That a gorgeously clad woman should be holding the reins astride such a terrifying, world-devouring beast was just cause for astonishment. John appears, however, to have been dumbfounded by more than that fact-indeed, by the woman herself ("when I saw her, I wondered with great admiration [amazement]"). Why? Was it because the woman was a religious figure? Hardly.
That religion should wield great authority was a universal fact of John's day. Church and state were one, with religion playing the dominant role. If the woman merely represented pagan world religion, John would hardly have been surprised. What could there have been about this woman that astonished him? Had he known her before and was shocked by the unbelievable transformation?
Beneath the luxurious attire, the priceless jewelry, the heavy cosmetics, and the shamelessly impudent stare there was a haunting familiarity. It couldn't be possible! How had Christ's chaste bride become this brazen whore? What diabolical mutation had transformed that small, despised flock of humble followers of the Lamb into this notorious prostitute toasting Satan with the blood of the martyrs in a golden chalice! How could the church, hated and persecuted by the world, as Christ had said she would be-how could she have become this powerful worldwide institution that reigned over the kings of the earth?
John was staggered. What he was being shown seemed impossible: that those who belonged to Christ would find themselves in a false church, a whore. There would be no possibility of reforming her from within. The cry would come from the Lord Himself in heaven, "Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins" (Revelation 18:4).
History authenticates John's vision. It has become quite clear that the world religion under Antichrist will not be atheism, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, or even New Age. It will be Christianity, but in a paganized form-exactly what it became under the leadership of Constantine and his successors, the popes. The coming world religion will have its headquarters in Rome.
The Persecuted Early Church
For more than two centuries, as Tertullian said, the blood of the martyrs was the seed of a heavenly-minded church without earthly ambition, a church whose members had increased to about 10 percent of the Roman Empire. The church that Christ had established seemed to thrive under persecution. Mistreatment by the world kept her pure, detached from earthly desires, and longing to be with Christ in heaven. Christians were radically different from pagans; they were misfits, despised and blamed for every disaster because their refusal to worship the idols had presumably brought down the wrath of the gods. Early in the third century Tertullian wrote:
If the Tiber reaches the walls, if the Nile does not rise to the fields, if the sky doesn't move or the earth does, if there is famine, if there is plague, the cry is at once: "The Christians to the lions!"2
A successful Roman lawyer and convert to Christianity from Stoicism, Tertullian was one of the church's first and most prominent theologians and apologists. He openly attacked every facet of pagan culture and religion. Needling the pagans who debated him, Tertullian declared: "Day by day you groan over the ever-increasing number of Christians. Your constant cry is that your state is beset by us, that Christians are everywhere."3 An early church leader described Christians with these words:
But while they dwell in Greek or barbarian cities according as each man's lot has been cast, and follow the customs of the land in clothing and food, and other matters of daily life, yet the condition of citizenship which they exhibit is wonderful, and admittedly strange.
They live in countries of their own, but simply as sojourners ... endur[ing] the lot of foreigners....
They exist in the flesh, but they live not after the flesh. They spend their existence upon earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws, and in their own lives they surpass the laws. They love all men, and are persecuted by all.4
The persecutions of the third century were far more severe than the earlier ones. Clement reported "roastings, impalings and beheadings" of Christians in Alexandria before he fled that city around 203.5 Persecutions came in waves, punctuated by periods of relative tolerance and tranquility. The totalitarian system of the Caesars made the pagan view of the emperor as deity (he had absolute control over life and death) seem all the more credible. Loyalty to the traditional pagan cults, headed by the emperor as Pontifex Maximus, was a form of patriotism. The Christian rejection of the pagan gods and emperor worship was seen as treason and fueled popular hatred against this "unpatriotic" minority.
Aroused by the fact that "the heathen temples began to be forsaken and the Christian churches thronged,"6 the Emperor Decius, around A.D. 250, martyred thousands of people, including the bishops of Rome, Antioch, and Jerusalem as well as a number of the emperor's own soldiers who refused to sacrifice to idols.7 "Not a town, not a village of the Empire escaped," historian Philip Hughes informs us, then adds significantly, "but the emperor's intention was not so much the massacre of Christians as their conversion to the old religion ... [through] long drawn-out trials ... repeated interrogations and the extensive use of torture in the hope of gradually breaking down the resistance."8 Chadwick further explains:
[Decius required] that everyone should possess a certificate (libellus) that he had sacrificed to the gods before special commissioners.... They [the certificates] were a deliberate attempt to catch people, and were the gravest attack hitherto suffered by the Church.
