While Rome is struggling with issues of traditionalism and ecumenism, its Protestant "daughter" churches are increasingly warming to their separated mother. What does this mean for the future of religion?
While the world's attention has been focused on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, international terrorism, weather-related disasters, earthquakes, global warming and the jittery global economy, another significant trend is quietly developing just under the radar of the secular press. This unanticipated development—the resurgence of religion in world affairs, the growing prominence of the Roman Catholic Church and the influence of its popes, and the movement of other professing Christian churches back towards Rome—will have a profound impact on the Western world and the rest of the planet in the years just ahead. Although various superficial aspects of this increasingly evident trend are regularly reported in the news, the prophetic significance of these related events is largely overlooked. You need to understand how current religious developments are fulfilling ancient Bible prophecies, where they are heading, and how they will affect you!
As scholars such as Samuel Huntington and Karen Armstrong have noted, the resurgence of religion as a major factor in world affairs is one of the great surprises of the 21st century. For decades, academics and politicians have accepted the "secularization theory"—the idea that modernization and secularization of society would cause religion to fade into oblivion. However, just the opposite has happened! As sociologist Peter Berger has observed, the dramatic upsurge in religion over the last 25 years has provided a "massive falsification of this idea" (The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics, p. 6). In fact, the fastest growing religious organizations are "fundamentalist" sects and churches that hold clear beliefs and strong moral codes. By contrast, liberal mainstream denominations that try to accommodate societal trends—easy divorce, abortion, same-sex marriage, ordination of women and homosexuals—are hemorrhaging members!
The Roman Catholic Church has been at the forefront of the "Culture Wars" that have pitted conservative religionists against their liberal opponents. Pope Benedict XVI, like Pope John Paul II before him, has taken strong doctrinal stands on issues dear to "traditional" Christianity—rejecting legal abortion, same-sex marriage and secularism, while upholding the sanctity of heterosexual marriage, the importance of Sunday worship and the need to shun society's rampant materialism.
It is often today's youth who are most drawn to traditional stands in the "Culture Wars." It is significant that World Youth Days promoted first by John Paul II and now by Benedict XVI have attracted hundreds of thousands of young people who are urged to live moral lives, reject materialistic values and embrace the Catholic faith (Charlotte Observer, July 21, 2008).
Historian Paul Johnson notes that, during his 25-year pontificate, John Paul II became a "superstar"—a global figure who played a pivotal role in bringing down communism (see Heroes, pp. 253–273), and who repeatedly urged Europeans to "discover" their Roman Catholic religious roots.
Many Protestants have welcomed "conservative" moves by the Roman church, and many Catholics see the papal embrace of tradition as a vindication of Rome's status as the "one true church," but these views overlook what Bible prophecy reveals about current events. The book of Revelation, in its depiction of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, clearly indicates that increased religious activity will be a sign that the end of the age is approaching. The prophesied First Horseman rides a white horse, wears a crown and carries a bow to conquer people (Revelation 6:1–2). Some mistakenly believe this figure represents Jesus Christ, but the Bible pictures Christ with a sword (Revelation 19:11–15). The individual in Scripture who carries a bow and shoots arrows is Satan (Ephesians 6:16). The First Horseman of Revelation 6 pictures the same end-time event described in Matthew 24:4–5—clearly revealing that the main thrust of end-time religious activity will be to deceive and dominate large numbers of people!
When Jesus was asked what would be the sign of His coming and the end of the age, He warned, "Take heed that no one deceives you. For many will come in My name [the Knox translation renders it, "making use of My name"] saying, 'I am the Christ', and will deceive many" (Matthew 24:3–5). Jesus' answer reveals that religion—including false "Christian" teachers—will be far from dead in the last days!
The Apostle Paul warned that "in the last days perilous times will come: for men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money… blasphemers… lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power.… evil men and impostors will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived" (2 Timothy 3:1–5, 13). According to Scripture, the widespread resurgence of religious activity at the end of the age will be inspired by Satan and will mislead many people. This is the prophetic significance of what is happening today—but there is more!
