A Culture of Death
In Revelation 17:1-18:24 John is granted a vision of the whore Babylon. The picture is not pretty: she wears luxuriant clothing and ostentatious jewelry, holding a cup full of abominations from which the nations drink, and sits intoxicated on the blood of the saints and martyrs of Jesus. She has the illusion of life and wealth, yet it is all a show: her wealth is founded upon oppression and violence against others, and she is dead spiritually even as she professes to live.
Thus God in Christ spoke of Rome in the first century. Rome as Babylon proved an apt metaphor when we understand what Babylon represents throughout Scripture: human authority arrogating itself against God and His purposes. Thus, whereas it was God’s purpose for Judah and Jerusalem to experience judgment at the hands of Babylon, the prophets denounced Babylon for its presumption and arrogance against God and man, with its king as the Lucifer brought down into oblivion, and doom foretold for the city (cf. Isaiah 14:3-23, Jeremiah 50:1-51:60). Long before this the fall of man was made complete and final at Babylon: the Tower of Babel, in which man sought to outwit God and His purposes to make a name for himself and create his own kind of community according to his own desires (Genesis 11:1-9).
God is the Source of light and life (John 1:1-5); man’s corruption has brought darkness, sin, and death (Romans 5:12-21). Those who recognize God’s sovereignty and seek His purposes perceive His hand in the creation; many, in their corruption, deny the plain truth before them, and God gives them over to their desires, and they are darkened in their deception (Romans 1:18-32). Therefore, that which is firmly grounded and built on what God has accomplished in the creation and through Jesus can promote a culture of light and life; yet all that which is founded upon rebellion or resistance against what God has accomplished in the creation and through Jesus promotes a culture of darkness and death.
A culture of death has proven pervasive in the world from antiquity until the present time. Wherever we find a “Babylon,” humans arrogating the presumptions and privileges of God for their own advantage and benefit, a culture of death follows. The Apostles saw it in Rome who brought peace at the end of a sword, exploiting the populations of the ancient Mediterranean world to enrich themselves, exposing the darkness within at any point its power or prestige was threatened. Undesirable children were exposed; undesirable people were marginalized. The gods of the people were capricious, divinities to placate more than adore, and whose behavior few thought worthy to emulate. The Pax Romana brought peace and prosperity rarely matched in world history; the privileged few benefited mightily; and yet the vast majority were exploited more than valued, without hope and much integrity in the world.
Modern culture all the more manifests this “Babylonian” tendency. We may still speak many languages, and yet we can now see and speak of a “global community” more realistically today than at any point in human history since Babel. And what unites this global community? The search for exploitation of resources and profit. Many may speak a good word about seeking what is best for people and to facilitate life; in deed people do whatever it takes to make a living, no matter the cost to other people or the environment. Our global culture, therefore, is a culture of death.
The culture of death underlies much of the difficulties, challenges, and matters of disagreement in modern society. The culture of death manifests itself most explicitly in the valuation of life itself, often seen as temporary beneficial in the best of circumstances and a burden otherwise. Far too many people view life through the lens of utilitarianism, or even worse, money, thinking of their own lives, and the lives of others, as only valuable and good when they are put to “profitable use,” or only worth living as long as they have money in the bank. To far too many, life itself is not seen as a good in and of itself; it is only as good as its “quality.” For many a new and growing life in the womb is only worth as much as it is valued by the woman bearing it, to be maintained or dispensed with at her leisure. For others the value of life is in direct relationship with the moral rectitude of a person: “good people” ought to have full privileges and enjoy all the benefits of life, but anyone who proves to be “less than good” are dehumanized in many ways and deprived of standing, liberty, and often life itself, without much care or concern. Woe to those who are poor, not of the majority color or culture, disabled, mentally ill, or who otherwise cannot fully perform or function to the satisfaction of the technocratic/meritocratic elite! Selective abortion to eliminate girls or certain genetic diseases grows more prevalent; taking the lives of those who endure illness gains further acceptance. In the name of abstract ideals people prove all too willing to sacrifice the actual lives of many other people, whether in pursuit of a system like communism or a principle like the freedom to bear arms (and the fetish surrounding guns is itself a testimony to a culture of death!).
In our culture of death hyper-individualism erodes values which might affirm and uphold the value and integrity of life. Everything is now about the individual and caters to his or her preferences. We are conditioned to want more, to use more, to think of ourselves and what benefits us, and to honor those preferences above what might be best for others and the creation as a whole. Human sexuality, with new life as the intended fruit of its consummation, has become purely about personal desire, preference, and control. In our culture, if a pregnancy occurs and it is not a convenient or preferable time for “me,” “I” get to choose my preference. And this assumes an “unintended” pregnancy; not a few people now presume complete and entire control over whether they will procreate and perpetuate life at all, and to what degree, without any regard to the health and sustenance of the community. As a result, in the Western world, we are not even meeting the level of population replacement; and many cheer. For over a century many have been concerned about overpopulation, presuming that procreation and the perpetuation of life (also, normally the life of The Other somewhere else, not those of “us” and “our people”) is itself the problem!
