THE SEVEN HEADS OF THE BEAST OF REVELATION 17
The identification of the seven heads of the beast of Revelation 17 has been a controversial issue, with various theories that include the Caesars of the first century, the succession of kingdoms that oppressed God’s people through the ages, and the end-time popes culminating with the antichrist.
The context of the vision is an elaboration of the sixth and seventh of the seven last plagues of chapter 16, namely, the “Battle of Armageddon” and the fall of Babylon. The vision begins when an angel takes John to the wilderness to see "the judgment" of a gorgeously arrayed harlot sitting on a scarlet beast.
There are obvious similarities between the seven-headed scarlet beast of chapter 17 and the seven-headed sea beast of chapter 13, but the new feature of chapter 17 is that there is a harlot riding the scarlet beast. This may emphasize the difference between end-time Babylon and the medieval papacy (the sea beast) which was an integrated religious and political entity. The last-day manifestation (the harlot and the scarlet beast) seems to indicate some kind of separation, with the religious entity (the harlot) riding or controlling the political entity (the scarlet beast) until the final end when the horns of the beast (ten last kings) turn on the harlot and destroy her (Revelation 17:12-18).
A number of commentators assert that the heads of the beast represent seven consecutive world empires which oppressed God’s people, starting with either Egypt or Babylon and progressing until the final oppressive government (last-day Babylon), which will take the lead in the last efforts to destroy God’s people. The seven heads of the beast are considered consecutive or sequential; in other words, they are not all an active part of the beast at the same time.
However, there is evidence that the heads of the beasts are a flexible symbol with multiple meanings. The angel starts by explaining, “The seven heads are seven mountains [or hills] on which the woman sits” (v.9). In verse 18 the woman is interpreted as being “that great city which reigns over the kings of the earth,” which the reader in John’s day would certainly have understood to be Rome (and indeed there has never been a city in history which has ruled over such an extensive empire, both as ancient pagan Rome and as religious Catholic Rome). The seven hills of Rome were very famous and are still used as an identifying feature, even in general encyclopedias. Thus the symbol of the heads as hills seems to be used in order to identify (without naming) Rome as the great harlot.
Then the angel identifies the heads as “seven kings” (v. 10). This seems to be a change of symbolism rather than two ways of saying the same thing. Especially if the “kings” were considered to be world empires, it would not fit the facts of history to consider the seven hills to be synonymous with seven world empires going back to Egypt— verse 9 says that the harlot sits on seven hills, not one of the seven. In what way could the great harlot (the apostate christian church) be considered to be “sitting” on Babylon, Medo-Persia, etc?
The flexible use of symbols can also be seen in the ten horns. In the final manifestation of the beast (chapter 17:12) they are 10 last day kings, whereas in Daniel 7 they are 10 barbarian tribes involved in the breakup of the Roman Empire. In chapter 13 they have crowns and in chapter 12 they do not, so apparently their exact meaning can change with the specific context.
The heads-as-empires theory asserts that the scarlet beast is the final oppressive empire and is represented by one of the heads. The other six heads represent previous empires. But it is hard to make a list of empires fit the specifications of the vision The lists of empires in the book of Daniel (chapters 2, 7, 8, and 11) are Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, pagan Rome and papal Rome. What empires would constitute the sixth, seventh and eighth heads? Starting with previous oppressive empires gives enough heads (Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, Pagan Rome, Papal Rome, scaret beast). But the angel said that the seventh "king" woud "continue a short time." How cod the 1,260 years of papal supremacy be considered a "short time?"
Moreover, the scarlet beast is not the only seven-headed beast; the dragon of chapter 12 and the sea beast of chapter 13 also have seven heads. Are these heads also successive oppresive empires? The evidence does not seem to support this theory For example, in chapter 12 the dragon does not seem to be tied to a specific kingdom at al, being present both at the birth of Jesus (v. 4, where the human agents were Herod, the Jewish leaders and Rome) and again during the 1,260 years of Papal supremacy (vs 13-17). Then in chapter 16 the dragon shows up again at the very end of time as a part of the unholy trinity. So if the heads of the dragon represented kingdoms there would be two or even three represented: pagan Rome, papal Rome, and the end time manifestation. But if papal Rome is represented by the dragon, how can it also be represented by the sea beast in chapter 13? And in chapter 16 the dragon and the "beast" are spewing out unclean spirits at the same time (v. 13), so how can they represent successive kingdoms?
