I am quite familiar with the Reformers' opposition to the Papacy, and many said the Pope is the Antichrist. What confuses me is this quote from that same page:

In calling the pope the "antichrist," the early Lutherans stood in a tradition that reached back into the eleventh century. Not only dissidents and heretics but even saints had called the bishop of Rome the "antichrist" when they wished to castigate his abuse of power.

I was under the impression that the idea originated with the Reformers; however, it clearly did not. I would like a brief history of this idea up until the Reformers.

  • 2
    The first problem might be with getting reliable historical-religious information from a Wikipedia article on the Antichrist. As for the question, it's a bit like asking for a history of US Presidents who have been called Communists, or Nazis, or Hitler... I don't think you'll get much more than a list of prominent people who have called the pope bad names.
    – Alypius
    Apr 9, 2013 at 21:17
  • @Alypius And I think that is enough for now. I seriously thought the idea originated with the Reformers. Prominent people calling the pope "anti-Christ" with their exact quote would be cool. Links to articles, if they exist, on the context of the statements would be awesome.
    – user3961
    Apr 9, 2013 at 21:21
  • @Alypius or simply on this "eleventh century" thing from the quote might be enough.
    – user3961
    Apr 9, 2013 at 21:23
  • @fredsbend, I wrote this a while back which might be helpful - christianity.stackexchange.com/a/9631/545. The quotes there are basically from "proto-Reformers" (Hus, Wycliffe, and the like), later than 11th C. but in continuity with the Reformation proper. I don't know about this 'even saints' business as calling the institution of the Papacy the Antichrist might just cause a hiccup in your cause for canonization. For individual popes, or a hypothetical pope, could be OK, and there are certainly 11th C. people who wrote about "What if the pope were a heretic?" in the abstract.
    – James T
    Apr 9, 2013 at 23:03
  • 1
    I think you might need to make it much more clear that you're looking for theologians who made a substantive case for some pope being the Antichrist, and not just various excommunicated or otherwise grieved persons who called the pope bad names. Also, usually people say that some particular pope is the Antichrist, the Chair of St Peter is not itself (I would guess) considered the Antichrist, though I can see how it could be called the seat of the Antichrist.
    – Alypius
    Apr 10, 2013 at 2:20

4 Answers 4


This answer draws extensively from Angel Pope and Papal Antichrist, Bernard McGinn, Church History 47(2):155-173, 1978. McGinn is a Catholic and an expert on medieval mysticism.

The identification of the Pope with the Antichrist of Revelation comes essentially from Joachim of Fiore, a twelfth-century mystic who was particularly interested in the pattern of history. His theology was condemned in a synod of 1260, though it was very influential - firstly, among groups in the Church who were devoted to lives of poverty, especially the Franciscans, and secondly among various schismatic the-end-of-the-world-is-nigh sects.

For Joachim and followers, contemporary power struggles over the nature of the papacy, and questions over legitimacy during periods where there were antipopes, foreshadowed a future apocalyptic showdown between a pastor angelicus, novus dux, or orthopontifex (the good guy) and an Antichrist or pseudopontifex (the bad guy). This was a divergence from previous Antichrist theories, which tended to think he would be a (Holy) Roman Emperor.1 Joachim himself may or may not have thought that the Antichrist would be a "proper" elected pope, as opposed to someone setting himself up in mockery of the true church. He did think that the result of the conflict would be the beginning of a new era, where all people would live a simple, monastic, contemplative life, and where there would no longer be a church or pope. 2

The next generation of Joachimites certainly did believe in the pseudopontifex. From them come the Dulcinians and other millenarian sects. By the way, if you've read Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, then you've met some of these people! Part of the problem for the Franciscans in that book is that everyone assumes they're Dulcinian. Both groups were influenced by Joachim, but people like William of Ockham stayed within the Church, while trying to promote poverty and simplicity in life, and did not want to get rid of the papacy. Even Ubertino of Casale, who called Boniface VIII and Benedict XI a pair of antichrists, didn't want anything more than to have a better pope take over.3

There is an influence on the Lollards, whose founder John Wycliffe (1330-1384) had similar views of the papacy. And from these "proto-Reformers" it is a hop, skip and jump to the actual Reformation, similarly animated by concern about the church being wealthy and corrupt. The big difference, roughly from Wycliffe onwards, was that now the institution of the papacy itself was seen as Antichrist - unlike the classical Joachimite view of a good and a bad pope fighting it out. For the Protestants there could not be a good pope! All popes, for them, were like mini-antichrists preparing the way for the final Antichrist of Revelation (the antichristus magnus). In a previous answer of mine you can find some references to Luther, Calvin, etc., discussing this idea.