Especially among property-owners the number of apostates [those denying their faith to save their lives and possessions] was immense ....9
It sounds like a foretaste of what it will be like when the Roman Empire is revived under Antichrist. Following a brief respite, the persecution directed by Emperor Valerian (253-60) forbade all Christian worship and specifically focused on the execution of church leaders. Among ordinary Christians as well, the martyrs were innumerable. The worst, however, was yet to come.
The Great Persecution, as it came to be called, began in 303 under the Emperor Diocletian and his coemperor, Galerius. All Bibles had to be surrendered to the authorities, all churches were to be destroyed, all Christian worship was forbidden, all clergy were to be imprisoned, and all citizens of the empire were to sacrifice to the pagan gods on pain of death. In many places it was a bloodbath. For example, in Phrygia, "where the whole population was Christian, a whole town was wiped out." 10
Setting the Stage for Apostasy
At the height of the most devastating persecution, deliverance came from an astonishing direction in the form of a new emperor, Constantine. A brilliant military commander, he took control of the empire in the West, while his ally, Licinius, conquered the East. Together they signed the Edict of Milan in 313, restoring to Christians full rights as citizens.
Freedom at last from persecution seemed like a gift from God. Unfortunately, it set the stage for an apostasy that would envelop Christendom for more than a millennium. Christ's bride had been wedded to paganism. No wonder John was shocked!
The only Christianity John knew was the "little flock" (Luke 12:32) of those who, hated by the world, were following in Christ's path of rejection and suffering. The Lord had promised: "If ye were of the world, the world would love his own; but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you.... If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you. .." (John 15:19,20). And so it happened.
That this despised little band, persecuted by the world for its holiness and fidelity to Christ, could ever metamorphose into an evil institution sitting astride the very seat of worldly power and ruling over earthly kings and kingdoms seemed impossible to John, but there she was in that vision of the future.
With the at-first-reluctant but increasingly enthusiastic consent and participation of the bishops, the church entered upon an apostasy which led to Roman Catholicism and has lasted until the present time. In fact, it is now gaining momentum for God's final judgment upon the great whore. Will Durant, a purely secular historian with no religious axe to grind, comments upon the marriage of Christianity and paganism that came about through Constantine's pretended "conversion" and assumption of church leadership:
Paganism survived ... in the form of ancient rites and customs condoned, or accepted and transformed, by an often indulgent Church. An intimate and trustful worship of saints replaced the cult of pagan gods.... Statues of Isis and Horus were renamed Mary and Jesus; the Roman Lupercalia and the feast of purification of Isis became the Feast of the Nativity; the Saturnalia were replaced by Christmas celebration ... an ancient festival of the dead by All Souls Day, rededicated to Christian heroes; incense, lights, flowers, processions, vestments, hymns which had pleased the people in older cults were domesticated and cleansed in the ritual of the Church ... soon people and priests would use the sign of the cross as a magic incantation to expel or drive away demons....
[Paganism] passed like maternal blood into the new religion, and captive Rome captured her conqueror. ... the world converted Christianity....11
From Persecuted to Persecutor
Referring to developments after Constantine, Peter Brown writes: "Far from being a source of improvement, this alliance [with the state] was a source of `greater danger and temptation' [than persecution had been].... The spread of Christianity in Africa, by indiscriminately filling the churches, had simply washed away the clear moral landmarks that separated the `church' from the `world."' 12 Political considerations began to subtly influence Christian life and doctrine (just as today), because what was best for the state loomed large in ecclesiastical affairs and the emperor was now in charge of both. With the fall of the Roman Empire, the popes would assume the emperor's role and the marriage with the world would be complete.
In its new role as the favored (and eventually official) religion of the empire, "Christianity" became polluted by its avid pursuit of secular power. The purity and spiritual power of the early church had been so awesome that unbelievers dared not join it (Acts 5:13). In contrast, what the Church would become after Constantine has been described eloquently by Peter de Rosa:
The time is not far off [after Constantine] when Peter's [alleged] successors will be not the servants but the masters of the world. They will dress in purple like Nero and call themselves Pontifex Maximus. They will refer to the Fisherman as "the first pope" and appeal not to the authority of love but to the power invested in him to act as Nero acted.
In defiance of Jesus, Christians will do unto others what was done unto them, and worse will they do. The religion that prided itself on triumphing over persecution by suffering will become the most persecuting faith the world has ever seen....
