As we see a world convulsed in sorrow at the destruction by fire of the iconic cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, France, our hearts go out to the millions for whom this architectural, historic wonder serves as a symbol of faith and the ultimate meaning men and women seek from their faith. Irrespective of which faith we cherish, none of us would wish for such a tangible token of that faith to suffer ruin in this fashion. Texas Senator Ted Cruz, echoing the sentiments of the sorrowing throughout the world, declared: “Today, we are all Parisians” (1).
Few informed Seventh-day Adventists could watch those flames in Paris without recalling significant events in church history connected with that grand edifice. In The Great Controversy, Ellen White describes the public oath with which the French monarchy committed itself to the destruction of Protestantism on January 21, 1535:
A solemn oath to extirpate heresy was taken in the great cathedral where, nearly three centuries later, the Goddess of Reason was to be enthroned by a nation that had forgotten the living God (2).
In a later chapter, Ellen White identifies this cathedral as the one that has now suffered massive destruction before the watching world:
“The goddess, having been embraced by the president, was mounted on a magnificent car, and conducted, amid an immense crowd, to the Cathedral of Notre Dame, to take the place of the Deity. There she was elevated on the high altar, and received the adoration of all present.”—Alison, vol. 1, ch. 10 (3).
Millions across the world have seen that very altar, scorched but spared from the blaze, in the countless television reports that have chronicled the Notre Dame fire. None of us who still revere our Protestant heritage need surrender those principles in order to regret the injury done to this monument or to sympathize with those for whom it holds spiritual meaning. Human beings have trouble remembering history even when its treasures tower in magnificence over them, and the Bible is clear that God honors a sincere faith even when it ignorantly venerates falsehood (Acts 17:30; James 4:17).
Some Notable Fires of the Past
Fires have been known to change the course of history, often in the direction of intolerance, persecution, and prejudice. Let’s consider a few examples.
One such incident was the fire that destroyed most of the city of Rome on the night of July 18, 64 A.D, which many believe was set by the Emperor Nero himself. Nero blamed this disaster on the small but growing Christian community, and a terrible persecution against the church was instigated as a result, claiming—among others—the lives of the apostles Peter and Paul (4).
A similar fire, also blamed on the Christians, struck the palace of the Emperor Diocletian following the first of his edicts against the church in 303 A.D. Historian Stephen Williams describes what happened:
Within months of the Edict, the Christians at Nicomedia (or so their enemies thought) hit back. The imperial palace at Nicomedia caught fire and was seriously damaged, not once but twice in the space of 11 days. Diocletian’s own bedchamber was destroyed in the flames. . . . Years later Constantine, who claims to have been an eyewitness, blamed the second fire on a bolt of lightning sent by God to frighten Diocletian. Suspicion, naturally, fell on the Christians. Diocletian, thoroughly aroused and determined to crush all opposition, instituted a grim inquisition to discover the arsonists (5).
The Great Fire of London, which raged in that city from September 2 to September 6 in the year 1666, was—like the fire that destroyed the cathedral of Notre Dame—apparently the result of accidental causes (6). But scapegoats were soon sought and found, when opponents of the pro-Catholic English King Charles II blamed the disaster on militant Catholics (6). A monument to the fire was built by King Charles after the blaze was quenched, and the following inscription was added to the memorial by opponents of Catholicism in 1668:
Here by permission of heaven, hell broke loose upon this Protestant city . . . the most dreadful Burning of this City; begun and carried on by the treachery and malice of the Popish faction. . . . Popish frenzy which wrought such horrors, is not yet quenched (7).
Catholic-Protestant strife followed, leading at last to the triumph of Protestantism and Parliament in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which brought the Dutch King William of Orange and his wife, Queen Mary II, to the English throne.
Moving to more recent times, many will recall the infamous Reichstag fire of February 27, 1933, described by contemporary historian Benjamin Carter Hett “as the last night of the Weimar Republic, the last night of German democracy” (8). Like most of these fires, it is still not known for certain who started it (9), though Hitler and the Nazis—who had come to power barely a month before—used the disaster as an excuse to eliminate all political opposition, in particular the Communists and Social Democrats (10), with measures often attended by cruel torture (11).