Now, there have been other people, even before Joachim of Fiore, who used the word "antichrist" in relation to some pope. But these occurences are fairly sporadic and not influential. McGinn cites Arnulf (an archbishop of Reims), speaking at the synod where he was deposed in 991, calling John XV "Antichrist seated in the temple of God and showing himself as if he were God".4 Any stuff like this is just name-calling, and in any case is invariably about some specific individual pope, not the institution of the papacy or the hypothesized pseudopontifex.

In summary, the Pope-Antichrist link is in its purest form a creature of the Reformation, where the very institution of the papacy was held to be intrinsically evil. This built upon an earlier trend of criticizing the church for some combination of wealth, lack of zeal, or political disagreement: and where people looked forward to either a better pope, or the coming of a messianic golden age where the whole question was moot. The people associated with this view were necessarily "dissidents", and sometimes "heretics". I have not found any of them who are accounted "saints", and frankly I think it rather unlikely (unless we mean "saints" in a much more general sense).

1. See eg Hugh of Newcastle, De victoria Christi contra Antichristi (1319), or the Ludus de Antichristo, a mid-12th century play about an imperial Antichrist.
2. Antichrists and Antichrist in Joachim of Fiore, Robert E. Lerner, Speculum 60:3, 1985.
3. Arbor vitae crucifixae Jesu, Ubertino of Casale (1305) at 5.8 and 5.11 (f. 230rb-233ra, 237vb in the Venice 1485 printing).
4. Acta concilii Remensis ad Sanctum Basolum, Gerbert of Aurillac (aka, later, Pope Sylvester II), in Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Scriptores 3, 672.


The roots of the doctrine in its primative form actually reaches back to the views of very early church fathers. I add this history to show the period prior to people like Joachim described in the other post. The idea stems from a very early belief by church fathers that the antichrist would be a new form of government in the Roman Empire. A powerful papacy was not existent at the time so the connection was impossible to foresee but all the seeds of the belief were sewn by them, later appropriated by those witnessing papal abuses that fit the church father expectation.

The principal idea of the church fathers is rooted in the connection of the anti-Christ with the little horn that ‘has eyes’ and ‘speaks blasphemous things’ in Daniel Chapter 7. This expected soon-to-come antichrist from some sort of mysterious sinister change within the Roman Empire (this evil horn) was considered by the Fathers to include a dreadful 'apostasy of believers' which would start a terrible history of persecution against true believers who opposed the risen new Roman power. Therefore, the prayers of the fathers was that Rome would be kept safe from any such political changes. The hope was that the dreaded horn of antichrist and massive church apostasy would be kept at bay as long as possible as it was greatly feared.

One author has already collected this history of the church fathers on this subject providing to us a convenient collection of these origins to the view adopted by nearly all early protestant reformers:

All quotes from Horae Apocalypticae; or, A commentary on the Apocalypse, critical and historical; including also an examination of the chief prophecies of Daniel (1846). page 365

Cyril, ordained Bishop of Jerusalem A.D. 350 had this view.

