The Beast of Revelation

Every now and again I receive an email, often as part of a group mailing addressed to a wide variety of the most-read bloggers, asking me to use my site as a platform to post or provide comment on a particularly inflammatory issue. I got one of those emails today, this one from Andy Jackson of “SmartChristian” fame. Andy noticed that Ken Silva, one of the writers at the “Slice of Laodicea” blog, quoted Robert Murray M’Cheyne and his suggestion that the beast of Revelation is the church of Rome. On his blog Andy declares that “this is absolutely ridiculous” and in his email says: “Please take a look at this post at Slice and either post on it or provide a comment. I understand apologetics and standing for right teaching, but I have concerns about this blog labeling and condemning others in the body of Christ that we might not agree fully with.”

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Here is the offending quote from M’Cheyne:

Now, we know quite well that the beast is the Church of Rome; we are told that the beast sits upon seven hills; and we are told at the end of the second verse that the dragon gave him his power, and his seat, and great authority. So that there is no doubt, dear brethren, but that the great enemy of the sheep the false shepherd, who comes like a lamb, but who has the paw of a bear – is Antichrist. Now, there can be no doubt but that he gets his power from Satan.

M’Cheyne is by no means unique in suggesting that the beast is none other than the Roman Catholic Church. One could easily argue that this is nothing more than the consensus of historic Protestantism. If Ken Silva does believe this, and nowhere in the article does he affirm such a belief, he finds himself in good company. It is only in the past few decades that this belief has fallen out of favor. Not surprisingly, this change coincides with increasing efforts to bridge the theological gaps between Catholicism and Protestantism.

I’d like to take a look at what some great Protestants of days past have had to say about the beast of Revelation. As you read, remember that we tend to misrepresent the meaning of the prefix “anti-” in the word “antichrist.” We most often think of the prefix “anti-” as meaning “against,” but in context of antichrist it actually means “in place of.” So these men were not looking for someone or something that sought to fight explicitly against Christ (such as the Muslim faith) but something or someone that sought to set itself up in place of Christ. Of course the two means lead to the same end, but a person who puts himself in place of Christ is likely to be far more subtle and may arise from within rather than from without the visible church. Those who look outside Christianity for antichrist may miss him altogther. This is the true sense of what the word means and this is the sense in which Christians used it in days past.

Before we look at some interesting quotes, I will affirm that Protestants do not have a great track record when it comes to predicting just who the antichrist is. Some time ago Stephen Nichols wrote an article entitled “Prophecy Makes Strange Bedfellows: On the History of Identifying the Antichrist” in which he argued that Christians should not attempt to identify the antichrist. After examining the biblical case for antichrist and the history of biblical interpretation regarding this figure, he suggests that prophecy makes strange bedfellows, for Protestants of all stripes, many of whom would agree on little else, have affirmed their belief that the pope or the Catholic Church is anitchrist. He goes on to list some other people who have been so labelled. “The studies of Paul Boyer…chronicle the vast range of likely and unlikely suspects including Juan Carlos of Spain, Mussolini, Hitler, Ronald Wilson Reagan (whose name contains three words of six letters each and who almost moved to a 666 street address), Elvis, JFK, FDR, Henry Kissinger, Gorbachev (who has an uncanny birthmark on his forehead), Moshe Dayan, Anwar el-Sadat, the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, and Saddam Hussein.” I would like to note three things about this list.

First, while it is true that all of these men have been labelled as the antichrist, this has never been done with any sort of consensus within the church. If we were to look through church history since the time of the Reformation for the church’s consensus, we would soon find that all roads, or most roads at any rate, lead to Rome. Second, all of these figures are from recent history. Prior to the twentieth century, there was, as I have indicated, a much more consistent consensus. Third, we should note that most of the men listed by Boyer are dead, and those who are not will surely die soon. And yet the Catholic Church lives on; the papacy continues. Rome is, by her own testimony, semper idem: always the same; never changing.

Some time ago I discovered an interesting list of quotes from some of the great Reformers and spiritual giants of the past concerning the Roman Catholic Church. I will post them below that you may understand the consensus of these great men of faith.

Martin Luther (1483-1546) (Lutheran): “Luther … proved, by the revelations of Daniel and St. John, by the epistles of St. Paul, St. Peter, and St. Jude, that the reign of Antichrist, predicted and described in the Bible, was the Papacy … And all the people did say, Amen! A holy terror siezed their souls. It was Antichrist whom they beheld seated o­n the pontifical throne. This new idea, which derived greater strength from the prophetic descriptions launched forth by Luther into the midst of his contemporaries, inflicted the most terrible blow o­n Rome.” Taken from J. H. Merle D’aubigne’s History of the Reformation of the Sixteen Century, book vi, chapter xii, p. 215.

