniel was the only one who could possibly interpret the handwriting, so he was brought into the banquet room.

Daniel gave a brief history of Nebuchadnezzar's experience with God, including a reminder that "the Most High God rules in the kingdom of men, and appoints over it whomever He chooses" (Daniel 5:21).

Daniel's interpretation of the handwriting highlights another fundamental dimension in world affairs. The message on the wall was, "God has numbered your kingdom, and finished have been...found wanting;...your kingdom has been divided, and given to the Medes and Persians" (Daniel 5:26-27). It is God who judges the time an empire lives and when its time is over. A key is when the nation and its people are "found wanting." In other terms, this is speaking of sin, breaking God's laws and not acknowledging the God of creation.

Babylon worshipped gods who neither saw, heard nor knew. They did not acknowledge the "God who holds your breath in His hand and owns all your ways" (verse 23). Their problem was the same as virtually all other great nations that rose and fell through time: They did not worship the true God. They practiced what the Bible calls idolatry, worshipping as God that which is not God. The problem is still with us today.

That night Belshazzar was killed and the Persians entered Babylon. As a power, Babylon ended—absorbed into the Persian kingdom. It was over, like a thief in the night.

Modern Babylon to fall

But Babylon has a long story within the Bible. When we go to the book of Revelation, we see a modern version of this ancient system dominating the world scene. Revelation 17 shows a woman sitting on a scarlet beast with a name on her forehead saying, "MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH" (verse 5).

This system, a combination of religion and politics, controls the world for a brief but significant time prior to the coming of Jesus Christ. The world will be lulled into a sense of peace and security by this system that will come together in the guise of safety and security.

While this system will impact the entire world, there are signs it will be weak in its foundation. Again, size will make it a complex system. Many nations, ethnicities, cultures and languages will be in play. Technology, by itself a complicated and tenuous structure, will tether together the diversity of the world. It will be an unstable mixture that will quickly unravel.

Revelation 17:16 shows the "beast" turning on the woman and eating her flesh. Revelation 18:8 says, "Therefore her plagues will come in one day—death and mourning and famine. And she will be utterly burned with fire, for strong is the Lord God who judges her... For in one hour your judgment has come" (Revelation 18:8, 10, emphasis added).

Once again, judgment comes quickly—unexpectedly. Whether it is days or months is unclear, but it will likely not be much longer given the time frame of prophecy in this period. Like ancient Babylon falling in one night, we see that sudden change can come upon a nation even as life appears to be normal.

Christ's warning

Jesus Christ said people would be going about a normal life and caught unaware of the momentous changes occurring. "But take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness, and cares of this life, and that Day come on you unexpectedly. For it will come as a snare on all those who dwell on the face of the whole earth" (Luke 21:34-35).

Once again, we see the warning that events can occur "like a thief in the night." What Niall Ferguson noted in his article about the decline and fall of nations finds support in Scripture. But there is a difference. Ferguson and most modern historians focus on demographics and economic factors. They miss the spiritual dimension of God as we have noted in the Bible.

To ignore and deny the hand of God in history is to miss the real meaning of history and current world events. It is to deny God, and that is what is at the heart of any decline and fall.

The problem of idolatry

Nebuchadnezzar had to learn this lesson the hard way. He looked at the kingdom he established and thought it was all done by his wisdom and cunning. Like any despot in history, he was pretty high on himself; and when he surveyed the splendor of Babylon in a pride-filled boast, he came face to face with reality. God figuratively grabbed him by the pants and made him face reality.

He went mad for seven years. His mental state made him a prisoner in his body with no ability to act or think rationally. And then, just as suddenly, he returned to normal and resumed his position in the kingdom. He learned a lesson—that God's control of leaders and nations is the critical factor in world affairs. The last few verses of Daniel 4, where this part of the story is told, form a final word on the reign of Nebuchadnezzar.

The words of the prophets, including Jesus Christ, teach us the critical lesson needed to understand why nations can suddenly collapse when all the signs say otherwise. Whether it was God's chosen people, Israel, or another empire, when a people fail to acknowledge God and lapse into idolatry, putting themselves first, they set out on a road to collapse. It may take several generations, but it is inevitable. The fall can take a few decades or only a few years. But when God's time is ready, nothing can turn it back.

This is why the present state of affairs in America and its role in the world is so critical. Since the end of World War II, America has been the defender of what has been called the "free world." Its nuclear shield protected Europe during the Cold War, allowing its economies to rebuild. The U.S. Navy has kept the sea lanes of the world open to commerce. Its armies have combated terrorism, responded to genocide and been a deterrent to rogue nations like North Korea and Iran.

America's rising debt will one day cause it to retreat from this historic role as a global protector. When that day happens, it will signal a change, perhaps a collapse, in its role as a superpower. What follows will likely be quick and sudden, "like a thief in the night."

When the day comes that America and the English-speaking peoples relinquish their historic and biblically based role in the modern world, the world will be a different place. Only then, as one historian notes, will the world mourn the passing of a decent and noble people. WNP