During the nearly two millenniums since the birth of Jesus, Christians have held three different opinions of whom the Antichrist would be. Some thought it was Nero and his successors. The reformers believed it was the Papacy. Today, many believe it is a future world leader given power by a ten-realmed empire such as the European Common Market.
When Rome became Christian, many thought that the kingdom God had prophesied would come to earth was about to appear. The gospel of Jesus Christ had apparently triumphed over the superstition of idolatry. The known world was beginning to confess the Savior and submit to his church. They thought this meant that Jesus would soon appear to rule an earth then won to him.
Jesus did not descend in clouds of glory after Rome became Christian. The expectation long held by the faithful began to turn to cynicism. Beginning with Augustine, the church proposed that Jesus had returned, not in his physical body as most had mistakenly supposed, but in his spiritual form. The success of the church in converting all the empire meant that every citizen had received the Holy Ghost. Each person was now a temple of God (I Cor 6:19), much like Jesus was, and fitly framed together as living stones (I P 2:5), made up the church, which was the body of Christ (I Cor 12:27). They claimed that the presence of the Holy Spirit throughout the world fulfilled the promise of the Savior to return to earth. After all, he had told the disciples, "I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you (Jn 14:18). The context of his promise linked the coming he meant to the descent of the Holy Ghost. Jesus had just told his disciples, I will pray the Father, and he shall send you another Comforter, that he may abide with you" (Jn 14:16).
The claim that Jesus had returned to earth as the Holy Ghost carried two other implications. Both Daniel and John had prophesied that the Antichrist would rise out of Rome, the fourth beast, or nation, and wage war against the saints. Ten different Roman Emperors had already persecuted the church. The conversion of Constantine ended their reign of tyranny. A generation later the church began concluding that the Antichrist was Nero and his successors, whose oppression had sealed so many faithful with martyrdom. The number of Nero's name in both Greek and Hebrew is 666. They believed that the victory of the saints over these ten tyrants, manifest in the triumph of the church over paganism, fulfilled the prophesied fall of Babylon.
The prophets said the fall of Babylon would be followed by the return of Christ and his millennial reign on earth. Since the church taught that Babylon had fallen and Christ had descended as the Holy Ghost, they predicted a millennium during which the church would flourish and the saints prosper in peace. At its end the righteous would be resurrected.
History proves that the resurrection did not occur one thousand years after the Christianization of the Roman Empire. The reign of the church during that time was not peaceful and the faithful did not flourish. Many of them suffered the same kind of persecution at the hands of the church that their predecessors suffered under the tyranny of the Emperors. The war against the saints did not end with the conversion of Constantine. Babylon did not fall then.
Not only were their conclusions erroneous, but their assurnption was also false. All the world was never converted to Christ. Romans never knew that a vast number of people populated other continents and prospered outside their jurisdiction. The conversion of their empire to Jesus did not convert the world to him, nor did it place the Holy Ghost in every person on earth.
Before the millennial anniversary of the conversion of Rome occurred, Europe was already breaking the shackles of Papal authority. Luther and Calvin had successfully planted the Reformation in Northwestern Europe. Explorers had traveled to China and sailed into Africa. The view long held by Christendom began to unravel.
Before the Reformation gained acceptance and shelter, a few Christians publicized, sometimes intentionally but more often accidentally, the ecclesiastical excesses they observed. Among them were the Albigenses of Southern France, who decided that the clergy were more like Jewish Pharisees than Christian shepherds and the Pope more like the Antichrist than the apostles. They concluded that the Pope was a successor of the Roman Emperors and not a successor of Christ's apostles. While they were punished by the church, they planted the thought that would later reverberate throughout Protestantism: the Antichrist prophesied in the Bible is the Papacy.
Long before the church taught that Nero was the Antichrist and Babylon fell when Constantine was converted, Christians believed that the Roman Empire would succumb to a succession of ten kings out of which the Antichrist would rise. In a commentary on Daniel, Hippolytus wrote, "Now we ought to look for the ten horns which are to spring from it, when the time of the beast shall be fulfilled, and the little horn, which is Antichrist, shall appear suddenly in their midst, and righteousness be banished from the earth, and the whole world shall reach its consummation."1 Hippolytus wrote about 225 AD. He had studied under Irenaeus, who in turn was a student under Polycarp. Polycarp was a missionary companion with the apostle John, who wrote Revelation. Elsewhere, in commenting on how John of the Antichrist, Hippolytus said, "It is manifest to all that those who at present still hold the power are Latins. If, then, we take the name as the name of a single man, it becomes Latinus."2 The close association of Irenaeus and Hippolytus to Polycarp and John makes their interpretations not only credible, but saturated with apostolic authority.
Twelve hundred years later the reformers concluded that the name of the Antichrist was Lateinos. Lateinos is the Latin form of Latinus. Both words, along with its Hebrew counterpart, Romiith, have 666 as their number. Sir Isaac Newton, the great physicist and mathematician, summed up the reformers' conclusion when he wrote in his commentary on Revelation, "All the rest being excommunicated by the Beast with two horns. His mark is + + + [three crosses], and his name is Lateinos."3 The Catholic Church, which replaced Roman dominion, is a Latin institution. It retained Latin traditions and still uses the Latin language, although it is no longer a language of any nation or people. The Comprehensive Commentary concludes, "The church of Rome is properly the Latin church, and they use the Latin language in everything."
Not only does the Catholic Church bear the name Hippolytus and Irenaeus said belonged to the Antichrist, but it seals its members with the sign of three crosses. At baptism, a priest sign of the cross three times over the candidate's body, once in the name of the Father, once in the name of the Son, and once in the name of the Holy Ghost. Members make the same sign over their bodies when they pray. As early as 200 AD Christians marked all their possessions with the sign of the cross. Tertullian wrote his wife, "Shall you escape notice when you sign your bed, [or] your body; when you blow away some impurity."4 The reformers abhorred this practice, equating it with the mark of the beast, which John prophesied the Antichrist would cause all to receive in "their right hand, or in the foreheads" (Rev 13:16). Their interpretation is confirmed by Tertullian, who wrote, "Now the Greek letter Tau and our own letter T is the very form of the cross, which he predicted would be the sign on our foreheads in the true Catholic Jerusalem."5
Once the Papacy gained authority over Christendom, it often executed its authority with the same intolerance and severity the Roman Emperors wielded. Those of independent opinion who wanted to worship their Savior according to their own conscience were often penalized. Persistent non-conformers were excommunicated. This was a harsh judgment for any Christian employing, trading with, housing, or even feeding excommunicants faced excommunication themselves. Those, then, not submitting to Papal authority could neither buy or sell, as John had prophesied. The Reformation maintained that the Antichrist is the Papacy, ruling the church Jesus built with tyranny, banishing its pristine principles from earth, and waning against all true believers.
1Hippolytus;Scholia on Daniel; Ch 4.6
2Hippolytus;Treatise on Christ and Antichrist; Par 54
3Sir Isaac Newton; Observations upon the Prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St. John; 1733
4Tertullian; To His Wife; Bk 2, Ch 5
5Tertullian; Tertullian Against Marcion; Bk 3, Ch 22