He, like the fathers before him, explained the four wild Beasts of Dan. 7. to be the Babylonian, Persian, Macedonian, and Roman empires, and identified the fourth Beast’s little horn with St. Paul’s Man of Sin and St. John’s Antichrist. Further he judged that the time of his coming was to be when the times of the then Roman empire were fulfilled, (ὁταν πληρωθωσιν οἱ καιροι της των Ῥωμαιων βασιλειας,) and it was dissolved into ten kingdoms, kingdoms rising up contemporaneously, but in different places:—that then Antichrist, (“some great man raised up by the devil,”) falsely calling himself the Christ, and so seducing the Jews, would by magical arts and false miracles seize on, and usurp, the power of the Roman empire, eradicate three of the ten kings, and subjugate the other seven:—that at first mild in semblance, and prudent, and the abolisher of idols, (all with a view to self-exaltation,) he would afterwards show himself as God, sitting in the Jewish temple; (“for God forbid it should be that in which we are;”) and for three years and a half persecute the Church:—finally that the apostasy, of which St. Paul spoke as Antichrist’s precursor, meant a religious apostasy, “from the right faith, from truth, and from right words.” (So Catech. Lect. xv.)

Ambrose, ordained Bishop of Milan A.D. 374 contributed this view:

The only prophetical notices on the point proposed in the genuine writings of this father, are those in his Comment on Luke 21:20; Book x. § 15–18. He there (like Cyril) explains the apostasy of St. Paul to mean an apostasy from true religion: (“à verâ religione plerique lapsi errore deseiscent:”)—that it would be the Jewish inner or mental temple in which Antichrist would sit: and that then, seizing on the kingdom, (I presume the Roman kingdom or supremacy,) he would claim for himself a throne of divine authority; “sibi divinæ vindicet solium potestatis.”

In the Comment on 2 Thess. 2. of the Pseudo-Ambrose, the hindrance to Antichrist’s manifestation is explained to be the Roman empire; its defection (αποστασια), or abolition, being the occasion of his appearance; and that he would then restore freedom to the Romans, “sub suo nomine:”—that the mystery of iniquity spoken of by St. Paul was Nero’s persecuting spirit against Christians, which still afterwards had continued to actuate succeeding Pagan emperors down to Diocletian and Julian; finally that he would, “in domo Domini, in sede sedeat Christi, et ipsum Deum se asserat.”

Chrysostom, ordained Presbyter A.D. 386 expresses the same gist:

He too (on Daniel) expounded Nebuchadnezzar’s quadripartite Image, and Daniel’s four Beasts, as the other fathers. “The days of those kings,” said of the time of the stone being cut out, he explains as the days of the Romans: and that, in smiting and destroying the Roman kingdom, it would destroy the others too, as included.—Also in his” Hom. iv. on 2 Thess. 2 he made the Roman empire to be the let or hindrance to Antichrist’s manifestation meant by St. Paul: τουτʼ εστιν ἡ αρχη ἡ Ῥωμαικη· ὁταν αρθῃ εκ μεσου τοτε εκεινος ηξει· and again: ὁταν αὑτη καταλυθῃ επιθησεται (ὁ Αντιχριστος) τῃ αναρχιᾳ, και την των ανθρωπων και την του Θεου επιχειρησει ἁρπασαι αρχην· and he explained the temple in which Antichrist would sit to be rather “the Christian Churches everywhere,” than the Jewish temple.—The mystery of iniquity he thought might be Nero, as in spirit a type of Antichrist: Νερωνα ὡσανει τυπον οντα του Αντιχριστου· και γαρ οὑτος εβουλετο νομιζεσθαι Θεος· and that Antichrist was to be αντιθεος τις; overthrowing indeed the worship of idols and other gods, but only so as to enforce the worship of himself in the place of them and of God.—The apostasy Chrysostom identifies pretty much with Antichrist himself; ὡς πολλους μελλοντα απολλυναι και αφιστᾶν. He adds that, as Rome succeeded Greece, so Rome would be succeeded by Antichrist, and Antichrist by Christ.

