When God is dead - Revelation 13
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
‘Imagine there’s no heaven. It’s easy if you try. No hell below us, above us only sky.’ Such was John Lennon’s dream in his famous song, ‘Imagine’. Presumably no heaven and no hell means there is no God too. If we imagine this, says Lennon, then we are freed up to imagine a world of peace and harmony. In short, if God is dead then all will be well. The lyrics of Lennon are mild compared to the diatribe of Dawkins. For him God is, ‘a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty, ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential [I had to look that one up], megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.’  Don’t you wish that Dawkins would stop holding back and tell us what he really thinks?! There is no doubt in Dawkins mind, then, that the world would be a much better place without God.
Now this attempt to ‘kill off God’, as it were, and render belief in God as something evil or at least irrelevant, has been gathering momentum since the middle of the 19th century. It was a German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who wrote a parable in which the main character, a man called Zarathustra, was the first person to use the phrase ‘God is dead’; meaning that he never really existed and the sooner we wake up to the fact the better. In the story, Zarathustra says to a young man- a believer, ‘There is nothing of what you speak; there is no devil and no hell. Your soul will be dead even sooner than your body, so don’t fear anything any more.’ In other words, religion in general and Christianity in particular is fantasy. Nietzsche claimed that man was like a rope, stretched between an animal and a Superman- that is his evolutionary position and we need to hasten on to the next stage- the super-race. This is achieved by what he called ‘the will to power.’ Now, can you guess which famous politician of the 20th century was most influenced by that philosophy? It was none other than Adolf Hitler. He took the death of God seriously- the result? The death of millions.
So here is the question: what does our world begin to look like when God is considered not to exist or to be irrelevant - ‘weightless’- a world without God? Well, the Bible tells us what it is like. Better still it shows us, and it is graphically set before us there in Revelation 13.
So here is a world which has abandoned God: ‘1And the dragon stood on the shore of the sea. And I saw a beast coming out of the sea. He had ten horns and seven heads, with ten crowns on his horns, and on each head a blasphemous name. 2The beast I saw resembled a leopard, but had feet like those of a bear and a mouth like that of a lion. The dragon gave the beast his power and his throne and great authority. 3One of the heads of the beast seemed to have had a fatal wound, but the fatal wound had been healed. The whole world was astonished and followed the beast. 4Men worshipped the dragon because he had given authority to the beast, and they also worshipped the beast and asked, "Who is like the beast? Who can make war against him?" 5The beast was given a mouth to utter proud words and blasphemies and to exercise his authority for forty-two months. 6He opened his mouth to blaspheme God, and to slander his name and his dwelling place and those who live in heaven. 7He was given power to make war against the saints and to conquer them. And he was given authority over every tribe, people, language and nation. 8All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast--all whose names have not been written in the book of life belonging to the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world.’
Now, as I read that, at least two thoughts would have been going through your mind. The first was probably: this is weird and frightening. The second-what does it all mean? Well, before we spend most of our time exploring the second question, let me say that with regards to the first, what which may seem strange and unfamiliar to us would have been far from strange to the book’s first readers. This way of writing was well known in the world of the first century- just like ‘texting’ which has a language its own, is a familiar way of communicating amongst some people today. The language John uses is not literal but symbolic. You see this kind of writing- which is called ‘apocalyptic’- is designed to help us get a glimpse of the unseen spiritual realities at work behind the seen political realities by means of evocative pictures, numbers, colours and symbols. You might want to think of it like the way political cartoons are drawn today in newspapers. What a cartoon does is to highlight certain features which can be universally recognised and in a sense capture the character far better than a photograph. Well, that is the way these word ‘pictures’ are meant to operate. They are not literal but they are insightful.
So what does it all mean? Let’s start with ‘the beast’. Whatever it is has great strength. It has the speed of a leopard; the might of a bear and inspires the terror of a lion. It has tremendous authority too, for it has a throne and wears ten crowns. It has been through many a battle, having wounds, -v3- but it soon recovers and wins every time- and so appears unbeatable. It sees itself as answerable to no one, least of all God for it acts as if it were God- uttering blasphemies and demanding allegiance- worship. It is a world power for the whole world is astonished by it in v3 and is in awe of its greatness. Its might is formidable and its influence irresistible with every people’s group coming under its sway according to v7. So if you were living in the first century and you heard these words being read, you would pick up on the symbolism straight away- this is Rome. This is the arrogance of the Caesars who took to themselves divine titles. In the 60’s the emperor Nero had coins minted on which he was referred to as ‘the Saviour of the World’ would you believe? And in the 90’s, which was probably when this letter was written, the Emperor Domitian insisted people address him as ‘Our Lord and our God’. So what is being described here in the first instance is the gruesome reality of the only Empire to have lasted a thousand years- the Roman Empire.