Perhaps looking for the heads to be successive kingdoms doesn’t fit very well for the dragon. The context of chapter 12 seems to be an elaboration of the heavenly aspects of the great controversy (war in heaven) rather than an exposition of a particular phase of a succession of earthly empires. The seven heads of the dragon would more likely represent the fullness of Satan’s activity or agents.
There are also difficulties in trying to apply the heads of the sea beast of chapter 13 to a succession of empires. The focus of the sea beast seems to be on the papal period, but with a special emphasis on the head that received a deadly wound. The deadly wound is more than simply the arrest of Pope Pius VI in 1798, and includes the Protestant Reformation on through the French Revolution and the loss of papal territories in 1870. An interesting observation is that throughout the most damaging phases of the deadly wound, the Roman Catholic Church in no way ceased to exist, nor was it on the verge of disappearing. One aspect, her ability to maintain political and military control of Europe, was severely damaged, but other aspects of her existence, activity and agenda continued and even grew during this period. If the heads were successive phases of the beast, when a head received a deadly wound the whole beast would nearly die, but in history the deadly wound only damaged one aspect of the papacy, while the other aspects prospered. This implies that the heads here are concurrent aspects or characteristics of the Papacy, not successive phases or kingdoms. Some possible aspects of the papacy which could be represented by the seven heads of the sea beast are given in chapter Appendix 11.
The interpretation that the heads of the sea beast are aspects of the Papacy is also suggested by the fact that the sea beast is a composite of the four beasts of Daniel 7. The sea beast reflects aspects of these four kingdoms (the mouth of a lion, the feet of a bear, the body of the leopard, the horns of the monster) and the seven heads and ten horns constitute all the heads and horns of the four beasts. Within this composite, where do Egypt and Assyria fit in as two of the heads, as has been suggested? This again calls into question the theory of the heads as progressive kingdoms.
In fact, the angel of Revelation 17 does not say anything about kingdoms. “The seven heads are… seven kings” (vs.9,10). It has been asserted that kings and kingdoms could be interchangeable, referring to this usage in the book of Daniel. But in Daniel the writer makes it very clear that the words “king” and “kingdom” are being used interchangeably (2:37,39, 7:17,23). No such clarification exists in Revelation, and in fact in Revelation 17:12 it is very clear that the Greek usage is specific in its distinction between kings and kingdoms (“The ten horns which you saw are ten kings who have received no kingdom as yet”). Evidence is lacking to prove that the angel meant seven kingdoms when he referred to the seven heads as seven kings.
Actually, the eighth head/king seems much more like a person than an empire: “The beast that was, and is not, is himself also the eighth, and is of the seven, and is going to perdition.” Although perdition (Greek apoleia) means destruction and could theoretically be applied to a kingdom or government, there are no New Testament instances of this word being used for anything besides people (for example, 2 Peter 3:7 “The day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men”).
There are a series of texts in Revelation which reveal a relationship between the beast, the bottomless pit, and going to perdition. These texts seem to show that the beast goes beyond its political and organizational characteristics and as the eighth head the beast acquires personal characteristics at the very end of time. The first reference is in Revelation 9, the fifth trumpet, which mentions “the angel of the bottomless pit.” The angel's name, Apollyon, is a form of the word for perdition (Revelation 9:11). The bottomless pit is a term that seems to refer to the chaotic demonic realm (Revelation 9:1-3, Luke 8:31). Section 8: Are the Trumpets Past of Future? presents evidence that the trumpets are end time events, the progressive release of the “four winds of strife” (Revelation 7:1), which takes place after the sealing of the 144,000 and before the close of probation. If so, the “angel of the bottomless pit” would no doubt be the same as “the beast from the bottomless pit” who also appears at the end of time.
