When patriots persecute

Psychological experiments at Yale University indicate that your next-door neighbor or mailman (or even you) could be a potential persecutor!

Richard Coffen is book editor at the Southern Publishing Association, Nashville, Tennessee.
Psychological experiments at Yale University have demonstrated the extent to which common, ordinary people will obey authority—even to the point of physically injuring another per son, who could be you! Dr. Stanley Milgram, in his fascinating and frightening book, Obedience to Authority (New York: Harper and Row, 1974), describes the experiments and recounts their results.

The studies typically involved three persons and a shock machine. One per son was the experimenter, or authority figure. Another was a "learner"—actually an actor in collusion with the experimenter. And a third party—the subject of the experiment was the "teacher." The shock machine bristled with thirty switches labeled from fifteen to four hundred fifty volts. Several switches were categorized from "Slight Shock" through "Strong Shock" to "Danger: Severe Shock." The last two switches bore the designation "XXX." Actually, the machine produced no shocks at all.

The teacher would read a list of word pairs, such as blue box, nice day, wild duck, and then return to the beginning of the list and say, for example, "Blue sky, ink, box, lamp." The learner was to respond with the proper answer. If he gave the wrong answer—and he frequently did so on purpose as part of the experiment—the teacher was to shock him. Each time the learner responded incorrectly, he would receive a stronger shock—or so the teacher thought.

Should the teacher object to increasing the intensity of the shocks, the experimenter would reply, "Please go on." If he balked again, the experimenter would say, "The experiment requires that you continue." A third objection would elicit "It is absolutely essential that you continue," and, if the teacher hesitated a fourth time, "You have no other choice; you must go on." A fifth complaint would terminate the experiment.

Milgram carried out numerous experiments with several variations, yet in each case an amazing number of subjects doled out shocks up to the four-hundred- fifty-volt level—even when the learner moaned, screamed, complained of his heart, and feigned unconsciousness.

Overall, about two-thirds of the subjects obeyed the experimenter. In one set of experiments, sixty-five percent went all the way! Of these appalling results Dr. Milgram wrote that the study demonstrated just how far people will go in hurting someone else even though they have no personal hostility toward the victim. Surely such grim findings should give every lover of freedom pause, in light of a dismal prediction made in the New Testament book of Revelation.

John's vision

John the revelator viewed three wild animals in vision. First, he saw in the sky a dragon that tried to devour Jesus Christ Himself (Rev. 12). Next, John saw a monster with seven heads and ten horns rise from the sea. The dragon gave this sea monster its power, seat, and authority (chap. 13:2). One of the sea monster's heads received a mortal wound, but when the head was healed, the world worshiped the beast (verses 3,4), which prospered for forty-two months (verse 5). Finally, John saw a third animal, which lived on land (verse 11). It exercised "all the power," or authority, of the sea monster that preceded it (verse 12). Should anyone refuse to submit to its authority and obey its commands, the third wild animal would boycott him (verse 17).

Scripture here foretells a time of universal intolerance toward God's obedient people. The apocalyptic authority figure of the land animal will arise, and everyone—except a few dissidents—will follow its directions (verse 12). They will make an "image," or likeness, to the sea monster (verse 14). They will receive a mark in their right hands or in their foreheads (verse 16). They will boycott the few who spurn the mark (verse 17), and they will attempt to annihilate the nonconforming element that refuses to worship the likeness of the sea monster (verse 15).

For many years this frightful prediction has seemed impossible—the product of a bygone age of intolerance. Now, however, Dr. Milgram's experiments have demonstrated its possibility even in America.

Those participating in Milgram's experiments were not ogres. They were post-office employees, teachers, sales men, engineers, and laborers—people like your neighbors. Similarly, the people mentioned in Revelation 13 are not vampires, but ordinary people who merely submit to authority. But how can good citizens perpetrate criminal acts? Let's consider the factors resulting in obedience as outlined in Dr. Milgram's book.

First, obedience to authority begins when we come face to face with the authority. Many things and persons make demands of our time and of our selves. But only a few do we acknowledge as having a binding claim on us, and we base our decision to accept someone as an authority on his position within a given social structure. Thus, we recognize the authority of the inspector at airport checkpoints, but outside that particular social structure—for example, at a football game—we freely ignore the very same person.

