For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and powers, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places. (Eph., 6-12)
And yet in spite of this universal world which we see, there is another world, quite as farspreading, quite as close to us, and more wonderful; another world all around us, though we see it not, and more wonderful than the world we see, for this reason if for no other, that we do not see it. All around us are numberless objects, coming and going, watching, working or waiting, which we see not: this is that other world, which the eyes reach not unto, but faith only.– Blessed John Henry Newman from “The Invisible World.”
Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson’s Lord of the World is a novel about the Antichrist, who will tempt Christians to apostasy before Christ’s Second Coming. It describes the final battle in the supernatural war for souls that has been fought continually both in heaven and on earth from the time of the Fall and will conclude with the general judgment; thereupon will follow the creation of a new heaven and a new earth. As we will see, before creating his fictional account, Msgr. Benson carefully explored the various passages on the end-times included in Scripture and the teachings of the Church Fathers as background for this tale of the Antichrist. The oft-cited definition of a classic is “a book that remains in print.” Although I cannot vouch that Lord of the World has never been out of print, it most certainly has been reprinted again and again since first being published in 1904. I myself first read it in the 1960s and have revisited it several times since. Like all fictional classics, it offers new layers of meaning on each rereading, revealing ever more clearly the author’s message to his readers. Some background on both the author and his subject is necessary for full reading enjoyment. And I hope that encountering this book will give you a great desire to seek out Msgr. Benson’s many other works, both novels and works of apologetics, that are ripe for rediscovery in this period of resurgent evangelizing Catholicism.
Now let’s take a look at the Antichrist, whose coming in the person of Julian Felsenburgh leads to the Second Coming of Christ at the end of the book. Here I draw liberally from the classic 1911 Catholic encyclopedia and also from Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman’s “The Patristical Idea of Antichrist,” likely to have been an important source for the most likely end-of-the-world scenario to form the backdrop for this novel. However, first let’s look at the most recent teaching of the Church on the Antichrist from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
Before Christ’s second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers. The persecution that accompanies her pilgrimage on earth will unveil the “mystery of iniquity” in the form of a religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth. The supreme religious deception is that of the Antichrist, a pseudo-messianism by which man glorifies himself in place of God and of his Messiah come in the flesh.
The Antichrist’s deception already begins to take shape in the world every time the claim is made to realize within history that messianic hope which can only be realized beyond history through the eschatological judgment. The Church has rejected even modified forms of this falsification of the kingdom to come under the name of millenarianism, especially the “intrinsically perverse” political form of a secular messianism. The word Antichrist itself on occurs in the Johannine epistles, although the person himself is alluded to or hinted at in the Apocalypse, in the Pauline epistles, and less explicitly in the Gospels and the book of Daniel in the Old Testament. However, biblical writers sometimes refer to any enemy—including heretics of Christ and his doctrine—as Antichrist. St. Paul writes most clearly about the Antichrist and the events surrounding his coming in 2 Thessalonians, especially 2:3-10. The Pauline doctrine is that “the day of the Lord” will be preceded by a “revolt” and the revelation of the “man of sin.” The latter will sit in the temple, as though he were God; he will work signs and wonders by Satan’s power; he will “seduce those who received not the love of truth, that they might be saved,” but “the Lord Jesus shall kill will with the spirit of his mouth, and destroy him with the brightness of his coming.” When are we to look for his coming? We are told that “the day of the Lord” will be preceded by a “revolt”; this apostasy is an outcome of the great apostasy, which already “worketh.” Many commentators have found more or less clear allusions to the Antichrist in the coming of false Christs and false prophets in all the four gospels (Matt 24:24; Mark13:6, 22; Luke 21:8), particularly in the “abomination of Jerusalem” and in the reference to him that “shall come in his own name” (John 5:43). I am, of course, drawing from traditional Catholic teaching regarding the events leading up to the Second Coming rather than to the hundreds of theories concerning the Antichrist, the Second Coming, and the Final Judgment that have multiplied in the thousands of Protestant denominations and sects whose authority is suspect at best and ludicrous at worst, given the absence of apostolic authority and divine foundation.
