Recently someone observed that there are hardly any professed “atheists” in political office. This is remarkable not because atheists represent a large portion of the population, but because atheism is hardly even controversial in present-day society. If someone tells you that he does not believe in God, you are not shocked. You may think he is mistaken, but you are not offended by his unbelief, nor do you think he is a bad person simply because he is not convinced of God’s existence. So it is odd that there are so few professed atheists in elected office. Whether or not a person believes in God doesn’t seem to have much to do with how he or she would fulfill the duties of the public trust.
If it is nevertheless true that the public doesn’t trust atheists, as voting patterns suggest, perhaps it is because they see atheists perpetually engaged in the comic but macabre project of beating the corpse of a medieval idea, or tilting at ruined 15th-century windmills. Atheists have liberated themselves from belief, but it stings them to be reminded of what they have left by others’ faith. They seem to be crusaders for positive unbelief in the public square. This attitude, perhaps, annoys the public, who are for the most part uncomfortable with True Believers of any strain, and happy with their customary distinction between private belief (“church”) and public action (“state”).
Yet perhaps both the raging atheists and the comfortable bourgeois secularists are wrong. If God does not exist, a society of liberal Western institutions needs to reconsider its first principles, including the value of personal liberty and human rights, to see whether there is still any support for them. Can the influence of Christianity in promoting human rights be written off as insignificant? Is there a post-religious path to individual liberty? On the other hand, if God is a real omnipotent being, how is it even possible to partition him away from the public sphere?
Few seem willing to face the implications of God being either absent or present. Western liberalism, with modern roots in the Enlightenment and subsequent intellectual developments, builds upon an understanding of human equality which developed, albeit imperfectly, during the period when Christianity shaped European culture. Yet the influence of religious beliefs and institutions in the development of these liberal tenets, individual liberty and human rights, is less recognized.
I would like to discuss three connected ideas in this essay, by means of a few concepts. The first is the “death of God” as encountered in modern philosophy. The second is the “kingdom of God,” which, if it exists, must necessarily have political implications. The third is the crucial distinction between Christ and Antichrist. These three ideas are necessary for an adequate understanding of Western history and culture. For good or ill Christianity has influenced the direction of historical development toward what we see at present. If God is missing in modern Western political culture, the absence is distinctly Christ-shaped, as attempts to replace Christianity inescapably show. But if Jesus Christ is in fact reigning over the world as king, what does this mean? In closing I will suggest an interpretation of Western history in which the reign of Christ and the pretensions of various forms and manifestations of “antichrist” have continued through the epochs in a dialectical conflict which frustrates the efforts of historians and philosophers to attach the label of “Christian” to any particular nation or political order.
1. The Death of God
The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche told a story about a madman who was convinced that God was dead:
Have you ever heard of the madman who on a bright morning lighted a lantern and ran to the market-place calling out unceasingly: “I seek God! I seek God!” — As there were many people standing about who did not believe in God, he caused a great deal of amusement. Why! is he lost? said one. Has he strayed away like a child? said another. Or does he keep himself hidden? Is he afraid of us? Has he taken a sea-voyage? Has he emigrated? — the people cried out laughingly, all in a hubbub. The insane man jumped into their midst and transfixed them with his glances. “Where is God gone?” he called out. “I mean to tell you! We have killed him, — you and I! We are all his murderers! . . . God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! How shall we console ourselves, the most murderous of all murderers? The holiest and the mightiest that the world has hitherto possessed, has bled to death under our knife, — who will wipe the blood from us? With what water could we cleanse ourselves? What lustrums, what sacred games shall we have to devise? Is not the magnitude of this deed too great for us? Shall we not ourselves have to become Gods, merely to seem worthy of it? There never was a greater event, — and on account of it, all who are born after us belong to a higher history than any history hitherto!” — Here the madman was silent and looked again at his hearers; they also were silent and looked at him in surprise. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, so that it broke in pieces and was extinguished. “I come too early,” he then said, “I am not yet at the right time. . . .” — It is further stated that the madman made his way into different churches on the same day, and there intoned his Requiem aeternam deo. When led out and called to account, he always gave the reply : “What are these churches now, if they are not the tombs and monuments of God?”
