The fourth and final part of my presentation of the four sermons on the Anti-Christ delivered by John Henry Cardinal Newman before his conversion during Advent in 1835. Part I is here, part II is here and Part III is here.
In this last sermon Newman speaks of the persecution that will attend the reign of the anti-Christ. In Newman’s day living memory could recall the savage persecution that the Church endured dring the initial years of the French Revolution. In our time, we have the blood-stained last century when millions of Christians were martyred for their faith. It is all too easy to suspect that those terrible persecutions were trial runs for the persecution of the Anti-Christ. The last century brought to reality these words of Newman: “Let us then apprehend and realize the idea, thus clearly brought before us, that, sheltered as the Church has been from persecution for 1500 years, yet a persecution awaits it, before the end, fierce and more perilous than any which occurred at its first rise.” Certainly all prior persecutions pale before what Christians experienced in the Terrible Twentieth.
This is an interesting passage from Newman’s sermon: “Again, another anxious sign at the present time is what appears in the approaching destruction of the Mahometan power. This too may outlive our day; still it tends visibly to annihilation, and as it crumbles, perchance the sands of the world’s life are running out.” I assume that Newman was thinking of the decline of the Ottoman Empire of his day, the sick man of Europe. Freed from this adversary, perhaps Europe would unite behind one man, reform or revive the Roman Empire, and bring about the conditions for the Anti-Christ. Small wonder that Hitler was frequently deemed the Anti-Christ during his lifetime. Of course Hitler was not the Anti-Christ, but perhaps merely one of myriads of anti-Christs who have arisen and fallen in the centuries since the coming of Christ, or perhaps he is a precursor of the Anti-Christ.
In our secular age, when the Faith is so weak in so many regions of traditional strength, especially in Europe, these words of Newman ring home: “It is his policy to split us up and divide us, to dislodge us gradually from our rock of strength. And if there is to be a persecution, perhaps it will be then; then, perhaps, when we are all of us in all parts of Christendom so divided, and so reduced, so full of schism, so close upon heresy. When we have cast ourselves upon the world and depend for protection upon it, and have given up our independence and our strength, then he may burst upon us in fury as far as God allows him. “
Newman ends with the hope that the knowledge of a coming persecution may cause us to act more like Christians: “Surely with this thought before us, we cannot bear to give ourselves up to thoughts of ease and comfort, of making money, settling well, or rising in the world. Surely with this thought before us, we cannot but feel that we are, what all Christians really are in the best estate, (nay rather would wish to be had they their will, if they be Christians in heart) pilgrims, watchers waiting for the morning, waiting for the light, eagerly straining our eyes for the first dawn of day—looking out for our SAVIOUR’S coming, His glorious advent, when He will end the reign of sin and wickedness, accomplish the number of His elect, and perfect those who at present struggle with infirmity, yet in their hearts love and obey Him.”
The fourth and final sermon of Newman on the Anti-Christ:
“There shall be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation even to that same time; and at that time thy people shall be delivered, every one that shall be found written in the book.” Dan. 12:1
WE have been so accustomed to hear of the persecutions of the Church, both from the New Testament and from the history of Christianity, that it is well if we have not at length come to regard the account as words of course, to speak of them without understanding what we say, and to receive no practical benefit from having been told of them: much less are we likely to take them for what they really are, a characteristic mark of Christ’s Church. They are not indeed the necessary lot of the Church, but at least one of her appropriate badges; so that on the whole, looking at the course of history, you might set down persecution as one of the peculiarities by which you recognize her. And our Lord seems to intimate how becoming, how natural persecution is to the Church, by placing it among His Beatitudes.
“Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven;” giving it the same high and honourable rank in the assemblage of evangelical graces, which the Sabbath holds among the ten Commandments,— I mean, as a sort of sign and token of His followers, and, as such, placed in the moral code, though in itself external to it.
He seems to show us this in another way, viz., as intimating to us the fact, that in persecution the Church begins and ends. He left her in persecution, and He will find her in persecution. He recognizes her as His own,—He framed, and He will claim her,—as a persecuted Church, bearing His Cross. And that awful relic of Him which He gave her, and which she is found with at the end, she cannot have lost by the way.
The text speaks of the great persecution yet to come—and seems referred to by our LORD in His solemn prophecy before His passion, in which He comprises both series of events, both those which attended His first, and those which will attend at His second coming—both persecutions of His Church, the early and the late. He speaks as follows: “Then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be; and except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved; but for the elect’s sake those days shall be shortened.”
