The historic Protestant position is that the antichrist prophesied in Scripture is not a ruler at the end of time (contrary to futurism, such as current dispensationalism), nor a figure of the distant past (as in the preterist system, favored by Catholics such as Scott Hahn and most liberal scholars), but is instead a power in history, namely, the papacy.
Consider, for example, the reasons given by two denominations who maintain this view, the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. For an historic Presbyterian perspective, see the writings of J. A. Wylie. They tend to focus on papal power, claims, and persecution through the centuries.
Another way Protestants have identified the papacy as the antichrist is by interpretation of Daniel and Revelation. It is important to note, however, that Protestants did not originate this. The first to identify the little horn of Daniel 7 with the papacy was the 13th century Archbishop of Salzburg, Erberhard II (see LeRoy Froom, Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers, vol. 1, pp. 796ff). Hans Urs von Balthasar has surveyed how Catholic interpreters through the patristic and medieval period, including Dante, identified the Babylonian harlot with the papacy (see also my review, here).
Von Balthasar’s introduction to his subject is instructive:
When Luther dares to equate the Roman Church with the whore of Babylon, it strikes us as the height of blasphemy. But he was not the first to coin the phrase. Similar things can be found in Wycliffe and Hus, and their language was not a complete innovation but the violent simplification and coarsening of a very old theologoumenon. This in turn has its origins in the Old Testament, in the words of judgment spoken by God, the betrayed Husband, against the archwhore Jerusalem, and in the New Testament’s application of these texts, which are so fundamental to the old (p. 193).
The image of God’s people as unfaithful goes back to the Old Testament. This is the tradition upon which the New Testament draws. The patristic, medieval, and Reformation interpreters stand in a long line of continuity. This is not an interpretation that should embarrass those Protestants who uphold it today–rather, it should inspire us to maintain our own faithfulness to Christ, lest we, too, be exposed as faithless.
Let us sketch briefly some of the key Scriptural texts that identify this power.
We start with Daniel 7. Daniel sees a vision of four beasts: 1) a lion with wings, 2) a bear, raised up on one side, 3) a leopard-like beast with four heads and four wings, 4) a great and terrible beast with ten horns, out of which comes a little horn, with eyes of a man and a mouth speaking great things. After this parade comes the judgment, and then the kingdom is given to the Son of man. The beasts are identified as four kingdoms; the fourth shall be different from the rest, and shall devour the earth; ten kings shall arise from it; another king shall arise from their midst, “and he shall speak great words against the most High, and shall wear out the saints of the most High, and think to change times and laws: and they shall be given into his hand until a time and times and the dividing of time. But the judgment shall sit, and they shall take away his dominion.”
How are we to understand this? Let’s turn back first to Daniel 2. There Nebuchadnezzar sees the image of a man, with head of gold, chest and arms of silver, belly and thighs of bronze, legs of iron, and feet of iron mixed with clay; the base will be struck by a stone cut out without hands, and will become a great mountain filling the earth. Daniel interprets it for him; Nebuchadnezzar and his kingdom are represented by the head of gold; he shall be followed by another kingdom, inferior to his; this will be followed by a third kingdom, and a fourth. The fourth will be “strong as iron,” and will break in pieces and subdue all things. And the kingdom shall be divided, and like iron and clay, they will not mix. And then God will set up his kingdom.
Two visions, each showing the outline of human history from Nebuchadnezzar’s day to the kingdom of God. If the first is Babylon (represented also by the lion), what are the others?
Daniel 8 and 9 fill us in. Babylon has fallen to the Medes and the Persians. Daniel sees a vision of a ram with two horns, one higher than the other, and the ram was pushing to the west. Then he saw a goat coming from the west, and it raced forward; it had a single large horn. The goat hit the ram and broke his horns. The goat then “waxed very great: and when he was strong, the great horn was broken; and for it came up four notable ones toward the four winds of heaven.”
And out of one of them came forth a little horn, which waxed exceedingly great, toward the south, and toward the east, and toward the pleasant land. And it waxed great, even to the host of heaven; and it cast down some of the host and of the stars to the ground, and stamped upon them. Yea, he magnified himself even to the prince of the host, and by him the daily sacrifice was taken away, and the place of his sanctuary was cast down. An an host was given him against the daily sacrifice by reason of transgression, and it cast down the truth to the ground; and it practised, and prospered.
But judgment comes.
Who are these beasts? They are identified in 8:20. The ram represents the Medes and the Persians; the goat, Greece. The great horn is the first king; four kingdoms shall arise from it, but without his power. Alexander the Great led Greece to victory against the Medes and Persians; he died young, and his empire was divided four ways.
Let’s compare. During Persian times, Daniel sees a Persian ram followed by Greek goat, which is broken up four ways, giving way to a nasty horn power, then the judgment. In Babylonian times Daniel sees a Babylonian head is followed by a silver chest and a bronze belly and iron legs–then the kingdom of God. Also in Babylonian times, Daniel sees a lion followed by a bear, followed by a four-headed leopard, then a great and terrible beast like iron, with a little horn–then judgment, and the kingdom of God.