Two of the most significant events in the last 2,000 years of religious history were the Great Schism and the Reformation. In 1054ad, church leaders in Rome and Constantinople mutually excommunicated each other over doctrinal differences, creating the Great Schism that has separated the western Roman Catholic Church from the Eastern Orthodox Church for almost a thousand years. The 15th century saw the birth of the Protestant Reformation, as the development of the printing press and the availability of Bibles in common languages coincided with charges of widespread corruption and unbiblical doctrines in the Roman Catholic Church. The Reformation split Europe between Protestants generally in the North and Catholics generally in the South, and spawned violent religious conflicts that still smolder today.
However, in the closing decades of the 20th century, religious history seems to have gone into reverse! In recent years, we have witnessed the emergence of serious ecumenical efforts to re-unite the fractured pieces of what was once a single unified church. Roman Catholic popes have been at the forefront of this movement. John Paul II openly talked of healing the Great Schism and bringing the Eastern and Western Churches together. He apologized for the sack of Constantinople by Crusaders in the 12th century, and returned to the Orthodox church various relics that were taken during the Crusades. The Roman Catholic pontiff and the Orthodox patriarch met and prayed together on several occasions, and commented that they saw "no major obstacles to unity." Benedict XVI has continued this mission with a sense of urgency, and is "winning recognition as a champion of Christian unity" (National Catholic Register, July 23–August 5, 2006).
While popes and patriarchs have focused on bringing the Catholic and Orthodox churches closer together, efforts toward Protestant unity also continue. Two major bodies of the Reformed Churches have seriously discussed merging, and two major Lutheran bodies have already merged. Other private efforts like "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" are actively promoting closer ties between Rome and the Protestant churches. Conservative leaders within the Anglican Communion, angered and alienated by that fractured denomination's move to ordain women and homosexuals, are looking toward a possible move of millions of Anglicans toward Rome (The Times, February 19, 2007).
The last decade of the 20th century also witnessed the emergence of an "Ancient-Future Faith" movement, as championed by the late evangelical scholar Robert Webber. This movement emphasizes the common roots of tradition that developed in the post-Apostolic period of the early church (100–600ad), yet ignores Bible-based doctrines laid down by Jesus and the apostles in the first century ad. Advocates of this movement, primarily within Protestant denominations, proclaim that the future of the church can be found through its past, by reclaiming the rich traditions of the early church—which Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches have preserved, but Protestants had "tragically" rejected upon professing to follow only the Bible. As a result, many Protestant churches have placed renewed emphasis on traditions, sacraments and symbols—replacing casually dressed ministers and rock-music "praise bands" with ancient chants, candles, pageantry and liturgical practices drawn from ancient Catholicism. Some Protestant churches are even rediscovering the Catholic practice of adoration of the Virgin Mary (Time, March 21, 2005; Washington Post, March 8, 2008).
One minister commented that since the inception of this movement, "a race has been on to return Protestants to the Mother Church"—it is a race promoted by individuals who want to reverse the Protestant Reformation that they view as "an unnecessary schism perpetrated by Protestants" (tottministries.org, June 2008). It is surprising that Protestant churches are so anxious to merge with a Church that has declared, "If it isn't Roman Catholic then it's not a proper Church" (The Times, July 11, 2007).
Many ecumenically minded church leaders believe that the Holy Spirit is leading them toward greater unity (National Catholic Register, July 23–August 5, 2006). Benedict XVI, like John Paul II before him, has encouraged this mindset by reminding audiences that "Christ wants a Universal Church" (zenit.org, May 4, 2007), and by seeking common ground among religious groups against the social evils of our time—materialism, secularism, abortion, same-sex marriage and other assaults on "traditional" religious values. Interestingly, Benedict dedicated the year between June 28, 2008 and June 28, 2009 to the Apostle Paul. This "Pauline Year" will feature special ecumenical events designed to aid the search "for the complete unity of all the parts of the mystical body of Christ… [and] full communion between the Christian West and East" (UPI, June 29, 2007).
