During the early years of the Spanish conquest of the West Indies, disease, enslavement and violence brought by the invaders decimated the indigenous people. One Taino chief, named Hatuey, fought against the Conquistadors until he was caught and tied to a stake. His captors, professed Christians, offered him the chance to convert, saying that if he did, rather than burn him alive, they would merely chop off his head. Plus, if he converted, he would have the hope of eternity in heaven, just as they did. He declined their “generous” offer, allegedly saying, “No, I don’t want to meet any more Christians.”
This horrific account reveals an unfortunate and uncomfortable truth: not everything done in the name of Christianity reflects the character of Jesus or His teachings. Considering His life, example and teachings, it is, indeed, very difficult to understand many of the things that have been done by those who claimed to be followers of Jesus—and in the name of Jesus Himself.
Of course, this hasn’t been a problem just among Christians. Whether it’s people flying jets into buildings in suicide attacks or inciting mobs to violence and arson or a host of other atrocities, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Atheism . . . all belief systems have had their names stained by those who’ve done horrific things that, in most cases, are contrary to the most basic principles of what they profess.
A false religion
The apostle Paul warned that, before the world ends, a very deceptive form of religion will arise, claiming the rights and authority that belong only to God Himself: “Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him,” he said, “we ask you, brothers and sisters, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by the teaching allegedly from us—whether by a prophecy or by word of mouth or by letter—asserting that the day of the Lord has already come. Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshipped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God” (2 Thessalonians 2:1–4, NKJV*).
These verses have been interpreted differently through the ages, but one crucial point is unmistakable: before the second coming of Jesus there will be a surge of false teaching in the religious world and someone, or more likely a religion, will emerge and seek to take the place of God; to usurp what belongs to Him only.
This idea makes very good sense in the context of the visions of the biblical book of Revelation, which in many places deal with the events that lead up to the second coming of Jesus and the end of the world. Revelation warns that an end-time religious and political system, symbolised by a beast that rises from the sea, will demand worship, even though the Bible is clear that God alone is to be worshipped.
Speaking of this false system, Revelation says that “it was given power to wage war against God’s holy people and to conquer them. And it was given authority over every tribe, people, language and nation. All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast—all whose names have not been written in the Lamb’s book of life, the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world” (13:7, 8).
Revelation also warns about a second beast—person, entity or system—that will come “out of the earth. It had two horns like a lamb, but it spoke like a dragon. It exercised all the authority of the first beast on its behalf, and made the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose fatal wound had been healed” (13:11, 12).
There’s a religious emphasis to the predictions in these texts, because the issue of worship is central. Worship belongs to God alone and not to any earthly religious or political system. The epic conflict between Christ and Satan, which began in heaven and has continued on earth for thousands of years, will climax in this final battle, which is about loyalty and obedience.
Revelation predicts that persecution will arise against those who refuse to worship this false power in the last days. “It [the beast] also forced all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name” (Revelation 13:16, 17). This will occur shortly before Christ comes the second time.
The rise of religion
With biblical insight, we see signs in current events that hint at this end-time religious persecution. Despite claims that, in our secular and scientific age, religion was headed for extinction—an anachronism, a superstition from a bygone age—the opposite has happened. Religion, including various forms of fundamentalism, is as strong as ever, exerting an influence over nations all around the world, and often in sinister ways.
For example, from the 1980s to 2011, one of the biggest drug cartels in Mexico was “La Familia”. It gained international notoriety in 2006, when five severed heads were rolled onto the dance floor at a disco in Mexico—the work of La Familia. Its members carried Bibles. They claimed that the people they killed deserved death and that their organisation, supposedly inspired by some American preachers, was in the business of (besides selling drugs) dishing out “divine justice”.
Of course, the usurping of religion isn’t always done as crassly as that, but religion still holds a powerful sway over billions of people. And despite the deep divisions seen among many religious groups, major efforts are being made to bring about as much unity as possible, especially in Christianity. Over the past 30 years great strides have been made in the ecumenical movement, which aims to bring various denominations together, including Catholics and Protestants.
The desire for political power, such as is seen in the Christian right in the United States, has been a strong impetus for this union. Divided and fighting among themselves, these religious groups can’t wield the political power they’d like to. So they’re putting aside their religious differences in order to use their combined power to influence the political system for their own ends.
One example of this is the desire on the part of the religious right—and promised by President Donald Trump—to abolish the so-called Johnson Amendment to tax law. The change would allow churches to openly speak in favour of certain candidates and against others.
"We see signs in current events that hint at this end-time persecution."
In the time of Jesus, the Pharisees and Sadducees—rival sects within Judaism—put aside their religious differences and worked together against Jesus, ultimately going to the secular Roman authorities to have Him executed. And for several centuries before the Reformation swept through Europe, the Catholic Church was using secular authorities to execute religious dissidents on its behalf, as in the case of John Huss, who was burned at the stake.
According to the Bible, something similar will happen in the last days. As mentioned earlier, a massive religious system will work with the secular authorities to persecute those who refuse to worship as this power demands.
The book of Revelation refers to this end-time religio-political system as “Babylon”, borrowing the name of the genocidal empire that conquered and exiled the Jews in antiquity. The apostle John, recounting his visions in Revelation, said, “I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries. The name written on her forehead was a mystery: Babylon the great the mother of prostitutes and of the abominations of the earth. I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of God’s holy people, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus. When I saw her, I was greatly astonished” (17:3–6).
Though much more could be said about this neo-Babylon, two things are clear: it’s religious, because it was “covered with blasphemous names”; and it persecuted God’s faithful people—it was “drunk with the blood of the saints”. In an age of globalisation and instant communication, where religious passions still run violently high at times, it isn’t hard to see this kind of power someday manifesting itself in some very sinister ways.
At the same time, however, the Bible tells us that this Babylon will be destroyed in the end: “Therefore in one day her plagues will overtake her: death, mourning and famine. She will be consumed by fire, for mighty is the Lord God who judges her” (Revelation 18:8).
Indeed, amid all the gloom and doom, one great bright spot will appear, a powerful sign of the end. Jesus said that before He returns, as the last sign heralding His coming, the entire planet will be made aware of His saving grace: “This gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14, italics added).
In a time of incredible mass communication, the gospel is being preached everywhere as never before so that everyone can have a chance to hear the good news of Jesus and His work of salvation for us. This has to be one of the greatest signs that we are nearing the end of this world before Jesus returns.
There’s no question that we live in troubled times, and circumstances will unfortunately worsen before they improve. But the great gospel promise is that our difficult life on this earth will end someday, and Jesus will take us to a place that’s free of evil and persecution.
* Bible texts in this article taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used with permission. All rights reserved.