The bottomless pit is then linked to “the beast” in the war against the two witnesses in chapter 11 (“the beast that ascends out of the bottomless pit will make war against them” v. 7). In chapter 17:8,11 the beast is again seen coming out of the bottomless pit, making war against “the Lamb…and those who are with Him.” It is announced that he will go to perdition (destruction), and this happens in chapter 19 when the Beast leads the kings and armies of the earth in their last great struggle against Jesus at His second coming. The beast goes to perdition by being cast into the lake of fire (19:19,20). It is apparent from the context (chapter 17-19 being an elaboration of chapter 16, the battle of Armageddon) that this beast of chapter 17 and 19 is the same beast which in chapter 16 was sending evil spirits out to the kings of the earth to gather them for the battle that then takes place in chapter
All of this activity by the beast sounds like a very personal manifestation of Satan, which is also described in 2 Thessalonians 2, the impersonation of Christ by Satan (the final antichrist). The antichrist seems to fit very well with the personified beast in the above passages, and without this application we are left with no mention in Revelation of this very important last hour attack by Satan.
The point of this as it relates to Revelation 17 and the heads of the beast is that if the eighth king is a person, Satan’s counterfeit manifestation of Christ, and since the eighth king is “of the seven,” it would follow that the seven kings are also a succession of persons. The seven last Popes would be good candidates since the heads are also seven hills, which points to Rome. Although there could be other suggestions, a series of world empires doesn’t seem to fit.
It has been suggested that the chronological context of the angel's explanation, "five have fallen, one is... (Revelation 17:10) must be the time of John because angelic explanations are given in a context the prophet and the first-century readers could understand, including the chronological context. But it should be kept in mind that the angel gave three markers of the chronological context, and none of them fit with the first century AD. As we saw above, the seven heads are seven kings, “five have fallen, one is,” so the chronological context of the vision is the reign of the sixth king who "is." The angel also explained that “the beast that you saw was, and is not, and will ascend out of the bottomless pit and go to perdition” (vs. 8). The use of the past, present and future tenses show that the chronological context of verse 8 is the time in which the beast “is not.” This does not fit at all with the context of John’s day if the heads are interpreted as being consecutive empires, because the Roman empire was at the peak of its power at that time. But it does fit into the last-day context of the time when the deadly wound which destroyed the papacy’s military and political power is nearly healed and the antichrist is about to appear to lead end-time Babylon into a new round of persecution of the saints.
An additional indication of the choronological context is found in verses 12-14, which states, “the ten horns which you saw are ten kings who have received no kingdom as yet, but they receive authority for one hour as kings with the Beast. They are of one mind, and they will give their power and authority to the Beast. These will make war with the Lamb.” The ten kings exist within the time frame of the prophecy (“The ten horns… are ten kings”) but their power is still limited (“who have received no kingdom as yet”). In the future they will “give their power…to the beast.” The ten kings obviously did not exist at the time Revelation was written, but they do fit if the context of the prophecy is the time after the healing of the deadly wound and before the appearance of the antichrist.
In fact, this is one of the primary features of the beast of chapter 17, as contrasted with the sea beast of chapter 13: there is no mention of the deadly wound. This appears to be a major implied theme of chapter 17: that the deadly wound, which was a primary feature of the sea beast of chapter 13, has healed and the harlot, in control of the beast as a political entity (and finally with the whole system being led by the personified eighth-king beast) will again make war on “the Lamb… and those who are with Him” (vs. 14).
With this understanding it is plausible that the series of heads/kings are the popes who have reigned since the healing of the deadly wound. If the healing of the deadly wound took place with the opening of the Second Vatican Council (see 17:9-11 Seven Heads), the current pope, Francis I, would be the "one [who] is," the head/king at the time of the vision of Revelation 17 when the woman is "drunk with the blood of the saints" (Revelation 17:6). In other words, the reign of the current pope wil see the initiation of the persecution of God's people. The next (seventh) pope would be the "one who must continue a short time," followed by the antichrist.
Alternatively, if the full healing of the deadly wound was manifest in the "holy alliance" in which the United States and the Papacy formed an alliance that brought down Soviet communism (see 13: The Deadly Wound Healed and 17:9-11), Pope Francis would be the third "king" with four more to go before the antichrist.
In conclusion, the theory that the seven heads of Revelation 17 are the final series of popes does seem rather unbelievable. However, it seems to fit the specification of the prophecy better than the interpretation that considers the heads to be a series of world empires starting from ancient times.