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The sixth seal, Part 2

Feb 05, 2016

The judgment upon the kings and other great men of the earth at the end of Revelation 6 is referring to specific events that occurred in the early fourth century. Though the basic principle may be applicable to modern times, the historical fulfillment of these verses took place when God judged pagan Rome. Revelation 6:15-17 says,

15 And the kings of the earth and the great men and the commanders and the rich and the strong and every slave and free man, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains; 16 and they said to the mountains and to the rocks, Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; 17 for the great day of their wrath has come; and who is able to stand?

This is a graphic way of describing the fear among the wealthy and powerful pagans, who were apprehensive about their own future under Constantine and the other Christian Emperors who succeeded him. Constantine had a policy of toleration, but within a century paganism itself was banned under Theodosius, who ruled from 392-395.

In 380 Theodosius declared the Roman Empire to be "Christian." In 395 he banned all pagan animal sacrifices, closed the pagan temples, and prohibited pagan rites. Gibbon writes on page 409 of his The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,

“The ruin of Paganism, in the age of Theodosius, is perhaps the only example of the total extirpation of any ancient and popular superstition, and may therefore be considered as a singular event in the history of the human mind.”

Although the Roman senate still had a pagan majority, these senators saw that their political future hinged on their conversion to the religion of the Emperor. Gibbon says on page 410 that up to that time “paganism was still the constitutional religion of the senate.” But in 395 the great families of Rome submitted to the Christian religion and concurred in the abolition of paganism. Gibbon writes on page 412,

“The hasty conversion of the senate must be attributed either to supernatural or to sordid motives; and many of these reluctant proselytes betrayed, on every favourite occasion, their secret disposition to throw aside the mask of odious dissimulation. But they were gradually fixed in the new religion, as the cause of the ancient became more hopeless . . .”

The problem, of course, was that many remained secret pagans even while they maintained membership in the Roman church. In time, their secret paganism added perversions of Christianity, the worship of Mary Magdalene in particular, who was identified with Persephone, the ancient goddess. Thus, Mary (the mother of Jesus) and Mary Magdalene (the supposed wife of Jesus) were honored, one by the many and the other by many of the old nobility. Catholicism included an overt and a covert religion under the same roof, which has only recently been uncovered by authors such as Dan Brown and Laurence Gardner.

This is what happens when men are forcibly converted to another religion, or when they feel threatened by religious persecution. Beginning with the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D., the church began to rely upon their creeds rather than upon the revelation of the word. Faith in Christ was replaced by faith in the church. The light of revelation waned. The moon was darkened and turned red like blood, no longer lightened by the sun but darkened by the shadow of the earth.

Another important consequence of this political earthquake was seen in the transfer of the Empire’s capital to Constantinople—a new city, free of pagan temples, that Constantine built on the Black Sea at the border of Europe and Asia. This transfer occurred in 330 A.D. Constantine never again saw Rome. Constantinople quickly became more important than Rome itself.

The Sons of Constantine

Constantine died on Pentecost, May 22, 337 A.D. Throughout his reign, he adhered to his original policy of religious toleration not only for Christians but for pagans as well. Philip Schaff writes in about Constantine in his History of the Christian Church, Vol. III, p. 34,

“Nevertheless he continued in his later years true upon the whole to the toleration principles of the edict of 313, protected the pagan priests and temples in their privileges, and wisely abstained from all violent measures against heathenism, in the persuasion that it would in time die out.”

After Constantine’s death, however, this policy of toleration was reversed by his sons. Schaff says in Vol. III, page 38,

“The sons of Constantine did their Christian education little honor, and departed from their father’s wise policy of toleration.”

Though Constantine had reunited the Empire (after Diocletian had divided into four pieces), he divided it among his three sons upon his death. His sons, being adherents of a religion rather than true Christians from the heart, fought among themselves. To make matters worse, the sons were divided by religious belief as well. Constantius had adopted Arianism, the sect banned by the Council of Nicea in 325, while his two brothers were orthodox. The result of this was that Arianism dominated the East for the next 40 years, while the Orthodox view dominated the West.

Constantine’s sons did not act as true Christians but fought each other in the manner of all other despots seeking power. In 340 Constantine II was killed by his brother Constans, who was in turn killed by another rival, Magnentius ten years later. Constantius then defeated Magnentius in 353 and ruled the Empire until he died in 361.

Constantius zealously persecuted the non-Christians, destroyed and robbed pagan temples, gave the booty to the Church, and even tried to impose the death penalty against those who would dare make a pagan sacrifice or worship the images of the gods. Yet he soon abandoned any attempt to enforce this law after visiting Rome in 357 and seeing how utterly pagan the city was.

Perhaps then he began to understand why his father had abandoned Rome for a freshly built city in the East, which had no pagan temples or altars. Constantius was polite enough to visit the Roman temples, permitted them to sacrifice, and confirmed privileges upon their priests.