Our culture of death is especially acute in terms of how we treat other people. Other people are those who get in our way; we tend to see them as hindrances and potential threats, for we assume they seek their advantage even if it is to our disadvantage, since we are primed to think in the same way. We tend to not see life as something in which we share together; instead, it’s a “dog-eat-dog” world, in which we are to consume lest we find ourselves consumed, and other people exist to provide services and satisfaction of our needs. Other people are disposable: if they do not provide us any benefit, we often have nothing more to do with them. Those who wish to gain an advantage understand the power of fearmongering and the dehumanization of other people; modern culture has invested far too much energy in making people of other skin colors and cultures to be less than human, less valuable and important than we are, and thus literally disposable. Over the past century millions upon millions of lives have been extinguished or significantly demeaned by others who thought of them as less advanced, more animalistic, and thus not worthy of the dignity of humanity. We keep saying “never again,” and yet it happens again and again, and is happening right now in many parts of the world.
The Roman historian Tacitus quoted Calgacus, who in a speech said of the Romans: “they plunder, they slaughter, and they steal: this they falsely name Empire, and where they make a wasteland, they call it peace” (Agricola 30). How much more is this true of modern society! At no other point in human history have people so thoroughly manipulated the environment to their own ends, and everywhere we look we see death. Scientists are now speaking of a major extinction event precipitated by human interference in almost every corner of the world. Like Babel we build glistening cities, temples to human ingenuity and control of the environment, and think them to be fantastic paradises, and yet they are devoid of most life. We build structures and do all we can to keep them neat, tidy, and clean: in another word, sterile. We have paved over God’s good creation, turning much of it into a wasteland, and think highly of ourselves in the process for having “developed” it. Never before have people been so disconnected from the natural creation which God has made; likewise, never before have people felt so confident in their ability to control and manipulate the environment. We shall see how sustainable this arrogance will prove; the testimony of history does not give much hope for it. What is sown will be reaped; as in the prophets, the land can tolerate only so much degradation before those who live upon it suffer (cf. Hosea 4:1-3).
Thus, everywhere we look, we see that “Babylonian” impulse to power over everything: other people, the environment, life itself. In its wake is not life but death as is fitting for a culture that does not regard God as the Giver and Sustainer of life and all good things but thinks of no higher power than mankind in its corruption. What was given by God in stewardship is seen as a birthright to exploit and abuse however we may desire. All we build is to make a name for ourselves and to mightily resist any kind of natural limitation we may find imposed upon us. We are separated from the natural world; we are increasingly isolated from each other, with relationships ever more mediated by technology. No wonder we find ourselves ever more despondent and depressed; we are slowly but surely unplugging ourselves from all the sources of life which God has created, sustained, and nourished. Alienation, despair, and death thus inevitably follow.
The picture of whore Babylon which John saw was ugly: a veneer of youth, health, and prosperity masking the stench of the death which sustained it. And so it is with modern culture. It cannot be sustained; it cannot last; a day of judgment must come. As with whore Babylon, so with modern culture: many will lament and mourn over its collapse, for those who lament will have lost economic opportunity, but few if any will work mightily to try to rescue modern culture. Its judgment will be just.
And yet such is the way of the world. The power behind the image of Rome as Babylon is seeing the “Babylonian” tendency behind every “civilization” which attempts to impose its sense of power and order in the world. Rome fell; if the Lord does not yet return, the modern globalist consensus will fall; but something will arise in its place. The world remains under the powers and principalities of this present darkness (Ephesians 6:12), entranced by the myth of redemptive violence, believing that though the power of death and exploitation peace and prosperity can be found.
There is no escape from the culture of death in the corrupted world of sin and death; we must instead be delivered from this body of death by what God has accomplished in the Lord Jesus Christ. We must turn away from the world and its ways and not be deceived into thinking that a culture of life rooted in God will be advanced by a culture of death rooted in that “Babylonian” corrupted impetus to power and exploitation. Victory comes through standing firm in God despite suffering and death while holding firm to the testimony of Jesus who Himself suffered and died and gained the victory (Romans 8:1-5, Revelation 12:11). Legislation backed by the coercive power of the state might alleviate certain difficulties and problems to some extent, but neither legislation nor the coercive power of the state can provide true and eternal life; only God offers this in the Gospel of Christ (Romans 1:16).
As Christians the decision is given to us: will we truly live as God’s chosen, and therefore exiles and sojourners seeking eternal life by living according to the Gospel of Christ in the midst of a culture of death, or will we fall prey to the siren songs of the world and eagerly participate in the ways of Babylon, vainly thinking that we can somehow advance God’s culture of life through the means and methods of the culture of death? May we truly uphold a culture of life in Christ, and eschew the culture of death in all of its forms, and take hold of life indeed!
Ethan R. Longhenry