My Turn: Putin, the bear, and the book of Revelation


For the Monitor

Published: 03-06-2022 8:00 AM

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has made the book of Revelation relevant once again.

The final book of the New Testament, with its apocalyptic visions of multi-headed dragons, plagues, vials of judgment, the Whore of Babylon and the Battle of Armageddon has confounded readers for millennia. Written most likely at the end of the first century by a man known as John the Elder on the island of Patmos, Revelation is presented in the form of a dream.

Generations of believers have puzzled over its meaning, and the general sense is that it was included in the canon of scripture as a source of comfort for early Christians who were undergoing persecution at the hands of Roman authorities, an assurance that God would eventually avenge their sufferings.

That, however, has not stopped many believers in the ensuing centuries from teasing out nuances of meaning from these recondite passages. Evangelicals in particular, who purport to interpret the Bible literally (although they typically engage in selective literalism), have been especially eager to collate biblical passages with current events.

The establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, for example, was understood by evangelicals as a direct fulfillment of biblical prophecies, and a necessary precondition for the rebuilding of the Jewish temple. Evangelicals are forever speculating about the identity of the Antichrist, a charismatic figure and false messiah who leads people astray from the truth. The Antichrist is mentioned in Revelation and is associated with the number 666, the Mark of the Beast.

Beginning with the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, Protestants have frequently designated the pope as Antichrist, but other candidates have surfaced as well in evangelical demonology. John F. Kennedy was a popular target in the 1960s, and more recent speculation has surfaced around Ronald Wilson Reagan (six letters in each of his three names) or Bill Gates (someone with too much time on his hands has declared that if you assign numbers to the ASCII characters in his name you come up with 666).

For a while, Mikhail Gorbachev was a popular candidate, especially with the birthmark on his forehead, thought to be the Mark of the Beast. Back in 1988, I interviewed a nuclear engineer who had written an entire book about Gorbachev, claiming that if you assigned numbers to the letters in Gorbachev’s name, using the Cyrillic alphabet, it tallies 666. The odds against Gorbachev being the Antichrist, he assured me, were 710 quadrillion to one.

I grew up in this world. I listened to countless sermons warning that the “end times” were near and the world was about to collapse in apocalyptic judgment. I remember very clearly my mother summoning me from a neighborhood baseball game in June 1967 and admonishing me to get ready for the return of Jesus because of the Six Day War then unfolding in the Middle East.

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My father, like many evangelicals of his generation, was what is called in theological circles a premillennialist, which means that he expected Jesus to return to earth at any moment, gather the faithful and unleash judgment against those who were “left behind.”

In fact, the popular series of books and films by that name was inspired by a 1972 movie called A Thief in the Night, which in turn was based on my father’s Sunday evening sermons on the book of Revelation. The writer and director of that film, which Time magazine called a church-basement classic, was my Sunday school teacher, and my father played the “good” preacher in the movie.

The beauty of premillennialism is its protean nature; it can be adapted endlessly to explain current events. I remember hearing during my childhood, for instance, that the reference in Revelation to a bear was certainly a designation for Russia, but that interpretation fell out of favor with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Thanks to Putin’s imperial designs, the bear is back. And frankly, it’s difficult not to be swept along with apocalyptic premonitions, especially when the Russian leader refers ominously to his nuclear arsenal.

So is Putin the Antichrist? I put that question to Google, and sure enough, a spokesman for the Ukrainian Orthodox had just told the BBC, “Putin is really not messiah, but really anti-Christ of our current time.”

What about other candidates, especially someone known for bending the truth (what the Bible calls bearing false witness), one of the criteria for the Antichrist? Could Donald Trump be the Antichrist? Once again, the internet quivers with speculation. “I am the chosen one,” Trump declared in 2019. Hmm.

As for charisma, I confess that neither Putin nor Trump does it for me. But David Jeremiah, pastor of Shadow Mountain Community Church and one of Trump’s evangelical acolytes, said about the former president, “The combination of his magnetic personality, speaking ability, and extreme good looks will make him virtually irresistible to the masses.”

Apparently, 81% of white evangelicals thought so in 2016, and a comparable number four years later.

I’m content to let Putin and Trump duke it out for the title of Antichrist. Both are reprehensible and morally bankrupt, and both have repeatedly demonstrated their contempt for democracy. But it’s probably worth remembering in these troubled times that Trump was Putin’s chosen candidate and that Trump’s first impeachment centered around his refusal to provide arms to Ukraine.

Let’s hope — pray — that an apocalypse can be avoided.

(Randall Balmer teaches at Dartmouth College and is the author of more than a dozen books, including Evangelicalism in America.)