They will order in Christ’s name all those who disagree with them to be tortured, and sometimes crucified over fire. They will make an alliance between throne at altar; they will insist that the throne is the guardian of the altar and the guarantor of faith.
Their idea will be for the throne (the state) to impose the Christian religion on all its subjects. It will trouble them that Peter fought against such an alliance and died because of it.13
From being persecuted, the Church became the chief persecutor, not only of religious faith but, as we have seen, of any form of freedom of conscience. Hasler explains how the metamorphosis occurred: "Once Christianity became the state religion, deviations from orthodoxy threatened both the unity of the empire and of the Church. And it was the emperor who had the greatest interest in settling doctrinal disputes. He convened ecumenical councils and largely dictated their results."14 The popes, however, had the trump card-the keys to heaven-and used it to intimidate kings and emperors into becoming the secular arm which did their bidding, especially the executions during the Inquisitions.
In 1864, Pius IX's Syllabus of Errors condemned "the whole existing view of the rights of conscience and religious faith and profession." The Syllabus said it was "a wicked error to admit Protestants to equal political rights with Catholics, or to allow Protestant immigrants the free use of their worship; on the contrary, to coerce and suppress them is a sacred duty, when it has become possible ... the Church will, of course, act with the greatest prudence in the use of her temporal and physical power, according to altered circumstances.... "15
The Bible was the most dangerous Book in the world and had to be kept from the common people. The clergy would give them selected readings and tell them what it meant. The Protestant view that anyone could read and understand the Bible would destroy Catholicism. Pope Clement XI's Constitution Unigenitus (1713) denounced the following Jansenist propositions presented by Pasquier Quesnel:
"Christians are to sanctify the Lord's Day with reading godly books, more particularly the Holy Scriptures." Clement's judgment: "CONDEMNED!"
"To pull the New Testament out of the hands of Christians is to shut the mouth of Christ against them." "CONDEMNED!"
"To forbid Christians the reading of the Holy Scriptures and especially of the Gospel is to forbid the use of the light by the children of light and to punish them with a kind of excommunication." "CONDEMNED!"
The Vatican can't enforce its edicts today in the totalitarian manner it once employed. So it professes to stand for freedom of religion and conscience because it wants such rights for its own people where Catholics are in the minority. Vatican II has an entire section titled "Declaration on Religious Liberty" which contains such statements as "the human person has a right to religious freedom."16
What it promotes, however, is freedom from government interference or discrimination in religion. The dishonest impression is given that Rome advocates full freedom of religion. There is no mention of, much less repentance for, the millions of people who were martyred and massacred century after century simply because they would not accept the Roman Catholic interpretation of the Bible.
Nor does Vatican II concede genuine freedom of conscience. Yes, it says everyone is free to pursue truth. But it declares that truth exists only within the Roman Catholic Church. Nor does the Council point to the Bible, God's Word, as the source of truth, to be read and understood by all. As in the Middle Ages, the Church alone can interpret the Bible. She alone has the sacraments and is the means of salvation. The Church possesses the truth and is its guardian and sole dispenser for all time.
Therefore, for all the talk about freedom of religion and conscience in this section of Vatican II, there is no true freedom because this same document makes it clear that the truth can only be known and the soul saved by complete and blind submission to Rome. Consider the following from this section on "Religious Liberty": We believe that this one true religion continues to exist in the Catholic Church, to which the Lord Jesus entrusted the task of spreading it among all men....
So while the religious freedom which men demand in fulfilling their obligation to worship God has to do with freedom from coercion in civil society, it leaves intact the traditional Catholic teaching on the moral duty of individuals and societies towards the true religion and the one Church of Christ....
Throughout the ages she [the Roman Catholic Church] has preserved and handed on the doctrine which she has received from her Master and the apostles.... in forming their consciences the faithful must pay careful attention to the sacred and certain teaching of the Church. For the Catholic Church is by the will of Christ the teacher of truth. It is her duty to proclaim and teach with authority the truth which is Christ and, at the same time, to declare and confirm by her authority the principles of the moral order which spring from human nature itself.
So while in theory there is freedom of conscience, in fact there is not. One is free to pursue truth, but truth exists not in the Bible in a form which the conscience can recognize and is available to all mankind, but resides only within the Roman Catholic Church, and her prelates alone can recognize it and dispense it. No one may judge her "truth" by conscience or God's Word, but her dogmas must be accepted blindly because she is the one true Church founded by Christ upon Peter, and her popes are Peter's successors.