Many people have attributed the statement “God is dead” to Nietzsche as reflecting a more or less flat rejection of the Divine existence or the truth of morality, on the philosopher’s part. But the “God” referred to by Nietzsche’s madman is not, to Nietzsche’s mind, the all-Creator, but rather a created power or idea from the mind of man—one which formerly held sway and made demands of society and persons, but now is systematically set aside and ignored, even attacked, by modern man.
The madman’s audience, furthermore, is not angered but amused by their tragic prophet. They are not the devout or religious believers who have their own reasons for faith, but specifically “people who did not believe in God.” They ridicule the madman because they do not think God exists as a real person, and so the madman’s concern seems irrelevant to them. But his true concern is quite relevant, even given God’s absence. It is whether the ideas of social order, right and wrong, good and evil, which have been associated with the idea of God, have continuance in a society that no longer believes in God. The madman’s hearers have not noticed God’s absence because they have forgotten why they need him to be present. The madman alone sees that when “God,” i.e., the moral horizon, has been in effect expunged, nothing remains to orient their lives. The churches remain for a while as “tombs and monuments of God,” covering up his absence in a world which no longer seems to have any use for him.
If the madman’s complacent hearers have indeed gotten rid of God, they need, he believes, to replace him. They have no course left but to become like gods, to order the world around their own wills. Otherwise they are (as Nietzsche would have it) “last men,” living self-satisfied, comfortable lives, but without initiative, willpower, or a future.
Religion for Atheists
The contemporary philosophic popularizer Alain de Botton suggests in his Religion for Atheists (2012) a perhaps Nietzschean, but also refreshingly optimistic and liberal, response to the death of God: the establishment of institutions with practices and effects similar to those of religious institutions. De Botton’s appreciation of religion is good-natured and extensive. Drawing from Christian, Jewish, and Buddhist religious institutions and traditions, he proposes ways in which the social benefits of these religions could be simulated while yet maintaining the premise of atheistic materialism. (See also this 2008 article of his.)
De Botton’s insistence on God’s non-existence is cute, even benign, since it really has little to do with his genuine appreciation for religion, for which he deserves a great deal of credit. Most popular atheists appear by their belligerence to believe they have something to prove. De Botton by contrast seems secure enough in his atheism to be willing even to make sweeping concessions to the religious traditions of the ages. He writes, “The error of modern atheism has been to overlook how many aspects of the faiths remain relevant even after their central tenets have been dismissed” (12-13). Botton then relates the story of how he was raised by atheistic parents and as a young adult experienced “a crisis of faithlessness” from which he eventually emerged, without abandoning his atheistic convictions, but having acquired a new respect for and appreciation of religion. “I recognized that my continuing resistance to theories of an afterlife or of heavenly residents was no justification for giving up on the music, buildings, prayers, rituals, feasts, shrines, pilgrimages, communal meals and illuminated manuscripts of the faiths” (14).
The Catholic Mass, according to de Botton, creates a sense of community, or maybe even true fellowship, by “[breaking] down the economic and status subgroups within which we normally operate” (33), establishing the Church as a group of people bound together by a common identity and orientation. It enables participants to drop their pretenses and become for others what they really are, or should be. De Botton also appreciates liturgy: “To ensure that profound and dignified personal bonds can be forged, a tightly choreographed agenda of activities may be more effective than leaving a group to mingle aimlessly on its own” (37). The communal meal aspect of the Eucharist suggests to de Botton a parallel solution for atheists: an “Agape Restaurant” at which, in a manner similar to early Christian love-feasts, patrons might eat in an intentionally communal setting, with equality of persons encouraged through random seat assignments.
The Agape Restaurant is of course void of the radical Christian content of St. Paul’s egalitarianism. It assumes equality of persons but has not the forceful power of Christ asserting his lordship over the world and making (in his body) the conditions which foster Christian equality. Most importantly, at the Agape Restaurant, the food is peripheral to the unity which is supposedly produced; whereas, in the church, the food is the cause of unity; by it Christ, in the words of George Herbert, “makes his guest.” Christian unity is accomplished only when its participants recognize that by participating in the sacraments they are being joined together in one body with Christ, who is the Head of the Body and the living Source of its unity.