And certainly few can forget the riots—often accompanied by arson—in so many American cities during the 1960s, which fueled hostility in many minds toward racial minorities and the urban poor, the consequences of which continue to impact political trends, resentments, and reactions in the United States.
The Fire This Time
It is too early, of course, to assess the impact of the Notre Dame cathedral fire, whose cause to date still remains a mystery. For the moment the fire’s effect appears to be one of international solidarity, as seen in the nearly one billion dollars raised thus far for the cathedral’s restoration (12). But already the rumble of propaganda and paranoia is starting to be heard.
One editorial, titled, “Notre Dame: An Omen” (13), frames the burning of this iconic church as a symbol of a larger cultural and philosophical disaster in Western society. The author writes, “It is as if God Himself wanted to warn us in the most unmistakable way that Western Christianity is burning—and with it, Western civilization” (14).
Unfortunately, the author of this piece blames the cultural and moral decline of Europe entirely on events beginning with the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, forgetting completely—or so it would seem—the wholesale slaughter and persecution of religious dissenters during medieval and early modern times by the Roman Catholic Church, together with the brutal Wars of Religion which followed the Protestant Reformation. The heartless torture and tyranny of the medieval Inquisition go completely without a mention. Secularism and Islam take all the blame in this editorial for Europe’s decline and moral impoverishment.
Perhaps the author in question hasn’t heard of the martyrdom by fire and torture of French Protestants during the Reformation (15), or the St. Bartholomew Massacre of August 24, 1572, in which tens of thousands of Protestant Christians—beginning with the kingdom’s prime minister—were butchered in an atrocity begun within sight of Notre Dame (16). Perhaps he isn’t aware of the brutal “dragonnades” during the reign of Louis XIV (17), which one prominent historian describes as a “holy terror . . . far worse than the Revolutionary Terror of 1793” (18). It would appear institutional Christianity in Europe had done vast damage to its reputation long before secularists and Muslims gained a foothold on the Continent.
In a tone bordering on (if not endorsing) racism, the author of the afore-quoted editorial ridicules as “moral and intellectual nonsense” the belief that “all cultures are morally equivalent,” and scoffs at the belief that “protecting Western civilization is equivalent to protecting white supremacy” (19).
But the author neither presents an objective definition of “Western” values or civilization, nor gives any reason as to why Christianity—which he also fails to define—should be equated with Western civilization and Western values as he understands them. True, the general secularization of Europe since the eighteenth century can’t be denied. But by totally ignoring the horrific acts committed by professed Christians in Europe prior to the eighteenth century, the author in question leaves untouched a major historical antecedent to the post-Christian culture now dominating Europe.
Like those in previous times who have exploited similar disasters for nefarious and prejudicial purposes, the editorial closes with a dark suggestion of scapegoating as to who might have started the Notre Dame fire:
I don’t know if a worker accident or a radical Muslim set fire to Notre Dame Cathedral (as they have scores of other churches around Europe). It terms of what the fire represented, it doesn’t much matter. What matters is the omen: Europe is burning, just as Notre Dame was (20).
It has been said that history repeats itself because no one was listening the first time. Perhaps. Of one thing we can be certain—another great persecution is coming, and it won’t be instigated by secularists or Muslims. The Bible foretells the final crisis of human history in the 13th chapter of Revelation, in which two successive religio-political powers dominate the world and persecute God’s people. The evidence of both history and the inspired pen make plain that these successive powers are the medieval papacy and the United States of America, who at the end of history will unite to compel humanity to pay homage to a man-made institution of reverence (Rev. 13:11-17).