Based o­n prophetic studies, Martin Luther finally declared, “We here are of the conviction that the papacy is the seat of the true and real Antichrist.” (Aug. 18, 1520). Taken from The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers, by LeRoy Froom. Vol. 2., pg. 121.

John Calvin (1509-1564) (Presbyterian): “Some persons think us too severe and censorious when we call the Roman pontiff Antichrist. But those who are of this opinion do not consider that they bring the same charge of presumption against Paul himself, after whom we speak and whose language we adopt… I shall briefly show that (Paul’s words in II Thess. 2) are not capable of any other interpretation than that which applies them to the Papacy.” Taken from Institutes of the Christian Religion, by John Calvin.

John Knox (1505-1572) (Scotch Presbyterian): John Knox sought to counteract “that tyranny which the pope himself has for so many ages exercised over the church.” As with Luther, he finally concluded that the Papacy was “the very antichrist, and son of perdition, of whom Paul speaks.” The Zurich Letters, by John Knox, pg. 199.

Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556) (Anglican): “Whereof it followeth Rome to be the seat of antichrist, and the pope to be very antichrist himself. I could prove the same by many other scriptures, old writers, and strong reasons.” (Referring to prophecies in Revelation and Daniel.) Works by Cranmer, Vol. 1, pp. 6-7.

Roger Williams (1603-1683) (First Baptist Pastor in America): Pastor Williams spoke of the Pope as “the pretended Vicar of Christ o­n earth, who sits as God over the Temple of God, exalting himself not o­nly above all that is called God, but over the souls and consciences of all his vassals, yea over the Spirit of Christ, over the Holy Spirit, yea, and God himself…speaking against the God of heaven, thinking to change times and laws; but he is the son of perdition (II Thess. 2).” The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers, by Froom, Vol. 3, pg. 52.

The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647): “There is no other head of the church but the Lord Jesus Christ. Nor can the pope of Rome in any sense be head thereof; but is that Antichrist, that man of sin and son of perdition that exalteth himself in the church against Christ and all that is called God.” Taken from Philip Schaff’s, The Creeds of Christendom, With a History and Critical Notes, III, p. 658, 659, ch. 25, sec. 6.

Cotton Mather (1663-1728) (Congregational Theologian): “The oracles of God foretold the
rising of an Antichrist in the Christian Church: and in the Pope of Rome, all the characteristics of that Antichrist are so marvelously answered that if any who read the Scriptures do not see it, there is a marvelous blindness upon them.” Taken from The Fall of Babylon by Cotton Mather in Froom’s book, The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers, Vol. 3, pg. 113.

John Wesley (1703-1791) (Methodist): Speaking of the Papacy, John Wesley wrote, “He is in an emphatical sense, the Man of Sin, as he increases all manner of sin above measure. And he is, too, properly styled the Son of Perdition, as he has caused the death of numberless multitudes, both of his opposers and followers… He it is…that exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped…claiming the highest power, and highest honour…claiming the prerogatives which belong to God alone.” Antichrist and His Ten Kingdoms, by John Wesley, pg. 110.

Charles Spurgeon: “It is the bounden duty of every Christian to pray against Antichrist, and as to what Antichrist is no sane man ought to raise a question. If it be not the popery in the Church of Rome there is nothing in the world that can be called by that name. If there were to be issued a hue and cry for Antichrist, we should certainly take up this church on suspicion, and it would certainly not be let loose again, for it so exactly answers the description.”

“Popery is contrary to Christ’s Gospel, and is the Antichrist, and we ought to pray against it. It should be the daily prayer of every believer that Antichrist might be hurled like a millstone into the flood and for Christ, because it wounds Christ, because it robs Christ of His glory, because it puts sacramental efficacy in the place of His atonement, and lifts a piece of bread into the place of the Saviour, and a few drops of water into the place of the Holy Ghost, and puts a mere fallible man like ourselves up as the vicar of Christ on earth; if we pray against it, because it is against Him, we shall love the persons though we hate their errors: we shall love their souls though we loath and detest their dogmas, and so the breath of our prayers will be sweetened, because we turn our faces towards Christ when we pray.”