De Botton admires how Christian teaching makes the dogmatic content of the faith accessible and applicable to everyone’s lives, and suggests that secularists focus on ways to make academics relevant to real life—for instance, by assigning Anna Karenena in a course on relationships. He also wants to transport the ‘amen corner’ to the lecture hall:
“How much longer might Rousseau’s philosophical truths linger in our minds if they were structured around rhythmical verses of call-and-response. Secular education will never succeed in reaching its potential until humanities lecturers are sent to be trained by African-American Pentecostal preachers. Only then will our timid pedagogues be able to shake off their inhibitions during lectures on Keats and Adam Smith and, unconstrained by false notions of propriety, call out to their comatose audiences, ‘Do you hear me? I say do you hear me?’ And only then would their now-tearful students fall to their knees, ready to let the spirit of some of the world’s most important ideas enter and transform them.” (132-33)
The problem with this academic fantasy is that what motivates the Pentecostal preacher’s listeners is just as much what he is preaching as how he preaches it. I’ve met people who ‘believe’ as strongly in Ayn Rand, or Progress, as some people believe in Jesus. For myself, I love Anna Karenina and in fact consider reading it to have been an important spiritual experience. But this kind of appreciation is of a different sort than the believer’s response to the gracious sermons of Jesus Christ, or the passionate erudition of St. Paul, or the sublime prophecies of the Prophet Isaiah.
“Good art,” writes de Botton, “is the sensuous presentation of those ideas which matter most to the proper functioning of our souls—and yet which we are most inclined to forget, even though they are the basis for our capacity for contentment and virtue” (217). I really cannot improve on de Botton’s insight here. Representational art—a genre in which religious subjects carry a strong part—is something we need to be good people, along with good architecture. Of this, de Botton writes:
“In arguing for the importance of architecture, Catholicism was making a point, half touching, half alarming, about the way we function. It was suggesting that we suffer from a heightened sensitivity to what is around us, that we will notice and be affected by everything our eyes light upon . . . Catholicism was making the remarkable allegation that we need to have good architecture around us in order to grow into, and remain, good people.”
The spare severity of Protestantism sufficed, perhaps, for some zealous souls, but if we want the mass of the people to be good, they need to live with beauty all around them—the kind of beauty oriented toward truth and the exemplary human life. Religion (Catholicism in this case) again presents the most comprehensive beautification program ever seen.
De Botton also notices that religions give people the best ways to understand and cope with suffering, both theirs and others, promoting compassion and providing healthy ways to grieve. Rituals of grief, such as funerals, ensure that deep grief is shared, and that survivors remain integrated in the society of the living. At the same time, rituals lessen the awkwardness of caring for the bereaved by providing a socially appropriate ‘script’ for doing so. Religion also provides comfort for the sick and dying.
David Brooks characterizes it well: “De Botton’s book is provocative when it comes to diagnosing the current cultural ills. But it makes atheism seem kind of boring, a spiritual handicap, the opiate of the shallow masses.” The admirable atheist de Botton praises religion so highly it makes atheism seem lame by comparison. One need only compare the sublimity of the religious experiences he describes with the limpness and even bathos of his proposed solutions, and ask the question: If you don’t believe in God, yet appreciate the benefits of religion, why not update your status to “agnostic” and reenter the Jewish or Christian tradition of your ancestors? Surely participating in religious rituals and hearing occasional prayers to a god you don’t believe in is at least as tolerable to the urbane mind as the flat forgeries of a merely secular righteousness.
Why, then, does de Botton continue to reject religious institutions as a live option for promoting a healthy civic life? He seems to think that for the modern world, faith once lost cannot be regained. Like Nietzsche’s madman, he sees God’s passing as ineluctable fact which forces the post-Christian question. Western society has been denied something it desperately needs, and it is up to him to provide something—anything—to fulfill the functions previously held by religion. But given how limp his best replacements appear—the “Agape Restaurant” is by far the most convincing—we had better hope that God is not dead.Voltaire said, “If God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him.” Supporting all these practices and institutions which de Botton would like to mimic lies a belief that God is in fact true and in existence, and that there is a higher than terrestrial source of meaning, both for the individual, and for the groups of which he is a part. Throughout the centuries religious people have believed that God is actively governing individuals and society through these practices and institutions.
