One biblical passage which has perplexed interpreters is Revelation 13:13-15. "[The second beast] performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in front of people, and by the signs that it is allowed to work in the presence of the beast it deceives those who dwell on earth, telling them to make an image for the beast that was wounded by the sword and yet lived. And it was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast, so that the image of the beast might even speak and might cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be slain."
Popular dispensational writers often take this text to be a prophetic prediction of the high-tech mode of deception used by the antichrist to enslave the world after the Rapture. On this view, John is speaking of some sort of future technology (a computer-generated hologram or similar) used to create a dazzling and deceptive image which successfully attracts the bulk of those living on earth to worship the image of the beast so that people willingly take his mark (cf. Revelation 13:16 ff).
Critical scholarship, by and large, understands John to be speaking of the Roman imperial cult dominant throughout Asia Minor at the time John records his vision. The imperial cult centered upon veneration and worship of deified emperors (Augustus, Tiberius, Vespasian, Domitian, et. al.), as well as various Greek and Roman gods, whose images and temples dominated the region. Christians were persecuted for failing to worship the divinized emperor or the accepted Roman gods. In fact, Christians were considered "atheists."
In his famous Church History, Eusebius describes the following scene during the reign of Maximin Daia (who ruled the eastern portion of the Roman empire from A.D. 308-313), and his lackey Theotecnus (which, ironically means "child of God" in Greek) and who was the city comptroller of Antioch. Eusebius recounts the following in Book 9.5:
Time and time again this man [Theotecnus] engaged in hostilities against us, trying every means to hunt our people out of hiding as if they were thieving villains, using every subterfuge to slander and accuse us, and even causing death to countless numbers. Finally, with illusions and sorceries, he erected a statue of Zeus [like the one in Olympus, pictured above] as a god of friendship, and after devising demonic rites, initiations, and repulsive purifications for it, he displayed his magic even in the emperor's presence through whatever oracular utterances he pleased. . .
Eusebius goes on to describe the fall of Maximin and the arrest of Theotecnus after Constantine's rise to power:
Justice also summoned Theotecnus, determined that what he did to the Christians should never be forgotten. After he set up the idol at Antioch, he seemed to enjoy great success and indeed, was awarded a governorship by Maximin. . . . When, under torture, they [Theotecnus] revealed that the entire mystery [the oracle from Zeus] was a deception contrived by Theotecnus" [Book 9.11].
Eusebius' account seems to indicate that the priests of the imperial cult were able to deceive even emperors through the use of fake "oracles from Zeus." Seems like ventriloquism was at least one of the modes by which the image of the beast (in this case, the statue of Zeus) was made to seem alive and perform deceptive signs and wonders. And this about the time of Constantine's supposed conversion in A.D. 312.
There are a couple of points of interest here. The use of occult deception and the hunting down of believers sounds much like the kind of thing proposed by dispensationalists as characteristic of the future seven-year tribulation period. The problem for dispensationalists is that this was occurring in the fourth century, and was clearly a continuation of that spasmodic persecution of Christians by Roman emperors depicted by John in A.D. 95.
Far from being something isolated to the future (after the Rapture), the occult deception described here seems to be rather characteristic of the efforts undertaken by the dragon (Satan) to seduce the nations throughout the entire inter-advental period . Thankfully, the dragon is able to empower the beast only for short periods of time, and only in localized areas.
In this localized persecution, we see the power of gospel "restraining" (or binding Satan) until the very end of the age when the dragon is said to be released from the abyss immediately before the return of Christ, when the dragon is able to universalize and intensify his war on the people of God (Revelation 20:7-10).
When we read of Christians being put to death and churches being burned (as a number were just last week) we see the same Satanic war on the people of God that Eusebius' witnessed in the rage of Theotecnus and the deception foisted upon the people by the priests of Zeus.
Dispensationalists are right to expect Christians to be hunted down, and technology used to deceive the masses. They are wrong (and more than a bit naive) to assume that this is limited to future a seven-year tribulation period. As John sees it, we have been in the great tribulation, we are in the great tribulation, and we will be in the tribulation until Christ comes back (Revelation 7:14).
Eusebuis gives us an interesting glimpse of the image of the beast and explains why the people of Antioch worshiped a statue of Zeus. Let us not think that we, unlike those in Antioch, cannot be taken in by such things. History marches on, but the human heart remains as sinful as ever.