Is the USA the “mystery Babylon” of the Bible?

Q. I’ve heard that there is a reference in the Bible to a sort of “second-chance glorious period of prosperity” for “mystery Babylon,” and that this may be referring to the USA. If so, where is that reference?

The reference in the Bible to “mystery Babylon” is in Chapter 17 of the book of Revelation. However, there are several problems with the interpretation that you have heard of this reference.

First, “mystery” is not part of the name of this place. The statement should be translated, “On her forehead a name was written, a mystery: ‘Babylon the great, the mother of prostitutes and the vile things of the earth.'” Most modern Bibles translate the statement this way. It is saying that the name has a secret meaning that needs to be figured out.

Second, nothing in the depiction of this “Babylon” indicates any kind of “second chance” or “prosperity.” The book of Revelation says repeatedly that God has judged and is about the punish the entity being depicted under this symbolic name.

And finally, there is no compelling reason to associate this “Babylon” with the USA or any contemporary nation. In the original context of the book of Revelation, as I will explain shortly, this is a symbolic reference to the Roman Empire as a persecutor of Christians. In later times, particularly as history nears its culmination, there may be a further fulfillment of this image. But we cannot say with any precision now whether history is nearing its culmination, or what that further fulfillment may be.

I will quote below from the section in my study guide to the book of Revelation that discusses this passage, after quoting from another section that explains the interpretive approach that I take to the book. (You can read the whole study guide online or download it at this link.) I hope that all of this helps to address your question.

Comments about interpreting Revelation

The book of Revelation is interpreted in four major ways. The futurist
approach understands it to be a description of the events of the “end times,” at the end of human history. (Works like the novels and movies in the Left Behind series follow this approach.) The historicist view sees the book as a prediction of the whole course of history, from Jesus and the apostles down through the present to the end of the history. The idealist interpretation is that Revelation depicts the struggles and triumphs that followers of Jesus will experience everywhere, but it doesn’t have any particular place or time in view. The preterist approach is to try to understand the book by reference to the time and place it was written in—western Asia Minor towards the close of the first century. This study guide will consistently pursue a preterist interpretation. If this is new for you, and you’re used to hearing the book treated differently, please keep an open mind and look for the potential benefits of this approach.

Comments about the vision of Babylon

The fall of Rome (“Babylon the Great”) has been announced; the book of Revelation now zooms in on this event to depict it in more detail. This depiction forms a distinct section within the book. It’s marked off at its beginning and end by interactions that John has with one of the angels who had the seven bowls. John says once again that he’s “in the Spirit,” meaning that he’s receiving a new vision, this time in “a wilderness.” (His long vision of heavenly worship and divine judgments will conclude after this section.)

This vision of the “fall of Babylon” makes the audacious claim that Rome, then at the height of its power, will collapse. Rome will be judged for its emperor worship, and for its persecution of God’s people, but also for its addiction to luxury and self-indulgence and how this has affected the rest of the world.

Rome is depicted as a “great prostitute.” This is a literal reference to the city’s immorality, and a figurative reference, using a common Scriptural motif, to its idolatry. The details of the portrait are intended to identify the guilty city and emperor.

Some details are transparent. John’s audience would have clearly understood “the great city that rules over the kings of the earth” to mean Rome. The famous “seven hills” that the city sits on reinforce this identification. Other details can be understood in light of the symbolism in Revelation and its Scriptural background.

The “beast” that “once was, now is not, and will come up out of the Abyss and go to its destruction” is likely a depiction of  the persecuting spirit of Nero that has come back to life in the person of Domitian. The emperor’s pretensions to divinity are being parodied by contrast to the true God, who “was, and is, and is to come.” The “ten horns” are explained as “ten kings,” likely symbolizing all of the rulers under Rome’s authority (ten being a number of completeness). At first these rulers will be loyal to Rome, but they will then turn against the city and help destroy it, as depicted in this vision. They’ll do this under the influence of the “beast,” the spirit of empire gone bad, which to this point has been the force behind Rome and its persecuting emperor, but which will abandon the city in the end. The beast itself will be destroyed when Jesus “judges” it “with justice.”

The biggest puzzle in the portrait is the identity of the “seven heads” that
represent “seven kings.” As he did for the number of the beast, John says that this “calls for a mind with wisdom,” meaning that there’s some kind of twist to the puzzle—some key to how the kings (apparently Roman emperors) are being counted. Unfortunately, a straightforward solution to this puzzle has not yet been identified. Interpreters offer a variety of explanations. But in some way John is trying to portray the persecuting emperor as the culmination of imperial arrogance (seven being a number of totality), which then takes a further step into satanic evil as the emperor becomes “the beast,” “an eighth king.”

In whatever way its individual details are interpreted, the vulgar image
of “Babylon,” the “great prostitute” reveals that Rome, despite its wealth, splendor, and pretensions, has been corrupting the world and is “drunk with the blood of God’s people.” It fully deserves the judgment it is about to receive.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.