The Whore of Babylon
Some Protestants claim that the Catholic Church is the Whore of Babylon from Revelation 17. They look for similarities between the Whore as described by John, and the Catholic Church. The problem is, the similarities have many deficiencies, and the other candidates for the Whore–pagan Rome and apostate Jerusalem–fit the description much better.
First of all, they point to the fact that the Whore "is a city built on seven hills." (Rev. 17:9). Since Rome is built on seven hills, they claim that this refers to Rome. But the Greek word used for hills is horos, which is almost always translated as "mountain" in the Bible. In the Scriptures, mountains symbolize kingdoms (Ps. 68:15, Dan. 2:35, Obad. 8-21, Amos 4:1, 6:1). So the Whore may reign over seven kingdoms, and since seven is often symbolic of completeness in the Bible, the passage may mean the Whore reigns over all the kingdoms of the Earth. Of course, this could refer to pagan Rome, but not Vatican City, because Vatican City is built on a single hill.
Second, they point out that the Whore is known as "Babylon" (Rev. 17:5). Since Rome was symbolically called "Babylon" in the Bible (1 Pet. 5:13), and since the early Church Fathers referred to Rome as "Babylon," Protestants say that the Whore is Catholic Rome. "Babylon the Great" (14:8, 16:9, 17:5, 18:2, 18:21) is referred to as the "great city" (16:19, 17:18, 18:10, 16, 18, 19, 21). In Revelation 11:8, we read that the bodies of God's witnesses "will lie in the street of the great city, which has the symbolic name of Sodom or Egypt, where their Lord was crucified." Since "Sodom" referred to Jerusalem (Is. 1:10, Ezek. 16:1-3, 46-56), and since Christ was crucified there, the reference is obviously to apostate Jerusalem. It was obviously given the names of Israel's enemies (Egypt, Sodom, Babylon) by John.
Third, Revelation 17:2 says that kings of the Earth "have committed fornication" with the Whore. Protestants interpret this as meaning that Vatican has made "unholy alliances" with other nations. But they often fail to cite examples of such "alliances" which can properly be called "unholy." But this could refer to apostate Jerusalem, for its collusion with Rome in the death of Christ, or it could refer to pagan Rome, since it had spiritual fornication with the nations it conquered through emperor worship.
Fourth, the Whore is "clothed in purple and scarlet" (Rev. 17:4). Protestants try to connect this to the Catholic Church by saying that priests wear red and purple vestments. Of course, this is an absurdly literal interpretation when it is clear that the rest of the "Whore of Babylon" passage is symbolic. It is more likely to assume those colors are symbolic–red for the blood of martyrs, and purple for royalty, which would fit well with pagan Rome and apostate Jerusalem. In fact, the main vestments worn by Catholic clergy is white, just like the Bride of Christ (Rev. 19:8), which has a symbolic interpretation (the righteous deeds of the saints). It would be absurd to interpret the colors literally in one place and symbolically in another. Since the Bride is the New Jerusalem (Rev. 3:12, 21:2, 10), the Whore may be the old Jerusalem, apostate Jerusalem (Gal. 4:25-26). What Protestants ignore is the fact that in Catholicism, purple symbolizes repentance and red symbolizes the blood of Christ and the blood of martyrs, both of which are good, whereas the purple and red of the Whore represent undesirable qualities. Purple and red vestments are entirely appropriate, because their use was commanded by God Himself (Ex. 28:4-8, 15, 33, 39:1-8, 24, 29).
Fifth, the Whore is said to be "decked with gold and precious stones and pearls" (Rev. 17:4). In other words, the Whore is wealthy. Of course, the Vatican is not wealthy at all–some dioceses have a bigger budget than does the Vatican. In times past, the Vatican was wealthy. But this is no longer the case. Pagan Rome and apostate Jerusalem, both economic capitals, were very wealthy in John's day.
Sixth, Protestants quote the passage which states that the Whore has "a golden cup in her hand, full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication" (Rev. 17:4). This, they say, represents the many chalices that Catholics have in their churches for offering Mass. One of the problems with this is that the word used in the passage is cup (poterion). Of course, Jesus used a chalice at the Last Supper and commanded others to do likewise (Luke 22:19-20; 1 Cor. 11:24-25). The passage also says the Whore has a golden cup, when almost all the chalices used by the Catholic Church are made of materials other than gold. Golden vessels were used liturgically in Old Testament times (Ex. 25:38-40, 37:23-24, Num. 31:50-51, 2 Chron. 24:14). And once again, this interpretation is ridiculously literal. How is it that Catholic chalices be "full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication." The cup is singular, and refers to a single, symbolic cup, not many chalices. The cup is given to the Whore by God, and is the cup of His wrath (Rev. 14:10, 16:9, 18:6).
Seventh, Revelation 17:5 is used–the name on the forehead of the woman reads: "The mother of harlots and abominations of the Earth." Protestants actually interpret this as meaning the priests, who secretly have sexual relations with women because the requirement of celibacy has led them to do so, have made harlots out of the women they sleep with. Of course, this is again a literal interpretation, and we should expect the harlotry of the daughters to be understood symbolically, just like the harlotry of the mother. The same word is used for harlot (porne) when both the mother and daughters are being discussed, and some translations render it accurately when they call both the mother and the daughters "harlots."
