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“He shall be a wild man: his hand will be against all men, and all men’s hands against him: and he shall pitch his tents over against all his brethren.” (Genesis 16:12)

In the Gospel According to St Luke 21:24 we read “and they shall fall by the edge of the sword; and shall be led away captives into all nations; and Jerusalem shall be trodden down by the Gentiles; till the times of the nations be fulfilled.” The verse speaks of the sack of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. It is a rather disturbing verse as it implies that when the Jews recover possession of the earthly Jerusalem the ‘time of the nations [will] be fulfilled’. In various places the New Testament foretells a great apostasy of the Gentiles preceding the end of time. As Our Lord says in Luke 18:8 “the Son of man, when he cometh, shall he find, think you, faith on earth?” Indeed, in the discourse of which Luke 21:24 forms a part there is a clear shift at this very verse from describing the sack of Jerusalem to describing the end of the world. The very last event prophesied before the return of the Lord is the conversion of the Jews. As St Paul explains in Romans 11 “For if the loss of them be the reconciliation of the world, what shall the receiving of them be, but life from the dead? … For I would not have you ignorant, brethren, of this mystery, (lest you should be wise in your own conceits), that blindness in part has happened in Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles should come in and so all Israel should be saved”. But between the falling away of the Gentiles and the conversion of the Jews there intervenes the reign of the Antichrist.

The old city of Jerusalem was recaptured by the Jews on 7th June 1967. One would have to be very blind not to have perceived a great falling away of the nations since that time. This carries the alarming implication that things are only going in one direction and that the Antichrist is on his way. It is slightly chilling that in revelation when the 144,000 are enumerated from the twelve tribes they are all alive while the ‘great multitude’ of the Gentile Christians are all dead. It is as if the remnant of the faithful in the time of Antichrist will all be children of Abraham (or rather Jacob) according to the flesh as well as the spirit. It is slightly consoling that the elect are drawn from all twelve tribes and who knows who might be descended from Israel in the female line? Another mysterious statement in Revelation 14:1-4 implies the Israelite elect will all be celibate. This might resolve a difficulty St Augustine raises towards the end of the De Civitate Dei. St Augustine notes that Our Lord says it is only possible to despoil the property of the strong man while he is bound and  Revelation tells us that in the last days the Devil will be unbound. St Augustine considers the possibility that during the three and a half years during which the Antichrist will rule the world no one will be justified. He discards this idea because of the efficacy of infant baptism. However, if the remainder of the faithful at this time are all celibate, infant baptism may not be such an objection. Our Lord even says in Matthew 24:37-39 “And as in the days of Noe, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. For as in the days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, even till that day in which Noe entered into the ark, and they knew not till the flood came, and took them all away; so also shall the coming of the Son of man be.”

So, if the gentiles are to fall away entirely until only a tiny number of celibate Catholics, all descended from Jacob, remain, where will the Gentiles fall away to? A monk once showed me a book (written by a Protestant) given to him by a Cardinal which pointed out the startling similarities between the eschatology of the Mohammedans and that of the New Testament. The one key difference is that the heroes of Mohammedan eschatology are the villains of Christian prophecy. In Christian eschatology there are two key figures behind the final persecution of the Church: the Antichrist and the False Prophet. These correspond to the first and second beasts of Revelation 13. One is a great temporal ruler and the other his false religious auxiliary. Yet there seems to be some confusion in the tradition, for while the temporal ruler seems to take the lead and it is towards him that the False Prophet directs the worship of the reprobate, it is the second beast – the False Prophet – who is described as impersonating the Messiah “two horns, like a lamb, and he spoke as a dragon”.  Yet it is normally the first beast who is though to be the Antichrist. The hero of Mohammedan eschatology is the Mahdi who will subject the entire world to Islamic rule. In his time Isa (the Mohammedan Jesus) will return. The Mahdi will offer to defer to the pseudo-Jesus but the latter will recognise Mahdi as greater. Isa will then commence the extermination of all remaining Jews and Christians on earth (two groups which, it would seem from the New Testament, may by then be materially identical). This suddenly makes a lot of sense of the two figures in the New Testament. Indeed, St Hippolytus in his treatise on the Antichrist seems to suspect that this is partly why the second beast has two horns: “By the beast, then, coming up out of the earth, he means the kingdom of Antichrist; and by the two horns he means him and the false prophet after him. And in speaking of the horns being like a lamb, he means that he will make himself like the Son of God, and set himself forward as king.”

In Galatians, St Paul famously contends that Ishmael is a type of the unbelieving Jews. As Ishmael was a slave so they are bound in servile subjection to the law. As Ishmael lived out his life in Arabia so they are bound to the covenant given on Sinai “a mountain in Arabia”. As he was rejected in favour of the miraculous son of the promise so they have been rejected in favour of the miraculously converted multitude of the Gentiles. How does this typology run once the children of Isaac after the flesh have once more become children of the promise? If the apostasy of the Jews means the conversion of the nations and the conversion of the Jews (and apostasy of the nations) means the end of the world might it not be that the return of the Jews to the promises of God will mean the transformation of the Gentiles into children of Ishmael according to the spirit?

“But what saith the scripture? Cast out the bondwoman and her son; for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the free woman.” (Galatians 4:30)

Newman, writing still as an Anglican, defends the traditional idea that the Roman Empire is the the power alluded to by St Paul as ‘that which restrains’ the coming of the antichrist. He raises the difficulty that the Roman empire has apparently passed away, as the Greek, Persian and Babylonian ones did before it. He replies

It is difficult to say whether the Roman Empire is gone or not; in one sense, it is gone, for it is divided into kingdoms; in another sense, it is not, for the date cannot be assigned at which it came to an end, and much might be said in various ways to show that it may be considered still existing, though in a mutilated and decayed state.