This may all sound wonderfully spiritual, and its dangers may not at first be apparent. However, the modern ecumenical movement, championed by Roman pontiffs and many willing Protestants and Eastern Orthodox—was foretold thousands of years ago in your Bible! The prophet Isaiah was inspired to write about the rise and fall of a "virgin daughter of Babylon" also described as "The Lady of Kingdoms" (see Isaiah 47). In prophecy, a reference to a woman or lady can be a reference to a church (see Revelation 12:6). The woman of Isaiah 47 dwells in sensual luxury (as did popes in the Middle Ages), and boasts, "I shall not sit as a widow, nor shall I know the loss of children"—meaning that her "children," the separated churches that came out from her, will return to her, in keeping with the Roman church's stated ecumenical goal. These prophetic references fit with amazing clarity what is happening today, as Roman popes work to gather a scattered flock back to the "mother" church in Rome. However, the prophecies of Isaiah 47 also reveal that because of the "multitude of your sorceries" and "abundance of your enchantments" (pagan teachings associated with this church—Easter, Christmas, Lent, prayers to the saints, the worship of a mother and child, the rosary, etc), this "lady" will face a sudden, catastrophic demise (see Isaiah 47:8–11; Revelation 18:1–8). This is the prophesied outcome of Rome's attempt to re-gather and unify the professing Christian churches—and even the other world religions.
During the last 50 years, forward-looking leaders in Europe have schemed to unify the nations of Europe, to prevent future wars on the continent and enable Europe to once again play a significant role on the world stage. Europe's modern leaders are consciously emulating earlier European leaders (Charlemagne, Napoleon, etc.) who, following the model of the Roman Empire, sought to unify Europe. Though the current crop of European leaders has struggled with a myriad of legal and economic agreements designed to unify the continent, perceptive analysts like historian Boris Johnson have noted that religion—worship of the emperor—was a key factor in maintaining unity in the Roman Empire (The Dream of Rome, pp. 95–100, 193). It was a Roman pope who crowned Charlemagne and gave legitimacy to his attempts to conquer and unify the continent, and the Roman church provided the "holy" dimension of the so-called "Holy Roman Empire" that dominated much of Europe for more than a thousand years (800–1806ad). Many non-Europeans fail to realize that the idea of a united Europe is "essentially a Catholic concept," that the Founding Fathers of the modern European Union, Alcide de Gasperi, Robert Shuman and Konrad Adenauer were devout Roman Catholics, and that these founders were launched on the road to sainthood by the Vatican for founding the European Community "on Roman Catholic principles" (see The Principality and Power of Europe, Hilton, pp. 38–39).
The Roman Catholic Church understands that religion is one of the driving forces in history. For several decades, John Paul II and now Benedict XVI have emphasized the vital role that religion must play in uniting the nations of Europe. Benedict has written, "Anyone who wants to build Europe today… cannot rely on an abstract reason that knows nothing about God… the great values and truths of the Christian faith—values that transcend the individual Christian denominations because they are common to all—are indispensable forces in the construction of a unified Europe" (Europe Today and Tomorrow, Ratzinger, p. 117). John Paul II stated, "The identity of Europe is incomprehensible without Christianity… You don't cut off the roots from which you were born… May Europe be itself and come to terms with its Christian roots" (Without Roots, Ratzinger & Pera, p. 35). Benedict has emphasized that both Eastern and Western Europe shared a common ecclesiastical heritage, that "both East and West were heirs to the Bible and to the ancient Church… both shared the idea of Empire [which was shattered by the rise of nation-states]… [they also shared] monasticism… a pre-political and supra-political force...[that aided the] rebirth of culture and civilization" in Europe (Without Roots, pp. 55–56).
On the surface, Europe may appear to be "dechristianizing" and abandoning the faith to pursue a secular dream of economic and political unity. However, the external threat posed by Islam, and the need for a supra-national factor to provide a basis for unity are stirring the flames of religion on the continent where Christianity seems poised for a "comeback" (God's Continent, Jenkins, pp. 1, 14, 25).
As many observers have noted of Benedict XVI, "This pope is looking to reconquer Europe, if not in numbers, then at the political table" (Pope Seeks Greater Role for Catholics in Europe on Policy Issues," New York Times, September 20, 2008).
Benedict XVI has promoted historian Arnold Toynbee's idea that the cure for Europe's secular-materialistic crisis is for "creative minorities" to "reintroduce the religious dimension… especially the heritage of Western Christianity" (Without Roots, p. 68). Pursuing this same theme, Protestant and Catholic Church leaders in 2001 signed an ecumenical document, Charta Oecumenica, in which they pledged to pray together, preach together, act together "and build Europe together." To counter Islamic threats against the values of Western civilization, some politicians have urged Europeans to reject pacifism and defend their own identity and culture—"through force" if necessary—which certainly calls to mind the militant religion of the First Horseman of the Apocalypse (Without Roots, p. 93). So, what does the future hold for Europe, and what role will religious leaders play?