Antichrist will himself acknowledge this fantastic claim (the woman will ride the beast), but with no more sincerity than did Constantine. It will be a ploy to use the Church to his own ends until finally he puts his image in the temple and demands that all people worship him as god. At that point the beast will turn upon the woman and devour her (Revelation 17:16).
Shepherds Deceiving the Sheep
Remember, it was the totalitarian papal system which, first of all, destroyed those men who became part of it, and then through them destroyed the Church. The shepherds became corrupted with the lust for power and then corrupted all of the clergy, who in turn corrupted the people. Cardinal Sadolet said of Clement VII, whom he knew intimately, that before his election he studied the Bible constantly, but afterward his character deteriorated and his pontificate was "a series of mistakes, a perpetual dodging to evade the Council which he hated and feared." Before he became pope, Paul IV favored Church reformation, but afterward he avidly pursued his own selfish interests and the advancement and enrichment of his nephews. A contemporary described Pius IV before his pontificate as "humane, tolerant, beneficent, gentle and unselfish," but just the reverse as pope. He "abandoned himself to vulgar sensuality and lusts, ate and drank immoderately, became imperious and crafty," and even stopped attending "Divine service in the chapel." So it was with Innocent X, Alexander VII, and a host of others. 17
With his usual clarity, de Rosa provides further insight. "In the tenth century, for all its adolescent, adulterous and murderous popes, the papacy was a local phenomenon. The head of a powerful Roman family put his cherished teenaged son on the throne; the lad made hay for a few frantic months or years and was ambushed by members of a rival family whose hour had come. But since the eleventh century Gregory VII had put his stamp upon the papacy. It had grown in stature and prestige; it was able to control the entire church, from the simplest country curate to the most powerful archbishop. What emerged was the most appalling corruption that Christianity has ever seen or is likely to see. It began at the top. The papacy was auctioned off in conclave to the highest bidder, irrespective of a candidate's worth."18 Von Dollinger extended the blame to the entire Curia:
When the Cardinals said, in the letter they addressed to their Pope, Gregory XII, in 1408, that there was no soundness in the Church from the sole of the foot to the crown of the head, they should have added, if they wished to tell the whole truth, "It is we and our colleagues, and your predecessors, it is the Curia, who have gone on saturating the body of the Church with moral poison - and therefore is it now so sorely diseased."19
St. Bonaventure declared that in Rome "Church dignities were bought and sold, there did the princes and rulers of the Church assemble, dishonoring God by their incontinence, adherents of Satan, and plunderers of the flock of Christ.... the prelates, corrupted by Rome, infect the clergy with their vices; and the clergy, by their evil example of avarice and profligacy, poison and lead to perdition the whole Christian people." Others "called the Curia the utterly corrupt `carnal Church.' ..." Those who still had some hope for a reformation of the Church, writes von Dollinger, "predicted a great renewal and purification through a holy Pope, the Papa Angelicus, long looked for, but never willing to appear."20
Petrarch, close observer for many years of the Roman Curia, came to the conclusion that Rome was the fulfillment of John's vision in Revelation 17. She was "the Apocalyptic woman drunken with blood, the seducer of Christians, and plague of the human race." Von Dollinger says that Petrarch's descriptions of the papacy and the Curia "are so frightful that one would suppose them the exaggerations of hatred, were they not confirmed by all his contemporaries.... Augustinian monk of Florence, Luigi Marsigli, [said] the Papal Court no longer ruled through hypocrisy-so openly did it flaunt its vices-but only through the dread inspired by its interdicts and excommunications."21
The popes had loaded St. Bonaventure with honors. As a cardinal and General of his Order, he was bound by the closest ties to Rome. Yet in his Commentary on the Apocalypse he declares that Rome was "the harlot who makes kings and nations drunk with the wine of her whoredoms." Dante, too, applied to the popes the apocalyptic prophecy of the harlot on the seven hills who is drunk with the blood of men and seduces princes and peoples.22 It was a metamorphosis that John found hard to believe could ever occur-but it has been fulfilled exactly as Christ revealed it.
Some Contrasts to Ponder
The Church holds a position for the average Catholic that is entirely different from the relationship between an evangelical and whatever denomination to which he or she may belong. For the evangelical, Christianity involves a personal relationship between the believer and God and Jesus Christ. Many Protestants lack that personal relationship and thus are not real Christians. The lack of that personal relationship, however, is not because they have been taught to look to a Baptist or Methodist or Presbyterian or some other denominational church for salvation; at least that is not generally the teaching of any Protestant church.