Of course one might suggest dates for the end of the empire: AD 476, AD 1453, AD 1805, AD 1918 – though perhaps this very multiplicity of possible dates supports Newman’s contention. Yet in what sense, if any, can the Empire be said still to exist: to be ‘dormant’, as he says, rather than extinct? Is it not just special pleading to claim that this empire has not vanished like the three preceding empires?

The first thing that could be said is that no other empire has succeeded to the Roman one as earlier ones succeeded to it. Newman, and the Fathers, are vindicated here. But that by itself is not enough to show that it somehow still exists. So should we say that it has left an indelible mark on the memory and imagination of Western man, as a hot iron could brand someone’s face with a mark that would remain after it was taken away? Is it in this sense that the Empire remains? Or might we say that its laws, language, measures, divisions of land, tools and architecture are the foundation for ours: that despite the the revolutions that have taken place here and there in many of these things, the organic link joining us to our Roman past has not been wholly snapped?

Or are we to say that the Roman empire has indeed now gone; and that the hour is later than we suppose?

The vision:-

The Lord answered and said: ‘Take me a cow of three years old, and a she goat of three years, and a ram of three years, a turtle also, and a pigeon. And he took all these, and divided them in the midst, and laid the two pieces one against the other; but the birds he divided not. And the fowls came upon the carcasses, and Abram drove them away. And when the sun was setting, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a great and darksome horror seized upon him… And when the sun was set, there arose a dark mist, and there appeared a smoking furnace and a lamp of fire passing between those divisions.

An interpretation:-

‘He did not divide the birds’ because carnal men are divided among themselves, whereas spiritual men are not divided in any way…The birds descending upon the divided carcasses do not signify anything good, but rather the spirits of this lower air, looking for their own food from the divisions of carnal men. That Abram sat by them signifies that even amidst those divisions of carnal men the truly faithful will persevere to the end. And the horror that assailed Abram around sunset, and the great and darksome fear, show that about the end of this era there will be great distress and tribulation coming on the faithful… Then follows this description: ‘Now when the sun was set, a flame appeared and behold a smoking furnace and burning torches which passed between the divided carcasses.’ For the affliction of the City of God, such an affliction as has never happened before, which is to be expected in the future under the power of Antichrist, is symbolised by Abram’s mighty and darksome fear just before sunset, that is, when the end of the world is approaching. In the same way at sunset, that is, at the very end, this fire symbolises the day of judgement as it separates the carnal men who are to be saved by fire from those who are to be condemned to punishment in the fire (St Augustine, City of God, XVI, 24).

St Paul’s second epistle to the Thessalonians is a locus classicus:-

And you know what withholds, that he may be revealed in his time. For the mystery of iniquity already works; only he who now holds is to hold until he be taken out of the way. And then that wicked one shall be revealed (2 Thess. 2).

Bellarmine comments:-

Here Paul speaks, not venturing to write openly about the overthrow of the Roman Empire, which nevertheless he had clearly explained when he was with them, and the meaning is: ‘Do you know what hinders the coming of antichrist? I told you, the Roman Empire hinders it, because its sins are not yet completed, and Antichrist, who will take this empire out of the way on account of its sins, will not come until they are completed. And so the one who now holds is to hold, that is, to reign, until he be taken out of the way, that is, abolished, and then that wicked one will be revealed (Tomus II, Liber III, caput V).

As Bellarmine shows in loc., this is a common view among the fathers, even though Augustine acknowledges that other interpretations are possible.  That the Roman imperial power was the historic force preventing Christ’s enemies from coalescing under one visible head was believed, strange as it may seem, even when the emperors were pagans and persecutors. It was still believed, naturally enough, when the emperors became the Church’s patrons   and protectors. It is as if, the birth of our Lord having been heralded by the decree going forth from Caesar Augustus, Caesar Augustus’s power must disappear before the anti-decree will go forth. But has not this been, as Maritain wrote in his study of St Paul, disproved by the facts?

The Eastern Roman Empire continued until Whit Tuesday, 1453. Within a lifetime the Protestant revolt had begun: the greatest undermining of the faith yet known. The Emperors of the West continued to have the Roman name until August 6th, 1806. In the lifetime that followed this, the basis of natural religion, namely belief in a personal God, ceased to be part of the general heritage of mankind. Insofar as the Roman imperial power and tradition continued, it was vested in the Austrian emperors until Hallowe’en 1918. In the lifetime that followed this date, natural law was destroyed. The Fathers, and Bellarmine, do not say that Antichrist would appear the day after the dethroning of the last emperor, but that the imperial power was preventing his arrival. Anti-Christian forces would always be at work, but independently one of another; once the imperial power was removed, they would, somehow, be freed to co-ordinate their efforts in view of a supreme attack. Finally, the last heir apparent to a reigning emperor died last year on Independence Day. It remains to be seen what will happen next.

By the awful course of the secret dispensation, before this Leviathan appears in that accursed man whom he assumes, signs of power are withdrawn from holy Church. For prophecy is hidden, the grace of healings is taken away, the power of longer abstinence is weakened, the words of doctrine are silent, the prodigies of miracles are removed. And though the heavenly dispensation does not entirely withdraw them, yet it does not manifest them openly and in manifold ways, as in former times. And this is so caused by a wonderful dispensation, in order that the divine mercy and justice may be fulfilled by one and the same means. For when holy Church appears as if she were more abject, on the withdrawal of signs of power, both the reward of the good increases, who reverence her for the hope of heavenly things, and not on account of present signs; and the mind of the wicked is more quickly displayed against her, who neglect to pursue the invisible things which she promises, when they are not constrained by visible signs (Commentary on Job 41:13, ‘Want shall go before his face’).