Having been led, at this season of the year, to speak of that dreadful visitation which will precede the return of CHRIST to judge the world, I mean the coming of Antichrist, I will end the subject now with a few brief remarks on the persecution which will attend it. In saying that a persecution will attend it, I do but speak the opinion of the early Church, as I have tried to do all along, and shall do in what follows.
First, I will cite some of the principal texts which seem to refer to this last persecution
“Another shall rise after them, and …. he shall speak great words against the most High, and shall wear out the saints of the most High, and think to change times and laws; and they shall be given into his hand until a time, times, and the dividing of time:”—i. e. three years and a half.
“They shall pollute the Sanctuary of strength, and shall take away the Daily Sacrifice, and they shall place the Abomination that maketh desolate, and such as do wickedly against the Covenant shall he corrupt by flatteries; but the people that do know their GOD shall be strong and do exploits. And they that understand among the people, shall instruct many; yet they shall fall by the sword, and by flame, by captivity, and by spoil, many days.”
“Many shall be purified, and made white, and tried; but the wicked shall do wickedly . . . and from the time that the Daily Sacrifice shall be taken away, and the Abomination that maketh desolate set up, there shall be a thousand two hundred and ninety days.”
“Then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world,” and so on, as I just now read it.
“The beast that ascendeth out of the bottomless pit shall make war against them, and shall overcome them, and kill them. …. And they that dwell upon the earth shall rejoice over them, and make merry, and shall send gifts one to another, because these two prophets tormented them that dwelt on the earth.”
“And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of GOD, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days.”
“And there was given unto him a mouth speaking great things and blasphemies; and power was given unto him to continue forty and two months. And he opened his mouth in blasphemy against GOD, to blaspheme His name, and His tabernacle, and them that dwell in heaven: and it was given unto him to make war with the saints, and to overcome them . . . and all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him, whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.”
“I saw an Angel come down from heaven, having the key of the bottomless pit, and a great chain in his hand; and he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the devil and Satan, and bound him a thousand years….and after that he must be loosed a little season …. and shall go out to deceive the nations which are in the four quarters of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together to battle: the number of whom is as the sand of the sea. And they went up on the breadth of the earth, and compassed the camp of the saints about, and the beloved city.”
These passages were understood by the early Christians to relate to the persecution, which was to come in the last times; and they seem, evidently, to bear upon them that meaning. Our SAVIOUR’S words, indeed, about the fierce trial which was coming, might seem at first sight to refer to the early persecutions, those to which the first Christians were exposed; and doubtless so they do: yet, violent as these persecutions were, they were not considered by those who suffered them to be the proper fulfilment of the prophecy; and this surely is itself a strong reason for thinking they were not so. And it is confirmed by parallel passages, such as the text, which certainly speak of a persecution still future; yet surely our SAVIOUR used the very words of the text, and referred to what it refers to; and therefore, whatever partial accomplishment His prediction had in the early Church, He surely speaks of nothing short of the last persecution when His words are viewed in their full scope. He says, “There shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, lo, nor ever shall be: and except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved; but for the elect’s sake those days shall be shortened.” And immediately after, “There shall arise false Christs and false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.” In accordance with this language, the text says, “There shall be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation, even to that same time: and at that time thy people shall be delivered, every one that shall be found written in the book.” One of the passages I quoted from the Revelations says the same, and as strongly: “It was given him to make war with the Saints, and to overcome them….and all that dwell on the earth shall worship him, whose names are not written in the book of life.”
Let us then apprehend and realize the idea, thus clearly brought before us, that, sheltered as the Church has been from persecution for 1500 years, yet a persecution awaits it, before the end, fierce and more perilous than any which occurred at its first rise.
Further, this persecution is to be attended with the cessation of all religious worship “They shall take away the Daily Sacrifice,”—words which the early Fathers interpret to mean, that Antichrist will suppress for three years and a half all religious worship. St. Augustine questions whether baptism even will be administered to infants during that season.
And further, we are told: “They shall place the Abomination that maketh desolate,”—they shall “set it up:” our SAVIOUR declares the same. What this means we cannot pronounce. In the former fulfilment of this prophecy, it has been the introduction of heathen idols into GOD’S house.
