Wednesday, 1 May 2013

The rise of the final world empire: the different views

Most Christians believe that God inspired the Biblical prophets to speak about future events, some of which will only happen during the "end times" shortly before the second coming of Jesus Christ. If this is correct [1], some of the paradigmatic events mentioned in these prophecies could signal the onset of that period to those living at that time. In this article, I focus on one such event which many Christians consider to be of utmost importance, namely the rise of the final world empire. Although Bible prophecies provide many details about this empire, there are various interpretations possible. Some place the relevant events in the past, others in the future: seeing the rise of various regional economic blocks around the world, the rise of militant Islam (following the Arab Spring) or the rise of the European Union as the precursor to this empire. But who is correct?  

When it comes to Bible prophecy, it is easy to be drowned by lots and lots of Bible verses referring to this or that event. For the reader who is not familiar with these passages and its possible interpretations, this could be an overwhelming experience. In this article, I, therefore, keep things simple and restrict the discussion to one particular prophetic image that is widely considered as referring to the final world empire which will rise in the period before the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. This is the image of the great and terrible beast depicted in the Book of Daniel (chapter 7) [2]. Of special importance to our discussion is the meaning of the ten horns found on the head of this beast. I will give a short overview of the prophecy and then discuss various interpretations thereof, some (but not all) of which place the fulfilment of this prophecy in the end times.

The beast: past or future events?

According to the Book of Daniel, the prophet saw this beast in a vision that he had in the first year of the reign of the Babylonian ruler Belshazzar (son of King Nabonidus). He saw four great beasts in this vision, namely a lion, a bear, a leopard and finally, a “dreadful and terrible” beast (they are called "beasts" and not animals because they are all composite figures). This is one of those prophecies where there is general agreement among all interpreters that these beasts refer to various kingdoms (and kings), and that it should be read in geopolitical context. Although interpreters differ as to the precise meaning of these beasts, they all agree that they refer to various kingdoms or empires that appeared or will rise in the Middle East. Since it is a prophecy concerning the people of Israel, it seems that all these empires or rulers have reigned or will reign over the people of Israel.

Some interpreters, mainly from the Biblical Criticism tradition, are of the opinion that these beasts refer to events that happened before the date when the text was written (in their estimation, sometime after 164 BC). They believe that, although the author of the book gave the impression that the prophecies concern the future, these were, in fact, written after the events took place (see my article Bible Prophecy: predicting the distant future? for a detailed discussion of this approach). Although they agree with other commentators that the period under consideration starts with the Neo-Babylonian Empire (which is symbolized by the first great beast, namely a lion), they believe that it ends with the reign of the Seleucid king Antiochus IV (175-164 BC). The important empires of this period are the Neo-Babylonian Empire (626-539 BC), the Persian Empire (550-330 BC) and the Macedonian (Greek) Empire under Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) which were divided into four kingdoms after his death, of which the Seleucid kingdom (323-63 BC) is of special interest for events in Israel.   

These commentators acknowledge that their interpretation implies that there are substantial differences between the details in the text and the real historical events. The general problem is that there are four beasts whereas there are only three important empires that had an impact on life in Israel during the period from the Babylonian exile to 164 BC. In an effort to explain the text in this framework, some of these commentators think that the author was under the false impression that a fictitious Median Empire existed in the period before the Persian Empire in spite of the fact that history knows only about the united empire of the Medo-Persians, which is generally called the "Persian" or Achaemenid Empire (the author of the Book of Daniel actually twice refers to the Medians and Persians in the context of a single empire; Dan. 5:28; 8:20).

Others think that the fourth beast, depicted as a great and terrible beast with ten horns which "shall devour the whole earth, and shall tread it down, and break it in pieces" (Dan. 7:23), refers to the Seleucid kingdom - one of the four kingdoms into which the Macedonian Empire was divided after Alexander the Great's death. The problem is that this kingdom fits much better in with the depiction of the third beast, namely a leopard with four heads, where one of these heads would represent the Seleucid kingdom (with the four heads depicting the four kingdoms into which Alexander's empire was divided).

Although the Seleucid kingdom originally (directly after the division) involved a rather large geographical area (due to the greatness of Alexander's empire) and could even be called an "empire" at that stage, it soon became much smaller and during the period when it effectively ruled over Israel (during the reign of Antiochus IV), it was a rather small kingdom. This kingdom does not correspond with the greatness of the fourth beast which is depicted as mightier than all the previous kingdoms - as an empire which would rule over all the earth. These interpreters take the ten horns as ten kings of this kingdom - but these have never been found in history. Although they ascribe these problems to the author's limited knowledge of that history, it could in principle also be the result of them trying to force everything in that passage into the period before 164 BC. 

