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When Attila died in 453, his empire crumbled, and the nations he had conquered regained their independence. His third-trumpet judgment was temporary in order to give the Christian Empire a final opportunity to repent. However, they did not repent, for they thought that the invaders were the problem. No doubt they prayed mightily that God would overthrow the foreign armies and establish His Christian empire with peace; but they failed to remove the spiritual causes of divine judgment.
In 476 the last emperor of the West came to power. His name was Romulus Augustulus. It is considered an accident of history that the last emperor would be named after its first emperor, Augustus Caesar, and also the name of one of Rome’s original founders, Romulus. Secular history has many such accidents, but if we view the earth from God’s perspective (and if we can read sign language), we see that God had uncovered the pagan roots of Rome that the Church had failed to root out by legal decrees. The people viewed Rome as a Christian Empire, but God viewed it as a pagan tree decorated with Christian creeds.
Augustulus was conquered by Odoacer, the king of a medley of Teutonic tribes. After the third invasion, which again subdivided the Western Empire, the formerly unified Roman Empire was divided into three parts, as each of the trumpets suggested. Odoacer established the Ostrogothic Kingdom, which included Italy. Spain had become the Visigothic Kingdom. North Africa had become the Vandal Kingdom. Divine judgment seems to favor three-part divisions, for we see the same in Rev. 16:19, where Babylon “was split into three parts.”
In 476 Augustulus (in Rome) informed the emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire (in Constantinople) that there were no more emperors in the West. John says in Rev. 8:12,
12 And the fourth angel sounded, and a third of the sun and a third of the moon and a third of the stars were smitten, so that a third of them might be darkened and the day might not shine for a third of it, and the night in the same way.
Odoacer’s invasion directly affected only the Ostrogothic third of what had been the Western Roman Empire. The sun, moon, and stars, are symbolic of leaders in the nation—not only the emperor himself, but also those lesser authorities under him. In the case of Rome, this would include the senators. Gibbon says on page 504-506,
“Odoacer was the first barbarian who reigned in Italy, over a people who had once asserted their just superiority above the rest of mankind… Odoacer devolved on the Roman magistrates the odious and oppressive task of collecting the public revenue….
“In the division and the decline of the empire, the tributary harvests of Egypt and Africa were withdrawn; the numbers of the inhabitants continually diminished with the means of subsistence; and the country was exhausted by the irretrievable losses of war, famine, and pestilence... and the senators, who might support with patience the ruin of their country, bewailed their private loss of wealth and luxury. One third of those ample estates, to which the ruin of Italy is originally imputed, was extorted for the use of the conquerors.”
One-third of these senatorial landowners saw their property “extorted for the use of the conquerors.” John tells us that by the time of the fourth trumpet, a third of the sun, moon, and stars had been blotted out. This is symbolic of the ruling senatorial families of Rome. Hence, John’s prophecy has nothing to do with the literal stars being destroyed in the heavens, or the sun being reduced in size by a third, or a third of the moon being eaten away by some sort of cosmic disaster.
It has rather to do with the destruction of the ruling families of the Western Roman Empire. The conquest by Odoacer in 476 is the generally accepted date of Rome’s final dissolution. It is possible, though not provable, that the population of the Western Roman Empire had been reduced as well by a third, because of the wars, famine, and pestilence of that century alone—the time of the first four trumpets. Gibbon writes on page 506,
“St. Ambrose has deplored the ruin of a populous district, which had been once adorned with the flourishing cities of Bologna, Modena, Rhegium, and Placentia. Pope Gelasius was a subject of Odoacer; and he affirms with strong exaggeration, that in Aemilia, Tuscany, and the adjacent provinces, the human species was almost extirpated.”
