When, in ad 410, the Visigoth king Alaric I invaded and sacked the city of Rome, the Bishop of Hippo Regis, Augustine, wrote one of the great classics of Western literature in response, The City of God against the Pagans.
Augustine thought deeply about what the Bible had to say to a moment like that, when all the certainties of a civilization appeared to be lost forever. In summary, he reminded his readers that there are two cities, the city of God and the city of man. The city of man, in its various guises, may rise and fall, but the city of God is unaffected, impregnable and radiant. As American evangelical leader Al Mohler puts it, ‘in the city of man there are no final victories and no final losses. Every victory can be undone and every loss overturned. In the city of God, though, there are no losses’. Citizens of the city of God who live within the city of man need not fear. Indeed, they can live confidently in the midst of a crumbling society because the God who claimed them for his own is so magnificently sovereign and so entirely committed to the eternal welfare of his people. His purposes cannot be derailed. His truth and righteousness cannot be compromised. His power cannot be diminished. His mercies never come to an end.
In 410, that did not mean, of course, that the changes they were experiencing were illusory or the uncertainty they were facing merely a state of mind. The fall of Rome was bad. It did bring suffering in its wake and life in Western Europe changed dramatically as a consequence. Though there were rays of light and significant achievements in the centuries that followed, the sack of Rome by Alaric is usually taken as the beginning of the Dark Ages. The peace, prosperity and achievements of Rome were lost. In reality the end had been coming for some time. Corruption usually proceeds by increments. One decision after another in the centuries leading up to 24 August 410 had fragmented the empire and spread decay. Those who had spoken of the dire consequences of those decisions were ridiculed, silenced and in some cases punished. Yet the day came when those who ‘sowed the wind’ finally ‘reaped the whirlwind’ (to use Hosea’s image).
The situation was much more complex than I have been able to outline in a couple of hundred words. Nevertheless, there is much that can be learned from Augustine’s confidence in the face of fear, uncertainty, loss and change. He echoes the stance taken again and again in the Scriptures. King David wrote of the immovable glory and power of the living God in the face of a concerted attempt by those with influence and authority to oppose him.
Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the lord and against his Anointed, saying, ‘Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us’. He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision. Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying ‘as for me, I have set my King on Zion my holy hill’. (Ps 2:1–6)
David, the Old Testament Christ, anchored his confidence in the face of opposition in the unshakeable sovereignty of God. This laughter in the heavens is not the cruel indifference to suffering later exhibited by Nero, who was famously (though perhaps not entirely accurately) portrayed as the one who ‘fiddled while Rome burned’. Rather it is a graphic statement of the futility of world’s opposition to God and his rule. It does not make the slightest dent in his sovereign rule or his unstoppable purpose. The rebellion will be answered. The suffering of the victims will not be ignored. The persecution of those God has chosen and called to himself will be taken seriously. But in the meantime, the point David is underlying is how futile this concerted, carefully planned opposition to God and his purposes really is. In the cold light of eternal reality, it is pitiful and pathetic.
The words of Psalm 2 were taken up by the apostle Peter following his release from prison in Jerusalem. In the prayer of the gathered disciples, which presumably Peter led, a recital of those words was followed by ‘truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel’ — the whole world was implicated — ‘to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place’ (Acts 4:27–28). On the day of the most concentrated opposition to the rule and purpose of God, God was not thwarted in the slightest but was, in these very events, working out his plan to save. ‘You crucified and killed him by the hands of lawless men’, Peter had said to the crowds on the day of Pentecost. But it was all ‘according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God’ (Acts 2:23). God was not taken by surprise nor was he held in check for even a moment.
This perspective of God’s pure, holy and untouchable sovereignty, always the sovereignty of the one who is gracious and merciful and loving, is something we need to remember in our own moment of universal history. There is no need for us to be alarmist. Uncertainty and even fear in the face of seismic changes in the cultural perspectives of the West is perfectly understandable. A culture with such substantial roots in the Christian faith has seemingly accelerated its abandonment of those roots (and from the start it had other poisonous roots as well). While each day of our parliament begins with the Lord’s Prayer, hardly anybody knows why and next to no one is in the chamber when it is said. Voices are calling for an end to the freedom of thought, expression and assembly enjoyed by Christians in the West for centuries. There is a new, open hostility to Christian institutions and Christian faith. Sometimes it is accompanied by quite sophisticated arguments appealing to the virtues of an entirely secular public space and supposedly more basic human rights (there are deeper, richer answers to each of these arguments of course). The challenges come from so many directions, compounded, tragically, by our own failures and compromises over the years, that it sometimes appears overwhelming.
Yet while so many things seem to be changing at the moment, the most important things are entirely unchanged. God is still God. Jesus is still Lord. His determination to stand with his people, directing them and shaping them toward a magnificent future — ‘a new heaven and a new earth in which righteousness dwells’ (2 Pet 3:13) — is as firm and sure as ever. The proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ is still the powerful way God saves people (Rom 1:16). The mission Christ gave to his disciples, to make disciples of all nations until the end of the age, has not been rescinded (Matt 28:18–20; 24:14).
It is worth remembering that far more intense opposition than we anticipate in the future is already being experienced now by our brothers and sisters in many other parts of the world. They know now the deep truth of Jesus’ words, ‘if they persecuted me, they will also persecute you’ (Jn 15:20), and those of the apostle Paul, ‘all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted’ (2 Tim 3:12). Yet they know too that God has not abandoned them and in their weakness they see his power. He is still their only refuge, their only strength, and their only hope. Our privileges and protections have been accompanied so often by compromises and superficial religion. Their experiences of intense opposition and suffering, of being faced with the starkness of the choice to follow Jesus with all its consequences, more often leads to a deep trust in the one who bore the heat of human hostility towards God and overcame it in his resurrection.
We in Australia and the Western world are not facing a re-rerun of the cataclysm of AD 410. Not yet. We are watching the downward spiral of Romans 1 play out before our eyes but we pray that God in his mercy might yet choose to pull us back from the brink. He has done it before. ‘No final losses’, the wise man said. It is only God who can rescue us, whether on an individual or on a social scale, and he has promised to act in response to the prayers of his people. So as the changes continue, let us not despair or be afraid. Let us not surrender to alarmism. Instead, let us pray to him who taught us ‘In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world’ (Jn 16:33).