2. The Kingdom of God
The manifestations of religion which de Botton wants to imitate do not exist merely because of an ideal of God which people adhere to. These practices are possible because what they lean on is real. The Kingdom of God is a real thing; a real reign of a real person who has real transformative power. He abolishes darkness with divine light, brings order from chaos, and turns confusion into peace. He changes people, opening our eyes to the wonders of the natural world and the potential goodness and beauty of our selves; opening our hearts to love other people for the goodness and beauty, actual and potential, in them. Ultimately he draws our souls “upward” to God. But his kingdom’s fulfillment was initiated by a downward movement, when the Divine Son came to inhabit our world as a human participant, and, as he would soon reveal, its King.
The “descent” of God into the world is also known as his “humiliation,” because as its Creator, he was necessarily greater than the world and prior to it in every sense. By descending he did not, however, set aside his divine nature. In the act Christians call the Incarnation, he took on human nature. To his indisputable claim of authority as the world’s creator, he added supreme human kingship, the lordliness that Adam lost through sin. He retained his divine nature; he concealed its glory.
Living incognito with his parents in Bethlehem, the two-year-old Jesus was visited by Magi, foreign astrologers, who had somehow discerned, through their knowledge of Jewish prophecy and their interpretation of celestial signs, that a king had been born in Israel. Upon arriving in the Roman-occupied territory, these sages naïvely went to the governor, Herod, assuming he would be aware of what had happened. Herod was so disturbed by their news (apparently he believed it) that when the Magi, having found and paid tribute to Jesus, left the country without reporting back to him, he ordered the slaughter of all of the baby boys in the region in an attempt to eliminate this threat to his rule.
Jesus Christ’s claim to Kingship was not something he had to contest; it was his by right. His self-effacement before the civil and religious authorities reveals not a tenuous, merely spiritual power but a claim to earthly rule so strong it could not even be stopped by putting him to death. After he rose from the dead, Jesus told his disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth is given to me,” and commissioned them to bring the news and signs of his kingdom to the world.
How did the disciples act on Jesus’s parting words? They knew and had seen how he had subordinated all powers, including those of the secular rulers. So they might have come up with a teaching of a Christian empire, except that they recognized this was not what he intended. The apostolic writings discuss government authority mostly from a pastoral perspective, writing to Christians who are facing government harassment and persecution. In his Letter to the Romans, ch. 13, the apostle Paul does not deny the authority of the present regime, even while he redefines its role:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. (Romans 13:1-7 ESV)
Paul shows that the authority, though “instituted by God,” is in no way itself divine. It is both set up and revoked by God inscrutably, and must ultimately render account to God as a “servant.” Christians under Roman rule should thus pay taxes to Rome, but in a way ironically, since they know that they are themselves citizens of the heavenly kingdom. This passage echoes Jesus’s admonition to the Jews who asked him whether they should pay the Roman oppressor’s poll-tax.
And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar’s.” Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they marveled at him. (Mark 12:15-17 ESV)
Paul recasts the emperor, not as a supreme ruler, but as one who, whether he recognizes it or not, has been conquered by Christ, and is now an instrument of God’s rule “to carry out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” But it is striking that Paul did not consider the ruler to be “a terror to good conduct” even though Jesus, other early Christians, and Paul himself suffered persecution and death at the hands of the Romans. Surely Paul takes Christ’s triumph as seriously as life and death. Why else would he advise obedience to rulers who at that time were becoming implacably hostile to Christians? The strength of Paul’s conviction was born out of his personal experience of Christ’s rule. Once a persecutor of Christians, he had been traveling from Jerusalem with official sanction to arrest Christians in Damascus, when on the way he was himself physically knocked down and confronted by the voice of the risen Lord, converted to Christianity, as it were, by divine fiat. He learned first-hand that for those in authority “it is hard to kick against the goads” of Christ’s kingdom.