In the following century, an eighteen-year war with the Goths completed the destruction of Italy. By the time the war ended in 553, Rome’s population had been reduced from a million to a mere 40,000 with half of them supported by papal alms. Milan had been destroyed with its entire population. Farms were abandoned, and in the region of Picenium alone, 50,000 died of starvation. Will Durant tells us in The Age of Faith, page 111,
“The aristocracy was shattered; so many of its members had been slain in battle, pillage, or flight that too few survived to continue the Senate of Rome; after 579 we hear of it no more.”
It was only natural, then, that the bishop of Rome would assume power. He was the only one who could keep any kind of order as anarchy reigned in Italy. Durant says on page 94,
“Amid this chaos education barely survived. By 600 literacy had become a luxury of the clergy. Science was almost extinct.”
From the sack of Rome in 410 until the final collapse of Rome in 476, instability, chaos, and the breakdown of law and order became increasingly normalized. Having been stripped of wealth, there was no money to repair the public buildings or the famous Roman roads. More and more, the large landowners ignored governmental decrees. The emperors themselves abandoned Rome and lived in Ravenna, which was more defensible.
Highway robbers became commonplace, where for centuries Rome had been known for making its roads safe. Even the emperors’ guardians of the highways and customs guards (the curiosi) began to demand bribes from travelers fleeing to safer places. Soon illegal brotherhoods formed the beginnings of crime families as the precursors to the Mafia.
Human trafficking, slavery, and kidnappings increased exponentially. To protect their children, many large landowners began to send their children to the mountains to be raised secretly by shepherds, only to find that they could not retrieve them later. Appeals to the official law enforcement agencies were fruitless, as they were powerless, underpaid, and often used their position to extort the people.
When people lose confidence in the law-enforcement capability of government, or when government officials become part of the problem, then a culture begins to die. When government cannot or does not maintain law and order, then individuals are tasked with their own defense, and they lose leisure time that is necessary to maintain culture.
Small landowners in Italy found themselves unable to defend themselves, for they lacked the wealth to hire guards. Their children became easy prey to human traffickers. Many great landlords began to act as redemptores, redeemers of Roman citizens that had been seized in raids. Since most could not pay the large ransoms, the landlords paid the ransoms on condition that they serve the landlord for the rest of their lives.
This was the beginning of the Feudal System, where serfs were hardly better than outright slaves to landowners (the Nobility).
Classical culture itself was in danger of being lost entirely. Not only were libraries neglected, but education itself became a luxury that only a few could afford. Countless books were burned or lost in the decay of Roman civilization. Many books, of course, remained in the East, but they were soon rare in the West.
The fall of the Western Empire provided a vacuum that was naturally filled by the bishop of Rome. With the loss of civil power, people naturally turned to the church for leadership and hope. Gradually, the bishops increased their claims to power, especially as the barbarian conquerors became Christians.
Although in 411 Augustine’s City of God had defined the Kingdom of God as a spiritual city, it did not require a giant leap to apply this politically once again to a very temporal kingdom, where men ruled others. The only difference was that instead of using the title of “king,” they used the religious titles of “Bishop of Rome” and “Pope.” H. G. Wells says on page 526,
“In later years these ideas developed into a definite political theory and policy. As the barbarian races settled and became Christian, the Pope began to claim an overlordship of their kings. In a few centuries the Pope had become in theory, and to a certain extent in practice, the high priest, censor, judge, and divine monarch of Christendom... For more than a thousand years this idea of the unity of Christendom ... dominated Europe. The history of Europe from the fifth century onward to the fifteenth is very largely the history of the failure of this great idea of a divine world government to realize itself in practice.”
In fact, the Church’s failure to realize its dream of a “divine world government” was because God had declared the three “woes” to judge the Church. These are bound up in the new religion that arose during this time—Islam—whose divine purpose was to bring judgment upon the Christian Empire and the church itself. Understanding God’s purpose for Islam is one of the keys to understand the purpose of God even in our own time.