Blessed John Henry Newman says towards the end of the “Patristical Idea of Christ”:
What I have said upon this subject may be summed up as follows: that the coming of Christ will be immediately preceded by a very awful and unparalleled outbreak of evil, called by St. Paul an Apostasy, a falling away, in the midst of which a certain terrible Man of sin and Child of perdition, the special and singular enemy of Christ, or Antichrist, will appear; that this will be when revolutions prevail, and the present framework of society breaks to pieces; and that at present the spirit which he will embody and represent is kept under by “the powers that be,” but that on their dissolution, he will rise out of their bosom and knit them together again in his own evil way, under his own rule, to the exclusion of the Church.
These instances give us warning: Is the enemy of Christ, and His Church, to arise out of a certain special falling away from GOD? And is there no reason to fear that some such Apostasy is gradually preparing, gathering, hastening on in this very day? For is there not at this very time a special effort made almost all over the world, that is, every here and there, more or less in sight or out of sight, in this or that place, but most visibly or formidably in its most civilized and powerful parts, an effort to do without Religion? Is there not an opinion avowed and growing, that a nation has nothing to do with Religion; that it is merely a matter for each man’s own conscience? Which is all one with saying that we may let the Truth fail from the earth without trying to continue it in and on after our time.
Is there not a vigorous and united movement in all countries to cast down the Church of Christ from power and place? Is there not a feverish and ever-busy endeavor to get rid of the necessity of Religion in public transactions? … An attempt to educate without Religion? —that is, by putting all forms of Religion together, which comes to the same thing… An attempt to make expedience, and not truth, the end and the rule of measures of State and the enactments of Law? An attempt to make numbers, and not the Truth, the ground of maintaining, or not maintaining, this or that creed, as if we had any reason whatever in Scripture for thinking that the many will be in the right, and the few in the wrong? … An attempt to supersede Religion altogether, as far as it is external or objective, as far as it is displayed in ordinances, or can be expressed by written words — to confine it to our inward feelings, and thus, considering how variable, how evanescent our feelings are, an attempt, in fact, to destroy Religion? Surely, there is at this day a confederacy of evil, marshalling its hosts from all parts of the world, organizing itself, taking its measures, enclosing the Church of Christ as in a net, and preparing the way for a general Apostasy from it. Whether this very Apostasy is to give birth to Antichrist, or whether he is still to be delayed, as he has already been delayed so long, we cannot know; but at any rate this Apostasy, and all its tokens and instruments, are of the Evil One, and savior of death… He promises you illumination, he offers you knowledge, science, philosophy, enlargement of mind. He scoffs at times gone by; he scoffs at every institution that reveres them. He prompts you what to say, and then listens to you, and praises you, and encourages you. He bids you mount aloft. He shows you how to become as gods. Then he laughs and jokes with you, and gets intimate with you; he takes your hand, and gets his fingers between yours, and grasps them, and then you are his.
