At the end of Revelation 16 John saw the fall of Babylon: “The great city was divided into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell. And great Babylon was remembered before God, to give her the cup of the wine of the fierceness of His wrath“ (Revelation 16:19).
In chapter 17 an angel came to explain to John what the fall of Babylon means. John was taken in vision to the wilderness and “saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast, which was full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns. The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and precious stones and pearls, having in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the filthiness of her fornication. And on her forehead a name was written: Mystery, Babylon the Great, the Mother of Harlots and of the Abominations of the Earth” (Revelation 17:3-5).
This is the second of two women that John sees in Revelation. The first, described in Revelation 12, was the Woman Clothed with the Sun, who represented the people of God, first as the Jewish nation and later as the Church (see article Who is the Woman Clothed with the Sun?)
Immoral women are used in prophecy to symbolize God’s people when they have fallen into apostasy. For example, “There were two women… they committed harlotry… Their names were Oholah and Oholibah… Samaria is Oholah, and Jerusalem is Oholibah” (Ezekiel 23:2-4). This indicates that the harlot that John saw represents the Church of God in apostasy.
More specifically, the angel told John that “the woman whom you saw is that great city, which reigns over the kings of the earth” (Revelation 17:18). Moreover, there are “seven mountains on which the woman sits” (Revelation 17:9). These two verses identify the woman as Rome, the “Great City” “on seven hills” that “reigned over the kings of the earth” like no other city in history.
The Roman Catholic Church is also indicated by the names on the woman’s forehead: “Mystery” (the Catholic faith is considered to be a religion of mysteries), “Babylon the Great” (Peter, writing from Rome, said “she (the church) who is in Babylon (Rome) greets you” 1 Peter 5:13), “The Mother of Harlots” (the Roman Catholic Church considers itself the “ mother church ”).
This identity is confirmed by the beast that the woman sits on: it has seven heads and ten horns, just like the beast from the sea in chapter 13. That beast was clearly shown to be the papal Roman Catholic Church of the Middle Ages (see What is the Beast with Seven Heads?).
There are two important differences between the two beasts: First of all, the beast from the sea has a deadly wound on one of its heads. The military and political power of the Roman Catholic Church was “mortally wounded” during the French and Italian revolutions. Revelation 13:3 predicts that the deadly wound would be healed.
Since there is no mention of the deadly wound in chapter 17, the context of the scarlet beast (and the woman who rides it) is after the healing of the deadly wound. This points to the present time, when the Roman Catholic Church has engaged the world, established diplomatic relationships with many countries including the United States, and played a leading role in the overthrow of communism (see 13: The Deadly Wound Healed in The Book).
Secondly, the beast from the sea did not have a woman riding it. It was an “integrated” entity, with the religious, political and military aspects all combined. This aptly describes the Medieval Papacy, which included the religious (churches, monasteries, etc.), territory (the papal states) and its own army (besides the countries and armies of Europe it controlled).
The scarlet beast, in contrast, is “ridden” or controlled by the harlot; in other words, Church and state are to some extent divided. This fits with the modern situation, where the Catholic Church does not have any appreciable territory or armies of its own but works behind the scenes to influence governments.
More importantly, the division of church and state is emphasized because Revelation predicts that there will be a falling out of the unity of last day Babylon; “The great city was divided into three parts” and “the ten horns… will hate the harlot… and burn her with fire” Revelation 16:19, 17:16. The political and military forces will turn on the religious leaders as they realize that they have been deceived by them.
There is a lot more information about the harlot as well as the other major players during the Time of Trouble in Chapters 17 and 18 of The Book. Of special interest are the 7 kings that are symbolized by the heads of the Scarlet Beast, the Antichrist (also known as “the beast”) who ascends out of the bottomless pit, and the ten horns.
<![if !supportFootnotes]>  <![endif]> See section 17: The Beast and the Great Harlot in The Book for more details.