Eighth, Protestants say that the Whore has "shed the blood of saints and prophets," and that this has been fulfilled by the Catholic Church, which has murdered many Christians, citing the Inquisition as one example. But this could just as easily apply to both pagan Rome and apostate Jerusalem, which both persecuted Christians.
Finally, Protestants say that the "great city . . . reigns over the kings of the earth" (Rev. 17:18). They say this applies to Vatican City. Of course, Vatican City does not rule over any other nation. Popes in the past have had some degree of authority over political powers in the past, but Vatican City did not exist then. Of course, if the reign is spiritual, then apostate Jerusalem might be the Whore. If the reign is political, then pagan Rome, which ruled over most of the known world, could be the Whore.
So what is the Whore? Since she "sits on many waters" (Rev. 17:15), she is obviously a world power; She has some connection to the Beast of Revelation 13, which represents a significant pagan empire, combining animal elements from other pagan empires (see Revelation 13:1-2 and Daniel 7:1-8). She also has a connection to royalty, as evidenced by the fact that she is clothed in purple (Rev. 17:4). She is also rich, because she is "adorned with gold and jewels" (Rev. 17:4). She practices false religion, evidenced by the fact that she has committed fornication (Rev. 17:2), a Biblical symbol. Her "abominations" are symbolic of false religious practices (Rev. 17:5), which she spreads far and wide, being the "mother of harlots" (Rev. 17:5). She is known as "Babylon" (Rev. 17:5). And she persecutes Christians, because she is "drunk with the blood of saints" (Rev. 17:6). Rather than being the Catholic Church, these descriptions refer to one of two things–pagan Rome or apostate Jerusalem, and possibly both. The seven heads of the beast are "seven mountains on which the woman sits enthroned. They are also seven kings: five have already fallen, one lives now, and the last has yet to come; but when he does he will remain only a short while" (Rev. 17:9-10). Now, a Biblical symbol need not only have one referent, but may also refer to many things. In this case, the heads refer to seven mountains (a symbol of kingdoms) and seven kings. The mountains may also refer to pagan Rome, and the Woman refer to apostate Jerusalem, which would indicate an alliance between the two in their persecution of Christians. It cannot refer to Vatican City since it did not exist at the time, and John mentions a king that presently reigns. The Beast is then pagan Rome, and the seven kings must refer to seven emperors.
The Beast also has ten horns: "And the ten horns that you saw are ten kings who have not yet received royal power, but they are to receive authority as kings for one hour, together with the beast. These are of one mind and give over their power and authority to the beast; they will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful"(Rev. 17:12-14). This means the Beast is in an alliance with ten lower powers (states). We are further told: "And the ten horns that you saw, they and the beast will hate the harlot; they will make her desolate and naked, and devour her flesh and burn her up with fire, for God has put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose by being of one mind and giving over their royal power to the beast, until the words of God shall be fulfilled" (17:16-17). If the Whore is apostate Jerusalem and the Beast is pagan Rome, we see a fulfillment, because Rome conquered Israel, sacking and burning Jerusalem in 70 A.D., as Jesus predicted (Luke 21:5-24).
The angel goes on to say: "And the woman that you saw is the great city which has sovereignty over the kings of the earth" (Rev. 17:18). If this is political sovereignty, then it refers to pagan Rome, which held dominion over most of the known world. If it is to be understood as spiritual sovereignty, then it refers to apostate Jerusalem, because she held the true religion of God, or because she persuaded the Gentiles to persecute Christians. Jerusalem's sovereignty could also be political, since they controlled a certain amount of territory under the Romans, in which case "the kings of the land" would be the proper translation.
In Revelation 18, we read: "the merchants of the earth [land] weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo any more" (Rev. 18:11-12). "All shipmasters and seafaring men, sailors and all whose trade is on the sea . . . wept and mourned, crying out, ‘Alas, alas, for the great city, where all who had ships at sea grew rich by her wealth!'" (Rev. 18:17-19). Pagan Rome was the economic center of the world, but Vatican City never was.
We also read: "Rejoice over her, O heaven! Rejoice, saints and apostles and prophets! God has judged her for the way she treated you . . . In her was found the blood of prophets and of the saints, and of all who have been killed on the earth" (18:20, 24). Since the Whore persecuted prophets and apostles, she could not have been the Catholic Church. An apostle was one who saw the risen Christ (1 Cor. 9:1). Prophets existed only up until the first century (Acts 11:27-28, 13:1, 15:32, 21:10). Since Protestants claim the Catholic Church did not even exist in the first century, by their own logic, the Whore could not be the Catholic Church.
The Protestant misinterpretation of the Whore and Beast passages stem from the fact that they see the two as being fulfilled only in the future. But John was writing about a whore and a beast that existed in his day. Protestants foresee a neo-Roman empire that persecutes Christians anew immediately before the second coming, with the pope leading the persecutions. But they never suspect that perhaps it will be the pope who leads the underground Christian Church during the reign of Antichrist, just as he did at the time the Apocalypse was written.
Only the Catholic Church gets called the Whore of Babylon. This means that it either is the Whore, or it is the Bride of Christ, because only God's true church would get persecuted to such a degree. Since Protestants, without giving it a second thought, dismiss the idea that the Catholic Church is the Bride of Christ, they conclude that it must be the Whore of Babylon. Why does the Catholic Church get called the Whore? Because, as Jesus said, "If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household" (Matt. 10:25); and "If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world . . . the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted me, they will persecute you" (John 15:18-20).