Defining Babylon

In Revelation 18:4 an appeal is given for God’s people to ‘come out’ of Babylon. Those who ignore this call will be guilty of the same sins, and receive the same judgements, as Babylon herself. These are serious consequences for noncompliance, and beg some serious questions: What is Babylon? How did the Church get ‘in’ it? And how do we come out?

Babylon—Symbol and Archetype

First, it must be understood that Revelation is a book packed full of literary symbolism, and that verses referring to Babylon conform to this general typology. ‘Babylon’ should be familiar to Bible readers as the name of the city/empire to which the Israelites were exiled in 587 BC, but it must be noted that historical Babylon is not the primary meaning of ‘Babylon’ in Revelation, although there is an overlap. Rather, ‘Babylon’ in Revelation is a shorthand reference to another idea, one that must be explored and understood from other parts of scripture and then applied back to the relevant passages within Revelation.

The first detailed exposition of Babylon appears in scripture at Genesis 11, within the story commonly called The Tower of Babel.[1] Here, Babylon functions as an archetype of human civilisation in rebellion against God. The Babel story exposes: the use of human ingenuity and resourcefulness to construct ‘a tower with its top in the heavens’ (v. 4) (symbolising desired equality with God), the aspirations of the city’s builders to usurp God’s fame (i.e. ‘make a name for ourselves’), and the general popular resistance to God’s command to ‘fill the earth’ (Genesis 1:28)—demonstrated in the building of a permanent bricks-and-mortar city.

Within the Genesis narrative, Babel epitomises proud, arrogant human self-reliance, separated from God’s activities and divorced from obedience to his will. Here too is the ancient Hebrew attitude towards linguistic diversity—not an evolutionary obstacle to be surmounted, but a divinely given inhibitor of sin. The conclusion of the story is well known: the builders attract the attention of God, who interrupts their plans, confuses their languages, and scatters them across the Earth (Genesis 11:7-8). Rebel humanity is thwarted, but lives to fight another day.

It is important to recognise that ‘Babylon’ is first and foremost a human attitude, which later manifests as a physical reality. Scripture describes Nimrod, the founder of Babel, as ‘a mighty hunter before the Lord’ (Genesis 10:9), meaning that he thought himself equal to, or even greater than, God. Given this foundation, it’s not hard to see how Babel became the centre of a civilisation whose leaders aspired to deification and unrivalled world renown.

Because Babel in Genesis is a literary archetype, the story strongly contributes to the Biblical world-view of civilisation in general. It may surprise some readers to learn that the Bible is somewhat cynical towards the supposed merits of cities,[2] and is antagonistic towards static civilisations dependent upon irrigated river water.[3] The reasons are straightforward enough: Cities that can irrigate their crops using a reliable source of water produce large harvests. These cities always have enough to eat and trade, and thus become rich and powerful.[4] Increased wealth creates more time for leisure, which enables the pursuit of knowledge, leading to more wealth, power, and general self-sufficiency. It would appear that cities, and the civilisations they serve, have no real need for God.

Coming out of Babylon

So what’s the answer? Should Christians respond to the command in Revelation and demonstrate a zealous reliance upon God by ‘leaving’ civilisation? Should they run to the desert, start a commune, and wait for a Rapturous evacuation? Many have believed this to be the answer.

But a couple of thoughts should make us pause. Firstly, it is impossible for a person to ‘leave’ their native culture simply by translocation. A person raised within a Western nation thinks (the process of changing raw sensory data into intelligible information) as a Westerner, and has learnt to do so since birth. Merely changing postal codes will not override these subconsciously entrenched and socially conforming thought patterns, which contribute in a very real and deep way to a person’s sense of self. Occasionally, a person born in one culture spends long enough within a secondary culture that they begin to ‘think like a native’. I remember my high-school German language teacher saying that when an English-speaking student begins to have German-speaking dreams, they have absorbed the language (and therefore culture) to the level of the subconscious, and can be said to have reached fluency. Even so, this only demonstrates a change of culture, rather than an exit from culture in general.

Secondly, and more importantly, civilisations are built upon cultural values. Western culture, for instance, is built upon the idea that individual citizens have the right to privately own property. This value in turn determines behaviour, such as capitalist venture, manufacturing in the service of materialism, and democracy. Innate human self-interest contributes to a diverse milieu of cultural one-upmanship, but a student of the Bible can be better informed.

As the biblical archetype of human civilisation, the Genesis story of Babel lays a philosophical foundation informing readers of the Bible that every human culture/civilisation suffers from the same endemic problems—pride, self-sufficiency, violence, and the desire to be like/as God/gods, which is self-determination. In sum, all cultures are compromised and weakened by the presence of sin. And rather than being environments which promote God-dependent behaviour, all societies inherently lead their members—sometimes contrary to the best of intentions—away from individual reliance upon and obedience to God.

The cry of scripture to ‘come out of Babylon’ is not a call to self-imposed physical exile. Rather, it is a challenge for every Christian to seriously examine the ways in which they, and the church family to which they belong, unwittingly conform to the cultural values of secular society, and to repent—allowing God’s spirit to teach them new ways of thinking. This theme is everywhere through the New Testament: Matthew 6:24 ‘You cannot serve God and mammon’; Romans 12:2 ‘Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind’; 1 John 2:15 ‘Do not love the world[6] or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him’. ‘Come out of Babylon’ is thus a plea for the Church to abandon worldliness—or else face the same judgements as the world.

The vast majority of born-again, spirit-filled Christians intuitively discern that all is not right within the Church.[7] To this end huge numbers of analyses promote a plethora of formulas suggesting ways to ‘fix’ the Church. Yet scripture knows only one, simple solution: Repent of worldliness. Come out of Babylon. Cry to God for mercy, and enjoy his daily provision.


[1] See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Babylon#Name for an explanation of this city’s names, including the Babel/Babylon variation used in the Bible.

[2] In the Bible Sodom, Gommorah, Tyre, Sidon, Samaria, Jerusalem, Capernaum and many other cities are all targets of divine and prophetic wrath.

[3] Likewise Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon were large agricultural civilisations often derided by the prophets (eg. Isaiah 13:1).

[4] Compare this to the Israelite cities, whose populations were urged to ‘ask the Lord for rain’ (Zechariah 10:1).

[5] ‘World’ = fallen human culture/s in rebellion against God.

[6] I write ‘Church’ without specifying ‘Western Church’ because I believe the globalisation of culture is now reaching its end stage of development. East-West values are fast merging into a single world-spanning culture, and a worldly Church ingests those values regardless of physical location.

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