There are reasons to believe that the prophetic vision of these beasts refers to events beyond 164 BC. First of all, in broadening the period under consideration to include later events, and therefore accepting that the text could, in fact, include divinely-inspired predictions about the future, a remarkable correspondence between the prophecy and historical events could be obtained. In this case the beasts refer to the Neo-Babylonian Empire (626-539 BC; the lion), the Achaemenid Empire (538–330 BC; the bear), the Macedonian Empire (359-323 BC) out of which four kingdoms arose after Alexander the Great's death (the leopard with four heads) and the Roman Empire (27 BC- 476 AD; the great and terrible beast). Because of the many detailed correspondences between the prophecy of the beasts and these historical events, many interpreters have been emboldened in their view that this prophecy discloses details about the future (for a detailed discussion of these correspondences see Die nuwe toring van Babel).

The ten horns on the head of the beast

But what about the ten horns on the head of the terrible beast? According to the prophecy, these refer to ten rulers who will rise out of the Roman Empire (if we accept that the vision involves true prophecy). The authors of both the Books of Daniel and Revelation (The Apocalypse of St. John) regarded the appearance of these ten rulers as a very important event. We find that these ten rulers are also depicted elsewhere in the Book of Daniel (chapter 2), namely as the ten toes of a large metal statue - where the same empires mentioned before are now depicted as different metals out of which the statue was made. In this case, the head was of gold (corresponding with the lion), the breast and arms of silver (corresponding with the bear), the belly and thighs of brass (corresponding with the leopard), the two legs of iron (corresponding with the terrible beast, which also had “great iron teeth”) and the feet as well as the ten toes partly of iron and partly of clay.

In the Book of Revelation, the same ten rulers are also depicted as ten horns on the head of a terrible beast which is clearly based on the depiction in the Book of Daniel. In this case, the beast is a composite figure which includes all the beasts of Daniel 7. The author of the Book of Revelation says that the ten horns refer to ten rulers who “have received no kingdom as yet” (Rev. 17:12) i.e. in the time when the book was written (~96 AD). He, therefore, accepts that the Book of Daniel contains true prophecies which refer to future events and seems to agree with the interpretation that the great and terrible beast of Daniel 7 refers to the Roman Empire.

Some interpreters are of the opinion that the ten horns refer to ten rulers of the Roman Empire. Others believe that they refer to ten kingdoms that appeared in the period after this empire (especially the western part) disintegrated (they typically mention various European kingdoms who in later centuries accepted the authority of the Roman Catholic pope). The problem with these interpretations is that their proposed identification is not really convincing. In his The Second Coming Bible, William E. Biederwolf writes regarding the last-mentioned view: “No one has ever found the ten-fold division of the [Roman] empire. Twenty-eight different commentators have named sixty-five different kingdoms, reckoning only once the kingdoms common to the different lists”.

The ten horns and the future

If the prophecy in the Book of Daniel about the beasts is indeed a true prophecy, we expect that its fulfilment will be more definite and clear. The fact that the rest of the prophecy had been fulfilled accurately (with the Roman Empire, which appeared only after the book was written, corresponding remarkably with the depiction and description of the fourth and terrible beast; the two parts in which the empire was divided in 330 AD also agree with the two iron legs of the metal statue) forces us to consider the possibility that the part of the prophecy about the ten horns will also be fulfilled accurately. Since it has not happened so far, many interpreters believe that its fulfilment lies in the future. 

There is good reason to agree with this: according to the prophecy the reign of these ten rulers (who reign together with another, even more powerful, ruler) will come to an end at the time when “one like the son of man came with the clouds of heaven” (Dan. 7:13). Now, Jesus Christ mentions this event (this expression is only used once in the Old Testament) as referring to his Second Coming: “then shall appear... the Son of Man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Matt. 24:30, see also Mark 13:26; Luke 21:27). This implies that this prophecy tells about those great empires which would arise throughout history and have an important impact on Israel, beginning with the Neo-Babylonian empire and ending with events during the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. We should therefore not try to force the rule of these ten rulers into past events; we should rather acknowledge that their reign is still to come.