Jerome, ordained Presbyter A.D. 378, has again the same:

On Dan. 2. he expounds the gold, silver, brass, and iron of the symbolic Image to be the same four kingdoms as the other fathers: the stone cut out of the mountain without hands being Christ born of a virgin; whose kingdom, upon the destruction of all the other kingdoms, was finally to fill the whole earth. The breaking of the iron legs into ten toes,—part iron, part clay,—he explained of the weakness of the Roman empire at the time he wrote,—about A.D. 407....—On Dan. 7. he explains the four Beasts of the same four empires; the four heads of the third or Macedonian Beast indicating its subdivisions, on Alexander’s death, into the kingdoms of Ptolemy, Seleucus, Philip, Antigonus. On the divisions of the fourth, or Roman...—adding that this eleventh king is to be a man, with Satan’s spirit indwelling, the same as St. Paul’s man of sin: also that the Roman empire is to be finally destroyed on account of this Antichrist’s blasphemies, and with it all earthly kingdoms

Augustine notices and agrees in Jerome’s view of Daniel’s, four Beasts

As to the identity of the fourth Beast’s little horn with St. Paul’s man of sin and St. John’s Antichrist.’ He explains the apostasy in 2 Thess. 2 of a religious apostasy; indeed, (expounding the abstract of the concrete,) as the apostate Antichrist himself; “Nisi venerit refuga primùm, utique a Domino Deo:”—also as to the temple he would sit in, that it seemed to him dubious whether it might mean. Solomon’s ruined temple, or the Christian Church: that at any rate it could not be an idol’s or dæmon’s temple; because that would not be called God’s temple:—further that the let, or hindrance, in Antichrist’s way might not absurdly be taken to mean the Roman empire.

So we see that the church fathers while experiencing persecutions in Rome observed these prophecies with serious expectation that some new Roman power would rise within the churches themselves, claiming to be in some sense equal to Christ in authority over all the churches, ushering in a widespread apostasy and persecution if true believers. It is from this ancient belief that later generations came to consider that the papacy in its previous military and religious power was that 'horn' with religious oversight represented as 'eyes' and speaking 'blasphemous things' such as the Pope's claim as being Christ's vice-regent on earth and insinuating fake authority over all believers.

It is rare a major biblical doctrine is to be entirely absent in the first few hundred years of Christianity and it should be of no surprise that this also has it roots there.

  • Wow! Excellent! This really opened my eyes to this theology and its roots. If you don't get enough up votes I will award you a bounty. I wonder though if there are any texts where Luther or Calvin or other Reformers are quoting these same early Christian texts that you have here.
    – user3961
    Jul 13, 2013 at 21:17
  • How Luther and Calvin arrived at the conclusion that the papacy was the anti-Christ is not clear to me. Luther did not think so at first, and then when he did change his mind I do not think details of how he arrived at the opinion were published. I think their application of the papacy to the anti-chirst was not historically argued. It was those afterwards that started to revive the 'little horn' of Daniel 7 to a roman power and then synthesize revelation along these lines. Interestingly one person who led the way in reconstructing these ideas was Sir Isaac Newton in his commentary on Daniel.
    – Mike
    Jul 13, 2013 at 22:37
  • Like I promised: "If you don't get enough up votes I will award you a bounty." So here's 50 rep for the great answer.
    – user3961
    Dec 15, 2014 at 1:12
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    Are these Fathers speaking of true popes or usurper anti-popes?
    – Geremia
    Sep 7, 2020 at 20:27

A brief history on the idea that the Papacy is the AntiChrist.

What follows below is taken from Antichrist | new Advent.

The article says that when the Antichrist is understood as an individual person, a signal enemy of Christ, it excludes the contention of those who explain Antichrist as the papacy.

The article then goes on to say that

The Waldensian and Albigensian heretics, as well as Wyclif and Hus, called the Pope by the name of Antichrist; but the expression was only a metaphor in their case. It was only after the time of the Reformation that the name was applied to the Pope in its proper sense. It then passed practically into the creed of the Lutherans, and has been seriously defended by them as late as 1861 in the "Zeitschrift für lutherische Theologie".

Who are the Waldensians?

The Waldensians (also known variously as Waldenses are a Christian movement and religious cultural group which started in Lyon and spread soon to the Cottian Alps in the late 1170s. - Source: Waldensians | Wikipedia.

And who were the Albigenses?