Throughout Scripture the constant characteristic of “the kings of the earth” is that they and their kingdoms are transient. In 1 Peter 2 the apostle tells Christians to “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17 ESV). Honor must be paid to the emperor and everyone else, but ‘the brotherhood,’ i.e. those who are of the household of faith, are worthy of greater love, and God is worthy of true fear, since his kingship is more significant than that of the emperor, and his people closer than other citizens of the regime.
Over the next four centuries, the Church, Jesus’s “Kingdom of Heaven,” spread and gained influence throughout the Roman Empire and beyond. Finally, just as its empire was falling apart, Romanitas succumbed to Christianity. Dom Gregory Dix writes:
For three and a half centuries—or for ten times as long as Augustine saw it, ever since the Tower of Babel—’Two loves had built two cities’,—and now at last came the final creative synthesis of the whole of antiquity. In one swift generation c. AD 375-410 the Civitas Romana bowed itself at last to enter the City of God, and was baptised upon its deathbed like so many of its sons. But it died christian in the end, which was all that mattered after it was dead. (The Shape of the Liturgy, 387)
Out of the collapse of the newly christened Roman empire, “Christendom” was born—a revolution truly in belief and manners unparalleled in the history of the world. The Gospel, sown in secret and watered by martyrs’ blood, burst into flower. Even the barbarian hordes, as they conquered Rome, were conquered by Christ. The adoption of Christianity transformed individuals first, but began to change the shape of laws and expectations for public behavior also, as the Church gained influence over persons and institutions. The transformation was both gradual and sudden, quiet and dramatic. Athanasius the Great, Bishop of Alexandria, explains his belief in the supremacy of Christ in his On the Incarnation of the Word:
When did people begin to abandon the worship of idols, unless it were since the very Word of God came among men? When have oracles ceased and become void of meaning, among the Greeks and everywhere, except since the Savior has revealed Himself on earth? When did those whom the poets call gods and heroes begin to be adjudged as mere mortals, except when the Lord took the spoils of death and preserved incorruptible the body He had taken, raising it from among the dead? Or when did the deceitfulness and madness of demons fall under contempt, save when the Word, the Power of God, the Master of all these as well, condescended on account of the weakness of mankind and appeared on earth? When did the practice and theory of magic begin to be spurned under foot, if not at the manifestation of the Divine Word to men? In a word, when did the wisdom of the Greeks become foolish, save when the true Wisdom of God revealed Himself on earth? In old times the whole world and every place in it was led astray by the worship of idols, and men thought the idols were the only gods that were. But now all over the world men are forsaking the fear of idols and taking refuge with Christ; and by worshipping Him as God they come through Him to know the Father also, Whom formerly they did not know. The amazing thing, moreover, is this. The objects of worship formerly were varied and countless; each place had its own idol and the so-called god of one place could not pass over to another in order to persuade the people there to worship him, but was barely reverenced even by his own. Indeed no! Nobody worshipped his neighbor’s god, but every man had his own idol and thought that it was lord of all. But now Christ alone is worshipped, as One and the Same among all peoples everywhere; and what the feebleness of idols could not do, namely, convince even those dwelling close at hand, He has effected. He has persuaded not only those close at hand, but literally the entire world to worship one and the same Lord and through Him the Father. (Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word, §46)
Although since creation God has always been sovereign over the world He made, the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the divine Son, reveals his kingship in a greater way, because he rules as the Man who came into the world, as well as being God above it. His rule manifests itself most directly in the church, but it also comes to the world at large through the church’s influence, as Oliver O’Donovan writes: “The church represents God’s kingdom by living under its rule and welcoming the world to its rule” (O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations 174). The church invites the world to submit to the gracious judgment and rule of Christ, emulating God’s people’s way of life.
Historically, Christian witness effected a massive and truly revolutionary change in cultural attitudes. A litany of these changes might include:
- Recognition of the full personhood and rights of women and children;
- Opposition to abortion and infanticide;
- Increasing disapproval of concubinage;
- Rise of state-sanctioned Christian marriage;
- The decline of the tribal, clan, or patriarchal family structure and its replacement by the nuclear family;
- Increasing freedom of young people to choose spouses and vocations;
- The establishment of hospitals, orphanages, and homes for the elderly;
- The establishment of schools for children;
- The establishment of universities;
- The increase in equality of persons before the law;
- Opposition to slavery.