Moreover the reign of Antichrist will be supported, it would appear, with a display of miracles, such as the magicians of Egypt effected against Moses. On this subject, of course, we wait for a fuller explanation of the prophetical language, such as the event alone can give us. So far, how ever, is clear, that whether real miracles or not, whether pretended, or the result, as some have conjectured, of discoveries in physical science, they will produce the same effect as if they were real, viz. the overpowering the imaginations of such as have not the love of GOD deeply lodged in their hearts,—of all but the elect. Scripture is remarkably precise and consistent in this prediction.
“Signs and wonders,” says our LORD, “insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.” St. Paul speaks of Antichrist as one “whose coming is after the working of Satan, with all power, and signs, and lying wonders, and with all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish; because they received not the love of the Truth, that they might be saved. And for this cause GOD shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie.” And St. John: “He doeth great wonders, so that He maketh fire come down from heaven on the earth in the sight of men, and deceiveth them that dwell on the earth by the means of those miracles which he had power to do in the sight of the beast.”
In these four respects, then, not to look for others, will the last persecution be more awful than any of the earlier ones: in its being in itself fiercer and more horrible; in its being attended by a cessation of the ordinances of grace, “the Daily Sacrifice;” and by an open and blasphemous establishment of infidelity, or some such enormity, in the holiest recesses of the Church; lastly, in being supported by a power of working miracles. Well is it for Christians that the days are shortened!—shortened for the elect’s sake, lest they should be overwhelmed,— shortened, as it would seem, to three years and a half.
Much might be said, of course, on each of these four particulars; but I will confine myself to making one remark on the first of them, the sharpness of the persecution.—It is to be worse than any persecution before it. Now, to understand the force of this announcement, we should understand in some degree what those former persecutions were.
This it is very difficult to do in a few words; yet a very slight survey of the history of the Church will convince us that cruelties more shocking than those which the early Christians suffered from their persecutors, are beyond our conception beforehand. St. Paul’s words, speaking of the persecutions prior to his time, but faintly describe the trial which came upon the Church in his day and afterwards. He says of the Jewish saints, “They were tortured, not accepting deliverance” …… they “had trials of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea moreover of bonds and imprisonment: they were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented.” Such were the trials of the Prophets under the Law, who in a measure anticipated the Gospel, as in doctrine, so in suffering; yet the suffering, when the Gospel came, was as much sharper, as the doctrine was clearer, than their foretaste of either.
To show you to what extent the early persecutions went, I will read you part of an account of one of them in the south of France; and, as I read it, would have you bear in mind the declaration in the text, that there is some suffering still to come, to which none which has hitherto happened, is worthy to be compared, and therefore not even what I am now going to read. It is written by eye-witnesses.
” … The rage of the populace, governor, and soldiers, especially lighted on Sanctus, a deacon; on Maturus, a late convert; on Attalus, and on Blandina, a slave, through whom CHRIST showed that the things which are lowly esteemed among men, have high account with GOD. For when we were all in fear, and her own mistress was in agony for her, lest she should be unable to make even one bold confession, from the weakness of her body, Blandina was filled with such strength, that even those, who tortured her by turns, in every possible way, from morning till evening, were wearied and gave it up, confessing she had conquered them. And they wondered at her remaining still alive, her whole body being mangled and pierced in every part. But that blessed woman, like a brave combatant, renewed her strength in confessing; and it was to her a recovery, a rest, and a respite, to say, ‘I am a Christian.’ Sanctus also endured exceedingly all the cruelties of men with a noble patience…… and to all questions would say nothing but ‘I am a Christian.’ When they had nothing left to do to him, they fastened red hot plates of brass on the tenderest parts of his body. But though his limbs were burning, he remained upright and unshrinking, steadfast in his confession, bathed and strengthened from heaven with that fountain of living water that springs from the well of CHRIST. But his body bore witness of what had been done to it, being one entire wound, and deprived of the external form of man.”
After some days they were taken to the shows where the wild beasts were, and went through every torture again, as though they had suffered nothing before. Again they were scourged, forced into the iron chair (which was red hot), dragged about by the beasts, and so came to their end. “But Blandina was hung up upon a cross, and placed to be devoured by the beasts that were turned in.” Afterwards she was scourged; at last placed in a basket and thrown to a bull, and died under the tossings of the furious animal. But the account is far too long and minute, and too dreadful, to allow of my going through it. I give this merely as a specimen of the sufferings of the early Christians, from the malice of the devil.
