Dragons and harlots and beasts, oh my! Who (or what) are the beasts of Revelation? Why are there so many antichrists in Revelation? There are at least seven--the dragon, the beast from the sea, the beast from the land, “the” beast, the false prophet, Babylon, and of course Satan himself. Given that Revelation discusses seven different antichrist figures, the question “Who is the antichrist?” doesn’t even make sense! “The identity of the antichrist” doesn’t make sense when there are seven of them.
Nevertheless, over many centuries people have identified all sorts of ridiculous antichrists as the antichrist--Protestants and Catholics; the pope and Martin Luther and Martin Luther King, Jr.; Muslims, pagans and neopagans; slave traders and abolitionists; the Red Menace and the Yellow Peril; the evil conspiracy of all persons in the world named Hussein; and so many others.
The common thread of all these erroneous antichrists is that their identification as antichrist has much to do with whom the identifier hates or condemns and almost nothing to do with anything that John of Patmos (the author of Revelation) actually said about it. None of the seven antichrists are whomever you or I or some TV preacher hates, despises, condemns, judges, or looks down upon. In fact, hate itself is a major aspect of one of them and has bearing on several others. Except for one, they are relevant to all people of all times, not just to some “end times” generation.
Let’s look at all seven antichrists and, using only what Revelation actually says about them, let’s see what we can determine about them.
The beast from the sea (Rev. 13:1-10) is one of John’s most interesting symbols. (Yes, of course, it’s a symbol. Nobody in their right mind believes that a literal beast with seven heads is going to walk up out of the sea and rule the world. Even people who claim to take everything literally don’t take that literally.)
Most of what Revelation tells us about this beast from the sea is a reference to the book of Daniel in the Old Testament. This beast is partly like each of a leopard, a bear, and a lion; this is a reference to Daniel 7, the story of Daniel’s prophetic vision of four beasts that represent several successive empires that would rule over Israel from Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian/Chaldean empire onward through several additional empires. (Different people interpret the beasts as different specific empires, but for our purpose, it doesn’t matter which specific ones Daniel meant.) There are more references to Daniel, which I discuss in From Fear To Love: Transforming Revelation ( FFTL ), but this part is all we need in this short article to identify the beast from the sea.
Additional information about this beast that does not refer to Daniel: This beast has power “over all kindreds, tongues, and nations” (13:7). One of its heads is fatally wounded, but the fatal wound heals and the beast lives on (13:3). Now, a fatal wound that heals seems illogical and oxymoronic, but when we identify this beast, it will actually make sense! Later in the Revelation story, John tells us that the seven heads are seven kings (really meaning seven empires/nations) but that part of the story is about “the” beast, not the beast from the sea. We’ll look at that a little later.
Daniel’s first three beasts are like a lion, a bear, and a leopard. He doesn’t liken his fourth beast to any specific animal. Of course, you’ll notice that the three animals are the same as the beast from the sea, and that is how we can tell that Revelation is referring to Daniel. However, Revelation makes a subtle change from Daniel’s vision of the several beasts. The change is completely obvious but nobody pays any attention to it.
Here is Revelation’s change from Daniel’s story: In Daniel, the several beasts are all separate beasts representing separate empires, but Revelation combines all of Daniel’s separate beasts into a single beast. Thus, the beast from the sea represents all of Daniel’s beasts/empires combined into a single entity. The beast from the sea includes the Babylonian empire, the Medes, the Persians, the Greeks/Seleucids, Rome, and/or whichever other empires you may interpret Daniel to be referring to. The beast from the sea includes all those empires. Since each of the seven heads represents another empire, this beast includes even more empires and nations than the four which Daniel discussed. In fact, since it has power over all kindreds, tongues, and nations, it is actually the whole human institution of evil and oppressive empires, nations, and governments.
With that understanding, we can now make sense of the fatal wound that heals. The Babylonian head suffered a fatal wound when the Babylonian empire was conquered by the Medes and Persians. However, the larger institution of evil empires lived on. John could have told us that several heads suffered fatal wounds since all the other empires are eventually conquered, but one makes the point. Even when one head/empire is destroyed, the beast itself lives on.
This is a significant departure from much prophetic tradition, which usually predicts that when the current oppressor is overthrown, we’ll all live happily ever after. John is suggesting here that more evil empires will follow after the current one; later in the story he clearly confirms this foreshadowing of what will become clear later in the story.