Paganism’s Last Revival

After Constantius died in 361, an inevitable backlash occurred. His nephew Julian (“the Apostate”) was one of the few who had escaped the slaughter when Constantine’s three sons fought for the throne. The abuses that he saw firsthand caused him to reject Christianity, though he received a nominal Christian education and was raised in the sterile atmosphere of ritualistic Christianity.

Julian revolted against this. Constantius’ partial prohibition of such classic Roman authors as Homer, Plato, and Aristotle made him determined to study their writings with greater devotion. Julian himself dated his rejection of Christianity to 351, when he was just 20 years of age, but wisely kept his apostasy hidden. Then in 355 he went to Athens, where he was initiated in the Eleusinian mysteries, completing his transition.

The sudden death of Constantius in 361 brought Julian to the throne, and then he felt secure enough to openly repudiate Christianity. During his short reign of only 18 months, he showed himself to be a brilliant military commander, a great intellectual with great executive ability, and having good moral character that far exceeded most emperors. However, he was bitterly opposed to Christianity and made it his life’s mission to reinstate the worship of the Roman gods.

Julian called into the open a multitude of pagan priests who had gone into hiding. He also attempted to reform paganism with many precepts of Christianity to enhance its morality and reduce its excesses. His zealous reforms of paganism actually caused him to lose support among many of the pagan priests, much like later Christian reformists were persecuted by the bishops and popes who preferred money and the life style and concubines that money could purchase. Julian discovered too late that the religion he sought to revive was morally worse than the Christianity that he sought to suppress.

Julian’s attack on Christianity took the form of religious toleration, rather than open persecution. Open persecution had not worked in earlier centuries, he knew, so his tactic was to legalize all the various factions of Christianity which had been suppressed since the Council of Nicea—the Arians, Apollinarians, Novatians, Macedonians, and Donatists. His policy of religious toleration was not so different from the modern idea of freedom of conscience. Competing denominations were put on an equal footing for the short time that Julian ruled the Empire.

For this, of course, he was castigated by the more orthodox Christian leaders, who held the view that there was only “one Church” and its legitimacy was upheld by the Church Councils. Hence, his name has been remembered as Julian the Apostate.

Julian died in his prime on June 27, 363 A.D. Buried with him was the last chance for the revival of paganism as such. Even so, Schaff says, at the end of the fourth century, there were still 152 pagan temples in Rome, along with 183 smaller chapels dedicated to various deities.

Rome Officially Becomes a Christian Nation (380 A.D.)

The death of Julian ended the rule of the Constantinian family. Julian was succeeded by Jovian, a Christian general, and chosen by the army. He ruled just eight months, however, and was succeeded by Valentinian, who ruled until his death in 375. Both Jovian and Valentinian adopted Constantine’s policy of religious toleration.

Valentinian felt that he needed help in ruling such a large empire, and so in March 364 he appointed his brother Valens as co-emperor. Though Valentinian was orthodox, Valens was Arian and was thus a “heretic” as established by the Council of Nicea in 325. Valentinian ruled from the capital of the empire, Constantinople, but gave Rome to his brother. After Valentinian died in 375, Valens persecuted the orthodox Christians until his death in 378.

Valens was killed in the Battle of Adrianople on August 9, 378. This was the disastrous battle against the Goths, Alans, and Huns, wherein two-thirds of the Eastern Roman army was killed, and it marked the beginning of the end of the Roman Empire.

After Valens died in 378, Gratian succeeded him. Yet with the Roman army so decimated, Gratian was unable to defend the empire from the incursions of the “barbarians,” so he promoted Theodosius as co-emperor of the East on January 19, 379.

Theodosius in the East and Gratian in the West agreed to make Orthodox Christianity the official religion of Rome in 380 A.D.

Though in some ways they continued the policy of toleration among Christians, they ended the public support for the pagan temples, confiscated temple properties, and withdrew privileges of pagan priests. Paganism then became fully dependent upon voluntary offerings from the people. In 382 Gratian removed the statue and altar of Victoria from the senate building in Rome. Paganism’s days were numbered, and Gratian was assassinated the following year.

The political upheaval (earthquake) did not take place all at once, but over a period of time from 313-395 A.D. In 395 the Emperor Theodosius died, and the Empire was divided among his two sons. Honorius was made Emperor of the West at the age of nine, and he set up his capital in Milan. His older brother, Arcadius, was 17 or 18, and so he was given the Eastern portion of the Empire, based in Constantinople, for that was considered to be the greater inheritance.

This began the final break-up of the Roman Empire. In 410 Rome was overrun and sacked by the Goths, and for the next half century, the Western half of the Roman Empire gradually disintegrated.

This completed the judgment of the sixth seal.


This is part 54 of a series titled "Studies in the Book of Revelation." To view all parts, click the link below.

Studies in the Book of Revelation


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