The writings of Ellen White are clear as to who the final players will be in the conflict that will close human history:
When Protestantism shall stretch her hand across the gulf to grasp the hand of the Roman power, when she shall reach over the abyss to clasp hands with spiritualism; when, under the influence of this threefold union, our country shall repudiate every principle of its Constitution as a Protestant and republican government, and shall make provision for the propagation of papal falsehoods and delusions, then we may know that the time has come for the marvelous working of Satan and that the end is near (21).
It is hard to see how secularism could play a significant role in the events Bible prophecy predicts for the last days, for the simple reason that the secular mind refuses to accept the reality of miracles—supernatural activities the Bible describes as ubiquitous during history’s final events (Matt. 24:24; II Thess. 2:8-9; Rev. 13:13-14; 16:14). And when we consider the inspired identification of the end-time threefold union arrayed against God’s people, whatever role international Islam will play in these events will be totally at the behest of America, the papacy, apostate Protestantism, and spiritualism.
One would like to believe that the recent flames over Paris, the tearful singing of hymns by the thousands who watched the disaster, and the global outpouring of support for the cathedral’s rebuilding, betoken a recognition of deeper and unifying values beckoning humanity—the West in particular—toward a greater togetherness and understanding in the present age of harsh polarization. But Bible prophecy teaches otherwise. From the present writer’s perspective, we will likely see many more calamities of this nature, and the unity thus resulting—like that which has attended similar events chronicled in this essay—will lead again to persecution and widespread slaughter, which will culminate at last in the rescue of God’s victorious saints at the second coming of their Lord.
1. Frank Miles, “Notre Dame Cathedral fire: US politicians express condolences as landmark burns,” Fox News, April 16, 2019 https://www.foxnews.com/world/notre-dame-cathedral-fire-us-politicianscondolences?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A%20foxnews%2Fworld%20%28Internal%20-%20World%20Latest%20-%20Text%29&utm_content=Yahoo%20Search%20Results
2. Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy, p. 229.
3. Ibid, p. 276.
4. H.H. Scullard, From the Gracchi to Nero: A history of Rome from 133 B.C. to A.D. 68 (New York: Routledge, 2003), pp. 308-310.
5. Stephen Williams, Diocletian and the Roman Recovery (New York: Methuen, Inc, 1985), p. 177.
8. Benjamin Carter Hett, The Death of Democracy: Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic (New York: Henry Holt and Co, 2018), p. 3.
9. Ibid, p. 189.
10. Ibid, p. 2,184-186.
11. Ibid, pp. 185-186.
12. Sylvie Corbet and Nicolas Vaux-Montagny, “Bells of French cathedrals ring in tribute to Notre Dame,” Associated Press, April 17, 2019 https://www.nwitimes.com/news/world/billion-raised-to-rebuild-paris-notre-dame-after-fire/article_c6c2cf92-e93d-59d9-8b85-e8063656ee1e.html
13. Dennis Prager, “Notre Dame: An Omen,” The Stream, April 17, 2019 https://stream.org/notre-dame-an-omen/
15. Will Durant, The Reformation (New York: MJF Books, 1957), pp. 503-505.
16. Will and Ariel Durant, The Age of Reason Begins (New York: MJF Books, 1961), pp. 346-355.
18. Will and Ariel Durant, The Age of Louis XIV (New York: MJF Books, 1963), p. 73.
19. Prager, “Notre Dame: An Omen,” The Stream, April 17, 2019 https://stream.org/notre-dame-an-omen/
21. Ellen G. White, Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 451.
Pastor Kevin Paulson holds a Bachelor’s degree in theology from Pacific Union College, a Master of Arts in systematic theology from Loma Linda University, and a Master of Divinity from the SDA Theological Seminary at Andrews University. He served the Greater New York Conference of Seventh-day Adventists for ten years as a Bible instructor, evangelist, and local pastor. He writes regularly for Liberty magazine and does script writing for various evangelistic ministries within the denomination. He continues to hold evangelistic and revival meetings throughout the North American Division and beyond, and is a sought-after seminar speaker relative to current issues in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He presently resides in Berrien Springs, Michigan.