Now, since the beast rules all nations, it seems that John of Patmos might be an anarchist who wants to get rid of all governments and even get rid of the concept of nations. Later when we look at the beast’s relationship with Babylon, we’ll be able to clarify his position somewhat by seeing some specific aspects of governments and nations that concern him.
The beast from the land (Rev. 13:11-18) is the one who has the famous number 666, which may have originally been 616 since some of the oldest manuscripts that we have say 616. This beast makes fire come down from heaven, deceives the people, and forces people to worship the image of the beast or be killed.
The clearest clue to the meaning of this beast is the number 666 (or 616). In ancient times when Revelation was written, there was a popular system of equating letters of the alphabet with numbers. In that system, the “number of a name” was simply the sum of the numbers equivalent to the letters of the name. The number of the name Nero Caesar (the first Roman emperor who persecuted Christians) was 666, and a variant spelling of his name had the number 616, so either way this seems to refer to Nero.
During Nero’s reign, there was a great, destructive fire in Rome. Nero blamed the fire on Christians and used it as an excuse to persecute Christians. Many Christians believed that Nero himself had the fire set (makes fire come down from heaven) and deceived the people by blaming it on Christians.
Many Roman emperors, not just Nero, required the practice of emperor worship (forced people to worship the image of the beast). Christians refused to worship the emperor since they worshipped only God and Christ, and they were executed for their refusal to worship the image of the beast.
The beast from the land is also the one associated with the mark of the beast. I discuss that in FFTL , but we don’t need that information to identify this beast as Rome and Nero. That discussion is in chapter 6 of FFTL , “A New Song.”
This beast from the land is the only antichrist figure that is identified specifically with the Roman Empire. Rome is also an aspect, but only one aspect, of both the beast from the sea and later of “the” beast. The people who think that the whole book of Revelation is simply a polemic against Rome would seem to put all their attention on this one little part of Revelation and seem to ignore all the other parts of the story that have nothing to do with Rome.
One more point about the beast from the land: its relationship with the beast from the sea. Revelation’s description of this relationship is a bit cryptic but now that we’ve identified both beasts, we can make sense of their relationship. The beast from the land “exerciseth all the power of the first beast” (13:12). Well, that’s obvious to us now. Of course, Rome, Roman emperors, and Nero had all the power of the institution of evil empires during the time when they were the current manifestation of the beast from the sea.
Since Rome is an aspect of the first beast, the second beast may seem a bit redundant. In fact, later in the story John combines the two beasts together into a single beast, “the” beast. Why is the apparently redundant beast from the land a separate beast in chapter 13 but is combined into “the” beast in chapter 17? The short answer is that chapter 13 is part of the story of John’s present time (See the article, “Past, Present, and Future in Revelation.”), the time when Revelation was written, the time of early Christianity when the Roman Empire was a predominant force and stood out from all the other aspects of the beast. Chapter 6 of FFTL , “A New Song,” explains in more detail.
“The” beast, as opposed to separate beasts, appears in chapter 17 of Revelation. (Actually there was one passing reference to the beast earlier but that mention provides almost no information about the beast. It appears to be one of John’s foreshadowings of later developments.) We’ll look at three aspects of the story of this new beast:
In chapter 17 of Revelation in the story of the fall of Babylon, John combines the beast from the sea, the beast from the land, and (incompletely) the dragon into one single beast, “the” beast. He doesn’t tell us outright that he does that. He just starts talking about “the beast” and makes it clear that this beast includes the dragon, the beast from the sea, and the beast from the land. There is no further mention of either the beast from the sea or the beast from the land. He does mention the dragon again, and that is why I say that the dragon is incompletely merged into “the” beast.
How does he make that combining of beasts clear? In 17:3 John sees Babylon sitting on a scarlet beast with seven heads and ten horns; since the dragon is the scarlet one who had seven heads and ten horns, this beast is the dragon. Seven heads and ten horns also applies to the beast from the sea, so this is a combined reference to the dragon and the beast from the sea.
In 17:9 an angel tells John that “the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman sitteth.” Since Rome is the city built on seven hills (mountains), this beast is also Rome, the beast from the land.