But the writer is doing much more than stating the blindingly obvious- Rome Rules- everybody knew that. No, he is telling us something much more profound about what happens when a world abandons God, what happens when any person or society decides to go it alone and act as if it were God. For then it unknowingly surrenders itself to another beast, a supernatural creature described in verse 1 as, ‘the dragon’. Now in the previous chapter we are told exactly who this creature is in v9, he is ‘that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan who leads the world astray.’ And as the world is led further and further away from God and his laws then it nestles further and further into the bosom of Satan until society itself becomes devilish. So this is not just the first century world we are reading about, it is our world, it is any world which declares the blasphemies of v6 that God is in effect dead and needs to be replaced.
The dark, brooding scenario which the Bible paints is that a world without God is a world without hope. It is a frightening world; it’s a brutal world; it’s a dangerous world. One thing which stands out above all else in this apocalyptic nightmare is the dominance and abuse of power- hence the reference to thrones and crowns. It is by power the nations have been subdued. It is people and political systems which in abandoning God become agents of a supernatural evil power- such that they take on features of wild and ferocious animals- like leopards, bears and lions. You see, if God has been banished from his universe then all hell breaks loose sooner or later. There is no way of deciding what is right or wrong- so might becomes right. If there is no God to whom men and women are accountable- then you get away with what you can get away with. If this life is all there is- we come from nowhere and we are going nowhere-then we can all make up our own minds as to how we want to live and if it is the expense of others- tough on them. All that is now being exposed about the appalling depth and extent of sexual abuse in our country which has been going on for years is all about the abuse of power. Politicians, media personalities, gangs of men, even priests, all have power over the weak and the vulnerable and feel they are accountable to no one. And they have been colluded with by those whose duty it was to protect such people. Well, that’s the dragon at work for sure.
In a world without God two things invariably follow:
First, no one is safe- v 10: ‘If anyone is to go into captivity, into captivity he will go. If anyone is to be killed with the sword, with the sword he will be killed.’ Take off the restraints and killing and conquest will be the result. But you say, ‘Hang on a minute’ ‘Aren’t most wars caused by religion?’ You would think so to hear some people talk. ‘The real axis of evil,’ one British journalist responded to counter President Bush, is ‘Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.’ Now I am not here to defend ‘religion’ and certainly not those religions which promote violent. And yes, there have been things done in the name of Christianity which should not have been done and for which we should hang our heads in shame. It is reckoned that 10,000 died in the Inquisition. And without minimizing such things, nonetheless some kind of perspective is needed for those who would blame all the world’s troubles on religion. Let me ask: Which century was the atheist’s century? The answer is that it was the 20th century. This is the period Alexander Solzhenitsyn dubbed ‘the cave man century.’ It was that arch atheist Joseph Stalin who said ‘A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic’ and he should have known because under him over 40 million of his fellow countrymen were wiped out. Between 1914 and 1990 the population of the world tripled, ‘but’ writes Philip Bobbit, ‘an estimated 187 million persons –about 10% of the population of 1900- were killed or fated to die by human agency.’ 2 million people died in Cambodia’s killing fields under Pol Pot- a quarter of the population. And from where did he get the idea that wholesale slaughter was acceptable? The Bible? Hardly, it was in Paris as he studied under another atheist- Jean Paul Sartre. 65 million died under Mao- also an atheist. Of course no one is safe when God is declared dead because it is then left up to men to make up the rules and you can be quite sure they will not be benign, not if they have the power of the beast.
