In the book of Revelation, Babylon is a symbol of all that’s wrong in the world. It’s the system, the way things are in a sinful world. Babylon is worldliness. If you study Revelation 17, you’ll notice three things about the prostitute Babylon.
First, she is attractive. She has royal clothes, purple and scarlet. She glitters with gold and is decked out in pearls and precious stones. She’s got her best threads on, alluring and seductive.
Second, the influence of Babylon is pervasive. She sits on many waters, which are peoples and multitudes and nations and languages (Rev. 17:15). Babylon the city literally sat on many waters (Psalm 137:1; Jer. 51:13), but water here is a metaphor for influence. Babylon is connected and powerful. She is not one kingdom in one place at one time, but the pervasive worldliness that reigns in every country, every culture, and every government.
Third, Babylon is impressive. John says, in verse 6, “When I saw her, I marveled greatly.” He was astonished at her influence, her power, and her hold on the inhabitants of the earth. The ways of the world always seem more impressive than the way of a crucified Savior.
So how do we avoid the crushing weight of Babylon the Great? The first step is to admit we live in Babylon. Everyone does. We are all tempted to drink from the golden cup filled with abominable things (Rev. 17:4). Every culture has its “isms” to tempt us to idolatry. In Africa the test of faithfulness may involve animism, and polygamy. In South America it might be syncretistic versions of Catholicism. In Asia it might be ancestor worship. In America the isms are a little different.
Scientism: truth is only found in what can be measured, tested, and published by peer review.
Biological determinism: I am what my genes tell me to be.
Journeyism: as long as I keep searching, maybe people will quit bothering me to find something.
Experienceism: the good life can only be found through travel, adventure, and novelty.
Protestism: if I always speak out against evil out there, I can ignore the evil inside.
Healthism: younger is always better, and when I get old there is a pill and a video to help me feel young again.
Entertainmentism: if it doesn’t make me feel something right now, then it can’t be worth my time.
Voyeurism: my life is disappointing and boring so I will do all I can to peer in on celebrities whose lives are more exciting and more dysfunctional.
Sportsism: I live and die every weekend based on how well twenty year-olds push each other over while chasing the guy with the ball.
Partyism: life pretty much stinks most days, but once or twice a week I have the time of my life; later I throw up.
Politicsism: everything bad is the other guy’s fault and everything that needs to change in the world can be voted on by Congress.
Familyism: Christ and his church take a back seat to soccer and band.
Sexualityism: my parts are my business and no God can tell me what they’re for or when or how to use them.
Shoppingism: it’s not idolatry if it’s for my kids or on sale.
Advocacyism: I care, therefore I am.
I could go on and on about consumerism, materialism, moralism, pragmatism, and all the other worldly “isms” of our day. But you get the point. We are much more a product of our culture than we think. We live and breathe worldliness. The answer is not to hide off in a holy huddle in some Christian ghetto. The problem with the Christian sub-culture isn’t that it’s too otherworldly, but that it is almost always too worldly. Sure, some of the movies and music changes, but the way of thinking is still the same. The experienceism, the healthism, the enterntainmentism are all there. Because what makes an alternative to Babylon is more difficult than watching different movies. It’s living by a different story. It’s being shaped by a different set of assumptions. It’s demonstrating a different ethic. It’s being supremely relevant to a dying world by smashing the idol of relevance. If you want to always be relevant you must deal with the things that touch eternity and if you are dealing with eternal things you always seem a bit irrelevant.
We’re foolish if we think that we are not surrounded by Babylon. Everyone is. Worldliness in this country will ruin far more spiritual lives than Islam and new age spiritualities.
In the world, not of the world, Jesus said. Easier said than done. “Can a man carry fire next to his chest and his clothes not be burned? Or can one walk on hot coals and his feet not be scorched?” (Prov. 6:27-28)
Beware of all the subtle ways the world wants to squeeze you into its mold.
A version of this article originally appeared in the October issue of Tabletalk.