Anglican theologian Joseph Mangina answers the question in his commentary on the seventeenth and eighteenth chapters in the Book of Revelation:
William Blake brilliantly captures the dynamics of this scene in his 1809 pen and watercolor sketch The Whore of Babylon (British Museum), which shows the beast as having “seven ugly human heads; the plump whore, stripped to the waist rides him side-saddle holding her golden cup out of which fly personified ‘abominations and filthiness and fornications.’ ” Blake insightfully portrays the scene as a mixture of love and death. Thus one of the beast’s heads looks back up at the whore, with a leering expression on its face, while another is busy devouring human figures on the earth below. Most striking of all is just how wretched and miserable the whore seems. She is clearly unhappy, trapped along with the beast in a covenant of death. While it would be impossible to call her innocent, it is clear in Blake’s portrayal—as in John’s own—that she is not just an agent of evil but also its victim. The vision brilliantly depicts the self-consuming, self-destroying power of evil, which lacks the gift of affirmation (both of God and of self) that is built into the fabric of the created order and especially into the life of spiritual beings.
Who is the whore? John tells us that she is seated on “many waters,” a convention for speaking of Babylon-on-the-Euphrates, but which might also be taken as referring to any seagoing power. She has clients who are politically and militarily powerful. She is gaudy and rich. She is drunk with the blood of martyrs and saints. All the signs point to the whore’s being Rome, the murderess responsible for the deaths of the apostles Peter and Paul and more recently for the martyrdom of Antipas of Pergamum. In John’s time, there was simply no other “great city” on a par with Rome’s scale and ambition. This judgment seems to be confirmed by many voices in the ancient church. No less than St. Augustine called Rome “the second Babylonia, as it were, the Babylonia of the West.”
Nevertheless, the Great Whore of Babylon is more than just Rome, as the beast is more than just the military power that allowed her to extend her reach across the Mediterranean. Any such simple, empirical identification would be guilty of what William Blake famously called “single vision.” It would mean reading an apocalyptic work in a most unapocalyptic way—that is, unimaginatively. Blake’s own watercolor of the beast and the whore points to realities of his own time—the beast to be understood as scientific materialism, perhaps, and the whore as the modern spirit of capitalism—even as it gestures toward something more universal.
So it was, too, for Augustine, who identified “the great city” with Rome and with the earthly city as such, which is constructed not just of bricks and mortar but of imagination and desire. There is no question but that Babylon is a figure of desire, longing, eros. She is beautiful, yet fallen; powerful, but exploited; strong, but with the kind of strength that seeks to control and dominate— “the great city that has dominion over the kings of the earth.” To use Pauline language, we might see the whore as a kind of Adamic figure, a representation of fallen humanity driven by desire gone wrong: “We see then that the two cities were created by two kinds of love: the earthly city was created by self-love reaching the point of contempt for God, the Heavenly City by the love of God . . . . The earthly city glories in itself, the Heavenly City glories in the Lord” (City of God).
In Western theology, it was above all St. Augustine who taught us that the human being is essentially constituted by desire (eros). Passion in the negative sense (epithymia) is nothing else but disordered desire, a longing that fails to acknowledge God as what the heart yearns for: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” At the same time, desire is never simply an individual phenomenon. Far from being simple and self-validating, desire is to be seen as “a social product . . . a complex and multidimensional network of movement that does not simply originate within the individual self but pulls and pushes the self in different directions from both inside and outside the person.” What the Apocalypse reveals to us is (a) that not just the human soul, but the human city is constructed by desire—Babylon is a cooperative endeavor—and (b) that this endeavor has become hopelessly corrupted by sin. The city is the glory of humans as political animals—that is God’s purpose for it. The city is a whore riding on the back of a pimp, a seven-headed monster who will soon devour the whole world, consuming the whore in the process—that is the eschatological reality on the verge of overtaking John and his hearers. Whatever the city might be in the divine intention, now in these last days it has become violent and exploitative, ugly and deformed, an appropriately haglike consort for its master the beast. God’s people have no choice but to “come out of her.”
The question once again poses itself, what is the referent of such language? Is Babylon what John thought it was in the first century, or does the image expand to encompass other realities that the church has had to struggle with across its history? Even if it could be shown that John believed the empire to be the apocalyptic whore, this would not fix the meaning of the image once for all. The whore is a character from the end of the story whom we encounter in the middle of the story. If the church lives out of Christ’s victory, it lives in the midst of the great city and all it entails. Just what it means to say this cannot be neatly determined in advance, since history (rather inconveniently) has to be lived before it can be narrated. What the Apocalypse does is not to narrate history in advance, but to describe the pattern of suffering, tribulation, and oppression that is intrinsic to the church’s historical existence. The church, we might say, is on a pilgrimage through time, in the course of which it encounters Babylon again and again, always in different forms and guises. The Babylon of imperial Rome will be different from the Babylon that Blake imagined in industrial England, which will be different yet again from the Babylon of late modern capitalism, where goods and services are traded electronically and at the speed of light, but where “human souls” are still being traded. The appearance of the figure of Babylon in history is not uniform, nor is every human society or economic system equally deserving of the name. What it means, then, for the church to flee Babylon for the wilderness will also differ in particular concrete situations. Discerning the shape of this pilgrimage is among the chief tasks of theological ethics.
To use simpler and more traditional language, “Babylon” names the world (ho kosmos) in the negative New Testament sense. The church cannot avoid living in the world, but it may not itself be “worldly.” While the worldly church is a contradiction in terms, this possibility has unfortunately been realized all too often in Christian history. In extreme cases the church may be charged with actually having become Babylon, the spotless bride who has traded in her finery for the tawdry dress of the whore. This trope is biblically far more appropriate than the one that calls the church or its minsters “antichrist.” In the Old Testament, Jerusalem or Daughter Zion can also be castigated as a harlot, and the harlot/bride contrast is implied by Revelation itself. If Israel can be unfaithful to God, so can the church . . . .
We expect the world to be Babylon; that goes with its being the earthly city. But for the church to be so corrupted is an unspeakable evil. It means that the lust for worldly power and influence has replaced fidelity to Christ. Like the whore in our present passage, the church as Babylon consorts freely with “the kings of the earth,” in such a way that it is no longer fighting in the Lamb’s army; indeed, it has gone over to the enemy. What it means to “come out of Babylon” in such a situation is obviously highly problematic. Suffice it to say that, prior to the sixteenth century, the trope was not used to justify the separation from the church, but as an impetus to repentance, reform, and renewal. The church is our mother, even when it looks like Babylon. Hans Urs von Balthasar thus reminds us that the church in Christian tradition was often viewed as castra meretrix (“chaste harlot”), a people beloved by God despite its manifest faults.