A neo-Manichæan sect that flourished in southern France in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The name Albigenses, given them by the Council of Tours (1163) prevailed towards the end of the twelfth century and was for a long time applied to all the heretics of the south of France. They were also called Catharists (katharos, pure), though in reality they were only a branch of the Catharistic movement. The rise and spread of the new doctrine in southern France was favoured by various circumstances, among which may be mentioned: the fascination exercised by the readily-grasped dualistic principle; the remnant of Jewish and Mohammedan doctrinal elements; the wealth, leisure, and imaginative mind of the inhabitants of Languedoc; their contempt for the Catholic clergy, caused by the ignorance and the worldly, too frequently scandalous, lives of the latter; the protection of an overwhelming majority of the nobility, and the intimate local blending of national aspirations and religious sentiment. - Source: Albigenses | New Advent.

I have not found exactly when The Waldensian and Albigensian heretics called the Pope by the name of Antichrist.

According to the article, during some time in their life, John Wycliffe, an Englishman (c. 1330-1384) and Jan Hus (c. 1370-1415 and born in Bohemia), called the Pope by the name of Antichrist.

Within the Catholic Church, the way I understand it, the future wicked Pope is more identified with the false prophet than with the Antichrist.

Below are a couple of prophecies regarding the papacy:

  1. I saw a great power rise up against the Church. It plundered, devastated, and threw into confusion and disorder the vine of the Lord, having it trampled underfoot by the people and holding it up to ridicule by all nations. Having vilified celibacy and oppressed the priesthood, it had the effrontery to confiscate the Church's property and to arrogate to itself the powers of the Holy Father, whose person and whose laws it held in contempt. - Jeanne le Royer (Sister of the Nativity, b. 1731 and became a nun in 1755).
  2. [...] an arrogant Pope will divide the Church. His orders will be obeyed and what is precious will be thrown out. A great spiritual confusion is on the way… the one who could have been Peter will become Judas. He will open the doors for the enemy and will make men and women of faith suffer… The church will be without Peter… a war will explode on Rome and there will be few survivors. - Pedro Regis.
  • I +1 for the first part. The last part after the horizontal rule is out of place here. Though interesting, that better belongs on a question that asks how Catholics interpret the Antichrist.
    – user3961
    Dec 19, 2014 at 20:22
  • Was added because of Not only dissidents and heretics but even saints had called the bishop of Rome the "antichrist" in the question.
    – user13992
    Dec 19, 2014 at 20:24

The papacy is an office, not a person. Antichrist (capital "A") is a single person, though there can be many antichrists (lowercase "a"), those who are against Christ. So, the papacy cannot be Antichrist; however, a pope (really, an anti-pope) could.

Commentary on 2 Thessalonians 2:4 (that Antichrist "sitteth in the temple of God") of the Original Rheims Bible:

St. Augustine therefore li. 20 de civit. c. 19 and St. Jerome q. 11 ad Algasiam. do think, that this sitting of Antichrist in the temple, doth signify his sitting in the Church of Christ, rather than in Solomon's temple. Not as though he should be a chief member of the Church of Christ, or a special part of his body mystical, and be Antichrist and yet withal continuing within the Church of Christ, as the Heretics feign, to make the Pope Antichrist (whereby they plainly confess and agnise [recognize] that the Pope is a member of the Church, & in ipso sinu Ecclesia, and in the very bosom of the Church, say they:) for that is ridiculous, that all Heretics whom St. John calleth antichrists as his precursors, should go out of the Church, and the great Antichrist himself should be of the Church, and in the Church, and continue in the same. And yet to them that make the whole Church in revolt from God, this is no absurdity. But the truth is, that this antichristian revolt here spoken of, is from the Catholic Church: and Antichrist, if he ever were of or in the Church, shall be an apostate and a renegade out of the Church, and he shall usurp upon it by tyranny, and by challenging worship, religion, and government thereof, so that himself shall be adored in all the Churches of the world which he list to leave standing for his honor. And this is to sit in the temple or against the Temple of God, as some interpret. If any Pope did ever this, or shall do, then let the adversaries call him Antichrist.

This passage, summarizing Church Fathers' views, makes it clear that a true pope cannot be Antichrist, but Antichrist could be an anti-pope; anti-popes are not members of the Church.

taken from this answer to the question "What is the Catholic interpretation of 2 Thessalonians 2:3 [that Antichrist 'sitteth in the temple of God')]?"

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