by Sigmund Brouwer and Hank Hanegraaff
2004 / 428 pages
It’s the year 65 AD, and Gallus Sergius Vitas is one of the last principled men in Rome. He’s also a confidant of Emperor Nero which means his daily life is conducted on a knife’s edge: indulging the emperor’s perverse demands might keep Vitas safe but would compromise the man that he is; yet to openly oppose the emperor would lead to his immediate introduction to the Coliseum’s lions.
Our story beings with Vitas attempting this balancing act once again. Nero has dressed as a beast, his outfit comprised of lion and bear skins, complete with collar and a chain held by a servant. His night’s entertainment is to terrorize a group of prisoners while playing the part of a beast. Enjoying their fear, the emperor quickly works himself into a killing frenzy. Vitas sees this all from the shadows and can’t let it happen, knowing, though, that to oppose the emperor is to die. So Vistas yells at the chain-holding servant instead: “If the emperor knows you are involved in illegal torture, he will have you destroyed!” It is, as Brouwer writes:
“an all-or-nothing bluff, pretending that he did not know Nero was inside the costume. Trusting that Nero would be too ashamed to admit it. Now. Or later.”
Vitas’ bluff works, but not just because of his daring. An earthquake sends Nero scurrying away, convinced that the shaking ground is a sign of divine judgment.
It’s a great opening, highlighting the depth’s of the emperor’s perversity, the heights of Vitas’ courage, and the certain presence of God even in these pagans’ lives. In less talented hands, the earthquake’s unlikely timing could have come off as cheesy, since in real life God more often uses “ordinary means” (like doctors’ talents or wise friends’ advice) than miracles to accomplish His ends. But miracles do occur, and Brouwer makes it believable. It’s a good thing too, as this is but the first miracle in a story that’s all about how God used miraculous means – the prophetic words in the book of Revelation – to warn his Church to flee the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD.
What Brouwer and his writing partner, theologian Hank Hanegraaff, have done here is write an alternative to Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’ popular Left Behind series. Where Left Behind places the beast of Revelation 13 in our near future, Brouwer and Hanegraaff place him in the first century, in the near future of those who first received John’s letter. And they identify the beast as Nero and the bloody empire he led. This “partial preterist” (partial past) interpretation of Revelation holds that the book was written before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, and the city’s fall is a partial fulfillment of much of the prophecy in Revelation.
This, then, is fiction meant to teach as well and entertain, and it does both brilliantly. Brouwer has crafted a story that takes us all around the Mediterranean, with Jews, Romans, and even troubled Christians wrestling with the question of “Who is Jesus?” There’s also political plotting, assassination attempts, sieges, gladiators, and just a touch of romance.
The slowest bits are when theologian Hanegraaff has characters take a page or two to teach Vitas and others what a particular passage in Revelation means. If you’re reading it only for the story, these sections might drag, but they are well spaced out. And if you’re interested in learning about the partial preterist interpretation of Revelation, these will be your favorite passages.
One caution: Nero’s depravity, though described with restraint, still means this is not a book for younger teens.
If The Last Disciple series has you eager to read more of Sigmund Brouwer’s work, be aware that he is a proponent of theistic evolution, and also an Arminian. That doesn’t come up in this series (or his best book, Innocent Heroes, a treat for kids, teens, and parents alike) but it does come up in some others.
Finally, readers should be aware that partial preterism probably isn’t the majority view in Canadian Reformed churches (though I’m not sure what the majority view might be, as Revelation seems to be only rarely discussed). Some do hold it though, and it’s also held by Reformed pastors outside our circles such as RC Sproul, Douglas Wilson, and Jay Adams.
The Last Disciple is a great book, kicking off a great series. The cast of characters is large, so if you’re like me, make sure you get the whole trilogy – The Last Disciple, The Last Sacrifice and The Last Temple – right away, because if you wait too long between books, you may start forgetting who is who.
I’d recommend this to anyone who enjoys historical fiction – Sigmund Brouwer has got skills. And if you’d love to have partial preterism explained, well, this is the most entertaining way you could ever learn about it!