Indentifying the Antichrist

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.

14 thoughts on “Indentifying the Antichrist

  1. It’s all starting to make sense now: the inconsistency and mushiness of (or of much of) post-Conciliar Catholicism, and contemporary Protestantism for that matter, began to get under your skin. But as you looked toward “traditional Catholicism” (for lack of a better term) you got squeamish as it grated against so many instincts deeply ingrained by your SDA upbringing — strong emphasis on: Purgatory, private devotions (with especially strong emphasis on the cult of the BVM), “impersonal” ritual (e.g. “Tridentine” Mass), etc., etc.

    You’re a smart guy: you’ve been surveying current trends for a long time and you looked ahead and saw the (Western) Catholic Church returning in the next life-time-and-a-half to something which more closely resembles, in many respects, what it looked like in 1880 than what it looked like in 1980 or even 1950. And you couldn’t stand it, so you jumped ship and went back to a church which, it appears to you, has a much more stable interior dynamic and external form (though I think it’s all perception and nostalgia for the “church of your parents and your youth”), and so must have a better claim on having it right according to what’s been revealed in Christ Jesus.

  2. Interesting. But not quite right. The Catholicism towards which I was initially attracted was, you might say, kind of mushy–Charismatic and social justice oriented elements. But I grew in my practice and understanding of Catholicism. I prayed the rosary, went to regular confession (for 8 years to an Opus Dei spiritual director). I sought as a campus ministry director to ensure faithful celebration of liturgy and catechesis. I was a cooperator with Opus Dei toward the end. I accepted the authority of the church.

    I was optimistic about ecumenism–I believed the Joint Declaration did take steps forward. But then I began to take a closer look, and saw it hadn’t really. That was an issue.

    I believed in the hermeneutic of continuity. I was a Ratzinger supporter. But what does hermeneutic of continuity mean? I noticed that Rome has never criticized the antisemitism of the SSPX. I noted that anti-Judaism was a major reason for the change of the Sabbath to Sunday, and the determination of the date of Passover (Nicea).

    Working in a chancery, I was very close to the operation of power and authority, and, in the wake of the sexual abuse scandal, came to see this authoritarianism and clericalism as issues that made that scandal possible–and they are at the heart of the Catholic church’s understanding of the papacy, the episcopacy, and the distinction between clergy and lay.

    So there were various things involved. A renewed study of Catholic teaching, of how some teachings (like purgatory) evolved; awareness that leading conservative Catholics had no problem with spiritualism (von Balthasar’s recommendation of Meditations on the Tarot); awareness of the fickleness of authoritarianism–that obedience to authority is more important than truth (compare Rome’s unwavering support of both Mahony and Bruskewitz); all these things helped to collapse my confidence in the Magisteriuim; tacit support of the Magisterium for all sorts of Marian apparitions, that I came increasingly to see not merely as misguided, but as Satanic.

    That sent me back to the Bible. And restudy of the Bible reconfirmed my faith in what I had been taught.

    I believe the end is near, at the very doors, and I saw the signs of it all around, and I heard the voice of Christ, “Babylon is fallen! Come out of her my people, that you be not partakers of her sins.”

  3. I guess the question is to where did the power to bind and loosen, given with the keys of the kingdom of heaven to the Apostle Peter in Matthew 16 and, in sequence, to the Apostles themselves, depart?

    Was this only a temporary prerogative of the Church? (ie. did it vanish with the Apostles’ deaths?). Are we to understand its heavy words (to what is bound on earth heaven will agree) in some washed down, reductive light? Consequentially, was it entrusted essentially to every Christian?

    Is it doctrinal, moral, or merely disciplinary?

    Secondly, how do the Eastern Christians factor into this “anti-Christ” assessment? Admittedly, with no papacy and no centralization of authority, they fade into the background here. But does the Orthodox Church not make similar claims about its institutional power to “bind and loosen” ?

  4. Thoughtful comments, Bill. My own conversion to Catholicism was made in the context of being part of a family that had had Catholics (and Lutherans and Mennonites) for generations so I never felt I was embracing a “foreign” tradition.

    Your return to your roots and your reasons for doing so are reasonable. There’s a lot of dross in the Catholic Church at the moment, to be sure. But for those of us who truly embrace the “catholic” substance of the Catholic Church, we simply couldn’t feel at home anywhere else.

