A 9th grader recently asked a great question as we recently wrapped up our study of the Roman empire. “Suppose that we could freeze Augustus (a great political genius) at the peak of his abilities and power and have him live forever. Would Rome still have eventually collapsed?” The question immediately grabbed me, for it touches not just on Augustus, not just on Rome itself, but on the idea of decline and death in general.
We can look at this question in a number of ways:
- We can imagine Augustus as a hypothetically perfect ruler who never makes mistakes. But other Roman mortals would make mistakes, and these would eventually bring Rome down.
- Or we can see neither Augustus or his fellow Romans as perfect. But led continually by Augustus at his peak, the Romans would always be able, at minimum, to tread water and never sink, despite whatever mistakes and sins they commit.
- Or we can see the question as a musing on the whether or not decline has any purpose in a grand theological sense. Supposing the near-perfection of Augustus and his fellow Romans, would God still “want” Rome’s decline?
I will speculate on this third option in hopes that it will cover the first two.
When we speak of God “wanting” something we immediately enter the delicate waters of His sovereignty and our free will. Without commenting on this too much, we can safely say that God uses sin and evil to accomplish His purposes — and His main purpose is to save mankind at all times and places from their sins. Many, for example, turn to God in the midst of suffering. Does this mean that God wants us to suffer? Again, it depends — He could prevent it, but often chooses not to because He knows suffering is always a key ingredient in Christian discipleship. The suffering we experience may be a direct result of our sin, the sins of others, or perhaps have no direct connection to sin at all (i.e. the Book of Job). In this latter case, God asks that we submit to a mystery we cannot understand. The history of God’s people gives volumes of evidence for all of these. Might we say the same holds true, then, of nations and empires?
In the Greek world there existed Nemesis, who punished pride, and Tyche, who distributed blessings and “misfortune” throughout for purposes unknown to men. In other words, suffering in the Greek cosmos might result from sin and it might not. The Medievals pick up on this notion and see “Lady Fortune” as one of God’s agents in the world to work His purposes. A person’s rise and fall might have something to do with their virtues or sins respectively, and thus teach him some lesson. Or it might have another, unseen purpose, and the “lesson” from these events may or may not have anything to do with a person’s sin at all. Perhaps a person’s rise and fall was just something they, or the people as a whole, needed to experience, either to prevent them from falling into pride (God disperses the people at the Tower of Babel not so much because of their existing pride but to prevent their future pride — the division of languages is a mercy), or for some other unknown reason.
Nebuchadnezzar’s famous dream in Daniel 2 touches on the same question. God gives Nebuchadnezzar a vision of the rise of fall of many kingdoms, and Daniel tells us that,
“Your Majesty looked, and there before you stood a large statue—an enormous, dazzling statue,awesome in appearance. The head of the statue was made of pure gold, its chest and arms of silver, its belly and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of baked clay. While you were watching, a rock was cut out, but not by human hands. It struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay and smashed them. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver and the gold were all broken to pieces and became like chaff on a threshing floor in the summer. The wind swept them away without leaving a trace. But the rock that struck the statue became a huge mountain and filled the whole earth.”
This dream strikes me not as one of judgment (unlike in Daniel 4), nor one of warning (as was the dream Joseph interpreted for Pharaoh). Rather, Daniel just describes simply the way things will be. And the purpose of this rising and falling is not so much to judge sin, but to shine the proper attention on the everlasting kingdom to come. Babylon’s fall is simply part of God’s plan to redeem mankind, and one not connected directly to their sin. Can we extrapolate this idea to other nations not mentioned? Indeed, surely any nation or kingdom could be judged at any time for their sins, but such is not God’s way, it seems. We must be careful in wishing too much for God’s justice, lest we get it. Perhaps the mystery of His sovereignty is a safer place to reside.
Regarding the student’s question then, I think we can answer in the negative. Even if Augustus ruled perfectly and Romans lived more or less righteous lives, God works in ways to prevent us from getting too attached to any particular earthly order. Understanding the redemptive power and purpose of suffering then, forms a necessary foundation for understanding History itself.
When we lose this perspective on life death becomes something to cheat — death grows more menacing than even God intended, for He means suffering and death prepare us for new and fuller life, not as a mere termination of life itself. But this truth stands in jeopardy today. We see young people delaying marriage, we see abortion perhaps largely because of fears and suffering that come with raising a child,* and we see the expansion of legal suicide — death without suffering. Refusal to accept our finitude, then, brings more death, not less.
Such are the lessons of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream.
*The traditional marriage ceremony clearly stands as a death-new life ritual, especially for the bride. She, the spotless sacrifice (she wears white) gets led to the altar. She walks down the aisle, led by the father, to the altar. “Mary Smith” is “sacrificed,” but she arises again to new life as “Mary Jones.” The Christological implications of His Church as the bride are obvious. We too must die so that we can become new creations, and we too receive a new name. “I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it,” (Rev. 2:17).
Similarly, anyone who has been a parent can testify to the death of an old way of life that arrives with our bundles of joy. And of course, it is the woman again who images for us most profoundly the death-new life ritual as she gives of her body for her children.
Gender roles are not absolute in every sense. But when we alter the genders involved in marriage we obscure a gift of revelation from God, we destroy an image of salvation. Perhaps too, not having this truth as the foundation for marriage has led to the rise of divorces. Modern notions of marriage make it about personal fulfillment — the marriage will enhance and fulfill you as the individual. But in reality marriage is instead about imaging and living death-new life in Christ. Marriage involves a kind of death to an old way of life (for both husband and wife), which leads to new life and new creation. But unless a seed dies, it cannot bear fruit. Again, it should not surprise us if failure to understand what God’s purpose for us in marriage leads to failure and frustration in marriages everywhere. Marriage should kill part of our old lives, and we should not panic when we see this taking place.