Although all of these values are present in Christian teaching from the very beginning, none of them were adopted immediately by secular society, and all of them are even now imperfectly realized; yet there is a stark difference between a civilization whose concerns take the shape above, and the pagan world it replaced. Westerners now take for granted that governments, in order to be considered legitimate, ought to be oriented toward justice and liberty for all people, although they may not remember where these values came from. That all individuals are possessed of dignity and deserve equal treatment regardless of race, sex, age, or wealth is a revolutionary idea; it is part of the legal heritage of Christianity’s influence on government.
So doesn’t this mean that, with the church continuing to exert moral influence over the state, church and state would eventually end up in a perfect theocratic marriage? Not at all. At various times, as during the Christianization of the Roman Empire or the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire, or the Puritan settlement of New England, the church exerted a great deal of influence within the state, yet it seems that, precisely at these times, the specter of “Antichrist” arose.
3. Christ and Antichrist
Modern readings of St. John’s Apocalypse, particularly the brand of dispensational premillennialism exploited by popular Christian fiction-writers Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins (Left Behind), portray the “Antichrist” as a singular individual of matchless evil and cunning, possessing extraordinary global power, whose advent signals the end of the world. This understanding of “Antichrist” leads to endless unprofitable speculations among worried Christians (“Is Obama the Antichrist?”). But by being so concerned about who might be the putative Antichrist, modern Christians miss out on an older Christian insight—that Christ and his kingdom exist alongside people and things that are “antichrist,” together in time, like the “wheat and tares” of the parable. Antichrist cannot be discovered and isolated in just one person or institution. Rather, it is the spirit, present in some form at all times and places in this present age, of denying or counterfeiting the authentic character and rule of the true Christ.
History shows various examples of Antichrists. The first claimants to the title were the emperors of pagan Rome, who demanded worship as sons of Jupiter and persecuted Christians who could not acquiesce to their state religion. The imperial cult met its end with the emperor Constantine, who became a Christian. Yet no sooner had the Roman empire been converted to Christianity, than Arianism (the heretical teaching that Jesus Christ was a created being and therefore not an equal participant in God’s eternal Godhood) gained favor in the Imperial court, partially because it was more compatible with Greco-Roman philosophical traditions. As Charles Norris Cochrane observes, Constantine himself was baptized at the end of his life by the “Arianizing” bishop Eusebius, and his son and heir Constantius “argued that, as the divine repository of imperial power, his authority was paramount in Church as well as state,” and proceeded to enact laws outlawing pagan worship and harassing Jews, while at the same time priviledging Christian worship and exempting ecclesiastics from the onerous taxes of the struggling late Empire. Cochrane writes, “In these synods Constantius assumed the impossible position of Bishop of Bishops and . . . boldly asserted the principle later to be known as that of divine right” (Christianity and Classical Culture 208, 280, 282). The effect of having an Emperor as its champion was not to strengthen Christianity but to divide it into factions, with the Arian factions tending to seek and receive Imperial favors, and the orthodox faction struggling to preserve true Christian doctrine. Orthodox Christianity then stood in a complicated position. While it was supposedly the official Roman religion, the emperor was sponsoring heresiarchs more favorable to his views. St. Athanasius found himself standing for the Kingdom of God “against the world,” for which he has been dubbed “Athanasius contra mundum.” Cochrane writes:
The spectacle of Athanasius contra mundum has excited the generous admiration of Gibbon, who describes in detail the resistance which this gallant soldier of the Church put up against imperial interference, in the face of obloquy and persecution during which he suffered no less than five different periods of exile under three successive monarchs of the Constantinian house. The strength of Athanasius was the strength of the man with but one idea; the defense of orthodoxy was the inspiration of his life’s work. And, if it be true that Nicaea put teeth into Christianity, it is equally fair to say that, with Athanasius, the Church showed how she could bite the hand that fed her. (Cochrane 282-83)
The danger of antichrist is to confuse the Kingdom of God itself with its effects on institutions and societies. This is what corrupted what is known as Christendom, i.e. post-Roman Europe under the influence of Christianity. The proper and right submission of secular rulers to Christ was mistaken for the the Kingdom of God itself.