Earlier in the story in the discussion of the beast from the sea, John mentioned only three specific empires, represented by Daniel’s leopard, bear, and lion, but now he says there are seven, of which five have already fallen, one is, and another is yet to come. This is a major departure from Daniel’s story because Daniel said that the fourth kingdom would fall and the kingdom of the saints would be established. Now Revelation says that five have fallen and another one is, indicating that it is now talking about a future (future to John of Patmos) time when all four of Daniel’s kingdoms have fallen and yet another has also fallen and still another has arisen. But that’s not all the evil empires that are to come. The seventh head represents yet another empire to come after that. And that’s not all either--there will be yet an eighth which is “of the seven,” meaning just like the seven, of the same character and nature as the seven. So, in contrast to Daniel, John of Patmos saw a whole series of additional evil empires that would arise. Unlike most first century Christians who expected the second coming “any day now,” John of Patmos foresaw that the second coming was not going to interrupt the flow of history for quite awhile! In the last chapter of FFTL , I explain how John of Patmos knew that; the explanation is too long for this short series of articles.
Babylon--”Mystery Babylon,” the whore of Babylon--is a very interesting character and may be the most important antichrist because its story tells us rather directly what we need to do about her. The story of Babylon is one of the longest sections of Revelation, so it seems reasonable to think that John considers her rather important.
Babylon is a “great whore that sitteth upon many waters” (17:1). With her, “the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and the inhabitants of the earth have been made drunk with the wine of her fornication” (17:2). She sits on a scarlet beast which has seven heads and ten horns. She is closely associated with luxury and rich living; merchants and seafarers become rich through her. Besides her penchant for the luxurious, she also has a mean streak. She is “drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus” (17:6). John gives her a name: “MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH” (17:5). She is also powerful because John tells us that she “reigneth over the kings of the earth” (17:18). When she falls, the kings, merchants, and seafarers who became rich through her mourn for her, but heaven celebrates her fall.
That is a very brief summary of the story of Babylon. Since the section is so long and John tells us so much about her, we will look in a more detailed way at various aspects of her story: who she is and what she does, her relationships with the beast and with people, her names, and her fall and the effects of her fall.
We know also that she is closely associated with the rich and with wealth and luxurious living . She wears scarlet and purple (associated with royalty and wealth in ancient times) and has gold and jewels (17:4) The “merchants of the earth are waxed rich through the abundance of her delicacies” (18:3). After she falls, the merchants mourn her because nobody buys their merchandise any more (18:11).
We know that she corrupts or distorts people’s minds, making them “drunk,” because “the inhabitants of the earth have been made drunk with the wine of her fornication” (17:2) and “all nations have drunk of the wine of the wrath of her fornication” (18:3).
We know that she has a mean and violent streak . She is “drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus” (17:6). “And in her was found the blood of prophets, and of saints, and of all that were slain upon the earth” (18:24). She is an agent of persecution, of violence, of killing, and of hate; and she gets drunk with the blood of those she kills. Notice that she is not solely a persecutor of Christians, of saints and martyrs; she has the blood of everyone who was killed on earth. Thus, she is obviously much bigger than the Roman persecution of Christians.
We know that she has great power herself , besides being a close associate of the beast and its power. “And the woman which thou sawest is that great city, which reigneth over the kings of the earth” (17:18). She rules over kings, the kings of the earth. Thus she even rules over the beast! We’ve already seen that the beast includes all the empires from (at least) Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian/Chaldean empire through Rome and into the future, and Babylon rules them all. Who could have such power for so long and yet not even be mentioned in history books? Some powerful, secret society? The Illuminati? The freemasons? The Bilderbergers? The Bohemian Grove oligarchs? Extraterrestrials operating a mind-control ray from outer space? The answer is none of those, not even the ones that actually exist.
Finally, we know the name that John gives her (17:5): “MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH.” In that name we will find the clue that makes unified sense of all these various things that we know about her.
Babylon is the mother of harlots and the mother of abominations of the earth. Should we take this literally, that she is literally a woman who gives birth to babies who grow up and become prostitutes? That is clearly impossible because this “woman” has been frolicking with the beast since at least six centuries before Jesus. So it seems that this harlotry and these harlots have a metaphorical meaning, just as the prophets of Israel frequently equated Israel’s straying from God with harlotry.
