European migrant crisis - historic parallels which suggest that time may be short

ON 21 DECEMBER, a new milestone in Europe’s migrant crisis — the greatest movement of humans in Europe since the end of the Second World War — was reached. On that day the number of migrants estimated to have reached Europe by sea since the start of 2015 topped one million. Total migration for 2015 had exceeded the one-million mark some weeks earlier. One can begin to assess the scale of the phenomenon when it is appreciated that total migration by sea in 2014 was 216,000.

It may be thought that Europe should be well able to absorb such numbers. After all, another million represents little more than a tenth of one per cent of Europe’s total population of around 750 million. This is far from the full story, however. Nearly 850,000 of those crossing by sea arrived in Greece, which is scarcely in a position to cope with migration at this rate. The majority made the short crossing from Turkey to arrive on Lesbos, an island with a population of just 85,000, which has consequently been overwhelmed by the new arrivals. Reports tell of the island’s emergency services being unable to manage, and of burial grounds being full. Some reports predict much worse to come given phenomenal rates of population growth in countries where there are plenty of reasons for people to want to seek a better life elsewhere. Britain’s former foreign secretary William Hague described the migrant crisis as “mere gusts of wind” ahead of a “hurricane”, a description to which I will return.

Ineffective strategies

Europe’s established strategies for managing population movement have proved ineffective. The Schengen Agreement, which allows the free movement of people within the European Union, looked like a good idea while this movement contributed to Europe’s economic health. But predictably it has come close to collapse now that the nature of the movement has changed fundamentally. As Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, admitted, Schengen will die unless Europe’s external borders can be secured — which the sea crossings from Turkey, for instance, show to be impossible.

The potential knock-on effects of the collapse of the Schengen Agreement are great. In November the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, predicted that without Schengen the euro will collapse, so closely are the two related. Speaking in the European Parliament he said:

“A single currency does not exist if Schengen fails. It is not a neutral concept. It is not banal. It is one of the pillars of the construction of Europe.”

So according to one realistic scenario, Europe’s migrant crisis leads indirectly to Europe’s financial collapse.

The Schengen Agreement, 1985

Looks familiar

Thinking about this report, I was reminded that Europe’s financial collapse—or something that looks very much like it — is what Scripture leads us to expect in the days prior to the Lord’s return. It is worth perusing carefully the details of Revelation 18 which, despite including spiritual attributes of “Babylon the great” (v. 2), concentrates more on financial considerations. Those in this chapter who lament Babylon’s fall are not a religious elite but “the merchants of the earth [who] weep and mourn over her” (v. 11).1 The picture is of the catastrophic loss of the material prosperity of those who have grown wealthy from the trade which Babylon made possible: “The merchants of these things, who became rich from her, will stand at a distance . . . weeping and mourning . . .” (v. 15).

Over the long period it covers, Revelation forewarns the servants of Jesus (1:1) of God’s judgements on the world of their day. It does so basically in three phases, the judgements being symbolised in turn by the breaking of seven seals on a scroll, the blowing of seven trumpets, and the pouring out of seven bowls. In my opinion the most satisfying understanding of these three sets of symbols is that they refer to events which befall, respectively, the pagan Roman Empire prior to its ‘Christianisation’ in the fourth century, the false ‘Christian’ world which followed this till the time of the final fall of ‘Rome’ in 1453, and the subsequent period down to our own day. In each era the prophecy predicts God’s judgements on a world which has proved itself disobedient to His Word and spiritually hostile to His people.

The first four trumpet blasts in the middle section of the prophecy are known as the four ‘wind’ trumpets, as they correspond to four winds held back by four angels (7:1) until the people of God during this period, the 144,000, have been identified (vv. 2-4). The four trumpets are then blown in sequence in chapter 8, each angelic blast giving rise to events on the earth below. I think this was what made me prick up my ears when William Hague spoke of the arrival of migrants in Europe as “gusts of wind”. In current events, are we seeing similar judgements being poured out by God on a world which has heard His Word but which is increasingly turning from it?

Modern-day parallels

Bible students who have adopted (correctly, in my opinion) the continuous-historic approach to Revelation have identified migration from outside the Roman Empire as amongst the judgements which it experienced during the ‘trumpet’ period of the prophecy, and which contributed directly to its eventual fall. Brother John Thomas in Eureka, for example, wrote of Alaric and the Goths (first trumpet), Genseric and the Vandals (second trumpet), and Attila and the Huns (third trumpet) coming in turn and applying pressure on Rome at its borders and within the Empire. In The Revelation of Jesus Christ Brother Geoff and Sister Ray Walker, understanding some of the details differently but sticking to the continuous-historic approach, saw the four wind trumpets fulfilled in turn by the Sassanians (east), Barbarian tribes (west), Saracens and Vandals (south), and Slavs and Bulgars (north). It seems that we may well be seeing history repeating itself.

There are other parallels between current events in Europe and the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century. In addition to the problems of population movement and pressure along Rome’s borders, scholars have identified the following:

  • decreasing cohesion between the provinces,
  • corrupt and ineffective central government,
  • the rising cost of maintaining the armed forces,
  • institutional financial weaknesses,
  • a widening gap between rich and poor, and
  • a decline in traditional morality.

Not all historians would endorse all these reasons for the Empire’s collapse, but similarities with today’s Western world are not difficult to spot. As one BBC News article a few years ago put it:

“. . . the fall of Rome serves to remind us that complex societies can, and do, break down. There is rarely one reason. Rather, there are multiple causes that come together in a perfect storm, as they did around 400 AD.”2

Scripture depicts repeated patterns of human behaviour, particularly at times of crisis in human history.

Elsewhere in Revelation, for instance, language used previously to refer to one set of events is used again to describe later events which are similar in character — the vocabulary of chapter 6 is very redolent of the Lord’s Olivet Prophecy in the Gospels, for example. Likewise in current events in Europe it is possible to see clear parallels with times of catastrophe and judgement in its earlier history. Thus it may be that the last-days bond-servants of Jesus are being given even more warning of the nearness of their Lord’s return.

  1. Bible quotations are from the NASB.

  2. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-18159752 (25 May 2012).

Post photo credit: UNHCR/I. Prickett, free for media use