Take again the sufferings which the Arian Vandals inflicted at a later time. Out of four hundred and sixty Bishops in Africa, they sent forty-six out of the country to an unhealthy place, and confined them to hard labour, and three hundred and two to different parts of Africa. After an interval of ten years, they banished two hundred and twenty more. At another time they tore above four thousand Christians, clergy and laity, from their homes, and marched them across the sands, till they died either of fatigue or ill usage. They lacerated others with scourges, burned them with hot iron, and cut off their limbs.
Hear how one of the early Fathers, just when the first persecution was ceasing, meditates on the prospect lying before the Church, looking earnestly at the events of his own day, in order to discover from them, if he could, whether the predicted evil was coming.
“There will be a time of affliction, such as never happened since there was a nation upon the earth till that time. The fearful monster, the great serpent, the unconquerable enemy of mankind, ready to devour……The LORD knowing the greatness of the enemy, in mercy to the religious, says, ‘Let those that are in Judaea flee to the mountains.’ However, if any feel within him a strong heart to wrestle with Satan, let him remain (for I do not despair of the Church’s strength of nerve), let him remain, and let him say, ‘Who shall separate us from the love of CHRIST?’. . . .Thanks to GOD, who limits the greatness of the affliction to a few days, for the elect’s sake those days shall be cut short. Antichrist shall reign only three years and a half,” a time, times, and the dividing of time . . . .” Blessed surely he who then shall be a martyr for CHRIST! I consider that the martyrs at that season will be greater than all martyrs; for the former ones wrestled with man only, but these, in the time of Antichrist, will battle with Satan himself personally. Persecuting emperors slaughtered the former; but they did not pretend to raise the dead, nor made show of signs and wonders: but here there will be the persuasion both of force and of fraud, so as to deceive, if possible, even the elect. Let no one at that day say in his heart, ‘What could CHRIST do more than this by what virtue worketh he these things? Unless GOD willed it, He would not have permitted it.’ No: the Apostle forewarns you, saying beforehand, ‘GOD shall send them a strong delusion,’—not that they may be excused, but condemned; those, who believe not in the Truth, that is, the true CHRIST, but take pleasure in unrighteousness, that is, in Antichrist . . . . . Prepare thyself, therefore, O man! thou hearest the signs of Antichrist; nor remind only thyself of them, but communicate them liberally to all around thee. If thou hast a child according to the flesh, delay not to instruct him. If thou art a teacher, prepare also thy spiritual children, lest they take the false for the True. For ‘the mystery of iniquity doth already work.’ I fear the wars of the nations; I fear the divisions among Christians; I fear the hatred among brethren. Enough; but GOD forbid that it should be fulfilled in our day. However, let us be prepared.”
To these observations I will add only two remarks: first, that it is quite certain, that if such a persecution has been foretold, it has not yet come, and therefore is to come. We may be wrong in thinking that Scripture foretels it, though it has been the common belief, I may say, of all ages; but if there be, it is still future. So that every generation of Christians should be on the watch-tower, looking out, —nay, the more and more, as time goes on.
Next, I observe that signs do occur from time to time, not to enable us to fix the day, for that is hidden, but to show us it is coming. The world grows old—the earth is crumbling away—the night is far spent—the day is at hand. The shadows begin to move—the old forms of empire which have lasted ever since CHRIST was with us, heave and tremble before our eyes, and nod to their fall. They are they which keep CHRIST from us— He is behind them. When they go, Antichrist will be released from that which letteth, and after his short but fearful season CHRIST will come.
For instance: one sign is the present state of the Roman Empire, if it may be said to exist, though it does exist; but it is like a man on his death-bed, who after many throes and pangs, at last goes off when you least expect, or perhaps you know not when. You watch the sick man, and you say every day will be the last; yet day after day goes on—you know not when the end will come —he lingers on—gets better—relapses,—yet you are sure after all he must die—it is a mere matter of time, you call it a matter of time: so is it with the old Roman Empire, which now lies so still and helpless. It is not dead, but it is on its death-bed.
We suppose indeed that it will not die without some violence even yet, without convulsions. Antichrist is to head it; yet in another sense it dies to make way for Antichrist, and this latter form of death is surely hastening on, whether it comes a few years sooner or later. It may outlast our time, and the time of our children; for we are creatures of a day, and a generation is like the striking of a clock; but it tends to dissolution, and its hours are numbered.