Likewise, the mother of abominations of the earth has a metaphorical meaning, not some sort of literal meaning that she physically gives birth to the unholy and abominable offspring of Martians mating with Sasquatch. She is a metaphorical mother, in the sense of being the progenitor or source or cause of abominations. The mother of abominations of the earth...the progenitor of whatever is vile and loathsome on the earth...the source of all perversity and depravity...the root cause of all badness...the root of all evil! The phrase “the mother of abominations” means the same thing as the phrase “the root of all evil;” it is yet another of John’s paraphrases of scripture. “The love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6:10). Babylon is the love of money, greed, materialism. Please note that Paul did not say that money itself is evil or that people who have money are evil. It is the attitude toward money, the love of money, greed, that is the root of evil.
Notice also that John doesn’t use the word “all” here--he doesn’t call her the mother of all abominations--because he doesn’t completely agree with Paul on that point. He thinks that greed is the root of a lot of evil but not all of it. Let’s look at how greed and the love of money explain much of what we know about Babylon but not all of it.
She corrupts or distorts people’s minds, making them “drunk.” We often say metaphorically that someone is drunk with greed, drunk with power, drunk or deranged with hate or with love of violence, drunk with war fever so that when the drums of war beat, people lose all ability (or willingness) to reason or to recognize truth. (We’ve never seen that happen in the modern world, have we?) Obviously greed partly explains people’s drunkenness with Babylon’s “wine,” but the intoxicating essence of other negative passions seems to be involved with this point too.
She is closely associated with the beast and the powerful . While the powerful are often greedy, greed isn’t necessarily their predominant passion. Powerlust and bloodlust (as in waging aggressive war simply to gain power and territory) seem at least as important in making the powerful “drunk.” Those who use the power of the beast to exercise their various hatreds are also drunk with power and with hate.
She has a mean and violent streak . She has the blood of everyone who was killed on the earth, and she gets drunk on their blood. Sometimes the greedy use violence and killing in pursuit of their greed, but this point seems to be primarily about hate and bloodlust.
She has great power herself , besides being a close associate of the beast and its power. She rules over the kings of the earth. What rules the rulers? Their own passions rule them. The negative passions--greed, hate, bloodlust, powerlust, and so on--rule the rulers and thus rule the beast. It is these negative passions that make the beast such a beast.
In some sense, people are “in” her because a “voice from heaven” says “Come out of her, my people.” All these lusts--powerlust, bloodlust, lust for money, and so on--adulterate our proper love relationships, both with God and with our neighbors. We “fornicate” with greed and hate, cheating on our first love, God, who is love. These negative passions and lusts are the “mother” (source, cause, progenitor) of adulterated relationships with God and with people. They can control not only the beast, the powerful, but even entire societies when they get “drunk” on the intoxicating essences of these passions. To some extent, we all live “in” these passions; they dominate us and control us. But heaven calls us to come out of her, to leave these passions and return “home” to our true nature as the loving children of a loving God.
Overcoming Babylon, overcoming the negative passions, is the prerequisite for the victory of God’s truth over war in the Armageddon prophecy. Overcoming Babylon (chapters 16-18) immediately precedes the announcement of the Lamb’s wedding (19:1-10); overcoming Babylon is how “his wife hath made herself ready” (19:7) for marriage to the Lamb. And when she has made herself ready by overcoming Babylon, the victory of God’s truth over war at Armageddon naturally follows in 19:11-21. When people overcome greed, hate, powerlust, bloodlust, and all the others, it is only natural that warfare would end.
Revelation tells us very little about the false prophet. The only thing that this false prophet actually does is to join the dragon and the beast in calling the world to war (16:13-16). Religion that calls the world to war is a false prophet, a false religion. Religionists who look forward to a gigantic, cataclysmic war and who call the world to war at Armageddon are false prophets.
Then at the end of the Armageddon story, the false prophet and the beast are together captured and thrown into the lake of fire. False religion that calls for war is closely associated with the beast and has the same fate in store for it as the beast has.
As I explained earlier, when John introduces “the” beast, he mostly combines the dragon with the other two beasts into this new beast. I say “mostly” because there is still one more mention of the dragon (20:2) as separate from the beast. In that mention, John tells us unequivocally that the dragon is Satan and its fate is the same as Satan’s fate.
Chapter 10 of FFTL , “Er, Judgments,” explains John’s resolution of the role of Satan in the world. The explanation is too long for this article which is already pretty long. You might be quite surprised by John’s final determination of Satan’s role and by Satan’s final destiny.
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