Surely these words resonate with us today. For what Newman describes as the social and religious situation of his times and their presaging of the Second Coming sounds eerily like our own, except that we have had time to become even more decayed—morality ever more decaying as the worship of Science and Technology grows. Indeed there has been and continues to be a mass apostasy from the Church in the West (Europe and the Americas). Simply said, the West, Christendom, or Christian civilization has been steadily declining from the High Middle Ages up to our time, with peaks and valleys, while, of course, the Faith and its Saints perdures. Indeed apart from technological growth for which we are deeply grateful, generally there has been decline in the arts, family life, public and private morality, and entertainment. In addition there have been hundreds of millions dead in the last century through horrific wars, plus the deadly plagues of contraception, abortion, and euthanasia. Such gloom may seem overly alarmist. However, perhaps a quotation from former President Bill Clinton will sum up contemporary allegiances: “I want unlimited scientific discovery and I want unlimited applications. We want to live forever and we are getting there.” Lord of the World is set in a distant future that is now our past. The latest date mentioned in the fictional prologue of the book is 1989, placing the events of the book more or less around the millennial year 2000, which in actuality was a Jubilee year of great celebration for the Church and a conduit for indulgences. For Catholics the transition to the new millennium was a “Crossing the Threshold of Hope,” as Blessed Pope John Paul the Great put it in his book of the same name. However, the years approaching 2000 were full of apocalyptic fears, including a (now almost forgotten) Y2K change of date computer scare that amounted to nothing. Much has been made of Benson’s prophetic insight in the novel, such as global air travel via airplane-like Volors and what we would today refer to as weapons of mass destruction, but to my mind most prophetic is how accurately he foresaw in the “Prologue” the political, religious, and ideological history of the world in our own time. The fictional 90-year-old Mr. Templeton recounts to the main protagonist of the book, Fr. Percy Franklin, what has transpired from 1904 up to our own time:
“Briefly,” he said, “there are three forces–Catholicism, Humanitarianism, and the Eastern religions. About the third I cannot prophesy, though I think the Sufis will be victorious… But in Europe and America, there is no doubt that the struggle lies between the other two. We can neglect everything else. And, I think, if you wish me to say what I think, that, humanly speaking, Catholicism will decrease rapidly now. It is perfectly true that Protestantism is dead. Men do recognise at last that a supernatural Religion involves an absolute authority, and that Private Judgment in matters of faith is nothing else than the beginning of disintegration. And it is also true that since the Catholic Church is the only institution that even claims supernatural authority, with all its merciless logic, she has again the allegiance of practically all Christians who have any supernatural belief left. There are a few faddists left, especially in America and here; but they are negligible. That is all very well; but, on the other hand, you must remember that Humanitarianism, contrary to all persons’ expectations, is becoming an actual religion itself, though anti-supernatural. It is Pantheism; it is developing a ritual under Freemasonry; it has a creed, ‘God is Man,’ and the rest. It has therefore a real food of a sort to offer to religious cravings; it idealises, and yet it makes no demand upon the spiritual faculties. Then, they have the use of all the churches except ours, and all the Cathedrals; and they are beginning at last to encourage sentiment. Then, they may display their symbols and we may not: I think that they will be established legally in another ten years at the latest. “Now, we Catholics, remember, are losing; we have lost steadily for more than fifty years.”
Ironically, Templeton identifies 1989 as the year of the acceptance of Karl Marx’s doctrines in Great Britain, while in reality that year signaled the largely total collapse of Communist rule throughout the world. Now, of course, Msgr. Benson does not get everything “spot on,” as he might have put it, but he certainly foresaw the worship of nature, the triumph of the machine, the rule by bureaucracy, the growing mass apostasy from Catholicism in the West, and the indifference to the worth of human life. Although birth control is not mentioned, the childless marriage of Oliver and Mabel Brand, the couple whose political and religious struggles are central in the novel, is clear evidence of its normalcy. The Culture of Death is omnipresent in the novel, particularly the universal availability of euthanasia. Chillingly in an early scene, the “ministers of Euthanasia” descend upon the survivors of a “Volor” crash in order to finish them off. And, of course have not we all seen in recent time the rise of a political figure who seemed to rise from nowhere of whom the populace knows virtually nothing of his background, who upon his mysterious appearance on the world stage has been greeted both in the the U.S. and abroad with adulation bordering on the Messianic and seems to be the first leader of “Globalization,” attempting to eradicate the barrier between traditional nation states and with a social agenda regarding the Life issues that could not be more anti-Christian and with a clear animus against the Catholic Church?
I will stop here lest I ruin your enjoyment by revealing too much of the plot. Of course, every man faces the end of his world as he approaches his own death. As long as he possesses the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, he has nothing to fear and everything to look forward to. When the Lord will come again has not been revealed; like death, we know neither the day nor the hour. God asks us to do our best to be in the “Friendship of Christ” (the title of another book by Msgr. Benson), providing us with all the graces we need, and our salvation will then be assured. And he calls us to bring as many people with us as possible.
This article was reprinted by the author’s permission from Catholicity.com, where a longer version includes an introduction to Benson by Ralph McInerney.