Again, another anxious sign at the present time is what appears in the approaching destruction of the Mahometan power. This too may outlive our day; still it tends visibly to annihilation, and as it crumbles, perchance the sands of the world’s life are running out.
And lastly, not to mention many other tokens which might be observed upon, here is this remarkable one. In one of the passages I just now read from the book of Revelations, it is said that in the last times, and in order to the last persecution, Satan, being loosed from his prison, shall deceive the nations in the extremities of the earth, Gog and Magog, and bring them to battle against the Church. These words had been already used by the prophet Ezekiel, who borrows the latter of them from the tenth chapter of Genesis. We read in that chapter that after the flood the sons of Japheth were Gomer, and Magog, and Madan, and Javan, and Tubal, and Meshech, and Tiras.” Magog is supposed to be the ancestor of the nations in the north, the Tartars or Scythians.
Whatever then Gog means, which is not known, here is a prophecy that the northern nations should be stirred up against the Church, and be one of the instruments of its suffering. And it is to le observed that twice since that prophecy was delivered, the northern nations have invaded the Church, and both times they have brought with them, or rather (as the text in the Revelations expresses it) they have been deceived into an Antichristian delusion,—been deceived into it, not invented it. The first irruption was that of the Goths and Vandals in the early times of the Church, and they were deceived into and fought for the Arian heresy. The next was that of the Turks, and they in like manner were deceived into and fought for Mahomedanism. Here then history since, as in other instances, is in part a comment upon the prophecy.
Now, I do not mean that as to the present time, we see how this is to be accomplished in its fulness, after the pattern of the Shadows which have gone before. But thus much we see—we see that in matter of fact the nations of the North are gathering strength, and beginning to frown over the seat of the Roman Empire as they never have done since the time when the Turks came down. Here then we have a sign of Antichrist’s appearance—I do not say of his instant coming, or his certain coming, for it may after all be but a type or shadow: still, so far as it goes, it is a preparation, a warning, a call to sober thought—just as a cloud in the sky (to use our Lord’s instance) warns us about the weather. It is no sure proof of what is to be, but we think it prudent to keep our eye upon it.
This is what I have to say about the last persecution and its signs. And surely it is profitable to think about it, though we be quite mistaken in the detail. For instance, after all it may not be a persecution of blood and death, but of craft and subtilty only—not of miracles, but of natural wonders and powers of human skill, human acquirements in the hands of the devil. Satan may adopt the more alarming weapons of deceit—he may hide himself—he may attempt to seduce us in little things, and so to move the Church, not all at once, but by little and little from her true position. I do believe he has done much in this way in the course of the last few centuries. I believe he has moved every part of the Church, this way or that way, but some way or other from the truth as it is in JESUS, from the old faith on which it was built “before the division of the east and west.”
It is his policy to split us up and divide us, to dislodge us gradually from our rock of strength. And if there is to be a persecution, perhaps it will be then; then, perhaps, when we are all of us in all parts of Christendom so divided, and so reduced, so full of schism, so close upon heresy. When we have cast ourselves upon the world and depend for protection upon it, and have given up our independence and our strength, then he may burst upon us in fury as far as God allows him. Then suddenly the Roman Empire nay break; up, and Antichrist appear as a persecutor, and the barbarous nations around break in. But all these things are in GOD’S hand and GOD’S knowledge, and there let us leave them.
This alone, I will say, in conclusion, as I have already said several times, that such meditations as these may be turned to good account. What a curb upon our self-willed, selfish hearts, to believe that a persecution is in store for the Church, whether or not it comes in our days! Surely with this thought before us, we cannot bear to give ourselves up to thoughts of ease and comfort, of making money, settling well, or rising in the world. Surely with this thought before us, we cannot but feel that we are, what all Christians really are in the best estate, (nay rather would wish to be had they their will, if they be Christians in heart) pilgrims, watchers waiting for the morning, waiting for the light, eagerly straining our eyes for the first dawn of day—looking out for our SAVIOUR’S coming, His glorious advent, when He will end the reign of sin and wickedness, accomplish the number of His elect, and perfect those who at present struggle with infirmity, yet in their hearts love and obey Him.
May He perform all this in His own good time, according to His infinite mercies! May He give us strength according to our days, and peace at the last!