Most damaging was the tendency, which emerged strongly toward the end of the medieval period, to imbue kings with a unique spiritual significance. This derived from the habit of medieval philosophers to view the “state” as an analogy of the Church, with the king as an analogy of Christ. Just as Christ is the “head” of the Church, and is mystically linked to it, so kings were thought to contain, as it were, a mystical representation of the national body.
The state, around 1300, was not a “fictitious person” but an organic or organological whole. It did not exist apart from its members. The regnum or patria was not “personified”—it was “bodified.” Mainly because the state could be conceived of as a “body,” could there be constructed the analogy with the mystical body of the Church. . . . The head of the mystical body of the church was eternal, since Christ was both God and man. His own eternity, therefore, bestowed upon his mystical body likewise the value of eternity or rather timelessness. (Ernst Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies 270-271)
Despite the mortality of individual kings, the King himself was by the end of the medieval period considered to be an undying entity, in that when he died the king as such did not cease to exist. Kantorowicz illustrates how as time passed a number of Christological characteristics were assigned to kings, citing Shakespeare’s Richard II as an example of this idea’s late development. The king was thought to be two bodies; one the undying and perfect body of the State; the other the flawed and mortal body of the man. Thus the sentence uttered at the death of a monarch: “The king is dead; Long live the king.” The undying body of the State would continue, now identified with the dead king’s successor. so that the national identity of which the king is the “head” might be considered ‘eternal,’ a kind of soul.
If not absolutely incompatible with Christianity, this idea of a national spiritual unity exists uneasily beside the Christian vision of an eternal city comprising those who have experienced the new birth, which unifies all peoples, times, and places. It is uneasy because while “two loves” and “two cities” may exist together for now, they are always in tension, if not outright conflict, with one another.
With the decline of Christendom, the idea of the supreme secular state flourished during the Rennaissance. Monarchism and newly ascendent democratic ideals shared similar ideological preoccupations with supremacy. Democracy got rid of absolute monarchs but maintained the same idea in the absolute sovereignty of the “general will.” The 19th century saw ideologies of nationalism face off against international socialist idealism. The proponents of communism believed no less strongly than democratic philosophers in a general will, only they believed that the general will transcended political boundaries and would eventually transform the whole world into a unified egalitarian utopia free from any kind of sovereignty.
Communism enjoyed popularity and success because it imitated so many compelling elements of Christian belief in a society that, having abandoned Christianity, missed its benefits—or even the benefits of its unrealized teachings. Like other 19th century social movements, Communism arose out of concern for those who were being exploited by the advance of capitalism, so that many were no better off than they had been as agricultural laborers. Communism dreamed of a society in which, just as the early Christians willingly shared their property, workers would possess the “means of production” in common. Unlike the stratified 19th century society, everyone would be equal in wealth—since no one would have any—just as in the kingdom of Christ all are equal before God. Private property, connected with exploitation in the communist mind, would be unknown.
Unlike many ideologies, Communism got a chance to test its theories. After revolutions, wars, and the slaughter of millions, Communist ideologues were unable to enforce conformity to their utopic visions. The “Christian” elements of communism—the forgeries which lent it such power—were exposed by its ruthless disregard for human life or human nature, which its proponents had never valued or understood. The kingdom of God revolves around a God who became Man; a Man who is God. Jesus did not destroy our human nature, but inhabited it in order to become like us in every way, and through his humanity to restore full humanity in us. Human nature is not a blank slate to be erased and rewritten; it is an image of God, defaced by sin, to be restored and made perfect by Christ.
All attempts—secular or religious—at creating a heaven on earth are manifestations of “antichrist” because, instead of the restoration of full humanity which is the work of God’s Son, they attempt to achieve eternal peace through the construction of some external order, for which they must coerce and murder human beings or even attempt to alter human nature itself.
