The Reformers are frequently accused of malice when they identify the Pope with the Antichrist. It is asserted, or at least, assumed, that they were retaliating against Rome for persecuting them. What has been largely forgotten is the eschatology of the early Church Fathers, particularly the 2nd & 3rd Century Fathers, such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Hippolytus.
Of particular interest is the short work of Hippolytus (died ca. 236), entitled “On the Antichrist.” Several factors are highly prominent in this work.
1. Rome is the 4th beast of Daniel 7.
2. The great whore in Revelation 17 is identical with the reorganized Roman kingdom, ruled by the Antichrist.
3. The Antichrist will rule over a “whore,” which is a universally understood Scriptural figure for an apostate church.
4. This “whore” will be a kingdom that will arise out of the remnants of a destroyed Roman Empire.
5. This “whore” will be Latin in orientation.
6. Antichrist, as head to this whore church-kingdom, will wage war on the saints, sending a second crop of martyrs to join those who were crying out under the altar (Rev. 6:9-10).
7. The Roman Empire is that which “letteth,” (hinders) the rise of Antichrist (2 Thess. 2:7).
8. Antichrist is the “little horn” of Daniel 7 & 8.
9. Antichrist is the man of sin/son of perdition (2 Thess. 2).
These are all amazing observations. First of all, the idea that Rome would fall and be divided into 10 lesser kingdoms could never have been guessed without the prophecy of Daniel. Identifying Rome with Daniel’s 4th Beast is easy for us, centuries after the fact. It is astounding though for Hippolytus to have realized this and to have understood that Christ’s church would ultimately be victorious over pagan Rome. Hippolytus wrote during the Age of Martyrs!
Secondly, Hippolytus bluntly says that the Roman Empire is the hindrance, “that which letteth,” (2 Thess. 2:7) which must be removed for the Antichrist to rise to power. Again, this would have been easy to see in the 16th Century, but Hippolytus wrote during the 3rd. Tertullian had made the exact same assertion. In chapter 24 of “Resurrection of the Flesh,” Tertullian wrote, ““What obstacle is there but the Roman state, the falling away of which, by being scattered into ten kingdoms, shall introduce Antichrist upon its own ruins?”
Later Fathers held the same belief. When Rome was sacked by Alaric the Visigoth in 410, Jerome wrote to Ageruchia (Epistle 123), regarding the fallof Rome: “He that letteth is removed, and shall we not know that Antichrist is near at hand?"
Compare this with the following from the commentary of Matthew Henry on 2 Thessalonians 2:7 – “Something hindered or withheld the man of sin. It is supposed to be the power of the Roman Empire, which the apostle did not mention more plainly at that time…These prophecies have, in a great measure, come to pass, and confirm the truth of the Scriptures. This passage exactly agrees with the system of popery, as it prevails in the Romish church, and under the Romish popes.”
Thirdly, he identifies the Antichrist with the little horn of Daniel 7 & 8. He identifies the great whore Babylon in Revelation 17 with the kingdom ruled by the little horn (Antichrist) who comes to power out of the remnants of the Roman Empire that is broken into 10 lesser kingdoms.
Fourthly, he affirms that this Antichristian kingdom will be Latin in orientation, based on understanding the number 666 as referring to Rome. Irenaeus made the exact same identification (Against Heresies 5.30.3).
Fifthly, Antichrist would persecute the Church with more ferocity than pagan Rome ever did. The martyrs of pagan Rome were under the altar (Rev. 6:9-10) crying out to God for justice. These martyrs would have to wait for their brothers who Antichrist’s Rome would kill. Tertullian understood Revelation 6 in exactly the same way. In chapter 25 of his “Resurrection of the Flesh,” Tertullian writes, “In the Revelation of John, again, the order of these times is spread out to view, which “the souls of the martyrs” are taught to wait for beneath the altar, whilst they earnestly pray to be avenged and judged: (taught, I say, to wait), in order that the world may first drink to the dregs the plagues that await it out of the vials of the angels, and that the city of fornication may receive from the ten kings its deserved doom, and that the beast Antichrist with his false prophet may wage war on the Church of God; and that, after the casting of the devil into the bottomless pit for a while, the blessed prerogative of the first resurrection may be ordained from the thrones; and then again, after the consignment of him to the fire, that the judgment of the final and universal resurrection may be determined out of the books.”
To read Hippolytus’ work on the Antichrist, you would think it was written in the 16th Century by a Reformer. The main difference was that the Fathers believed that the 1260 days of Revelation were a literal 3 ½ years. They knew Rome would fall, but they seemed to have expected Antichrist’s Rome to fall after only 3 ½ years.
It is therefore quite libelous against the Reformers to quibble with their interpretation of Scripture with regard to the Antichrist. Christ is the head of His Church. Antichrist, if he be an impostor (which he is), must be the head of a false church. Antichrist is not a secular political figure. The Fathers held the exact same view as the Reformers in this regard. How incredible is it to realize that in the 230's AD someone was asserting that the Antichrist will be the head of an apostate kingdom-church based in Rome, built on the ruins of the fallen Roman Empire? The Reformers were not innovators!
Hippolytus’ work can be found here.