    If you don’t mind my asking, is your brother Jim still Catholic (or did I misunderstand that?)

  5. Thanks, Bill. For what it’s worth, most Catholics live out their lives at the parish level. Yes, we are aware of the Vatican, the bishop and the chancery but they are not our immediate experience.

    When I see Catholics who are still steeped in “cultural” Catholicism it is an embarrassment. But then I consider Catholics such as Father Alfred Delp in Germany, who continued to care for his flock even as the Nazis pressed upon him, or Father Maximilian Kolbe who gave his life in the camps so that another could live, I see the best of what the Church represents.

    It goes without saying that is not limited to Catholics. I am equally grateful for the witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and others who were just as steadfast in their witness for Christ.

  6. There is no doubt but there is much injustice and corruption within the Catholic church. I am very interested in the whore analogy. However, I ask the question, is the Church a whore, as in Hosea, or is it The Whore, as in Revelation?

  7. Hi, Christine. As Bill said, I am definitely still Catholic… and active in CL… just no longer blogging. I still lurk around other peoples’ blogs, though. 🙂

  8. Bill,

    I like the fact that the Church still gets under your skin. One of the greatest social benefits of being a member of the Catholic Church is how it upsets people so greatly that they will develop large amounts of time to discredit it, only to fail and convert. I’ll see you back in the Tiber soon, my friend.

  9. Hello Bill,

    three points about what you wrote, then a commentary…

    “awareness that leading conservative Catholics had no problem with spiritualism (von Balthasar’s recommendation of Meditations on the Tarot); awareness of the fickleness of authoritarianism–that obedience to authority is more important than truth (compare Rome’s unwavering support of both Mahony and Bruskewitz); all these things helped to collapse my confidence in the Magisteriuim; ”

    I really do think that this is precisely why there is a Magisterium : because individuals can err, can be so blind on such or such think … ! (Have you checked your statement on van Baltazar ?)

    “I noticed that Rome has never criticized the antisemitism of the SSPX.”

    Perhaps this is just because antisemitism is just a sin, so there is no more thological dialog about anti-semitism than about the pope as the beast of the book of Revelation in protestant sects.

    “tacit support of the Magisterium for all sorts of Marian apparitions, that I came increasingly to see not merely as misguided, but as Satanic.”
    I had an aunt who was a big fanatic of marian apparition. She often told me “pope supports San Damiano”, or “Pope said secretly that Medjugorje is true”, etc… You can hear these remarks in many places of marian apparition that are condemned, either by local bishop or by Rome. People here trust more in the apparition than in the Magiteriul : that is not catholic.

    But as reading you ,-perhaps do I mistake- I went to think that there is the Magisterium to which many of the sins in catholic Church have there origins, and that the faithfull are another “world”.
    I, as a faithfull, am the “vicar” Church where I am ! I, as faithfull, is the one who hace to act “in persona Christi” in all what I do. It is not Balthasar or Ratzinger or so or so, but I who is the people who needs to convert.
    Why do I word this like that? Because everey where we can complain about what Y did or about what X said. But they are miles and miles away and I can’t convert them. The sole real think I can do is to become a saint moved by the Spirit of God : then my voice will be as God’s one! My acts, as God’s one. And the Church will be holier, and Christ will be glorified so that the Father will be glorified.

  10. Gégé again,

    I have many problems with reading the texts as you do Bill. In Rev. 11/8 we see that the Big City is Rome, is Babylon, is Jerusalem. We see a composite picture. The “Babylon”, the “Whore”, denouced by the prophetic texts seems more to be those who oppose God’s plans than the member of such or such denomination or religion.

  11. But said members can oppose God’s plans. And Catholic theology speaks of “sinful structure” and “structures of sin,” which embody that opposition to God and exaltation of self.

  12. Hi Jim,

    Glad to see you are still keeping company with us “kat’liks” (as my cradle Catholic husband cheekily calls us).

    The “Babylon”, the “Whore”, denouced by the prophetic texts seems more to be those who oppose God’s plans than the member of such or such denomination or religion.

    Gégé, that was my view even when I was Lutheran.

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