We cannot overlook Christian attempts to use political power to usher in the kingdom. One of the most infamous offenses of the medieval church was its use of the secular government to punish heretics and false teachers. During the bloody “wars of religion” which tore Europe apart during the Renaissance, Protestant and Catholic princes alike claimed this supposed responsibility to defend church doctrine as a pretext for their territorial ambitions. Various groups of millennarians attempted to actually instate a pure Kingdom of God, most notably the bloody 1534 rebellion led by Anabaptist schismatics in Münster. In England also, the religious and political conflicts of the day were hard to distinguish from one another. Henry VIII violently suppressed the Roman Catholic church in favor of his own, and his successors persecuted one side or another until, after the restoration of Charles II, whose father had been executed by regicide Parliament, the English finally adopted a broad religious toleration policy to avoid ever experiencing the bloody persecutions of Henry, Mary, or Cromwell again.
During this shaken time, political theorists such as John Locke saw the damage done by these struggles, and felt that the best way to avoid future “religious” conflict was to establish a rational basis for politics, rather than one religious. Ralph Hancock characterizes this strategy as an attempt to “smuggle real goods” into the public sphere “under cover of ‘self-interest well understood.'” By this reading, Western liberal ideals are a mask made to fit the face of Christianity, so that the controversial religious aspects of Christian belief may be overlooked in favor of the civic advantages of Christian ethics under a new name.
This stratagem may succeed as long as the underlying civic character of the people continues to be shaped by Christian faith. In Britain and most of Europe, the state churches played some well-understood role in shaping the moral virtues of citizens. In America after the Revolution, Christianity was likewise acknowledged by almost everyone as a source of good ethics, even among those unable to believe in the central tenets of Christian belief. Western liberalism and Christianity seemed to be natural allies, though separated from one another by the understanding that Christianity shaped society by encouraging moral behavior, not by dictating to the government. Protestant Christianity, moreover, has no one authoritative voice, and so its leaders likewise recommended themselves to society by the strength of their own personal influence and charisma. This kind of Christianity was remarkably effective in bringing about changes that align both with Christian ethics and the ethics of Western liberalism, “self-interest rightly understood.” It ended the slave trade and improved the conditions of industrial laborers. It also ensured that wherever Western trade empires found their way, evangelization would soon follow. Thus, though unable to oppose or slow the progress of Baconian exploitation, it was aware of its ill effects and sought to remedy them through private action.
This relationship of influence in which Christian ethics worked behind a liberal façade did not work only one way, however. Other assumptions held by Enlightenment liberalism, less compatible with Christian belief than the Lockean values of individual freedom and human rights, began to have a withering effect on Christian belief.
The Hipster Conservative has been almost fixated on these phenomena, which we believe to be of the gravest consequence to the world today. Some of the dangerous ideas we have previously discussed include: A belief in historical progress; the individualization and internalization of the Christian experience of conversion; the reduction of Christian life to “moralistic therapeutic deism“; and in several places (especially here, here, and here) the re-orientation of sexuality toward pleasure only, minus its sacramental and procreative aspects. Through these and other corruptions, the face of Antichrist begins to appear.
The mask of liberalism thus not only conceals but even alters the face beneath; and as the face changes, the mask ceases to fit. It is in the context of this change that we must understand Nietzsche’s remarks about God’s death. Without a firm and sound belief in Christian truth underlying it, the liberal state must ultimately change its character to something no longer resembling liberalism. It will either become explicitly antichrist, or it will have to acknowledge Christ’s rule.
We return, then, to the madman’s challenge. Something indeed must be done. The madman’s amused interlocutors thought they had gotten rid of the idea of God. But the Kingdom of God, although it influenced states as an idea, was never itself a concept, but simply a reality. Though a concept which is being mistaken for God seems to falter or pass away, God remains, and though beliefs and practices which have arisen in response to Christ’s kingdom are misappropriated or distorted, Christ’s kingdom itself is not threatened. It is not subject to secular phenomena or the ebb and flow of historical change. It has an unchanging existence in Jesus Christ, and continues to be manifested by his body, the Church.
The faithful person recognizes that whatever has died out of the state is not the true kingdom of God. The world is always in need of re-evangelization, and the instrument for this evangelization is always the same: citizens of Christ’s heavenly kingdom inviting others to experience the truth, joy, and redeeming power of his reign.
And the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” And Jesus answered him, “It is written,
“‘You shall worship the Lord your God,
and him only shall you serve.’”
(Luke 4:5-8 ESV)
[God] disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in [Jesus].
(Colossians 2:15 ESV)