Now we might think, ‘Well, we are safe because we live in a democratic society.’ Really? Those 1400 abused children in Rochdale lived in a democratic society. What commends democracy is not that it ensures good government, for useless governments have been voted in the world over. Hitler was voted in! What it is meant to do is put a limit on the power of governments so that if we are not pleased with those ruling we do have the opportunity to get rid of them every four years or so. But what happens when the power to decide right and wrong is surrendered to the majority vote? Well, then by virtue of a 51% what was considered unthinkable becomes law: euthanasia for example- it certainly won’t be safe to be an old person if that comes in. But if there is no higher law to which we can appeal- then that is all you are left with- might is right. You may not like it but you can hardly argue against it. Everything is reduced to power politics-the winners are those who have loudest voices with which to shout you down or have the biggest club with which to bash you down.
‘But’ you say, ‘there are plenty of atheists who are opposed to violence and believe in democracy.’ Of course there are. But what I am saying is that they have no rational basis from which to object to people being violent if that is what they want to do –if- at bottom- there is no God. Say goodbye to God in the heavens and you can say goodbye to peace on earth- and history testifies to that time and time again.
Let’s be honest: by all the social indicators available are we happier as a society than we were 50 years ago- with the increase in depression, suicide, drug abuse, sexual disease, and family breakdown? For certain we have many more things, but then we have to employ more antitheft devices to protect them. Did you know that in 1921 there was 1 crime recorded for every 370 inhabitants in England and Wales, in 2001 it was 1 for every ten.
But secondly, in a world without God, no limit is set. The 1960’s has been called the permissive society. That is not quite so. A more accurate description would be the ‘transgressive society’- the thrill was in breaking whatever rule there was. But what happens when there are no more rules to break, especially since there is no God to give us the rules? The answer- chaos and decay. Who cares about litter being thrown around which looks unsightly since we have exhibitions made up of the stuff at the Tate gallery and this is called ‘art’? Who cares if the most obscene language is now coming from the mouths of 5 year olds- it is only the language which appears on our TV screens and it is called entertainment. No. What we are seeing is what happens to a world where God is weightless.
So let me tell you the good news about the God who has not abandoned his world. Notice in verse 7 that this beast ‘was given power’ to make war against the saints- that is Christians. Who do you think gave this power? The answer is God. When a people decide to turn their backs on their Maker, it is only because God permits them to do so. He gives them over to the logical outcome of their thinking and desires. But if God were to totally give us up then it would be hell. In the meantime, that is where we are heading. But may it not be that through this, ‘giving us up’ that God is wanting us to recognise what a terrible and foolish thing it is to ignore him and so come back to him before it is too late?
You see, what we need is not a new resolve, we need a new power; a power which comes from God and is directed by God. We need someone with whom we can co-operate who will lovingly rule, guide and guard our lives; someone who will start to clean up the dirt in our souls and put us back in touch with our Maker. And in verse 8 we are told that God has given us such a one- he is referred to as, ‘The Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world.’ He is speaking about the Lord Jesus Christ. This is the Son of God, our creator, who came into the very world being described here. He didn’t flaunt his power to oppress people; he channelled his power to help people- giving sight to the blind, healing to the sick, hope to the despairing. He came and taught us how we were meant to live- not killing off our enemies but loving them. He overcame social divisions, so that people who would normally be at each other’s throats like tax collectors and revolutionaries, he joined together into one group of followers- what was to become the church. But more than all of these he was to give his life over to be slaughtered, like a sacrificial lamb. In a plan worked out with his heavenly Father in eternity past, he was to pay the debt for this moral rebellion of ours and clear away the barrier we have made between us and God, by dying on a cross. That is what it means to speak of him ‘being slain from the foundation of the world’. That was the day God really did die. That was the day we took our Maker and murdered him. But three days later he was raised to life as the rightful King of the whole universe.
A world without God is a world without hope, but there is a God, there is a ruler, his name is Jesus and so there is hope. Can our society be changed? That was a question William Wilberforce asked in 1797 and he believed that, yes, it could, if God’s people humbly responded to God’s call to live out the Gospel. This is what he wrote then, and it is still a word for us now, ‘(I admit my firm conviction) that our national difficulties must be both directly and indirectly be ascribed to the decline of religion and morality. The only solid hope for the well-being of our country depend not so much on her fleets and armies, the wisdom of her rulers, or the spirit of her people, as on the realisation that she still contains many, who, in a degenerate age, love and obey the Gospel of Christ. My humble trust is that the prayers of these may still prevail and that, for their sake, God may still favour us.’
 The God Delusion p 31.
 Real Christianity, p 176
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