A Great Cloud of Witnesses: “Wycliffe, Tyndale, Luther, Calvin, Cranmer; in the seventeenth century, Bunyan, the translators of the King James Bible and the men who published the Westminster and Baptist confessions of Faith; Sir Isaac Newton, Wesley, Whitfield, Jonathan Edwards; and more recently Spurgeon, Bishop J.C. Ryle and Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones; these men among countless others, all saw the office of the Papacy as the antichrist.” Taken from All Roads Lead to Rome, by Michael de Semlyen. Dorchestor House Publications, p. 205. 1991.

These are but a drop in the bucket. It would not be difficult to fill a book with similar expressions. Protestants have long held the Roman Catholic Church with great suspicion, and more often than not, have done so for good reason.

Back at “Slice of Laodicea,” Silva posted a brief article to provide a point of clarification regarding his intent. “My intent with the Robert Murray M’Cheyne quote was simply to illustrate how far Christians have fallen from a proper view of the apostate Church of Rome, and not to state that I personally believe Rome is the ‘great whore’ or ‘beast’ in Revelation.” He does well to quote John MacArthur who says “The Catholic Church claims to be true Christianity. And…we [can’t] reverse 450 years of history and just throw our arms around the Roman system, which…we have to say in all honesty is not a group of wayward brothers, but is an apostate form of Christianity. It is a false religion; it is another religion.” It is, indeed. In fact, it is a false church that sets itself up not against but in place of the true body of Christ.

Like Silva, I am not arguing that I believe the Roman Catholic Church is the beast of Revelation, but am saying that one could make such an argument and make it forcefully. And of course, through the history of the church, many have made that argument. Those who do so today have many heroes of the faith on their side–men who knew their Bibles and loved God. Some of these were even put to death by the church they labelled antichrist. Among these was Thomas Cramner, who, when asked to renounce his heresies, said “And as for the Pope, I refuse him, as Christ’s enemy and Antichrist, with all his false doctrine.” He was soon led to the stake where he often spoke the “words of Stephen, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,’ till the fury of the flames putting him to silence, he gave up the ghost.”

In his article, Nichols writes, “Naming the antichrist probably reveals more about the person naming than anything. In some instances naming reveals a person’s interpretation of texts or theology. In others, the naming has more to do with one’s sociological or political views.” He warns against improper hermeneutics, saying “Overcoming what one brings to the text is, as many contemporary writings on hermeneutics conclude, not so easy, if even possible. Nonetheless, a reading of the text that is governed by what we bring to the text as opposed to what we find in the text is likely to lead to a misreading of the text.” As we saw in a previous quote from this article, Protestants have a long history of seeing antichrist only within the context of a particular time and culture. How else could anyone understand Henry Kissinger or Elvis Presley to be the antichrist? In the days of the Reformation and the years that followed, Christians brought to Scripture their understanding of a Church that was adamantly and violently opposed to their faith and was seeking, by fire and sword, to stamp it out. It is little wonder that they saw the Church in the beast. In our day and in our culture we bring our understanding of a Church that regards us as but separated brethren and which seeks to unite us under the papacy through gentle persuasion. We bring an understanding of the faith that is, in many ways, blind to the history of the church. It is little wonder that we do not see the Church in the beast.

In the days of the Reformation, the Catholic Church sought unity through force. Today, many Protestants and Catholics seek unity through dialogue. But unity comes at a cost whether it be with a clash of swords or a meeting of minds. As the ends are the same, so must be the ground we give. That ground is the pure, true gospel message of justification by grace alone through faith alone. Surely the exhortation of Charles Spurgeon, even with the offending word “antichrist” removed, stands true today: “It should be the daily prayer of every believer that [the Roman Catholic Church] might be hurled like a millstone into the flood and for Christ, because it wounds Christ, because it robs Christ of His glory, because it puts sacramental efficacy in the place of His atonement, and lifts a piece of bread into the place of the Saviour, and a few drops of water into the place of the Holy Ghost, and puts a mere fallible man like ourselves up as the vicar of Christ on earth; if we pray against it, because it is against Him, we shall love the persons though we hate their errors: we shall love their souls though we loath and detest their dogmas, and so the breath of our prayers will be sweetened, because we turn our faces towards Christ when we pray.”

Is the Roman Catholic Church the beast of Revelation? I don’t know. Truthfully, I have never invested a lot of time or effort in examining the evidence and forming such a judgment (and, in fact, the same is true of me in most areas of eschatology). I am not convinced that God has enabled us to know the identity of the beast with any great certainty. But it seems to me that if we are to ignore the testimony of so many great believers, from Luther to Spurgeon, from Whitefield to Lloyd-Jones, we may do so at our peril. To simply ignore the consensus of so many great men, and to label such a consensus as “absolutely ridiculous” seems to me to be far more ridiculous.