The identity of the great harlot of Revelation 17 has long been one of the most divisive subjects discussed within Christendom; especially if Christendom is viewed in its current ecumenical sense. The cause of the division is startlingly clear: one half of those that would describe themselves as Christians believe that the other half, who would also describe themselves as Christians are represented in this repulsive woman. This controversy is not a recent phenomenon either: there are traces of it going as far back in history as the ninth century. In this essay I will not be departing far from the traditional protestant position. However I will attempt to show that the traditional interpretation whilst valid is actually too narrow to do full justice to the vision granted here.
The traditional and pervasive opinion of the protestant church, at least until the twentieth century, is that the Harlot of Revelation 17 is the Roman Catholic Church. David Cloud outlines the history of this doctrine starting with Tergandus, Bishop of Treves who considered the Pope to be the antichrist and Rome Babylon. A 14th Century Roman Inquisitor discovered that a Bohemian colony of Waldenses considered the Roman church to be the whore that sits upon the beast ... and that the Pope is the head and ringleader. One might observe the irony that it was a cleric performing the inquisition that took umbrage at this thought.
However another essay by Cloud which contains many other examples of the traditional assignment of the harlot to the Roman Catholic Church also displays what I consider to be the weakness of this doctrine. In a document from the 12th Century by Peter The Valdo we are told that Roman Church is represented by: "ANTICHRIST OR BABYLON, OR THE FOURTH BEAST, OR THE HARLOT, OR THE MAN OF SIN WHO IS THE SON OF PERDITION". In fact careful reading of both of Cloud's essays show that many of his proof texts used to show that the protestant church has always identified the harlot with Rome actually don't discuss the harlot at all. They discuss whether or not the pope is the antichrist. In short the traditional protestant position, at least viewed en-masse is that the Roman church is extremely bad news and that therefore every bad thing discussed in Revelation must be a reference to the Roman church. Please note this is my simplification this is not an explicit statement by Cloud. Actually Cloud does make one or two parenthetical statements that suggest that his position on who the harlot represents is very similar to the one I'm about to detail. However the thrust of his essays and many others, is that the Roman Catholics are the epitome of all evil.
David Guzik tackles the identification of the harlot by first trying to characterize what it means to be Babylon. I consider this perfectly reasonable as we are told that this had been written upon her forehead so we can reasonably assume that she is inextricably linked with it. He shows that Babylon is mentioned 287 times in scripture, the second most mentioned city after Jerusalem. As a literal place its' history is well documented however Guzik maintains that it is really the attitude of Babylon that has been persistent. We are specifically told that it is mystery Babylon that corresponds to this woman; this suggests a literal physical interpretation could be wrong.
The harlot is said to sit upon many waters, she interacts with the inhabitants of the earth. She is a key global entity that is acceptable, sensual and inviting to all. It is interesting that she is stated to be the mother of all harlots. Of course we idiomatically take 'mother of' to simply mean the worst. But could it not actually be that she was the progenitor or at least the inspiration behind a whole class of harlots that have plied their trade across the globe? Roman Catholicism is undoubtedly one such, but what about the Eastern Orthodox Church? What about Mormonism? Scientology? Islam? Hinduism? What about the hundreds of other major and minor faiths that are out there?
There are some websites that identify the harlot as Jerusalem and point out that the Bible itself does identify her as a harlot. In fact if you start looking at Christian martyrs Jerusalem fits and these sites claim that the 7 mountains are there too. Jerusalem is also described as a great city. The colors that fit the Roman pontiffs also fit Jewish priests. And I think this latter fact could be the pointer towards the true nature of Babylon that this chapter refers to.
The book of Daniel is a huge subject in its' own right but it also gives a fascinating insight into Babylonian religion. Firstly we find that there were at least five classes of religious professional magicians, astrologers, sorcerers, Chaldeans and soothsayers. Secondly we see that they were all subservient to the state in the form of the monarchy. Thirdly we note that they were measured by their ability to solve a problem and that when they had failed Nebuchadnezzar had no qualms about adding a sixth religious strand to his armory. Finally we note in this section the two way ties between church and state: success in the spiritual realm caused the state to confer upon Daniel great secular power.
It is Daniel 3 however that shows the key behind the Babylonian attitude; it will tolerate anything but intolerance. The story is well known how the image was set up and all were told to worship the image. The three friends refuse. Today we see that as standing firm in their faith; however I suggest that it wasn't their faith that was being tested - it was their tolerance. Nebuchadnezzar wasn't telling the Hebrews they had to stop worshipping their God; he was telling them they had to worship his too. As part of a strong monotheistic culture that may appear to be the same thing but in Babylonian culture there was no such equivalence. The end of the chapter brings this out even more clearly. Firstly the three Jews were given a special dispensation to be monotheistic but then the general population was told that they must tolerate the Jewish faith. It wasn't told to believe it, or even consider it, but they had to tolerate it.
I believe that the harlot of Revelation 17 is really a picture of a mother bringing all her little harlots back together under one umbrella. We would probably call that ecumenism today but I think even that title may be a little too narrow. We know that the Jews are allowed to prosper in the first half of the tribulation and we are told that the harlot is upon many waters and upon the beast which I take to be the dominant world power of the time. I think therefore that the harlot is a totally pluralist world church embracing everything from Judaism, through Romanism to Islam with everything in between. Whilst our self complacency may like to watch the threads of this that exist in Romanism or Mormonism the fact it will be composed of every religious person outside of the elect.
In constructing this essay I am particularly grateful to one website for dropping a new piece of the puzzle into place for me. Dr Finley states and I think I now agree, that the harlot falls at or around the mid-point of the tribulation. This may seem a little strange give it happens in Revelation 18 but the same statement is made in Rev 14:8 which is the mid-point. Whilst some say that Rev 14 is the prediction stated in the present because it is certain it is just as plausible that Rev 18 is the commentary stated in the present because the effects are still rippling through. However the clincher that Dr Finley points out is that the woman of Rev 17 is riding a beast with horns but no crowns. Whilst she rides the beast the beast isn't sovereign. But once the beast arises with the crowns the authority of the woman is gone.
The value of placing the fall point of Babylon into the mid-point of the tribulation is that it helps to clarify her interaction with the beast and false prophet. One may almost view the first half as the beast existing but shrouded from view by the beautiful woman. Then he gains the strength to throw the woman to one side and to be represented by the false prophet and the image alone. I think this actually will mark a move away from pluralism and religious tolerance towards a monotheistic intolerance of anyone that doesn't worship Satan and his minions directly. This should not surprise us: Satan opposes fanatical monotheism towards God not because he dislikes monotheism but because he wants to be God.
In this essay we have briefly sketched the view that the Harlot of Revelation 17 is the Roman Catholic Church. I have then broadened this to suggest that the Harlot is actually a unifying force behind all apostate religion. Finally I touched upon the interaction between the harlot and the unholy trinity discussed in Revelation 13.
Whatever your preference for the group you most wish to associate with this woman the key sure has to be the warning that we are to have no part of her. There is only one true faith, one true God. Our job is to keep our eyes upon Him and follow Him and to keep ourselves untied to falsehood however it represents itself to us today.