In contrast, a Mormon is taught that salvation comes by belonging to and remaining in good standing with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The same is true of a Jehovah's Witness, a Christian Scientist, or a member of most other cults, whether "Christian" or Hindu or Buddhist. Rome, too, decrees that the individual can only receive "the merits and graces of Christ" through the Church. The essential personal relationship with Christ apart from any institution, and the accompanying assurance of being with Him the moment one dies, is denied to individual Catholics. Their hope is in the Church: They hope that its continued efforts even after their death will eventually bring them to heaven.
While the Bible teaches submission to Church leaders, it also insists that this submission go only as far as the leaders are following Christ Himself. Paul wrote, "Follow me as I follow Christ" (from 1 Corinthians 11:1). He didn't suggest that all Christians must follow him because of his high office, but only as he was true to Christ and His Word. Obviously, to make that judgment the individual must know Christ and His Word for himself.
Paul says that each believer, and not just a special clergy class, is free to present God's truth to the church, and that when leaders speak to the church those who hear them are to judge for themselves the validity of what is said (1 Corinthians 14:29-32). In contrast, Catholicism's Code of Canon Law says, "The First See (papacy) is judged by no one."23 Vatican II declares that pronouncements by the pope on faith or morals are infallible, irreformable, "in no way in need of the approval of others, and do not admit of appeal to any other tribunal."24 The same is said of "the body of bishops when, together with Peter's successor [the pope], they exercise the supreme teaching office "25
John says that all true believers have the anointing of the Holy Spirit and thus must not follow anyone blindly (1 John 2:20-27), but must discern whether a doctrine is biblical by following the leading of God through His Word and the Holy Spirit. How else could each of us judge whether those who preach and teach are presenting God's truth, as Paul says we must? In Catholicism, however, it is explicitly declared that no one may come to his or her own personal opinion concerning biblical truth but must accept whatever the Church hierarchy teaches.
Great Responsibility, Great Privilege
As we have already seen from the language of Matthew 28:19,20 ("teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you"), several conclusions are inescapable: 1) An unbroken chain of command flows from our Lord through successive generations of disciples down through history to Christians today; 2) every ordinary Christian is to obey every applicable command that Christ gave His original disciples and to do what He trained and commanded them to do, including preaching the gospel in all the world and making disciples; 3) each Christian has been given by the Lord the same privileges, responsibilities, authority, and power which the original twelve received. How else could each generation of new disciples obey every command Christ had given the original twelve?
The early Christians followed these instructions. Not even the knowledge that they would be killed deterred them. After the death of Stephen the Christians were scattered, and we are told that everywhere they went they preached the gospel (Acts 8:4). We must do the same. Each individual Christian is a full-fledged successor of the apostles, called and empowered by the Holy Spirit to carry on the task of representing Christ and bringing His gospel to the world. Charged with the Great Commission to preach the gospel to "every creature," each disciple at every moment in history is a soldier of the cross and an ambassador of the King of kings. What an awesome responsibility-but what a great privilege!
Unfortunately, many Christians are unwilling to take this responsibility. They want to leave it to a special class of professionals, many of whom are only too eager to lord it over the flock. Every Christian has the authority to resist the devil and see him flee, to "bind and loose" as Christ empowered His first disciples, and to be His ambassador to mankind. In the metamorphosis in the centuries following Constantine, the Roman hierarchy claimed for itself the exclusive right to do what Christ had intended to be the task of all His disciples.
Christ made a clear distinction between Caesar and God: "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" (Mark 12:17). This is foundational. The Catholic Church wedded God to Caesar. Church and state became one, with the Church in control and the state doing its bidding. That situation is still much the same in Catholic countries today.
Christ made a clear distinction between His kingdom, which is not of this world, and the kingdoms of this world (John 18:36). In disobedience to the Christ whom they claim to represent, the popes have built a kingdom which is very much of this world, yet they claim it is God's kingdom. And they have done it in unholy alliance with secular rulers.
Christ made a clear distinction between His Church, which He has called out of the world, and the world itself (John 17:18-20). John declared, "Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him" (1 John 2:15).The distinctions that Christ made must be adhered to by those who belong to Him: "If a man love me, he will keep my words.... He that loveth me not keepeth not my sayings" (John 14:23,24); "Why call ye me Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?" (Luke 6:46).