Insofar as the book of Revelation is concerned—and therefore, God’s perspective—the Islamic judgment on the Church came immediately after the Roman bishop laid exclusive claim to the title of “Universal Bishop.” This was done by Pope Boniface III in 606. This is quite remarkable, since a recent predecessor, Gregory I (590-604) had insisted that the Church was headed equally by the bishops of Alexandria, Constantinople, and Rome. In fact, in 596 Gregory wrote a letter that declared, “whosoever calls himself universal priest or desires to be called so, was the forerunner of Antichrist.” (See Philip Schaff’s History of the Christian Church, Vol. 4, page 220.)
Schaff says of Boniface III on page 230,
“Boniface III (606-607) did not scruple to assume the title of ‘universal bishop,’ against which Gregory, in proud humility, had so indignantly protested as a blasphemous antichristian assumption.”
And so the year 606 A.D. marked an important turning point in the history of the Church. It marks the time when the Roman Bishop assumed full authority over the entire Church. Victor had tried to assume this title as early as 192 A.D., but he had been rebuked by Irenaeus and had to give up the title. But 414 years later in 606 Boniface III took the title and held it. All of his successors assumed the title after him.
In my book, Lessons from Church History, Vol. III, chapter 15, I wrote:
I find it very significant that from 192 to 606 A.D. is precisely 414 years, a prophetic time cycle known as Cursed Time. (See my book, Secrets of Time.)
This 414-year time frame saw the rise of the “Little Horn” of Daniel's prophecy (Dan. 7:8), having the mouth “speaking great things,” which John describes as “blasphemy” (Rev. 13:6). Perhaps Pope Gregory understood this, but if so, his view was buried in the cemetery of history. From a biblical perspective, this assumption of power was “antichrist,” in that it usurped the position of Christ. I think that H. G. Wells said it best on page 650 of his Outline of History:
“But it is the universal weakness of mankind that what we are given to administer we presently imagine we own.”
King Saul was given a throne to administer under God, but in his rebellion against God, he soon imagined that he owned the throne. So it was with the Bishopric of Rome.
Three years after Boniface III fully usurped power over the Church as an antichrist, God called Mohammed to bring judgment upon the Church. Mohammed then began to preach publicly a few years later in 612 A.D. And we are still feeling the effects of that judgment today.
The last three trumpets, called the three woes, properly begin with the rise of Mohammed and the religion of Islam. Their calling was to judge the unrepentant and idolatrous Church. This is the story written in symbolic language.
With the final disintegration of the Western Roman Empire in 476, Rev. 8:13 provides us with an interlude, as if to draw a distinction between the first four trumpets and the final three, which he calls “woes.” John writes,
13 And I looked, and I heard an eagle flying in midheaven, saying with a loud voice, Woe, woe, woe, to those who dwell on the earth, because of the remaining blasts of the trumpet of the three angels who are about to sound!
The implication is that the judgments of God might have ceased at this point, if the Church had repented of its sin. But the Church valued creeds instead of character. They thought that the most important Christian value was to pinpoint the precise nature of Christ and His relationship with God, using the precise wording in the creed. In their willingness to excommunicate anyone who had even a slightly different view, to force them to comply, and even kill them as heretics, they showed that they did not really understand the mind of God at all.
The Church worshiped its image (carnal understanding) of God, rather than God Himself. God was viewed through the eyes of their literary artists, who painted His portrait with great precision, but used a carnal model. They were quick to shed the blood of heretics and dissenters, but appointed and tolerated many ambitious and greedy bishops who acted nothing like Jesus Christ.
The Church had long ago lost its first love. It was no longer a simple way of life that focused upon manifesting the love of God in the way that Jesus did. It was now a full-blown religious empire that ruled over the minds and bodies of men and treated parishioners as subjects.
During this interlude from 476 to 606 A.D., the prophetic events inscribed symbolically in the book of Revelation begin to shift from West to East, that is, from Rome to Constantinople. The first four trumpets brought judgment upon the West; the final three trumpets (called “Woes”) bring judgment upon the remaining Eastern Empire.