The gold head, identified clearly as Babylon, is parallel to the lion. The silver chest which followed Babylon would be the Medes and Persians, already identified as the two horned ram, and would parallel the bear raised up on one side. The Greek goat with four horns would parallel the four-headed leopard and the bronze belly. What then is the next power? It would be represented by iron legs, beast compared to iron, and a horn that tramples heaven.
What followed Greece? Rome. Now some would say that the horn in Daniel 8 is Antiochus IV Epiphanes. But he was ruler of one of the divisions represented by the four horns. And he didn’t come “in the latter time of their kingdom,” but in the middle. And everything he tried to do ultimately failed. He was thrown out of Israel after a short time. And he didn’t stand up against the Prince of Princes. And his reign was not followed by judgment.
What else of this Roman power? He’ll divide into ten toes that won’t reunite. He’ll divide into ten horns. But a power arises in their midst, different from them, that will exercise divine authority, will think to change times and laws, will persecute the saints. The time of his power is numbered–1260 days. Writing in the early days of Roman power, Irenaeus of Lyons, in his book, Against Heresies (Book 5, ch. 30), was sure that Rome was symbolized by the beastly power. Because of this, he thought one of the most likely interpretations of the beast’s humber, 666, was ΛΑΤΕΙΝΟΣ, or Lateinos. But he went on to say that no one could be sure of the precise identification until the kingdom was divided into ten as Daniel and John had predicted.
We see a different image of this persecuting power in Revelation 17. Here we have a woman, a harlot, sitting atop a scarlet beast, full of names of blasphemy, with seven heads and ten horns. The woman is Babylon, and she’s drunk with the blood of the saints. The beast is a lot like that Roman beast of Daniel. The angel tells John its seven heads are seven mountains. What power was persecuting the church in John’s time? Rome, of course. It is a city on seven hills. And, like ancient Babylon, a power that had destroyed the temple in Jerusalem. But what of the woman on the beast? She’s a harlot. Now, a woman usually represents God’s faithful people–but God’s people have been known to turn aside. Hosea is to marry a harlot, because Israel, found in the desert as a faithful young girl, had become a harlot. In Revelation, a chaste woman goes into the wilderness; when we next see a woman, she’s a harlot on the Roman beast. The unfaithful bride become a persecuting harlot drunk with blood astride the Roman beast? Unthinkable! But that’s the image John gives us. But God will have the last word, and judgment will come, and God’s kingdom will be set up, and a faithful bride will be given in marriage.
Catholic apologists will say, “But the pope is on the Vatican hill, which wasn’t one of the seven hills of Rome.” Is the Pope Bishop of Vaticanus? Is he Bishop of Trastevere? Is he Bishop of Gianicolo? No, he’s Bishop of Rome, and his cathedral is the Basilica of St. John Lateran, within ancient Rome, given to the Bishop of Rome by Emperor Constantine. His cathedral is in the city of which he is bishop.
Some say the antichrist comes only at the end. But John saw the spirit of antichrist already at work in his day (1 John chs. 2 & 4; 2 John 1). This is a lying power that will speak blasphemy, will not speak truthfully about Christ’s humanity, and will have restrictions on food and marriage.
Scripture says when this power will have sway–after the Roman power is divided in two (legs) and then into ten (toes and horns), and three of those horns are uprooted. The political power of the papacy was confirmed by the Eastern Emperor, Justinian, in 538, after supplanting three Arian kingdoms that had stood in the way. These are additional clues, as is the length of time for which it will persecute: 1260 days, or 42 months, or 3 1/2 years. In prophecy, a day represents a year, so this gives a timespan of 1260 years.
These are the clues Scripture has given us. These are the raw data from which the interpreters I mentioned above began their work. They looked at human history and found a power that claimed divine prerogatives and titles, that used the power of the state to enforce its decrees for 1260 years, that turned the teachings of the Prince of Peace upside down, and in his name justified crusades and pogroms and the horrific torture and execution of its enemies; a power that regarded itself as superior to the state, that made emperors stand in the snow, that even in our own day has sought to protect priests guilty of the most vile crimes from secular and churchly punishment; a power that suppressed Biblical teachings and required obedience to man-made dogmas, that replaced the sacrifice of Christ with the sacrifice of the mass, and the good news of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ with indulgences and satisfactions.
There’s more–but they weren’t just pulling data out of the air; they weren’t just speaking on the basis of bigotry. They saw their day in the light of Biblical prophecy, prophecy that had accurately portrayed human history from the days of Babylon to their day. It had said when the Messiah would come–70 weeks, or 490 years after the decree to rebuild Jerusalem–and this was fulfilled exactly. This helped them to trust Scripture to point the way for us accurately.
And that’s what it comes down to–believing Scripture, or disbelieving it. A Catholic blog linked to this post and, in the comments, someone noted an article I had once written disagreeing with what I now propose (and they found it on the internet archive). But if they care to note, at the heart of that article was just this distrust of Scripture. I had accepted the claim of liberal critics that Daniel was written at the time of Antiochus and did not, and could not, predict the future. I sought to defend Catholicism by undermining Scripture. That’s never a safe route for an apologist who claims the name of Christian.
If you’d like to go further in studying the Scriptures I mention, and their historical fulfillment, you may start here.