This is also how the author of the Book of Revelation understood the prophecy in the Book of Daniel, namely that the kingdom of these ten rulers (in his depiction they also rule together with another powerful ruler, called the “beast”, to whom they give their power and strength) will come to an end when they fight against the Lamb (Jesus Christ) when he returns (Open. 17:14; 19:19). The reign of these ten rulers is then followed by the “kingdom” of the Son of Man (the one who came with the clouds of heaven; Dan. 7:14) which is also depicted as the kingdom set up by the “God of heaven” (Dan. 2:44) or that of the King of kings (Rev. 17). This strongly suggests that this empire will appear just before the Second Coming of Jesus Christ and can indeed be an important signal that the end times are on hand.

In the light of this interpretation of the prophecy about the beasts in the Book of Daniel, one can understand why many Christians who suspect that the end times are approaching, analyze the world situation with the purpose of distinguishing events which could be the first signs that this empire of the ten rulers is about to appear. In the last few decades, various views regarding the appearance of this empire have gained ground among Christians. I will discuss three of these, namely the view 1) that the rise of various regional economic blocks around the world, 2) that the rise of militant Islam (following the Arab Spring) and 3) that the rise of the European Union, is the precursor to this empire.

Ten regional blocks

This view originated with the second report of the elite Club of Rome titled Mankind at the Turning Point (1974), in which the future world was envisioned as divided into ten economic regions. For many Christians, always on the outlook for some confirmation of the fulfilment of Bible prophecies, this seems to be more than coincidence. They assume that these ten regions would together constitute a global world government, which will then correspond with the final kingdom of the ten rulers. Now, as mentioned above, the interpretation of this empire as consisting of ten countries is not new (some tried to find this kingdom among the countries who came forth after the disintegration of the Roman Empire) – only in this case, this has been extended to include the projected regions into which a future world will supposedly be divided.

The problem with this view is that, although such regions are in fact developing all over the world, these do not correspond with those envisioned in the report of the Club of Rome. The world has become a very different place from the one envisioned in that report. Although globalization forces countries to combine their economic efforts, and it is not impossible that ten such economic regions would eventually emerge, it seems very unlikely that all of these regions will also develop into political blocs who together will “give their power and strength” to the “beast” (taken to be the final Antichrist; Rev. 17:13) as part of a global world government.  I can't see Russia and China doing this. It is surely true that some prophecies in the Book of Revelation mention that “the (whole) world wondered after the beast” (Rev. 13:3) and that he will have power over “all kindreds, and tongues, and nations” (Rev. 13:7), but other prophecies show that he will also have powerful enemies. Although commentators differ in their interpretation, most of them agree that the world of the end times will be a very divided world, one of enormous conflict. 

It seems to me that this interpretation is primarily based on the correspondence with the number ten. But is this enough to make it a viable interpretation? Should we not take all the details given in the prophecy into consideration? The one detail of utmost importance in the prophecy is that this final empire will rise in the geographical area of the old Roman Empire (although it will not necessarily be restricted to it). There is nothing that gives us reason to believe that this will ever be a worldwide empire – even though people from all over the world could worship the “beast” and be part of a particular global economic system. It is in the geographical area of the old Roman Empire that we should look for the emergence of this empire.

Ten militant Islamic countries

This view developed quite recently. These interpreters believe that the Arab Spring is not going to develop into an Arab Renaissance as many expect, but into an Arab Winter. Many Christians are alarmed by the rise of political Islam in North Africa and the Middle East after the Arab uprisings. They refer to various Old Testament passages which mention some conflict between Israel and the surrounding nations and assume that these refer to the end times. They believe that in some way this could lead to the establishment of the future caliphate which many Muslims (especially radical Muslims) work and fight for. 

It is within this framework that they propose that ten Muslim countries would group together in a geographical political block which would correspond with the empire of the ten rulers. Among the nations mentioned are Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria and Turkey. Closely connected to this view is the idea that the final Antichrist (the "beast" of Revelation 13,17) would be a Muslim leader who will come as the long-awaited Mahdi (Messiah) that the Shiites (one of the two main factions among Muslims) expect. He would come to power in Iran and would eventually become ruler over all the above-mentioned countries. 

This view might have emotional appeal in the light of the rise of political Islam, but there are various reasons why it is very unlikely to happen. In any discussion of the Muslim world, it is important to notice that the two main groups among the Muslims, namely the Sunnis and the Shiites, are very distrustful of each other and in some cases even open enemies. Countries where the Sunnis are a majority (Saudi Arabia and most of the Arab countries) have for centuries stood in opposition to countries where the Shiites are the majority (Iran, Iraq). It seems very unlikely that they would ever group together in one political block, not even to mention that all would follow a Shiite leader.