Benedict XVI has written that "we cannot see into the future" and "we do not know how things will go in Europe in the future" (Without Roots, pp. 68, 80). In fact, however, Bible prophecy does reveal what the future holds for Europe, and explains the role religious leadership will play in that future. The book of Daniel describes a great image whose feet and ten toes picture the final phase of a government—with its heritage from the Roman Empire—that will be smashed by the returning Jesus Christ (Daniel 2:40–45). Daniel also describes a great beast with ten horns (picturing ten revivals) and writes of a "little horn" which, dominating the last seven revivals, speaks pompous words, makes war with the saints and changes the calendar (times) and laws (see Daniel 7). History records numerous attempts to "revive" the Roman Empire, and in fact the popes in Rome backed and in some cases even crowned many of these European leaders, such as Charlemagne. History also records that the Roman church outlawed Sabbath observance in favor of Sunday, and replaced the biblical Holy Days with pagan holidays including Easter and Christmas.
End-time prophecies in the New Testament describe a beast with seven heads (the last seven horns of the beast of Daniel 7). One of the beast's heads will be mortally wounded, but will be healed and revived, which will astonish the whole world, and as a result prompt countless millions to follow the beast (Revelation 13:1–4).
What is this war-making beast? It is a European political system empowered by Satan, which will be "given breath" by a lamb-like beast that performs great signs and deceives those who dwell on the earth (Revelation 13:11–15). This lamb-like beast is a prominent religious figure who, by performing miracles, will influence people to follow and worship the revived political beast. Scripture further describes this religious figure as a stunningly arrayed "great harlot" who has influenced peoples of the world with her teachings, who commits fornication [has intimate relations] with the kings of the earth, and who gives advice and counsel to the political beast (Revelation 17:1–4).
Compare this description to the Roman Catholic Church, which has spread around the world its teachings laced with paganism. That church, "alone among faiths, is a diplomatic player" on the world stage (The Economist, July 21, 2007)—and it is significant that its popes have worked tirelessly to promote European unification. Indeed, "The Vatican has one of the world's busiest but least-known diplomatic services" (ibid.)—with full ties to 174 nations, actually representing the Holy See, not the Vatican state. When the Holy See—already the biggest non-governmental organization in the world—becomes more closely linked with the European Union and its fledgling diplomatic corps, this will dramatically expand papal influence not only in Europe but also around the world, making the Roman church a political force to be reckoned with!
The "great harlot" of Revelation 17 is also stained with the blood of martyred saints. Indeed, the Roman Catholic Church presided over the Inquisition, which shed the blood of countless Christians who did not accept Roman Catholic teachings. That church is also called the "mother of harlots"—she has given birth to "daughter" churches that she will seek to bring back into her fold, as prophesied in Isaiah 47. Yes, the "seven sisters"—a term often used by the mainstream Protestant denominations to describe themselves—will eventually return to their "mother." This return will be hastened by apparent miracles performed by a prominent Roman leader whom Scripture calls the "man of sin" and "the lawless one" (2 Thessalonians 2:1–11). This return to Rome will occur just before the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, and is referred to as the "falling away" (meaning an apostasy or rebellion).
We are living in sobering and prophetically significant times! The resurgence of religion on the world stage—and the growing prominence of the Roman Catholic Church within that resurgence—can clearly be seen today. As the Roman Catholic Church seeks greater prominence, we see increasing ecumenical efforts to heal the Great Schism and even to reverse the Protestant Reformation—developments that would "turn back the clock" on two major turning points in the history of Western civilization. Bible prophecy shows that current movements of professing Christian churches back towards Rome will increase as we approach the end of this age, just before Jesus Christ's return to this earth. This return to Rome will be aided by a prominent religious figure who will use supernatural signs and wonders to promote the unification of Europe and the formation of a "Universal Church." Although secular media and scholars largely ignore this world-changing trend, God can help you to understand the prophetic significance of these times in which we are living. You need not be deceived by the effort to bring all of professing Christianity under the banner of Rome!