In the Yale experiments the subjects met the authority figure in the social structure of a laboratory setting. An other social structure comes to view in Revelation 13: (1) a dragon holds sway; (2) he bequeaths his power, seat, and authority to a sea monster, and it dominates the world; (3) a land animal emerges and exercises all the authority the sea monster once wielded. Hence, this third beast appears as a legitimate authority within the structure of world domination.

Second, to aid in the identification of authority, the authority figure acts authoritatively and sports all the trappings that we would expect him to have. For example, in the psychological experiments the experimenter wore a lab coat. The same pattern appears in Revelation 13. The third animal acts authoritatively—speaks like a dragon (verse 11) and performs great wonders (verse 13). It even has two horns—symbols of power and authority in Bible times.

Third, once some people have con fronted an authority figure and have recognized his claim to dominate as legitimate, they usually feel obliged to submit to his power. Just so, the people in Revelation 13 perceive the land animal's relationship to the previous apocalyptic authority figures, and so submit to his jurisdiction.

Fourth, there is explicit obedience to the authority figure. Attuned to his will, the subjects tune out all competing claims to authority, and recognizing this condition, the authority figure issues specific commands, which the agents obey. If twinges of conscience arise in the obedient followers, they salve them by abdicating their personal responsibility and shifting it to the authority: "I was only doing what I was told," many of Milgram's subjects later said in defense of themselves. Again the same situation prevails in the prophecy of Revelation 13. The third animal makes specific commands "saying to them that dwell on the earth, that they should make an image to the beast" (verse 14). Obviously, the world will tune out all other authorities, for Scripture asserts that this last animal "deceiveth them that dwell on the earth by means of those miracles which he had power to do" (verse 14).

The dissenters

But the story doesn't end here. Some will dissent. John the Revelator saw a group of nonconformists: "And I saw as it were a sea of glass mingled with fire: and them that had gotten the victory over the beast, and over his image, and over his mark, and over the number of his name, stand on the sea of glass, having the harps of God" (chap. 15:2).

The painful process of disobedience to authority has five distinct steps, Milgram discovered. First, the subject mentally questions the morality of the commanded behavior. Second, his inner doubts give way to verbal skepticism. Third, his verbal questioning turns into open dissent. Fourth, the subject threatens to disobey. And fifth, the subject carries out his threats by refusing to comply. So, according to the book of Revelation, some individuals will brave all opposition and take these steps.

To the supporters of the third animal in Revelation 12 and 13 these courageous individuals will appear dissident, but this is man's assessment. From God's point of view these dissenters are fiercely obedient to Him. They will have come face to face with God's authority and will have clearly perceived that as Creator he alone deserves unquestioning obedience. They will have rallied to the angel's cry in Revelation 14:7—"Fear God, and give glory to him; for the hour of his judgment is come: and worship him that made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of waters." In submitting to the supreme Sovereign of the universe, they have tuned out all other demands. They have accepted God's assessment of the situation: "If any man worship the beast and his image, and receive his mark in his fore head, or in his hand, the same shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God" (verses 9, 10). And of His obedient people God proudly says, "Here is the patience of the saints: here are they that keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus" (verse 12).

Whose side are we on?

All humanity will thus fall into two categories—those who disobey God and obey the apocalyptic authority figure and those who disobey the third animal and obey God. The issue will center around obedience to authority—the malevolent authority of the land animal, based on its power to persecute and destroy, or the beneficent authority of God, based on His Creatorship.

Most persons like to think that they'll side with God's beneficent authority in that day. Yet, since God is in heaven, His authority seems rather tenuous to us on earth. The Yale studies show that the closer proximity the authority figure has to the subject, the more compliance he tends to evoke. Hence the apocalyptic prediction that most people will knuckle under to the land animal's authority rather than to God's.

Where we will stand then depends largely on where we stand now. How do we relate to God's authority in our present everyday life? Do we currently take God's scriptural commands seriously? Or does the authority of someone or something else dominate our present existence? When the apocalyptic authority figure starts rampaging, change will be difficult. In fact, most people then will rather fight than switch authority figures. And fight they will. "These shall make war with the Lamb [Christ], and the Lamb shall overcome them: for he is Lord of lords, and King of kings: and they that are with him are called, and chosen, and faithful" (chap. 17:14).


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Richard Coffen is book editor at the Southern Publishing Association, Nashville, Tennessee.

May 1979

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