Although it seems unlikely that this view could become a practical reality, it is nonetheless true that most of these countries are situated in the geographical area of the eastern part of old Roman Empire. And we can envision that the empire of the "beast" (Rev. 13, 17) could eventually include the geographical area of all the empires mentioned in the prophecies in the Book of Daniel (all the area from the old Roman Empire to the Persian Empire) since it is depicted as combining them all in one image. The problem with this view is, however, that the empire of the ten rulers is depicted as evolving from both parts of the old Roman Empire. We can see this clearly in the depiction of the statue in the Book of Daniel (chapter 2), where the western and eastern halves of the old Roman Empire are depicted as the two iron legs of the statue which end in the ten toes (clearly on both feet). We expect the empire of the ten rulers (depicted as ten horns/toes) to be more closely connected to the heartland of the old Roman Empire since this is where it will appear according to the prophecy.

The rise of the European Union

This view originated with the establishment of the European Economic Community (the forerunner of the European Union) after the Second World War. These interpreters recognized that the establishment of this community could (in principle) be the first step towards the appearance of the long-awaited empire of the ten rulers for the simple reason that it appeared exactly where the prophecy predicted that it would (within the geographical heartland of the old Roman Empire). What is important about this view, is that it can explain the long lapse of time between the old Roman Empire and the appearance of this new entity. In this regard, one can refer to the feet of the statue depicted in the Book of Daniel, which fits in between the two iron legs (the two parts of the Roman Empire) and the ten toes. The two feet would refer to two empires that came forth out of the two parts of the old Roman Empire, namely the Byzantium Empire (306-1460 AD) in the east, and the Holy Roman Empire (800-1806 AD) in the west. The feet consisted of iron and clay, which are taken as symbols for the Latins (descendants of the Romans) and Germanic peoples.

The problem with this view is that the European Economic Community soon included more than ten countries. The European Union (EU) has since grown to a massive block of 27 (soon 28) countries, representing the largest economic union in the world. Does this mean that this view fails? Not necessarily. There is a way to reconcile the rise of the European Union with the prophecy of the empire of the ten rulers. It seems that the European Union is slowly developing into a complex structure which could eventually include various layers of countries which are integrated to a different degree.

We already find a smaller grouping of 17 countries who have accepted the Euro as the common currency and which have also integrated (and are still integrating) other aspects of their economies (through the fiscal pact, the banking union etc.). One can maybe envision that the future EU will look something like the "tower of Babylon" painted by Pieter Breugel (in 1563), which was shown on an official EU poster some years ago. If a core group of ten countries proceed to a full political union this could, in fact, be the ten rulers whose appearance the prophecy predicted.

The growth of the EU to become a massive economic block has been a slow but steady process which proved many sceptics wrong. Although many predict that the present financial crisis will in some way permanently dis-empower the EU (in the same way that they previously predicted the break-up of the EU, see my article Gaan Griekeland in the Eurosone bly? - 'n eskatologiese perspektief) this is most probably wrong. The economic restructuring taking place at the moment all over the union could reinvigorate the EU. In the EU, crises are viewed as opportunities to further integrate. The present EU has not only integrated to a remarkable degree, it has spread to include a large part of the geographical area of both the western and eastern halves of the old Roman Empire.


I discussed the various views about the great and terrible beast depicted in the Book of Daniel (chapter 7). It does not seem that the prophecy has been fulfilled as yet. If this prophecy is indeed divinely-inspired, we can expect that it will eventually be fulfilled. Interpreters who believe that this will happen in future, believe that it refers to a future empire ruled over by ten rulers (out of which the final empire of the Antichrist is expected to rise when they hand their power over to him). They connect the possible fulfilment of this prophecy with various emerging situations in the world. These are viewed as possible precursors to this empire. It is clear that none of these corresponds at this stage with the details in the prophecy, but it is possible that the leaders of a core group of countries in the EU could eventually be the ten rulers that the prophecy spoke about.  We will have to wait and see [3].

[1] Bible Prophecy: predicting the distant future?
[2] Sketch from Design by Steven Phyffer:
[3] The sceptic can make a note to carefully observe the future direction of developments in the EU. Although it is my opinion that the empire of these rulers will probably not appear in our lifetime, one will nonetheless be able to discern whether the geopolitical situation unfolds in the required direction.

Articles referred to in this essay
Bible Prophecy: predicting the distant future?
Die nuwe toring van Babel
Gaan Griekeland in the Eurosone bly? - 'n eskatologiese perspektief